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The Curse and Blessing of South Africa

We enter into a covenant that we shall build a society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity—a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.”

—Nelson Mandela,
on his inauguration as President
of South Africa, May 10, 1994

At the beginning of this century, Mahatma Gandhi worked among the Indians of South Africa, organizing nonviolent protests from a settlement north of Durban. He built a school and a printing press, as well as his own solid brick house. Today, huts made of dried mud on rough timber frames crowd around the ruined buildings of the Gandhi settlement. Half-naked children play in the dust. There is no running water. Most of the huts have no electricity; most of their black African inhabitants have no work. And over the last decade the community now called Bhambayi has been torn apart by violence—murders, house-burnings, rapes—in a bitter war between one side, which is ANC-run, and the other, which supported the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP). On one of the ruined buildings, you can still read the proud inscription “International Printing Press Founded by Mahatma Gandhi in 1903.” Lower down, there is a blood-red graffito. It says “Viva AK 47.”

The dusty patch on which the kids are playing football is, I am told, where the ANC side of the community holds its kangaroo courts. Only yesterday, a woman had been beaten up and then dumped with a few of her belongings by the roadside. Why was she expelled? Oh, because she was a witch. Wandering past the ruins we meet a short woman in a cotton-print dress, introduced to me as the “Minister for Safety and Security.” She simpers like a schoolgirl, shyly clutching her skirt and hiding her mouth with her hand. Can she tell us why that woman was expelled? Well, that woman was found outside a gentleman’s hut at four o’clock in the morning and couldn’t explain what she was doing there, so it must have been black magic.

The demarcation line between the two halves of the divided community is a small field. She says she would never cross it. The people there would kill her. But when we walk across, she follows, and even joins us in a friendly call on a woman called Beauty. So is the divide tribal, with the people over here being Zulus, like most Inkatha members? No, they are all Xhosa. They are the same people, speak the same language, live in the same kind of huts—and they have been killing each other for reasons that even the university social workers who are my guides cannot really explain. What would the minister do if the Inkatha side attacked again? Well, she would try to call the police. But you can never tell whose side the police are on. Often they are criminals too.

The social workers are trying to help these people to help themselves. In the community center, two women sew children’s clothes. Others make trinkets. Some of the local children are formed in a circle. One of them reads out a welcome to the visitor from England. Then they dance and sing. But I see no hope in their eyes. And how should there be, amid such desperate poverty and endemic violence?

From this, the black African shanty town that was once the Gandhi settlement, we drive back, past less impoverished but neatly separated coloured and Indian townships, to the rich business center of Durban. In the mirrored elegance of the Coffee Shoppe at the still absurdly colonial Royal Hotel, three smartly dressed young women sit gossiping and giggling at a corner table. One is white, one coloured, one Indian. At the next table are two even more lavishly dressed black African women, importantly taking calls on their mobile phones.

Welcome to the new South Africa.

Political perception, like treason, is a matter of date. If you want to judge anything written by a foreigner about a country, you need to know when the writer first went there. Was it in the bad old days? Or perhaps, for him or her, they were the good old days? Was it before or after the revolution, war, coup, occupation, liberation, or whatever the local caesura is? Of course the writer’s own previous background and current politics are important too. But so often that first encounter is formative.1 Emotionally and implicitly, if not intellectually and explicitly, it remains the standard by which all subsequent developments are judged.

So I can very well understand how people who knew the old South Africa may exclaim in exasperation: “But you don’t realize what it was like before.” And why those who worked for or merely lived through the “miracle” of South Africa’s negotiated revolution will hope against hope that the visionary promise of Nelson Mandela’s great inauguration speech may yet be realized. I feel that way about Central Europe and the promise of a great inauguration speech by another president, Václav Havel. But I can only describe what I saw and heard, on a first visit to South Africa, three years after Mandela became president.

I found a country of extremes, with some of the most beautiful and some of the most ugly human beings I have ever seen. I found men and women with heroic pasts, now in high places and still emanating dynamic optimism about the new rainbow nation. I found remarkably impressive ordinary black people—so many township Mandelas—rising above their circumstances. There was Japie, for example, a tall, handsome man living in Johannesburg. His father was an illiterate farm worker. Japie, like so many others, came to the gold-bearing reef of the Witwatersrand to labor in the mines, but he later worked his way up to a clerical post by sheer perseverance, intelligence, and self-discipline. Now he is sending his daughter “to varsity,” as he proudly puts it. (“Varsity,” for the benefit of American readers, is pre-war upper-class English slang for university.) A story of hope.

Yet of euphoria I tasted nothing, and most of what I found was grim. The inheritance is so terrible. Black poverty grinds against white riches, particularly on the reef, in what is now the province of Gauteng. Central Johannesburg is Manhattan in its skyscrapers, but with a more violent version of the Bronx on the streets below. The Cape is California with shanty towns. Economists say South Africa’s pattern of income distribution is one of the most unequal in the world. A few black Africans have become rich. The ANC’s chief negotiator of the new constitution, Cyril Ramaphosa, having been elbowed out of the competition to succeed Mandela, has gone into the investment and mining business with spectacular effect. They call him one of “the new Randlords.” Better-off blacks now live in previously all-white suburbs that look like Beverly Hills, but with security fences, gates, and armed guards more reminiscent of El Salvador.

For the most part, though, apartheid lives on as racial apartness. I talked to a bright black girl in the Johannesburg township of Alexandra. She had studied for three years at the University of Witwatersrand (known as “Wits”). Did she have white friends? “No, of course not.” They said hello or lent each other a pencil in the lecture hall. But she would never go to a party with whites, or anything like that. And only black students lived in the student hostels. What’s more, she did not want to have white friends. “Why should I?” she said.

Crime, as even the casual foreign newspaper reader knows, is an appalling problem. I shall never forget driving into the dark, deserted center of Johannesburg at night with Nadine Gordimer—the writer most identified with white liberal hopes for the new South Africa—crouched over the steering wheel, nervously on the lookout for carjackers. “Aren’t you frightened,” my cheerful young ANC guide teased me, as we drove back from visiting the grave of the communist leader Joe Slovo in the great, dusty cemetery of Soweto. The answer was no, but perhaps I should have been.

Violent crime soared in the last years of white rule. According to the statistics, from 1990 to 1994, murder increased by 14 percent, robbery by 57 percent, rape by 58 percent. The murder rate in 1994 was 98 per 100,000 people, compared to ten for the United States. Everyone has a horror story to tell. Some of the violence is still political. In KwaMashu, north of Durban, an investigator for the Truth Commission told me about an ongoing shooting war in his section of the township. This was not between ANC and IFP, but between two factions of the ANC: one home-grown, the other returned from exile. But the political violence has also transmuted effortlessly into criminal violence. The ANC or IFP “warlord” becomes mafia-style boss. The “third force” security killer now works in the deeply shady private security sector. 2 Dirty fortunes are made in protection rackets, smuggling, and dealing.

Everyone, in city, suburb, and township, tells you crime has got worse, not better, in the last three years. The police are widely seen as ineffective and deeply corrupt. The criminal justice system is at the point of breakdown. Dullah Omar, the brave and articulate Justice Minister, told me frankly that what they need is a new force to “police the police.” And he is planning a new prosecution service as well.

It’s not just the police. Large parts of public administration suffer from chronic inefficiency and corruption. I talked to several community counselors in black townships and they all told the same story. In many cases, pensions and social security benefits had not been paid for more than a year. The administrative mess is a result both of the historical disease and the attempted cure. History has left the country with a vast ramshackle structure of multiple bureaucracies which in 1994 employed a staggering two million of the country’s five million whites. This was “jobs for the boys” on a grand scale. A “sunset clause” negotiated as part of the transition means these people can keep their jobs until 1999—without any incentive to do the job well. Meanwhile, as part of the attempted cure, “affirmative action” brings black Africans into senior posts. But many of them are ill-equipped, for under the notorious system of “Bantu Education” blacks were deliberately given only the rudimentary schooling considered appropriate to Untermenschen. The emigration of skilled whites does not help either.

In a few respects, the government has delivered on its promises. Kader Asmal, the flamboyant Minister for Water, is rated one of the notable successes. While I was there, he brought to Cape Town a slightly bewildered old woman who he claimed was the millionth person to receive running water since the new government came to power. But the government is trailing badly on other commitments, such as the 1994 election promise to build 300,000 houses a year. The task of “reconstruction and development” is, of course, a gargantuan one. But on the main fronts—housing, education, health care, employment—what I heard from ordinary people, community activists, journalists, and even lower-level ANC activists was a litany of complaints. In practice the hospitals have gotten worse, though partly this is because everyone now has access to them. In practice, the schools are little improved. In practice the “Mandela sandwich”—the snack to be made available to every schoolchild during school hours—hardly exists.

  1. 1

    An eloquent and moving account of one such formative encounter with South Africa, and the intellectual and political odyssey to which it led, is given by Per Wåstberg in his book In South Africa: Journey Towards Freedom, published in Swedish in 1995 (Stockholm: Wahlström and Witdstrand) and richly deserving an English translation.

  2. 2

    This is explored in a detailed and searching article on the whole phenomenon of the “third force” by Stephen Ellis, to be published in the Journal of Southern African Studies. Some bloodcurdling tales of recent criminal violence are told by Graham Boynton in his Last Days in Cloud Cuckooland: Dispatches from White Africa (to be published by Random House later this month).

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