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 …

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