South Africa:
"A mortal blow to racism"

by Adam Jones

[The Jordan Times (Amman), 24 July 1995.]

South African Flag (.gif)As so often in South Africa, a photograph sums it up.  At the moment of victory in last month's Rugby World Cup [June 1995], François Pienaar, captain of the Springboks, drops to one knee and raises his hands to his face.  It looks for all the world as though he is thanking God for deliverance.

Forty-three million South Africans gloried in that June triumph.  None seemed as exuberant as President Nelson Mandela, who wore a Springboks cap and jersey for the occasion.

Less than two months earlier, on April 26, Mr. Mandela had celebrated a much larger deliverance.  In Pretoria, the administrative capital, Mr. Mandela commemorated Freedom Day - the first anniversary of the advent of majority rule in South Africa.  A year after his African National Congress (ANC) swept to power and predominance in a government of national unity, the broad consensus that paved the way for an end to white rule still holds.  And with Mr. Mandela at the helm it seems to grow stronger by the week.

The euphoria surrounding the anniversary, which was matched and even surpassed by the Springboks' moment of glory, could not entirely erase a more grim reality.  To be black in South Africa is still, for the great majority, to be downtrodden, pauperised, and cruelly undereducated.  But it is no longer to suffer the thousand petty humiliations of apartheid, to be forbidden the right to live and seek work where one chooses, and to be denied the chance to vote for a say in one's future.

To be white is still to be inordinately privileged.  In Johannesburg, the nation's largest city, the white suburbs - with their Old Country names like Hyde Park, Sandton, Parkwood - remain oases of space and comfort.  Mansions are the norm here, and five or six families live on each block, compared with five or six thousand in the predominantly black neighbourhoods closer to downtown.

Indeed, for suburban whites, it might seem that little has changed from the luxurious days of old.  Swimming pools, jacarandas, and evening braais (barbecues) are staples of their lifestyle.  There is no shortage of black domestic workers: the white visitor to Johannesburg can expect to be stopped in the street by middle-aged women, asking the "boss" whether he needs any help around the house.

The consensus that led to South Africa's transition guaranteed whites that the economy would be left largely in private (i.e., their) hands.  A Reconstruction and Development Programme is set to funnel billions of rands into improving the lot of the black masses.  But more than a year into the era of majority rule, black-owned businesses still account for less than half of one per cent of the capitalised value of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, South Africa's economic bellwether.

Over 40 per cent of employed Afrikaners (white South Africans of Dutch descent) work for the state.  To win their support for the transition, these civil servants were assured that affirmative action would not displace them from their jobs.  Blacks, meanwhile, were guaranteed strong proactive measures to ensure that workplaces across South Africa became more "representative" of a society where blacks constitute three-quarters of the population.

Those best able to exploit the new environment are the members of the small black professional class, well educated (often overseas) and upwardly mobile.  They, the editor of a local paper told me, are "black gold," eagerly headhunted by white-owned companies anxious to correct the embarrassing colour imbalance in their ranks.  Many of the black professionals job-hop every few months: for higher pay, a nicer company car, or a posting to Cape Town, away from the grime and crime of "Jo'burg."

They are the lucky ones.  The government's extended honeymoon is now at an end, and there is little doubt that it has failed to deliver benefits to the population in line with the extravagant promises Mr. Mandela and Co. made in the run-up to last year's elections.

A much-touted government housing scheme, for example, vowed to erect a million dwellings over five years.  Shortly before the first anniversary of majority rule, the government grudgingly came up with a progress report: a mere 878 houses had been built.

Millions of black South Africans still live in squalid conditions, like the residents of the squatter camp I visited on the fringe of Soweto.  On two barren fields divided by a small stream, hundreds of tumbledown shacks had been erected from cardboard and corrugated tin.

The impoverished residents may prove fertile ground for the "populist" wing of the ANC, headed by Mr. Mandela's estranged wife, Winnie.  The populists have persistently pointed to the government's coziness with the white elite, at the expense of the dispossessed millions who thrust the ANC into office.

And yet I, a solitary white, was able to wander unmolested through the camp, and through surrounding poor neighbourhoods of Soweto, a black township that is now home to two million people.  This shows just how far South Africa has come from the chaos and carnage of the 1980s and early 1990s.

Even on streets where the Pan-Africanist Congress had painted one of its favourite slogans - "One [white] settler, one bullet" - I encountered only cheery grins and ringing "hellos" from the locals.  If I was approached, it was to ask for a coin or a cigarette, or just to chat.

Two years ago, few whites in their right minds would have entered a township, and never alone.  The war waged by the South African state against its own people had spilled over into fratricidal bloodletting among blacks.  Hundreds were dying here, hacked by pangas (an African killing implement resembling a machete), or mowed down by AK-47 machine guns.  Whites like American student Amy Biehl, murdered near Cape Town in 1993, were regularly targetted by Black militants.

The violence is still a palpable presence.  South Africa has the world's second highest homicide rate, after Colombia; and the overwhelming majority of victims are black.  Johannesburg is often called the world's most dangerous city.

Whites in Jo'burg live behind high walls, and carjackings are a constant threat: there were 3,900 of them last year in one northern suburb alone.  A friend of a friend made the mistake of resisting the robber who was about to relieve him of his late-model BMW.  The thief pulled a pistol, held it to the owner's head, and said: "This is how it feels to die, you white fuck."  He pulled the trigger.  By accident or design, the gun didn't fire.  The thief sped away with his new prize, leaving the owner gibbering on the ground.

Rape, robbery, and street crime are endemic in Jo'burg.  "Don't walk downtown ever," one white South African told me.  "Take a taxi to where you want to go, and call for one to pick you up afterward."

But in three months in the city, I took not a single taxi.  I rode public buses and the combis, mini-buses which cater almost exclusively to a black clientele.  And I walked - for hours across Jo'burg, and dozens of times downtown, where black street-vendors and roving entrepreneurs have reclaimed the sidewalks from the white suit-and-tie crowd.  Not once did I encounter the slightest breath of aggression, animosity, or even discourtesy.

Tensions and hostilities remain.  In KwaZulu Natal, the leader of the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), Mangosuthu Buthelezi, pushes for more regional autonomy, seeking to shore up his coastal power base.  Clashes between IFP and ANC supporters still claim many lives in the mining camps and townships.

Then there are the unrepentant whites.  Once, waiting for the bus in Johannesburg, I found myself in conversation with an elderly white man who looked back fondly on the time when no blacks could gather at the bus-stop.  Say what you will about apartheid, he told me, but "you didn't have to put up with blacks jumping the queue."

The man is an anachronism, though there are many like him.  Most Afrikaners are accommodating themselves to the new order.  Even more readily, English South Africans have accepted that a black liberation movement now rules the roost.  "We have delivered a mortal blow to racism," Nelson Mandela pronounced on TV before the Freedom Day celebrations.  I believe he was right.

F.W. de Klerk, the last apartheid president, plods along in his new duties as deputy president.  On television recently, Mr. Mandela praised his performance.  There was a delicious irony in witnessing this black president, a former prisoner of white rule, passing measured judgment on Mr. de Klerk - once Mr. Mandela's jailer, now his junior partner.

Few would argue that Mr. Mandela himself has been the glue that has held the fragile transition together.  His party may flounder, but his personal appeal is very nearly universal.  At rallies, it is others - Deputy President and heir apparent Thabo Mbeki, for example - who get the lukewarm claps, and Mr. Mandela the lusty cheers.

As an orator, Mr. Mandela is far from spectacular.  He has a reedy voice and a somewhat monotonous, declamatory speaking style.  But as a conversationalist and a peace-seeker, he is supreme.  To see him in a televised discussion is to marvel at the craftsmanship of his comments, the keenness of his mind.  He is a master strategist and, most would say, a true visionary.

He also seems a humble man.  Kaizer Nyatsumba, political editor of the Johannesburg Star, told me he felt Mr. Mandela had "dictatorial tendencies" arising from his status and self-image as a "patriarchal African figure."  But he allowed that Mr. Mandela is "a very modest man who never takes credit for himself."

The problem, Mr. Nyatsumba said, is that "Mandela may well be everything good, but he will not be around every time or forever.  His successor will be a very different person altogether."

And Mr. Mandela is 76.  South Africans virtually across the racial and political spectrum pray he has another ten years left in him - of life, if not of active leadership.  Long enough for the slow wheels of constitution-building to grind to a conclusion.  Long enough for the benefits of majority rule to become apparent to the black masses.

Long enough, above all, for a new sense of society to put down firm roots.  For whites to get used to rubbing shoulders with blacks, in the workplace and on the streets.  And for blacks to move beyond forgiveness of their former oppressors, to build a common future with white South Africans.

Sidney Mathlaku, features editor of Sowetan, the largest black-owned paper in South Africa, indicated as much when I asked him for a vision of his paper five years down the road.  Sowetan has long had a reputation has an organ at odds with the ANC leadership, favouring the more radical line of the Pan-Africanist Congress and the Black Consciousness movement.

"I'd love to see a paper that's not for blacks, not for whites, not for [mixed-race] coloureds," Mr. Mathlaku told me.  "Whether it's a 'white' story or a 'black' story, if it's a good story we should put it on page one.  That's my dream."

The front-page news in South Africa these days is that things so far are working better than almost anyone dared hope.

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Created by Adam Jones, 1998.  No copyright claimed if source is acknowledged and notified.
Last updated: 12 October 2000.