New dawn, cold light of day
One year after the historic elections, the joyous shock of apartheid’s end is
giving way to concern about the future. David Ransom reports.
‘What you are seeing in South Africa today no-one has ever seen here before,’ Archie Gumede told me in Durban. Gumede has been a leading member of the African National Congress (ANC) since the 1930s. In May 1990 he was with Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and others in the first team to negotiate with the apartheid regime after the unbanning of the ANC. Years ago none of them expected to see the end of apartheid in their own lifetimes. But they have. Archie Gumede and millions of his fellow South Africans have lived to taste the rare, sweet nectar of liberation. That has made South Africa a very special place indeed.
The apartheid state didn’t only inflict damage on its own people. It also rained down chaos upon much of Southern Africa – Namibia, Angola and Mozam-bique in particular – sponsoring civil wars, sabotage, assassinations, anything that would disrupt potential enemies and prolong its own senseless existence. Relieved of this burden people throughout the region can afford to feel more positive about their future than for a very long time indeed. Free elections were held in Namibia last December and President Mandela immediately wrote off Namibian debts that had been incurred with the apartheid regime. And there are already signs that South Africa will be able to exert a positive influence within the continent as a whole: the economic powers-that-be cannot dismiss this new African giant the way they have dismissed all its neighbours.
On the streets of the ‘new’ South Africa itself, though, you cannot actually see a great deal that is new. ‘Hippo’ military vehicles may surface less frequently on township streets. The ‘Mandela for President’ posters have gone because Nelson Mandela is the President. If there are queues then they are, as always, for water or taxis – not to cast a vote. How reassuringly ordinary South Africa appears at first sight to be. And how should it be otherwise? Who can celebrate for ever because it is now possible to utter the word ‘Mandela’ without being hit over the head, or because it is no longer an offence to be born black?
For this is not yet a ‘new’ South Africa. The country is, officially and in fact, undergoing a process of ‘transition’ between the old and something new that remains to be imagined. The Government is one of ‘National Unity’, guided as much by the deals that made last April’s election possible as by the result of the election itself. The machinery of the apartheid state, the armed forces, the civil service, big business, all remain intact. A new dawn may have broken over the country but in the cold light of day the place looks much as it did on the day before.
What you can see, of course, often remains truly shocking. En route between Johannesburg and Durban I made a detour through Msinga in KwaZulu / Natal, a mountainous, rural region of great beauty where, in places, ancient African ways persist. For kilometre upon windswept kilometre I drove through a landscape dotted with what at first appeared to be outcrops of rock, or garbage containers, or possibly chicken coups. They proved to be the only shelter for thousands of people who had no visible means of support whatever and waited at the roadside with empty plastic containers for a water tanker that was nowhere in sight. People are arriving here even now because there is nowhere else for them to go.
Conditions in Soweto, the huge ‘township’ near Johannesburg that is actually the biggest city in Southern Africa, are by no means as bad as this. Yet the way it exists – almost covertly, without an accurate street plan or proper signposting – is somehow no less shocking. Soweto remains hidden away, a guilty secret, behind the gold-mine slag heaps that surround Johannesburg, off a highway down a side road. Its monochrome, regimented roofs cover featureless hills, glistening in the sun like the damp furrows of a freshly ploughed field.
A family I visited there lives in a relatively spacious house in a pleasant neighbourhood. I asked the matriarch of the household when she had first moved to her home and she replied: ‘You mean, when was I put here?’ It takes a while to acclimatize yourself to a country where the bulk of the population seems to have been ‘removed’ from here, ‘resettled’ there, picked up, put down, sent back, moved on across a land that is still partitioned everywhere by walls and barbed wire to keep people in – or to keep them out.
Something like half the people of working age in South Africa – there are no accurate official figures1 – are without formal employment of any kind. Urban employment in manufacturing industry has stagnated or declined as a prolonged economic recession persists. South Africa’s imminent integration into the world economy promises to make things worse. Massive ‘structural adjustment’ will close down factories and privatize the huge state-owned sector. ‘Retrenchment’ – that weasel corporate euphemism for mass redundancy – seems bound to increase as a result. Even the mining industry, a key player in orthodox economic strategies of ‘export-led growth’, has lost upwards of 200,000 jobs in the past three years, largely because of rising costs in gold mining.2
The ANC set out for the elections with a Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) that would have made a difference. The original RDP, now much revised, aimed to promote development by directing resources from the mis-spent wealth of apartheid towards the impoverished majority, particularly women – thereby stimulating the economy as a whole.
For its first year the Government of National Unity has, however, been confined to a budget fixed by its apartheid predecessor. There has been no recognition from the world ‘community’ that the South African people now need urgent assistance with reconstruction along the lines of the post-war Marshall Plan in Europe. Voluntary organizations have meanwhile been starved of cash and some face possible extinction because donors assume that a ‘new’ South Africa has arrived already.
The minister responsible for the RDP, Jay Naidoo, says that his targets have been met nonetheless. More than half its $500 million budget has, he says, been spent on 22 special projects identified by President Mandela – $125 million alone on free health care for children and pregnant mothers. ‘People are making an assumption that the RDP is about them sitting back and expecting Government to deliver, that the RDP is about charity,’ pleads Naidoo. ‘We have to dispel that. The RDP is about partnership.’3
Widespread concern is routinely expressed that popular ‘expectations’ are ‘unrealistic’ – that after the long years of struggle and suffering people expect ‘their’ government to deliver at a stroke. My own observations suggested something rather different. What was most remarkable about the black South Africans I talked to was the great forbearance with which they endured the dreadful conditions of their lives. Decent education, the restoration of what has been stolen, self-respect, equity, participation in decision-making – these are the things they care about, not immediate access for all to the latest Sony gizmo.. ‘At least now we can make a case,’ said Gabriel, a gold miner living in a hostel camp near Johannesburg.
Expectations like these are, it seems to me, a good deal more ‘realistic’ than those of the beneficiaries of apartheid, who for the most part appear to believe that they can maintain their own affluent lifestyles intact. Such people also tend to want to ‘let bygones be bygones’. They can probably count for support on the quite extraordinary capacity of black South Africans for forgiveness.
But forgiveness is not the same thing as forgetfulness. No-one seems to know exactly how many people were murdered, tortured, beaten, imprisoned, exiled or falsely accused – and by whom – under the apartheid regime. No-one, that is, except their children, lovers, fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, friends or ‘comrades’ who do not have the option to ignore the evidence. For them, a ‘new’ South Africa is about nothing if it is not about this – about reaching for the truth, if only so that such things might never be repeated.
A ‘Truth and Reconciliation Commission’ is intended to set the record straight. But General Constand Viljoen – who was commander of the South African Defence Force (SADF) in the violent lead-up to the elections – has already dismissed the Commission as ‘anti-Afrikaner’. He has also asserted that since it was he who gave the orders none of his subordinates in the SADF can be brought to justice without him. He is not seeking martyrdom. As a general and a leader of right-wing Afrikanerdom he apparently considers himself to be untouchable.
In January 1995 a secret deal done on the eve of the elections in April 1994 came to light. Some 3,500 police officers and two former cabinet ministers – Pik Botha, the long-serving apartheid Foreign Minister and now Minister of Energy and Mines, and Adriaan Vlok, the hated apartheid Minister of the Interior – have apparently been offered immunity from prosecution. Vlok is, among other things, implicated in the bombing of the offices of the South African Council of Churches in 1988 – and is accused of trying to incriminate a young ANC activist into the bargain. The extreme touchiness on this matter of FW de Klerk, the last apartheid President and now Deputy Vice-President, shows how much of the old South Africa lives on in the new.
In one very limited respect, however, change has been quite dramatic. Some black people have been getting very rich indeed. The process accelerated perceptibly after last April’s elections when the ‘gravy train’ of government patronage began to pull out of the station. Everyone who is not a direct beneficiary seems to agree that ‘corruption’ poses the single most potent threat to the new regime. But the issue goes wider than this.
‘Once, if you saw a BMW on the road you knew it belonged to a white,’ a young man from Soweto said to me. ‘That used to keep blacks together. Now you can’t be sure. Black people drive BMWs too. We are confused.’
Of course blacks have just as much right to drive BMWs as whites: the principles of non-discrimination require that they should have equal access to resources. But blacks who get rich are, in practice, joining with whites in the ruling class of a capitalist system that still works in essentially the same way as it did under apartheid. All that happens is that blacks show themselves to be just as competent at exploiting others as whites – hardly a fresh discovery. Nothing of any material consequence changes for the black majority.
Such a ‘new’ South Africa has the advantage that it can be arranged with ease, since it corresponds closely with current international orthodoxy and with the way the place already looks. If there is to be a genuinely new South Africa, however, it will have to be about something different. That means, for the majority of South Africans, the politics not of race but of class – of creating equal access to resources for all South Africans, most of whom are poor.
After all, it was not Nelson Mandela – as he would be the first to acknowledge – nor even the ANC who overthrew apartheid. That was achieved by the people of South Africa as a whole. The ANC was an amorphous liberation movement that is now finding its rebirth as a political party extremely difficult to accomplish. Nelson Mandela asks in vain to be treated as a human being rather than a myth. He is an extraordinary figure. But he is less extraordinary when you realize that he is, in his approach to life, broadly characteristic of the South African people as a whole. That is what gives him his strength.
In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, he writes: ‘No-one is born hating another person... People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love.’ It would be easier to dismiss such sentiments had they come from anyone other than Nelson Mandela or from anywhere other than South Africa.
What this country now has is something far more precious to the world than its material wealth. ‘Ordinary’ people there have tasted their own power. What kept them going during all those years of seemingly futile resistance was not the prospect of immediate material gain. It was something more profound than that – a distinctive set of values. You do not have to revert to mystical notions of African tradition to see such values at work around you everywhere in South Africa today and to realize why the struggle finally had to succeed.
So I thought again about what Archie Gumede had told me in Durban. I saw that I had not understood. Liberation and freedom are invisible; they reside in the human spirit. Though liberation from apartheid has come, the freedom to live by different values has yet to be established. The new South Africa is being shaped by all sorts of forces: by the narrow orthodoxy of the world economy and – God help us – by the World Bank; by personal ambition, for sure, and by the most urgent basic needs. But anyone who thinks there is no more to it than this would also doubtless have concluded that apartheid would endure for ever.
‘I am retiring in order to advance,’ the veteran Walter Sisulu announced to the ANC Conference just before Christmas last year. Perhaps the South African people are following his example. They have emerged – without the predicted bloodbath – elated, weary and sometimes bemused, as if from a nightmare into a new dawn. They may be savouring the peace, the ambiguous pleasures of a realized dream. But new dreams grow from the old, and who in South Africa now can be sure that they too will not eventually be realized?
1 A figure between 40 and 50 per cent is suggested by the most authoritative independent source, Making democracy work – a framework for macroeconomic policy in South Africa, MERG, Cape Town, 1993.
2 See ‘Gold without glister’ in this issue.
3 The Star, Johannesburg, 15 December 1994.
FRAGMENTS OF THE DAWN
Africa, I presume
Being the product of what was rather arrogantly called a ‘classical’ education – all Greek and Latin – I have very little knowledge of geography. Perhaps that is why I have always laboured under what is obviously a misapprehension – that South Africa is a part of Africa.
When I arrived, in 1959, I fully expected to hear lions roaring on the perimeter of the airport and then to hack my way through the bush to my mission station – for I came as a missionary priest. In my innocence or ignorance I really thought I was coming to Africa to convert the heathen hordes. Instead I found that the jungle was concrete and that the heathens were white.
Most blacks are still expected, even today, to accept that they are inferior. Listen to the comments in bars or supermarkets. A slight delay at the bread counter: ‘And they think they can run the country?’ ‘They’ve had their election. What more do they want?’ ‘They are used to poverty.’ ‘They wouldn’t know what to do with a proper house if they were given one.’ It’s just like England, where the working class used to be accused of storing coal in the bath, even though most of us did not have a bath and could not afford to buy coal.
Most whites are as racist as they ever were, even if there are individuals who have been liberated by the changes. If blacks are rich enough to conform they are acceptable. If they are not – and most are not – they remain outcasts. Whites set the standard: ‘African’ still means ‘second-rate’.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy of the ‘new’ South Africa is its rejection of its African past – by virtually all whites and even by many blacks. Tokyo Sexwale, the Premier of the Gauteng (Johannesburg/Pretoria) region, even cited the monstrous, pseudo-African Sun City as the standard to which everyone should aspire. What people have is more important than what they are; if they have nothing, they are nothing. The more important you are the more things you must have: bigger houses, bigger cars, bigger salaries and even bigger egos.
But Africa’s greatest contribution to humanity is its humanity. In the African society in which I lived for 10 years there was a quality of life that more than compensated for the material discomforts. Apartheid destroyed much of that way of life. We need to rebuild it, not replace it with a Coca Cola civilization.
Whites, too, might be pleasantly surprised to realize the truth of the old adage: ‘Half a loaf eaten in freedom is better than a whole loaf eaten in slavery.’ In their case the enslavement is to security firms and guns. There might be a little chaos – only dictators can install perfect order. But to my mind it’s less important that the train runs on time than that the passengers arrive at their destination.
The time has now come for whites to recognize that being part of Africa is not simply a geographic fact – it is, isn’t it? It means having different values: putting people before things.
Cosmas Desmond’s life as a missionary came to an end when he was held under house arrest by the apartheid regime. In the 1994 elections he stood as a Pan Africanist Congress candidate – the only white to do so. He lives with his family in Durban.
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995
This special report appeared in the south africa: new dawn, cold light of day issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.