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South Africa

Dreamers and dealers
Ancient fears have surfaced on one side of the security fences in the new South Africa,
but Gavin Evans finds something to celebrate on the other side.

A week before the South African general election of 1994 I touched down at Johannesburg airport to find that my colleague, the photographer Ken Oosterbroek, had just been blown away by a hostel-dweller’s bullet. My father-in-law was stockpiling canned food in preparation for I don’t know what. With four days to go, on a warm afternoon in the Johannesburg city centre, I was mugged by a trio of knifemen. Things looked and felt bad.

And then, suddenly, it all changed – the storm blew over, the miracle happened, the rainbow nation emerged. All we needed were big hugs and dewy smiles to make it last.

When I returned a year later you could sense that the antidote was on its way. Ancient fears were reaching for the light. Now, three years on, there’s a plague of despair. Crime, violence, corruption, blocked modem lines, the tumbling Rand, but mainly crime: these are today’s obsessions.

Or so it would appear, if one’s antennae spread no further than the dinner-party circuits of homes surrounded by spike-topped walls in Johannesburg’s leafier suburbs. On the other side of the electrified tripwires, however, a sunnier picture emerged.

Jeanette Ngora works in Johannesburg’s eastern suburbs as a cleaner and child minder. Her 13-year-old daughter lives with her brother in the Eastern Cape while her two younger sons live with her in a rackrent flat in a down-at-heel district near the city centre. By the standards of the suburban homes she services her life remains tough, but by most measures her family’s lot has improved immeasurably.

‘My parents live in a village near King Williamstown [in the Eastern Cape] and I used to be too scared to visit them when it was dark, because the only light came from candles and fires,’ she told me. ‘Last year they got electricity and running water for the first time and it made a huge difference to their lives. This year they’re getting proper toilets and they’re building a clinic in their area. My daughter goes to the same old school near my parents’ place, but it’s better because the boycotts are over and the teachers are doing their job. My older son goes to Jeppe Boys [formerly a white state school in Johannesburg] where things are twice as good, so he’ll get a first-class education, which he couldn’t in the old days.’

Hers is not an isolated example. Since 1994 well over a million houses have been connected to the national electricity grid, 800,000 people have received piped water for the first time, 110,000 flush toilets have been supplied, 1,300 clinics have been built and free primary healthcare has been introduced.

There have been similar changes in areas such as welfare, land reform and employee rights – even if job creation is not keeping pace with population growth, too few houses are being built and far too much is being squandered through waste and corruption.

Political violence has declined and the country is no longer on a civil-war footing. It is easy to forget that civil wars are not very relaxing. For white males and their families this has meant an end to the burden of military conscription. The ‘peace dividend’ includes greater access to the rest of the world in sport, culture and business, increased investment and trading opportunities and even an inflation rate which has halved.

Along with this comes more reliable information from a freer, more vibrant mass media. With the daily revelations from the Truth Commission, few people now deny the existence of a brutal Third Force directly linked to the apartheid government. Any sense that the white cause was part of a just war against communism has vanished. The corruption and venality of the overpaid and overabundant MPs is worrying, as is the increased centralization of power around the person of Vice President Thabo Mbeki. But these are minor problems when compared with the violent, bellicose and ridiculous politics of the apartheid years.

Johannesburg is certainly a more dangerous place. I cannot think of any close friends who have not been mugged, robbed or raped in recent years. More telling, however, are the problems within the police force. A senior officer I spoke to said the main failure was of management and co-ordination, rather than poor pay and corruption. He put the proportion of corrupt officers in the country at around 20 per cent – a figure other Government officials I spoke to dismissed as unduly optimistic. The most serious cases usually involve senior and middle-ranking white officers from the old order.

The country may be in a bit of mess in many respects – a huge mess in some – but for most people life is a good deal happier and more promising. This is a brazen frontier society well-suited for dreamers, dealers and crooks of any colour. Yet it’s also a healthier country for people who are poor, weak or downtrodden. No longer a feel-good miracle, perhaps, but a better place to live in all the same.

Gavin Evans is a freelance journalist who worked for ten years in South Africa.

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