South Africa

It’s difficult to appreciate exactly what I’ve learnt during the past few weeks of my South African trip, or whether I am going to come away from this country any the wiser. South Africa is a thoroughly bewildering place and that is why, as a journalist, I am growing to really love it.

As we were driving from Bergville, not far from the north-eastern border of Lesotho, all the way down to the beginning of the Garden Route, we had the deep misfortune to stop at Colesberg. The best thing that our guidebook had to say about the place is that it was on the route from Johannesburg to the southern coast. We just couldn’t have made the trip down south without stopping the night somewhere.

Wanting to minimise our expenses, we opted to camp, pulling up at the only spot we could find, which was run by Afrikaners. Having spent the entire day driving – nigh on 10 hours behind the wheel – I was desperate to find some redeeming feature to the town. We had already driven through the place and seen that it didn’t really amount to very much, Still, being of an optimistic disposition, I was still hopeful that we might find something in the way of entertainment – or at the very least something we could see on our way out of town the following morning.

“Well” – the Afrikaner we were speaking to thought for a moment before continuing – “there used to be a museum in town about the Boer War, but since the blacks took over it has closed down. They really don’t care about history or things like this.” This last bit was said with utter disdain for the way things were now, and no small amount of regret for how they used to be. In many ways, he reminded me of some of the old-timers I met in Khartoum (many of them Europeans) that harked back to the days of Nimieri, when those with money could drink and revel as much as they pleased.

That’s the things with revolutions. Things are never quite the same once they have taken place, and someone always loses out. And twenty years ago South Africa endured one hell of a revolution.

I have spent the past four or so weeks trying to understand South Africa and get to the bottom of this post-apartheid world. Many South African whites I have spoken to have referred to the pre-apartheid days almost in wistful contemplation, before embarrassingly correcting themselves and pronouncing their utmost delight that apartheid is now finally dead and buried (and how on Earth could they think otherwise?).

The blacks, too, play due deference to the equal values that Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela and the rest admirably fought for. But there is a nasty undercurrent in the ruling ANC party that is starting to emerge, too. The blacks have the power now and, in a sense, that is only fair. After all, that is how a democracy works – the rule of the majority over the minority. And most people around the world these days to seem to value democracy pretty highly.

So far, things have been pretty good for the whites in South Africa. They still live in their great big houses, with electrified fences, and still tend to their generous plots of land. The much-feared Zimbabwean-style land grabs have not yet materialised.

There is some debate to be had about the extent to which Nelson Mandela and his crew should be thanked for this. It is true that over the years Mandela has taken on a God-like status, and this is probably not fair to all the other thousands of people that were also involved in the struggle. The world has built Mandela up into something that perhaps he is not, to the extent that he can have done no wrong.

Still, I have found that few people, be them black or white, can bring themselves to criticise Mandela. Here is a man that won power just so he could give it away. Where in Africa has that ever happened before? Where in the world has that ever happened before? Mandela could have kept going – nothing forced him to step down as the country’s first democratically-elected president. But he did and that alone deserves huge applause.

(The other day, though, I did discover one black lady who was less enamoured with Mandela than everyone else seems to be. She said she didn’t much like Mandela or the God-like status he has now taken on. She said that he was a dreadful president, more inclined to focus on social needs than building the economy, but that of course might reflect a difference between left and right ideologies, neither of which can be 100% proven to be better than the other. But her main point, and one that it is difficult to argue with, is that the struggle was greater than one single person – and one must always remember that).

One of the most significant actions of the post-apartheid government was the realisation that, for true democracy to be established in South Africa, the whites also had to be part of that democracy. Nothing would be gained from making an enemy of the whites and that is why, in almost every speech he made after coming to power, Mandela was at great pains to bring them on board too. Some say that perhaps he went too far, raising too much hope among the whites and alienating some of the blacks that may have suffered so terribly under apartheid. But did he have any choice? That is the ultimate question that scholars will be arguing about until the end of time.

Now, though, things within the ANC are changing. Mandela is no longer a part of the process that he gave up so much for. His health is failing and there is a great deal of speculation about how much longer he has. Archbishop Desmond Tutu has retired from public life, which is a great shame as he’d be an excellent person to interview for my book on international justice. Many others who fought apartheid so fiercely and successfully have now either died or retired from politics. It is true that President Jacob Zuma has some entitlement to the role, since he also did some time on Robben Island. But what about who comes afterwards?

The comments made by youth ANC leader Julius Malema – and the fact that Zuma has had to discipline him by kicking him out of the party – shows exactly the kind of politicians that may be nipping at the heels of the outgoing champions of freedom. These are people that never suffered under apartheid, that perhaps only vaguely remember it through the stories that their fathers used to relate to them and that perhaps have not yet earned the moral justification to hold the highest office in the land.

These are worrying times for the South African nation if the ruling party cannot find within the ranks of its young members sufficient talent to keep alive the ideals that Nelson Mandela and his peers sacrificed so much for.

Desmond Tutu’s Rainbow Nation must live on.

I leave you with a quote from Nelson Mandela, which is very telling of the way the great leader thought:

I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for, and to see realised. But my Lord, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.


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