South Africa’s long road to freedom

On the outskirts of Pretoria there used to be a large billboard which told passing motorists: ‘Thundering jets, the sound of freedom.’ The intention was to reconcile white residents to the noise of jet aircraft which used a nearby military air base. ‘White’ residents, because it was in the time of apartheid, and the jets were, of course, thundering in the racist cause.

The billboard has long gone. Which is a pity — because there would be some justification for the claim nowadays — in fact, ever since that moment, 10 years ago, when the sound of jets in Pretoria announced the arrival of real freedom with the fly-past at Nelson Mandela’s presidential inauguration. As the white generals saluted him and jets and helicopters blazed and clattered their way overhead in further salutation, the enormity of what had happened was brought home to watching millions; the military had switched its allegiance and a black man was now boss.

It was a moment which was generally held to mark the defeat of apartheid — freedom, of course, being inimical to that inherently oppressive system. But with the advantage of hindsight, a case could be made for arguing that apartheid was not defeated, but had merely run its course. Afrikanerdom had achieved what it set out to achieve — dealing with the poor white problem, entrenching the language, creating a cultural identity — and it was time to move on.

Certainly today the Afrikaner and South Africa’s whites as a whole have never had it so good. The ‘green mamba’ — South Africa’s notoriously useless (or worse) passport, has become an ‘open sesame’ to Africa. The wealth of whites can be seen on the roads, along which slide an extraordinary profusion of Mercedes and BMWs, some costing as much as a house, which enable their drivers to play out their bundu-bashing fantasies of whips snaking out over ox-wagon trains in air-conditioned comfort.

Restaurants are packed, patrons seemingly giving little heed to the rapid escalation of prices on menus. South Africa, the economists still tell us, remains one of the cheapest places in the world to buy a hamburger.

The recent recovery of the South African currency has been startling. The collapse of the rand, which had been steady since PW Botha wagged his finger at world television audiences in the mid-Eighties in a memorable piece of hubris, was suddenly and unexpectedly reversed last year. Dire warnings were offered as to the impact such a reversal was having on export markets and local tourism. Business leaders hastened to blame any diminuation of corporate profits on the trend. But, while all this was no doubt true, the recovery of the rand has had an important psychological impact, doing much to save the country from the snearing self-doubt of the banana republic, which at one stage it seemed destined to be.

While there is a fast-growing black middle class, taking advantage of quota systems, affirmative action and the like, there is still an enormous amount of poverty in black South Africa and, statistically, no evidence that the wealth gap is closing. There is a huge underclass, to whom Mandela might well have never taken those salutes for the difference it has made to their lives. Some of them can be seen in the suburbs when the garbage trucks are about to make their weekly rounds, scavengers descending on the waiting rubbish bags, literally in search of crumbs from the white man’s table.

There are also incidents which show that in some places the mind-set of the apartheid years lives on, such as last month’s murder of a farm worker by a game rancher who allegedly had him beaten up and then thrown to the lions. So few were the remains after the lions had fed on him that the police said they were having to use DNA tests to confirm his identity.

Although such incidents are isolated, their impact on the country’s black population hardly needs amplification, seeming to confirm their worst fears as to what lies behind conciliatory stances taken by white leaders.

However, things are changing for the black population. Perhaps the most important area is education, in which zoning has had an ironic impact — domestic servants realising that, by virtue of their residence in the room at the bottom of their master’s garden, they are entitled to send their children to government schools which are among the best in the country.

The result is that, while the majority of black children continue to make do with the lack of facilities and poor teaching in the townships, there is a substantial group whose use of language and deportment make them — apart from skin colour — indistinguishable from whites. It is a reservoir of the schooled that could have considerable significance for the future of the country.

And then there are the white men’s sports of rugby and cricket, which have had such a psychological impact on the country in the past. Can they do it again, in reverse?

South African rugby is in a trough at the moment, the consequence of lingering racism and maladministration which, in combination, have devastated morale. Disclosures that the national squad had been put through a ‘boot camp’ run by police-force veterans before the recent World Cup — being forced to cavort through the bush in the nude, made to pump up balls in a freezing lake at gunpoint and having cold water poured over their heads while listening to renditions of God Save the Queen and the New Zealand ‘haka’ — have made them a national laughing stock.

But though South Africa’s domination of world rugby may have gone for ever in the age of professionalism, one senses that in time, at least, it will be rescued from its present plight by the influx in particular of ‘coloured’ players who are bringing a huge amount of untapped talent to the game.

Its cricketers, under the boyish captaincy of Graham Smith, are second only to the Aussies in world rankings. With players like fast bowler Makhaya Ntini — ‘the fittest man in world cricket’ — one suspects that the playing fields of South Africa still have a considerable role to play where national reconciliation is concerned.

Ten years ago, when Nelson Mandela took the salute at Union buildings, the major question facing the country was what sort of a ruler he would turn out to be. There were concerns that the makings of a personality cult were already developing around him, that such was his fame that it would encourage an arrogance of power. The opposite was the case. He not only ceded any real power to Thabo Mbeki when he became president but, seemingly, as an example to his successor, he stepped down after only one term of office.

Last weekend, I happened to see him at a local shopping mall, buying a book for St Valentine’s Day. Inevitably, a crowd gathered, breaking into spontaneous applause while keeping a careful distance, so as not to discomfort him. There was, contained in that affectionate reaction, a tribute to Mandela of a kind that is difficult to imagine being accorded to any other world leader.

With Thabo Mbeki, it is somewhat different. Quietly spoken and a seemingly shy man, he nevertheless nurses an overweening belief in himself. He rarely gives interviews and seems to intensely dislike newspapers. Instead he writes a weekly column on the internet, seeing this as an adequate substitute. It is part of his vanity that he ghost-writes speeches for his ministers, as well as writing his own. Educated as an economist, his pretence to medical expertise — his insistence that poverty is responsible for HIV and Aids, rather than the virus — is well-known.

Enormous pressure has been put on him by foreign donors to revise his stand on the issue, and to some extent it seems to have worked in that both he and his health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, have promised the country that a ‘roll-out’ of anti-retroviral drugs is under way. But such assurances have contrasted with minimal action on the ground. In statements smacking of a Marie Antoinette, Tshabalala-Msimang has recommended that HIV and Aids sufferers should try a diet of lemon, ginger, olive oil, garlic, beetroot and African potatoes. Although she recently announced she had changed her mind about the potatoes.

Aids is not the only policy area in which Mbeki seems to suffer no contradiction. His much-criticised visit to Haiti in support of Jean-Bertrand Aristide — contributing to the latest upsurge in political violence in that unfortunate island – was a more recent example.

The presence of former members of the Pan Africanist Congress (an extremist black nationalist grouping) among Mbeki’s key advisers encourages the belief that he is far more of a hardliner on the race question than generally appreciated. A curious element of the Mbeki enigma is the uncertainty he creates by his apparent blunders — uncertainty as to whether they were intentional, or not. Certainly he makes straightforward gaffes, as on the occasion when he had the wrong side winning the Battle of Omdurman.

But what does one make of the Mbeki who stood at Mandela’s 80th birthday and quoted from King Lear, having seemingly overlooked the detail that the play dealt with the foolishness of an old man. Did he overlook it, or was there a deliberate attempt to insult? Despite the known antagonism between the two men, such speculation may seem unfair to Mbeki. Only he has done it on other occasions. It is, in part, this uncertainty about Mbeki which has started the parliamentary opposition to demand an unequivocal public statement that he has no intention of rewriting the constitution and going for a third term in office.

Last year, on his 85th birthday, Mandela assured his fellow South Africans that there was no question of Mbeki standing for a third term. ‘Not the Mbeki I know. He could not do that. He will not change the constitution in order to benefit himself. That is the last thing he would do. Whether I’m alive or gone, he will respect the constitution.’ The statement, coming out of the blue, appeared to be an attempt by Mandela to head off some behind-the-scenes move along those lines, or at least suspicion on the part of the great man about his successor’s intentions.

Mandela’s dislike of Mbeki’s policies are well-known – particularly on HIV and Aids and Zimbabwe. His opposition to the president on HIV and Aids is openly stated. Where Zimbabwe is concerned, Mandela appears to fear splitting the ANC by openly coming out in opposition to Mugabe. Having stood down himself after one term, Mandela could be expected to make a strong and possibly decisive stand against any attempt by his successor to rewrite the constitution. But the question is whether Mandela will last long enough to fight that particular fight.

Mandela is looking increasingly frail nowadays. Although his sense of humour and quickness of mind are still there — asked recently what he planned to do when he gets to heaven, he replied ‘Look up the local branch of the ANC’ — it must be questionable whether he would be around to fight a Mbeki third-term.

In the absence of Nelson Mandela, one is left scratching around for ‘watchdogs’ of liberty. South Africa’s constitution lays much emphasis on the separation of powers. But Thabo Mbeki seems to have thoroughly cowed the legislature (an interesting statistic to emerge recently was that less than one in 10 parliamentary questions are put by ANC MPs), while the judiciary has shown little sign of its being a bulwark of constitutional rights.

An amendment to the constitutional provision under the country’s party list system, allowing MPs to cross the floor, has already been cleared by the constitutional court. In the last election, the ANC came very close to taking a two-thirds majority, with 66,35% of the vote and, even if they do not get the two-thirds required to be able to tamper with the constitution, they will now be able to ‘buy off’ individual opposition MPs as a result of that constitutional change.

But, hopefully, such fears will prove baseless. Undeniably, Mbeki has presided over something of a turnaround in South Africa’s fortunes.

This week, his finance minister, Trevor Manuel, delivered what he described as a ‘bloody good budget’ — a judgement in which most concur. Slashing R4-billion rand off personal taxes and promising R1-trillion the improvement of services for the next three years showed a new confidence in government.

For the moment, at least, freedom can still be heard to thunder in South Africa. – Guardian Unlimited Â

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