When Nelson Mandela became the first black President of Apartheid-free South Africa, many promises were made. How does South Africa fare today?
On Monday, 13 August at 05:35 am, a young couple left their small rented house in the township of Kagiso to go to work. As they approached the taxi rank, a non-descript man, face covered with a balaclava, appeared seemingly from nowhere. He suddenly snatched the woman’s bag and as she screamed in terror and confusion, the man cocked his gun and blasted her husband point blank through the heart. He died before he reached the ground and the gunman sauntered off nonchalantly. The deceased was only 33 years old, married for just ten months. I knew these people. We grew up together.
Violence is a daily occurrence in South Africa 13 years after the fall of apartheid. Nobody feels safe in their own home or much less out in the streets, the very streets they have to trawl to go and eke out some kind of living in Johannesburg’s city centre or in many of the former white suburbs that are well developed.
When South Africa dismantled the system of apartheid, to replace it with democracy in 1994, the National African Congress (ANC), under the leadership of Nelson Mandela, achieved a landslide victory. The majority of the indigenous South Africans from all the various tribal groups were euphoric with the outcome. To them it was the beginning of a better life after all the years of oppression. The government’s slogan at the time was “a government of the people for the people by the people.” They were there to serve and now, 13 years down the line, the euphoria has been replaced by disillusionment because none of the promises have been fulfilled.
The main target for the government was to improve the economy so that the disadvantaged majority could finally reap the benefits and rewards that their white counterparts had been enjoying officially for the 42 years of apartheid, and unofficially for over 300 years of subjugation since the Dutchman Jan van Rieebeck docked his ship in the Cape in 1652. The other more pressing issue was that of basic housing for the poor as there was and still is a severe shortage of houses. Informal settlements continue to crop up in random pieces of land to date. The late Joe Slovo, who was the minister of housing at the time and the chairman of the South African Communist Party (SACP), boldly pledged a million houses to be built within the first four years of government. Finally the government aimed to stem the tide of crime in order for the international community to take the new democracy seriously and also embark on a programme of land restitution. As things stood, whites, who represented a mere 13% of the population, owned more than 80% of the land. Clearly there was something wrong with that picture. It seemed like a simple enough mandate, so where do things stand 13 years down the line?
Unfortunately, we don’t seem to have moved away from the violence of the 1980s, which was largely politically motivated. The crime rate in South Africa, particularly violent crime, continues to soar at an incredible rate and affects South Africans and visitors alike. Recent crime statistics released by the South African Police Service covering the period of April 2006 to March 2007 indicate that crime remains alarmingly high in the country. The rate of murder across the country has increased by 2.5% with 19,002 murders reported this year compared to 18,545 in the previous year. Reported home invasions have gone up from 10,173 to 12,761. It seems an insignificant number, but it is a 25% increase. Car-jackings, or hijackings as they are called locally, have gone up by 6%, mostly in the more affluent suburbs of Johannesburg like Sandton or Honeydew with 13,599 reported this year, compared to the 12,825 in the last period.
Three quarters of the aggravated robberies occur mainly in the black townships where ordinary people are routinely stripped of their valuables at knife or gunpoint. Since these crimes are not high profile and do not involve well-known personalities, they go largely unreported in the media. Rape is allegedly down by 5%, although the published statistics are rather contradictory. There were 52,617 rapes reported in the year 2006-2007; but 54,926 rapes were reported in the previous year, making that an increase in crime. Many experts agree that sexual assaults and rapes largely go unreported so the figures available do not reflect the actual levels of sexual assaults.
The reasons for the violence aren’t clear. Criminals like to blame their actions on poverty and joblessness but that excuse is contradicted by the fact that many African migrants who come down to South Africa from across the continent are able to find and hold down jobs in the country under very difficult circumstances. In the late 1990s, the assumption was that white people were the ones being robbed or attacked by angry young black men trying to “take back” what was stolen from them by the white man. However, in reality it is young upwardly mobile black men and women who get hijacked, robbed, stabbed, or shot randomly more than everyone else in the country. The government seems incapable of effectively combating the surge in crime, and that is one of the reasons why the people are disillusioned.
Curiously though, the economy, at least on the surface, seems to be thriving. Being a country blessed with rolling hills and mountains, scenic landscapes and rich diverse cultures, South Africa is one of the most sought-after travel destinations in the world and gets thousands of visitors a year from around the world, despite the crime. If you travel around London, you see the odd black cab or bus swathed in the South African flag, advertising various destinations in the country and holiday packages to suit everyone. The real reason that Europeans and Americans continue to flock there despite the horrific crime statistics is because the economy is still in the clutches of white people. For example, the big mining companies like Anglo American, Gencor, De beers, Billington and Goldfields are still very much family empires, and continue to be so. It is rather pitiful that South Africa, being rich in minerals, leads Africa in reserves of gold, chrome, manganese and platinum, to mention a few, but the profits from those minerals still go to a select number of people in the country.
The Black Economic Empowerment scheme, which was meant to be a practical growth strategy for the economy spearheaded by blacks, is not working. There is a perception that it’s only a few black elites (who had money anyway) who are gaining from the scheme, thereby putting the scheme in danger of being a new elite replacing the old with black faces. As a result, the gap between the rich and the poor continues to widen, with the rich getting richer and the poor finding themselves in even more dire circumstances.
The contentious issue of land restitution is moving at a snail’s pace and the people’s suppressed anger is threatening to burst to the surface. The government makes the process seem complicated and labour-intensive, but there really is nothing controversial about restoring land to its rightful owners. Many people were moved from their villages when the country was divided into homelands and for the majority, the displacement occurred in order to make space for farms. For some villagers, the land might have been a sacred worshipping place or a place of reverence and so it has been a bitter and unfair experience. Scare-mongers say the country will “turn into another Zimbabwe,” a situation that Zimbabweans and Western powers like the United Kingdom and America will never see eye to eye with.
Thabo Mbeki refuses to succumb to calls by the UK and USA to speak out against the land reforms in Zimbabwe, rightly saying it is up to Zimbabweans to deal with their own issues. He is a clever man; the issue of land rights is sensitive in South Africa and the government tries to downplay the frustration of the people and the government’s own impotence in doing what is right. It would be folly for him to condemn what is happening next door when the same thing is starting to happen in his backyard. There are laws enshrined in the constitution to deal with such issues and it is up to the ministers to just get on with the land reform programme. The frustration that is felt is getting to a point where people will do for themselves what the government has failed to do.
Thabo Mbeki is unfairly compared with Nelson Mandela in his leadership style. Mandela is a very charismatic and effusive leader whereas Mbeki seems more reticent and completely lacking in charm, although he is very intelligent. Some people say Mandela should have concentrated more reaching the mandated targets as president instead of pandering to white people’s fears and spending time trying to reassure them and preaching about reconciliation and the “rainbow nation.” After all, there is no black in the rainbow, and that’s something that cynics will point out in some bitter moments of despair. In that way, he may have failed the majority by not living up to his iconic image, when perhaps he could have been tougher. On the other hand, South Africa might be a totally different place today if he hadn’t negotiated the way he did for he couldn’t have been a messiah and a tough leader at the same time.
Mbeki’s style of government means power is more centralized with the president being the centre, and this can make for uncomfortable situations, especially when the ministers are deemed to fear him and particularly when he’s derided for daring to question certain things, such as the link between AIDS and HIV. HIV is the biggest killer in the country besides shootings and car accidents. The minister of health is out of touch with what’s happening in communities, preferring to recommend that people eat beetroot and garlic to deal with HIV rather than give them free anti-retroviral drugs. The reality is that the average lifespan of a South African today is 42 years. This is worse than during the height of apartheid or the faction wars between Inkatha and ANC party members. To question the causes of AIDS instead of concentrating on preventative measures and education has been one of the most damaging things to this government.
It is not all doom and gloom though. After 13 years, race relations are a lot better and continue to improve, although people still stare seeing mixed race couples. There are more entrepreneurs as people realise they cannot always depend on government hand-outs or hope for non-forthcoming jobs. Many people understand their rights and there is a high level of tolerance as indicated by cabinet passing laws for gay marriages. The country has hosted a number of big sporting events successfully and is currently looking forward to hosting the World Cup in 2010 when the entire world will descend upon Johannesburg and Cape Town and all the other little-known but beautiful country. There is no bigger incentive for the next government to get tough on crime, implement safety and security measures and update the dire transport system than the imminent World Cup.
1st September 2007