Last thoughts on Joburg

There’s a tendency to pre-judge, prejudice, things around here. Sadly, though, some fears are borne out as the days unfold into months and years. Yesterday, I was asked what I thought about South Africa after being away so long. I hesitated; partly because I respect the person asking, I respect his opinions. But I also hesitate because I feel it’s too soon to know what has changed and after only two weeks.

This a complicated country with, as Belafonte said, “a difficult people.” That, by the way, was his kind, loving assessment of a people for their drive, determination, resilience, passions, humour, humanity and generosity. It’s a peculiar mix of these ingredients that makes them difficult. I don’t want to mess up my relationship with them.

I try to choose my words carefully. But they spill out in a torrent. The hope that was at first (way back when I was first here in ’93) is wearing thin, I hear myself say. I could feel that hope ebb on my visits nearly every year since and during my last visit in ’99. What I hear walking about now is a weariness with the ANC because of unkept promises and undelivered hopes.

I think: The schools are still in big trouble; education especially in remote Black areas, remains way behind early projections or even hopes. Land reforms are stalled; at this rate, land claims will take almost as long as they do in Canada but the majority here will not be as patient as the Indigenous folks back home.

HIV-AIDS, Mbeki’s refusal to dump Mugabe, the ESKOM scandal, a true head in the sand corollary if ever) that threatens to shut down the country already starved for electrical power. Why isn’t anyone ever held accountable?

But instead of saying all of that, because I’m not sure it’s all true, I express disappointment with myself. I have not been able to get out as much to find out more about how people feel, and how the country has changed, since I spent most of the week at INPUT and “in this atrocity called Sandton.” He nods at me over the table.

I point to a huge statue that I saw in Nelson Mandela Square in the midst of this gaudy, rich and mostly white northern suburb in Johannesburg. I wasn’t looking for it, but wandered there by mistake. Once in that Square, I was appalled by this statue portraying those memorable moments when then-President Mandela began dancing at public functions. But the statue, and its pose, bothered me for quite some time on a gut-level, which I could not fathom immediately, not until I was able to sift through jumbled emotions and conflicted feelings.

On the one hand there is my profound gratitude and enduring respect for the man, his trials and his accomplishments. He was the symbol of a noble struggle against great odds for simple human dignity. On the other hand, there is how Mandela, the symbol, seems to have been perverted; used to shield the old and privileged few – and the new and privileged few – from the vast poor and still serving majority.

Rich Blacks and rich whites convene in the Square, in this richest part of the richest city in the richest country of Africa seemingly protected by the shadow of Mandela’s looming statue. The contradictions of this man who fought so long for freedom for his peoples, and of the Square and the racial, economic, social inequality and flaunting of wealth that it represents, are almost too much.

I tell friend of my disappointment and that it extends to the ANC. I had hoped that the ANC would hold true to its words of so long ago, remember its promised reforms once the danger of civil war had evaporated following the second elections. There was still so much hope then. But not so much anymore, I say.

The ANC came in on a wave of popular hope that it would secure the government, dismantle the existing structures of power that had served the few for so long and denied the Black majority of fundamentals and basic rights. Instead, people are beginning to realize, a transitional deal with the devil to preserve status quo, keep the old institutions for awhile at least in order to avoid internal war, continue and continue to deny them their right. When, I hear the question asked from taxi drivers, in conversations at dinner, or over a beer at the end of the day, will the ANC make this country truly democratic?

The question surprises me. I thought South Africa had achieved democracy. No, I’m told. A few and powerful Blacks merely moved into the offices of the formerly few and powerful White minority. The institutions that denied true equality of opportunity to the majority poor and Black in the country remain.

“We cannot even select our own candidates to run in our areas,” says one man, a White ANC’er. “The party does it for us. It appoints who we must vote for from the party’s list. We cannot choose. This is not what we struggled for. The struggle was not permitted to continue as it should have. So we have an uncompleted struggle that denies us the rights so many fought and died for.”

These words are not unfamiliar to some of the Blacks that I speak with. In fact, they nod when I relay them in our conversations. These feelings are not restricted to a few out-of-touch and miserable few. They are widespread and gaining strength.

I mention the criticisms that I have heard about South Africa’s much praised Truth and Reconciliation Commission. My friend worked for, supported, believed in the TRC for years and years. I know these words must sting as I say them.

People feel that it too did not deliver. “Oh, it was a great chance to unload a lot of pain and suffering, to spill a lot of anger, but did anybody learn anything in the end? No,” said one man. “It was used like a huge valve that was opened for a while to permit people to say what they needed to say, to express their pain, but then the tap was turned off. And it was as though the powers that be said: Okay. Enough. Time to get back to reality now. Time to get back to work, you lot.”

His words leave me shaken. I remember driving through parts of South Africa while the TRC hearings ground on, listening to it live on the radio. I remember having to pull over, to park, because I couldn’t concentrate on the simple act of aiming the car down an empty highway. The testimony, the stories, were that terrible and powerful. Was it all for nothing?

“No,” says the same man. “But it was perverted by those same people who went from wearing camouflage one day, and slippled into expensive three piece suits the next day; who went from driving beat up old cars and into huge Mercedes sedans. This was part of the deal with the former regime. Let us keep what we have. Don’t punish us. We’ll permit a few to be sacrificed. But once the hearings are over, we must leave it all behind.”

I’m shaken. Was it really all that cynical and corrupt? My thoughts go to the so-called TRC that Canada is beginning. I wonder if the people for whom it is supposed to help realize, understand, the politics that have likely gone on behind the scenes there? And I wonder, as we end our conversation, shake hands, and wish each other well, whether I have learned anything. Or am I simply prejudging a country and its people on the flimsiest of information?



Filed under Africa, journalism

2 responses to “Last thoughts on Joburg

  1. sunprincess

    I thought about responding to this post with a comment or two of my own but was sidetracked – a few times. I guess I had so much to say I wasn’t sure where to start.

    I want to know what is happening is SA because of what is not happening here (with Indigenous people in Canada). I thought about a quick off the cuff comment but couldn’t. do it at least not in a in a comparative way that would make sense. Except that Seven Ontario Chiefs are in jail (for protesting Uranium mining on their territory), The Assembly of First Nations is planing a day of protest that my instinct says will turn sour…and I work with young Aboriginal offenders – who are imprisoned at eight times the rate of their non-Aboriginal offenders, with longer sentences, less parole, and for lesser offences…

    The violence here simmers under an impotent rage – it doesn’t know how to articulate itself yet so it’s random and turned inwards. The violence in SA is bitter and twisted because they thought the end of oppression would mean something more. Now that the after glow has faded away and reality is in their faces – They see it as same shit different folk.

    So what did they make the sacrifices for and are they now that deeply disappointed with the work that remains? What of the younger folk – Victor and Siobhan’s age – what do they think? They were babies through it and now they are young adults.

    At this point it really is not comparable except that I think attention should be focused on that anger. What will their anger look like 10 years from now? Where will ours be?

    Freedom is an over rated ideology that can do more harm than good. Maybe we just need to place more care in the choices when we decide under whose yoke we want to chain our necks to. Sometime I think that is why the Indian Act is still in place – fear of what lies in waiting if we
    remove it.

    Will we as Indigenous People here in Canada be equally as angry when the tobacco lords and hereditary Chiefs (you know what I mean) bring their manipulations into the game and we as people what would happen to our

  2. shmohawk

    I just had a very interesting conversation with someone who is not jaded, not pessimistic, but hopeful. He’s a former journalist who is enjoying his career and life change with a new wife and child, a home in a small country village, and (I’m guessing here) watching the spectacular sunsets from his window. He explained to me that people made choices back then to avoid the unthinkable – a deliberate jump into the abyss of civil war, economic collapse and perhaps even armageddon (the SA back then had 7 nuclear bombs in its possession).

    He said, look at me. I’m here enjoying life, the sunshine in this park with my family. In the ’80s, I was gassed here. Blacks wouldn’t be allowed here. they would have beaten and arrested. Look around. There is peace, the country runs, people are for the most part contented. There are big problems, but those are things that the present gov’t should have addressed by now.

    The transition back then, the deal worked out for a peaceful transition, was a good deal. It secured the peace. What they did with that opportunity is another question and one that must be asked of the ANC today and tomorrow.

    I think the anger back home is brewing and bubbling up. I am constantly amazed at the shit people live with, at the patience and generosity of our peoples, yours and mine. But there will be a time when that patience will run out if Canadians don’t wake up and begin to care more, do more, and get involved more. The symptoms are there. So is the fuel. Smart people would wake up and take such things seriously, instead of depending on Aboriginal folks to continue to concede and compromise. Sooner or later they will take a stand. I say the sooner, the better.

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