Some 21 years ago I covered as a reporter Nelson Mandela’s inauguration as president of the new democratic South Africa. For a while during the election it was touch-and-go whether the country would plunge into civil war or proceed into a peaceful multi-racial democracy.
It was mostly thanks to Mandela’s charisma and wise leadership that a wave of optimism, euphoria and relief swept the nation.
When the national rugby team, the Springboks, won the world cup against New Zealand on home ground in the following year, the “rainbow nation” was literally drunk with pride and self-confidence. Those historical weeks were later turned into the movie “Invictus” starring Morgan Freeman (Mandela) and Matt Damon (the Springbok rugby captain Francois Pienaar). Racial reconciliation seemed possible. Forgiveness had won over hatred. South Africa was showing the world. We can overcome! So what has become of the once so proud rainbow nation?
On the plane enroute to South Africa last month, I was watching the BBC TV headlines. Police were once again firing teargas at protesting students outside the Union Building parliament buildings in Pretoria where Mandela was inaugurated as president in 1994. I could not help wondering: How could it have come so far with the ruling ANC having lost it so completely with the country’s young generation? It is a generation that grew up in the new multi-racial democracy and never experienced the harsh reality of apartheid laws. Yet obviously there is deep frustration running far deeper than the protests over higher university fees.
From the small-talk I managed to have with young folk from different races, there is a growing deep resentment at the ruling ANC elites, whose primary objective appears to be an entitlement attitude and self-enrichment “philosophy”. Ruling President Jacob Zuma even had the audacity of recently telling his party followers that the ANC had priority over the well-being of the country. Off the cuff remarks indeed have a far greater truth than statements cleansed by polished party spokesmen.
Local newspapers are full of reports on corruption at basically every government level. After having been away from the country for several years it is sad to see the running decay of practically everything run by government from public roads to basic services such as electricity and water. The police also seem totally inept and corrupt in dealing with the spiraling crime rate.
A well-spoken young white man told me that he and his friends were all saving up their money to leave the country as soon as possible because the racial quota system also called Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) was squeezing them out of any possible university education or job opportunity. The same can be said for the country’s Indian minority. South Africa’s ANC rulers appear no better than their apartheid predecessors in making “racial” and party apparatchik rather than professional appointments. This indeed bodes ill for the future of the country.
The ANC has completely lost its moral compass. Symbolic for this was the kowtowing to China by refusing Nobel Peace Prize laureate the Dalai Lama a visa to visit his good friend and fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu which prompted the bishop describing the ANC as worse than the apartheid government.
This is not what Mandela envisioned in his dream of a rainbow nation and the non-racialism that the ANC veterans once espoused in the Freedom Charter.
Still, South Africa might be ruled by inept and corrupt leaders but it remains one of the world’s most beautiful countries. The warm-heartedness, humor and hospitality of its peoples are a stark contrast to the coldness and anonymity felt in the European capitals. Efficient private-run enterprises are taking over where government is failing. The country is still working – at least more or less – despite what all the local doom prophets are pronouncing.
For European and North American visitors with Euros and dollars in their pockets South Africa is still a very good deal and they will be treated with a friendliness and hospitality they will find in few other countries.
Lastly what makes me feel optimistic about South Africa’s future is that a growing number of young people from all races are coming to the fore who are seeing through the ANC smokescreen and double-speak. Just as the youth started the beginning of the downfall of apartheid in the Soweto uprising of 1976, there is a start of a grumbling wave. Once you lose the youth, you have lost it.
There is hope still in the year 2020 or thereafter: A young leader starting afresh from where Mandela left in leading a truly democratic non-racial rainbow nation?
One response to “Thoughts on South Africa”
thanks for a calm, astute essay.