When Nelson Mandela took power from the white minority government in South Africa in 1994, the longtime anti-apartheid activist held out hope that this was the beginning of the end of his people’s poverty and the decades-long oppression that kept them in it.
His gestures of reconciliation toward his and their erstwhile oppressors are credited with avoiding bloody conflict in the country, leading the world to hail South Africa as a “miracle.”
Today, South Africa is at a crossroads. The heirs to Mandela’s legacy are battling among themselves, as the hope he inspired is fading under the weight of unmet needs for the black masses.
When I first came to South Africa in 1985 on one of many assignments I would take over more than two decades, an Afrikaner told me the reason for not permitting “one person, one vote” was that South Africa was both First World and Third World.
By that, he meant the whites who controlled the economy and reaped its benefits, including a first-class education, were First World. And the blacks, who labored in the mines, the fields, the kitchens and other rooms of the privileged, and who were being deliberately undereducated so that they could remain subservient, were Third World.
But as I traveled around the country in recent weeks, reporting for the NPR series “South Africa at the Crossroads,” those words came back to me, albeit in a different context.
Even with a black-led government, the country remains two separate nations: one white and largely in control of the economy; the other, a majority of blacks still outside the economic mainstream.
South Africa also is dealing with one of the highest crime rates in the world. AIDS continues to put an enormous strain on the nation. And then there’s another lingering legacy of apartheid: racism, still ever-present in a nation that Mandela hoped would reflect an ethnic rainbow.
Jody Kollapen, chairman of the Human Rights Commission, argues that South Africa may indeed be at a crossroads. But he says that perhaps critics and analysts (and journalists) should be taking a longer view, recognizing that South Africa is a new democracy, undergoing growing pains common to new democracies all over the world—including America’s, during its early years of independence.
“Maybe it’s time to recognize that South Africa is not a miracle country,” Kollapen says. “Maybe we should just come down to earth and say, ‘We’re an ordinary people perhaps, having done some extraordinary stuff, but maybe the world should let us be an ordinary country.’“
When Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first black president after the end of apartheid 14 years ago, he called his country a “rainbow nation.” But instead of becoming the ethnically integrated society he envisioned, South Africa today continues to battle racism.
Some observers believe the social situation is worse than it was before the end of the country’s system of racial segregation. And there is a worry that gridlock between the ruling party and the government is inhibiting the leadership’s ability to deal with this issue.
Recent incidents that have drawn attention include a white youth going on a rampage and shooting four blacks, the discovery of a “whites only” toilet in a police precinct, and the publication of a disparaging column by a white writer imagining the nation before the arrival of the white man. The column included this musing: “Every so often a child goes missing from the village, eaten either by a hungry lion or a crocodile. The family mourns for a week or so and then has another child.”
Outrage over the column led to the author’s firing and his subsequent apology. However, no such apology was forthcoming from the four Afrikaner university students involved in the making of a highly publicized racist video that emerged in February.
Jody Kollapen, chairman of the South African Human Rights Commission, a national institution tasked with promoting and protecting human rights, says the University of the Free State case is not isolated. Kollapen points to postings on an online chat room from young whites asserting their whiteness and denigrating things associated with the black majority, including the government, the ruling party, the flag and soccer, which is associated by some as a black sport.
Fourie, the university rector, says that many still hold on to Mandela’s notion of the rainbow nation. However, he says fulfilling that vision is going to take work and time.
“Rainbow is a good vision to have for this country,” Fourie says. “I think parts of it are falling down. Parts haven’t been constructed. And I think the challenge we have is to openly face that and have this fantastic vision, but say we’ve got to construct it still and to be open and honest about it.”