Sunday, July 03, 2005

Beloved Country, Your Time has Come

Nelson Mandela casting his vote on April 27, 1994

I wrote this article for Africa Today magazine in 1994, when I was in South Africa for the historic national elections. I was reading this not long ago, and I thought it would be a good idea to post here in my blog as a point of reflection. Witnessing that event was an electrifiying experience--the memories, the apprehension, the celebrations and atmosphere of that time are deeply engrained in my heart and mind. And then, throughout the 8 years I lived there, South Africa remained for me much like it was on that historic day--exciting, vibrant and full of life, with African people who thirst for knowledge and education, and are also eager to see the beauty and wisdom of their own cultures expressed in modern society. I call this post "The Day the World Changed..." because April 27, 1994 was a watershed in world history. The defeat of apartheid was a global victory and a global phenomenon. Apartheid was brought down by the united work of activists and a chain of interrelated international events that created a critical mass that created change. Anyone who has had any contact with that history knows it was a MASSIVE struggle--both inside and outside of South Africa--because the apartheid power structure was built on the base forces of world materialism, the entrenched econonomics of the international monetary system and the value of gold.

For South Africa and the world, this year’s first all-race democratic elections seemed like nothing less than a long awaited miracle. In newspapers and on television there were unforgettable images of long, sun-baked lines of Africans waiting all day to cast their first vote of a lifetime, the vote bringing the end to apartheid and white minority rule. The passage of April 27 into history was marked by untold violence, sacrifice and suffering; many involved in the struggle hardly believed this moment would come in their lifetime, and many others died for the new South Africa they would never live to see. For all the fear and trembling, the flurry of last minute bombs from the far right, talk of white emigration and an apocalyptic Afrikaner volkstaadt, April 27 came and went in a joyous eruption that was honored by the vast majority of South Africans.

As an African American traveling to South Africa for the elections, Nelson Mandela’s May 10th presidential inauguration—more than any other event—seemed to capture and release the overwhelming emotion of the South African people’s struggle for self-determination. No one present could resist being moved by the colorful crowd, warm music and even the roar of fighter jets flying overhead as the state apparatus was transferred peacefully. Personally, I have never been one for air shows or military promenades, but the feeling was spectacular. Nelson Mandela, 17 years a political prisoner, with his gray hair, frail and thin frame, was the true master of ceremonies, dramatizing for the entire world South Africa’s quiet endurance and achievement.

But for all the fanfare, the accolades, ceremonies and celebrations, the “New South Africa” somehow hasn’t hit Pretoria yet. Even former president F.W. De Klerk was visibly dazed by the boisterous joy and energy of the massive crowd of Africans. In its entire history the capitol city’s Union Building has never witnessed such a gathering of South African citizens or world dignitaries. Pretoria was shaken at its very foundations. The seat of South Africa’s bureaucracy, the center of Afrikanerdom, is still trying to catch up with the dizzying pace of the country’s transformation. I saw the repressed antagonism in the face of white policeman who made no attempt to conceal his disdain for the Africans moving happily and freely around him. “Here’s someone who hasn’t got a clue as to what just happened to his country,” I thought to myself. After some time wandering through the crowd and observing the police, I noticed they tended to segregate themselves into groups of white, “coloured” and black. And then there was the South African Defence Force, in full combat mode; troops with high-tech helmets and machine guns, and armored “hippos” ready to move amid barricaded streets and large blocks closed-off with long rolls of razor wire. This is how the new South Africa is ushered in; tense and polarized, the population still somewhat at war with itself. The situation was so absurd I overheard someone remark, “If some joker lights a firecracker in this crowd we’ll find ourselves in the middle of another Sharpeville.”

What does the future hold for the beloved country? Decades of apartheid have left their mark, and it won’t wash away overnight. Throughout the elections and after we are still hearing of investigations, inquests and continual revelations of “third force” police conspiracies and corruption. One gets the depressing feeling that the forces of justice have barely scratched the surface in sorting out the rotten apples. Racial antipathies are still very much alive in Cape Town, where—with a stunning historical twist—the mixed-race “coloured” population voted overwhelmingly for the National Party, the actual instigators of apartheid. Decades of multiracial activism, the Black Consciousness Movement, the United Democratic Front and Mass Democratic Movement years, were all reversed or forgotten with a few months of clever racial propaganda. Pretoria and Durban—unlike Johannesburg and Soweto—were not the scenes of non-stop ANC victory celebrations after election week. South Africa is still very much a conflict-torn nation, regionally and socially fragmented, struggling to come to terms with itself.

Yet despite the obvious problems, I have been quite impressed by the increase in civility and general atmosphere of peace just before the elections. A definite turning point came April 19, when Chief Mangosothu Buthelezi agreed to allow the Inkatha Freedom Party to join the election. Everyone in South Africa, especially in KwaZulu and the townships surrounding Johannesburg, breathed a collective sigh of relief. The gut-wrenching shock of police, Zulu nationalists and ANC security forces shooting up downtown Johannesburg three weeks earlier vanished overnight. Although it would be difficult to identify or quantify, the shift in public atmosphere was hard to underestimate. With Inkatha’s participation, there were no major red flags, and South Africans finally had a feeling they would actually make it through the elections and get on with their lives. Tokyo Sexwale, ANC premier for the central Pretoria-Witwatersrand-Vereegining province, recently received a honored welcome among Zulus at the infamously violent Kathlehong and Thokoza worker hostels, something unheard of a week before the elections. Sexwale addressed a crowd of about 1,000 toyi-toying Zulus, promising them “jobs, electricity and housing,” in their mother tongue. Judging by Sexwale’s reception, the hostel dwellers were pleased to hear an ANC leader speak in Zulu, and there has been a significant fall in political violence on the East Rand and in KwaZulu itself. So now there is a genuine feeling that most South Africans will accept the election results and political differences can be put aside and real progress made. If only Johannesburg’s feuding taxi ranks could take a hit and stop shooting each other in their bloody territorial fare wars.

Nelson Mandela’s new cabinet is, in all likelihood, the most diverse group of political leaders ever assembled to initiate a new government. Communist and capitalist, African and Afrikaner, formerly avowed military and political enemies are trying to forge the new Government of National Unity. Upon their shoulders will fall the nuts and bolts pragmatic tasks of rebuilding South Africa in the aftermath of apartheid. During the Transitional Executive Council negotiations before the elections, De Klerk and the National Party lobbied hard, for obvious reasons, to retain the crucial portfolios of security—the Ministries of Law and Order, Justice and Defence. Whatever their expectations, in the end, the ANC fortunately reserved control of these Ministries, given the old government’s dismal track record and propensity for intrigue and human rights abuses. The National Party, however, was still left with key roles in economic policy, holding the Ministries of Finance, Trade and Industry, Environment and Tourism, Agriculture and Provincial Affairs—where chief negotiator Roelf Meyer will be at the center of arbitrations between provincial powers and the federal government.

One of the new government’s first tests will be in the area of land reform and redistribution; for this purpose the Agriculture Ministry was split to create a Ministry of Land Affairs, headed by the ANC’s Derek Hanekom. Former president De Klerk did little to encourage confidence in South Africa’s leaders when he signed legislation, a day before the elections, transferring almost all of KwaZulu’s land to a private trust held by Zulu King Goodwill Zwelethini. Even at apartheid’s dying breath it seems old politicians cannot resist collusion and patronage at the expense of ordinary people’s lives. More than three and a half million people have been forcefully removed from their land under apartheid; according to Brendan Pearce of the National Land Committee, this figure is only a “drop in the bucket” compared to the people who need land. In addition to the problems of displacement, there are conflicts between the traditional African communal ideal of subsistence farming, commercial pressures to increase agricultural productivity and the limitations of the land itself. The ANC has proposed a special Land Claims Commission and a Land Clams Court to resolve these problems. The Mfengu tribe to the Tsitsikama region in the Eastern Cape recently reached an agreement that is being touted as a model for potential future land dispute resolutions. Less than three months before the elections, after a a long series of negotiations, the old National Party government bought the original Mfengu land back from its new Afrikaner farmers and transferred the lease to the tribe, some of whom actually returned to work the land. But the new government cannot afford to purchase large tracts of land (especially at current market values) as the ANC’s Reconstruction and Development Program, estimated at more than R1.2 billion (about US $333 million), is already being cited unrealistically expensive. However, the National Land Committee warns that without a comprehensive redistribution policy, “back to the land” invasions and squatter camps will become more commonplace. In unoccupied land between suburban townships, the whole Witwatersrand region is continually sprouting unsightly squatter communities, as overcrowded Soweto, the East Rand and other African townships spill over in search of useable space.

The Government of National Unity, will, of course, be severely tested in many directions as it tries to rectify the past. From deregulating broadcasting to investigating political crimes to providing electrification, water and sewage services—not to mention building new homes and schools—Cabinet Ministers and political appointees will have their hands full trying to sort out the chaos of the old non-white South Africa. Yet considering the tenuous, fragile road to democracy, where former political prisoners now sit in a representative parliament, and the fact that events could clearly have been tragically worse, South Africa has great reason to celebrate the coming 21st Century. Arise, beloved country, your time has come.


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