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South Africa: A Brief Encounter 12 Years After Apartheid

20th October, 2006 - Posted by Alessandro I. - No Comments

By Sherrill Hogen

After only 18 days in South Africa I am hardly an expert, but I want to share what I saw and learned of this complex and beautiful country. I had to keep reminding myself that I was visiting a place that had undergone a huge transition just 12 years ago and is still struggling with the legacy of apartheid. We witnessed people and places going about the routines of daily life, some of it very familiar looking urban life, and yet most of these people, including our professional guides and drivers, had only had this kind of normalcy since 1994.

I was on a tour with 9 other Americans organized by Global Exchange, a San Francisco based organization dedicated to global human rights. I wanted to see the natural beauty and the animals for which Africa is famous. I was rewarded by an abundance of visual delights from oceans, plains and mountains to penguins, giraffes and elephants. I also wanted to learn about post-apartheid South Africa, and about the anti-apartheid struggle and how it was influenced by Mahatma Gandhi, who started his nonviolent activism in South Africa. That is the story I want to tell.

Gandhi came to South Africa in 1893 as an Indian lawyer, young, naive and loyal to England, then the empire that ruled both India and South Africa.. But he soon learned that England was not loyal to him because of the color his skin and, finding himself sprawled on a railroad station platform because he refused to leave the first class coach he was riding in, he resolved to do something about it. He remained in South Africa for 23 years to organize and defend the human rights of his fellow Indians, at first just the merchants and later the indentured laborers who were brought in to work the cane fields. From the beginning, Gandhi’s approach was to resist unjust, racist laws without the use of violence. He and his Indian followers used people power and soul force, basically taking the higher moral ground.

Not only was Gandhi successful in obtaining some respect for Indians, but he encouraged Blacks to follow the same course. According to one source, the Black leadership did not think the Black culture of the time would tolerate receiving violence and not retaliating in kind. So the African National Congress (ANC), founded in 1912, did not initially adopt nonviolence as their strategy.

However, by the time Nelson Mandela became active as a leader of the ANC Youth League in 1944, nonviolence was the avowed policy of the organization, which adhered to it even while other anti-apartheid groups called for their followers to take up arms against the White oppressor. Mandela reluctantly gave up this policy in 1960 in the face of increasing state violence against peaceful protestors, but he and the other leaders of the ANC preferred to use sabotage against non-human targets in an attempt to avoid taking life. Still, Mandela stated in a ” Time Magazine” article in 2003 that he “followed the Gandhian strategy for as long as I could.”

With this history as background, we wanted to know if anyone recognizes Gandhi’s influence today and if there is a consciousness of nonviolence in the country. In one way Gandhi is recognized: formally via statues, plaques at historical sites, and in several museums. We were able to meet with his granddaughter, Ela Gandhi, and to visit the Phoenix Farm where she grew up, and which was founded by Gandhi himself. While Ela gave us hope for the continuation of Gandhi’s legacy in general, the condition at Phoenix Farm was more symbolic of his lack of influence today. The house where Gandhi lived– a simple but ample structure — had been destroyed by a fire and rebuilt. It contained a reasonable collection of documents and photographs, but it was not open except by appointment. The printing shop where Gandhi and later his sons and even Ela had hand printed the newspaper that was a major organizing tool for the movement for South African Indian rights was basically empty. There are plans to reinstall the old machinery, etc. when there are enough funds. A large, two- roomed library on the premises is being used as an elementary school for 250 children, in keeping with Gandhi’s practice of serving the community, but it was staffed by only 4 teachers with 114 kids to each classroom!

More poignant, though, is the state of South Africa’s current economy in terms of who is served by it. While Gandhi called for local self-sufficiency, and identified himself with the poorest of the poor, and while he sought Truth or God through being with the people he served, thus bringing morality and spirituality into the political arena, today’s South Africa is caught firmly in the grip of global corporate capitalism. Sadly this means that repayment of the apartheid -era debt, and adherence to the demands of the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank which call for privatization of public services come before and in fact cancel out the needs of the poor. And the poor in South Africa are the majority. Apart from the elite and a small middle class, 75% of the population is poor and Black.

I admit I was very disappointed to learn that Mandela’s party, the ANC, had chosen a path that basically turns its back on the poor. There are those who say that Mandela had no choice, given the power vested in the global economic structures, that to defy their demands is to lose foreign investors and face the collapse of the country. Maybe they are right. And there are others who say that these were not decisions made by Mandela but by his vice-president who is now president, Thabo Mbeki. This does not absolve Mandela of all responsibility, but his focus as president and his legacy to the country is the process of unification across racial lines, the nonviolent transition of power from oppressor to oppressed, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that provided the nation a means to heal from the brutality of 50 years of apartheid.

These contributions raise Nelson Mandela above the stature of most world leaders, and seem miraculous coming from a man who spent 27 years in prison. I highly recommend the documentary film called “Long Night’s Journey Into Day”, about the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.”

I imagine that Mandela, now retired, is also troubled by the state of affairs in his beloved South Africa. To quote the 2003 article again, he wrote, “As we find ourselves in jobless economies, societies in which small minorities consume while the masses starve, we find ourselves forced to rethink the rationale of our current globalization and to ponder the Gandhian alternative.”

The legacy of apartheid — a rigid system of separation of the races, enforced by intimidation and violence, and non-Whites marginalized in every way– is seen in the acres and acres of make-shift shacks that house squatters for whom there is no available housing, and in the “townships.” The latter are large isolated tracts of two-room, cement block houses, commonly called match-box housing. They were constructed by the apartheid government to contain the millions of Black and Coloured workers whose city neighborhoods were entirely demolished in order to remove them from proximity to Whites-only neighborhoods. Townships are like sprawling suburbs to the large cities, but no provision was made for stores or services, so people have adapted by selling small amounts of goods out of their homes. We visited a shack that had such a store in its front room, dark and unlit. In addition there was one bedroom and a tiny common room/cooking area with no running water. The whole house would fit into one of our living rooms.

Under apartheid townships, not to mention shack communities, were denied access to electricity and running water. The people used candles, coal and propane for light, heat and cooking. One of the first improvements after the elections of 1994 was to provide electricity (and public water taps) so that by now about 75% have electricity. However, the power grid was not upgraded to account for this new demand, resulting in a fairly new phenomenon: blackouts. The night we arrived in Capetown, we had to walk the twelve floors to our hotel rooms, because the power had just gone out in the entire city. Also until recently there was no sanitation in the shack communities. Now a ring of sturdy outhouses circles the communities and are cleaned out regularly by a municipal sanitation truck.

But perhaps the worst legacy of apartheid are the attitudes that are hard to change: by Whites that Blacks are inferior or violent; by Blacks that Whites are all well-off and racist; by Coloureds that neither Whites nor Blacks will be concerned for their welfare. One example of how this plays out is that Coloureds now resent the affirmative action policies that favor Blacks because they can result in Coloureds being displaced or subordinated to less well-trained Black supervisors. However, the country calls itself a rainbow nation, and there was no evidence of racial violence, surely a big achievement.

There is growing discontent in South Africa. Unemployment is over 30%, new housing is slow in coming, roads are not paved as promised, and privatized water and electricity are more expensive than most can afford. But still people remember how it was 12 years ago when only White people could move about freely, while all non-Whites had to carry pass books or ID cards and needed their employer’s written permission to leave their township. When every single facility and institution had a Whites-only section. When arbitrary arrests often resulted in beatings and imprisonment for indefinite amounts of time.

People remember, and so are still hopeful that the new South Africa where they are free to move about and to vote, will bring them more prosperity. Many are organizing to bring about the needed changes. We visited one group in the township of Soweto, that has decided not to wait for the ANC to deliver. Because of poverty and unemployment, the people cannot afford the high price of privatized water and electricity. The Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee is ripping out the water and electric meters and connecting directly to the municipal grid and water mains. Then they call a meeting and march to the corporations that try to sell the electricity and water upon which life depends, and deliver the broken meters. It is an empowering, well organized protest that is gaining ground, and it is based on democratic decision making and on nonviolence. So, there is anger, there is hope, and there is action.

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