“When I was a child we didn’t think about apartheid; it never really occurred to us. We didn’t know what it was. I only ever saw white people, except for our maid and my friends’ maids. We thought there were really very few blacks in the country. Blacks needed a pass to go anywhere. They weren’t allowed out of their neighbourhoods after dark, or into our neighbourhoods without permission or on our beaches or schools, so we never saw them. Then, in the 90s, it was like a curtain was pulled back: there were suddenly all these millions of blacks we never knew existed coming onto the streets from everywhere.
“Before, there was a lot of propaganda from the government on the television about how dangerous and bad the blacks were, how they would steal everything and ruin everything, and how they were too stupid and backward to be in charge of something. There was a huge fear that if white rule ended, the whole of our lovely country would erupt into violent war and there would be chaos and destruction, and we would be no better than the rest of Africa. If it hadn’t been for Nelson Mandela, that’s what would have happened. He was the only one who could save us,” says Jan, a 30-year-old (Afrikaans) South African from Johannesburg.
Crossing the border into South Africa from Mozambique – from the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, from the continent proper – is like entering a different planet. One where the roads are well-maintained, where street signs exist, where the cars are all big and shiny-new, where the buses have reclining comfy seats and videos and aircon, where the landscape is carpeted with perfect rows of healthy high crops of maize and fruit that are irrigated by powerful sprinklers and sprayed with pest-control. The shops are full of bright enticing packaging, we can pay by card, things work, the toilets flush, water can be drunk straight from the taps. The contrast between a developed and developing nation couldn’t be more stark.
There is so much that is right, and so much that is wrong about South Africa. For me, having grown up with the ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ movement of the 80s and 90s, the boycott of South African goods and the music and marches of my student days, it’s a great feeling to be visiting a democratic South Africa – something I never truly believed would be possible. The country remains divided, though. Most of the cars here are driven by (robustly built) white people, the public transport is entirely used by black people. Walking to the local shops in Johannesburg to get laundry done and buy groceries is a head-turner for the local black people. Most white South Africans, we’re told, drive to the big shopping malls and do their shopping their, or send an employee (black) out for groceries. Nick’s tattoos are marvelled at – we could be anywhere else in Africa.
Except, it’s unsafe to walk around the city centre or anywhere after dark. Gangs of small children or adults regularly rob people in daylight. Jo’burg is one of the most dangerous cities in the world. And the main reason for the crime is extreme poverty. Unemployment is more than 70% and people simply cannot feed their families and multiple dependants. Hunger leads people to desperate measures, using knives and guns to get something that can be traded for food. They take even the clothes from your back. And this is one of the richest nations in the world. Johannesburg, formerly called Gauteng, means city of gold – it is named after the gold discovered here in the 1880s. Besides gold, the country has diamonds and the healthiest crop production on the continent. And yet, there is no social security for people who have nothing. No medical care, no housing (Mandela began a free housing scheme, but the quality was poor and the project ended), no food, no unemployment benefit. Nothing.
Elsewhere in Africa, people can often feed themselves using their own gardens to grow crops, Here, the land all belongs to the rich few. The very poor millions have nothing, no land. So even though they could benefit from fertile soils and a good growing climate, they have no land.
And one-quarter of the population has HIV – it’s less than the 60% infection rate at Senga Bay in Malawi, where we were, but still significant for a developed country. Corruption, the other African plague, is also rife…
The horrors that have been inflicted on these soils – from the European invasions and take-over of the indigenous tribes, to the British concentration camps of the early 1900s that incarcerated Boers in huge numbers, to the segregation and apartheid policies of the 20th century – have left their mark. But this feels like a very positive country. Mandela was released in 1990. Democratic elections were held in 1994. By 1996, South Africa had developed the most progressive, non-discriminatory, truly representative constitution in the world, based on respect, freedom, equality, diversity and, importantly, reconciliation. Mandela really is that rare human: a man who transcends his heroic reputation and saved his nation. Now it’s up to the emerging generation of educated, free South Africans to decide whether they want simply to grab at the riches denied to their forefathers, or build a socially equal state in which South Africa really does belong to every South African.