Ashoak Upadhyay

Is South Africa’s rainbow fading?

ASHOAK UPADHYAY | Updated on April 29, 2014 Published on April 29, 2014

Celebrating twenty years of freedom, South Africans are wondering where and why things went wrong

The road to South Africa is paved with good intentions, literally. At Johannesburg’s O.R. Tambo International airport, the arrival lounge that leads to the exits has a six-feet-wide pathway, like a red carpet, tiled with colours of the South African flag, to remind you of the kind of South Africa you have just entered.

You can see evidence of the post-Apartheid rainbow nation in the Kwa-Zulu Province, not far from Durban. At Margate, a once whites-only beach resort, the sight of teenagers, black and white, arm in arm, clutching surfboards, faces creased with happy smiles is eloquent testimony to the fruits of freedom from Apartheid.

Memories of the past

It’s Sunday afternoon and the revellers at Margate are in the midst of a long Easter weekend. It’s April 20, 2014. Exactly 50 years ago to the day Nelson Mandela gave his historic speech that South Africans consider the greatest political speech of all time, four hours long before a judge that sentenced him and his fellow defendants to life imprisonment.

Ahmed Kathrada, a surviving comrade, was also on trial and he recounts in an interview carried by The Sunday Times the historic importance of just one line.

After declaring that he had dedicated his life to democracy and freedom, Mandela uttered these words: “If needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” So were Kathrada and the others who, disagreeing with their defence lawyers, had decided to treat the trial as a political one and end up, if need be, as martyrs.

For the freedom generation, born after1994 free of the traumatic scars of the worst institutionalised racism, the Rivonia treason trial is just another chapter in the history books.

So, is the 20th anniversary of the first multiracial free elections held on April 27, 1994 that saw a very reluctant Nelson Mandela become the first President of the Republic of South Africa.

A failed state?

For the older generation, for the old veterans of long bitter wars and titanic experiments in truth and forgiveness, veterans such as Bishop Desmond Tutu, Jay Naidoo, one of the founders of the Council of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and a minister in Mandela’s government, the anniversaries are painful markers of South Africa’s waywardness, the country’s slide into crime, joblessness and corruption perpetuated by crony political and economic arrangements.

Media and radio talk shows over the Easter weekend and through the week leading up to the anniversary on April 27 are asking: Is South Africa a failed state?

The symptoms hit the headlines every day. Soon after the Easter weekend, radio stations announced the grisly news of over 100 deaths from 80 or so car accidents caused, in the main, by drunken driving. On a quiet afternoon in Ramsgate — a predominantly white area — burglars broke in and stabbed the resident and a neighbour who came to assist, and fled with a laptop and cell-phones.

Corruption in South Africa is pervasive. The papers scream headlines about a scandal involving Rand 200 million of public money spent on upgrades of President Zuma’s private residence.

Unemployment among the blacks is 40 per cent. The Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) programme, South Africa’s equivalent of India’s reservation policy, is meant to give blacks priority in employment, ownership and procurement, in both public and private spheres.

Naturally, there is resentment among the Indian and coloured communities that a reverse racism takes precedence over merit: many Indian students denied admission in medical colleges study in China or India.

More substantive criticism of BEE comes from Moeletsi Mbeki, brother of former President Thabo Mbeki.

A few years ago, he pointed out that the empowerment equity programme deepens the rich-poor divide among blacks by creating a small elite of black middle-class privilege.

It disincentivises the desire for higher education and entrepreneurial drive by encouraging cronyism and patronage.

Over 20 years, a patron-client political-economic structure has played havoc with the country’s social security and BEE, both laudable experiments at creating a broad-based middle-class. Inequalities, corruption, crime and joblessness, particularly among the black majority, seem to make a mockery of almost everything the founding fathers fought for and put in place for a new rainbow nation.

What went wrong?

Alex Boraine — a prominent churchman, Parliamentarian, deputy chairman of Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and friend of Nelson Mandela — has just written a book, What’s gone wrong? , in which he tries to address the anxieties gripping many citizens here.

Boraine’s concern is not so much to list the growing number of problems creating social and economic fissures as to locate a central cause. He finds it in the ANC that has been in power since the first election in 1994. Being the sole party in power, it has been unable to separate governance from the party.

The ANC wants to dominate every institution: the Executive, Parliament, the Judiciary, civil society, media. According to him, the ANC is slavishly committed to “Seizure of power!”, a revolutionary battle-cry now turned into an instrument of control, corruption and intolerance. When rapped on the knuckles for an “Unconstitutional” draft legislation or policy the government reminds the judges of its mandate from the people.

Described as a book he did not want to write, Boraine’s views on the hegemonising drive of the ANC may not go down well with the poor, who look upon the current President Zuma, a Zulu, unlike former Presidents, as one of their own.

But as the country uneasily heads for general elections, it can look upon some positive features that may help it retain its sense of its new self-worth: relatively few racial tensions, a critical media — and comedy icons such as Riaad Moosa, a medical doctor who lampoons his own community, the US and the government in stand-up shows that attract members from every community. These affirm the possibility that the rainbow hasn’t faded.

South Africa has a long way to go but come it has a long way.

The writer is in South Africa on a personal visit

Published on April 29, 2014
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