In an Old Forest, New Trees Grow A Year After Apartheid, Change Is Slow but Real in South Africa

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Johannesburg, South Africa -- A year after its first democratic election, South Africa is a country that is at once essentially the same and profoundly changed.

The economic disparities still largely follow the racial lines that were entrenched by apartheid. Black faces -- other than those of servants -- remain few and far between in the lush suburbs that spread north of this city, while thousands of them can be seen in the tiny tin shacks of the squatter settlements that are growing out in all directions.

Unemployment in the black population is stuck at close to 40 percent as a year of Nelson Mandela's presidency has added few jobs. Services in the black townships remain erratic as best. Trash still piles up. Sewage still flows through the streets. Political violence has diminished, but criminal violence has risen to take its place.

And yet, though the forest might seem unaltered, different trees are beginning to sprout. It's not just the handful of black faces now found on corporate boards or the new accents speaking English on the flagship station of the state-run radio.

It's black people in positions of genuine authority. It's women telling men what to do. It is, as Mr. Mandela pointed out, a purposely divided people coming together, in a remarkably short period of time, to form a nation.

In a recent interview with foreign correspondents, he said that April 27, the anniversary of the election, a national holiday, should be used to "reflect on the elusive concepts of allegiance and freedom.

"A common allegiance is what helps define a nation. . . . A nation-state without this attribute exists only in name. It survives by coercion and subterfuge. It is a time bomb waiting to implode upon itself. Such was South Africa under apartheid."

The change is evident in Moses Selako's latest work of art, a life-size model of a Hippo, the name given to one of the police vehicles that used to patrol the townships. "You don't hear the gunshots that often any more," Mr. Selako said, as he stood in the Katlehong Art Center. "But most of the violence wasn't around here."

Yet from the schoolyard next door came the joyful noise of children playing, a sound rarely heard before the election when this township east of Johannesburg was held in the grip of conflict between supporters of the African National Congress and the Inkatha Freedom Party.

A canvas-covered model of one of Mr. Selako's Hippo artworks sits on the edge of downtown Johannesburg, still under construction, as part of the Biennale, a huge art exhibit that has attracted exhibitors from around the world. Turning a former instrument of oppression into an overgrown toy, an almost comic-book style work of art, speaks volumes about the transformation of South Africa.

But what impressed Mr. Selako most was the cooperation he and his colleagues got from the police who invited them to look over a real Hippo, to go inside the vehicle, something they would previously have seen only if arrested.

"They even served us tea," he said. As for the police on the streets, "They aren't protecting us yet, but at least they aren't attacking us any more," he said. Transforming the various bureaucracies -- entrenched since 1948, their primary task to serve the white minority -- has been a massive effort.

Sankie Nkondo, the country's minister of housing since the death of Joe Slovo in January, has had to concern herself with everything from seeing to it that every person is properly identified so that no one can receive duplicate housing subsidies, to underwriting banks' risks as they make housing loans in previously off-limits areas, to setting up a warranty program for new home construction.

"The first year of office meant the primary focus was on transformation and restructuring," she said. "There's a whole new kind of culture which is coming in.

"The previous government stopped building houses in the urban areas in the '60s because everyone was supposed to have a residence in the homelands. That did not work -- people kept coming to the urban areas for jobs -- so the backlog is tremendous.

"We are coming from a history of anger. People have been very angry because they owned nothing. We want them to own something, to create and own."

Mary Metcalfe, minister of education in Gauteng, the country's most populous province, which includes Johannesburg and Pretoria, has found herself wrestling with the labyrinth of bureaucracies she inherited as new provincial boundaries were laid down on top of an old order already made weirdly complex by the dictates of apartheid.

"The technical difficulties are huge and mostly boring," she said. "That's unfortunate because they are real. . . . "One facet I had not anticipated . . . was the difficulty of addressing education in a context where there are a lot of political adversaries," she said, rTC lamenting the number of groups and people who had vested interests in the old system. But both women say their very presence in the top levels of government is an example of the profundity of the country's transformation. Under the National Party rule, the government was virtually an all-male club. The African National Congress has consciously changed that.

"It is important to see women in these positions because I know that the sense of women having been marginalized is felt quite profoundly by all women, even among people who do not consider themselves activists," Ms. Metcalfe said.

"Education in particular is a field dominated by women in non-managerial roles, so it is only logical to see them move into management. I don't see it as affirmative action, just recognizing abilities that haven't previously been recognized."

Ms. Nkondo agreed that having women in these positions is "important for our society especially the younger generation because it is a sign of their possibilities, what they can aim for.

"But even the middle-aged and older must be feeling very happy since it shows that they didn't strive for nothing. They can see a product of their labor, a bit of the change they have been fighting for."

Ms. Nkondo, who is 44, said that when she went to college, it was made clear to women that certain areas were off limits. "It was known that if you went to law or chemistry, you wouldn't pass. That was the male sector; you had to find your space in education or social work.

"That's probably why I ended up a teacher instead of the lawyer I wanted to be. It's important for women to realize they can move into these traditionally male-dominated areas. We must put a culture of confidence in all our citizens."

It is not hard to find critics of the new government: whites who worry about "lowered standards"; mixed-race coloreds and Indians who say they were the wrong color before and are the wrong color now; blacks who claim that they got a ballot paper and little else; and pundits of all hues who decry corruption, inaction, misplaced priorities and the like.

But on one recent night in the informal bar called a shebeen attached to the Soweto home of Masoja Motha, the exuberant spirit of election day was still alive.

Most of the people there were, like Mr. Motha, in their 40s and 50s. Asked how their lives had changed, their minds went back far beyond last year's election to 10, even 20, years ago, when blacks were forced to carry passes, faced jail time for being unemployed and were forced to submit to a humiliating medical exam. That people with such memories can now look on a land governed by Mr. Mandela still seems little short of a miracle.

"There haven't been changes yet, but they are coming," said Mr. Motha. "They have to start in the rural areas where the people have nothing. Here at least we have a roof over our head. I've got hope. Soweto definitely will change."

He pointed to Bafana Chipeta as proof that the country was on the right course. Mr. Chipeta, dressed in a sports jacket and tie, had stopped by for beer after his job as a computer operator in a bank.

"He used to not work at all, but since the election, look at him," Mr. Motha said.

"I was irresponsible," Mr. Chipeta agreed. "But now I feel I have something to work for, something I am a part of. Before I was not a citizen of this motherland of mine, but now I am a citizen of South Africa."

"You know, I don't celebrate Christmas," Mr. Motha said. "I always thought of it as a European thing, a white thing. They talk about a white Christmas, we don't even get snow around here.

"The 27th of April is my Christmas. That's what I'll tell my grandchildren, to celebrate what happened on that day. It's the day I got my dignity back."

Michael Hill is the Johannesburg bureau chief of The Baltimore Sun.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
39°