After Mandela, South Africa still wrestles with apartheid

Pep Montserrat for The National
Pep Montserrat for The National

Twenty years after the fall of apartheid, South Africa remains in a constant struggle to disentangle itself from the infrastructure of its dark past. History didn’t stop in 1994. Rather, much of the world moved on and began wrestling with other seemingly intractable conflicts such as the struggle in Palestine and Israel.

Yet, it is in post-apartheid South Africa that one of the greatest modern experiments in dismantling structures of oppression is currently unfolding.

Following the passing of Nelson Mandela, most of the international community has forgotten that ending apartheid was not an end in itself. Economic equality, healing societal wounds and the redistribution of resources in post-apartheid South Africa have ironically proven to be a more difficult task than ending apartheid rule.

Nelson Mandela’s death one year ago yesterday was a rare opportunity to take the temperature of the progress the country has made toward non-racial democratic governance.

Verbose speeches about the power of Mandela as an individual aside, the stark reality is that South Africa remains in a state of paralysis; plagued by corrupt leadership, entrenched economic division along racial lines and fear.

On a political level, President Jacob Zuma is at the height of his political power despite a steady string of corruption scandals and his country’s increasingly fragile economy. While few tend to approve of Mr Zuma’s policies, he will probably stay in power until the end of his term in 2019.

The African National Congress (ANC), like so many revolutionary movements that have demonstrated an inability to govern, faces major challenges in selecting leaders who that can capture the hearts and minds of the majority of South Africans. With the struggle to upend the apartheid system, the party has been increasingly consumed by its own greed and corruption.

At this point in the country’s young democratic history, there are political winds that will force the ANC into action, willingly or not. Opposition parties in the Parliament have united against the ANC for the first time, while major unions such as Cosatu, a backbone of ANC support, appear on the verge of splitting.

Additionally, years of ANC political mistakes have created room for aggressive new parties like Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters to win significant mandates in Parliament.

Despite the frail nature of the economy and growing resentment on the streets, the fact that the ANC will soon be forced to clean up its act in order to retain power is a feat that underlines how far the country has progressed.

As fate would have it, the one-year anniversary of Mandela’s death coincides with a series of racist attacks in Cape Town.

Three young white men, including one student from the University of Cape Town, were recently arrested for allegedly racially insulting and brutally assaulting a 52-year-old black cleaner named Delia Adonis.

The actions of the young men, all of whom were born in a democratic South Africa, have renewed a national debate about the nature of respect and dignity in South Africa’s economically polarised climate.

The horrific event crystallises a point that many in South Africa have been making for years. The apartheid system, in its essence, was a means to a specific goal of maintaining complete economic control over the country and its resources. Racial components to the ideology only enforced the economic structures.

For some in the South African press, the appropriate punishment for this crime would be for these young men to switch places with the cleaner they savagely beat. They should experience the lengthy transport times between the destitute informal settlements where so many underprivileged people live and the centre of Cape Town where they spend hours cleaning the houses of economically powerful white South Africans.

After 20 years of democracy, the vast majority of wealth in South Africa remains in white minority hands. Nelson Mandela, in an act of supreme compromise, forgave white South Africans for their actions during apartheid rule in order to avoid civil war. Those white South Africans who had accumulated wealth and property during the apartheid era held onto it during the transition to democracy.

Despite the fact that white South Africans lost their battle to maintain racial superiority over the nation, they actually gained freedoms in the form of international acceptance and a progressive constitution that guaranteed minority rights in the democratic transition.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission exposed the myriad horrors of apartheid rule but it is increasingly difficult to unpack its lessons with white South Africans, the majority of whom have embraced the “rainbow nation” concept, secluded themselves behind high security walls and maintained an exceptionally high quality of life in a country where many lack running water.

The 2012 Marikana mining massacre, where South African security forces killed more than 35 miners demanding higher wages, gave the world strikingly similar images of riots and protest from the apartheid days. The only difference was that many members of the police force were black. Without reforming the economic structures of the country, South Africa will not be able to escape the long arm of its own history.

From Brazil to Palestine, modern civilisation has taken enormous inspiration from the life of Nelson Mandela and South Africa’s struggle for democracy. For better or worse, the country is now at the mercy of economic currents that affect the entire international community.

Given its history and unsavoury position as the globe’s most unequal society, lessons from South Africa’s post-apartheid reality are now more crucial to humankind than the struggle to defeat apartheid.

Joseph Dana is a regular contributor to The National

On Twitter: @ibnezra

Published: December 6, 2014 04:00 AM

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