11/4/2007 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper
When I visited South Africa recently, I held no illusions about what I would find. This was my seventh trip to this country, the last time in 2004.
I went there first in 1977, one of the most turbulent years of apartheid. The black consciousness movement had matured into a threat to white rule. Black rioting had become commonplace, and the all-white police force and army were brutalizing and killing black demonstrators. On some mornings, I was too afraid to leave my room in a foreign student house near Johannesburg.
This was the year activist Steve Biko was arrested. He would die weeks later, at age 30, in police custody, a death that would hurryapartheid’s destruction.
As an American black, I was in a unique position. I was seen as a member of the “African Diaspora,” a displaced people. I was not African, and I obviously was not white. I was more of a marginal person there than I was at home in the United States.
I had never viewed myself as part of a diaspora. I had always thought of myself as someone born in Fort Lauderdale. Thisnew status, a foreign existence I never adjusted to, influenced how I saw everything.
On that first trip, most whites I met immediately recognized me as an American. Unlike African blacks who generally steered clear of personal encounters with whites, I, a graduate student on a research junket, eagerly asked questions and otherwise engaged in conversation with whites. Everyone noticed.
By 2004, South Africa was a democratic nation. Apartheid had been abolished for 10 years, and blacks had access to virtually all opportunities – at least on paper.
But I saw a troubling trend the longer I was there: Although all of South Africa’s public venues and services had been desegregated, you rarely saw blacks and whites interacting together in groups. I saw few, if any, whites and blacks eating and drinking at the same tables in restaurants and bars.
When I returned there several weeks ago, racial integration, like we find in many U.S. settings, had not come to South Africa. I rarely saw whites and blacks together anywhere in intimate ways.
My most memorable example of this separation occurred when I went to the famous Mount Nelson Hotel for “high tea.” No way was I leaving Cape Town without doing tea at the Mount Nelson. Approaching the sumptuous landmark, I noticed that all of the attendants were black, and each smiled slyly as one opened the door for me. I saw uniformed African blacks everywhere, registering and ushering guests.
But I was the lone black guest in the tea room, and my white waitress mostly ignored me. A black guide told me later that although South African blacks can have tea at the hotel, the influences of colonial separation still hold sway for many. American and European blacks, however, often do tea at the Mount Nelson.
And, as in 2004, I was recognized in most places as being an American black. In fact, I was routinely asked where I was from “in the States” even before I said a word. “Your body language and the way you walk give you away,” a white taxi driver said.
South Africa is complex. It is contradictory, and it is paradoxical. And while it is a living monument to man’s inhumanity to man, as a result of decades of apartheid’s brutal white rule, South Africa is a land of dreams and hope.
The nation has compressed a lot of history into a few years. It is easy for Americans to forget that Nelson Mandela was a political prisoner for decades before apartheid ended and he became the first democratically elected president in 1994. In the years since, with the rise of the black middle class, the country now proudly refers to itself as the “New South Africa” and the “rainbow nation.”
My taxi ride along the N2 highway from Cape Town International Airport en route to Best Western Cape Suites, where I stayed for two weeks, was a snapshot of South African society. I saw wealthy suburbs, the Hottentots Holland Mountains, the low-lying, dusty, flood-prone region known as Cape Flats and sprawling townships and their adjacent shantytowns euphemistically referred to as “informal settlements,” where tens of thousands of poor blacks live.
Then, as we neared the hotel, at the foot of Table Mountain and Devil’s Peak, giant construction cranes operated against the glittering skyline of Cape Town, affectionately referred to as the “Mother City.”
In the distance, I could see the blue waters of Table Bay, home to the V&A Waterfront, Cape Town’s prime leisure and shopping complex.
Most people say that Cape Town, population 2.5-million, is the best place to live and work on the African continent. It most certainly is the wealthiest, leading the continent in almost all economic indicators.
Race and employment
Like the rest of South Africa, Cape Town is race-conscious. The past is never far away.
First of all, remember that blacks are the majority in South Africa. Whites and other ethnic groups form a much smaller minority of the population.
From all evidence, most Capetonians, as locals are called, do not pretend about race issues. They, along with millions of other South Africans of all ethnicities, are fully aware of apartheid’s legacy. Most share a desire to repair the injustices of the National Party and their white Afrikaner supporters. The Nationalists who came into power in 1948 formalized apartheid, racial separation in every aspect of South African life.
Under apartheid, African, Indian and colored people were legally excluded from meaningful work, causing widespread poverty and suffering. This racist practice took a heavy toll on South Africa’s economy. Adding to the nation’s problems, the rest of the world had turned against the Nationalists, whose policies also were financially damaging to whites because of international sanctions and general isolation.
For better or for worse, probably for better, thousands of black-hating Afrikaners who had directly benefited from white rule left the country for good after the African National Congress, Mandela’s party, took control. Those who stayed behind are “trying to get with the program,” a taxi driver told me.
Led by current President Thabo Mbeki, head of the ANC, the government implemented a broad-based affirmative action program to increase the representation of people previously excluded from all areas of society. The Employment Equity Act was passed in 1998, making “black economic empowerment,” or BEE, the law of the land. BEE, along with other efforts, has helped to create black entrepreneurs, black business executives and tens of thousands of jobs that pay living wages where none existed under apartheid.
Many of the “best” jobs for most blacks in the new South Africa, however, are in government and government-related areas and the media. As a journalist, I paid particular attention to the media. Each time I watched TV and read the papers, I was surprised by the large number of black anchors, reporters, talk show hosts, columnists and writers. Many TV and print ads sport black faces, and most of the South African-produced soap operas feature black stars.
But this growing number of black public figures hides another divide: one of class. The emerging black middle class has little in common with the millions of desperately poor black citizens who have not benefited economically from the fall of apartheid.
Many South Africans, such as conservative political writer Ebrahim Harvey, believe that the ANC’s focus on race rather than seriously looking at class-related issues stifles progress on poverty and unemployment. The belief is that in the new South Africa, enough of the old racial barriers have been removed for blacks to attend school, learn trades and otherwise accumulate enough wealth to greatly improve their socioeconomic status, or class.
But too many blacks, as the argument goes, continue to blame race, the residual effects of apartheid, for their failure to move up the ladder. It is the same argument that is used in America.
In a recent column for the Cape Times newspaper, Harvey writes: “It suits the class interests of the ANC, the black bourgeoisie and middle class to emphasize race and color, not only because it obscures their real class interests and how they have benefited from the system since 1994, but because they hope that by so doing more opportunities can be opened up for even greater wealth accumulation for themselves.
“Let’s face it, black identity has crudely become a passport to both political office and business success. The whole purpose of this concentrated focus on race – important as it is – is to hide the social malaise in which most black people are trapped, and thereby obscure the role the ANC’s neo-liberal policies have played in this regard.”
Anyone who has driven around Cape Town and marveled at the city’s wealth, fine eateries and grand buildings is surprised to see thousands of homeless black men lying under trees, along roadsides and in vacant lots. All over the city, emaciated black men stand at street corners in large groups waiting for day jobs.
In the overcrowded townships, where extended families live, in the filthy informal settlements and in the urban centers, such as Johannesburg and Durban, unemployment is more than 30 percent. The ANC does not have any easy answers.
Race and education
As I spoke with two South Africans, one black and one white, who attended public schools in their hometowns, I was surprised to learn that despite all of its problems, South Africa has a national literacy rate of 80 percent. But that percentage hides a harsh reality: widespread black illiteracy.
How these men were educated, both having come of age during apartheid, explained the disparity in literacy, at least to a large degree. The black man attended inferior township schools, the white man excellent schools in a wealthy white suburb.
Indeed, South African public education is still trying to remediate the ill effects of white rule, when “Bantu Education” was the law of the land. Bantu – the name given to a family of languages including Swahili and Zulu – is also a derogatory term for native black Africans. In 1953, the Nationalists passed the Bantu Education Act, creating a curriculum for blacks that excluded all science and mathematics courses.
The Bantu curriculum, as one white Nationalist official stated, was to teach a curriculum that suited the “nature and requirements of the black people.” In other words, the purpose of Bantu schools was to produce a large unskilled labor force that ensured white prosperity and domination. An author of the Bantu law wrote that “its aim was to prevent Africans from receiving an education that would lead them to aspire to positions they wouldn’t be allowed to hold in society.”
Khonaye Tuswa, owner and manager of the Camissa Travel & Marketing tour company, who took me to Langa township near Cape Town, said that even now, remnants of the Bantu system affect black children, especially those born into poor families. Many of the school buildings I saw in Langa are in disrepair, for example, and most of the grounds need care. The soccer field at one high school needs new turf.
The overwhelming majority of parents in Langa attended all-black Bantu schools. They did not study science, math and other subjects that would have prepared them for jobs in the postapartheid economy. Many of them see little, if any, value in education, and do not encourage their children to study or to attend school at all.
Every day I was in Cape Town, at least one leading newspaper, sometimes all of them, carried an article or column lamenting the dire straits of public education. Yet, no other social institution, as far as I can tell, is working harder to right the wrongs of the past.
Still, wide gaps remain in education between blacks and whites. According to a recent government survey, 12 percent of blacks over age 20 never attended school, compared with 0.6 percent of whites. A mere 5.6 percent of blacks move on to higher education, compared with 32 percent of whites.
Race and sport
When I arrived in Cape Town on Sept. 21, newspapers, magazines, radio programs, TV shows and conversations in the airport terminal buzzed with hype about South Africa’s rugby team, the Springboks, which was headed to the World Cup in Paris on Oct. 20.
I realized that I was witnessing something special in South African society: The “rainbow nation” was hoping that sport – the rugby team’s anticipated triumph over England – would unify its diverse ethnicities and heal some of the old apartheid wounds like never before.
In South Africa, and Cape Town is not an exception, sport is king. Sport also is political, and sport involves race. It determines who watches and who participates in which sports.
Before the end of apartheid, in fact, soccer was the only major sport blacks could participate in without major trouble. The others – cricket, rugby, golf and swimming – were labeled “whites only.”
You can go to any township and you will see hundreds of blacks kicking soccer balls. You will not see many boys playing cricket or rugby. Now, because of the Springboks’ international success, many South Africans, blacks included, want rugby to become the sport of all ethnicities, and they hope that it will bind the race-conscious nation.
The politicization of the sport began in earnest in 1995, when South Africa’s teams were readmitted to the international sporting world, when the Springboks won the World Cup. The nation’s first black president, Nelson Mandela, awarded the cup to the Springboks. This was an important moment, too, because the team had its first black player. Since then, race politics and talk of quotas have swirled around the team.
In Paris, President Mbeki awarded the cup after the 15-6 victory over England, and the players hoisted him onto their shoulders. Even with black superstar Bryan Habana on the team, Mbeki’s presence was awkward both for him and the fans. Many South Africans see the president as being too focused on race.
Now, with the 2011 Rugby World Cup final to be played in Cape Town, the pressure is on to have seven black players in the starting lineup. Only two of the team’s players in the regular starting lineup in France were nonwhite.
A sports writer for the Cape Argus captured the nation’s focus on race: “It cannot be beyond our capacity in four years to produce a better, deeper supply of black players. … It won’t be easy. Nothing in this country is easy.”
True. Mike Stofile, deputy president of South Africa’s Rugby Union, added another level of complexity to the black quota debate when he spoke with the Cape Times: “I don’t want to give a figure, but I don’t agree that there should be seven black players in the team. We cannot say only seven. …
“We must be honest with ourselves and realize that there are many different communities out there who play rugby – black, white, colored, Indian and so forth. If those communities are not represented, then how can we say that we have transformed rugby?”
Stofile, like many others, believes that establishing a hard quota is the only way to make rugby mirror South Africa’s diverse population.
As I read more about these issues and spoke with more Capetonians, I had no doubt that South Africans, like their U.S. counterparts, are trying to do the right thing for the good of society.
Race and crime
By now, most of the world knows about the death of international reggae star Lucky Dube, 43, who was shot and killed in Johannesburg as he dropped off his 15-year-old son at his brother’s house. Police believe that he was the victim of a botched carjacking. Four suspects have been charged with the murder and are being held in Johannesburg without bail.
Each day, the press carries stories about deadly encounters of one kind or another. Rape and theft are so common that stories about them almost seem like afterthoughts.
Again, as with almost everything else in South Africa, race matters when crime is at issue. For one thing, the majority of the people arrested for crimes, other than white-collar crimes, are black. Many critics of the ANC-dominated government argue that officials, some who had been imprisoned by the Nationalists, carry too much cultural baggage and anti-colonialist feelings from apartheid to be effective against crime.
One crime expert says that a “psychosis of fear” is moving across the nation. One result is that business owners and others with the wealth to do so are hiring vigilantes for protection and, in many instances, to exact revenge. Each day I was in Cape Town, I read about a vigilante attack.
I tried to understand, through the eyes of an American black, the widespread black crime in South Africa. I found part of the answer while reading People Who Have Stolen From Me, David Cohen’s 2004 book I had bought the day before. It is a true story about a white furniture store owner in Johannesburg who watched his workers, most of them black, steal from him.
“To a large extent, the crime wave is the unavoidable legacy of apartheid,” Cohen writes. “It reflects the forced redistribution of wealth – the violent grab for economic power that has followed the much-heralded peaceful transfer of political power. For despite the expansion of the black middle class off the back of an aggressive empowerment program, the country’s wealth has remained largely in white hands.
“It will take more than a decade to right the wrongs of apartheid and to narrow the monumental gap between rich and poor. But – and this is the crunch – though 10 years is but the blink of an eye in the life of a nation, it is a painfully long stretch in the lives of impatient young men who find themselves uneducated, unemployed, and without prospects. Just who has robbed whom?”
I pondered Cohen’s question the next day as I walked down funky Long Street looking for a place to sit in a window, watch people and drink some Western Cape wine.
As tourists and denizens, white and nonwhite, passed my perch, I found it hard to believe that racism, deep economic inequality and serious crime could exist in such a beautiful place, in paradise. But they do exist, I was thinking, in ways that are so American, in ways that are so familiar.
Each time I visit South Africa, especially Cape Town, I learn something new about race in the United States. On this trip, I realized that where Americans engage in hypocrisy, evasion, obfuscation and denial, South Africans vigorously and honestly discuss race. Political correctness is hard to find in public discussions on the subject.
I believe that over time, South Africa, not the United States, will be the international model for racial understanding and inclusiveness.
Rainbow City
If South Africa is the “rainbow nation,” then Cape Town is the “rainbow city.” The population is more than just black and white.
Blacks: Most of the population, 77 percent, is black African. Most are either Xhosa or Zulu. These also are known as tribes, with various subgroups and distinct languages.
Whites: About 11 percent of Capetonians are white, descendants of Dutch, British, German, French and other white colonizers.
Colored: About 9 percent is referred to as “colored,” the most complex group. They are modern-day mixed-race descendants of slaves and slave owners brought to the Cape. Broadly, Indians, Asians and Cape Malay sometimes are included in this group. Often, though, Indians and Asians choose to be classified separately.