Breaking the Chains of South Africa's Apartheid, and Marching On

It's nearly two decades since the country held its first post-apartheid national election. Inequality and racism persist, but still, the country is an amazing success story.

JOHANNESBURG − We blundered about for quite a while in the streets of downtown Pretoria. We were looking for the Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Development, on Schoeman Street, but our GPS device led us around in circles. Only after a series of frantic phone calls did the situation become clear: Pretoria is in the process of changing the names of its streets. On the new map of the city, Stephanus Schoeman ‏(a 19th-century Afrikaner general‏) is out; Francis Baard ‏(a black trade unionist‏) is in.

It has been 19 years: Tomorrow, April 27, they will mark the anniversary of the first multiracial elections held in this country, in 1994 − but only now has Pretoria found time to purge its street names of the traces of the filth of apartheid. This is the whole story of the South African miracle in a nutshell: revolution in low gear, measured and well considered, not seeking revenge and not seething with hatred, in the conciliatory spirit of Nelson Mandela.

Winter is coming now to this country; the skies are darkening and the cries of the Hadeda Ibis slice through the air.

For more than a week I have been having meetings here: at Parliament, at government ministries, in Johannesburg, Pretoria and Cape Town. With all the difficulties − and they are indeed very grave − South Africa is an amazing success story. With all the lurking dangers, which are also considerable, this is something enviable. Racism is giving way to racial equality.

Beggars and homeless people come in black and white; wealthy, educated and otherwise impressive people also come in black and white. People who hated each other yesterday are now partners, and the lines of separation are less racial and more economic.

And this is true too, in general, of this country of contrasts: a first-world road network, at the intersections of which the poor of the developing world gather; polygamy is allowed but so is same-sex marriage; “corrective rape” for lesbians in villages takes place, but there is a justice in the Supreme Constitutional Court who is openly gay and a carrier of HIV.

Cry the beloved country? Now the cry is to improve the failed education system, to eradicate AIDS in its alarming percentages, to reduce the intolerable income gaps and to reduce the scary dimensions of unemployment, corruption and crime.

Of the 25 percent who are unemployed, according to official counts, and the 40 percent in that category, according to unofficial data − only 5 percent are whites, although they make up some 10 percent of the overall population of 50 million. Sixteen million people are living on the dole and 4,500 people died this week, as they do every week, of AIDS.

Seven million residents have no access to running water and 16 million have difficulty obtaining it. Nevertheless, the country has an economic growth rate of 2.5 percent per year. And above all, apartheid is gone. There is still a white majority at the fancy restaurants and on domestic flights, but everyone is allowed in or on board.

‘The enemy is still here’

In his spacious office sits Prof. Ben Turok, a veteran MP and co-chairman of the Parliament’s ethics committee. At age 86, he has the appearance and clothing of an old-fashioned kibbutznik: His parents were Bundists in Latvia and Yiddish is his mother tongue. He has never visited Israel, and he despises it.

Turok spent three years in apartheid prison and was exiled from his country for 25 years, which he spent in other African countries and in Britain, for his activity in the African National Congress − the organization of struggle that has become the perpetual ruling party, at least for now.

“We didn’t do it in order to get this,” he says decisively of the post-apartheid situation. “The enemy is still here − we haven’t defeated him entirely. The economic structure remains as it was.”

Turok admits his country could yet become another failed African state, and says, “The main problem is the absence of clarity: South Africa doesn’t know where it is heading.”

The public debate currently raging here is about whether it is possible to blame all the ills on the previous regime. Trevor Manuel, a minister in the presidency, in charge of the National Planning Commission, said several weeks ago that apartheid should not be blamed for everything, to which President Jacob Zuma replied that Manuel is alienated from reality.

Turok, who has become an oppositionist within his own party, wants to see more cooperation between the business sector and the government. He says success in the fight against apartheid depends on the ANC recognizing the limits of its power and maintaining its unity. The Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority have failed in exactly this way, he notes. ‏(Nonetheless, he is convinced that Israel will not exist for many more years.‏)

The television is broadcasting “One Day Leader,” a prime-time speech-making contest; there’s also a commercial for lollipops. The newscast opens with a video showing black private security guards cruelly beating up a black woman who tried to shoplift in a grocery store.

An item in the newspaper: The Nelspruit municipality has removed from an exhibition a painting that depicts Mandela and Zuma as white men. The artist argues in his defense that his intention was to express the unimportance of skin color.

The Constitutional Court of South Africa, in Johannesburg, stands on the ruins of a notorious prison. Indeed, some of its walls incorporate red bricks from the earlier prison, and in general, its architecture is both highly symbolic and stunning. Among others, black sojourners caught in white neighborhoods without a pass were thrown into this prison. Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela were also among its inmates.

On the walls of the courthouse hang portraits of former justices, among them two men with whom Israelis are acquainted: Richard Goldstone and Albie Sachs, the latter the Jewish justice who lost an arm and the sight in one eye in a 1988 assassination attempt by South African security agents in Mozambique.
Near Mandela’s tiny former home in Soweto, which is now a museum, the bullet holes from an assassination attempt on him are preserved. At the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg stands a wall on which are engraved all the apartheid laws. Some of them might be familiar to Israelis.

The penguins of the Cape of Good Hope are black and white, the lions at the zoo in Johannesburg are white and the sharks in the large aquarium in Cape Town are gray.

In a men’s room at the prestigious Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg there is a machine that dispenses condoms for free.

About three weeks ago pro-Palestinian students here disrupted a concert by Yossi Reshef, an Israeli-born pianist who lives in Germany. They infiltrated into the hall through a window and now a dozen of them are expecting to face disciplinary trial. One of them claimed that the organizer of the concert, a lecturer in musicology, threatened them with a broom − and the campus is seething over the entire affair.

Vice chancellor-designate Prof. Adam Habib, the university’s top executive, says the fervent pro-Palestinian activity in his country stems from the blacks’ deep identification with the Palestinians, from the memory of Israel’s disgraceful cooperation with the apartheid regime and from the fact that the Palestinians have chosen South Africa as an arena for their struggle because of its symbolic significance. In his youth, Habib needed special government authorization to be accepted to this university because of the color of his skin and today he is at its helm.

Of the comparison between apartheid and Israel’s occupation regime, Habib says: “If you ask me whether this is an accurate description of the reality − I doubt it. But is it correct as a strategy in the struggle? Yes: There are lines of similarity between the two regimes in their policy of oppression, but the Arabs of Israel do have the right to vote, which was the main part of the blacks’ struggle.”

Habib, a political scientist of Muslim-Indian origin, prefers to characterize Israel as “a minority state of settlers,” the way South Africa was under the race laws. He is convinced that the ethnic state is something that is passing from the world, be it Shi’a Iran or Jewish Israel. When he attended university in the 1980s, 90 percent of the students were white. Today they account for 30 percent of the student body, but still account for 70 percent of the faculty.

Ancient paradigm

Roelf Meyer is the old and the new South Africa. He served as defense minister and deputy minister of law and order under apartheid, as head of the National Party’s negotiating team during the transition, and as minister of constitutional development and provincial affairs in Nelson Mandela’s first government.

Meyer, who testified before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, believes that racism did not begin with apartheid but rather is a far more ancient paradigm, whereby “we are better than the blacks.” This paradigm existed in the United States and in all the outposts of colonialism − apartheid only institutionalized it. Born in 1947, he grew up in the atmosphere of the struggle against British rule. At that time the blacks did not interest the Boers, many of whom were incarcerated in concentration camps.

At Meyer’s parents’ farm there was no electricity or running water, and relations with the black workers were good: Everyone knew his place. The apartheid regime did well by his family and he was not at all bothered by it.

Only when he became a lawyer, he says, did the difficult questions begin to bother him, and particularly when he was elected to Parliament in 1979.

“When I got there for the first time,” he recalls, “I said to myself: This isn’t real. I am a member of Parliament who represents only a tiny minority of the population.”

What did you do with that?

“At first, not a lot. It was a process.”

Meyer was well aware of the boycott imposed upon his country when he traveled abroad; when the United States joined the sanctions in 1986 he saw this as the most effective step. This process was completed toward the end of the 1980s, when the leaders of the regime came to the conclusion that it was necessary to talk with the “terror organization” − the ANC.

Meyer: “I’ll never forget the day Mandela was released from prison. He could have directed everything against us. At that time we did not yet know his greatness. Racism isn’t going to vanish in a day. It will take several generations. It has taken the Americans longer.

But there are encouraging signs. In the environment in which I live, there is full equality. My children don’t date blacks; that will happen in the next generation. South Africa’s basic problem is the education system. It started under apartheid but we haven’t done enough since then to fix it and we are paying such a heavy price. We are backward at an African level.”

What does this impressive man regret? Mainly that the process of negotiation and reconciliation started too late. “Had we begun five years earlier, we could have prevented a lot of bloodshed and obtained a better deal,” he says.

This reply echoes in the mind of this Israeli interlocutor.

AP