Reflections on the Great Human Experiment Called South Africa

It is true that hundreds of thousands mourned Mandela this week, passed before his casket and filled stadiums. But an alternative reality has risen here, far from all the ceremonies and speeches.

QUNU - Ashley Reddy and Depika Sirbandhoo, a South African groom and bride of Indian origin, were very excited. Last Saturday night they celebrated their nuptials in Durban, dressed in their magnificent clothes, decorated with gold, and the next day were scheduled to go on their honeymoon to the San Lameer Hotel on South Africa’s Eastern Cape.

She was 27, he was 30. A head-on road collision took their lives.
Driving on the roads of the Eastern Cape, as opposed to the Western one, is dangerous and wild − something we learned this week on our long journey to the village of Qunu, for Nelson Mandela’s funeral. The two newlyweds were killed on the spot. We learned about the deaths of Ashley and Depika the following day from a front-page story in The Star.

Thus South Africa began this week to return to routine, after 10 days of experiencing a popular and overwhelming personality cult, an unprecedented one, surrounding the late Madiba. The headlines were still about him this week as well, but they slowly made way for the stories on the deaths en route to the honeymoon, on crime, on what were reported as the highest economic gaps in the world, on government corruption, and on all the other ills of this country. It is a country that Mandela in his greatness had the wisdom to transform into a place of racial equality and into a state of justice and democracy, although he left it as it had been: a difficult country.

Onica Nyembezi Mothoa, a 66-year-old woman who claims she is Mandela’s daughter, the product of an illicit romance in his youth, complained this week that she was barred from attending his funeral.

“I only wanted to attend Father’s funeral,” she said, trying to control her tears when confronting the barriers at Qunu. Mandela, according to the most hackneyed cliche here, was not only her father, but a father to them all. Now they have been orphaned.

But even all the popular mourning was misleading. It is true that hundreds of thousands wanted to pass before Mandela’s casket and gaze for the last time at the face of the dead man wrapped in white silk, in Pretoria; it is true that tens of thousands filled Soccer City Stadium; it is true that the media have been ceaselessly preoccupied with him and his greatness. But even in the midst of these emotionally sweeping days of mourning, an alternative reality has arisen here, far from all the ceremonies and speeches.

Downtown Durban, the eve of the funeral: A mass of people crowds into the local marketplace, to buy meager goods for mere pennies. There are hardly any whites here. The market is blacker than black. Mandela’s portrait is nowhere to be seen. In dozens of tiny huts crammed full of women, manicurists file and paint their clients’ nails for 10 rand − about three shekels − and the lines are long. Barbers are also busy here, tending to men in their little shacks.

A performance in the market square: a band of disaffected teens. Several local youths, half-naked, are making a holy ruckus with contagious African music, and the crowd listens and dances enthusiastically. A car stops nearby to fill up at a local gas station and its passengers get out in the meantime, crank up the volume on the radio − and dance. Everyone dances here all the time, even in their grief, but in Durban’s market square it seemed like the hardships of existence are a far greater source of preoccupation here than being orphaned of the father Mandela.

Hoped-for destinations

Throughout the long and spectacular journey from Durban to Qunu , in the heart of South Africa’s green rural area, it did not appear that the entire country had in fact stood still because of the death of its leader.

As we drive, we see dozens of remote villages planted along the roadsides, in valleys and mountains, and clusters of white huts, made of mud or clay, some without electricity or running water, most housing entire families in a single dark and dank room, with a few cows in the yards. Hundreds of people stand along the roads holding a little piece of paper with the name of their hoped-for destination; the hitchhikers wait here for hours, rain or shine, for a free lift or public transportation.

Over the course of several days, we did not see a single car stop for anyone. People stop only when they must, because of the cows that wander freely on the main highways, endangering their lives and the lives of the drivers wildly flying by. In contrast to the Western Cape, where the roads are on a first-world level, here in the east they are reminiscent of Israel’s almost-third-world roads.

And even in Qunu itself, which this past week received tremendous international exposure, with hundreds of journalists besieging it ahead of the funeral, it seemed that the event was of no concern to most of its inhabitants. Prince Charles was coming to the village? Prince Albert too? Oprah Winfrey? Who are they, anyway?

That is South Africa, before and after Mandela: a combination of the first, second and third worlds, all for the price of one. A very impressive constitution, which is enviable, a vibrant democracy that is no less enviable, modern infrastructure, fancy cars and lavish estates − but a stone’s throw away from all of that is Africa the way they taught us: dirt poor, AIDS-ridden, ignorant.

Barefoot folks gather along the roadsides, with a new twist: There are whites among them. Fabulously rich folks reside in their extravagant villas, with a new twist: There are also a great many blacks among them. But what do we know about this country and this continent, which for a brief moment topped the world’s agenda after the demise of its iconic leader? And how much do those people interest us anyway?

Who’s heard of the impressive president of Tanzania and about the female president of Malawi, no less impressive, both of whom enthralled the guests at the funeral ceremony in the mammoth tent in Qunu. And how little respect Israel shows for the exemplary Jewish figures of South Africa − the brave and honorable men and women of morality, who joined the struggle of the blacks here, paid with their liberty and sometimes also their lives, but not for the sake of the People of Israel? These are questions that trouble us greatly, during the nine days we spent here.

Reconciliation as a value

Monday was a holiday here, dubbed the Day of Reconciliation. Linda Rabinowitz, a young South African, drew a comparison between apartheid and the Holocaust, as we stood in the endless line filing past Mandela’s casket in Pretoria last week, and she was of course exaggerating. But reconciliation as a value, as a goal and a culture − that is just as distant from the atmosphere in Israel today.
Just 25 years ago, people here thought that the problem of the Palestinian people would be resolved much sooner than the problem of the blacks in South Africa.

It’s now 25 years later, and when the world says apartheid, it means Israel. South Africa can and should be a model for Israelis, mainly in its imagination-firing attempt to draw a line through the past’s hatreds and wrongdoings, and instead to build a new, more just, reality. It is proof that the impossible of yesterday can become the possible of today ‏(or of tomorrow‏); that it is possible to live together, two races or two peoples, in one country, side by side in equality, on the morning after all the hatred.

This unique human experiment succeeded here − despite all the enormous difficulties that still remain − first and foremost thanks to one man, who was laid to rest in his village this week, attended by the world’s mightiest leaders, while the village shepherds grazed their flocks and cattle a few hundred meters from the gravesite, in the green valley across the way.

Alex Levac
Alex Levac