Monday, January 07, 2013

An accessible look at the aftermath of the freedom struggle

I feel as if Douglas Foster's After Mandela: The Struggle for Freedom in Post-Apartheid South Africa had been written for me.

On February 11, 1990, Nelson Mandela, a leader of the long struggle of the African National Congress against apartheid, was released after 27 years in prison. The release was televised world wide; Mandela spoke to waiting crowds on the Grand Parade in Cape Town. Millions felt they were seeing an almost unimaginable advance toward greater democracy and justice.

Within the next month a call went out to U.S. activists to send a team to teach digital publishing to newspapers associated with the "Mass Democratic Movement" against apartheid. My partner and I took up the call and in April 1990 began a three month stint working for South African tabloids in Cape Town, the Western Cape town of Oudtshoorn, and Johannesburg. It was a strange in-between time in South Africa: apartheid was clearly going to end, but just how a transition to non-racial democracy could happen was not at all clear. White racist fascists threatened and sometimes acted in terrorist resistance to the changes. Leaders of the African National Congress who had spent decades in foreign exile were returning and re-establishing their connections with the mass movement that had carried on a costly struggle within the country. Black people were going to have power, but what would that mean? -- and which black people? Elections were still years in the future, so the question of who could legitimately claim to voice the aspirations of the masses was unsettled.

Dropped into this, all the two of us were sure of was that we were ill-equipped to understand what we were seeing. Oh, it was heady. We attended the first legal rally by the ANC in decades in the township of Mitchell's Plain. Mandela and South African Communist Party leader Joe Slovo spoke -- Slovo was the more exciting draw insofar as we could gage the response. We saw a one day general labor action against developing inter-communal violence in Cape Town. We met with medical workers in the Khayelitsha township who were desperately trying to prevent the AIDS epidemic they saw coming -- after all we were gays from San Francisco; we knew something about living under that threat.

We certainly came away wishing the ANC and South Africa well -- but we also came away full of doubts. We didn't talk about this much; while we were in his country, Mandela had toured our country being received by liberal adulation. Every anti-racist progressive person in the United States was full of hope for the new South Africa.

We wanted to be that hopeful, but we came away afraid for the future. Our succinct expression of this, voiced seldom and privately, was that South Africa was more like the United States than anywhere we'd ever been. By this we meant that we saw a society proclaiming verbal allegiance to popular democracy and equality, but where huge parts of the population lived in such material and educational deprivation that it was hard to imagine how they could be brought into the national life. We anticipated that the white and "colored" English speakers we had worked with in the media might have a bright future in affluent white-owned enclaves, while black Africans and Afrikaans speakers of all races remained on the outside. (Foster's book bears this out, mentioning prominently some of the folks we worked with who we knew would rise to the top of any heap.)

One of us was asked to create a flyer for an introductory first meeting of a newly legal ANC branch committee. "Come elect your leaders" it was to say -- until the woman making the request came back to say it should read "Come meet your new leaders …" A culture of democratic decision making doesn't spring up without nurturing. Many trends looked like trouble ahead. But like the whole progressive world, we wanted so much for South Africa to remain a beacon of hope. And then, like much of the world, we applauded the 1994 non-racial, universal suffrage, elections that brought Mandela and the ANC to power -- and turned our attention elsewhere.

Foster's publisher describes After Mandela as a

revisionist account of a country whose recent history has been not just neglected but largely ignored by the West.

So it is and anyone seriously interested in the struggles within that wonderful country at the tip of Africa should read it.

Foster surveys the horrors of the unchecked and long officially unacknowledged AIDS epidemic. South Africa has plenty of smart scientists and doctors who saw the HIV plague coming, but for a variety of political and cultural reasons, the ANC ruling authorities flunked the challenge. One of Mandela's sons (and one of that son's wives) died of AIDS -- it was a breakthrough for open truth telling when Mandela, retired from the presidency, chose to speak of this in 2005. Foster reports on the conflicting emotions that HIV/AIDS created in the new country:

There was a deep sense of having been crushed by paralyzing grief right at the moment of everyone's supposed freedom -- "the simultaneity of new life and new death," as one scholar put it. Many people found the accumulation of such deep anguish quite difficult to bear, especially when it felt as though they were being dismissed or mocked by the regular public celebrations of their putative liberation.

The new country confronted intractable problems. Apartheid had been a social and economic safety blanket for white people, especially Afrikaans-speaking ones. The new democracy inherited grotesque economic inequality and only came into being on a promise not to dispossess the holders of wealth. The results are frightening:

…continued high unemployment, violent crime, and an uncontrolled spread of HIV brought people back to ground. These seemed like the intractable triad standing in the way of national progress. "If only the ANC knew how to govern as well as it knows how to campaign" a friend told me … here problems were deep-seated, and not matters of simple good governance alone. The Gini index, used to measure income inequality across populations, showed that South Africa scored far worse even than other middle-income developing countries in Africa, such as Kenya and Nigeria. The index for the country had been heading in the wrong direction -- toward a wider gap between rich and poor -- since Liberation Day, in 1994.

A racial age gap makes all this more difficult:

[Thabo Mbeki succeeded Mandela in office in from 1999 to 2008.]… Mbeki's Cabinet was well aware that economic growth alone would not substantially improve the picture on its own. Even if the country's growth rate surged up to 6 percent, orders of magnitude higher than its current rate, presidential advisor Joel Netshitenzhe figured that many young people from marginalized communities still would not be affected in a meaningful way. …This was the intersection where race, class, and age discrimination were thoroughly, frustratingly intertwined. While blacks accounted for 79 percent of the country's population, they made up 84 percent of South Africans up to fourteen years old. Seventy-nine percent of South Africans aged thirty and over were employed, but only half of those twenty-four and younger who were looking for work could find jobs.

The statistical material I'm quoting here misrepresents what Douglas Foster has done in this book -- though the book would not make much sense without it. Almost all of the book consists of reports of interviews with South Africans -- mostly young; mostly people who grew up after the 1994 liberation; of all races; famous and obscure -- about their hopes, anxieties and dreams. I don't know how a white English speaking US journalist achieved such apparent intimacy with his subjects, but I find their conversations utterly believable. I guess persistence pays off; Foster taught journalism in South Africa for several years. The result is fascinating, hopping from cultural commentary, through gossip, to policy insight, all skillfully woven into a series of story lines about people Foster seems to have cared about and who the reader can also relate to.

You don't need the sort of background I've got to read this book, though I think my experience helped. There's so much more to the South African freedom struggle than the singular moment when the world chanted "Free Mandela." Perhaps this volume can help some people in this country attend to the varied, bountifully contradictory, still mesmerizing, South Africa that is emerging in the 21st century.

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