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Peter Bills: The reality of the South African ‘Rainbow Nation’


Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela

As Nelson Mandela celebrates his 90th birthday, Peter Bills reports that South Africa is still facing enormous challenges.

Nelson Mandela is 90 today. Arguably the world’s most iconic figure, the long time champion of a free South Africa, liberated from the suffocating yoke of apartheid, lives comfortably these days at his well protected home in the exclusive Johannesburg suburb of Houghton. There, hidden behind high walls, Mandela has much to ponder from a long life that has known trauma and tragedy, triumph and torment.

But at 90, it is a fairly safe bet that the old man’s celebrations this weekend will have been tarnished by the disturbing reality of South Africa’s situation in contemporary times. Put bluntly, the so-called ‘Rainbow Nation’ has lost its glitz.

A recent cartoon in a leading South African newspaper underlined one of the chief causes for the country’s growing angst. A group of children is lined up before their schoolteacher who is asking one small boy ‘And what would you like to be when you grow up’ ? The single word answer is rich in satire and pathos. “Alive” he says.

The natural beauty of this tremendous land has been as stained by the omnipresent crime wave as it was by apartheid. Burglaries, rapes, hijackings and assaults have preceded a disturbingly high murder rate. Few imagined it could get worse but it did.

Xenophobic attacks on fellow Africans that saw dozens slain in the most bestial manner shook South Africans to the core. It forced them to re-examine their values and beliefs and those of their fellow citizens. Many did not like what they saw.

It led some to seek information on a path trodden by so many of their fellow countrymen: a one-way ticket, chiefly to Britain, Australia or New Zealand.

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The British High Commission reports an increase in the number of applications over the past two years, people no longer willing to believe in the miracle of a new South Africa saved from almost certain civil war by Mandela’s humility, graciousness and strong pursuit of reconciliation, not revenge.

Manifestly, he continues to epitomise the best of humanity but alas, his country has slipped far behind his esteemed example.

The vacillation of the South African Government under Thabo Mbeki, the man who took over from Mandela after he refused to serve more than a single term as president, with regard to the growing crisis in Zimbabwe, has come home to roost in South Africa.

More than three million people have fled over the northern border to escape the meltdown of Mugabe’s land, plunging South Africa into a maelstrom of heightened crime, xenophobic attacks and crises in a variety of fields.

But South Africa’s troubles by no means end there. Factory gate inflation rose 12.4% earlier this year; company failures went up 10.5%, their fastest climb for six years. Rising inflation and debt costs plus slowing growth in income and jobs have been an alarming backdrop to lending rates of 15.5%.

Disposable income is down from 9% in late 2006 to 2.7% earlier this year. Unemployment rates are as high as 45% in some areas. So if the comparatively well off are feeling the pinch, then imagine the plight of the seriously poor.

The national electricity supplier Eskom was plunged into crisis last year when it admitted poor planning meant it could not guarantee supplies. Work on a new generator, forecast to be required as many as eight years ago, had not even started and much of South Africa began to suffer power cuts.

The despair of a growing crime problem, a symptom of the increasing poverty to be found among millions of native South Africans, intensified concerns. And if people looked to politicians and politics for some relief they were cruelly disappointed.

The ruling ANC, probably forever guaranteed power with the advent of one man, one vote back in 1994, elected a new president in Jacob Zuma.

To say that his past was colourful would be an understatement.

Zuma has already survived a trial for rape, a gay-bashing issue and other alleged incidents.

Most seriously, the State insists it will put him on trial at some future date for alleged financial malpractices. Yet by then, he will surely be the country’s new President, expected to replace Mbeki in elections next year.

Some fear Zuma, a Zulu, has dark intentions once he becomes leader. The man himself denies it, vigorously courting world leaders at events such as recent G8 summits. But it cannot be disputed that many doubt his intentions.

Meanwhile, the crime wave rolls on. The exclusive suburb of Camps Bay, an international playground for the wealthy and one that has attracted enormous overseas investment in property, recorded a total of 164 burglaries in a single month earlier this year. Some were of a violent nature, with householders held at knifepoint and physically attacked.

By a stroke of irony, another 90-year-old of almost equal repute has watched this decline of a country long regarded as a potential role model for all Africa.

In the years of apartheid, Helen Suzman fought a long, lonely battle for freedom; for Mandela himself but for her entire nation. As a white lady of liberal views, she earned praise and admiration the world over.

How does Suzman assess modern day South Africa? What, I asked her, did the nation lose by incarcerating Mandela for 27 years? “We lost 27 years of having a remarkable man at the helm” she says emphatically.

“It wouldn’t have been terribly different if he had been released earlier. He would have been more restrained in the manner in which the ANC acted.

“Luthuli House (the Johannesburg HQ of the ANC) now runs Parliament; Parliament is a farce, with no accountability.

“That’s not good for the country and I am very unhappy about the way Zuma is running through Luthuli House and how feeble Parliament is.”

Is she fearful for South Africa’s future ? “I don’t know; I hope very much things won’t get worse. But we are part of Africa “It’s not a case of western values against African culture. True, our economy is not bad but overall it doesn’t look very healthy at the moment.

“Mbeki can take credit for the economic policy but the other things are of concern; crime, AIDS, unemployment. Then you have inflation and the price of foodstuffs which have shot up alarmingly.

“That will just breed more crime. Already, there is an abysmal situation in the shanty towns. Mbeki has made so many mistakes.

“His silence on Mugabe’s attack on human rights was ridiculous.”

She also highlights the loss of so many skilled white workers to countries such as England, Australia and New Zealand.

“Of course, there had to be some redress in favour of the previously disadvantaged people. I agreed with that, but not kicking out your experienced people and the civil service.

“Not having sufficient people to replace them meant they should have held onto them. No one was ready to take their places.”

The virtual colonies of ex-pat South Africans in places like east Kent, in southern England and Perth in Western Australia, are a reminder of how much talent has been lost to the Rainbow Nation.

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