In South Africa, past is present in black and white

[This column was written for the Manchester Union Leader, May 15th 2012]

Learning my New Hampshire history back in middle school, “conflict” was not a concept I encountered. It seemed the biggest tragedy to befall our state in the last 250 years was losing more than a few good men to wars beyond our borders. And too many years of playoff disappointment down at Fenway Park.

Not so in South Africa, where my wife and I moved from Concord for a time. Here history, poverty, and inequality stare you in the face, tap on your car window at the stop-light, press up against the barbed-wire fence that surrounds your home. Not twenty years have passed since Nelson Mandela moved from political prisoner to president in the first democratic elections of 1994, bringing to a formal close the country’s racist past of colonial and apartheid rule.

A lot has changed since then, and much of it we call progress. There are eligible black yuppies (“Buppies”) with straightened hair and Barbie Doll Benz’s serving as loyal ambassadors for Beyoncé. There are “BEE” businessmen (“Black Economic Empowerment” aka “Enrichment”) in fitted suits and pointy shoes doing deals by Blackberry in their BMWs (“Black Man’s Wheels”). There are young black hipsters in skinny jeans and frufey hats, chowing Belgian Waffles and sipping Sauvignon at the “farmer’s market”.

More importantly, there are millions of South African poor, raised in a state of moral and material degradation under apartheid, who now have running water, electricity, better roads and schools, and the hope that they might someday see their children succeed. And there are countless of their children who are seizing the newfound opportunities that political equality and a slowly integrating economy afford by working hard and earning their place in society–with or without the fancy cars and foreign fads and other stereotypes.

Indeed, with a new generation of South Africans born free of the brutal memories of their country’s past, Nelson Mandela’s dream of a multiracial society where there is “justice, peace, work, bread, water and salt for all” may still come to be.

But the thing about apartheid in South Africa is that it won’t quite go away, not yet. By any measure of wealth and opportunity, it would seem the champagne and oysters are mainly still reserved for the rich white part of town. In spite of South Africa’s “miracle” transition to democratic rule by the black majority under the ANC, much of the country’s wealth continues to accrue to whites, thanks to centuries of colonial and apartheid policy designed for just that end.

For the nine percent of the population that is white, per capita income exceeds that of black Africans (at 79 percent) by a factor of eight to one, a slight decline since 1994. While the number of black millionaires is growing every year, by every measure of poverty Africans are still very much poorer than Coloureds (a mixed-race classification under apartheid), who are very much poorer than Indians, who are poorer than whites.

At least half of the country’s 50 million people live in poverty earning less than R500 (US $64) per month. Between a quarter and half of citizens cannot find work, relying instead on family networks and limited social grants. Nearly one in five South Africans is living with HIV, contributing to a national life expectancy of just 52 years. And in the mineral-richest country on earth, a mere ten percent of national income is shared by the bottom half while 60 percent accrues to the wealthiest ten percent–making South Africa the most income-unequal country in the world.

Bank accounts aside, the evidence of apartheid is still firmly etched into the South African landscape itself. Although blacks are no longer confined by law to living in urban slums or rural “homelands” on just thirteen percent of the land, the physical separation between rich and poor, white and black is unmistakable. Cruising Cape Town’s more elevated enclaves, you pass through leafy white suburbs that are home to high-walled houses with acres of their own, and the effect is all Newton or Greenwich or McLean (except for the Queen’s English and Afrikaans).

A few kilometers away in a flatter part of town, you find that same plot of land is home to a thousand black Africans or more, crammed into makeshift shacks with dirt floors and tin walls and little in the way of electricity or sanitation. The roads are poorly paved, the private security guards are nowhere to be found, and what little there is in the way of public amenities is often in a state of disrepair. Here, isiXhosa is the language of choice, although English and Afrikaans are a necessary part of the mix.

In between these two divergent worlds are the historic in-betweens: coloured townships with an occasional Indian or Asian accent, marked by square brick houses and apartment blocks, seedy strip malls, and a dialect and vibe all of their own. In the coloured taxis that ply the busy streets between the city and the townships in search of paying customers, it’s not uncommon to hear three languages spoken in a single sentence.

Of course the boundaries are not so firm as they once were. Some enterprising black and coloured people have found their way into the more elevated enclaves, and dress and drive the part. Lower down the social pyramid, more black people are climbing out of the most dismal township sections year by year, although the rate of “transformation” is far too slow. Besides, there are a million rural and immigrant people waiting to take their place.

It is the mark of a modern man to be “color-blind”, or so we’re often told. But in a world as color-lined as this–a world still marked and wounded by the scars of color prejudice extending back three hundred and sixty years–blind is the only way in which to be color-blind.

New Hampshire is not immune to trials and challenges of its own–no place is. But when poverty and racial injustice come tapping on my glass down here, I think of the privileged place that I call home and know I have much to learn.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Anna Haigh Berry says:

    Hey Dan! Saw this in the Union Leader- great insights! Good luck abroad and come and speak to the World Affairs Council when you return. ~ Anna Haigh Berry

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