22 January 2011

Looking on South Africa

By David Seddon

I spent the first two weeks of January 2011 with my daughter, visiting Cape Town, where my second son is currently working and living with his South African girlfriend. The trip was memorable for many reasons. For example, while Norfolk and the rest of the UK froze, Cape Town experienced its hottest period of the summer, with temperatures hovering for several days between 35 and 40 C. On the day I arrived, we spent the afternoon in the sweltering sun, at Newlands, watching Tendulkar bat against Steyn – the world’s best batsman against the world’s best bowler – in the India-South Africa test match series, against the backdrop of Table Mountain and a sharp blue sky.

But the visit was also memorable for less hedonistic reasons. This was the first time in 15 years since I had last been in Cape Town, and the first time in more than 45 years since I lived there, as a young man, teaching African prehistory at the University of Cape Town and experiencing apartheid at its height. I recall, all too well, how, on the first day I arrived, in September 1964, the students at UCT were demonstrating against the introduction of 90-day detention-without-trial for suspected ‘terrorist’ activities, and also how, on the last day of my two-year period of living and working in South Africa, as I flew out of Johannesburg, Hendrik Vervoerd, the Prime Minister - often called the “Architect of Apartheid” for his role in shaping the implementation of apartheid policy when he was Minister of Native Affairs - was assassinated.

As I visited and re-visited, for example, the District 6 Museum - which recorded the brutal ‘clearance’ and effective destruction of a once vibrant local Cape community - Robben Island - where Nelson Mandela and so many opposition political activists had been confined for so many years - and some of the townships in the Cape Flats - where many square miles of shanty dwellings grew up under apartheid - I was struck first by how much had changed, since those days of White supremacy, when I lived in South Africa, in the relatively short time since Mandela was freed from jail (in February 1990, after 27 years in prison, mainly on Robben Island) and the African National Congress became the ruling party (in 1994).

Wherever we went, I was struck by the inter-mingling of South Africans of different colours, ethnic and linguistic groups, by a sense of vibrancy and activity, and by constant reference to ‘post-apartheid South Africa’. There is an emerging Black middle class and the once ‘White-only’ universities are now multi-coloured. Transport is de-segregated; shops and super-markets cater to different tastes and cultural traditions. The test match at Newlands, in a former ‘White southern suburb’, attracted people of all kinds, and the football match I struggled to get into, in the former World Cup stadium, was a heaving mass of fans of all descriptions. Those who have seen the film Invictus, with Morgan Freeman as President Mandela and Matt Damon as Francois Pienaar, the captain of the South African rugby team that won the 1995 World Cup, will recognise the uplifting experience of this new diverse nation united in a great sporting success – particularly those who also remember the sanctions previously applied – in the UK and elsewhere - against South African rugby under apartheid.

And yet, much remains to be achieved. Many are disappointed with the limited achievements of the ANC government and its presidents - first Nelson Mandela and then Thabo Mbeki, and now Jacob Zuma) – despite their iconic status as leaders of the liberation movement; and there is growing opposition, both formal (the main challenger to the ANC's rule is the Democratic Alliance - led by Helen Zille, a feisty woman of German parentage - which received 15% in the 2006 election and 17% of the vote in the 2009 election) and informal. The majority of the population, mainly Black, but significantly in the Cape also ‘coloured’, remains disadvantaged and deprived, with low incomes, poor housing and living conditions, limited access to health and education, and high levels of unemployment. There is a widespread problem of violence, domestic, intra- and inter-community, particularly in the townships.

But South Africa is a dynamic, rapidly changing place, in which – although there is poverty and deprivation – there is also great hope and optimism. It is, and will be, a major influence on the other countries of southern Africa and a symbol of transformation for Africa and the developing world as a whole. Let us hope that the hope and optimism is fulfilled, for we shall all benefit, directly or indirectly, from the fulfilment of the dream of Nobel Peace Prize winner Nelson Mandela, the first president of the ‘new’ South Africa, of a democratic state, a harmonious, multi-racial society, and a sustainable developing economy, providing a good life and well-being for all its citizens.

Photo: Morgan Freeman as President Mandela and Matt Damon as Francois Pienaar, captain of the Springboks rugby team in the film Invictus

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