In the month that sees Nelson Mandela reach his 90th birthday, Andrew Palmer, who spent two months living a South African township, provides a two part insight into the problems facing modern day South Africa. Andrew currently works at the Parliamentary Resources Unit producing briefings for Conservative MPs on Work & Pensions and International Development.
On the 18 July 2008 Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela turns 90. A prisoner, a President, a terrorist and a Statesman, Mandela, or Madiba as he is affectionately known, is the epitome of the division, struggle and reconciliation that makes up life in the rainbow nation of South Africa.
In the 60 years since the first election of the National Party government, the restrictive and degrading shackles of apartheid have been broken yet the scars of the conflict are all too apparent. Mandela’s South Africa remains the African tale of two cities or in fact the tale of 9 tribes, 11 languages and multiple religious denominations. Home to 6% of the continent’s population, South Africa produces 23% of Africa’s GDP, boasts 45% of its mineral production and 50% of its buying power. In 2007, 9.07 million foreigners visited the South Africa breaking annual tourist arrivals record for the third year running. Yet in the country with 41% of the world’s gold, a staggering 4.2m people live on less than $1 a day. Unemployment is at 23%. 5.5 million people are infected with HIV; with over half of 15 year olds not expected to reach the age of 60.
Despite this, faith in Mandela’s vision for this rekindled nation has never waned. The wave of the anti-apartheid process swept all up in its wake of positive overtones and brighter futures. In the resurgent atmosphere, the policy failings of Thabo Mbeki have, if not been forgotten, certainly been overlooked for the sake of unity. Then on 18 December 2007, South Africa took the step into the unknown. The election of Jacob Zuma as ANC Party President ignited old divisions. Zulu’s and Xhosa’s fought fearlessly for rival candidates. The white population wanted “anyone but him”. Business feared a departure from Mbeki’s more market-orientated economic approach to one of rapid wealth redistribution. Battle lines had been drawn.
Zuma ran his campaign on charm; promising high to all that would listen – the archetypal yes-man. To blacks he vowed better education, living standards, jobs and empowerment. To whites he assured protection of their land, industry and economic stability. And to coloureds he extended a share of the pot; that they wouldn’t be the forgotten few. The vacuous Mbeki had been forced off the stage by a craving for political flare – a leader to inspire. So what if he isn’t perfect? So what if he promises too much? He sings and dances like Madiba.
But behind charisma there lies a past less coveted. Zuma is the man acquitted of raping a 31 year old daughter of a deceased friend whom he knew to be HIV positive. The man who declared he had taken a shower afterwards to “cut the risk of contracting HIV”. The man who claimed that same-sex marriages were “a disgrace to the nation and to God”. And the man who will shortly stand charge on grounds of racketeering, money laundering, corruption and fraud believed to be linked to a $5b arms procurement deal by the South African government. The man destined to fill the great Madiba’s shoes?
Zuma’s chequered past will undoubtedly play a part as he looks to provide real change for his people and deliver on his promises. Can the man once charged with rape tackle the crisis of HIV ravaging his country? Will the tarnish of corruption charges affect his credibility in redistributing wealth to the poor? If so many mistrust him, can he really unite?
The consequences of failure are dire. Already we have seen unrest in the townships with attacks on immigrants, a sign of a discontented people who have too little to share. On Zimbabwe he has been as out spoken as any African figure, yet much of a recent visit to Britain was spent realigning himself with Mbeki’s quite diplomacy – backing away from more grandiose claims. If this is a sign of things to come the cracks will widen. South Africa needs more than the empty rhetoric. 14 years on since the ANC first came to power, the people are entitled to tangible results or else questions will be asked about what the struggle was for. How has my life improved? Is this what Madiba dreamt of?
Today, South Africa remains united by the spirit of Madiba. His grip remains strong, guiding the nation by a common bond. Whether black, white or coloured the man is revered. Whilst he remains so will the peace. Without him the future looks far from stable.