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Smile, Beloved Country

12 minute read
SIMON ROBINSON

For Nelson Mandela, April 27 will begin like any other day. If he sticks to the routine he developed during his 27 years in prison, the 85-year-old former President will wake around 4:30 a.m., exercise for half an hour or so, then read the newspapers over a bowl of porridge, a piece of fruit and a glass or two of milk. And then his day will take a turn. For even in a life still crowded with pomp and circumstance — public appearances and private meetings, peace negotiations and speeches, photo ops and fundraisers — April 27 will stand out. Mandela will head to South Africa’s administrative capital, Pretoria, where he will join his fellow countrymen in celebrating their first 10 years of freedom, an ordinary citizen in a normal land. That in itself is extraordinary. When South Africa’s first democratic election, in 1994, consigned apartheid to the dustbin of history and brought Mandela’s African National Congress (A.N.C.) to power, many South Africans believed civil war to be inevitable. While his black supporters saw him as a savior who had led them to victory and majority rule, whites were unsure about the man who just a few years before had languished in prison, officially branded an enemy of the state. But the predicted bloodshed and chaos never came — and for that miracle South Africans credit Mandela, the one figure able to convince both blacks and whites that this wonderful experiment in rainbow-nation building could really work.

The success of Mandela’s experiment has transformed the lives of millions. Mthunzi Mdwaba is one of them. When he was a child growing up in South Africa’s Eastern Cape during the 1970s, Mdwaba’s future was as bleak and impenetrable as the night sky above his tiny village. Isolated and desperately poor, Mdwaba’s hamlet had no electricity, no lights, no windows on the future. “If you lived in a poor township, you could go and look at the lights in the rich neighborhoods and see a better world out there,” he says now. “We didn’t even know there were lights to look at.” But Mdwaba was blessed with a sharp intellect and supportive parents, and he survived the oppressive apartheid education system and went on to study law. Today, at 36, he is executive chairman at Torque-IT, a training company that has contracts with firms such as Microsoft and Cisco. “Home is still much darker than where I am here,” he says, sitting in his office in the leafy Johannesburg suburb of Rivonia. “The challenge for me is to take some light back home.”

Ten years after South Africa began living Mandela’s dream, much has changed — but too much still remains the same. The signal improvement is that all South Africans are free: to move where they want, say what they want, vote for the party they support. After a decade of liberation, it’s too easy to forget that until Mandela won power, most South Africans had never done these things. Since those historic first elections, the country has been ruled by the A.N.C., which spent over 80 years fighting the racist system imposed by the government of the white minority. It now governs under Mandela’s successor, Thabo Mbeki, who is expected to win a second five-year term in this week’s national election and be sworn in on April 27 as part of the main day of festivities in a yearlong celebration. Heads of state from around the world will join the party — which will include local musicians and 6,000 guests, as thousands more around South Africa hold street parties to mark a decade of democracy.

There’s plenty to celebrate. Black South Africans now sit on the country’s corporate boards, play on its international sporting teams, edit its most important newspapers, and own some of its best restaurants. Parts of old black townships have been reborn — with new roads, new houses and supermarkets where once there were muddy fields. More blacks than whites now buy Jaguars, and a growing black middle class is fueling a housing boom.

Yet huge divisions remain: between white and black, rich and poor, urban and rural. There are too few Mthunzi Mdwabas and too many people struggling in the dark. Up to 20% of blacks now count themselves as among the middle class, but an estimated 40% of households still fall below the official poverty line of $53 per month, and the black townships remain among the worst of the country’s slums. At stoplights in South Africa’s cities, a haunting one-act play is performed hundreds of times a day. An expensive car pulls alongside a beggar holding a scrawled sign that reads: help. no food. family to feed. god bless. The beggar stares at the driver. Finally, the window opens a crack and a hand appears holding some change. These days there’s an occasional twist to the scene: a black driver handing money to a white beggar. Mostly, though, the characters play to racial type. As Mbeki said in his state-of-the-nation speech two months ago. “We have not yet eradicated the cruel legacy we inherited.”

To fix the economy and heal its society, Mbeki and the A.N.C. have put their faith in capitalism and in policies designed to expand the black middle class. But overturning decades of iniquity and inequality takes time, and the black majority — mostly poor, often without opportunity — remains frustrated and impatient. Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu, former Archbishop of 404 Not Found


nginx/1.14.0 (Ubuntu) Cape Town, celebrates the progress but worries about “a huge gap growing between the rich and poor.” The country’s leaders, he told TIME, “must beware the siren song of affluence, huge mansions and big cars when the bulk of our people still live in poverty and squalor.” Ten years on, South Africans have discovered that the revolution that brought democracy also raised expectations and false hopes.

No crisis confronting South Africa looms larger than AIDS. Until India passes it sometime in the next year, South Africa holds the dismal distinction of having more HIV-positive citizens than any country in the world: more than 5 million out of a population of 45 million. Instead of tackling the disease, Mbeki has questioned the link between HIV and AIDS and the worth of lifesaving drugs. Finally, last year the government announced it would begin a treatment program that will eventually provide antiretroviral drugs to more than a million people with the disease. But the government has dragged its feet on the drug rollout, leaving charities and private companies to take up the slack. “Sometimes it feels as if we have to run as fast as we can just to stand still,” says journalist and aids activist Charlene Smith. “We still have a marathon to run.”

Another persistent scourge is crime. South Africa has always been a high-crime society. In the apartheid era, lawlessness induced by poverty and desperation added to the charge book full of race-law infringements. But since the end of apartheid, the number of reported serious offenses has rocketed: armed robberies shot up from 84,785 in 1994-95 to 126,905 in 2002-03, and rapes and attempted rapes — which experts believe are still substantially underreported — rose from 44,751 to 52,425. During that time the homicide rate has actually declined from 67 per 100,000 people (many of them political killings) to 47 per 100,000, though it remains one of the highest in the world. “In most countries, the leading cause of nonnatural death is automobile accidents,” says Ted Leggett, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria. “In South Africa, it’s murder.”

And nothing escapes the issue of race. For a country that officially embraces nonracialism, South African life is often still dictated by the color of one’s skin. From the selection of a football team to relations with a neighboring regime, race is an unspoken but omnipresent factor. Occasionally old wounds reopen. Two months ago, a white farmer allegedly ordered his workers to beat a former black employee and feed him to a pack of lions. When the farmer appeared in court, protesters, including local A.N.C. supporters, chanted “Kill the farmer, kill the Boer [Afrikaner]” — a slogan the South African Human Rights Commission describes as “hate speech.” For the most part, though, South Africa’s two worlds get along. “If reconciliation means coming to love one another, it’s not going to happen,” says white writer and political scientist David Welsh. “But if reconciliation means staying off one another’s necks, then that’s largely happened.”

It’s not just black South Africans who are grappling with change. At the height of apartheid’s power in the 1970s, the ruling Afrikaners seemed invincible. Africa’s white tribe controlled the most potent military machine and economy on the continent; an Afrikaner surgeon had performed the world’s first heart transplant; Afrikaner scientists were building nuclear weapons. Today, Afrikaners are out of office, out of favor and still searching for their place in the new South Africa. As the rest of the country celebrates a decade of freedom, apartheid’s architects seem lost and besieged. Younger Afrikaners and businessmen have made peace and found places for themselves in the life of the country, but many of their elders have not. The Afrikaans language has almost disappeared from public life, and Afrikaner workers must now compete with the growing black middle class and affirmative-action policies that work against them. Most are still privileged compared with the black majority, but “the psychological devastation is remarkable,” says Danie Goosen, spokesman for the Group of 63, a collective of Afrikaner academics and intellectuals. “It’s amazing to see the extent to which the community has collapsed.”

Even in the occasionally painful reality of daily coexistence there are moments of transcendence — and even romance. When white multimillionaire Mark Shuttleworth became the first African in space two years ago, his journey on a Russian spacecraft was tracked by millions of South Africans, black and white alike. Last year, they cheered for Sibusiso Vilane when he became the first black man to conquer Mount Everest (never mind that he was born in Swaziland). And there was more happy hysteria in February, when actress Charlize Theron triumphed at the Academy Awards. Back home with her Best Actress Oscar, the blond beauty from working-class Benoni met with both Mbeki and Mandela. Mbeki called Theron, who at 15 saw her mother shoot her father dead in self-defense, “a grand metaphor of South Africa’s move from agony to achievement.” Theron welled up when Mandela said she had put the country “on the map.” (It was, after all, Mandela who did that.) She started to cry, turned and hugged him tight. “I love you so much,” she said. “I love you, too,” said Mandela, with a look of gentle surprise.

Mapisto Hlaodi and Ray Evans are in love, and don’t care who knows it. In the apartheid era, interracial relationships were barred. They are still rare: older folks stare when Hlaodi, 23, a black hairdresser, and Evans, 26, a white mobile-phone shopworker, go out together in Johannesburg. But 14 months into their relationship, Hlaodi marvels at the fact that they can go out at all. “Fifteen years ago I would have been arrested or something,” she says. “Now people, young people especially, are more cool about it.”

As national confidence grows, South Africa is finally taking its rightful place in the world. The stench of apartheid had forced the country into virtual isolation. Today, free, democratic and one of the 25 biggest economies in the world, it is taken far more seriously. Within Africa, Mbeki has styled himself as a leader to remake the continent, while further afield, South Africa is now a powerful player among developing nations. Together with Brazil and India it has forged a formidable southern alliance that aims to keep rich countries honest in trade talks and at bodies like the United Nations. By drawing on its past, South Africa can make a difference in the world. “That’s why I like living here,” says Mpho Makwana, CEO of the Marketing Federation of Southern Africa. “This is one part of the world where you can make history rather than just read about it.”

South Africa has always been a land of epic journeys. Black Africans migrated south across the continent’s vast plains two millenniums ago. White settlers trekked north into the South African veld in the 18th century. Mandela, whose odyssey took him from prison cell to President’s office, called his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom. “We have not taken the final step of our journey,” he wrote toward the end of his book, “but the first step on a longer and even more difficult road.” Ten years after the euphoria of liberation, the journeys ahead are personal as well as epic. Businessman Mthunzi Mdwaba likes to talk about a school project his son Litha, 9, recently completed. Litha had to write a letter to himself in 20 years’ time. What had he achieved? What sort of person did he want to be? In his letter, Litha imagined he had finished school and university. “I want to make my parents proud and start my own company,” he wrote. “I want to be a big success.” “That’s the miracle,” says Mdwaba. “That I never dreamed of doing what I did, but it would never occur to my son that he can’t.”

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