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How Far Have We Come?

5 minute read

I am a walking fruit of freedom: a black female editor working at a national newspaper owned by one of a growing generation of African entrepreneurs. A creature like me would have been unimaginable 10 years ago, when the South African media was largely white and male. Also unthinkable back then was the idea that a South African presidential election could be met with widespread indifference. But this one has been. On talk radio and in the street, people seem more concerned with soccer than with who’s going to win at the polls. From a journalist’s perspective, it’s been dull, dull, dull. But in a funny way, this boring election is also a sign of our greatest achievement: we’ve become a normal developing country — largely politically stable, with a moderately successful economy, but vexed by unemployment and poverty.

Cut back to the weeks ahead of the country’s first free election in April 1994. Politics then was anything but boring. Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress (a.n.c.) was locked in a battle of wills with the Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party. There was also a shadowy third force of Inkatha warlords and renegade policemen determined to destabilize the country. Political killings were so commonplace that they were noted in my newspaper on a weekly “human- rights barometer.” Mysterious gunmen killed commuters on the trains that crisscross Johannesburg and its outlying townships. I remember one train screeching to a halt at the station across the road from my house. Inside, a gruesome sight: a man and a woman had been shot and killed. From the man’s shopping bag, a bar of soap and a can of baked beans rolled into the trickling blood. Until 10 days before the elections, things were so touch and go that the electoral symbol of the Inkatha Party, which had threatened not to run, had to be glued onto the ballot. The Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini dominated the news because he held peace in his hands. Last month, by contrast, the King made news only because he was taking yet another wife: his sixth, a girl of 17. Inkatha and the ruling a.n.c still spar as they struggle to hold together their political accommodation, but the brutal warfare of the early ’90s no longer haunts the election.

If political temperatures have cooled since 1994, one issue remains as heated as ever. Race, not nationality, continues to define South African identity. All of us play the race card with easy abandon, often using it to mask other issues. My newspaper, for example, is a noted corruption buster — and for this it is maligned as racist because the subjects of its exposés are often black. Thus the race card obscures the cancer of corruption.

This is a national affliction, from the top down. President Thabo Mbeki has eschewed the simple “rainbow nation” mantra of the Mandela administration: his own presidency has been about an assertion of black pride and African ability. But Mbeki sometimes allows the prism of race to distort vital national issues. His government’s disastrous hiv/aids policies are an example: in part, racial sensitivity prevents Mbeki from responding forcefully to the crisis, since he sees the pandemic as something that consigns Africans to an image of hopelessness and men to a stereotype of lascivious sexual appetite. In everyday life, race is often the first explanation we reach for, when the truth is always more complex. In surveys, young whites generally blame affirmative action if they cannot find jobs or want to leave the country. That may be one truth, but another is that a globalized economy has made the world the oyster of our skilled people, both black and white. And whites now compete as part of a much larger talent pool than their parents did under apartheid.

The other issue that justifiably dominates the national debate is poverty. For young middle-class South Africans like me, life is more comfortable than our parents ever imagined. My job has helped me come a long way from the rough, poor neighborhood where I grew up. But my well-off colleagues and I know how many women and children are still struggling in the street. We feel guilty about having so much when others have nothing, but while some of us believe wealthy blacks are morally obliged to help the poor, others think we should catch up with the whites first and then worry about helping. On my way to work, I pass children who hawk a street newspaper called Homeless Talk. Their mothers use them to evoke the pity of passersby, and it always works on me — I buy three or four papers a month. A black female editor is a sign that South Africa has come a long way, but these kids are proof that we haven’t come nearly far enough.

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