The A to Z of things we cannot simply blame on apartheid (or did not expect in a democratic South Africa)

We are often told by the ruling party that given the massive legacies of apartheid, we – and poor, black and marginalized South Africans in particular – cannot expect things to change overnight, that twenty years are too short a time in which to have brought about fundamental changes.   

At Madiba’s memorial service for example, President Zuma made the point that “He (Mandela) told us that the promises of democracy would not be met overnight and that the fears of the few would not be allowed to derail the newly won freedom.  And we all agreed with him….”. 

Was this a co-option of Madiba somehow to justify the slow pace of service delivery?  While it is certainly true that apartheid’s legacies remain manifested in many aspects of our political, economic and social lives, progressives who were engaged in the anti-apartheid struggle in one form or another would not have expected a number of things to occur in a post-apartheid society, things for which the ruling alliance – rather than the apartheid regime of the past – bears primary responsibility. 

This is an A to Z list of what we cannot – legitimately or expediently – simply blame on apartheid, what  we would not have expected of a government that claims to be committed to social justice, to fundamental human rights and freedoms, to eliminating poverty and to correcting the inequities of the apartheid past. 

A is for the ARM’S DEAL that, within 4 years of the country’s first democratic elections, would begin to consume in excess of R50 billion to purchase corvettes, submarines, Gripen and Hawk jets and helicopters when  we would have expected our new government to declare real war on poverty, on illiteracy, on disease and on unemployment.  Much of these military purchases are now considered unnecessary, the arm’s package “offset deals” touted to catalyse employment and investment have largely failed to materialize, and senior ANC leaders and the ruling party still carry the stench of massive corruption associated with this deal.  At the time of the deal being approved, the Health Minister had rejected providing ARVs to HIV-positive pregnant mothers to prevent the transmission of HIV to their newborns as being too expensive.  Experts say that for the cost of arm’s deal, nearly 2 million RDP houses could have been built which would have come close to eliminating the housing backlog.  This deal and its related cover-ups also undermined parliamentary democracy and constitutionally- independent institutions charged with protecting our democracy. 

B is for BLACK ECONOMIC EMPOWERMENT.  While there was an obvious imperative to ensure the more equitable distribution of wealth in a post-apartheid society, rather than transform the economic system inherited from the apartheid era, the ANC government entrenched it with Black Economic Empowerment strategies and laws that benefited a relative few, making them stakeholders in and defenders of an economic paradigm that systemically causes job losses to occur and which enabled those who benefited from apartheid, to benefit even more in the new dispensation, thus exacerbating inequality.  For all the complaints from within the ruling alliance that while the majority had achieved political liberation, economic liberation was still out of reach, it was the ANC government that allowed itself to be captured through “black economic empowerment” schemes that were little more than a political protection racket in which the individuals connected to the ruling alliance were co-opted and paid handsomely as company board members, when they added little value other than a degree of political credibility.

C is for Crime in general and CORRUPTION in particular.  The Corruption Perceptions Index has South Africa falling three places since 2012.  The July 2013 Global Corruption Barometer indicated that 47% of South Africans had paid bribes over the previous year.  Apartheid was a crime against humanity, and revelations of corruption within that system were no surprise.  What we did not expect was that corruption would be so blatant, so endemic and reach so high within a democratic dispensation. Corruption Watch indicated that in 2013 alone, corrupt activities accounted for more than R300 billion.   The Special Investigating Unit estimated in 2011 that up to 400 000 civil servants had engaged in fraudulent activities.  Public sector corruption amounts to massive theft of resources that could be applied to transforming the lives of many, for the enrichment of a few.  For all its rhetoric and corruption-busting infrastructure, government has shown little appetite for dealing decisively with corruption, particularly those who are senior party members.  Rather than “struggle credentials” holding people to a higher moral accountability, they have become the “get-out-of-jail-free” cards for many who may be guilty of grand scale theft.

D is for DEMOCRACY.  We do exceedingly well at delivering “free and fair elections” every five years, but this is not all that there is to democracy.  We do not know who funds our major political parties and thus whose real interests are served by government, after the masses have been co-opted with empty promises, government grants and food parcels as voting fodder.  The proportional system of representation makes members of parliament accountable to party bosses rather than to “the people”.  The manipulation of and executive interference in parliament (e.g. the suspension of SCOPA’s investigation into the arm’s deal) as well as the manipulation of and interference with independent institutions created to defend our democracy e.g. the sacking of Vusi Pikoli at the National Prosecuting Authority, and the co-option of the Public Protector, the Scorpions and the Auditor General to declare the arm’s deal free of corruption, have undermined the credibility of parliament and the effectiveness of parliamentary democracy.  Rather than constitutional institutions underpinning our democracy being strengthened by a progressive government, they have been compromised in order largely to defend ruling party – rather than country – interests.

E is for EDUCATION (although it could also be for e-tolls, for Eskom and Electricity).  Education is a key instrument in the hands of a post-apartheid government that could fundamentally change the lives of individuals and of our society.  With the education struggles of 1976 and 1980 having provided such  major impetus to the broader anti-apartheid struggle and with that generation now largely entrenched as leaders of post-apartheid South Africa, we did not expect the non-delivery of text books to schools, nor that 95% of our schools would still be without libraries twenty years into our democracy.  Despite being allocated 6% of our GDP and with greater average public expenditure per black African than white learner (thus correcting the extreme inequality of expenditure under apartheid), the National Planning Commission itself states that “the quality of education for poor black South Africans is sub-standard”.  The poor literacy and numeracy skills of many of those who matriculate from schools catering for black African learners in particular, are a serious indictment of our post-apartheid educational system. 

F is for the FACTIONALISM that is not only tearing the ruling party apart, but is also impacting heavily on the delivery of services as factions within the ANC jostle for power, with the winning faction often purging civil servants deemed to be supporters of an opposing faction, irrespective of their expertise and experience.  The apartheid regime helped to foment violence within the black community and derived propaganda value out of “black on black” violence.  Progressives would not have thought that the ruling party, a once-proud liberation movement united around the noble goals of freedom and social justice, would deteriorate into a comrade-versus-comrade battlefield to access the levers of state power and the public purse, not to serve “the people” as much as their particular faction.  It was seldom the case during the struggle against apartheid (when activists faced real threats from the coercive arms of the state), but today, leaders within different factions of the same ruling alliance employ bodyguards for fear of physical harm from other factions.  What has become of us?

G is for GUPTA.  The landing of a private plane carrying wedding guests for the Gupta family at Waterkloof Airforce Base, a national security point, and the alleged political influence of this wealthy family from India reflects the extent to which the ruling party’s leadership and the President in particular, have been compromised, thereby damaging the integrity and image of the country in the process. 

H is for HOUSES.  The ruling party – correctly – boasts of the number of new houses that have been built since 1994.  However, the complete absence of any design aesthetic, the size of these “matchbox” houses, their close proximity to each other and the quality of the building in many cases reflects an apartheid view of black people as sub-human.  The elite increasingly live in well designed, green, sumptuous and gated housing estates while the “people’s government” provides ugly houses in cramped and barren living conditions with little, if any green or recreational spaces.  Compare these houses with those where cabinet ministers – and the President – are housed.  We would not have expected such extreme disparities between those elected to serve the people and the people who elected them.

I is for INEQUALITY. 20% of our population earns 70% of the national income (at least half of this group comprises black Africans) while the poorest 20% accounts for less than 3% of national income (the overwhelming majority at this end of the spectrum are black Africans).  While average income for both the richest and poorest 20% rose by 45% in the decade 1995-2005, this happened from highly inequitable bases so that inequality has in fact increased dramatically in post-apartheid South Africa.  (Elite voices often complain about the relatively small number of citizens – meaning themselves – who carry the primary tax burden, but it is this same elite that earns most of the country’s annual income). While the poor majority is told that “change cannot happen overnight”, the reality is that for the politically connected, change has happened overnight with thousands of “overnight” millionaires, at least some of whom have acquired such wealth not because of any real economic value that they have added, but generally (there are exceptions), either because of tenderpreneurship (the allocation of lucrative government tenders to individuals and companies supportive of the ruling party) or because of narrow BEE deals.   Progressives would not have expected that South Africa to become one of the most unequal societies in the world – after the demise of apartheid.

J is for JUSTICE.  Or rather, the lack of it.   Under apartheid, black African people were criminalized simply for being black.  Black without a pass, on the wrong beach, on the wrong bench, for being with one’s family when they don’t have passes, etc would make one a victim of a police, judicial and prison system designed to uphold, defend and protect white privilege.   Today, the rich can afford lawyers, make bail and put up sophisticated defences.  The poor wait – in poor jail conditions – for an average of two years before being brought to trial, and have to depend on legal aid to mount a defence.  The politically connected are often not charged with crimes and those that are unfortunate enough to be jailed, are pardoned early.  The Truth and Reconciliation Commission replaced justice with political expedience considered necessary at the time to effect a smooth transition, except that the survivors of human rights violations came off second best to the perpetrators of such abuse.  Prisons are overcrowded.  Courts have a huge backlog.  The political elite has concentrated more on transforming the demographics of the judiciary than on the delivery of justice.  Little wonder then that in many communities, people take the law into their own hands because they do not trust the justice system.  We would have hoped that in post-apartheid, democratic South Africa, all would be equal before the law, but this is patently not so.   

K is for KILLINGS:  While people expected to die during the struggle against apartheid, there is simply too much death in the New South Africa.  14 000 road deaths annually.  An average of 40 murders each day, for being a lesbian, a child, a wife, a farmer, a policeman….  These are shocking and unacceptable.  Yet, after apartheid’s brutal deaths-in-detention and the extra-judicial killings of activists, progressives would not have expected the assassination of corruption whistleblowers in a democratic South Africa, the deaths in police custody (932 in 2011/12), and assassinations of political opponents (which some estimates put at more than 50 since 2008).  The allegations of a hit squad within the Durban police, the killing of protestors by police, the murder of a taxi driver by police in Daveyton – these were not supposed to happen in a democratic dispensation.

L is for LAND (although it could also be for the poor leadership – albeit for different reasons – of Mbeki and Zuma and the collective leadership associated with each of these and that were responsible for much of what this list deals with).  2013 marked the centenary of the Land Act which stripped black African people of their right to own land, leading eventually to 87% of South African land being under white control.  Government claims that from 1994 to 2013, 4860 farms comprising 4 million hectares were transferred to about 250 000 black farmers, including 50 000 women, 32 000 youth and 674 people with disabilities, and yet it concedes that the land reform process has been slow and expensive because of its “willing seller, willing buyer” approach where farmers have been paid market prices for their farms, but budgets for this approach have declined.  In the meantime, large housing estates for the wealthy have sprung up all over the country along with numerous golf courses, while those stripped of land ownership by apartheid, continue to wait for the land reform process to reach them.  While they wait, they may observe how some cabinet ministers and business people associated to the ruling party have had their worlds changed overnight, and have become proud owners of wine, game and other farms.  A constant refrain in this article is the vast disparities – and the obvious moral and political implications – between the political elite and the masses of people whom they are required to serve. 

M is for MARIKANA.  We have a public holiday – Human Rights Day – on 21 March commemorating the Sharpeville massacre of 1960 precisely to remind us of this apartheid atrocity, and to oblige us never to repeat it.  And yet, 18 years into democracy, 34 protesting miners (half the number of people who lost their lives in the Sharpeville massacre) were gunned down by the police.  Then, it was in defence of apartheid, a system that benefited a white minority.  Now, it was in defence of the interests of international capital and the local elite linked to the ruling party.  There has been no accountability, no apology, no marches by the ruling alliance in protest against this atrocity, just a drawn-out Commission that has thus far exposed the venality of the police leadership.  NUMSA’s decision to support the families of the victims is the first break in the ruling alliance’s attitude to the massacre, recognizing that workers are human beings – and in this case, not just political opponents – who have suffered in the process.

N is for NKANDLA.  Even the apartheid authorities did not abuse public resources to renovate and refurbish the private residence of their most feared Presidents such as PW Botha, or certainly not on the scale of President Zuma’s private Nkandla compound.  Never would we have believed that leaders in the struggle for the liberation of South Africans would, in a democratic South Africa, abuse public funds on this scale and so brazenly, even more so when there is still so much poverty in the land.  It is behavior consistent not with a democratic government committed to the poor, but with the caricature of a dictatorship associated with the excesses of large scale corruption and theft. 

O is for OPPOSITION and how the ruling alliance deals with it.  While apartheid had an array of censorial mechanisms to suppress information and thought which challenged the status quo and while it co-opted the public broadcaster for propaganda purposes, our Constitution guarantees freedom of expression and freedom of the media.  The SABC is supposed to be a legally independent entity with a mandate to promote democracy by providing information and airtime from a range of voices within society. Progressives would have expected our work-in-progress democracy to mature through rational and robust public debate around our key challenges, and with a ruling party that given its overwhelming parliamentary majorities at national and most provincial levels, would be secure and confident enough to engage on these terms.   While we have such public discourse, from Mbeki’s time as President, we have seen increasingly anti-democratic tendencies on the part of the ruling alliance in dealing with opposition, ranging  from smearing critics as racists, counter-revolutionaries or agents of western imperialism, intimidating critics with threats of court action, arresting journalists on spurious grounds, preventing opposition parties from exercising its democratic rights (which the ruling alliance would never tolerate if it were in the position of the opposition) e.g. preventing the DA’s marches on Nkandla and COSATU House and preventing Julius Malema and the EFF from hosting rallies at some institutions, the killings of protestors such as Andries Tatane and the Marikana miners.  Then there’s the Protection of Information Act which may be used to suppress the exposure of corruption and the SABC has again being bludgeoned and co-opted for ruling party propaganda and imaging purposes.  Institutional democracy (parliament and constitutional bodies) has steadily been undermined while the above kinds of anti-democratic tendencies are intended to suppress dissent, criticism and opposition, further undermining our nascent democracy.

P is for POVERTY.  The Diagnostic Study of the National Planning Commission states that in 1995, 53% of our population lived in poverty using the international benchmark of $2 per day (R524 per month at that time).  The bottom 40% of our population accounts for about 7% of national income.  The number of people living below the poverty line declined to 48% in 2008, only because of government grants, rather than because of job creation and income-generation.  While poverty among black African people – in rural areas in particular – is inherited from apartheid, progressives would have expected that within the first twenty years of democracy, eliminating poverty would have had a much greater practical – rather than rhetorical – focus for a “developmental state”.  There appears to be lack of vision, ideas and political will in dealing with this most important challenge, particularly when one considers the effort and expenditure on projects serving the elite.

Q is for the QUACK science of Thabo Mbeki and the collective ANC leadership at the time who were directly responsible for the premature deaths of hundreds of thousands of mainly black African South Africans, the transmission of HIV from mothers to babies, and the orphaning of more than one million children because of their refusal to provide life-saving drugs.  We would never have expected that a post-apartheid government would be responsible for the decline in life expectancy from 62 in the dying days of apartheid to 50 at the height of the AIDS pandemic.  Should the apartheid government have been responsible for this, there would have been demands for them to be tried for crimes against humanity, for their genocide-by-wilful-omission in which an average of 1000 South Africans perished each day, despite life-saving drugs being available, and cheap.  Simply unforgiveable!

R is for RACISM and the Rainbow Nation.  With apartheid’s divisions as the backdrop, the desire for a “rainbow nation” in which people of all colours feel part of society is understandable.  But the rainbow nation does not exist.  It never has- except in television commercials, at a few major sports events, in some church services and for a multi-racial elite who use English as a language of communication and who share some social spaces.  Poverty and inequality (and their impacts on education, social mobility, employment, etc) exclude the vast majority – mainly black Africans – from the “rainbow nation” myth.  It’s not a new insight, but given our increasing class-based inequalities, it is more appropriate to speak of two nations co-existing in the same space: an elite that exists under the rainbow, and the majority who eke out their existence under a black cloud – a “rainbow” elite and a “black cloud” majority. 

The Planning Commission’s Diagnostic Study states that one of the nine key challenges facing the country is our continued racial division, and while this is true, the major divide is increasingly between those who have (resources, good education, education, jobs, networks, collateral, medical aid, etc) and those who do not have these. 

Given our apartheid history and the dehumanization of black African people on the one hand and the superiority of white people on the other, we would be naïve to expect (white to black) racism to have disappeared after twenty years of a democratic South Africa.  Against this backdrop, we need to confront the uncomfortable post-1994 phenomena that have reinforced such racism and apartheid era stereotypes e.g. the deployment of black African people to positions of leadership and responsibility when they often did not have the requisite skills, experience and support structures so that when they have failed, racists would attribute it to black stupidity, or the widespread corruption within government that provokes the snide “this is Africa” remarks or violent crime (in which black African people are statistically the primary victims and perpetrators) makes white people retreat into secure, gated communities like micro Group Areas of our apartheid past.  

Rather than rigorous analysis and issue-oriented debate, our political discourse is poisoned by superficial, easy race-speak and cry-wolf accusations of racism to counter legitimate criticism, all of which do not help to identify and deal with real issues of racism on the one hand to deal with the real issues being raised on the other.  Ironically, it is more possible now for the former leaders of the National Party responsible for apartheid’s atrocities as well as the elites of the former bantustans to be accommodated within the ruling party than it is for the ruling alliance to accept legitimate and constructive criticism on its own terms – rather than dismissing it defensively through the convenient and expedient prism of race – from some of its former progressive allies in the struggle against apartheid. 

The genius of Nelson Mandela was not to create a false, non-existent “Rainbow Nation”, but rather – after centuries of oppression, racial division and white minority rule, to create the conditions and atmosphere in which those who had ruled in fear, in arrogance and with racist beliefs could remain active contributors to building a society (rather than be obstacles to or to actively undermine the post-apartheid project), and to do this under the leadership of a black government.   The potential goodwill from that time was largely squandered and the Mandela-esque conditions were wiped out by Thabo Mbeki’s presidency when he adopted a more chauvinist, Africanist approach.  Some would argue that under Zuma, it’s gone a step further with people mainly from KwaZulu Natal and from his Zulu-speaking community who now occupy some of the main positions of political and government influence. 

The perception of the ANC’s non-racial ethos having all but disappeared is reinforced when NGOs (many in which the non-racial ethic still applies in practice, with progressives from “minority population groups” contributing their skills under the leadership of black Africans) have their advocacy and work on behalf of the poor and marginalized in particular sectors dismissed by ANC leaders as entities run by white puppet masters.  So, while white-against-black racism prevails as a spillover from the apartheid era, post-1994 phenomena have sometimes reinforced such racism while many progressives – who would be more than eager to contribute to meeting the challenges of the country under the leadership of a black African government – have been alienated from the ruling party by its increasing chauvinism and race double-speak.

S is for the SPEAR. Never has an artwork generated more controversy, more division, more debate and more exposure of some of the country’s key faultlines than Brett Murray’s painting of President Zuma in Lenin-like pose and with exposed genitals symbolizing power and potential abuse of power.  The painting was part of an exhibition, Hail to the Thief II, in which a variety of art works by the artist bitingly satirized the corruption, nepotism and the selling out of the liberation ideals of the ANC.  Murray, a conscientious objector and an artist who had engaged actively in anti-apartheid struggle was demonized as a racist; the Goodman Gallery where the work was shown was intimidated by marches and by the Minister of Higher Education calling for the work to be destroyed, and the artist’s (black African) assistant received threats of physical violence (a church minister also called for Murray to be stoned).    All of this political outrage created the conditions in which two men defaced the work. 

The prescience of the artwork has now been affirmed as the massive public expenditure on the Nkandla compound represents little more than the rape of the public purse by President Zuma.

In the light of apartheid’s censorship – including outright banning – of numerous art works, progressives would have expected a democratic government to defend and protect the right to freedom of creative expression guaranteed in the Constitution; in fact, quite the opposite happened.  The charge for the destruction of the work was led by those required to uphold the Constitution just as it is they who now defend Nkandla and condemn the booing of the President.

T is for TRANSFORMATION.  That our society needed fundamental transformation from our apartheid past is to state the obvious.  Morally and politically it was necessary to transform all state and publicly funded institutions and even private companies better to reflect the demographics of the country and to reverse and correct the impact of job reservation of the apartheid era.  But not only was it necessary simply to change the demographics, it was also believed that in so doing, black people leading such institutions (particularly those aligned to the ruling party and so could be trusted), would be more committed – than white people – to deliver services to, and to look after the best interests of black African people who were most in need of such service delivery. 

Ironically though, while we have done exceedingly well in facilitating the demographic transformation of instruments of the state, it is this very – more superficial – transformation that has often compromised or militated against the substantial transformation required as in many cases, people in leadership and strategic positions of power did not have the requisite expertise and/or experience to deliver on their institutional mandates.  This is reflected for example in last year’s report of the Auditor General into municipal government with only 9 of 278 municipal governments receiving clean audits, consistent with the 5% of the previous two years.    Proper training and support have not been provided as part of the demographic transformation of management processes, or at least not at the same levels as for example, the training of black African pilots or of Tito Mboweni’s 18 month tutelage before he took the reigns as Governor of the Reserve Bank.   As a consequence, delivery has either not taken place, or has been implemented unevenly to the disadvantage of mainly the poor, black African majority, or consultants have had to be hired to do the work with taxpayers thus having to pay double for the work to be done. 

Furthermore, the widespread corruption in government administration at local, provincial and national government shows that appointing black people to serve black people does not necessarily result in better, or more empathetic service delivery.   

So, while change –or transformation – cannot be expected to happen overnight, it can be argued that the manner in which we have gone about effecting transformation (ignoring or discarding highly skilled and experienced people from “minority population groups” and not providing the necessary training and support to those appointed to leadership positions as part of the demographic transformation of state institutions) has effectively compromised, prevented or put back substantial transformation of the lives of many South Africans on the underside of history.

U is for UNEMPLOYMENT that officially stands at around 25%.  Should the broader unemployment definition be applied i.e. economically active people without a job and who have given up looking for work, unemployment would be closer to 35%-40%.  Notwithstanding the white noise about affirmative action and equity legislation on white unemployment, we would never have expected that so many black people would lose their jobs and that unemployment among black Africans would spike after the demise of apartheid.  We are constantly told that our macro-economic policies, that the fundamentals of our economy are sound.  It would appear though that the host of macro-economic policy measures that we have taken and that have endeared us to key western economic planners have resulted in mass job losses and rising unemployment, and we have yet – numerous conferences, plans and rhetoric notwithstanding – not been able effectively to deal with this key and fundamental challenge.

V is for VANITYAfter our relatively smooth transition to democracy and with Nelson Mandela as the country’s first President, we became the darling of the world.  Such attention made us seek to “punch above our weight”, to be a global leader, to “play with the big boys”.  We wanted to lead the African Renaissance.  We wanted to change the UN and/or have a permanent seat on the Security Council.  We wanted to host international events.  We were, after all, the country with the largest African economy.  We were the poster child for African democracy.  And so we expended energy and massive resources on vanity projects like the FIFA World Cup and the elite-serving Gautrain. And we made rude remarks about other African countries because we believe that we are better than them.  While we strut the world and African stages, in our own backyard are millions of people who live in conditions comparable to some of the worst African countries in terms of human development indicators regarding literacy, health, life expectancy, income, etc.  The FIFA world cup has left us with “enjoy now, pay later” blues with expensive stadiums and roads to be paid for via e-tolls (and then there’s the corruption of colluding construction companies).  It would appear that the vanity of our political elite has steered our “development” path over the first twenty years of our democracy more than the needs of the majority.

W is for WOMENThe emancipation of women from their triple oppression (sex, race and class) was always viewed in the struggle against apartheid as one of the key goals of that struggle.  Thanks to the policies of the ruling party, there are now many more women (black African in particular) active and in senior positions in politics, in public institutions, in education as well as in the private sector.   However, women – of all classes and colour, but black African in particular – continue to face massive violence within a patriarchal culture.  It is estimated that more than 200 000 women are assaulted each year and that a woman is killed by an intimate partner on average, every 8 hours, one of the highest such rates in the world.  More than 66 000 rapes were reported in 2012 of which only 4500 resulted in convictions (rapes and domestic violence are under-reported).  The “corrective rape” of black lesbians has become too common a crime.  But it is among poor black African women that the struggle for emancipation from their triple oppression continues, for it is they that bear the brunt of unemployment, of HIV-infection, of poverty and of gender-based violence in post-apartheid South Africa.

X is for XENOPHOBIA.  The killing of Africans from other countries, the constant refrain that people from other parts of Africa are taking local jobs – this form of racism that was not anticipated in a democratic South Africa.  (It is strange that “they-are-taking-our-jobs” xenophobia is not directed against immigrants from Europe or Latin America or Asia).   (That Africans from other countries are appointed to work positions in South Africa is a further indictment of our country’s education system and a humbling lesson that we could learn from the education systems of other African countries).  Mbeki’s denialism at the height of xenophobic violence (he attributed it to basic criminality, probably as it was too difficult to accept that in the pursuit of the African renaissance, Africans could kill each other).  Just as the apartheid authorities stopped black Africans to demand to see their passbooks, so police in our democratic state stop people with a darker-than-normal-South-African-dark complexion suspecting them of being illegal immigrants.  This has led even to South Africans being held as illegal immigrants with the son of Tito Mboweni most recently suffering this abuse.  We would not have expected this in a democratic South Africa, and neither would we have dreamt that a privatized “repatriation centre” such as Lindela, with senior ANC politicians among its owners, making profits from the misery of other Africans!  

Y is for YOUTH. The youth generation of 1976 is honoured with a public holiday on June 16 for the role they played in contributing to the transformation of our society: standing up to the apartheid authorities, helping to internationalize the anti-apartheid struggle, catalyzing the birth of anti-apartheid organisations and giving impetus to internal resistance, swelling the ranks of guerilla movements, and producing a generation of leaders both for internal and external leadership.  Many of that generation are now in government or in business positions and it would have been expected that they would create conditions to benefit this key sector of our population.     

More than two-thirds of our population is under 35 with the 15-34 cohort constituting 38% of our national population (with a further 30% under the age of 15).

In excess of 70% of unemployed South Africans are under the age of 35.  Thousands of homes are run by teenagers because of the loss of their parents through AIDS.  Teenage pregnancy, alcoholism, drug abuse and suicide are too prevalent among our young people.  HIV infection in South African youth is among the highest in the world.

The ruling party has largely failed to address the basic aspirations and challenges of our youthful population and resentment within this cohort is reflected in the growth of the Economic Freedom Fighters.

Z is for ZIMBABWE.  (It could be for Zuma, but even though this article has not explored his conservative comments on women and gay people, more than enough has been said about him to confirm his disappointment as an advocate and leader of a post-apartheid, progressive agenda in pursuit of social justice).  South Africa’s support for the Mugabe regime despite its poor human rights record is best illustrated by the Mbeki-commissioned report into the 2002 Zimbabwean elections which has never been released, and despite the Mail and Guardian obtaining a court order for the report to be released.  Judge Joseph Raulinga who had seen the report, ruled that it was in the public interest to have the report – which he said contained sufficient evidence of the illegality of that election – released.  However, the SA government has continued to resist handing over the report using the court appeal process to do so.  This complicity in human rights and anti-democratic abuses in Zimbabwe reflects South Africa’s poor record in opposing United Nations resolutions in support of victims of human rights abuses in Burma, Belarus, Iran and North Korea, a shameful record for a democratic state allegedly committed to fundamental human rights and freedoms, but where – as with other western democracies – such rights are made subject to other geo-political and economic interests. 


It is clearly true that given the length of colonial and apartheid rule and its infusion into every aspect of our social, political, economic, psychological and cultural lives, that its legacies will be with us for some time.  While some of these legacies cannot be changed overnight, it is also true that there is much for which a democratic South Africa – and the ruling authorities in particular – are themselves responsible, and which are not only inconsistent with, but the very antithesis of a progressive agenda that seeks to build a just, equitable, safe and humane society. 

There are some things that have changed “overnight” though and these include

  1. the lifestyles and bank balances of a minority of individuals who are politicians or highly connected to the ruling party; some have become obscenely wealthy in a very short space of time, much more wealthy than most who were beneficiaries of the apartheid system for a significantly longer period
  2. the image of the ruling party has changed from one associated first and foremost with the promises of the Freedom of Charter to one increasingly associated with corruption, nepotism, factionalism and with serving an elitist rather than a “better life for all” agenda
  3. the hundreds of thousands of South Africans who lost their jobs after the demise of apartheid and who have been unable to find sustainable work since and
  4. the hundreds of thousands who expected to live in a better South Africa but whose lives were cut short by AIDS and government’s denialist approach to the pandemic, by violent crime, in police custody, through political assassination, etc.

The combination of the recent death of Madiba, the values that he stood for and the leadership he provided together with this, the twentieth anniversary of the attainment of our democracy, provide the impetus for serious reflection on where we are, and what must be done to alter our current course that has created not a rainbow nation, but a coexisting “rainbow elite” and a “black cloud majority”, a tension that is unsustainable and the source of current and future conflicts.


About mikevangraan

Mike van Graan is currently a Richard von Weizsaecker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin. He is a playwright, and most recently served as the Executive Director of the African Arts Institute. He was the founding Secretary General of Arterial Network, a civil society network of artists, activists and creative enterprises engaged in the African creative sector and its contribution to human rights, democracy and development on the continent. Currently, he also serves as a Technical Expert to UNESCO on the 2005 Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions.
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9 Responses to The A to Z of things we cannot simply blame on apartheid (or did not expect in a democratic South Africa)

  1. ZaneIbrahim aka Abu Hanif says:

    Thank you Mike for the respect you display whenever you share your thoughts Much Appreciated

  2. HC Mahnke says:

    interesting read. should be made available to some. best, hcm

  3. urbanismode says:

    Mike – some serious historical analysis placing blame at the feet of a new elite. At one point in your article (somewhere in the middle of the alphabet!), the notion of the ‘developmental state’ is mentioned. My recollection is that the RDP programme of government – and hence the policies and instruments of such a developmental state – were abandoned merely two years into the presidency of Nelson Mandela.

    Having worked at Peninsula Technikon at the time, I also recall the enthusiasm of students – including MK returnees as part of Pentech’s very successful Access Programme – to in the near future get well paid ‘white’ jobs and enter into the middle class environment. At the time I thought it to be understandable. I think for many the struggle-phase was over and maybe it was only the ‘progressives’ (from our positions of material comfort) who thought that young black students will take some stoic role to serve the people in a new ‘developmental state’ and suppress their own personal ambitions. Thabo Mbeki understood this and under his presidency diverted from the RDP philosophy and gave priority to building the new black middle class – the constituency of the new elite.

    The question should be asked if ‘the state’ and ‘the nation’ (rainbow or otherwise) can actually drive and deliver transformational change – i.e. the kind of change with the desired progressive outcomes. This is a global challenge with increasing pessimism at the abilities of national democratically elected governments to deliver on their election manifestos. Neither it appears will an appeal to the patriotism/altruism of a ‘nation’ do much good either.

    One alternative model is the urban polis drifting away from its nationalistic roots and loosening itself from the national purse strings to serve and develop economic and social compacts with its local citizenry. Examples of cities measuring themselves on their local environmental impacts are emerging in China, Australia, India, Europe and North America. City programmes to perform against these indicators often correlate less to national aims and more to the competition with other cities. The context of globalisation is obvious with the international flows of capital, goods, labour and technology. Several publications are annually comparing cities on a wide range of indicators informing discourses for both local policy making as well as the aggregate ‘inter-national’ transformational change agendas. Cities and citizens appear to be much more adept at learning from each other to bring about change.

    If our expectations for the next twenty years are that the South African government is going to change its ways and revert to ‘a developmental state’, we might end up with more disappointment. At the heart of the problem is the growing inability of states all over the world to deliver programmes that meet the expectations of citizens. It translates to ‘menu dependency’ – waiting in the queue for whatever is doled out by the state. I think city governance can be much more pliable where a mixture of civil society initiatives, business and community programmes together with local government services can deliver on locally set targets because everyone in a city has a vested interest for the city to succeed in a competitive global environment.

  4. David says:

    Really great summary, if also a rather deep draught of despair. But thank you. Good reminder of Mbeki’s genocide-by-default.

  5. Mike Cope says:

    Mike, you nailed it! In summary:
    A is the Arms Deal, the State’s albatross,
    B’s BEE: a few blacks can be boss.
    C is for Crime: the corruption runs deep,
    D is Democracy, is it asleep?
    E’s Education, and ours is a fail,
    F is for Factions, the dog wags the tail.
    G is for Gupta (just follow the coinage,)
    H is for Houses, small, nasty, poor drainage.
    I’s inequality, zilch trickles down,
    J is for Justice, which we bugger around,
    K is for Killings, our unique way of death,
    L is for land – just don’t hold your breath,
    M’s Marikana, (we behaved like the Nats.)
    N is Nkandla, and more fat for fat cats.
    O’s Opposition, who we like to suppress,
    P is for Poverty – what a sad mess.
    Q is Quack science, and multitudes perished,
    R is for Racism, which we have cherished.
    S for the Spear. Quick, cover it up!
    T’s transformation, at which we’ve been slap.
    U’s Unemployment (Boss, got any work?)
    V’s for Vanity, let’s bling up the jerk.
    W’s for women, at the bottom of the heap,
    X, Xenophobia – does it really run deep?
    Y is for Youth, whose prospects are dim.
    Z’s for Zimbabwe which we love though it’s grim.

  6. Paul Mills says:

    Excellent commentary.

  7. kmw3011 says:

    Excellent, depressing, should be enraging!

  8. Excellent piece Mike… I get so tired of South Africans wilfully deceiving themselves… SA is an unsustainable project because the vision isn’t there; there’s not the capacity to rise to the challenge or to use the space Mandela created. It’s such a relief to read truth, rather than race-based rhetoric. Thanks

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