Saturday, April 18, 2009

Elections: South Africa 2009

The struggles of a young democracy
By John Humphrys

Perhaps it is unrealistic to have expected all of South Africa's many problems to have been solved in a mere 15 years
It's an odd business returning to somewhere you lived when you were a relatively young man, bringing up children who now have children of their own.

I was in my late twenties when I first reported from South Africa. I moved here to set up a television news bureau in 1977 and lived here for three years.

Those were the dark days of apartheid when only white people were allowed to vote and the only black people you saw in the posh suburbs were servants.

I came back again for the Today programme in 1994 to watch that depraved system buried for once and for all in the first free elections. On the night of 2 May 1994, I was in the ballroom of Johannesburg's biggest hotel to join the party at which the guest of honour was Nelson Mandela - the first black president of this country.

So, 15 years later, here I am again. And what do I find? Well, on the face of it, many things seem unchanged.

I went back to my old house in the posh suburb of Saxonwold and just about the only black men I saw were walking the streets wearing bright yellow jackets with the word "security" printed in large letters on the back - private guards hired by the rich whites to help them sleep easier in their beds at night.

And in the houses - black maids, black gardeners and black chauffeurs. Nothing changed there then.

It was the same in the smart hotels and restaurants - almost all whites sitting at the tables and almost all blacks serving them.

Wrong colour

But when I left the city and drove out into the high veld towards Pretoria, I saw hard evidence that some things really have changed.

Rough squatter camps have sprung up - whole families living in tiny, tumbledown shacks with no running water and no decent sewage systems.

These sorts of places have existed in South Africa for as long as I can remember. The big difference is that it is white people living in these particular squatter camps now, not black.

One burly Afrikaner with a huge white, bushy beard told me with more sorrow in his voice than anger: "Yes, it's true. Everything is turned upside down. Now it's the blacks that are on top and we are on the bottom."

He told me that people like him needed help from the government to survive. I asked him why he couldn't get a job and help himself.

He looked as me as if I were stupid: "Wrong colour, wrong skin. Ja?"

I wondered if he accepted that hard-line whites like him had it coming - that the tables had been turned and they were now getting a dose of what they had been dishing out for half a century.

He shrugged: "Ja. I guess you could say so…."

Township squalor

Their camp was a pretty squalid place, but at least it was surrounded by grassland and trees.

For real, unimaginable squalor you need to go to the townships. Alexandra is home to more than 800,000 people, the majority of them living in shacks squashed so close together a rat can barely squeeze between - and God knows there are plenty of rats.

And yet, on the outer edges of this township are row upon row of brand new homes standing empty. In heaven's name why?

They may be modest but they are palaces compared with the shacks. They have plumbing for toilets, running water - unimaginable luxuries.

The local authority says they are still empty because they ran out of money to complete them. The shack dwellers say it's because of corruption - they are being saved for friends of the powerful and ANC party officials.

I spoke to a group of women who had taken over the homes and squatted there until they were thrown out by the police. They were planning another raid as I left them. They told me they would not be voting in the election.

"Why bother?" one tough old woman demanded of me.

"It changes nothing that we have the vote. If we want something, we have learned that we must take it."

She went further than that. She talked about the start of a new revolution to overthrow the ANC and give power back to the people.

I heard that from others, too, including the bishop of the Central Methodist Church Paul Verryn.

He has allowed his church to be used as a sanctuary by thousands of refugees from Zimbabwe who sleep there every night. We watched them crowding into the building as it grew dark - so many of them that they covered every square inch of floor, including the stone steps. That's where they slept, night after night after night.

And they were the lucky ones. Another couple of thousand can't get in. They have to find somewhere else to sleep. It is strange and deeply unsettling to see this expression of utter poverty in the heart of what is potentially the richest city on the continent of Africa.

Rewards of power

But perhaps it is unrealistic to have expected all of South Africa's many problems to have been solved in a mere 15 years. And there is no doubt that progress has been made - millions of new homes built, power and running water supplied to many more.

But the anger of the poor people I spoke to was made much sharper because they suspect that while they live in squalor, many of their leaders - the men and women who fought for their liberation - are reaping the rewards of power.

The man who will almost certainly become president, Jacob Zuma, has himself been under a cloud of suspicion for years, facing charges of corruption.

When the prosecuting authorities decided not to put him on trial there was a great deal of anger from people who suspected that political pressure had been brought to bear. He and his colleagues deny it fiercely.

I have known Archbishop Desmond Tutu for more than 30 years and I wanted to hear what he made of it all. Tutu won the Nobel Peace Prize for his part in the struggle for black liberation and has the respect of millions around the world.

They don't come more ebullient and charismatic than Tutu. His dynamism, energy and enthusiasm is infectious and his chuckle is enough to bring a smile to the stoniest face.

But he was strangely subdued when I met him. He once said - after Mandela came to power - that he expected to spend his old age sitting on the sidelines because his job had been done - democracy would do the rest.

Instead, he is clearly concerned that Zuma has not stood trial and faced up to the allegations in a court of law.

When I put that to one of the most senior figures on the ANC executive, she got very angry.

It was typical, she said, of the colonial attitude people like me bring to a country like South Africa. Her message was clear - we foreigners should keep our noses out of her country's affairs.

So, for my last interview, I went to see the man who made democratic elections possible - the last white president of South Africa, FW de Klerk.

It was he who freed Nelson Mandela and brought about the constitution under which he became president. Mr de Klerk, too, is clearly worried about the consequences of a Zuma presidency.

He hopes the elections will result in a sharp fall in support for the ANC which, he believes, is too powerful. But he told me he is not pessimistic for the future of South Africa.

Both he and Tutu believe democracy will survive. And so long as it does, there is hope. That, for what it's worth, is the message I take away from my visit here too.

Maybe I'll come back again in another 15 years and be proved wrong, but I hope not.

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