South Africa feeds me inspiration but fills me with a bitterness that has surprised me. On the one hand, the government has successfully reorganized and redistributed the country’s political power since the 1990’s. On the other, it has inherited a segregated pattern of residential living across the country and has left in place the economic structure of the apartheid era.
Even looking at the current government I feel torn. Although I see its blatant corruption and undeniable incompetencies, I also recognize that it has indeed provided many services previously unreached and established many rights and freedoms previously unfathomed.
With this growing sense of uncertainty – this squeezing of myself into a position of being the outside observer of an internal struggle- I find myself at a place where the vague term of what it means to “engage” finally holds meaning. I feel myself grappling with a sense of dissonance and trying to ground myself simply by being present.
As I reflect on the current state of things and try to understand the nuances of the political landscape here, it hits me that the governing party of South Africa, the ANC, is it’s own worst enemy- yet not in the way you would expect. Not in the sense that the ANC’s shady loan schemes and numerous counts of fraud will undermine its legitimacy. Not quite. Rather, due to the fact that 20 years ago the ANC promised a better life for all the people of South Africa – black, white, coloured, male, female, citizen, refugee, Zulu and Xhosa alike. In doing so, it constructed an expectation gap it’s now struggling to fill.
So while some see the widespread restlessness and growing discontent of the people as a sign of failure or a lack of progress I am not too sure. Perhaps it signifies not that things are getting worse, but rather, that people are beginning to recognize that they deserve better.
When I mentioned growing frustration over the vast wealth disparities I see on a daily basis, I was quickly countered by a born-and-raised Captonian. Coming from a first-hand experience point of view she explained, “You see those small shacks selling goods on the side of the road and criticize the government for the lack of economic opportunities but you don’t realize that in the past you wouldn’t have even been allowed to have that small stand. What seems like nothing to someone from overseas is actually a huge sign of progress.”
The more I learn about the past of South Africa the more I do appreciate how far this country has come, but how long can this be the frame of reference. With the new “born free generation” coming of age, there has been a rift. I can see the dialogue shifting away from a remembrance of how it used to be towards a conversation of how it should be.
Nelson Mandela himself spoke of this need to look forward as opposed to back when he explained, “South Africans have no concept of time and this is also why we can’t solve poverty and social problems… It’s now 10 years since the fall of the Apartheid government and we cannot blame Apartheid for being tardy.” With time ticking, Mandela asked South Africa to no longer use the past as an excuse for the present but to move forward.
He himself transitioned with his country in not only his leadership style and tactics but also in his day-to-day dress. As a man known for always being impeccably dressed, Mandela began to wear loose fitting designed t-shirts in his later years. When one boy asked why, he responded, “I was in prison so long, I want to feel freedom.”
So while it seems that, according to their Constitution at least, South Africans enjoy even more extensive freedoms than we do in the United States, without the immediate needs of adequate housing, basic medicines and clean drinking water being met in many regions- have they truly felt the freedom their Constitution affords?