South Africa, then and now

In all the words emitted on the occasion of the passing of Nelson Mandela, one thread questions whether anything significant was accomplished with the end of apartheid. The fact that there is still poverty, inequality and a high crime rate is pointed out, along with the obvious fact that South Africa has not achieved socialism. The Slovenian Marxist, Slavoj Zizek, concludes that Mandela must have ended up “a bitter old man” because of not achieving these things.

I want to make a rough accounting of what is different about the South Africa of today, and the South Africa I lived in until I was nine and a half years old and whose affairs I have followed closely ever since.

Racism, inequality and exploitation were not suddenly installed with the elections of 1948 when the National Party of Dr. Daniel Malan defeated the United Party of Field Marshall Jan Smuts, and introduced the word “apartheid” as its slogan.

Many of the racist, exploitative practices had already existed since South Africa got effective independence in 1910. And before that, the little Boer Republics, and the British colonial regime were not either just or democratic in their treatment of the Black majority. White domination and brutal inequality go back 300 years to the first European settlement. 

At first, this oppression had the purpose of depriving indigenous Africans of land and of exploiting them as an agricultural work force, while breaking the independent African states, which might serve as foci for resistance.  When diamonds and gold were discovered in the late 19th century, the name of the game became converting the agricultural Black population into cheap labor for mines owned by major international corporations.

The apartheid regime systematized and intensified the existing situation of repression and exploitation.  National Party politicians took advantage of the red-baiting atmosphere of the Cold War to attribute any call for fair treatment as being part of the “communist onslaught.”  They frightened the white population with the bogeyman of the “swart gevaar,” the so-called black menace, and fear of invasion from the rest of Africa. They went after the Indian community with malicious ferocity.  White “liberals” caved in with very few exceptions. Almost the only whites who stood up to all of these attacks were those in the multi-racial Communist Party.

Life in South Africa became hell for the Black population. Vicious police were let loose on anybody who talked back.

The population’s movement and access to jobs and services was severely curtailed and everybody had to carry a pass when traveling outside tribal reserves; to be caught without it meant jail and often slave-like labor on farms.

Family life was disrupted; many depended on work in the mines to survive, but could not legally establish permanent residence nearby.

The culmination of folly was the creation of the “Bantustans.” These were imaginary countries. Every black South African was declared to be a citizen of one of these artificially created “nations.”

The whole setup was nothing but window dressing to cover the fact that in reality, Blacks in South Africa had no political rights. The puppet Bantustan leaders were despised by the black population as a whole.

Violence increased and spread beyond South Africa’s borders.

As armed resistance to apartheid grew stronger, the South African regime undertook terror raids into neighboring countries, killing not only South African refugees but also citizens of other countries.  Terrorism against exiled opponents, including the use of letter and parcel bombs, claimed valuable lives.

Finally, South Africa’s effort to hang onto Southwest Africa (now Namibia) led to a shooting war in which South African troops were defeated by Angolan and Cuban troops and Namibian guerrillas in 1987 and 1988, at the siege of Cuito Cuanavale in Angola. 

At this point the economy was in a terrible state (because of boycotts but also because the apartheid model did not work economically), the country was isolated, and the more sensible white politicians understood that they had to negotiate. 

Today, what remains of the old apartheid state?

Gone are all the apartheid laws, the bannings and prohibitions, the special powers to arrest people and hold them without trial.  Gone is censorship.

Gone are the “whites only” signs in parks, beaches and other public venues. Legal residential segregation has been abolished.

The Bantustans have vanished into thin air from which they were created.  Elections are free. Schools have been improved and are no longer legally segregated.

Far more Blacks have university educations, advanced degrees and professional careers than they did under apartheid.

The apartheid cabinets were all white, today’s South African cabinet is mostly black, but with Indian, mixed race, Afrikaner, English speaking white and Jewish members also. h

South Africa is no longer a politically isolated pariah state and a menace to its neighbors, but a respected member of the world community and part, with China, India, Russia and Brazil, of the BRICS group of emerging powers. Its government no longer sends parcel bombs over its borders to murder people who criticize its policies.  All major language communities have access to its airwaves. South Africa stands out on the continent for its progressive policies on gays and lesbians.  There are no political prisoners.  The death penalty and corporal punishment have been abolished. Women’s rights are advanced.  Culture and sport flourish.

The South African Communist Party works openly, speaks out through its own and other media, and is a respected part of the body politic. There are several communists in President Zuma’s cabinet. This is no big deal in South Africa.

The end of apartheid came at the moment when the Soviet Union and the European socialist states, which had done so much to help Cuba and Vietnam defeat imperialism and achieve socialism, were also collapsing.  In this context, South Africa had no choice but to try to survive in the new situation, and prioritized dismantling the institutions of apartheid over a radical push for socialism.  This is why South Africa is not socialist today, and why the well known ills of capitalism, such as poverty, inequality and crime are still huge problems.

But this too will be overcome, as apartheid was overcome.

Photo: This Bill of Rights, plastered on the wall of the remains of the old prison in Durban, symbolizes the differences between the old and new South Africa. bistandsaktuelt/cc




Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.