Is South Africa ripe for another revolution?

Arrival in Johannesburg or Cape Town airports gives one the impression of being in a major American or European city. It is a far cry from the often gloomy airports in places like Lagos and many other African cities. Most South African cities are not your typical African urban areas. I have been amazed by the high level of infrastructure and the sophistication of South Africa’s population of all races and colors. But one quickly realizes though that urban South Africa was built to recreate Europe and for its white population. The architecture, especially in Cape Town, reminds one of the more than 400 years of Dutch and British influence on the country.

While South African has come a long way from its racist past, the tag of racism is still here and there. That is the not so-inspiring part of South Africa today. A visit to Robben Island on the first few days of my arrival in South Africa was perhaps the most important reminder of South Africa’s not so proud past. I was visiting with a group of 17 Marquette University students who were participants in the Marquette Service Learning Program in Cape Town. As we departed Cape Town’s waterfront on that beautiful sunny day, and looked ahead to the open ocean, I reminded myself of the significance of Robben Island in the history of South Africa and the lives of people like Mandela, Mbeki, Sobukwe and many others who had been incarcerated on the island for many years. It was an emotional journey. You cannot help but be moved by the sordid past of this beautiful but infamous place. Here, on this beautiful island with a clear view of Cape Town and its ever present Table Mountain, is an important part of South Africa’s recent past. This island provided the base for most of the black intellectuals and leadership during the struggle. Former president Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom was born here. The philosophical framework for South Africa’s post-apartheid constitution gained impetus here. Robben Island is South Africa’s living past and the reflection of some Marquette students after the visit to Robben Island drives this home:

Walking through the cold and deserted prison I felt as if I had taken leaps back into past, but in actuality I had only taken steps. What felt like hundreds of years ago, happened in my lifetime and still affects the people of South Africa today— MU student

It must have been a confusing tension for Mandela to live under, the beauty and natural freedom of Robben Island, the sea (with its many sea lions and whales), and the towering Table Mountain coupled with the suppression and lack of freedom in his prison experience. If the prison had been a completely cut-off and self-sufficient world, it would have been much easier to dehumanize and suppress Mandela and other prisoners. But Robben Island was no where near Siberia; it was located in one of the most beautiful places in the world. It may have been one of the factors that allowed Mandela to rise above the prison, allowed the prisoners and guards to be respectful of each other, and allow the prisoners to forgive and give tours to people on the island— MU student

It is hard to think about the fact that such horrible things happened on such a beautiful island, but they did.— MU student

So often people want to forget about the monstrosities of the past and look to a brighter future but in my opinion one of the most valuable moments of this trip is being able to almost go back in time and walk the shoes that Mandela walked in order to make the country what it is today— MU student

Nelson Mandela’s 3 x 3 meters prison cell on Robben Island


South Africa calls itself the rainbow nation and just like the rainbow, the colors have not overlapped. Segregation is officially ended but the reality is that South Africans still live in the old segregated structures of the apartheid era. But South Africa has yet to fully come to terms with its historical past. The country is still deeply segregated in class and residential arrangements. Indeed there are two South Africas. There is one that is a continuity of the vestiges of apartheid that segregated people along a dubious color line. The segregation of the apartheid era may be long gone but places like Cape Town are still deeply segregated along racial and color lines. There are still predominantly white suburban parts of the city—what one could call the White Reserves. Many of the small coastal and beach towns are still very white.

Granted, there are some black South Africans who have left the township and now live in the former white enclaves,

but this is not the case with many black South Africans. It is a matter of economics.

The Cape Town Northern Suburbs

In reality, white South Africa has not given out much of its past privileges. Economic inequality has made it impossible to break-down old residential boundaries. They cannot afford to move even if they wish to leave the poor communities they call home.  Any

movements that have taken place have also been in a single direction—a one way traffic. Only blacks are pushing to move into what may become mixed neighborhoods of the future. In fact, I do not see a white South African moving to live in Soweto or Guguletu as a matter of choice.

There are the black Townships like Guguletu (our pride), Langa (sun), and Nyanga (moon) which were established as a result of the migrant labor system. Townships like Nyanga and Guguletu are extremely poor, dangerous, crime ridden, and unemployment could be as high as 50%.

A visit to these Townships offers a once in a lifetime opportunity to experience the condition in which the majority of South Africans live. As part of the Leadership in Grassroots Organizations Course, Marquette students work in impoverished communities such as Lotus Park, an informal settlement

The Other South Africa: Lotus Park, Guguletu Township

that over 4,700 black South African call home. Located in Guguletu Township, just 15 kilometers from Cape Town, Lotus Park is emblematic of the failure of the transformations that was expected at the end of apartheid.

Marquette Provost with Marquette student volunteers at Lotus Park, Guguletu Township

The townships and informal settlements are desperately poor. The schools still lack many of the resources and well trained teachers that are essential to the South Africa of the future. The classrooms are overcrowded with many students struggling to meet the basic requirements for higher education.

But there is an even more urgent problem in South Africa today. South Africa is experiencing one of its worst crises since apartheid— the sort of economic conditions that forced the apartheid regime to relax its policies and eventually end the system. Economic growth in South Africa declined by about 7% due to a wave of violent strikes led by miners demanding huge wage increases. Service delivery strikes involving about 15,000 South African truckers which have disrupted economic activities in South Africa for most of the year highlight the country’s huge economic and social discrepancies. Farm workers have carried out their own strikes in recent days. Ironically, these strikes have been violent, with loss of lives and destruction of private and public property.

South African miner strike

Evidently the current economic woes in South Africa were inherited from the apartheid era.  It borrowed heavily and left little in the treasury when it relinquished power. South Africans came to the realization in 1995 that they were not as rich as they thought. So the ANC governments have necessarily been redistributing its resources much more equitably among South Africa’s racial groups. Whites, colored, blacks, and Indians all have to get an equal piece of the pie—that means everyone gets a bit less rather than more. Thus there is frustration at different levels. The white South Africa has seen their standard of living fall because of the removal of the privileges of the apartheid era. For the first time in many years, there seems to be an emerging “poor white” class—something the white minority regimes of past years fought so hard to prevent. The presence of white beggars on the street corner was something white South Africa fought so hard to prevent. This is causing quite some level of anxiety among the white population. Black South Africans, too, are frustrated that the end of apartheid did not translate to better standard of living for them.

The policies implemented in the last days of the apartheid regime have an impact on the outlook of some public institutions. Huge sums of money, it appears, were channeled to white controlled public institutions, like universities, in the last days of the apartheid. On the other hand, black and colored institutions were left scrambling for diminishing resources.

The inherited problems of apartheid aside, South Africa’s immediate challenge is reminiscence of post-colonial African societies. The government of President Jacob Zuma and the African National Congress (ANC) has failed to deal with the economic problems that South Africa is facing. The Zuma government has been accused of corruption—a common problem in many African countries. The government and the ruling ANC is busy plotting how to keep itself in power rather than confront the challenges facing the country.

The opposition is becoming increasingly vocal. The opposition in parliament is calling for a vote of no confidence against President Jacob Zuma for alleged corruption and economic bungling. Although the vote may be merely symbolic it would nevertheless embarrass him and the ruling ANC. It may also further divide the ANC and strengthen the argument by those within the ANC who feel that Zuma is not capable of handling the role of President of South Africa.

The ANC is struggling to define itself—post-Mandela and Mbeki. And for sure Zuma and the current leadership of the ANC lack the pedigree of the first generation of political leaders in post-Apartheid South Africa. It is possible that the internal problems and factionalism within the ANC will be its greatest undoing. The consequence of ANC’s lingering internal strife is that it has led them to ignore the more important task of governance.

Xenophobia is a real problem in South Africa. As one who has interacted with a number of Africans from other countries especially in West Africa—the use of the term “foreigner’ to describe people from other African countries is perhaps what I found most offensive about how people perceived me. There is an attitude of “blame the foreigner” for current economic woes in South Africa. I stopped watching South African local TV drama long ago. They never end without bashing the so-called “foreigners” who are seen as taking their jobs or marrying their women to secure residency.

I guess one can relate this attitude to the peculiar historical experience of South Africa. South Africans have a very short period of interaction with people from outside the country. Many South Africans have never traveled outside South Africa. This is quite unlike a much more mobile population in the other regions of Western, Eastern, and other parts of Southern Africa. I think South Africans are still struggling to actually understand who they are in terms of the different ethnic and racial groups after years of forced segregation. The influx of other Africans into South Africa at the end of apartheid complicated what was a critical period in South Africa’s task of understanding themselves, their nation, as well as managing their inter-ethnic and racial relations.

Chima Korieh is the Academic Director of Marquette University’s South Africa Service Learning Program in Cape Town.  He is an associate professor of African history whose most recent books include The Land Has Changed: History, Society, and Gender in Colonial Eastern Nigeria, the co-authored (with Obioma Nnaemeka) Shaping Our Struggles: Nigerian Women in History, Culture and Social Change and the co-edited (with Apollos Nwauwa), Against All Odds: The Igbo Experience in Post-colonial Nigeria.


1 Response to “Is South Africa ripe for another revolution?”

  1. 1 R0gUe August 11, 2013 at 8:28 am

    There is currently a revolution brewing in south africa, the ANC have misused their power…thing is…its a mixed race group standing up against the ANC

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