Its apartheid past looms over South Africa as a perpetual reminder even as it gets ready to lead the ‘African decade’
The party was at an art gallery in downtown Johannesburg. Ralf Seippel, the owner of the venue, walked up to me as soon as I entered. Before long, he was telling me how, when he first started the gallery, acquaintances would come up to him and say he had two weeks to live. Johannesburg had that reputation then. He told me about the trajectory of art galleries, how they are born and how they die. First, artists move into a location no one else wants to be in because it is cheap, then art galleries follow, and then it becomes fashionable to be there, and shoe shops like Nike enter, which leads to rents shooting up, and then the art galleries cannot afford to be there anymore. His acquaintances were a little surprised to see him alive and thriving after two weeks. But the shoe shops are coming now and Seippel expects to move at some point in the future.
Seippel introduced me to a man with a Sherlock Holmes cap and a beard that had more salt than pepper. He was standing next to a photograph on exhibition. It was his own. In the 1980s, Cedric Nunn had extensively documented the resistance to apartheid in townships outside Johannesburg, which was the nucleus of the movement. One of them was Soweto, where Nelson Mandela had his home. I had visited the place, now a tourist spot, just a day earlier. The home had three matchbox-sized rooms. Outside, the walls had bullet holes. It abutted a wide clean road that rose steadily because it must have been a hill once. A little below, there was the home of Desmond Tutu. It was the only road in the world that could boast of three Nobel Prize winners residing on it. Of course, Mandela didn’t stay here anymore. Tutu came once in a while. It was now Soweto’s rich quarter. We only saw a glimpse of the shanties, but they were there.
I chatted with Cedric for some time and then went to the garden outside, where there was a jazz group playing. After some time, I again spotted and accosted him. We talked about many things—from Rajiv Gandhi’s assassins to how, after the apartheid regime, it suddenly became difficult to sell photographs in South Africa because money for NGOs, his primary clients, dried up once the new government solicited it all from international donors. There was cheese at a table at the far end of the garden, and when we reached there, a young White man in a blue suit with a beer in one hand who looked very happy started chatting with us. I asked him whether there was any hangover of apartheid in relationships between Blacks and Whites. He said he was 27 and too young at the time. To him, it didn’t matter. Cedric told him he might think so, but he was part of a legacy. Whether he wanted it or not, that period of South African history was as much a part of him as of anyone else. It sounded like some good old avuncular dressing down, but it answered the question. No one in South Africa was going to be allowed to forget anything in a hurry.
Cedric certainly had not let go. Recently, he went to take photographs of a battlefield of what is called South Africa’s border war with Angola. During apartheid, there was compulsory army service for White South Africans, and one of the reasons Cedric did the project was that so many Whites had been forced to join that war. “We don’t know how they are dealing with it,” he said.
Three days later, when I got out of Cape Town airport, the bus we were in had a tour guide named Arn Durand, a tall, stocky, clean-shaven, square-faced man. He had a bagful of one-liners, had just published a book, had a contract for two more, and was once upon a time a soldier, and not just any soldier. Arn was in the special forces ops of the apartheid government, which made him an elite commando. He seemed to epitomise what Cedric had said. Arn had taken part in 127 encounters and three mine explosions and come out alive and punning (“What do you say if someone asks you if you have a problem with the full moon?” “Noooooooooooooo”). His book, Zulu Zulu Golf, which has just been published, is a form of expiation. “Terrible things happened in this country,” he said. He mentioned once in passing that he was one of those whom the apartheid government deployed to pick up protestors in the middle of the night. He was allowed to retire at 29 under the condition that he would never talk about his years as a soldier. He showed no interest in speaking about it to us, except to say that he had written a book and got it out of his system. “It was all mixed up,” he said, when pushed to answer what he had thought at the time about what he was doing. Apartheid, in a sense, has never left South Africa. It lingers on, as hangover and memory, as something too ‘terrible’ to ever let go.
Someone remarked to us in Cape Town that in Johannesburg they had managed to hide the shanties but not in Cape Town because you could see them on the road from the airport. As someone from India, I was unimpressed. There is nothing to compare the squalor in the slums of Mumbai. But, despite the First World beauty of Johannesburg and Cape Town, there is poverty in South Africa and it is largely Black because apartheid was about economic subjugation too.
The Health Minister of South Africa is currently busy setting a wrong right, and it will take him 14 years. It has made him unpopular with just about everyone, from his party colleagues to the media to the entire middle-class. There are interesting stories about his predecessor who went to hospital for a liver transplant and sent a nurse out for a bottle because she had an alcohol problem. Aaron Motsoaledi, in contrast, is better informed because he is also a doctor. The 14-year overhaul of the country’s healthcare system that he is proposing stems from inequities wrought by apartheid. There were two healthcare systems then—one for Whites and a non-existent one for Blacks. Dr Motsoaledi finds that two decades later, there are still two health systems, one for the rich and another for the poor.
His response to that is to insure every South African, so that everyone can get treatment as good as anyone else. Right now, all the good doctors and hospitals are cornered by 16 per cent of the population who can afford them. It is very interesting to hear him speak. He peppers dark statistics with deadpan humour. “If you go to a restaurant, they don’t charge you for an extra serviette or forks,” he said, “But in a hospital here, if the doctor puts in an additional needle for the drip, it will be billed. If he wants to use a bandage, he will open a new box and charge you for it.” What is even more impressive is that he goes to other African countries and tells health ministers there not to emulate South Africa’s current healthcare system.
Despite all the inequalities, not unlike India, there is a sense of certainty in South Africa about its place in the world. It’s a confidence drawn from what it sees as its economic position. Markets have to be created, for which there is nowhere for global businesses to go but Africa, and the gateway to the continent is South Africa. To give another example of its engagement with the world, South Africa is one of only two countries (Australia being the other) bidding to set up the most powerful radio telescope the world has ever known. It is actually not one dish, but 4,000 dish antennae spread across 3,000 km. It will have many countries collaborate and will cost over €1 billion. “One of the objectives of the SKA is to look into the Big Bang. With the radio telescopes we have now, the Milky Way is a barrier between the Big Bang and us. With the SKA we can look through it,” said Dr Michael Gaylard, acting managing director of the Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory, which is spearheading South Africa’s bid.
Another politician we are taken to meet in Pretoria, the seat of the government, is Maite Nkoana Mashabane, minister of international relations and cooperation. South Africa is going to host COP17, the 17th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. In government circles, it is an event on par with the football World Cup. It is expected to get 30,000 delegates and activists from across the world. We wait for the minister to arrive. Her secretary comes to do a recce, and runs an appraising eye over everyone.
“How’s it been so far? How do you like South Africa?” he asks.
“So, so,” says a Nigerian journalist.
“So, so?” the secretary seems to
mull over the answer. It’s not the answer he expected. “What’s wrong?” he persists, “I can hook you up, man. I have four cousins.”
We chuckle. I imagine SM Krishna’s secretary at a press conference telling a journalist he can hook him up.
Apartheid makes an appearance here too, this time as pride. In an answer to a question, the minister talks about how women led the apartheid resistance, with her being a part of it.
Far away from Pretoria, at the other end of the country, an hour’s drive away from Cape Town, is Cape Winelands. It looks like a painting, with undulating vineyards and barns that look whitewashed. One of the wine estates is Solms Delta. It was bought by Mark Solms, a neuroscientist in 2002. But once he took ownership, Solms realised he had not just got a piece of land or a business. Coloured families living on it as workers came along with it. The farm has a 320-year history and many of their ancestors had originally been brought here as slaves. Technically, they were free but still bonded to the land because if they stopped working, they could be evicted. They lived in pathetic conditions. “One house had three walls,” says Craig MacGillivray, CEO of Solms Delta.
Solms started a rehabilitation programme by which its workers are now part owners of not just their homes but one-third of the wine estate. The place has a Sunday calm about it. Under the shade of trees are set out tables. Nearby workers, who have a band, sing the chorus of a song that has come down from their ancestors. There is a restaurant whose floor is made of glass and you can see rocks below. Behind it is a museum where a full-time historian has collected oral memories of slavery and apartheid. Some of the identity labels have ‘Malabar’ on them. There were Indians here, toiling away.
What I find most interesting is the resident historian Tracey Randle’s mention of a project in which workers were asked about their most powerful childhood memories, and many of these had to do with the first time they wore shoes. Her inference is that slaves were not permitted to wear shoes, and therefore, it has become a powerful psychological motif with them. Charlotte Van Zyl, a genial Dutch woman who manages the trust overseeing the social rehabilitation, tells me later as we have lunch that other wine estates have started emulating them, but the conditions of coloured workers in the valley overall are still terrible. It is changing, but not fast enough to break out of apartheid’s shadow.
The writer was part of a media tour organised by Brand South Africa, which hosted his travel and stay