|The Ballards - South Africa|
Just the name of the continent inspires so many clichés:
from Jim Kerr and Simple Minds singing "when you cry, it rains...
Africa" on the Real
LIfe album to the extravagances of White Mischief white Kenyans....
And especially South Africa: so recently the home of the great social experiment of Apartheid, or "Apart Life"; the rallying point of so many 1980s UK student protests, of Soweto and Steve Biko and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and of course the infamous "Freeeeee Nelson Mandela (with every 5 Litres of motor oil.....)".
What would South Africa be like in the 21st Century? A land now ruled by its black majority but still driven economically by its white minority, where white supremacists like Eugene Terreblanche had until so recently held sway. Where tales of urban violence and carjacking are rife.
Over Easter 2006 we found out...
A surprisingly comfortable 10hr Virgin overnight flight
and 1 hour's adjustment of the watch found us letting down in to an overcast
Johannesburg, where the runway is a steep hill (but shouldn't we be landing
up it?) and is surrounded by an aviation graveyard:
747s with no engines, a couple of BAC 1-11s and an Antonov in various
stages of disrepair.
Every single passport officer is visibly, forcefully
black, offset against
a starched white uniform and desk. But all the passengers are white, even
the domestic passengers. And not just white, but blonde, tall, pale-skinned.
Like.... well, like Dutchmen, of course, which is what they are all descended
On the mobile phone our friend warns us in a slightly
panicked voice not to talk to anyone, not to put our
bags down, not to smile at anyone, just to be invisible whilst she negotiates
The rich (some black, most white) live in fortresses
behind guards, electric fences, dogs, armed security patrols and walkie-talkies.
Violent crime exists all over the world; the difference
in South Africa is that the Apartheid era struggles resulted in the country
being flooded with East European arms. A bag snatching typical of London
would, in Johannesburg, escalate to murder by shooting.
But it's rich against poor: South Africa is, despite
its history, not essentially racist, unlike the US.
You gain the impression of an economy still in white
hands and run for the benefit mainly of whites, but increasingly by and
The South African press, both TV and printed media, is
startlingly frank about the problems the country faces 10 years after
the end of apartheid.
The government has a balancing act to perform: to keep the economy (still largely driven by the whites) going whilst pushing black Africans in to positions where they will gain an economic stake in society and demand better education for their children, who will then perceive themselves to be the equals of the whites.
It will take a generation or more for things to right themselves. A by-product is the export of white talent, especially to Europe, where many Afrikaners are seeking a better life free from crime and black empowerment.
Land redistribution is a big issue in parts of South Africa: the Government have committed to a "Willing seller/Willing buyer" model as opposed to a Zimbabwe-style land-grab. This has had disappointing results in recent years due to (depending on your point of view):
The unwillingness of rich indolent white farmers to release the land stolen from the black tribes to their former workers by setting unrealistically high sale prices on the land to prevent blacks from buying the land, whilst at the same time paying lip service to the Government's policy
Honest hard working white farmers who have invested generations of Capital and labour in wresting the agricultural capability of the land from its former fallow status (and, by the way, feeding the nation and Zimbabwe to boot) setting prices according to market forces but not finding any blacks willing buy at these prices: indolent blacks taking the attitude "if we wait long enough the Government will give us the land anyway; why should we buy it?"
The situation is exacerbated by insufficient Government training and support for new black farmers plus inexperience on the part of many potential black farmers in dealing with financial institiutions and Capital-intensive equpment suppliers.
During the Apartheid years, when many countries (not,
may I say, including Mrs Thatcher's Government) pariahed South Africa,
the Afrikaans self-sufficiency, entrepreneurial spirit and natural athleticism
generated huge levels of home grown industry and self-investment; although
a little of this has leaked away now SA is "back in the world"
it is still evident.
There is huge fear amongst the white population of the
black majority Government becoming just another black crazy racist kleptocratic
dictatorship, but then again these were the people who feared black majority
Thabo Mbeki and the other ANC leaders cannot condemn Mugabe; they owe him Big Time. He helped their struggle during the Apartheid years, now he is reaping the harvest. South African oil and power is all that is keeping Zimbabwe from total collapse at present.
Quite where this goes is anyone's guess; once Mugabe dies or is shot a SA peacekeeping force in the country restoring law and order within 48 hours, followed by a commitment to a multicoloured government and a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, would be very welcome indeed to ordinary Zimbabweans.
They all know the typical African decline starts with
corruption and leaders not releasing power, so a great deal of attention
is paid to be seen to be rooting out corruption at the highest levels
of government, and there is a great deal of navel gazing to facilitate
However, even with this going on there is the perception
that all that has really changed since 1992 is that a small number of
blacks have enriched themselves at the expense of the majority of the
Without a baseline it's hard to pin down individual examples
of how things have got better or worse since the end of Apartheid: the
slow replacement of white managerial staff in key planning posts via black
empowerment may or may not have been responsible for the chaotic organisation
of the passenger transfer buses at Johannesburg airport, where a moment's
forethought would have provided a service where full buses don't need
to back out in to the main service road running across the front of the
terminal, causing chaos.
AIDS has created a seismic shift in the population balance:
of the total population of 46.9m,
30% have AIDS, so that is 14m AIDS cases.
Wherever you go, and you may be 20 miles from the nearest house, there will be black South Africans walking down the side of the road. Often with no shoes, the men usually alone and morose, the women in groups and brightly-coloured, with precariously balanced loads on their heads. They must walk miles and miles.
South African roads are interesting: nearly all (including,
confusingly, those marked as motorways on the maps) are two lane, but
all major roads have solid yellow lines on the left hand edge of the normal
road with half a lane's tarmac to the left of that.
In fact, South African drivers are courteous and, on
the whole, very good drivers.
South Africa is a big and beautiful country: we travelled
extensively within its borders, from Johannesburg to the Garden Route
in the South to the Little Karoo to the Karoo to Cape Town to Cape Point
to the Wine District to the Botswana border on safari.
South Africa is not what I expected when I imagined Africa:
it has a proper, European infrastructure.
Perhaps it was REAL AFRICA after all?