South Africa: Cloud cuckoo land

Glittering malls stand beside grim poverty; the government is split and so are the people. So where is the 'new South Africa' heading? Patrick Neate tours a nation with a World Cup to host and an identity crisis to solve.
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The Independent Online

I first went on a "township tour" in 1990. I was 19 years old and on holiday from Zimbabwe, where I was then working. Nelson Mandela had been released from Robben Island a couple of months previously and, in South Africa, it seemed like the beginning of the end for apartheid.

In the UK, meanwhile, the poll-tax riots marked the beginning of the end for Margaret Thatcher, too, the prime minister who once branded Mandela a "terrorist" and whose stance has only recently been disowned by her party. Three years previously, Thatcher had claimed that anyone who believed the ANC would ever rule South Africa was "living in cloud cuckoo land". Four years later, cloud cuckoo land became reality.

After his release, Mandela's first trip overseas was to Zimbabwe where he spoke at Rufaro Stadium in Harare. I recently saw a friend from those days who told me that we were there together. Strangely, considering this was an event of such obvious global significance, I don't remember a single thing about it. But I do vividly remember that tour of Soweto, the township whose name remains synonymous with the South African struggle for freedom and democracy.

That day, us tourists met at a five-star hotel in Johannesburg city centre and piled into a luxurious minibus. Apart from my friend and myself, the party was exclusively well-to-do white Americans. The driver/guide was a jolly Sowetan who deflected (omega) any political questioning with a shake of the head and an infectious chuckle. With hindsight, I imagine he despised every one of us.

We stopped at a market where the snap-happy Yanks shot roll after roll of township residents going about their business. I kept my lens capped. We visited a pensioners' centre where a group of old women sang for us and then sold us knick-knacks - basketwork mostly - at an exorbitant premium. We passed by Mandela's house - "This is the Beverly Hills of Soweto," the driver laughed - and paused for more pictures. This time I pulled out my camera and took a photo of an adjoining wall that was daubed with a message aimed at our minibus and others like it. I'm looking at that photo now. I can't make out every word but "white tourist pigs" is just about discernible.

I went on a "township tour" again a month or so ago. This time I was at the other end of the country, visiting Langa, a historically black township on the Cape Flats on the outskirts of Cape Town. A similarly comfy minibus took us to see "Moms", an elderly sangoma (healer) dressed in archetypal Xhosa clothing and white face paint. I discovered that in a previous life, she'd been a nurse in the UK. Now, aside from her duties as a healer, she ran a co-operative of women making beaded jewellery. She sold us a trinket or two.

We were then shown around some of the low-rise tenement blocks where the majority of Langa's people are housed. Despite limited evidence of recent state regeneration, most families are still squashed into the inadequate accommodation built by the apartheid regime following the Group Areas Act of 1950 (the notorious legislation that effectively expelled "non-whites" from the city proper). Like the Sowetan marketeers a decade and a half ago, today's residents of Langa viewed us tourists traipsing through their cramped homes with a mixture of bemusement and resignation.

We visited the local nursery school where the children sang songs for us. Then we made donations for the school's upkeep.

On this tour, the driver/guide was a native of Langa called Khonaye. An effusive but steely character, he was happy to sing the praises of enterprises such as his own saying, "It's important foreigners understand where we come from and, of course, tourists bring money into the community."

Like his Sowetan counterpart, however, he wouldn't entertain any talk of politics and his claim that the Langa locals were uniformly patient in their hopes of better housing and more social mobility smacked somewhat of tourist-board spin.

Two mirror anecdotes separated by 16 years and, in South Africa, social, political and structural sea change. Strange, then, that in my guise as a ghetto tourist, I struggle to see the differences. Maybe the only difference is that Khonaye is a young, black entrepreneur who's making his own dough. And maybe that's difference enough.

Head up the escalators into The Zone, the trendiest corner of Rosebank, Johannesburg's trendiest mall, and you could be forgiven for thinking you'd walked onto the set of an American R&B video (not least because of the American R&B that seems to blare from every shop front). This is where the beautiful people hang out, and they're certainly beautiful. Lithe young men with perfectly picked Afros and beetle shades peacock-strut the pristine corridors. Gorgeous young women with stacked dreads and non-specific "ethnic" prints gabble into mobile phones gripped in perfectly manicured mitts - they look like the tribe of which Erykah Badu must be the high priestess.

On your left is the restaurant Primi Piatti, the most happening branch of the nation's most happening chain. Its hyperactive waiters, many of them Zimbabwean economic migrants, wear bright orange overalls - a nod to the ubiquitous garb of the South African manual worker. These overalls, however, are covered in aspirational slogans and customised hip-hop style. On your right is Stoned Cherrie, the local fashion label du jour. Founded by Nkhensani Manganyi, a South African woman who grew up in the United States, the clothes are "urban African", popular with the passing Erykahs, and priced highly enough to make even a Londoner blanch.

One affordable item is a T-shirt emblazoned with a Drum magazine cover. In the 1950s, this famous publication was an outlet for the finest black South African writing and gave voice to the voiceless. Now, it is on a T-shirt.

Of course, the appropriation of the Drum symbol is not unknowing. On the contrary, Manganyi has said, "[Stoned Cherrie's] approach has been to make history part of pop culture" and such an intention has powerful and indisputable, if indefinable, politics. But it is the indefinable about these T-shirts, the restaurant waiters, even the passing hipsters, that seems somehow emblematic of the South African present.

The "new South Africa", which has always been prone to bouts of self-examination, now seems to be questioning itself like never before. While all the key questions are political, social and cultural, they can arguably be boiled down to just one... and it's the same one that was addressed by those who fought for freedom: who are the rightful owners of the nation?

However, where once the answers to this question were writ large in black and white (and, eventually, rainbow), now they are ineffably more complicated (or, if you will, indefinable); for they are no longer just about political and financial power, but also the subtleties of identity, philosophy and representation. Is this country owned by rich, often white, increasingly (omega) paranoid people in luxurious high-walled enclaves, or the tsotsis that rob their houses, hijack their cars and shoot them without a second thought? Is this country owned by the new breed of local entrepreneurs who thrive on change, or the old guard from overseas that retains its industrial interests and seems to serve only the status quo? Is this country owned by a traditional past that can be sold to acquisitive tourists, or an R&B future that can be sold to the new middle class? Is this country owned by the Africa it might lead or the West it's expected to follow? Is this country, with its proud and progressive constitution, owned by democracy or only by the ANC? And, most of all, can this country be owned by all of the above at the same time?

Twelve years after the first democratic elections, the simplicities of freedom have given way to the complexities of what to do with it and nothing throws these issues into sharper relief than the two major events that currently dominate the local horizon and provoke the self (and, indeed, external) examination - the football World Cup that South Africa will host in 2010 and the Presidential elections a year before that.

The doubts about the 2010 World Cup began to surface almost as soon as this year's event was over. Fifa President Sepp Blatter worried that he had seen "no picks and shovels", the Fifa executive committee questioned South Africa's transport infrastructure and Franz Beckenbauer, who headed the German competition, remarked, "The organisation for the World Cup in South Africa is beset by big problems."

Unsurprisingly, such comments provoked first anger and then soul-searching within South Africa, not least about whether building new football stadia should really be a priority in a country where adequate housing is in such short supply. Can the nation afford such developments, let alone pull them off?

In Cape Town, for example, the original plan to redevelop Newlands rugby ground has been replaced with an ambitious strategy to build a brand-new 70,000-seater venue on the site of the existing Greenpoint stadium. But, head to Greenpoint right now and the most activity you're likely to see is a learner driver practising a three-point turn in the deserted car park.

For the 2010 organisers, however, the constant queries provoke little but bemusement. I chatted with Brent Walters, the provincial operations co-ordinator for the Western Cape, and his response to the doubters was unequivocal. "Look," he sighed, counting out three points on his fingers. "We have a track record of delivering successful international sporting events, a good plan to make this work and we're on schedule. You expected the German World Cup to be efficient, but you were surprised by the German friendliness. Maybe you expect South Africans to be friendly? Well, you'll be surprised by our efficiency." Nonetheless, rumours continue to circulate that Fifa has lined up Australia, or even Germany, as a back-up plan.

These doubts can be put down in part to the nerves naturally attendant on such an organisational undertaking (just ask those responsible for the London 2012 Olympics), but they also force you to return to the question of ownership; both within the country and abroad. Within the country, after all, football is a predominantly black sport. Worldwide attention has, therefore, certainly provided an opportunity for disaffected white people to highlight democratic South Africa's problems (of infrastructure and crime in particular) in both the mainstream and informal media. And comments from abroad have done little but fuel the fire. Beckenbauer, for example, concluded his opinions about 2010 with the following, possibly racist, addendum: "These are not South African problems, these are African problems." The world, it seems, was prepared to give Africa its football tournament, but is it prepared to let it own it?

It is a public holiday - Heritage Day - and Cape Town in September is fresh and blustery. On Grand Parade, President Mbeki speaks to a small but vociferous audience about the need to value the inter-cultural make-up of the Western Cape through an understanding of ubuntu (the humanist local philosophy that can roughly be understood as "people are people through people").

He introduces his colleagues on the platform to the crowd. These include Arts and Culture Minister Pallo Jordan, Western Cape premier Ibrahim Rasool, and Cape Town's executive mayor Helen Zille. To the President's apparent embarrassment, the introduction of the last of these precipitates an orchestrated volley of boos.

I turn to my neighbour, a black guy, and ask for an explanation. "They don't like her," he says, with a smile and a shrug.

Later, a white businessman (and perhaps, therefore, a natural Zille advocate) gives me a different explanation. He claims the catcalls were actually the work of supporters of Jacob Zuma - the former deputy president, current ANC Deputy President and potential ANC candidate for 2009 - who were eager to undermine Mbeki's authority.

Whose analysis is correct? Probably the former. However, both are possible and offer interesting insights into the substance of South African politics right now, both local and national.

Zille is a member of the Democratic Alliance, the party that is closest to a substantive opposition to the ANC. Cape Town is the DA's natural territory and, since elections in March, they've headed a seven-party coalition in local government.

Zille has proved herself a capable and dynamic mayor, popular with the city's business community. Nonetheless, the ANC has repeatedly attempted to oust her administration through the imposition of a system of "mayoral committee" by the (ANC-led) provincial government of the Western Cape.

According to the ANC, Cape Town is not "African" enough and must be brought in line with the rest of the country. These attempts have provoked uproar in the city and have been characterised, reasonably, as anti-democratic and symptomatic of the ANC's increasingly hegemonic tendencies. But stroll around downtown Cape Town and, with barely a black face in sight, it's hard to avoid the poignancy of the ANC's euphemism or, indeed, the conclusion that democracy, on its own, will never be the panacea for decades of structural inequality.

At the same time as President Mbeki is making his Heritage Day speech in Cape Town, Zuma, his (omega) former right-hand man, is making provocative comments about homosexuality in KwaDukuza. "When I was growing up, an ungqingili [gay man] would not have stood in front of me," he says. "I would knock him out."

When the story hits the newspapers, Zuma is quick to apologise for any offence caused but, talking to his core constituency in a Zulu heartland, one suspects he knew what he was doing.

Mbeki sacked Zuma from the national deputy presidency in June 2005 after the conviction of his one-time financial advisor, Schabir Shaik, on corruption charges. Shortly afterwards, Zuma himself was charged on two counts of corruption, though the case was eventually struck from the roll after the prosecution's application for a postponement was dismissed.

Then, in December 2005, Zuma was charged with the rape of a 31-year-old HIV-positive Aids activist. Although acquitted in May 2006, the former deputy president's comments that he'd showered to avoid the transmission of the HIV virus provoked outrage among the local media and pressure groups. Indeed, the media continues to savage his reputation at every opportunity, portraying him as a corrupt buffoon and, in cartoons, with a shower head attached to his pate. My personal favourite was Zapiro in the South African Sunday Times, who drew him as Homer Simpson next to the headline: "Zuma Simpson becomes President: Rand plummets to R30 to the dollar."

And yet, despite the media's scorn and best efforts, Zuma retains a significant power base, among the workers' movement (represented by the Congress of South African Trade Unions) most of all. Where Mbeki is typically characterised as the international statesman, Zuma is a man of the people and, for all the controversy, that may yet sweep him to power when Mbeki steps aside.

The Zuma scandals have opened a rift in the ANC that is there for all to see. Indeed, many expect the anti-Zuma faction will tempt one of the intellectual old guard back into politics. The favourite for such a role is Cyril Ramaphosa, once Mandela's anointed successor, now a successful and very wealthy businessman.

However, even a straight contest between Zuma and Ramaphosa may not divide the country into the camps one might expect. A remark from an acquaintance who is an activist on women's issues illustrates this well: "Who do we want as our president?" she asked, shaking her head. "We don't want a misogynist homophobe, but do we really want a multimillionaire who drives to work in a Porsche?" Once again, hers is a question of who (or what) owns South African identity, philosophy and representation as much as its politics.

Of course, all these issues unfold against the backdrop of international media opinion. South Africans are notably touchy about what is written in the foreign press, understandably so when such opinions are key to the perceptions of potential tourists, investors and so forth. The honeymoon reign of the beatified Mandela is long gone and the image of the Rainbow Nation has been smudged as Western journalists have relished, among other things, mocking Mbeki's stance on the link between HIV and Aids, while refusing to recognise the different constituencies he must address or, bluntly, the realities of governing a country where one in nine of the population carries the virus. One wonders how such journalists might react to a Zuma presidency; presumably with relish.

And now the carping gathers pace. For example, the American journalist Jamie Trecker, of Fox Sports, has written that a World Cup in South Africa "may just be too big a gamble", neglecting to mention that the last two recognisably unsuccessful global sporting events (the 1994 World Cup and the Atlanta Olympics in 1996) both took place on US soil. Or what about Rory Carroll's article, titled "How I never quite fell for South Africa", written as he finished his stint as the Guardian's correspondent there? Long after it was published (in August), it still remains a prime topic of conversation with South African friends. No one denies that it's an intelligent and well-written piece, highlighting the twin problems of crime and racial divisions. However, several people have questioned Carroll's motivations to write it - "How I never quite fell for France", after all, would not have had quite the same currency.

Recent history suggests that the coverage of newly "free" nations by the British media, at least, tends to follow an all-too-predictable pattern: enthusiasm is followed by concern then confusion and then contempt. In the coverage of South Africa, I'd propose we are currently somewhere on the cusp between "concern" and "confusion". At this point, we are able to write about South Africa without mention of the crimes Britain perpetrated against that nation. By the time we reach "contempt", I imagine we won't even feel compelled to acknowledge apartheid.

But the fact is that the key question of ownership South Africa is now facing (and the problems therein) was inevitable from the moment the nation began to negotiate its own way out of moral bankruptcy without civil war and mass bloodshed. Historically, the UK gave South Africa Cecil Rhodes and Margaret Thatcher and plenty more in between - so the very least that we can do now is support this difficult ongoing process.

As Mandela wrote, "After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb." And if we are concerned that South Africa seems a little confusing sometimes - well, of course it does. After all, it's cloud cuckoo land.

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