Sweetwater reaps its bitter harvest

Robert Block, starting a series marking the first anniversary of South African democracy, reports from Walkerville, where post-apartheid euphoria has faded
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The Independent Online
Here in Sweetwater, a black squatter camp near Walkerville, south of Johannesburg, the euphoria and nervous expectation that overwhelmed this landscape of gentle hills and tin shacks 12 months ago are as faded as the red paint on the schoolhouse.

On the eve of the first anniversary of the elections that ended apartheid, Selby Nkala and his three friends - Musa, Peter, and Isaac - sat under a tattered yellow garden umbrella, a crate of beer at their feet. Soul music blasted out of a boombox somewhere inside Musa's immaculately clean shack. The drinking, however, was done in the cause of idleness, not political celebration, which was the farthest thing from their minds.

"We are only killing time. There is little else to do," said Selby, at 26, the eldest of the group. "After the elections, we were promised houses for many people. That has not happened. Promises of factories coming here have not been realised. We are only subjected to crime, because there is no work.

"As you can see, here we have no road and not even proper toilets. But we take care of what we have better than many people with proper established homes. Where is the electricity and water that we have been promised? And where is the work?"

The realities of life under South Africa's first multi-racial government have fallen far short of expectations. Crime, unemployment and grinding poverty remain daily facts of life for millions of blacks who have spent the first year under democracy waiting for the fruits of Nelson Mandela's electoral triumph.

Over the year, Mr Mandela has pursued a policy of racial rapprochement which has given South Africa unprecedented political stability. His softly- softly approach and his government's avoidance of populist rhetoric have not only impressed the outside world, but have soothed potentially volatile whites.

This has led to charges of "kowtowing" to whites by more radical elements of Mr Mandela's African National Congress (ANC), including his estranged wife, Winnie.

The lack of populist response to the needs of South Africa's dispossessed majority have led to impatient new feelings of disillusionment and apathy among many blacks. Such sentiments have deepened in the last weeks as the result of police strikes, hospital staff walkouts and rising crime in a country which has the world's highest murder rate

Growing political apathy now threatens to undermine elections for local government scheduled for October. Mr Mandela has been hoping to consolidate the ANC's hold on the country by sweeping those elections. That can no longer be taken for granted. Already registration, due to end tomorrow, has been extended to June because of poor response.

"What is the point in voting again? What is the difference between this government and the old government," asked Peter, who at 23 must take care of his sister and mother after his father's death last year.

"There has not been any explanation of these [local] elections. We are treated like government slaves," added Selby. "Whenever they need us, they use us. But whenever we need them, they shrug their shoulders and raise their hands in despair."

There is no doubt that there have been very few tangible developments visible to the ANC's natural constituency, despite the hype surrounding the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), the single most important action plan of Mr Mandela's administration.

It was supposed to create 2.5 million jobs, build 1 million houses, electrify another 2.5 million, provide free education for all and redistribute 30 per cent of all farmland to blacks - within five years. The centrepiece of the programme is housing, supposed to create the jobs which will generate the necessary economic activity needed to fuel the rest of the scheme.

The Housing Minister, Sankie Mthembi-Nkondo recently conceded that since April 1994 fewer than 1,000 houses had been built through government initiatives and they were from schemes that pre-dated the elections.

A year is a very short time in politics and it is still premature to make any predictions about the ANC's capacity to keep its election promises. President Mandela remains upbeat. In a speech to foreign journalists in Johannesburg on Monday he said that his first year in office had been a success "beyond my wildest dreams". He also rejected the view that there is discontent among certain communities about the pace of change.

"It is quite true that the poor, the homeless, the landless and the jobless want a speedy end to their wretched conditions. But it is inaccurate to assume that they believe such an outcome can be achieved in one fell swoop," he declared.

Mr Mandela said much effort had been made in drawing up plans. "We have now reached a stage where we have completed most of those plans and changes will be coming soon which will be enjoyed by the people most in need." He cited extended health care, including free medical treatment for children under six and pregnant mothers, a feeding programme for 5 million children and the very fact that his diverse coalition government had remained intact. But even these gains have been offset by long queues outside hospitals and a new split with Mr Mandela's main rival, the Interior Minister and Inkatha Freedom Party leader, Mangosuthu Buthelezi.

It was Peter, sitting in Sweetwater who expressed the most worrying sign of Mr Mandela's failure to convince his people that the best is yet to come. When asked what he would tell the President if he visited Sweetwater, Peter replied: ''He would never come here."