South Africa's government is not perfect, but I am still optimistic about the future

South Africa of today is an infinitely happier place than the one I first visited nearly 20 years ago
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The Independent Online

Tomorrow I will be travelling to Pietermaritzburg where South Africa's ruling party, the African National Congress, will launch its general election campaign. The ANC will win the election because it has the support of the majority of the population. This though there are still millions waiting for housing, jobs and services a decade after liberation.

But devotion to the ANC is deep rooted. It is based on memory and pride. Memory of the long darkness when the ANC's imprisoned and exiled leaders fought to keep the struggle alive; pride in the fact that a government made up largely of black Africans has ruled the country more or less successfully since 1994. For a people so long condemned to second-class citizenship, that sense of pride is no small thing.

The phrases "ruling party" and "African National Congress" trip off the tongue so easily now. You almost forget the journey. When I first came to this country it was with a head full of liberal idealism. That was 20 years ago. Apartheid was still being enforced. It was both monstrous and petty, the latter a guarantee of the former. People were still classified according to race. Blanke and nie blanke. White and non-white. There were separate toilets, transport, schools and neighbourhoods. No sex across the colour lines. The overwhelming majority of the population were denied their basic dignity as human beings.

Now that is a phrase so well worn it just floats off the page and vanishes into all the other words of condemnation used about apartheid down the decades. But dignity was what the struggle was all about.

On the night South Africans voted in their first non-racial and truly democratic election I was standing outside a church hall in Soweto when I met a man named Robert Kaptein. I asked him how he felt. I'd noticed that he was limping and leaning on a walking stick. Robert explained how he had been tortured by the security police and how his son had been killed in the struggle against apartheid. "So how do you feel about voting?" I asked.

His answer managed to put into words everything I'd spent the previous few years trying to convey in my radio reports. "Today I became a human being once more," said Robert Kaptein. A human being once more. With a lump in my throat I handed back to the presenter in London.

I was told later that the entire production team in London had listened to the interview with tears brimming in their eyes. We all knew what it meant to be a human being in the sense meant by Mr Kaptein. A human being was a man or a woman whose intrinsic value had nothing to do with the colour of their skin. All of us who came to South Africa from the West to cover apartheid had come from societies where our humanity had never been at question. For 40 million black South Africans and their Indian and coloured brothers, apartheid had been the instrument of relentless dehumanisation.

For many decades the Western world knew this but still traded with South Africa. Powerful nations in the West maintained secret security ties with the apartheid state. Western firms profited handsomely from their investments in the Republic of South Africa. The Sharpeville massacre did not stop this, nor did the Soweto uprising of 1976 or the state of emergency in 1986 or any of the countless small cruelties that accumulated to form the word apartheid. The governments of the West learnt to live with apartheid. But their people were a different matter. The anti-apartheid movement which campaigned for the isolation of the white state was the most remarkable community of conscience in the post-war world.

Looking back after 10 years of a free South Africa I do wonder why our leaders went along with apartheid for so long. What stopped them from standing up in those terrible years when the students were shot down and Steve Biko was murdered (and he was only one of many to die in security police custody) and Nelson Mandela was locked away?

I pose the questions because they are being posed by increasing numbers of black South Africans. The questions normally comes up whenever a foreigner criticises the performance of President Thabo Mbeki and the ANC on such issues as Zimbabwe or Aids. Never mind that these are both issues where the lives of black Africans are threatened. Western criticism of the new rulers is always bound to get a frosty response here because the legacy of history leaves us clambering to reach the moral high ground.

With the anniversary of liberation approaching in April there is no shortage of debate in the local press about Mr Mbeki's performance. He is lambasted over Zimbabwe and over his recent trip to Haiti, where the Aristide government is busy bashing its opponents into submission. But the Haiti trip, just as much as the debate over Zimbabwe and Aids, revealed a great deal about how the president wants to place his country in the broader world. The South Africa of Western highways, TV stations, skyscrapers and commitment to free-market economics is one part of the equation. But for Mr Mbeki and those closest to him there is a determination to re-create the cultural history of their people.

That is what the trip to Haiti was about: Thabo Mbeki embracing an African diaspora so long ignored by his fellow South Africans. In the old republic, the white governments looked towards the West. The apartheid state succeeded in keeping white eyes fixed on Europe and America and black eyes permanently cast downwards. Neither black nor white was ever encouraged nor allowed to contemplate the reality of belonging to the African continent.

Thabo Mbeki is trying to change that. At least some of the motivation for soft-pedalling on Zimbabwe and his strange views on Aids are rooted in a desire to construct an African alternative to what he characterises as "Western" policies and ideas. The problem on both Zimbabwe and Aids is that he has ignored evidence that contradicts his own theories. This has been damaging for him and South Africa.

Yet criticism over Zimbabwe and Aids notwithstanding, the South Africa of today is an infinitely happier place than the one I first visited nearly 20 years ago. I couldn't begin to describe how much more open and welcoming this new republic has become. The stifling evil of racial segregation is banished and with it the secrets and dirty wars that ruined so many lives. All the problems that were inherited from apartheid remain, and President Mbeki will face growing pressure for radical solutions on housing and land. That is bound to make whites and Western governments nervous. But I remain confident now as I did in the very troubled days of the early 1990s, when township violence was at its very worst, that common sense and goodwill will see South Africa through.

Those who suffered under apartheid remain astonishingly patient. Then and now they have kept faith with what it means to be human beings.

The writer is a BBC Special Correspondent