Between my last blog entry and today a major event occurred: Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s national hero and an icon of freedom movements worldwide passed away. Although Mandela had not made a public appearance in years and there were several rumours around the state of his health, I was deeply moved by the finality of his death, as were millions of other people around the globe. I cannot pretend to know much about the man or even deeply understand his legacy for the country, after such a limited experience. What I can do here though, is try to make sense of my observations in Johannesburg, of what Mandela meant to me and probably to many other people.
The project I am involved in, The (In)formal City, co-organized by Inpolis and the Goethe-Insitut and funded by the Robert-Bosch-Stiftung, took me to Johannesburg on two occasions where I plunged myself intensively, but for a short time, into the reality of South African society. I had the opportunity to work with 22 wonderful and inspiring people who researched several different aspects of social life: from public safety to neighbourhood management, from waste collectors to fashion designers, from street vendors to refugees. Although we approached our subjects from very different angles, there seemed to be at least one thing we agreed upon: we are dealing with a deeply divided society, where divisions follow complex lines. Indeed, these lines are so complex and intertwined – race, class, gender – that you can hardly tell them apart. You need to look at each case carefully to discern exactly what is at stake where. This does not mean that we do not see such divisions in northern Europe, but the contrast is not as pronounced and the struggle along many of these lines less violent.
The year 2014 will mark 20 years from the first free elections in South Africa and the final end of the Apartheid. We should not forget that South Africa is a young and, I think, very fragile democracy. The events that marked the period between Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in January 1990 and the elections 4 years later, included several negotiations, compromises and exchanges that would lead the country to a rather peaceful transition to democracy – with all its flaws. A lot was said these past few days about the ANC’s inability to create class equality, too: e.g. ideas of nationalising the mines were discussed and abandoned back in those early days. Also, the country’s wealth is still distributed among a very small minority of whites with another small black élite progressively joining them. Would it have been possible to end Apartheid if Mandela had attempted to take over national resources? Would the UK and the US – which had both been very reluctant to condemn Apartheid as it served their economic interests – have backed the transition to democracy? I don’t know how the negotiations took place, but I have a very strong feeling that the compromise was not to touch economic interests in return for racial freedom. It is possible that a more radical (and maybe more just) approach to democracy would have led to bloodshed.
As for Nelson Mandela, I find it almost ironic how he is depicted today, as a peaceful old man with a benign smile – like some kind of African Ghandi. Younger photos of him though, show an impressively tall and strongly build man with sparkling eyes. It was him who had decided that a peaceful end of the Apartheid was impossible and that violence was the way to go. Those who condemned (and many still do) the violence of the times, forget that the black African movement responded with violence to the violence that was done to them. Aren’t victims allowed to rise against their tyrants? Heads of state such as Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher (or the German politician Franz Josef Strauss) claimed to the end that Nelson Mandela and the ANC were terrorists, totally ignoring the terror that blacks had to suffer in South Africa under a white rule that was supported by both these countries.
I was shocked at the, barely masked, racism of many (but indeed not all) white people I talked to in Johannesburg. It was often the same idea in different variations: “The blacks had 20 years to bring the country in order and they failed. This is one of the most corrupt states in the world”. At the same time, there are many reports that speak of an inverse racism – people now being discriminated against simply because they’re white. The ANC is a party that came out of (armed) struggle. “Brothers in arms” are bound for life with strong attachments of loyalty and commitment. I don’t think it is a coincidence that most revolutions lead to more or less corrupt governments. Are they more corrupt than the governments that preceded them? Hardly. Also, having the same party in power for 20 years is barely a healthy thing for a country. But the ANC are national heroes and they make sure that they celebrate their martyr status. Mandela’s death comes at the right moment, only a few months before national elections.
Some will say that Mandela’s dream of a “rainbow” nation, a nation where different people with different skin colour will have equal opportunities, has failed. But this sounds as if we had reached some kind of end from which we look back and assess history. Societies are in a constant flux and the only think we can measure is what has been achieved until today. South Africa’s aspiration towards a just society needs to be rekindled. I truly hope Nelson Mandela’s memory will keep this dream alive.