“If only,” Hildegard sighs when I mention the non-racial ideal of what was once the anti-apartheid struggle. “Ah, the paradise of coffee and milk.” Thus sets my septuagenarian neighbour in our almost all-white neighbourhood in Brooklyn, Pretoria, the tone for this story. Because in Brooklyn Avenue not one of the neighbours feels nostalgic about South Africa’s apartheid past: a hopeful finding in these days of Trump, Brexit and Le Pen.
Even the reign of President Jacob Zuma, with all its corruption and mismanagement, does not convince my neighbours that the ‘Mandela’ ideals of an egalitarian, just society of black, brown and white, are not still the right things to aspire to. Hildegard confesses that she, for now, doesn’t see real equality materializing any time soon –“they are still so poor, so hungry.” But the vision still energises neighbour Pete, -brought up by a Black Sash mother-, who supported black school children throughout his career in the ‘dismal’ ‘Bantu education’ structures and is now, retired, the hub of our Neighbourhood Watch. Although Pete keeps a daily eye on the vagrants who try climb over our walls and steal our TVs, that does not mean the fight for a just multiracial society is a lost cause.
“I have encountered so much black talent in my life. The problem is that we are ruled by incompetent grabbers, thanks to black empowerment.” It’s not that SA’s black majority, after three centuries of exploitation and abuse, should not be given a break, Pete says. “Do address poverty. But we should not reward incompetence.” That just reminds him of the olden days, “when a black child with a brilliant essay got an E or an F and a plagiarized piece was often rewarded with an A or B by officials who just didn’t care.”
Racists and coconuts
The incompetence of many new leaders is a recurring theme in my interviews: not only in Brooklyn Avenue, but also in the black township of Umlazi. And generally in the country: a survey last year showed that almost 80% of South Africans find their rulers unfit .
But how did it get to be this way? Duncan of number 261 believes that bad education is the obstacle. “Apartheid came with bombs and violence and no country wanted to do business with us. So we can’t go back. But let’s get training in place. I now spend a lot of time correcting the English in the reports of black colleagues.” Lack of management experience plays a role, thinks Lynne, Pete’s wife, and so does Elise from further down the street. My husband, Ivan, agrees: he often growls at people who think they qualify for a Director General’s post “when they’ve never even run a tuck shop.” In the interviews, trauma emerges too: many new leaders are after all products of a history of powerlessness, marginalisation and violence.
Unfortunately, the powers that be aren’t too self-critical. Zuma’s coterie simply calls critics ‘racist’ when white or ‘coconut’ when black. Anti-Western rhetoric about ‘decolonisation’ is used to justify taking money bags out of the country via the President’s businessmen friends, the Indian Guptas: this is ‘being on the side of the BRICS countries rather than on the West .’ A lack of ‘white’ education is something to be proud of. Echoes of Boko Haram sound in the President’s proud references to his own four years of primary school and in the utterances of his vassal, state broadcasting VIP Hlaudi Motsoeneng, who calls himself a “miracle worker” who does not need to read books. Lynne, wife of Peter, recently read in a legal magazine, a call for the overthrow of the ‘white’ judicial system and a ‘return to authentic African law.’ “It did not say what that was. But they seemed to be referring to a time when there were no constitutions with human rights in them.”
“They throw the baby out with the bathwater.” Habib, from number 251, -yes, we may not have any black neighbours, but we do have two light brown Indian families in the street- shakes his head. “Education could be more diverse. But to abolish mathematics and physics because “they come from the West?” The clip of the student activist who proposed this recently went viral on You Tube.
Also Elise, with her protocol courses for diplomats and her silver tea set, is worried about the Zuma regime’s anti-Western, anti-science discourse. “It’s embarrassing,” she says, using the same word as earlier in our conversation, when she spoke of the “old days” when she worked at the South African embassy in Washington. “Then people gave us the cold shoulder because we represented apartheid. With Mandela, we became an example for the world. Now that’s gone.”
Elise, a member of the ANC branch in our district, hopes that the tide can still be reversed by the ‘movement’ itself. “Combating corruption is a big challenge for us. We have many businessmen who are hoping for government contracts. But I am trying to recruit some real idealists again.”
Night watchman William, who chases would-be burglars in our street, doesn’t believe in the ANC anymore. He confesses that he was happy when ‘they freed Mandela and Mandela freed us.’ But now he feels that “the whites had better take over again.” He votes for the –mainly still white- opposition DA party, he says, an attitude that has much endeared Pete to him. (Pete habitually gives money to beggars, the unemployed and the poor with the admonishment that they should vote DA.)
William and Hildegard are the pessimistic ones. “I see them still shivering in the winter,” Hildegard says, shaking her head. “Walking for kilometres to underpaid work. When I drive past I can’t even bring myself to take a sip from the coffee in my thermos. Why are blacks always the victims, all over the world?” She does not say it, but the question is in her eyes: are blacks themselves perhaps not getting it right?
Hildegard would be surprised to discover that her opinion is shared by Amahle Dhlongolo and Sandile Ndlovu , both fourteen years old and students at Zwelibanzi High School in Umlazi, Durban. The two live in an area which, since forced transports and ghetto-designed group areas, is still simply ‘Section D.’ Twenty-seven years after apartheid Umlazi inhabitants continue to travel hours to get to work in the city. To access the neighbouring Indian township one has to make ones’ way through wasteland and ditches where gangsters wait to relieve domestic workers and ‘garden boys’ of their weekly wages.
But Amahle and Sandile don’t blame apartheid for Umlazi’s troubles. Born long after the release of Mandela, the word is hardly part of their vocabulary. Where even Duncan had agreed that some redistribution could be in order –since after all “we live like kings here,”- Amahle will have none of it. “What you get for free, you do not appreciate,” says the schoolgirl whose father “runs a tuck shop” (and would therefore, according to my beloved Ivan, be better qualified to govern than many a current minister.)
‘The black people are the problem’
The problem, the two students say in unison, is “the black people.” “We drink, we do not work hard enough,” they say, giving examples of violent uncles, hang-about youth and suicidal neighbours (“She drank poison because she wanted an abortion, or maybe she wanted to die.”) A father assisting with the post-holiday influx of students had, five minutes before this conversation started, already illustrated how Christmas in Umlazi has been anything but peaceful: “People got joyous,” he has chuckled in response to my look at a barely healed, deep, stab wound in the arm of a co-father.
Amahle dreams of being a doctor and may well get there: her school is good and her family stable. Both parents work, she can afford trips to the cinema in the city. Sandile and his two sisters have to make do with the cashier income of their mother that, even with the child grant, is not enough for such things. He seems more interested in free amenities – “It would be nice if we did not pay school fees” -and is happy to hear that a government should, actually, paint the school, repair the roads and run affordable buses. “Can the government also take care of the criminals and alcoholics,” he asks, “so they stop bothering us so much?”
Live in a white neighbourhood? They look surprised when I ask if they would like to. “We prefer to live with our own people.” They have hardly ever been in a white area. “Once we took a minibus to a very quiet neighbourhood,” hesitates Amahle. “To visit a friend of my mothers.” Dreamy-eyed at the memory of the silence that reigned there: “Here they fight and the tsotsis spin their cars . You can’t sleep.” In a better South Africa all people would get a good night’s sleep, we conclude. “And gardens,” says Amahle. “Gardens are beautiful.”
Zwelibanzi school principal, Sibusiso Maseko and his colleague, English teacher S’thembile Cili, are no doubt partly to blame for the self-help ideas of the two students. With very little assistance from government Maseko and his staff have turned Zwelibanzi into a high-performing school, where the appearance of broken windows is deceptive. All students do math: proper math, not the washed down ‘maths lit’ that the government invented to prop up marks. The school has also built up contacts with universities and the marine industry in Durban. While almost half of school leavers in South Africa remain unemployed for years, Zwelibanzi students tend to find their way into society sooner and in a more rewarding way. Sibusiso Maseko surpasses the ‘tuck shop’ standard by miles.
He is too busy to be involved with politics, but that doesn’t stop him from fuming at government incompetence. “What we could not do on land reform, with agricultural colleges and projects. Our people need those skills. But from the politicians you just get words.” S’thembile Cili suspects that incompetence is deliberate policy. “I’ve been a teacher for thirty years. I know what needs to be done in education. But to achieve a position of influence you must be a yes-man, which means a dummy. They won’t appoint someone who asks questions.”
Though Cili also yearns for ‘economic freedom’ (“there is a lot of boosting to be done before we close the gap between black and white in this country”) she –like 14-year old Amahle- does not feel that blacks should simply be given lands or properties from whites, as some in the Zuma camp propose. “Just because you were oppressed before? Two wrongs don’t make a right. We teachers must show a moral example, especially now when our leaders are such bad ones. Who is going to work hard to become a principal, like Mr Maseko with his old car, when you can drive a Ferrari? Our youth sees thugs running taxis and shopping centres, simply because they are close to the president.” But shouldn’t there be some redress when there was so much white empowerment in the past? “Rather boost us in a way that rewards the right behaviour.” Once again, my Umlazi interviewees, as different as they are from my neighbours in Brooklyn, say remarkably similar things.
Maseko thinks there is plenty of hope. “Everywhere there are hard-working people like us. That has an effect . And we have the Save SA campaign .” Brooklyn Avenue, too, saw the pro-good governance, multiracial Save SA Campaign, in which even large sections of the ANC participate, as the country’s present day hope.
I have still only been in neighbourhoods where most people work. I haven’t been in the squatter camps where recruiters for ANC and EFF whip up crowds with racial invective and a food parcel, or alcohol. So maybe the harmony in the views that I have encountered doesn’t reign in all of South Africa. According to research done by the SA Institute for Race Relations in 2013, 25% of the black population is sympathetic to Zuma’s argument that he cannot be blamed for any governance problems as long as the country’s money is still predominantly in white hands. 24 % also felt that whites should ‘take a step back’ to remedy this. Remarkably however, the same report supports the observation that most South Africans of all colours just want to work and integrate together, and that any job should go to the ‘best’ candidate for a job, regardless of ethnic background .
The question is, of course, what a ‘best candidate exactly is. In subsequent episodes in this series I’ll dig deeper into the decolonisation debate. But if a country is a place where people collectively support the public interest, then Brooklyn Avenue and the children of Section D are quite ‘together’ indeed.
It would have pleased Mandela.