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Jo'Burg Days: What Will The Future Bring?

Barbara Durlacher turns her attention to two books which shine the spotlight on South Africa’s uncertain political future.

I am presently reading two very different books on a subject which, since the ANC conference at Polokwane, [16-19th December 2007] it has been almost impossible to avoid. Saturation media coverage has resulted in unending discussion about who will be the next president of South Africa and where we are heading, and both books explore and attempt to understand the continuing enigma of this dichotomous, fractured “First World - Third World” country.

Like many other large cities which have outgrown their boundaries, facilities and infrastructure, through the desperate search for work and retreat from the appalling poverty and starvation of the rural areas and consequent influx to the cities, Johannesburg is an unequal mixture of living standards. The combination of fantastic riches, extravagant spending, and conspicuous consumption allied with abysmal squatter camps where crime and destitution runs rife, dates back to the late 1890s when this ‘temporary’ town was established on what were then the bleak rocky outcrops and grassy plains of the Transvaal Highveld. Expecting that once the Gold Rush had fizzled out the adventurers, chancers, entrepreneurs and gold diggers would move on, in the early days few, if any, provisions were made to accommodate large numbers of people in this inhospitable area.

Subsequent events tell a different story and a study of the past 120 years shows how, with the discovery of extensive gold deposits and the development of sophisticated deep-level mining techniques this presumed “flash-in-the-pan” gold rush lead to great wealth and power for the few and pitiful privations and poverty for many; particularly the migrant workers imported from the rural areas to work in the mines.

At first, the slow pace of life indicated a quiet beginning to the development of Johannesburg, and it was not until more than 40 years later that the city began to assume some sort of an identity. But slowly, then with greater speed after the end of WW2, it started to take on, at least in part a European appearance with solid, well-built office blocks, prosperous department stores, comfortable middle-class suburbs and a burgeoning white workforce. As industry expanded, more and more people, black and white, came looking for employment. This, combined with the Nationalist Government’s well-known “apartheid” policies which on several occasions meant a deliberate re-location of Whites from one part of the country to another to alter balance of the vote, resulted in a huge drift to the towns of unskilled and illiterate people desperate for work and housing.

Ultimately black social structures became fragmented and a breakdown of tribal life resulted, particularly when lack of the skills demanded by a modern economy created a detritus of people divorced from their tribal roots. A scenario might be where migrant workers from Mocambique are housed in all-male hostels with men from the Transkei, equating to Ukranians from the Black Sea being expected to live in peace and harmony with Mediterranean Greeks and Spaniards under the harshest of conditions whilst engaged in the exhausting and dangerous work of underground mining. Languages, customs, backgrounds and aspirations are different, and survival strategies in an unforgiving environment do not allow for sentiment or weakness. With the men in the cities and families back home enduring years of privation and distress, social problems are inevitable. Factionalism and crime becomes a fact of life.

Earlier ‘apartheid’ laws decreed that groups comprised of many different tribes and ‘nations’ were housed in tiny soulless structures in bleak communities with few facilities or in men-only hostels. Although the hostels are gradually being abolished, the policy in respect of the townships continues, leading to the workers commuting long distances each day at great expense, and forcing disparate groups to integrate with strangers. Not unexpectedly, this resulted in greatly increased tensions in townships and housing developments, the formation of gangs, and an appalling crime wave. As these tensions became ever more apparent, the Afrikaans government determined to exert more forceful controls and developed policies designed to suppress any form of revolt and control the influx. They waged a futile war against what they termed “Communism” which was in reality a cover-up for segregation and silencing the opposition.

Then came the great breakthrough with the release of Mandela, and shortly afterwards the first democratic election in 1994. In order to ensure a “free and fair” election - in certain areas, particularly Cape Town – where there was a predominantly ‘coloured’ [mixed-race] population, a policy similar to the earlier Nationalist ploy of relocating white voters was adopted. Hundreds of black voters were “bussed-in” with the promise of free housing if they voted for the ANC. After the election, despite the promises, they were left to fend for themselves. The resulting squatter settlements have become some of the worst slums in the country and led to an insoluble housing situation.

After five years Mandela retired as the first democratic president of South Africa, to be followed by his acknowledged successor, Thabo Mbeki. However, after what seemed like an auspicious start, Mbeki seemed to hesitate and began diverting his attentions outside the country. This caused dismay as many felt it was not right for him to spend so much time and energy away when his guiding hand was needed at home. His actions caused many to posit that he was angling for election as the next Secretary of the United Nations. When his name was not chosen, Mbeki concentrated his formidable energies back home, and disliking his former colleague Zuma’s shady business connections and populist approach to the people, sacked him on what was felt were trumped up corruption and rape charges. There were strong rumours that Zuma was not the only member of the government who had been involved in corruption and dishonesty, and after the rape conviction failed to stick, popular sentiment turned strongly in his favour.

With Mbeki’s leadership being challenged, Zuma, - a man with a primary school education - was elected at the Polokwane conference by delegates from all over the country voting on behalf of their electorates. Many feel that his election has given him the undeserved and dangerous opportunity to become the next president of South Africa. His election appears to indicate a lack of suitable candidates and a dearth of political will. It is these opposing factors which the authors of the two books I am reading are attempting to explain.

If he becomes the next president will his previous involvement in the Arms Deal and the attendant corruption scandals put him in a strong enough position to deal with the huge crime wave presently sweeping the country? Will he be a ‘lame duck’ president open to bribery and corruption from all and sundry, and will he fulfil the election promises so glibly made? It is these important and over-riding priorities which the authors of the books attempt to elucidate.


The books I refer to are: “After the Party – a Personal and Political Journey Inside the ANC” by Andrew Feinstein, Pub. 2007 by Jonathan Ball Publishers, Johannesburg and Cape Town
“Notes from a Fractured Country – Selected Journalism” by Jonny Steinberg also published in 2007 by Jonathan Ball.


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