Monday, March 28, 2011

On Leaving South Africa

The day before the wedding.

Our real reason for being in South Africa is to attend the wedding of our two young friends who have been our house-sitters during our travels over the last few years. The bride has also been our daughter, Elizabeth's, friend since they were six. More than fifty Australians have 'invaded' the Western Cape for this event so it is bound to be a time for serious partying.

South Africa – a Review

Africa. Africa is the real key for us trying to understand what we have experienced in this diverse, beautiful, engaging, puzzling and, in many ways, contradictory country.

Africa is new for us. We have experienced Morocco, up close and personal, but it is a different Africa. This was to be the Africa of our school books, a place of wild animals teeming across the open veldt, colonial splendour and high tea as the sun set over the plains. What a lot of romantic 19th century rot!

In many ways, we have thought of South Africa as much like home - Australia. They play rugby, cricket and they speak English. The South Africans we know are just like us. Their land is big and dry and green and gold. Our sporting colours are even the same. More rot.

So what is South Africa?

It is like nowhere else we have ever been. It is vibrant. It is complex. It is troubled. It has great potential. It has enormous problems. It is proudly democratic. It has serious inequities yet it fervently espouses human rights. It is young and self-conscious as a nation. It has a long history of bloody struggle. Its surgeons performed the world's first heart transplant, yet its male citizens have a life expectancy of 53.

This is not an academic treatise, but an attempt to present our views of what we have seen and experienced here. We know our many South African friends are interested in what we think of their country. We just hope we don't offend them with our honest (and potentially ill-informed thoughts).

South Africa is a sometimes troubled place. It is not hard for us to see this from the high walls and electronic security that protects many of the more affluent homes in South African cities. We just aren't familiar with this sort of security. We are told it is necessary, but we have not felt unsafe anywhere we have been in South Africa and in smaller towns and cities it is common for houses to have very little security. This includes towns that are totally 'black', towns where we have wandered un-molested - where people smile and respond pleasantly to us. Nevertheless, there is no escaping the fact that South Africa has the highest murder rate in the world. Just short of twice the number of murders occur here every year as in the United States and the population of South Africa is one sixth of that of the US.

Lesson one for the traveller here: be careful, but don't be paranoid. To us, security has been no more of a problem than in southern Europe eg. Spain! However, we realise that the dangers are present. We have heard the stories of our SA friends and we know that situations that are seemingly innocuous can suddenly turn nasty.

Emerging countries now have their own 'club' called the BRICS. Previously known as the BRIC, (Brazil, Russia, India and China) South Africa has recently joined the group at the invitation of China - which is an interesting fact in itself. South Africa deserves its place amongst these rapidly developing nations. It has great infrastructure, a rapidly growing manufacturing sector, strong agricultural sector and mineral and energy resources. It is a country going places. But just who is gaining from all this? Income inequality is near the highest in the world. Well less than 10% of the population control more than 50% of the country's wealth. More than 40% of the population have no, or near no income. There is no prize for guessing which part of the population predominates at the poorer end of this scale.

Now this is the hardest part!

Positive discrimination has been employed to address these inequalities. These policies aren't new. They have been used in the USA, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and Malaysia, to mention just a few. This is incredibly hard on those who have worked so hard to build this country over many generations. But as long as the current income inequalities persist, South Africa will remain 'troubled'. Many people we have talked to about the problems of poverty amongst the black population believe that as long as things keep 'moving forward' all will be well. The simple fact of the matter is that fewer than 4 million people cannot continue to live at the standard they do, while so many of the 50 million others citizens of their country live in poverty.

Politics in South Africa seem dominated by race issues. Political parties are predominantly race- based and the 'race card' is constantly played openly in political debate. Legislation perpetuates racial divides through the use of old racial tags like, black, coloured, Indian and white. Yet the South African Constitution is internationally recognised as the model, modern, democratic constitution. Democracy works here and, at least on the surface, the strong principles of equality espoused in the Constitution prevail. The real question is, just how long can the actual inequalities continue before the frustrations and outright desperation felt by the poor majority find some sort of expression?

At the start of our trip, we put an early observation to some friends. It was that the notion of a Rainbow Nation was a far less realistic notion at the moment than the fine lines that distinguish the colours on the South African flag. We still stick to that view. On the whole, the merging of the rainbow hasn't happened yet. The sharp lines of the flag are more the reality. BUT 'things (really) are moving forward.'

As we end our trip, we are spending a week in Cape Town. Here, it must be said, there is a blurring at the edges of the race divide. Here, the white and coloured, (those of Indian and South-East Asian origin) are in the majority. There seems to be some real progress being made here, even for the (still seriously disadvantaged) African population. Walk up the street on a working day in Cape Town and you'll see people of all races mixing and talking together. Every now and then you may even see a multi-racial couple holding hands on the street. But take a drive up the coast in either direction to the wealthy white and coloured suburbs and see how many Africans live there. Then turn inland and drive through the Cape Flats townships and see how many whites and coloured people live there. Compare the multi-million Rand houses and the hovels.

Cape Town has made a special effort to maintain the viability of the city centre. It has worked. The city centre is a vibrant, working, commercial and retail hub which is safe, clean and productive. The few remaining derelict buildings that harbour the drug dealers and other criminal elements are being cleaned out and refurbished.

The country is working hard to address the enormous gap in income and living standards. Employment creation and public housing are high priority. The big challenge is how to effectively address the abject poverty of the majority in the face of the highly conspicuous wealth of the minority, while the political power in the hands of that majority is in conflict with the economic power in the hands of the rich minority. We think they will make it, but it won't be easy and it won't happen tomorrow. We just hope that all South Africans and those who support them around the world are patient enough to allow change to continue to progress peacefully.

In short we have loved our time here. We have been well treated wherever we have been.

We will return!

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