Ten years into my decision finally to settle down in the land of my birth, and eight years into our miraculous transition to a democratic dispensation (of sorts), South Africa still manages to thrill and baffle at the same time.
Yes, that moment in April 1994 when black and white and all the shades in between queued patiently together for hours on end to cast their votes for the first time in history was truly unforgettable. I wouldnt have missed it for the world, although it was touch-and-go until the eleventh hour. Touch-and-go whether I could bear to stay in this complicated place that I had left at the age of five, and finally returned to only at the age of thirty-seven, but also touch-and-go whether the elections would come off at all. The months leading up to that historic day had been punctuated with bombings, assassinations and random shootings as members of the disorganised far right had tried to prevent the onset of the inevitable: one person, one vote, one country, one government.
Just after dawn on the 27th of April that year, the dawning of that election day, I had been lying awake in my bed, sensing an inexplicable tension in the air. It was as if the whole world (or the whole country, at least or maybe just the whole of Johannesburg) was holding its breath. Within moments, that mood had been shattered by a muffled explosion somewhere out to the east of the city, which later turned out to be a car bomb detonated right outside the departure hall of Johannesburg International Airport. It was to be the last gasp of a messy white insurrection or so we believed.
In any event, that explosion, even though I did not know precisely what it was at the time, seemed to clear my mind. I sprang out of bed and got ready to face the day, and joined what became streams of people moving determinedly towards the polling stations in the chilly morning air, the mist gently rising from the ground and giving way to brilliant winter sunshine, as only the South African highveld can bless you with.
That was all of eight years ago. The world has looked on with admiration at the countrys remarkably peaceful progress, first under the stewardship of the gentlemanly, statesmanlike Nelson Mandela, then under the more enigmatic and inscrutable Thabo Mbeki.
Well, at least were still here. Or rather, were back here, after taking almost two years out from what seemed to be becoming an impossible scenario all glowing triumphalism on the surface, but unfathomable patches of darkness everywhere underneath the surface. We had a Truth and Reconciliation Commission that also wowed the world, but in reality brought out very little of the bitter truth in the end, and brought on precious little reconciliation between rival communities. For the most part, black is still black and white is still white and, although the atmosphere is pretty relaxed in the restaurants and suburban shopping malls that mark this as a highly consumerist society, the twain still hardly meet. There are some parts of our democracy that look as if the belligerent confrontations of the past have merely been replaced by a tacit agreement by the two groups to ignore each other and go on about their business.
Perhaps thats too cynical. We have made huge strides in many areas. For the younger generations, those of my university-going daughter and younger, apartheid is a distant myth. They walk the same walk and talk the same talk across the countrys formerly white, but now de-racialised, campuses.
But that is only part of the story. Despite all the bold talk of integrating historically white and historically black campuses (terms borrowed from North American pc-speak, and somewhat inappropriate to South African reality) there are still too many awkward issues that are not fully subjected to the harsh scrutiny of daylight. The former white universities have been integrated, to the extent that black students clearly form the majority of the student populations nowadays reflecting the true demographics of the country, at long last. And, equally remarkably, the formerly exclusive white Afrikaans universities have not only become racially integrated, they have become bilingual with English overtaking Afrikaans as the main medium of instruction in many cases.
The black universities, on the other hand, have remained black. After all, who wants to go and spend three or four years at an institution that was designed to be inferior? The black students who can make it, or afford it, opt for the formerly white universities, with all the advantages and comfort zones that go with them. Those who cant get there trudge glumly on to far-flung campuses designed to fulfil the needs of what used to be known as Bantu Education basically education for servitude.
The danger is that a new kind of colour blind elite is already in place in the New South Africa, opening up uncomfortable questions that the ruling party, which came to power on a manifesto based on strong egalitarian credentials, seldom bothers to face up to. The ruling party (the venerable African National Congress, founded in 1912) has itself become an icon of this new elitism, with opulent symbols of conspicuous consumption now being the order of the day.
The discomfort lies in the fact that South Africa is clearly two worlds in one: a wealthy First World, evidenced by the immaculate infrastructure of its major cities, into which the new black elite has bought with hardly a backward glance at its roots; and an appallingly degraded Third World, engulfing the majority of the population.
JohannesburgThe colonial and apartheid systems were exceedingly effective in structuring both the urban and rural geographies of the country so that the First World and the Third World remained distinct the latter carefully organised for no other purpose than to serve the former. So how does a new government, elected on its enlightened principles, break that down?
The answer is that it doesnt. It strives (with many notable successes) to make life more bearable for the most deprived of the countrys citizens thus water is piped to rural communities that had no access in the past, clinics are built, shanty towns are provided with electricity and telephone lines.
But this does not change the fact that the shanty towns and the townships remain pretty much the same as they ever were. Many people argue that shanty towns are a phenomenon that can be found in most parts of the Third World anyway so why not South Africa?
The answer lies in the very extremes that are presented by the shanty and township world on the one hand, and the leafy, prosperous suburbs, with their armies of well-armed private security companies prowling round the clock to keep the barbarians at bay, on the other. How can one live in such a schizophrenic society?
Now heres the conundrum: I see all this, but I live it as well. I am part of that new elite that wouldnt dream of leaving home without the comfort of knowing that an armed security man is just minutes away should it be burgled, or a panic buttons push away if any one of my family should be attacked inside the house. This became all too much to live with at one time and, as I intimated above, my family and I took the decision to leave South Africa once again, and to try to make a sensible lifestyle in a part of Africa that seemed to be easier to get to grips with.
But, hey, were back. Something drew us inexorably back from the charms of West Africa to the hazards of South Africa. Hijackings and casual, impersonal shootings are the subject of dinner conversation once more, and the contrasts of lifestyles and life possibilities that make these inevitable are not any nearer to being resolved.
And yet, there is something about simply surviving the transition, of still being part of a dynamic process of transformation, shifting as the goals of that transformation might be, that keeps us holding on to the roller coaster of the New South Africa.
Racism, poverty, violence, intolerance are all still there. And in the supreme court of the land a trial is being conducted that shows that even the lunatic right-wing fringe is far from dead on the contrary, an intricate (but, again, messy and inept) conspiracy to overthrow the elected government and hand South Africa back to a white minority has just recently been nipped in the bud. And more of these crazies are certainly still out there.
But perhaps it is precisely all of these pockets of madness, and the oases of transformation and optimism that offset them, that make South Africa a cause that is worth fighting for, after all. Having struggled so long, through internal pain and bitter exile, simply to be able to walk the streets freely without incurring the wrath of the law, it is surely worth walking those extra miles to see the beginnings of true transformation unfolding in the manner that we originally conceived them.
The struggle is not over by any means. But, like a man pinching himself to be certain that he is not dreaming, I keep on thinking back to the impossibly hazardous journey that we have already travelled, and I have to appreciate that, in South Africa, we have much to be grateful for.
If nothing else, we have certainly been blessed (or cursed) to be living through interesting times.