New country, old story

John Matshikiza
3 February 2003

How times have moved on in the New South Africa. Well, they have and they haven’t.

Having lived through more than a decade of its vicissitudes, I am struck by the way time and memory play tricks on you. In some ways, the lapse of time and the sheer momentum of events have made it feel as if we are rushing forward into a future that none of us can quite get a handle on, but whose prospects are reasonably bright, none the less. In other ways, you look around you and wonder what kind of time warp you are in – and whether you will ever get out of it.

And this is where memory kicks in. A small incident, a fragment of a sentence in a newspaper, an instance of random, race-inspired road rage or the in-your-face attitude of a beggar grabbing your attention with a crudely scrawled begging note on a piece of cardboard as you make an obligatory stop at a traffic light (the message always ending in an optimistic ‘God bless!’) will remind you of a moment of pain, of anger, of hilarity or enlightenment that you thought you had long forgotten.

The trapdoors of race

What catches my eye today is this niggling issue about ‘black elites’. You never hear talk about ‘white elites’ in South African terms – even though some of those beggars who cunningly assault your senses at the red light will be whites who have fallen through the safety net of apartheid-guaranteed privilege.

It is not unusual for white dinner conversations to drift into mildly condescending observations about the ‘black elite’, while failing to make reference to the fact that South Africa is a country whose economy (and therefore whose destiny) is still controlled by a ‘white elite’.

This hit me when a (white) colleague made passing reference to where he stands on the issue of elites and elitism in this country.

‘My people,’ he said, ‘were Jews from Lithuania. They never owned land until the 1930s. Thabo Mbeki’s family, on the other hand, had been land-owners for centuries.’ The Mbeki family, the implication went, had been privileged long before his own family had been. (And the further, hidden implication, now the subject of some hot debate within the country’s Jewish community, was: ‘Who has suffered most, on the scale of things: them, or us?’ – the ‘them’ and the ‘us’ being powerfully loaded with added undertones.)

The best I can say of him is that this colleague of mine was, to put it kindly, being rather woolly-headed in his thinking. After all, by the time tens of thousands of Lithuanian Jews emigrated into South Africa (to escape waves of pogroms and violence inflicted by both Cossack and Red Army forces) black South Africans (the Mbeki family included) had long been dispossessed of what land they might have had by waves of white settlement, scorched earth policies, and various forms of warfare, cast in stone by the infamous Land Act of 1910 (which made it illegal for black people to own any substantial land at all).

It is treacherous territory, as you can see.

The discourse of race has supposedly been buried with the remnants of official apartheid. All are now equal, and are allowed to express themselves equally. And yet it is impossible to stray into this kind of discussion without falling into the racial pitfalls that still litter the ground like abandoned mineshafts all around us. Race still matters. We still don’t really know each other – or truly care that much for each other either, for that matter. Our celebrated rainbow remains as tempting and ungraspable as any other.

Let me tap back into those memories (many of which are quite unwanted, but elbow themselves into your day-to-day reality anyway).

Ten years ago, when I was still trying to get used to the strange, divided land that I had returned to (and before our first democratic elections, of course) I was sitting in the lobby of a northern suburbs hotel waiting for a friend who was visiting from England. You have to remember that the country was tense and uncertain. And yet there was a certain surreal normality in the way we went about our lives. Mandela was a free man after an extraordinary 27 years of incarceration and, although he was not yet president, had already shown himself to be a world statesman of exceptional stature, and a beacon of reconciliation for a profoundly divided South Africa. We had every right to be confident about the future.

Anyway, while I was sitting there, an American who was staying at the hotel approached the receptionist, a tall, vivacious young woman with long, honey-blonde hair, and asked her whether the hotel arranged tours to Nelson Mandela’s former home in Soweto – something of a pilgrimage for many international visitors.

The warmth I felt at hearing the American’s enquiry was quickly drained away as I listened to the receptionist’s response.

‘Why does everybody want to go there?’ she asked the astonished guest. ‘If it was up to me, I’d just bomb the place to the ground. That man’s just a communist.’ And she was being entirely serious. (And needless to say, she had no information to give the tourist in response to his innocent request.)

The memory of hope

Things changed, of course. Once Mandela became president, you could hardly find a white South African who did not think that he was an angel sent directly from God. (Nor, strangely enough, could you find one who had ever believed in apartheid.)

Yes, we had a strange, surreal honeymoon with each other during the four brief years that Mandela was at the helm. The country rallied behind the national football and rugby squads, and everything seemed like it was going to be just perfect.

But after Mandela’s graceful retirement from centre stage, it was not just that the cracks began to appear again. It was more that the many gulfs that still divided us became shockingly evident once more.

It is in this context that the issue of ‘elitism’ has raised its head. We certainly have a problem of a widening gap between rich and poor in South Africa, as everywhere else in the world. And it makes the eyes sore to see how rapidly a new black bourgeoisie has come into being, with all its distasteful tendencies to crassness and embarrassingly conspicuous patterns of consumption. And this, by the way, is a new elite that the ruling African National Congress – previously possessed of something of a grassroots appeal and seemingly socialist tendencies – is now openly encouraging.

But this remains a small sub-elite in a sprawling country of vast inequalities, with extraordinary deprivation living side-by-side with astonishing opulence. The presence of a ‘black elite’ is insignificant compared to the continued existence of an impoverished black majority. (Just drive through the country’s spectacular countryside and see the unfettered spread of shantytowns almost as far as the eye can see to get what I mean.)

It is also insignificant compared to the entrenchment of white economic hegemony. Yes, we have ‘black empowerment’ corporations registered on the stock exchange. But to what extent does this ‘empowerment’ filter down into the greater black society.

And one would inevitably be obliged to ask: who runs these ‘black empowerment’ entities anyway?

The debate about the significance or insignificance of elites and non-elites will rage on for a long time to come. What is regrettable is that the debate (or non-debate) about race, and how it impacts on the elitism debate, will rage on for even longer.

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