Beyond the South African rainbow

When Nelson Mandela passes, will he take with him the promise of expectation?


    Johannesburg, South Africa - Nelson Mandela is revered the world over. He's revered in South Africa, too, but here in the old city of Johannesburg, there is a feeling that once Mandela dies, so too will the promise, the hope and the dream that many have held sacred for so long.

    The struggle for freedom from apartheid was no single-goaled mission.

    And for this country's people, Mandela's own life and his efforts symbolised much of that struggle. His "freedom" from prison also came to symbolise the realisation of the dreams of South Africans.

    It took lots of convincing and lots of promises to achieve the fall of apartheid. But today, not all those pledges, promising free education, free housing, free water, and free healthcare, have materialised.

    Many critics would argue, quite simply, that such promises were in fact absolutely fantastical. A dangerous thing to build a future on, where only scars were marked before.
    But that future was built anyway, in the minds of people who very much needed something to dream about in a space where pain, injustice and misery once occupied.

    Today, it is the bitterness surrounding these failed dreams which dominates stoep [front porch] talk.

    In a shebeen [local pub] in Soweto, a man asks me why black people still have to pay for water. "Water is life. The government should pay for this water," he tells me.

    He says that black peoples' needs should be redressed because they were so economically disadvantaged by the apartheid regime. So economically disadvantaged, and perhaps also so ill-prepared for the challenges that a free world and a free market would bring.

    South Africans, and especially black South Africans, were most acutely affected not only by the internal segregation within the country, but also by the isolation of sanctions placed on the country from abroad.

    In a taxi, another man tells me that it is "unfair" that "foreigners" find a way to make a living but that locals cannot. This baffles me. He explains that asylum seekers and refugees have more money and that they have a network to rely on so they are able to continuously compete more effectively in the business sector.

    At the home of the surviving sister of struggle hero Hector Pieterson, I am told that the country and the government is unjust.

    "How?" I ask.

    Because political, tourism, marketing and other publicity events do not acknowledge her blood relationship and do not consult her for permission to use  her family name, she says. That permission which would no doubt be linked to remuneration.

    A short while later, after interviewing a freedom fighter, who says he believes in Black Consciousness, a movement born out of the teachings of Steve Biko, he asks for remuneration for the interview too.

    It is an action which in itself seems largely out of place with Biko's universal teachings of self-actualisation and self-sufficiency - particularly for black people.

    But this is where South Africa's freedoms have come to be measured, in the wallets of citizens still struggling to catch up with their ideal of the rest of the world, while at the same time struggling to put a meal on their tables.

    It is also the thing that continues to find itself exhibited in the country's streets in the countless service delivery protests, in the miners' strikes and in a resurgence of racist and prejudice talk in public and politics.

    And while a lack of service delivery is not unique to South Africa, beneath these unrequited expectations is a belief and demand that such dreams will still be realised by the democratic government.

    It is a tall order for any government, least of all a liberation movement that has experienced its own tribulations in the process of transforming into a governance vehicle.

    And yet it cuts to the very rawness of the reality. 'Freedom', as managed by the ruling ANC-government, has not transformed the lives of the majority of South Africans - the black population. And where this freedom has failed, South Africans themselves have largely also failed – to realise their own role in the transformation of the country. Instead of liberating themselves from feelings of victimhood and self-pity, many still cling to the more convenient veneer of promises, dreams, hope – and expectation.

    Those expectations are no less dangerous now than they were in 1994.

    Many South Africans, sadly, do not seem to see their own individual worth and potential they do not seem to see how the country is dependent on their own proactive contribution to society - their own success.

    When the gentleman in the shebeen mentions corruption, I ask why he does not hold the local leaders whom he knows - and who probably are sitting among us in the local pub - accountable.

    His answer is "fear". Fear, I ponder. He says people are still historically afraid of what will happen to them if they challenge authority.

    It seems a strange thing to me. But it also speaks of how the people I am speaking to see themselves in relation to their world. There seems to be no feeling of ownership of it, nor of just how significant their role is in creating the world they want. Instead, the youth are signing up to more expectations in the form of the catchy new title of Economic Freedom Fighters - the alleged new "formation" of expelled youth league leader Julius Malema.

    In the taxi again, telling me about the “unfairness” of the economic situation, the young man of around 34 says he agrees with Malema's ideology.

    He says the country has entered the second phase of the struggle. The struggle for "economic freedom". Then he says "the government must give black people back their land". It is a sentiment echoed everywhere I go, from double-breasted suit and spectacle-wearing intellectuals to vendors on the street. 

    But economic freedom policies can do little to change the immediate situation of the average person's wallet. It takes discussing, and vetting, passing and then "roll out" - an ominous word referring to months or even years of a long drawn out implementation process.

    It will do little to bring sustainable change fast, something I think even my fellow taxi-commuter is well aware of. The urgency in his voice betrays it.

    It betrays how despite what he tells me, he is in fact well aware that the time for expection is over.

    When Mandela does pass, accepting that this time has also passed, will be unavoidable.

    Many question if the country’s current leadership will be able to take South Africa forward, into the more crucial part of its democracy. But listening to people here, it makes me wonder if South Africans can find the potential within themselves to be the leaders of their own future.

    The question, for me, as a South African is: Can South Africans move beyond the dream? Can South Africans lead themselves over the rainbow?



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