Despite deep woes, democracy instills hope

By Richard Morin
Published March 31st 2004 in Washington Post

SOWETO, South Africa -- Ten years after the end of apartheid and white rule, South Africans recite a list of woes that endanger democracy in the beloved country: crime, AIDS, a shortage of jobs and public services, a surplus of racism and corruption.

Despite the problems, healthy majorities of South Africans look back with pride on a decade of historic change and are broadly optimistic about the future of their country and democratic rule, according to a national survey by The Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University.

Asked in the survey whether they thought democracy would survive, eight in 10 South Africans said yes -- up from barely half five years ago. Nearly as many said democracy has "been a good thing" for South Africa, a view shared by most whites and an overwhelming proportion of blacks.

South Africans acknowledge that the first decade of democracy has failed to deliver all the benefits they expected, creating conflicting views of the road ahead. Few blacks or whites yearn to return to apartheid. But asked if their lives were materially improved, some answered no, often in a tone of anger and betrayal.

"I curse the day that I voted on the 27th of April, 1994," said Agnes Sehole, 62, a black woman seated in the spare living room of a friend's home in a neighborhood in central Soweto, outside Johannesburg. "I had my hopes to live a better life. But from the frying pan right into the fire. Democracy has done nothing. If I died now, I would spin in my coffin forever because I have left my children in this terrible place."

Yes, yes, her friend Sylvia Mwelase, 53, said with a chuckle, her sparkling round eyes peering through thick glasses. "But we don't lose hope. This is a baby country. We cannot go back. . . . We are struggling to find a solution."

The peaceful transition to democracy in South Africa 10 years ago was celebrated as a new beginning for the wealthiest country in Africa and a beacon for other countries on the continent burdened by injustice and poverty. The election of Nelson Mandela as president in 1994 ended five decades of apartheid, a system in which South Africa was ruled by its white minority while blacks, Indians and those of mixed race were denied basic civil and human rights.

The euphoric expectations of those days have long since evaporated for most of South Africa's 44 million people. Confidence in government at all levels is in decline, the survey found. Income inequality is rising swiftly, and with it resentments of those left behind. Crime is extraordinarily high in the cities, suburbs and rural areas.

The HIV-AIDS pandemic continues to drain resources from the government and decimate a generation of workers and parents, with worse mortality rates still years away.

The African National Congress (ANC), the party of Mandela and the current president, Thabo Mbeki, is now seen by South Africans as a threat to democratic principles as its leaders erase the boundaries between party and state, according to this and other surveys.

At the same time, the inability of the government to deliver concrete benefits has led four in 10 South Africans to believe that sometimes a strong leader unencumbered by elections is necessary to deal with problems, according to the survey.

After 10 years, whites and nonwhites still perceive the country in strikingly different terms. Six in 10 whites say they believe the country is headed in the wrong direction. Yet two-thirds of blacks say the country is on the right track and three-quarters express an optimistic view of the future.

In the new South Africa, this majority view holds sway.

"There is too much crime. There are no jobs. AIDS is a big problem," allowed Mahomed Saheed, 39, a teacher, as he sat on a folding chair fishing with his son Huazaifa, 3, on the Durban Municipal Pier. "But we will solve them as a free people. Rich people. Poor people. Whites. Blacks. All together, we will do it."

Joblessness and Crime

Unemployment leads the list of the country's problems, topping crime and HIV-AIDS, according to the Post/Kaiser/Harvard survey. Nearly half of South Africans say their own financial situation is getting worse.

Currently, 42 percent of all adults in South Africa are unemployed. The national jobless rate has risen, on average, by more than 1 full percentage point every year since 1995. In some rural areas, eight out of 10 people who can work cannot find jobs.

The gap between rich and poor has increased steadily since 1994, and so has the disparity between blacks and whites. The average income of black households fell by 19 percent from 1995 to 2000 while white household incomes rose by 15 percent, said Cobus de Swardt, project leader at the Chronic Poverty Research Center at the University of the Western Cape.

Unemployment has caused some South Africans to reassess life under apartheid. "I would go back," said Reneilwe Maseko, 23, of the Soweto neighborhood called Klipspruit Two Rooms. "White people were oppressing us. But there was no poverty. There were jobs. Kids were going to school. This was a better community."

Nicolas Bontani, 39, has a job and a more nuanced view. He works as a night watchman in a private game park. Engaged to be married, he has already given his fiancee's family the cash equivalent of six of the 11 cows required under lobola -- bride price, still widely practiced in South Africa. "I must work two more years," he said with a smile. "Then I am a married man."

Like nearly nine in 10 South Africans, Bontani said he would not return to apartheid.

"Eish!" he exclaimed, using a common expression of surprise and dismay. "No, no, no. It should never happen like that. I would vote for a white to be president, to bring jobs and security like we had before. I would never again allow the white man to be my oppressor."

For blacks and whites, crime is now cited as a new source of oppression. It soared everywhere during the 1990s, from townships such as Soweto to the wealthy suburbs of Johannesburg and isolated farming communities in rural KwaZulu-Natal Province. In 1994, slightly more than 2 million crimes were recorded nationally, according to government statistics. In 2002, that figure had grown to 2.5 million, a 25 percent increase. The number of violent crimes grew even faster, although recent statistics suggest that the crime rate may have stabilized.

Slightly over half of South Africans say they or someone close to them has been the victim of crime in the past five years, and a majority of these were violent crimes, according to the Post/Kaiser/Harvard poll.

"It's an incredible country, but you cannot even walk in the street," said Marilyn Nolan, 52, as she sipped coffee in a cafe inside the modern Killarney Mall outside Johannesburg. "I live in a four-bedroom house. I have palisades fencing. I have security bars. I have an alarm system. I have a guardian system. I phone and say I will be home at 5, meet me at the gate, and they escort me into my property. We no longer stop at robots [traffic lights] at night, just cruise on through, which is ridiculous. But that's how we live."

Last fall, one of Nolan's daughter's best friends was carjacked as she and her date stopped at a traffic light on the way home from a night of clubbing in Johannesburg. "She was raped. He was killed. His head was blown off as she sat in the seat right next to him," Nolan said. "You don't want to go out at night. I am a prisoner."

The talk is similar in rural KwaZulu-Natal, where the rolling hillsides planted with sugar cane and the casual waves of people at a passing car suggest security and peace.

"The goats of my neighbor have been stolen last week by the young people -- people are stealing the goats from in front of our doors! And it is getting worse every month," said Adriana Bambo, 54, of the town of Ematholonjeni. "We are not being protected. What good is the government when no one is safe?"

Eight in 10 say crime represents a serious threat to democracy in South Africa, according to the poll.

"I personally would go back to apartheid; you were much safer," said Rita King, 42, a clerk in an expensive Johannesburg women's clothing store. In the old South Africa, King was classified as "colored" -- of mixed race -- and was barred from going to certain schools and other public facilities reserved for whites. "You've got freedom now, okay," she said, but "we're prisoners now because of crime. What does freedom mean? I'm not free."

One night last year, burglars poisoned her Labrador puppy in the walled back yard of her duplex. "She was barking and they wanted to get in the yard next door to get a motorbike that my neighbors had. It's sad living in South Africa. This was such a good country, and can be again."

Electoral Disenchantment

Ten years ago, more than 90 percent of adult South Africans went to the polls to participate in the country's first election open to all races. Aerial photos showed lines of voters snaking across empty fields.

Five years later, turnout in the national elections fell to 70 percent. In elections scheduled for April, analysts predict that half or fewer eligible South Africans will bother to vote, about the same proportion that cast ballots for president in the United States.

No significant rival has emerged to challenge the dominance of the ANC, which won more than 60 percent of the vote in both the 1994 and 1999 national elections, with the remainder scattered across a dozen small parties.

Two in three South Africans say they believe the ANC has "too much" political power, according to the Post/Kaiser/Harvard poll.

"I don't vote. It's useless anymore," said John Smid, who plays on the Johannesburg Lions professional rugby team. "They're going to have all the votes. And I'm going to stand in the queue for nothing. That's me. Other people will go to vote. My vote won't matter."

Apathy and disenchantment about politics may betray weak support for core principles of democracy. The survey found that one in four South Africans believe they shouldn't have to pay taxes if they disagree with government spending. Nearly three in 10 reject the belief that democracy is preferable to any other form government.

More broadly, many South Africans, particularly the poor, see democracy primarily as a way to deliver jobs, health care, better housing and clean water to the people -- and frustration builds when a better life is slow in arriving.

Other threats to democracy are more subtle. The national government continues to struggle to integrate traditional leaders into democratic institutions. According to the survey , a third of South Africans live in areas under the strong influence of traditional tribal leaders who decide punishment for less serious crimes, arbitrate personal disputes and make decisions about uses for communal lands.

Many of these chiefs remain suspicious of the central government and offended that they have not been asked to play a larger role in national life.

"They are building a lot of jails," said Inkosi Mathaba, a traditional leader who was seated with three "induna" -- advisers -- in a dimly lit community room in the tribal courthouse in KwaZulu Natal. "For who? For the traditional leaders. . . . But then they must not think that it will be Chief Mathaba will be going to jail alone. My people, they will follow me. . . . We are stronger than even the politicians. People do recognize us. It will take some years, ages, to forget."

Racial Undercurrents

Archbishop Desmond Tutu famously described South Africa as the "Rainbow Nation" after the 1994 election. Ten years later, skin color still profoundly divides and defines South Africa.

Race colors the views of the new South Africa and its future, the survey found. Two-thirds of blacks say the country is going in the right direction while majorities of colored, Indians and whites disagree. Three in four blacks are optimistic about South Africa's future -- a view shared by fewer than half of all whites.

"I'm pessimistic," said John Barenburg, 73, a white retired computer administrator and part-time clerk at a Johannesburg tobacco shop. "I've been trying to figure out a proper definition of democracy -- and what the hell is a proper definition of democracy? It's actually reversed here now. The blacks have all the rights and the whites are disabled or prevented from participating in the country."

The source of Barenburg's anger is the national government's affirmative action policies. The policies have stripped whites of the privileges they enjoyed under apartheid and fueled resentment among many whites -- and feelings of relief in others.

"I certainly am happier living in the new South Africa," said Rochelle Sackheim, 62, of Saxon Wold, a well-off and predominantly white Johannesburg suburb. "I don't have such a guilty conscience about being white. Now equal opportunity is here, and it is a good thing."

Despite aggressive affirmative action programs, whites still outnumber blacks among top managers by nearly 10 to 1, according to government employment statistics released in 2002. Even among middle managers, whites still outnumber blacks in a country where blacks make up 79 percent of the population, whites are 9.6 percent, mixed race are 8.9 percent and Indian 2.5 percent.

But it's not just whites who complain about affirmative action. Colored and Indians say they were disadvantaged under apartheid -- and are now ignored by the new government seeking to expand opportunities for blacks.

"It is apartheid upside down," said Brandon Alexander, 34, of Newlands, a tow truck operator surf fishing for grunt and garrick on North Durban beach. "First whites were on top. Now the blacks are on top. [We] colored are left out; nothing has changed for us."

But he also said that while there are problems, "they are slowly, slowly going away. Ten years, this will be a good country . . . a place worth waiting for."

There are signs of improvements even now. The economy is growing, albeit slowly. Vibrant black middle and upper classes are emerging. The government has built more than a million new houses. Basic necessities such as education, clean water and electricity are more widely available now than 10 years ago.

Newly released government statistics suggest that the HIV rate among pregnant teenage girls, a key at-risk group, has declined for the second year in a row. Rather than weakening democracy, AIDS may be broadening and strengthening civic society by forcing South Africans, regardless of race or economic class, to work together.

Today, majorities of all races predict that the old barriers and resentments will eventually fall and that South Africa will be a united country.

"There is a change," said Unis Mtshibhnong, 22, of Alexandra Township outside Johannesburg. "There are still some white guys who are racists and Indians who are racists and other blacks who are racists. They hide in the suburbs and in the townships. But it is a different day. Those are issues for old people."