deep woes, democracy instills hope
By Richard Morin
March 31, 2004
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
"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
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
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."
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."
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
"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
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
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