What does the legacy of Apartheid mean to a generation who grew up without it?
“Die wonde word gesond weer
as jare kom en gaan
maar daardie merk word groter
en groei maar aldeur aan”
“The wounds – they will heal
As the years go by
But the scars will just grow larger
And never fade away”
– JD Du Toit, Afrikaans poet
“How do we forgive?”
– Xhosa saying – graffitied on the University of Cape Town’s rugby stadium
“We may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us.”
– Bergan Evans, The Natural History of Nonsense
Part I: The Colossus of Rhodes
It was a luminous March morning in 2015 when Chumani Maxwele threw a bucket of shit onto Cecil Rhode’s impassive stone face. He had picked it up from the curbside in Khayelitsha (a nearby township), where the lack of plumbing left buckets of human excrement ripening in the late Summer sun.
Chumani was a student at the University of Cape Town (UCT), South Africa’s top tertiary institution. He was there on a scholarship, studying political science. He had grown up dirt poor in a dusty village on the Eastern Cape, before moving to Delft – a township outside of Cape Town, where half the people were unemployed and crime was more commonplace than drinking water. His first job had been in Woolworths, where almost every customer he attended to; smiled to; sucked up to – was white.
His decision to plaster Cecil Rhodes with poo was the culmination of both a year’s more subdued student protests, and a lifetime of exclusion, condescension, and unfulfilled promises.
For about a year, various student groups had been campaigning for the removal of Rhodes’ statue. They argued that celebrating his unapologetic imperialism was too perfect a symbol of white condescension to be believed. Funnily enough, earlier murmurs of a similar sort had been made by white students in the 1950s, who objected to celebrating a British imperialist in an Afrikaans country. This precedent wasn’t invoked by Chumani, or any other protestors, but it offers a glimpse of just how deep the schisms run through South Africa’s “rainbow culture”.
There is little I am sure about in my country of birth, but this much I will never doubt: Race is nested fractally.
And in the fading summer of 2015, those fractals exploded.
It would be a tremendous journalistic cop out to describe the consequences of Chumani’s protest as “the shit hitting the fan”, were that cliché not staggeringly apt. The “#RhodesMustFall” movement spread like wildfire across South African university campuses, with protests at Witwatersrand and Stellenbosch demanding further decolonisation – an end to Afrikaans only lectures; more black professors; and greater engagement with the black student body.
From a Western perspective, idealistic, angry student protests are nothing shocking. But for older South Africans, these marches rattled them to their core. These students were part of a new generation, only now coming into adulthood: the “born frees”. The first South Africans in half a century who had never lived with Apartheid. This generation had been raised on the dream of a “Rainbow Nation”; on Mandela’s famous promise (delivered in Afrikaans) that “What’s past is past”; on the hope that, with the demise of white supremacy, South Africa could fulfil its promised potential, becoming a land of equality and opportunity, with the strongest economy and most progressive constitution on the continent.
To put it mildly, this was not to be.
Chumani Maxwele’s Rhodes protest was not his first brush with political activism. While living in Delft he had been a campaigner for HIV prevention and awareness, and in 2010 he was arrested for flipping off President Jacob Zuma’s official motorcade. He considers himself part of a “new politics”, directly in contrast with the reconciliatory tone of revolutionaries past. “In this country” he told South African news agency City Press, “we artificially dance around race and racism and don’t address it.”
Chumani’s dark eyes seem to burst forth from the rest of his face. His body language is frequently hunched and lethargic, but his eyes never. They dart out from a stony and unreadable countenance and pierce the mind of whomever he is speaking to. There is something frighteningly honest about them. So I don’t, for a second, doubt the sincerity of 30 year old scholarship student Chumani Maxwele when he says “Decolonisation must happen through violence. I think it highly unlikely South Africa can avoid this.”
Part II: The Prodigal Son
Chumani Maxwele may be strongly identified with the born free generation, but his age prevents him from entirely joining their ranks. He remembers the days just before Apartheid’s fall – seeing ANC aeroplanes fly overhead in preparation of the 1994 election, while he played soccer with his brother in the backyard.
I, on the other hand, face no such technical quibbles. Born in 1995, I have never even breathed the air of a South Africa which has not known President Nelson Mandela. When I came to know his story (as all South African children do) it already had the happy ending. The release from Robben Island; the partnership with F.W. de Klerk; the demolition of a fascist government which preached hate and division – I was one of the lucky ones, never having to live in the shadow of a government as particularly and peculiarly evil as the one my parents were born into.
So why, then, did they flee the country when I was barely two years old?
My mum has insisted more than once that they never fully intended it to be permanent. “We knew it was a big decision, and that it would shake our lives, but we never thought of it as… forever.” When I asked her how long she had thought of it as, she took her cup of tea to her lips and sipped almost… spiritually – eyes closed; head tilted back; her whole face giving the expression of trying to divine some arcane answer from the liquid. When her eyes opened, she smiled bluntly. “I don’t know.”
Dad is blunter still. Before we left Australia (my home for 15 years) for the UK, he took me on an open-top drive past rows of skeletal gum trees as a goodbye of sorts. “This is a good country” he intoned. “We should never turn our backs on it.” I observed that he had never said anything like this about the country where I was born. He said nothing for a while. Then he told me a story.
“It always took at least seven years to become a member of the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants. First, you did your bachelor’s. Then, if you passed that, which many guys didn’t the first time round, you took at least a year and completed what’s called a Certificate in the Theory of Accounting. And after that, there was a three year learnership, and only then were you a member. When I joined, there were only something like 10,000 in the whole country.”
Here he paused for a moment, shifting into low gear and pulling into a side road. Dropping to just above 30km an hour, my father’s voice assumed a tone which reminds me of Atticus Finch. It suggested asking a question to which everyone in the room knew the answer, but no one wanted to say.
“They are thinking of implementing a rule that if you are black or coloured, you can have an extra 15% granted to your exam results, and the three year learnership will be brought down to one year. And I’ve decided that if that happens, I am going to resign from the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants.”
I don’t imagine for a moment that my father longs for Apartheid era South Africa. That nation conscripted him into war – giving him a lifetime of post traumatic stress and not even the slightest iota of state care afterwards. He has described to me stepping over bodies on his way into work, before calling my mother and telling her to stay home, as today might be the day that civil war finally broke out.
His disappointment in the Institute comes not from nostalgia for a nation now gone, but rather from disappointment in a country which has, as he puts it, “failed to grow”. Policies like the one he objected to are frequent components of nationwide affirmative action programmes. These functionally discriminate against white people, but have done little to nothing to end the endemic poverty among black and coloured communities. Meanwhile, income inequality remains among the highest on earth – ten percent of the population earn around 55%–60% of all income.
My identity as a South African has been shaped more by my parents’ relationship to the country than my own experiences. Yes, I have been back, but never for long enough to feel like I’ve lived there. The narrative I had about South Africa was, for years, of a troubled nation which had won a great victory over fascist hatred in 1994, but had failed to capitalise on its promise and was slipping into a cesspool of violent crime and political corruption. My parents frequently compared our modest gates in Sydney to the nine-foot high walls topped with barbed wire; spotlights; and security cameras which surrounded my cousins’ homes. They marveled at the mere act of safely walking our dog in the evening. But most of all, I was told again and again of the opportunities I simply wouldn’t have in South Africa – the quality of education; the job prospects; the financial security – all had been increased exponentially by my parents’ agonising decision to emigrate (for which I sincerely thank them).
This, then, was how I saw my country of birth: fundamentally dysfunctional; and largely hopeless.
So when, in 2015, news broke of nationwide student protests, my vision – while not shattered – was at least shaken. Here were people my age standing up to what I had considered an unstoppable backwards slide. A nation which I thought was irreparably plagued by political corruption, crime, and economic stagnation was seeing a real effort by its youth to reverse this trend – to confront the sins of the past and fulfil the promise of a post-Apartheid society; one which didn’t deny the realities of racial division but strove to fight them with more than just slogans and ineffective attempts at affirmative action. I allowed myself, foolishly, to be inspired. I hadn’t seen anything this… galvanising from South Africa in my lifetime. And thus began my quest to rediscover South Africa – to reacquaint myself with its social and political ills in an effort to learn how they can (and would) be cured.
This journey came to an end of sorts on 22 April 2017. Over a million South Africans gathered in Bloemfontein for a national day of prayer. The event was observed by expatriates the world over as well. They held hands, bowed heads, and begged for a miracle to deliver them from their country’s downward spiral. As I livestreamed the event from over 569km away, I sighed in resignation. A miracle, I thought to myself, was about all the hope there was left.
Part III: The Centre Cannot Hold
To understand how thoroughly reality undercut any notions of an inspirational “new politics” in South Africa I may once have clung to, a certain bluntness is in order.
I discovered the following things slowly, over time. They emerged as individual facts and stories from my country of birth, all of which chipped away at my hope for its future bit by bit by bit. In presenting them now, I will not attempt to craft a narrative resembling the way they were revealed to me, because that would not adequately express the unique and catastrophic spiral South Africa has fallen into. Instead, I present them as a list, so their overwhelming cumulative effect may be best felt and understood.
- The South African economy is a tragic tale of unfulfilled promise. Unemployment remains staggeringly high – over 25% – while income inequality is, frankly, shameful.
In April 2017, President Jacob Zuma sacked a number of important cabinet officials, including internationally respected Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, with the aim of “reshaping the economy” to include more black people. The international response to this move was to downgrade South Africa’s credit rating to junk status.
- President Zuma himself is a mess of scandals and disappointments. A member of the ANC’s old guard who fought for liberation alongside Mandela, his governance has proven itself as corrupt and incompetent as those he fought against (though not so particularly evil in the same way). As President, Jacob Zuma has been subject to multiple charges of embezzlement and corruption. After taking office, he refused to declare his financial holdings, claiming his “large family” made it difficult for him to do so. His close relationship with the Guptas, an Indian-South African business family, has also come under scrutiny. They appear to have enjoyed preferential treatment among government contracts, and have an unclear, undisclosed financial relationship with the President.Zuma has failed, despite being the leader of a ruling party which enjoys an overwhelming populist mandate, to make any badly needed structural change to South Africa’s overstretched, understaffed government, and the economic problems described previously have worsened under his leadership. But he retains power thanks to his populist appeal; his history; and his brilliance at exploiting South Africa’s greatest weakness: race.After South Africans of all colours and creeds marched against Zuma throughout March and April of this year, Zuma responded with a fictional, but popular narrative: Such protests, he claimed, were driven by race. They were predominantly Afrikaners seeking to undermine, insult, and demean the black populace which had fought so long, and so hard, for their political enfranchisement. He spoke of racist chants and placards; of a sea of enraged white faces. Such reports hold no resemblance to reality, but they stoked the fires of appeal among Zuma’s uneducated rural base, and provided him with yet another “get out of jail free” card.
- And it is on that topic – race – where my hopes for South Africa’s future were particularly shattered. The affirmative action programmes have already been described. Two people of the same qualifications would be treated differently based on race, thanks to these policies. But given that approximately 70% of the nation’s wealth is concentrated in the hands of the white minority, is there not some basis for such an act? Perhaps. But the government has done little to sell it as a reconciliatory measure. Despite an official policy by the ANC of “moving on” from the past, it has proven itself only too happy to stoke the fires of racial rhetoric. Jacob Zuma has been filmed singing “kill the boer” and has publicly considered seizing land from white farmers. Right wing Afrikaner group AfriForum called such plans “a declaration of racial war”. These slurs and aggression on both sides of the racial divide seem bad enough, but they become horrific when placed in the context of the Plaasmoorde.
Every year, for the past two decades, thousands of (predominantly white) rural farmers have been attacked in their homes. The brutality and horror of these attacks is difficult to communicate. Boiling water is used to torture children. Families are killed before each others eyes. This February, Sue Howarth, a British woman who had lived on a South African farm with her husband for 20 years, was awoken at 2AM by a gang of intruders. She was tied up, had a plastic bag crammed down her throat, and was then tortured with a blowtorch for several hours. The couple were then taken to a remote road by the attackers. Her husband was shot twice in the head, while she, miraculously, survived a shot to the neck, and was discovered a few hours later. Her story is horrific. It is not unique.
The particular savagery of these attacks seems to extend beyond the goals of mere robbery or greed, and has led to their being described as demonstrations of ethnic violence. This claim is difficult to prove or refute. Either way, rural whites are fearing more and more for their lives.
In the absence of significant police action, paramilitary militia groups have been set up by right wing extremists among the Afrikaner community. They pledge allegiance to the apartheid era flag; sing the old national anthem; and praise racial segregation. Their ideas are echoed elsewhere in the country. Orania is an Afrikaner only community located in the Northern Cape. Non Afrikaners are not allowed residency, and are discouraged from entering. The town’s goal is to create an Afrikaner majority in the Northern Cape by encouraging duplicates to be built around it.
But one does not have to venture to such extremes to find white separatism in South Africa. Even in the cities of the Rainbow Nation, the fantastically poor townships, which frequently have neither running water nor electricity, are overwhelmingly black. Meanwhile, the rich, cultured, gentrified “leafy suburbs” (which are exactly what their nickname implies) are blindingly white. That this separation is thanks to economic – not statutory – inequality should be little cause for relief.
And there they are. The reasons I lost hope in South Africa’s capacity for repair.
So. What does all that mean for the born frees?
Let us return, for a moment, to Chumani Maxwele, with his stony face and his piercing eyes. Let us hear his hopes for Africa’s future. “This is a seminal moment”, he says, describing the unity among students to fight their racist legacy. “What’s been happening here is that we’re giving birth to new politics. I’m amazed by black and white students who have been here, occupying [UCT] for eight days. It’s special.”
Chumani seems to be the fulfilment of Mandela’s ambitions. He refuses to be pacified by pleas for “stability”, and urges an embrace of the ideals of the rainbow nation which involves owning up to its history. And perhaps there’s validity to that.
The racial divides which traverse South Africa run deep. In the face of political corruption and inaction they have, as we’ve seen above, been allowed to become enormous barriers to systemic change. It is not inconceivable that a real, responsible reckoning with such bulwarks is what is needed before South Africa can move on. A cultural reconciliation preceding political revolution. And perhaps the born frees, led by people like Chumani Maxwele, are the ones to do it.
A fine sentiment.
But a foolish one.
Chumani Maxwele was rejected by his own activist movement last month after assaulting a professor when he attempted to force entry into the university on a public holiday. As he was being ejected from the premises, he shouted “We must not listen to whites, we do not need their apologies, they have to be removed from UCT and have to be killed.”
To call South African history troubled is beyond understatement. It is a nation built on cruelty upon cruelty. On tribal warfare between natives; on British torture of Boer prisoners of war; and on a 50 year policy of racial and cultural horror almost unequaled in the modern world. The wounds these have left in the South African cultural consciousness, and in South Africa’s social makeup, are difficult to comprehend. A new generation is now coming into its own – one which can rightly call these horrors “history” rather than “memory”. But history has a curious way of clinging on until the very end, and refusing to let go.
I remember the last time I revisited South Africa. Staying with my aunt and uncle in Cape Town, we watched the sunset over the Atlantic. African sunsets are a particular kind of red – the cliché says that they set the sky ablaze, but, sometimes, clichés are not inaccurate. As we stood on the balcony, I saw my mother almost crying as she gazed out at the ocean. Noticing me, she smiled. “This is what I miss most about South Africa. The nature. It was such a part of my life, of my youth – I get so overwhelmed when I see it again.”
Half joking, I asked her if she was sure the thing she missed most about South Africa wasn’t other South Africans. She turned to me with a sad near smile, and I saw in her eyes an absolute sincerity – the kind of truth which can only emerge, crawling and bloodied, from the wreckage of decades of disappointment and heartbreak. “No.”
And, with that, we turned back to the sea, and watched the night crawl over South Africa from the Western Cape.