I’ve never known another time of hope quite like February 1990. Three months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Nelson Mandela was released from prison. “Our march to freedom is irreversible.” This was it. We’d cracked it. The lion was going to lie down with the lamb, and we were all going to live happily ever after, in a world of peace and love, flowing with milk and honey.
It lasted just under six months. And even they were interrupted by IRA violence. And the Strangeways prison riot – although admittedly that all seemed rather exciting, with rioting prisoners regularly waving to our school bus as it passed by. At the beginning of August, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Kuwait. War resulted, in January 1991. In June 1991, Slovenia and Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia, and all hell then broke loose: we saw things we’d never again thought could happen in Europe. So much for the bright new world.
But South Africa, despite some horrendous outbreaks of violence there, remained a beacon of hope. Apartheid was dismantled, and, in 1994, Nelson Mandela became president – and up went the rainbow flag. It’s all rather romanticised in the film Invictus, depicting South Africa’s hosting of and victory in the 1995 rugby union World Cup.
It’s difficult to overstate how much South Africa loomed in the consciousness of my generation, growing up in Britain. There’s nothing like it now. The slightest thing that happens in the Middle East makes headlines, but it’s not the same. It’s a shame, really. Maybe something might be done about, say, the persecution of ethnic minorities in Burma/Myanmar, if there was some sort of movement that even came close to the worldwide anti-apartheid movement. Jacob Rees-Mogg was saying something – not particularly historically accurately – the other day about the repeal of the Corn Laws, and that got me thinking about just how huge the Anti Corn Law League was in the history and consciousness of Manchester. The anti-apartheid movement was like that on an international level.
It was at every level, from the big to the ridiculously small. That huge concert in 1988, to mark Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday. Free-ee-ee-ee-ee Nelson Man-DE-E-E-LA. The rows and debates over the rebel cricket tours. What was the name of the tower block that Del and Rodney and Uncle Albert lived in, in Only Fools and Horses? Nelson Mandela House. We even had Gimme Hope Jo’Anna on the tape that was played as background music in school gym lessons. And eat a South African apple? Not we! Maggie Thatcher might think that it was OK to trade with an apartheid regime, even at the risk of splitting the Commonwealth, and the supermarkets might think that it was OK to stock South African produce, but not one morsel of fruit produced there was passing the lips of any self-respecting teenager. All right, all right, we didn’t really imagine that F W de Klerk actually gave two hoots whether we were eating South African apples or not, but it was the principle of the thing.
What divided South Africa united so many other people. Quite strange, really, when you think about it.
So. 1994. The rainbow nation. Not all black and white. It’s crucial to remember, without wanting to go too far into Afrikaner religious beliefs, the Boer War or anything else, that there aren’t just “White South Africans”. There are Afrikaner-speaking white South Africans, and English-speaking white South Africans, and white South Africans speaking other languages. There aren’t just “black South Africans”: there are black South Africans from many different cultural and linguistic groups. There are South Africans of Asian descent. There are the mixed race “Cape Coloureds”. And, of course, there are the “Khoisan” people. There are urban communities and rural communities. Different regions. Different religions. It’s complex.
Trevor McDonald was privileged to be able to interview Nelson Mandela back in 1990. He returned to South Africa for this one-off programme, to mark what would have been Mandela’s 100th birthday.
I went to South Africa in 2011. My main memories of that wonderful holiday aren’t to do with my impressions of race relations: they involve Table Mountain, penguins at the Cape of Good Hope, sitting on an ostrich (don’t even ask), safaris in the Kruger National Park, the glorious scenery, the trees and flowers, explanations of Zulu culture, having a very English cream tea in the middle of the botanical gardens in Durban … all sorts of things! But one of the things I most wanted to do whilst I was there was to visit Robben Island: it seemed so important to see where Nelson Mandela had been held prisoner for so many years. And I was struck by the fact that all the white people on the guided tour there were tourists from other countries. All the South Africans on the guided tour were black.
There were other things, too. A “Cape Coloured” taxi driver told me – and I’m assuming it wasn’t a chat up line! – that interracial romantic relationships in South Africa were still rare, and asked if that were the same in the UK. And, when the TV in the reception area of one of the hotels was showing an English Premier League match – it was our neighbours Bolton Wanderers, although I can’t remember who the other team were! – it was only, apart from British tourists, black South Africans who were watching. The idea of Afrikaners being into rugby union, Anglo whites and Asians being into cricket and black people being into football still seemed to be around then. But hopefully that is changing now, and everything’s becoming more integrated. Hey, sport’s important, OK!
So what did Trevor find? Well, it started off on a very positive note, as he met an estate agent who was busy selling posh homes to members of the growing, prospering black middle class. This was in Soweto, of all places. I’m not sure that we really needed the close-up view of the toilet, but never mind. Some of them weren’t just “nice” homes, they were really luxurious. This was what black people were aspiring to now, she said. Not even thirty years since black people hadn’t even been allowed to own property there. It sounded like some sort of South African Dream.
Yep. Only for the few. Next up, a squatter camp. Democracy was only for people with money, one man said. Everything was worse than it had been under the apartheid regime. No jobs. No money. Seemingly very little hope. And this was black and white people alike: Trevor said that he’d often seen black poverty on previous visits to South Africa, but had not previously seen white people living in these sorts of conditions. The white people there said much the same as the black people. Everything had got worse. Most people were only able to eat because they got food from a food bank.
However, the barriers between black and white people had been broken down there. Because everyone was in it together. Well, that was progress of a sort, but not exactly a very positive sort. And, despite that, one white man said that it felt as if the system now was one of reverse apartheid. That’s nonsense, in that the proportion of black people living in poverty far, far, exceeds that of white people living in poverty. But the fact that the change of regime had seen some people who’d previously been doing OK dragged down into poverty was hardly something to celebrate.
Later, he spoke to an Afrikaner woman who said that she and her husband had both lost their jobs because of the government’s affirmative action policies. Their employers had been required to take on a certain number of non-white staff, and so they’d been dismissed to make way.
In an ideal world, everything would be run on a purely meritocratic system. But this is not an ideal world. Without affirmative action, it’s almost impossible to break a cycle of generational poverty. Jobs, money, educational opportunities, connections, aspirations … on and on it goes. Laissez-faire doesn’t really work when you’ve got a situation where one group of people have held all the cards for so long. There has to be some form of affirmative action – something that looks set to become an issue in the US in the coming weeks, incidentally. And affirmative action is, in many ways, only redressing the unfairnesses of the past.
Yet that woman and her husband were not personally responsible for decades of apartheid. You can bet your life that those people who were actually in positions of power during those years, and are still alive, are not going short of anything. How would you feel if, having done your job to the best of your ability, you were chucked out on your ear just so that you could be replaced by someone of a different race or age or gender, to enable your employers to meet a government target? And with little chance of finding anything else, because all potential employers were going to be in the sameboat. Hard done by, to put it mildly? Angry? Bitter? So what’s the answer?
This was in a place called Kleinfontein. A gated community. OK, you get gated communities in a lot of places these days, because of fear of crime. But this one was Afrikaners only. OK, you get plenty of communities where most of the people come from the same ethnic/cultural/religious background. All big cities have areas which are associated with particular groups. But this wasn’t a particular quarter of a city: it was an isolated community. And it was Afrikaners only. People from other ethnic/cultural groups actually weren’t allowed to move in. They weren’t even allowed to come in to work: a man there explained, rather proudly, that all the houses had been built by Afrikaners, even though most construction workers in South Africa were black. It was really very creepy. And yet there’s apparently no law against this. I can’t imagine that any non-Afrikaner person would want to live in a place like that, with the sort of people who do want to live in a place like that.
I don’t know. Is that sort of set-up so different from the many areas of many towns and cities dominated by one particular group of people? As an extreme example, what about Belfast, where you have Loyalist areas and Nationalist areas? The people living there claimed that they wanted to identify with a particular culture and live amongst their “own” people, and that’s probably what you’d hear in any ethnic quarter of any town or city. But … yes, this is different. Not even allowing people of different races in to work. That’s very creepy indeed. It’s horrible. I wonder what they do about delivery drivers, or repair people – do they not let them in unless they’re Afrikaners? How on earth does that work? I don’t know. I don’t think I want to.
The place after that was another gated community, but this one was the lap of luxury. Serious, serious luxury. Apparently these sorts of places are becoming increasingly popular in South Africa. Swimming pools, horse riding, absolutely enormous houses, huge grounds, all amid stunning scenery – you get the idea. Very nice. And security. That was a big thing – security. The people who live there are mostly whites, but, unlike the Afrikaner-only community, this wasn’t so much about race as about money – and it’s still, despite what we saw in Soweto at the start of the programme, mainly white people who have that sort of money, at the very top end of the economic scale.
This was probably the crux of the programme, because so many things came together. From the exclusive gated community, Trevor went to visit two prisons. At both the luxury estate and the prison, everyone was talking about the same thing – violent crime, most of it perpetrated by gangs. Within prisons as well as on the outside. And this is what so often happens – when people are excluded economically and politically, that will result in a rise in crime, in radicalism or in both. It’s hardly unique to South Africa, but it is particularly bad there, because of black communities being marginalised for so many years. And it’s a vicious circle, because it perpetuates racial tension. This has happened in parts of America, and to some extent Britain, France and other countries too. Poverty and exclusion and lack of opportunity and hope breed crime. Round and round it goes.
By this point, I was beginning to wish that I hadn’t bothered watching. It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
It never is, is it? The Great War was supposed to be the war that ended all wars. It was barely twenty years after it ended that the Second World War broke out. The reforms introduced after the Second World War – and a very happy 70th birthday to our wonderful NHS today – were supposed to provide care for everyone from the cradle to the grave. I think about that when I’m making my weekly donation to the food bank in Tesco. How many revolutions/regime changes have been backed by idealists but ended up making things worse? How many countries have celebrated independence only to find it leading to dictatorship, civil war or both? What practical difference did the emancipation of the serfs in Tsarist Russia actually bring? A hundred years after the emancipation of slaves in America, the struggle for black civil rights was still going on. The “still marching” slogan has been used a lot this year: a hundred years after some women were given the vote in the UK, the fight for equality is still going on.
Every time I hear someone compare the situation in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to apartheid in South Africa – and this happens a lot – I want to (I’ve written about this before) give them a long lecture on the history of Zionism and remind them that it wasn’t meant to be like this. And sometimes it ends in total betrayal – Aung San Suu Kyi used to be spoken of as “the Nelson Mandela of South East Asia”, but look at all the horrific things going on in Burma/Myanmar now.
South Africa’s nothing like either of those examples. But it’s never that easy or that straightforward, even when you’ve had someone like Nelson Mandela to lead the way.
Trevor went to Robben Island. There, he was shown round by Mac Maharaj, who’d been held there as a prisoner, and had later served as a government minister. And there, there was hope – from a man who pointed out that Rome wasn’t built in a day (he didn’t use that expression, but it’s one that sums it up well). South Africa’s got a long way to go, but it’s come a hell of a long way from where it was in 1990.
That would have been a good place to finish, but, instead, Trevor went on to a winery. Nice places, South African wineries! There, he spoke to the owner about the issue of land ownership in South Africa, and how most of the land remains in the hands of a small number of wealthy white people. Land redistribution has so often been used in history by a new regime either to reward its own supporters and consolidate its power – from the Norman Conquest to 17th century Ireland to 20th century South America. Sometimes it’s done not for power but out of a genuine desire to make things fairer. I was going to cite Australia in the 1940s, but I’m afraid my knowledge of that is based on The Thorn Birds! Oh well, The Thorn Birds is probably accurate, right? There are apparently plans to try this in South Africa, but not much has happened yet … maybe because of fears of a repeat of what happened in Zimbabwe, where Mugabe’s land reforms helped to ruin the economy. But, at this particular winery, the staff, mostly black, had been given a stake in the business and the land. And it was working really well. Apparently, the wine even tastes better!
So it ended on a note of hope. And things don’t change overnight. Mac Maharaj said that Nelson Mandela would be pleased with what’s been achieved so far. I hope so much that he would.
But I’m just going to be a bit self-indulgent here. I’m supposed to be writing about South Africa in 2018, not about Britain in the 1980s and certainly not about myself. But the teenage years are often a time of wide-eyed idealism, and I was 14 when the Berlin Wall came down, and when Nelson Mandela was released from prison. I can remember, on January 1st 1990, seeing TV pictures of people dancing where the Berlin Wall had been. It was supposed to be a new era. And, oh, that incredible speech that Nelson Mandela made when he was released from prison. “Our march to freedom is irreversible”. We really thought we were getting somewhere. There’ve been moments, since then. I actually fell for all Tony Blair’s talk, in 1997. I remember feeling a bit tearful during Barack Obama’s inauguration speech. But they were just brief moments. Nothing’s ever really come close to that feeling of hope at the end of 1989 and the beginning of 1990.
But I still hope that one day it will.