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South Africa – A Canary in a Cage?
by Brian T. Lynch, MSW
Having come of age in the 1970’s, South Africa holds a special place in my heart. Although I’d not been there before recently, the forced social separation by apartheid laws to reinforced White domination was a global disgrace, and I felt it. I signed petitions to get my college to divest from companies doing business there. Nelson Mandela’s political imprisonment was an international affront to justice that bothered me.
The spontaneous street protests in Soweto by Black high school student in the 1980’s was inspiring while the fact so many were shot dead shocked everyone.
And so I celebrated along with the rest of the world when Apartheid was finally dismantled, Mandela was freed and the first free elections were held. It was a triumph of the human spirit over oppression and it sent a message of love and freedom to the world.
When my wife and I recently booked a trip to South Africa, we were excited by the prospect of viewing great African animals in their natural habitat, but equally interested to see how this iconic country had fared during their 27 years of freedom.
The safari portions of our trip were spectacular, far exceeding our expectations. The landscapes, the plant life and geography were beautiful and so dramatic. All the people we met were friendly and welcoming. I felt I had come home to our mother continent where humanity itself was born.
Yet it was sad to learn how difficult the transition to self-rule has been for the people in this developing nation. We learned a lot about South African culture and it’s politics, much of which is just now seeping out to Western news outlets.
I can’t begin to do this topic justice from just a 12 day tour, but I can highlight some of my impressions.
Our tour guide on the trip was a brilliant, very engaging “colored” man (his term) who self-identifies as being from the Khoi-San tribe.
This is actually a joining of the names of two tribes indigenous to South Africa. The Khoi-San are genetically and linguistically among the oldest groups of humans on earth. It was they who Dutch settlers first encountered in 1656. Of course oppression and hardship followed the Khoi (or Khoe pronounced coy) and the San tribes throughout the colonial period under the Dutch, and then the English in the 1800’s.
After three-hundred years of colonial rule our tour guide, like most colored people in South Africa, is bi-racial with some Dutch and English ancestry. Colored people were oppressed in colonial times and still are today, although less overtly.
During apartheid, the designation of “colored” also applied to people from India who were brought there as slaves, and to any other group held in low esteem. If a black African wanted to appeal his designation as a colored person, a pencil was pushed through the person’s hair and they were told to shake their head. If the pencil fell out they lost their appeal.
The hope of inter-racial harmony and social unity that animated the successful struggle against apartheid in the in the 1970’s and 80’s has since given way to economic and political oppression by other factions. South Africa has among the greatest wealth inequality in the world. In our guide’s telling, it is the black African immigrants from the North who mostly hold the reins of power, Among these are certain dominate tribes, such as the Zulu for one example. There is a social hierarchy among these black African tribes while middle-class white South Africans are not in power and colored South Africans are at or near the bottom.
The degree to which society is stratified along tribal traditions is evident in the parliament where everyone insists on speaking in their own dialect or language despite the fact that virtually everyone speaks English. This means everything said in parliament has to go through interpreters and is fraught with misunderstandings.
Not surprisingly, it is global corporations who appear to be pulling all the strings in South Africa. As we road in our bus for hours from one site to another we saw miles and miles of eucalyptus trees planted in perfectly straight rows awaiting lumber harvesting. We saw miles and miles of other single crop plantings as far as the eye could see. It was corporate industrial farming on a grand scale harvesting crops destined for international consumption. I couldn’t help but wonder what native species of animals and plants were displaced by all this cultivated land. I wondered if beautiful giraffes or lions had once roamed here. Does loss of habitat contribute more here to species decline than poaching?
The only small farming we saw was tiny gardens between certain shacks in huge, crowded shanty towns that dotted the lands outside the major towns and cities. On one side of the roadway you might see a square mile or more of closely packed shacks made of corrugated tin or wood planks with electric wires extending down to them like ribbons from a maypole. Sanitation is provided by long rows of outhouses along the periphery of these villages.
On the other side of the road you might see large gated communities of small, brightly colored masonry houses with modest flower gardens and a little driveway. There is razor wire on top of all the walls surrounding these communities. These four or five room homes were described to us as middle class enclaves. Only in the township of Soweto did we see a community where rich, middle class and poor housing existed in proximity.
Poverty is rampant everywhere, even in the wealth city areas. The unemployment rate in South Africa is currently approaching 50 percent. Crime has become an essential activity for survival among some South Africans. We learned that the country has an affordable and extensive railway system which is now plagued by long delays because robbers steal the electric lines to sell the copper.
Evidence of corporate industrial farming and its impact was just as evident in Swaziland, which is an independent nation within the northern mountain region of South Africa.
Here lives the only remaining sovereign king on earth. He disbanded the constitution when he took power and is the sole law of the land. A Western educated man with 13 wives, his most recent wife is just 19 years old. He is also one of the top richest men on earth living in a land of great poverty and very inadequate health care. Many people here still rely on medicine men when they are ill.
As we road through a rural landscape we passed hectors after hectors of sugar cane planted in neat, endless rows. Our tour guide told us all this sugar cane belonged to Coca Cola. Asked if the land was owned by the company we learned that all the land is leased to Coca Cola by the government, which is the Swazi king. Still, every child goes to school and has a school uniform. Parents who can afford it buy their child’s books and uniforms while poor parents apply for them from the government.
Back in South Africa the same is not always true. While every child is required to go to school and wear a uniform, in some rural farm areas there is a gap between sixth grade and eight grade. Parents who can afford it send their children to private 7th grade classes. Education stops at the 6th grade for those who can’t afford a private school. In this way there is a steady supply of laborers to work the fields.
Water resources have recently become a huge issue in Capetown, a city of twelve million people who are expected to run out of water sometime in April. Water conservation signs are everywhere, starting at the airport. In our hotel a four minute hourglass egg timer was glued to the shower stall to help guests take shorter showers. (Currently the recommended shower time is two minutes, not four).
Almost all of Capetown’s water comes from ground water reservoirs. So the environmental cause of this water shortage is a lack of rain due to five years of drought. But there are political causes behind the crisis as well. Endless squabbles and debates in the national government have resulted in years of delay in constructing a desalination plants.
I couldn’t get a clear answer as to whether there were sufficient aquifers under the city to dig municipal wells, but an hour’s drive south brought us to the wine district what water is abundant.
Here there were reservoirs filled with water as well as ground wells to irrigate the vineyards. There were lush fields of grapes in this fertile valley waiting to be picked and turned into that famous South African wine. Some of these vineyards are over 300 years old.
As my wife and I traveled around and observed all the contrasts and disparities, we got the sense we were not seeing South Africa backsliding towards it’s past, but rather a glimpse into our own future here in the United States. A future dominated by corporate servitude and stateless billionaires. South Africa, the cradle of humanity, is a place of awesome beauty and friendly, descent hard working folks. But the politics right now is frightening. The resources and economy of this developing country is increasingly falling under the control of private international companies and powerful foreign states, especially China. It is not unlike what we see happening here in the United States.
These are among my impressions, my cultural snap shots that a camera can’t capture. Since we returned home South Africa has been on our minds and in our hearts every day. A beautiful land. A beautiful people with high ideals and aspirations trying to find their way in a world full of economic wolves.