Behind South Africa's fading miracle lies a familiar African story. RW Johnson says that the country has exchanged one dominant party regime for another and, with Mandela's power waning, the new rulers are making the lives of whites and Asians so uncomfortable that many are leavingby RW Johnson / June 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
Anyone who has lived in South Africa knows that it is a Janus-faced country. This is particularly true of its political life, for both black and white South Africans are addicted to histrionics and windy rhetoric. Everyone is in search of moral catharsis. When you look behind some of this the reality is often rather tawdry. Assessing how to treat this two (or more) sidedness sometimes seems like a full time job and is part of the incredible richness that living in South Africa provides.
Take one of the most moving moments which even this country-which specialises in moving moments-has ever seen: Nelson Mandela’s release from jail. Who can forget the images of Nelson and Winnie, wreathed in triumphant smiles, walking up and down, arms held aloft in salute? I am not ashamed to say I shed tears as I watched. But the ANC insisted on taking charge of arrangements which, as anyone who knew anything about the movement could have guessed, meant it would be a shambles. Sure enough, Winnie arrived hours late, the ANC could not control the crowds, the ANC driver charged with getting Mandela to Cape Town city hall did not know the way and got lost, the car got stuck, Mandela had an appalling hardline speech forced on him by others, things spun out of control, the young comrades went looting, some got shot dead. It was not long before the Mandelas were divorced, and few were surprised by the revelations of Winnie’s infidelities and greed, or her subsequent conviction for child-kidnapping.
That gives us some complex images to juggle with, all in technicolour, all true, all violently discordant with one another. But it happens often. Yesterday I spoke to a young assistant of mine I had sent to cover the unification of the black, white and Indian farmers’ unions in KwaZulu/Natal, in South African terms no small event. He said that at the launch event there were a lot of speeches, a lot of political markers put down, and then Mandela danced with the children. The 78-year-old president had simply got up in the middle of the proceedings and, to the horror of his security guards, ambled down to where choirs of young Zulu children were singing and begun to dance with them. In a way it is ridiculous, it is not how presidents behave. But eyes already brim with tears at the thought…