Memories Of South Africa – OpEd


Earlier this year I had the great pleasure to visit South Africa. Compared to most Americans, the passing of Nelson Mandela brought tears to my eyes many times as I recalled being in many of the places being shown on countless news shows.

In particular, I was fortunate in spending significant time with several black elderly South Africans who knew Mandela and were prisoners also, and who spoke in considerable detail about the horrors of living in the apartheid society. Nothing I have seen and heard on many news outlets has presented the true horrors of what life was like for not only blacks but also other people of color in the apartheid society. There were virtually no freedoms whatsoever for nonwhites and the blacks suffered the most. I recall listening to these apartheid experts and feeling absolutely bewildered that the apartheid government and society could actually have been created and prospered for so many decades.

What those who follow news closely should have learned is that the South African apartheid government was supported by the US and so many other countries for a very long time. Why? Mainly because this hideous government was clever enough to position itself against Soviet communism. And when it came to choosing between fighting the evil oppressive apartheid government versus making it an ally against the Soviets in the cold war, the US and many other democracies supported apartheid. A terrible, terrible historic reality. But if we are to learn anything from the brilliant, moral teachings of Mandela is that we must have the will power to forgive all those who supported apartheid and move on.

I find it sickening that those nuts on the far right want to remember and condemn Mandela for flirting at times with communism while at the same time not condemning the many Republicans who had political power and supported apartheid. They also have hedged their positive views of Mandela, making them, not him, look small and stupid.

While in South Africa I had opportunities to speak to many whites and blacks and get a sense of current realities. Yes, one can easily see an integrated society, especially in popular public spaces, even upscale shopping areas. But the deeper reality is that with 30 percent unemployment and only 10 percent paying income tax it also is readily apparent that acute economic inequality prevails. There are huge numbers of poorly educated, desperate blacks stuck in poverty, which helps explain a high crime rate. But I also saw a true rising black middle class. A highlight was being brought to a restaurant in Soweto for lunch at a modest black owned restaurant, which was fine, as well as seeing many, many neighborhoods there where the housing was clearly well renovated and maintained.

But it was also apparent that the whites hold on to most of the wealth in South Africa. An interesting visible sign of reality is that large single family homes in wealthy areas uniformly had remarkable security, including major barbed wire fences and signs warning of an armed response.

Everywhere one can see the widespread love and respect for Mandela, though sometimes the commercialization of his name and likeness is somewhat disappointing.

Like many other tourists, I visited the beautiful city of Cape Town and visited Robbin Island and the prison where Mandela spent so many years. Though large and sterile it was luxury compared to the Nazi concentration camps, something that I think many Jewish people could not help noting. I have found it fascinating that Mandela was able to make such positive use of his time in prison because he had access to many reading materials, and also that he was given surgery for prostate cancer.

For a good view of the core problem of social and economic inequality still inflicting South Africa I recommend an article in the New York Times. What the world must keep in mind is that South Africa is a nation with remarkable difficulties and challenges that lacks political leadership on a par with the genius of Mandela. Though apartheid is gone racial divides still exist: “Just 22 percent of white South Africans and a fifth of black South Africans live in racially integrated neighborhoods. Schools remain heavily segregated, too: Only 11 percent of white children go to integrated schools, and just 15 percent of black children do.”

Interestingly, what I have not seen noted in news stories is how immigrants from other African countries have flowed into South Africa and taken many, many decent jobs.

I end with strongly recommending that people go to South Africa and spend time in Johannesburg and Cape Town as well as enjoying a marvelous safari trip in the country.

Joel S. Hirschhorn

Joel S. Hirschhorn was a full professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and a senior official at the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment and the National Governors Association; he has authored five nonfiction books, including Delusional Democracy – Fixing the Republic Without Overthrowing the Government.

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