The final act of South Africa’s structured transition from the apartheid regime based on white supremacy and segregation to “nonracial” democracy began with Nelson Mandela’s release from prison on February 11, 1990, and nominally closed with his inauguration as president on May 10, 1994. During that dramatic period Americans and others in the West paid more attention to South Africa than to any other African country. With their own history of unresolved racial issues, American friends of Africa were especially fascinated by the possibilities of a democratic transition in a black-majority but multiracial country, and some even tried rhetorically to take credit for it.
However, unlike that of the European former colonial powers, American engagement with Africa is usually episodic and short-lived, reflecting the constricted universe of shared political and economic interests. True to form, once the liberation movements and the ruling National Party government negotiated the demise of the legal and political dimensions of apartheid and Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as president of the “new” South Africa, American attention moved on. By contrast, for example, the United Kingdom, with its deeper historical ties, restored links through the Commonwealth and familial connections, and an important trade and investment relationship continued a greater degree of engagement long after inauguration day.
Post-1994 South Africa has not been subject to the periodic humanitarian crises seen in places such as Darfur, Somalia, South Sudan, or the West African venues of the Ebola epidemic that might generate renewed American popular interest and security or humanitarian concern. South Africa has not been a locale of international terrorism, either as an incubator or as a victim. South Africa is sorely tested by HIV/AIDS and by violent crime. But, as the disease is a worldwide pandemic, its specific presence in South Africa receives only episodic American attention. An often lurid focus on crime, not least by the country’s own media, has discouraged broader interest in the continent’s only true “nonracial democracy” and its most modern economy. Even Nelson Mandela’s December 15, 2013, state funeral, the celebration of a hero that riveted the American media for several days, did not translate into a revival of serious interest in South Africa.
Yet, it is in our own practical interest that we pay more attention to South Africa, as the United Kingdom, the European Union, and BRICS do. The country is a trade and investment entry point for a continent undergoing accelerated economic development. Pretoria, the administrative capital of South Africa, also has the potential to lead Africa as it faces challenges ranging from the easily recognizable, such as jihadi militancy, to the less obvious, such as the incubation of new diseases, including HIV/AIDS and Ebola. These challenges cannot be quarantined only in Africa but will affect all of us, perhaps in unpredictable ways. Pretoria is deeply involved in multilateral diplomacy and is active within the United Nations system, often at cross-purposes with, say, American or European Union (EU) interests and perceptions. In addition, beyond immediate economic, security, and health issues, there are valuable insights to be had from considering the historical parallels between South Africa and the United States with respect to white supremacy and overcoming its consequences.
This book intends to introduce or reintroduce the “rainbow nation” to those who lost contact after apartheid left the stage or who came of age since the transition to democracy in 1994. Now, more than twenty years after Nelson Mandela’s inauguration, it is no longer the dawn of racially inclusive democracy in South Africa. But it is still “morning,” in that democratic institutions and practices are still evolving, consolidating, and sometimes challenged.
Under the Jacob Zuma presidential administration, the country is treading water with respect to poverty, corruption, and addressing the lasting consequences of apartheid. The style of governance has become more “African” and less “Western” in the years since Nelson Mandela left the political stage. Nevertheless, the argument here is that the country’s democratic institutions and culture remain strong enough to weather its current round of lackluster governance and to incorporate a governing style that reflects the overwhelming majority of the population. President Ronald Reagan’s campaign theme for reelection in 1984 was “It’s morning in America.” That slogan reflected his, and America’s, optimism about the future at a time when there was seemingly little progress on poverty and race. The title of this book suggests there are grounds for parallel optimism about South Africa, notwithstanding the troubling slow pace of economic and social change since the end of apartheid, the disappointing behavior of many of its political figures, and the growing saliency of corruption. With its current dysfunctional leadership at the top, it is easy to lose sight of the positive side of the ledger: freedom of speech is absolute, the rule of law is established, the judiciary is independent, the political system is providing new options for the electorate, and the economy is largely market driven. Hence, on balance, the assessment here of South Africa’s prospects is positive.
The title of this book also deliberately recalls the mixed legacy of the Reagan presidency with regard to the bilateral relationship between the United States and South Africa. On the one hand, President Reagan vetoed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Bill, though the veto was subsequently overturned by Congress. Memories and resentment of the veto remain among the current political leadership of South Africa. Later, however, and long before apartheid’s end, President Reagan appointed the first African American ambassador to South Africa, a step largely forgotten today by that same leadership.
A word about terminology: ethnic or racial classification, using criteria and labels of apartheid origin, still plays a central role in the postapartheid South African conversation. Black South Africans usually call themselves “black.” Whites are usually “white.” Within a black or white identity, many differentiate themselves further by spoken language, between “English” and “Afrikaner” among whites or “Zulu,” “Xhosa,” “Tswana,” and numerous others among blacks. (Nine of South Africa’s eleven official languages are African.) “Coloureds” usually regard themselves as a separate ethnicity rather than of mixed race, though some coloured politicians insist that they are “black” because of the shared history of apartheid oppression. (Unlike in the United States, “coloured” is not pejorative in South Africa.) Persons of Asian heritage number about one million of South Africa’s total population of about fifty million. The majority is of South Asian descent, and they often call themselves “indians.” They have full access to affirmative-action programs. South Africans of Chinese heritage who arrived before the 1994 end of apartheid, but not after, are considered to be “black” for purposes of access to affirmative-action programs. However, South Africans of Japanese descent, considered to be “honorary whites” under apartheid, do not have access. The reasoning is that the former were victims of apartheid, but the latter were not and therefore they do not merit affirmative action. In this book, South Africans of Asian descent are called “asians,” with a lowercase a, while persons from Asia are called “Asians,” with an uppercase A. Similarly, South Africans of Indian descent are called “indians,” while persons from the Union of India are called “Indians,” with an uppercase I.
In addition to these formal categories inherited from apartheid, there are persons who are regarded to be of mixed race. Perhaps the best-known contemporary South African entertainer in the United States is the comedian Trevor Noah, the television anchor of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show. His mother had one parent who was Xhosa, and the other was Jewish. His father was a Swiss German. South Africans do not regard him as coloured. Though three of his four grandparents were white, he self-identifies as “black” on his U.S. television show. A theme of his comedy is the artificiality and absurdity of racial classifications in South Africa and the United States.
“Civil society” has played an outsized role in the fight against apartheid and in the development and preservation of human rights based on the constitution and the rule of law. More recently, civil society has also been an effective advocate on behalf of HIV/AIDS patients, and its agencies deliver a wide range of health services. It is at the forefront of the contemporary fight against corruption, including the organization of mass protests that recall those against apartheid. Here, civil society is understood to be communities of citizens sharing common interests and collective activity, usually separate from, and often parallel to, the state. In the South African context, civil society usually refers to nongovernmental organizations that come together to pressure the government, initially to end apartheid and promote human rights but now increasingly to improve the quality of governance, the delivery of health services, the suppression of corruption, and the protection of the environment. Perhaps because of their role in the struggle against apartheid and, later, their opposition to the Mbeki administration’s official denial of the HIV/AIDS crisis, civil society in South Africa is stronger than in other, more mature democracies, such as France and Spain.
We outsiders are often puzzled by South Africa’s description of itself since 1994 as a “nonracial democracy” when racial distinctions have been an overwhelming reality, now as well as in the past. The term is strictly technical. In the last decade of apartheid, electoral lists were organized according to race. There was a separate one for whites, coloureds, and asians. Blacks, the overwhelming majority of the population, could not vote in national elections and had no national list. In the 1994 elections, for the first time there was a single, nationwide electoral list with no racial designations. Hence, elections since 1994 have been “nonracial” in that every South African has the right to vote, and electoral lists make no reference to race. Accordingly, South Africans call themselves a “nonracial” democracy.
This book is intended for a Western, especially American, audience. South Africans may find little that is new, and many will likely disagree with its conclusions. Yet how South Africa appears to a sympathetic American commentator may be of interest, falling under the rubric of “seeing ourselves as others see us.”
I served at the American embassy in Pretoria/Cape Town from 1993 to 1996, those exhilarating years when the transition from apartheid was taking place. Like everybody else, I was probably too optimistic on Nelson Mandela’s inauguration day. Nevertheless, more than twenty years into the new South Africa and following many subsequent visits, I am hopeful still while acknowledging the challenges to be overcome.
Copyright © 2016 by Rowman & Littlefield. Published by Rowman & Littlefield