South Africa flags

Here’s one of the weirder changes after apartheid: South Africa’s old flag was the (old) Dutch flag with 3 smaller flags (Britain’s plus 2 old Afrikaner countries) smooshed in the middle. The current flag is a combo of “black” colors with “white” ones. It’s definitely an improvement.

South Africa calls itself the “Rainbow Nation.” It’s a land of impressive diversity, with a medley of Bantu tribes coexisting with Khoisan food foragers and transplants from the Netherlands, Britain, India, Malaysia and China. It celebrates its rich cultural heritage — for example, with its anthem in 5 different languages and its flag seen above. It’s a vibrant democracy that enshrines equality for its people under the law. But these qualities don’t quite hide the severe racial inequalities that persist to this day, a legacy of a cruel system of institutionalized racial segregation.

South Africa’s earliest inhabitants were, of course, the blacks. They have lived there since… well, since the earliest days of humanity (prehistoric fossils of proto-humans have been discovered in South Africa). Most blacks are Bantus, a very, very broad racial grouping that makes up most of Africa and who first arrived in South Africa around 300 CE. They displaced the Khoisan, who lived (and still live) by hunting and gathering. Then came the Portuguese and Dutch, who set up a colony at the very, very southern tip of Africa to supply voyages passing between Europe and Asia. Thanks to this strategic position and South Africa’s nice weather, the Dutch sent colonists who took over the western part of the country. The British then took over that colony in the 1800s, displacing many of the Dutch (who had by then evolved into a pseudo-Dutch ethnic group, the Afrikaners) further east. The Brits imported labor from Asia and eventually took over the whole country in a series of wars known as the Boer Wars, famous for marking the beginning of the end for the British Empire.

1 of the reasons Britain became so interested in territorial expansion was the discovery of gold and diamonds in the northeast. It led to a mining rush there in the late 1800s, which fueled Africa’s biggest industrial boom by the early 1900s. Money poured into the country from overseas, and South Africa gained a modern transport network and an industrial capitalist society. But like other African colonies, the vast majority of the money flowed into white bank accounts, and the infrastructure and resources mostly benefited white landlords and capitalists. Blacks labored as low-paid field hands, miners or factory workers and got rotten education to keep them that way. They organized themselves into the African National Congress (ANC), a black empowerment movement along the lines of the Indian National Congress and other independence movements in the early 1900s, but it was ruthlessly repressed.

In the rest of Africa, a weakened imperial grip and rising black nationalism brought the end of colonialism after World War II. Not so in South Africa: here the imperial power was no longer an issue, having ceded control to native whites in 1910. It was the native whites who were determined to hold on to power. In 1948, the hardline National Party came to power and argued that only extreme measures could hold the country together. These measures were a system of pervasive institutionalized racism called apartheid (“apartness”).

Apartheid was based on separating blacks from whites as much as possible. Its architects reasoned that the best way to do this, in a kind of imitation of what was going on further north, was by granting them independence… within their tribal homelands. Weird, patchy “homelands” (or “Bantustans”) were created out of the areas where South Africa’s main tribes live (after the valuable farmland was excluded). These places were given self-rule, although in reality they were entirely dependent on the central government in Pretoria. Each tribal member was eligible for citizenship in the corresponding Bantustan. The problem was, 80% of South Africa is black — and the Bantustans only comprised 13% of South Africa’s land area. Also, the job opportunities weren’t in the Bantustans, but in the teeming urban areas benefiting from South Africa’s industrialization: Cape Town, Johannesburg, Durban, Kimberley. Blacks were allowed to live outside of the Bantustans, but in theory it was only a temporary arrangement to provide labor for whites. They had to settle for living in vast, squalid “townships” (shantytowns) outside of the city centers.

Apartheid went further than this, though. South African society was entirely segregated by race. Blacks and whites were forced to use different hospitals, schools, playgrounds, parks, bathrooms, buses, and trains. Blacks were barred from voting, owning land outside of the Bantustans, marrying or having sex with other races, or even go to the movies. South Africa’s other races, Coloureds (a unique black-white hybrid group that speaks Afrikaans, the Afrikaners’ language) and Asians (mostly Indians and Malays) were slotted into the racial hierarchy in the middle, which meant that they enjoyed better facilities than blacks but lacked political or economic clout. The whole thing was reinforced by pervasive censorship and, at first, isolation from international media.

Blacks did not take this very well. The ANC became the leading voice of opposition to apartheid, joined in the 1950s by the more militant Pan-African Congress. At first they mostly opted for peaceful demonstrations and pass-burning protests. When these were met with violence on the part of the regime, black politicians escalated their movement to economic sabotage and acts of terrorism. But apartheid only hardened, as black politicians were jailed (like Nelson Mandela) or murdered (like Steve Biko). The National Party remained firmly in power, aided by a sense among Afrikaners that their culture and nation were under siege and had to be defended whatever the cost. Gerrymandering helped too.

By the ‘70s, South Africa had become a violent place. Riots and violent protests became commonplace in the townships and sometimes cities. Even with its leaders in jail or exile, the ANC and PAC continued their campaigns of terror-bombings, aided by Communist countries sympathetic to their cause. Crime was rampant. Politics became more and more militarized, with the security apparatus being given more and more power by the government to unleash torture and indiscriminate violence against dissidents. South Africa projected its military power internationally, intervening in its neighbors to stave off black rule there and punish opponents of its rule. A global campaign of boycotts and sanctions starved South Africa economically and made it a shameful international pariah. Everyday interactions were infused with paranoia, suspicion, and hatred.

It gradually became obvious to the South African leadership that ceding power to the blacks was inevitable. The white population was declining (it is today 10% of the total), businessmen were getting fed up with the incoherent pass system, and sanctions were biting deep. In 1990, a new prime minister, F.W. de Klerk, essentially gave up. In a historic event televised worldwide, Mandela was freed from jail. Elections were held in 1994 that wiped out the National Party and brought the ANC to power at last. Apartheid and the repressive apparatus that sustained it was dismantled. South Africa’s public disposition changed, seemingly overnight, from grouchy, stern and despicable to sunny, placid and “rainbow.”

Mandela is revered today as a hero and sub-Saharan Africa’s greatest leader mostly because he rejected the idea of seeking revenge for the injustices heaped upon himself and his people. Instead, he dedicated his time in office to bringing the country together again. He respected Afrikaner culture and tried to make white pastimes like rugby and braai (barbecue) national institutions. He set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to cajole the architects and enforcers of apartheid into confessing their crimes against humanity, but forgave them instead of punishing them. He served for only 1 5-year term, intent on providing an example of modest rule centered on popular sovereignty, not some personality cult.

South Africa did indeed follow his example, and it remains a much richer, more egalitarian, and more racially diverse and welcoming country than others in Africa. But the legacy of apartheid lives on.


Image source: Reuters

Although political power is now monopolized by the ANC (and will likely be so for some time, thanks to the firm allegiance of South Africa’s blacks), economic power remains disproportionately in white control. Only 9% of firms on Johannesburg’s stock exchange are directly black-owned. Although there were calls for the new government to forcibly transfer companies to blacks, like other African countries have done, the government opted for a more subtle, long-term approach: a policy of racial preference in education and employment, Black Economic Empowerment (although Coloureds and Asians are included too). The result has been the slow growth of a black upper class and the widening of a black middle class nurtured under apartheid. Many of South Africa’s most important companies — African Rainbow Minerals, Standard Bank, Telkom — are now black-owned, and staff is racially mixed.

This means little to the majority of South Africans, who remain poor, unskilled, and bereft of basics like power or running water. The vast townships that border South African cities have only expanded; Soweto, southwest of Johannesburg, is one of South Africa’s biggest cities on its own. Transport services remain limited and unreliable. Crime is still rampant; murder, rape, assault and robbery are daily headaches in South Africa, and cities can get eerily deserted at night. South Africa’s education system is a mess; very few schools even have textbooks, and 85-90% of kids fail basic literacy and math tests. About 40% of South Africans are unemployed.

The main culprit in this dire state of affairs — other than the enforced inequality of apartheid, of course — is the familiar scourge of sub-Saharan Africa: corruption. With the ANC dominant nationally, a position in the party usually translates to an important political post, which brings lucrative opportunities for milking it. Vital public services are neglected and starved of funds. Politicians are promoted through connections to more powerful figures, often greased with bribery. They reward other members of their own tribes regardless of their skills and qualifications (although South Africa, thanks ironically to apartheid, has avoided the bitter tribalism that infects other African countries). Its current president, Jacob Zuma, is involved in countless corruption scandals, which even predate his presidency. These range from billing the state over $18 million for improvements to his homestead to allowing the rich and powerful Gupta family to make cabinet appointments.

The ANC gets away with this (at least so far) because of the staunch loyalty of South Africa’s black majority. It earned its governing role through 4 decades of struggle against oppression, and its leaders bask in Mandela’s glow. Meanwhile, the main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, has done a better job of governing the Western Cape, where whites and Coloureds are concentrated. But it is associated, with some justification, of being biased towards these races. Thus the ghost of apartheid lives on in the political sphere. Fringe parties on both sides — the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) for the blacks and the Freedom Front Plus for the whites — continue to appeal to their own narrow racial groups.

Whether South Africa has managed to get past apartheid in the cultural sense is open for debate. Over the centuries, a unified national culture cemented by the English language has emerged, and the different racial groups are mostly familiar with each other’s cultures. It has become normal for different races to socialize with each other. But obviously, European, African and Asian cultures are very different from each other, and the 2 decades since apartheid haven’t changed that. Black kids gravitate to soccer, while white ones prefer rugby. Racial segregation persists informally, even at the national level: east South Africa is much blacker than the west. Whites and Coloureds rarely learn black languages; blacks rarely learn Afrikaans. Opinion polling suggests that racist attitudes and general distrust persist, especially among blacks. EFF leader Julius Malema and sometimes even Zuma have insulted Afrikaners. The combination of Black Economic Empowerment, high crime and the sense of an official preference for black culture above others has led some Afrikaners to feel adrift and neglected in their country and prompted a brain drain to other English-speaking countries, which the government is hesitant to resist.

South Africa has made impressive strides since 1990. It is the richest country in Africa and a beacon of hope and opportunity for migrants from elsewhere (especially neighboring Zimbabwe). The situation could have been much worse, like a full-blown civil war, given the violence roiling its society in the ‘80s. The ANC’s Communist agenda has been moderated since taking power, although it is still in league with its longstanding pseudo-revolutionary allies abroad and occasionally takes interventionist strategies in the national economy. But the mentality of apartheid lingers: that of a society strongly divided by race, with its people distrustful of other races’ intentions and envious of their status.


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