Old City from the Mount of the Olives

Jerusalem, with Zion (the historic core) in the foreground. Image source: My Jewish Learning

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the fall of Jerusalem to Israeli forces. It was the climax of the 6-Day War and 1 of the pivotal events in West Asian history — for Israelis, the moment when Jews could once again enter their holy city, and for Arabs, the beginning of a long period of occupation and bitterness.

The Arab-Israeli conflict is the world’s most intractable and ferocious. No other topic incites such animosity and flame wars, online or in the real world. It has almost become a symbol of ethnic hatred, religious fervor and complicated international crises. Why is it so intractable, and what can be done to get past it?

Like pretty much any long-running conflict, the Arab-Israeli conflict has a long history. In this case, though, it’s an especially long history, and that in itself keeps many people from studying it in depth. Never fear! I am here to help.

1 of the main reasons that Israel is fought over so much is that it’s the most fertile, livable area in the “Fertile Crescent” between Mesopotamia (Iraq) and Egypt. It may be a narrow sliver of land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, but it can support agriculture, it has pleasant weather, and it’s along the ancient trade routes of West Asia. This meant that people have lived there since prehistoric times — the world’s oldest still-inhabited city (probably), Jericho, is there, and boasts of an 11,000-year history.

The Jews believe that 4,000 years ago, God promised Israel as a land for a man from Mesopotamia, Abraham, and his descendants. These descendants ended up as slaves in Egypt, but eventually they were freed by Moses and led out of captivity northeast to their Promised Land. Awkwardly, there were other people living there, and the Jews had to settle among them and fight a series of wars to assert their supremacy. In the 900s BCE, they were powerful enough to form a kingdom, then an empire stretching north to Syria — a golden age taking advantage of a mysterious collapse of civilization in that part of the world.

Like all empires, the Israelite Empire went into decline. First it splintered into 2 rival kingdoms. The larger 1, Israel, was conquered by Assyria (in what is now the Islamic State) in 722 BCE, and its people were exiled to other parts of the Assyrian Empire and lost their ethnic identity. The other kingdom, Judah, which had the Jewish holy city, Jerusalem, was conquered by Babylonia (in Mesopotamia) in 586 BCE, and its people were also sent into exile in Babylon.

The Jewish story might have ended there, but in a fantastic stroke of luck for them, the Babylonians were conquered themselves only 47 years later. The Jews were allowed to go back home, rebuild Jerusalem, and practice their unique religion. But they were now under Persian rule, and they had to coexist with another ethnic group north of Judah, the Samaritans. The new Judah, Judea, was only a shell of its former self, and Jews rankled at the injustice.

They revolted against Seleucid rule (the Seleucids being the replacement for the Persians) in 167 BCE and set up an independent kingdom again, but this was conquered by the Romans about 100 years later. The Jews gained a reputation for rebelliousness and pride in their unique culture and kept rising up in riots against Roman rule. After 3 full-scale revolts in the 60s, 110s and 130s CE, the Romans took drastic measures. Jerusalem, including its temple, was destroyed, and Jews were resettled outside of their homeland to break up their ethnic identity and ability to cause trouble. They became a diaspora community, scattered over the Mediterranean and later Europe, estranged from Israel but clinging staunchly to their religion, language, and culture. (Meanwhile, Christianity also emerged in Judea during this period, but it has always been a minority religion in the area and has played a marginal role in its history, except for the Crusades in the Middle Ages.)

Judea — now renamed Palestine — became home to other ethnicities: Greeks, Aramaeans, Samaritans. There were probably also Arabs, given how close the region is to Arabia. The main Arab influx, though, came in the 600s, when they conquered most of West Asia and converted the local people to Islam and introduced Arabic culture. Jerusalem is a holy city in Islam too: it was the original city that Muslims prayed towards, and even after Makkah and Madinah were elevated in importance, Jerusalem remained the 3rd-holiest city in Islam, since it was the place where Muhammad ascended to Heaven. On the site of the old Jewish temple, Palestine’s new Umayyad rulers built the al-Aqsa Mosque — something that would become a massive headache later.

The Jews had a rough time of it outside of their homeland. They faced discrimination, distrust, and suspicion from the communities they lived in. Pressure to convert to Christianity or Islam and give up Jewish culture was constant. Some places had pogroms (anti-Jewish riots). Even as Jews became more secular and assimilated more into European life in the 1800s, anti-Jewish prejudice remained strong. In despair, a group of Jews founded the Zionist movement in the 1890s, which had the goal of recreating a Jewish homeland in Palestine. (“Zion” is the hill in Jerusalem that makes up the city’s historic core and holiest sites.)

While some Jews had remained in Palestine or immigrated there earlier, the major influx really started in the 1880s. Since there were already people living there — Arabs — this caused conflict. Since many Jews were farmers or were interested in farming, they bought up arable land, dispossessing Arab farmers and sparking further resentment. Ethnic animosity and small-scale violence began, but the Arab-Israeli conflict is usually dated to 1917, when Britain issued the Balfour Declaration, declaring that it “viewed with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” See, at the time Palestine was under Osmanli rule, but the Osmanlis sternly refused to grant the Jews their own country. With World War I raging and the Osmanli Empire on its last legs, Britain wanted to draft the Jews on its side — and it worked.

The problem is, Britain had already promised the Arabs that they would have a new empire in West Asia, again as a means of enlisting support against the Osmanlis. Britain took a 3rd option altogether: ruling over Palestine itself as a colonial power. It tried to foster governments among both Arabs and Jews (a minority at the time) and only ended up getting hated by both sides. Ethnic riots and an Arab revolt broke out; Britain struggled to keep the peace. It ended up addressing the issue by walking back its pro-Jewish stance a bit and restricting further Jewish immigration… just in time for Nazi Germany’s vicious persecution of Jews and, later, the Holocaust. Desperate Jewish refugees were turned away and were forced to be smuggled into Palestine.

UN Palestine

The UN’s plan for partitioning Palestine. It never actually happened.

After World War II, a 3-way war broke out: Jews against Arabs and Jews against Britons. Britain, exasperated, asked the new UN to fix the situation. It chose the same solution India was taking to its religious conflict: partition. The Arabs would get a strip along the Egyptian border and most of the west bank of the Jordan River and a chunk in the north; the Jews would get most of the coast, the southern desert, and the area around Lake Galilee. The Jews accepted the plan, which was quite generous given that they only made up ⅓ of the population: they would get 56% of the land. The Arabs were outraged that they would have to partition their country at all and rejected the plan. Not wanting to deal with the situation anymore, the Brits just packed up and left in 1948, leaving the locals to sort things out.

The Jews proclaimed the state of Israel, finally realizing their millennia-old dream. But the neighboring Arab countries — Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt — invaded at once to squash it like a bug. But they were too disorganized, uncoordinated, and ill-trained, and Israel fought them off — and grabbed extra territory while it was at it. In an ethnic cleansing campaign, 700,000 Arabs were dispossessed, massacred, and forced into exile in nearby countries, and Arab parts of major cities like Jaffa were destroyed. What was supposed to be an Arab state became part of Jordan (the “West Bank”) and Egypt (the “Gaza Strip”).

Israel now entered an uneasy relationship with its neighbors. It was now surrounded by independent Arab countries who hated it and plotted to wipe it out. To ensure its security, it entered into alliance with America, which had been converted to the Zionist cause by Jewish lobbying. To counter this, the Soviet Union allied with Arabs and armed them. American influence proved to be much more decisive, and American weapons were a crucial factor in Israel’s victory in the 6-Day War of 1967, when it invaded and occupied the Sinai Peninsula between it and the Nile Valley, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights in southern Syria. 3 countries were defeated and humiliated in less than a week. The Arab world sank into a deep depression while Israel was filled with jubilation at getting its holy city and the namesake of Zionism back.

It became obvious that Arab countries wouldn’t be able to take over Israel. Egypt and Syria fought 2 more wars with Israel in the 1970s, and while they were ties, Israel had done better. A new Egyptian dictator, Anwar es-Sadat, replaced the passionately nationalist Gamal Abden Nasser and made peace with Israel, concluding that the conflict was a waste of time and resources and eager to improve relations with America. The peace agreement was hugely controversial at the time and denounced by Arabs everywhere — it even cost Sadat his life, since he was assassinated for it. But Egypt had been Israel’s primary antagonist, and Arab countries haven’t invaded Israel since 1973, suggesting a tacit realization that steadfast belligerence hadn’t gone anywhere.

Meanwhile, the West Bank and Gaza Strip came under Israeli military occupation. Israel didn’t really know what to do with them. The West Bank had too many places important to Judaism — not the least of which was Jerusalem — for Israel to relinquish willingly. Yet Israel didn’t want to outright annex them either — that would bring a bunch of Arabs into what is supposed to be a Jewish state. So instead, Israel let the “Palestinian territories” (the name “Palestine” being associated with an older, Arab-dominated era) remain in a twilight zone of Israeli control without local sovereignty. This did not go over well with the local Arabs. To make matters worse, Israel began a policy of settling Jews in technically illegal housing projects (“settlements”) within Palestine in the 1970s to start slowly nudging the local demographics to be more Jewish.

Bereft of any outside sponsorship, the Palestinians had to take matters into their own hands, and since they had no government or army, they resorted to terrorism. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) fought Israel with terrorist attacks from a secure base in Lebanon. When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 to stamp out PLO bases there, the PLO just moved to Tunisia and went right on agitating Israel. An uprising (intifada) in Palestine in the late ’80s made it clear to Israelis that 20 years of occupation hadn’t made Arabs any more willing to accept the situation. By the ’90s, Israel was beginning to realize that something would have to be done.

The solution, agreed to in 1993 after American-backed negotiations, allowed the Arabs to have their own government at last, the Palestinian Authority. It was even under the control of Israel’s archnemesis, Yasir Arafat. In return, the PLO gave up terrorism and recognized Israel. Palestine became a semi-state partially under Arab control, although Israel held on to rural areas and Jewish settlements (see map). Jordan also concluded a peace agreement with Israel in 1994. It seemed like the train was moving toward the destination commonly agreed on by the rest of the world: a “two-state solution,” with the West Bank and Gaza Strip becoming a country, Palestine, in their own right, under Arab control.

West Bank map

Image source: The Economist

But it was not to be. Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister who pushed through the peace accords, met Sadat’s fate in 1995. Iraq and Syria stubbornly refused to make peace with Israel. Israel held on to the Golan Heights. Content with Palestine’s semi-state status, Israel never pushed on to create a full-fledged state. A second intifada in the early ’00s went a long way in justifying this. Israel did pull out of the Gaza Strip in 2005… but then Hamas, an extremist Arab faction, took over instead, and used the land as a base to blast Israel with rockets.

Depressingly little has changed since then. The Israeli governments of Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert in the ’00s seemed interested in continuing “peace” negotiations (really government negotiations at this point), but in 2009 a more conservative prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, was voted in. He has steadily continued the settlement-building policy despite almost universal international condemnation, creating Jewish communities in land earmarked for a Palestinian state. The Gaza Strip remains implacably hostile to Israel and occasionally gets into wars with it, which the international community freaks out about momentarily, only for it to settle down once the wars end. The West Bank is much poorer and less developed than Israel, while the Gaza Strip is almost at African levels thanks to an Israeli blockade. Israeli public opinion grows more and more conservative, and Netanyahu is now almost a centrist figure, with politicians like Avigdor Lieberman and Naftali Bennett pushing for no more concessions to Arabs.

For their part, Arabs have generally been stubborn and implacably hostile to Israel. This history should show that this policy has not worked out well for them — the UN partition plan in 1948 gave them more land than is under negotiation today, and West Bank leader Mahmud Abbas only admitted in 2011 that rejecting it was a mistake. Hamas, Iran, and zealous elements in the Arab world are still unreconciled to Israel’s existence after 69 years and boycott anything having to do with it; heck, they can’t even bring themselves to call it “Israel,” preferring to go with “the Zionist entity.” On the other hand, the Arab refugees from 1948 remain in Lebanon and Jordan all these years later, and discrimination of Arabs within Israel bolster claims that Jews will never treat them as equals.

Although the political entanglements are knotted enough, it’s the deep-rooted ethnic animosity that really drives the conflict. Arabs and Jews live separate lives, imbibe biased accounts of the conflict, nourish their own senses of victimhood, and see each other with distrust and even hatred. Religious differences add fuel to this fire — I have never read a convincing plan for what to do with Jerusalem, where Jewish and Muslim holy sites are literally on top of each other and both sides have long histories and sentimental attachments. The most that can be said is that it’s now a low-level conflict, with only occasional riots and wars instead of prolonged bloodbaths. But in a sense that makes it even more dangerous: Jews are lulled into a sense of complacency and contentment with the status quo, which largely benefits them, while Arabs smolder in resentment, convinced that violence is the only way for them to get what they want.



South Asia


NOTE: This is not a normal opinion piece, since I’m not actually advocating for one point of view over another. Rather, this is just speculation, and musing like this seems more like providing a perspective than just impartially imparting information.

South Asia, or the Indian subcontinent (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and sometimes Afghanistan), is usually included with East Asia in academic discussion, business strategies, bureaucratic organization, racial categorization, and journalistic parlance. Bowing to common practice, I’ve categorized it as such on this site. But is this fair?

South Asia has as much in common with West Asia as it does East Asia. Geographically, the region is defined by its mountainous borders, but in the west, the mountains are lower and taper off before meeting the sea. Also, there is a famous, much-used pass over the Hindu Kush (the mountains). On the other hand, East Asia is separated by the Himalayas, the world’s tallest mountain range. Contact over these peaks is much harder, and there isn’t much of a gap between the Himalayas and the sea.

This has meant that historically, people came to South Asia from the west more than the east. The Aryans — the main racial group in the area — originally invaded from the west. Alexandros the Great invaded from the west. The Kushans invaded from the west. The Ghaznavids invaded from the west. The Mongols, despite being situated to the north and east of South Asia, invaded from the west too. The Mughals invaded from the west. And so on. The only invasion South Asia suffered from the east was the Ahoms in the 1200s — and they only conquered Assam, a small corner of the region.

West Asia’s great philosophical tradition is Islam, which came to South Asia thanks to all those invasions and is now the second-largest religion there. East Asia’s great philosophical traditions are Buddhism and Confucianism. The former originated in South Asia but is now very minor there, while the latter has negligible influence.

South Asia’s main languages are Hindi and Urdu (which are sometimes lumped together as “Hindustani”). They (especially Urdu) share much of their vocabulary with Persian and Arabic — West Asian languages.

Artistically, there is much in common between West and South Asia. Persian styles of painting and calligraphy influenced South Asian art beginning in the Middle Ages. South Asian sculpture is thought to be influenced by Greek artistic standards practiced in Afghanistan long ago. Much of South Asian architecture — domes, minarets, imposing gateways and courtyards — is imported from Persia as well. The Taj Mahal, India’s most recognizable landmark, has more in common with Persian buildings than many others in India. South Asian musical instruments descend from West Asian cousins.

In the culinary sphere, South Asian food shares features with stuff cooked up in West Asian kitchens. Bread is the staple food, and it’s usually flat, like breads in West Asia. Dairy is ubiquitous (which is why cows are so revered in India) — butter, milk, yoghurt, ghi (clarified butter), panir (a type of cottage cheese) — while traditionally, at least, it’s absent in East Asia. South Asian sweets like halva, kulfi and faluda have roots or counterparts in West Asia.

Racially, South Asia’s people much more closely resemble Persians and Turks than Asians further east. There are broad variations across the region, of course, but Aryans (especially Pashtuns, an ethnic group in Afghanistan and Pakistan) are related to Iranians. The Mongoloid facial features of East Asia are rare in South Asia apart from the Himalayas. South Asians also dress much more like West Asians than East Asians: men sometimes wear turbans, women sometimes wear veils. The salvar kamiz, a commonly worn tunic-and-trouser combo, originates from West Asia. Anecdotally, I have noticed foreigners tend to confuse South Asians and West Asians, but rarely with East Asians.

Given the range of similarities between South and West Asia, why is South Asia even lumped in with East Asia at all? There are similarities in this respect too. As mentioned above, Buddhism was an Indian import, and Hinduism was once widely followed in Southeast Asia too. In ancient times, East Asians would journey west to study religion in South Asian universities — this is the basis of one of China’s most famous stories, Journey to the West. There is a theory that Indian theater influenced China’s. The Chola Empire in south India once conquered Sumatra. The historical experience of colonialism unites South and Southeast Asia more than West Asia (although Northeast Asia had a substantially different experience). Although they vary dramatically from country to country, pagodas, that classic feature of East Asian architecture, evolved from South Asian stupas. Curry, the hallmark of South Asian cuisine, is also eaten in Southeast Asia and Japan. Rice is popular pretty much everywhere (although again, South Asian varieties are quite different from East Asia’s). Myanmar, thanks mostly to Britain uniting it with India in colonial times, has a lot of South Asian influences (food, clothing, Muslim minority communities).

It’s fair to say that South and East Asia have a lot in common, but notice how many qualifications I included, and it’s hard to deny that West Asia had at least as much influence. Another important factor to consider is that basically all of the influences flowed from South Asia east, and not the other way around. Chinese culture has had little impact on India, as I noted in an earlier post.

While I am unsure why South Asia is often lumped in with East Asia instead of West Asia, I have a theory. The term “East Asia” (or often just “Asia”) is really just a replacement for an earlier Western term: “the Far East.” From a West European perspective, South Asia was already pretty far east, so everything from that point onward was labeled the Far East. Combine that with the imperial linkages Britain established between South Asia (then just “India”) and its colonies in Southeast Asia, like the annexation of Burma and the settlement of big Indian communities in Malaya, and you can see why in the British mind, South Asia’s connection with East Asia was emphasized over its connection with West Asia.

In addition, I get the feeling that South Asians and those that study South Asia aren’t too eager to see the region merged with West Asia. Like it or not, West Asia has a bad reputation now, thanks to its unending violence, religious fanaticism, and rigid dictatorships. Politically, it’s hard to draw a connection between West and South Asia (except maybe Pakistan, thanks to the heavy military and Saudi influence on its government and society). India has been one of Asia’s most stable and successful democracies, and political scientists are puzzled trying to draw comparisons between it and anywhere else sometimes.

Most likely, South Asians would say that their region isn’t part of any other and that they are unique. There is some truth to this, and I would argue that anyone who tries to lump it in with another area is being a little lazy or reductionist. South Asia — India especially — is strongly defined by Hinduism, a native philosophical tradition. Linkages with West Asia are less strong in South India and Sri Lanka, which have tended to move to their own rhythms. South Asian economies resemble neither the development models of East Asia nor those of West Asia. South Asians are much more likely to look towards neighbors in the region or the West than to either West or East Asia. But consideration of the evidence suggests that South Asian connections with West Asia should be given some more thought at least.


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.