Makhaola Ndebele, a 30-year-old writer on an AIDS educational TV drama, says his first response to the attacks in the United States was disbelief. But then, he says, "this turned to excitement at the enormity of the event. 'America's being hit!' Later, when I saw how many lives were lost, reality set in, but my excitement was, 'It's finally happening to them, whereas they thought they were invincible.'" Ndebele says almost everyone he knows feels that "America got its comeuppance."
Ndebele is not alone. Although the South African government's official line is one of unconditional support for the United States, just after the bombing a provincial premier, Makhenkhesi Stofile, said US citizens "had to look into themselves" to find out why the attack happened, and even questioned the use of the word "terrorist" to describe the hijackers.
According to Zweli Silangwe, 25, when he and other students in an international relations class at the University of the Witwatersrand discussed whether the United States should attack Afghanistan, the vast majority of the whites in the class supported such retaliation, while the vast majority of blacks opposed it. This echoes a survey of 500 South Africans, in which 52 percent of the whites polled felt that South Africa should participate in the United States' declared war against terrorism, as opposed to only 30 percent of the blacks. But John Kuhn, 23, the deputy-president of the Wits Students' Representative Council, says he has noticed--even among those who are deeply upset about the attacks--"a deep-seated anti-Americanism among almost all students here, whatever their color or background."
The perception is that young postapartheid South Africans are politically apathetic. South African university-goers are major consumers of US popular culture and commodities, and they have identities that are often more global than national. Where, then, does the anti-Americanism come from?
In students, at least, it stems in part from the anti-privatization campaigns that have racked South African universities over the past two years, bringing the issue of globalization, and the role that the United States plays in the global economy, onto campus. Among black students it is also an identification with the Palestinians, and with the struggle for freedom against an imperial power, as well as perceived indifference by the West to African genocides such as in Rwanda. The US withdrawal from the UN's recent World Conference Against Racism in Durban was severely criticized at the time; now the attack and its consequences are being read through the politics of race. Says Silangwe, who is the branch chairman of the SA Students Congress, which is aligned with the African National Congress, "Most white South Africans are still not comfortable with a government ruled by black people--and this makes them aggressive in their approach. The United States is perceived as a white state, something they identify with, and they need to support it against attacks by 'black' people. On the other hand, most blacks respond that anything coming from the United States is racist--and so they oppose it."
Perhaps ironically, television appears to be most to blame for the groundswell of antipathy toward the United States at a time when, one might imagine, it should expect the most sympathy. The result of America's dominance of global media means that the tragedy and its aftermath are being broadcast into our homes as if we were Americans ourselves: We are called upon not just to grieve and mourn, but to summon up anger and outrage as if we were personally attacked. And we hear, incessantly, one dominant voice: the baying for blood. If South Africans--and other people of the South--thought the United States was arrogant before, this was only confirmed in the aftermath of the attacks. "We have been wronged," the message went, "so the whole world must go to war." The distasteful consequence is, among many South Africans, a lack of empathy for a deeply wounded nation, an admiration for unjustifiable terror tactics and a limited understanding of the attack's global consequences.
Watching television with friends on the night of the attacks, Makhaola Ndebele says, one of them made the analogy between US officials' calls for heightened security and the way crime-obsessed middle-class South Africans barricade themselves behind high walls and electric fences. "But more security won't help," Ndebele's friend said. "You still have the hungry world outside the big house." The point being, of course, that if you want to stop violence--be it crime or world terror--you must change the global inequities that cause it in the first place.
Mark Gevisser is The Nation's Southern Africa correspondent.