A Time Beyond Dreams: South Africa After Mandela
As early as 1994, according to Gevisser, Mbeki anonymously wrote a paranoid intraparty memorandum warning that sinister forces, including sections of the liberal establishment and the white-dominated media, were working against the new leadership, to the benefit of Cyril Ramaphosa, Mbeki's main rival for power within the ANC. In 2002, after Mbeki had assumed the presidency, these suspicions would blossom into what Gevisser calls "preposterous allegations" that Ramaphosa and two other high-ranking ANC members were engaged in a coup plot. The conspiratorial vein of Mbeki's personality, Gevisser argues, also tainted public policy and was ultimately responsible for the most unfortunate episode of his presidency: his campaign against mainstream AIDS science. Having come under the sway of some crackpot scientists, Mbeki wrote a long, unsigned screed suggesting that the accepted understanding of the disease's transmission was connected to "centuries-old white racist beliefs" about the sexual voracity of black men. He steered his government toward an AIDS policy that discouraged the distribution of anti-retroviral drugs, a folly that is estimated to have cost 365,000 lives.
When Mandela--who'd largely ignored the AIDS crisis during his time in office--tried to push his successor in a more constructive direction, Mbeki made sure he was given a humiliating admonishment at an ANC leadership meeting. Mbeki had come to deeply resent his predecessor, whom he considered his intellectual inferior, and was particularly chagrined by the fawning approval that the beloved Madiba received from white audiences around the globe. "Mbeki called this attitude 'Mandela exceptionalism' when he was being polite," Gevisser writes, "the 'one good native' syndrome when he was not." Much more than Mandela, who spent most of his adult life in prison, Mbeki shared the experiences, cultural references and worldview of South Africa's liberal intelligentsia. Yet by the end of his second term, seduction had soured into alienation. Remarkably, many of those who'd once looked at Mbeki as a thinking man's president, onetime supporters both white and black, were speaking hopefully about the "fresh start" that might come with Jacob Zuma, a street fighter who had only learned to read and write as an adult.
Ishould mention that I am very slightly acquainted with Gevisser. Last year, when I went to South Africa to write a profile of Zuma for another magazine, I got in touch with the journalist through a mutual friend, and he agreed to meet me at a cafe in the Johannesburg neighborhood of Melville. A generous type, he shared his perspective, suggested a few sources, recommended some restaurants and told me he liked Melville because it was one of the few areas of the city that hadn't become completely enclosed by high walls. Then he mentioned, in a sort of offhand way, why he'd been slow about replying to a recent e-mail. In the dead of night, intruders had broken into his house and stolen his laptop, along with some other valuables. He said he was just glad he hadn't woken up, because then he might have interrupted the burglary and gotten himself killed.
In today's South Africa, you hear stories like this all the time: in the tabloid newspapers, passed around at dinner parties, retold as cautionary tales when a visitor suggests something foolhardy, like walking a short distance at night. If it's not the most crime-ridden nation in the world, in a strict statistical sense, it must be the most crime-preoccupied. As in many other countries, including the United States, the crime discourse isn't just about crime: if you look at things crudely, you can call it a proxy for race, but black South Africans--who represent the majority of victims--are just as fed up. It'd be more accurate to say that talk of crime is shorthand for larger worries about a gathering communal breakdown, the foundering ideal of a colorblind and civil society.
Portrait With Keys, by the novelist and short-story writer Ivan Vladislavic, is an extended meditation on this theme, set in Johannesburg, his home for the past three decades, a city that he loves and mourns. It's an odd book, a collection of 138 scenes, essays and epiphanies, most of them about a page long, and not arranged in any definitive order, as if they were shards of something shattered. In the back of the book, there's an appendix suggesting various "itineraries" a reader can take through the fragments, like one of those "Choose Your Own Adventure" books I used to read as a boy. But every route returns to a note of loss. "The city is passing away," a friend of the author remarks in one scene, as he proposes an artistic scheme for a "wall of remembrance" made of donated commonplace objects.
Portrait With Keys is the same thing, in written form. Vladislavic, at least as he presents himself in the book, is something of a flâneur. He wanders the city, observing castoff moments, combing through junk shops, talking to tramps, taking pleasure in the discovery of hidden places. He is a keen observer of the afterlife of manufactured things. Johannesburg, he points out, is a man-made creation, more so than most cities: built atop mines dug during the Witwatersrand Gold Rush of the 1880s, dotted with false lakes and hills formed from discarded slag. "Commissioner Street, the backbone of Johannesburg, follows the old wagon track between two of the first mining camps," Vladislavic writes. "So the city's spine was fused to the gold-bearing reef that called it into life."
Gold also had much to do with the creation of the artificial barriers of apartheid. The whites that populated South Africa--the Afrikaners, descendants of early settlers who spoke a language related to Dutch, and later the English, who fought wars to colonize the territory--wanted the gold for themselves, but they always needed black labor to extract it. The hardline National Party, which ruled from 1948 until 1994, came to power warning of a "black menace," and over the years put together a system of restrictive pass laws to keep the country's low-paid workforce in line. At the height of apartheid, nonwhites held 58 percent of South Africa's jobs in manufacturing and 90 percent in mining. Blacks lived in segregated townships or rural "homelands," where they endured conditions of dire poverty, unable to move freely or participate meaningfully in politics.