A Time Beyond Dreams: South Africa After Mandela
The political inequities of apartheid have been abolished, but the economic ones are more persistent. As of 2006, 43 percent of the South African population lived on less than $400 a year--a number that has hardly budged since the end of apartheid. Thabo Mbeki presided over a period of fast economic growth, propelled by worldwide demand for South African metals and other commodities, but the benefits of that boom have not been evenly distributed. Once again, the tensions do not break down along simple racial lines. One of Mbeki's major accomplishments was the enlargement of the black middle class. In Soweto, the famous Johannesburg township, upwardly mobile residents have erected suburban-style brick homes next to tin-roofed shanties. But a great many more blacks complain that freedom has brought little real improvement to their lives. Now that the economy has taken a sharp downward turn with the global financial crisis, the unemployment rate has reached almost 24 percent, according to official statistics, which don't count a massive number of people who have given up looking for work.
The frustration of this underclass erupted into last year's xenophobic riots in the townships, as well as the strikes and violent protests that have taken place with increasing frequency as the economy has worsened. White intellectuals like Vladislavic are for the most part bystanders to the social unrest, unable to influence the opaque inner workings of the ANC, the only viable political party. A number of writers--J.M. Coetzee being the most famous example--have chosen to leave South Africa, joining a wave of middle-class emigration to Europe, the United States and Australia. ("Just about everyone I talk to is weighing his options," a well-connected--and black--magazine editor told me last year.) But Vladislavic has stayed on to consider his dislocation.
"I live in a city that resists the imagination," Vladislavic writes, comparing Johannesburg to Dickens's London, longing for a lost era when it was safe to wander and absorb the street life. "A stranger, arriving one evening in the part of Joburg I call home, would think that it had been struck by some calamity, that every last person had fled. There is no sign of life. Behind the walls, the houses are ticking like bombs."
But walls are a sad necessity in today's South Africa, at least for those who can afford them. (The Economist reports that private security is a $2 billion industry, and the country has 300,000 registered security guards.) In the scene that inspired the book's title, Vladislavic describes the regalia of isolation: his enormous chain of seventeen keys, "their profiles facing in the same direction, like a dressed file of soldiers." Later, he recounts a dinner party where all the guests compare their key chains and enumerate the many locks in their lives. But even the tightest precautions can't assure safety. With deadpan detachment (this is a very passively voiced book), Vladislavic describes an encounter, by turns terrifying and bizarrely comic, with a pair of daylight robbers in his home. He writes about small acts of defiance, like placing a wrench dropped by another foiled burglar beside a fireplace, "less as a trophy than a measure of everyday abnormality."
The book is full of portents that senseless violence is closing in, such as when Vladislavic sees a group of miners, in an offhand act of cruelty, throw a drunkard to the ground without warning, "an act of such explosive volition that his feet shoot out like a clown's and one slapstick shoe goes flying." Finally, in the book's climactic scene, Vladislavic inadvertently walks into a protest by a group of striking private security guards, which suddenly turns into a riot. Scrambling to shelter in a library, the wanderer picks out something to read, tending his own garden until the scene quiets down.
But the commotion in South Africa only keeps building, and over the past two years it has seemed to find its avatar in the person of Jacob Zuma. That, at least, is the way it has often looked from afar, to an outsider trying to follow a bewildering chain of events. The story line goes roughly like this: In 2005 Zuma was accused of taking kickbacks in connection with an arms deal, and consequently was ousted from his powerful position as deputy president of the nation. That set him against his former friend Thabo Mbeki, which turned out to be fortunate, because it allowed him to play the foil to an unpopular president. When Zuma was arrested on a second charge, for allegedly raping an HIV-positive family friend, his supporters howled that Mbeki's men had framed him. A series of trials ensued, less notable for their outcomes (Zuma won a controversial acquittal on the rape charge, while the corruption case dragged on interminably) than for the carnival of protest that traveled with the defendant from courthouse to courthouse. As Zuma's guilt was considered, throngs of supporters would often gather outside, chanting, beating drums and burning his accusers in effigy.
Alec Russell's Bring Me My Machine Gun takes its title from a revolutionary song that has become an anthem for Zuma, who often led courthouse crowds in singing raucous renditions. Russell, a correspondent for the Financial Times, recounts how Zuma "used the courtroom as a political stage, stressing his Zulu roots" and turned a moment that should have been his undoing into a popular triumph. "Mbeki agonized over what it meant to be an authentic African leader," Russell writes. "Zuma had to do no such thing: he was one. He was the ultimate modern tribal chief, a man who would listen to his people, who understood their concerns, and who would not necessarily let the niceties of Western political convention impede his plans."