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The Unfinished Revolution | The Nation

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The Unfinished Revolution

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Business got off light. Powerful figures in the National Party, notably F.W. de Klerk, didn't do much worse. Bell recounts that in October 1993, as de Klerk was about to depart for Norway to accept his Nobel Prize alongside Mandela, he personally ordered a death-squad raid in the Transkei to destroy an alleged facility of the armed wing of Pan Africanist Congress, a rival liberation movement to the ANC. The death squad attacked a private house in the Transkei capital of Umtata. Five teenage schoolboys who had fallen asleep in front of the television were killed. Hours later de Klerk publicly expressed his approval of the raid, claiming that the victims were "terrorists," and announced the raid's success, displaying color photographs of the bodies. The media and white South Africa lapped it up.

About the Author

Sean Jacobs
Sean Jacobs, a native of Cape Town, is on the faculty of The New School in Manhattan. 

Also by the Author

Although most black South Africans revere Mandela and his party for defeating apartheid, many are realizing that fighting inequality and achieving full citizenship will mean taking on the ANC.

Ntsebeza was one of the lawyers for the families of the boys. At the time, the legal team painstakingly worked to counter these falsehoods, but it was the time of talks about setting a date for nonracial, democratic elections, when peace and reconciliation were dominant themes, so most of the foreign press simply overlooked the killings.

In Bell's view, South Africa's failure to confront this and other unfinished business of the apartheid era "leaves South Africa crippled in many ways. Corruption and pockets of poisonous racism remain embedded deep within our society." Many of apartheid's senior agents have retained a foothold within the army, the police, the secret services and the civil service, and some of them are still ideologically committed to the cause of racial supremacy. Hundreds of people, many in prominent positions who have never come forward, harbor secrets of betrayals and abuses that leave them open to blackmail and manipulation. Bell believes they should be held accountable to apartheid victims and provide them with financial compensation.

Central to the myth of the new South Africa is the idea that the country defied the odds by achieving a nonviolent democratic transition. It's not entirely false: South Africa could have plunged into a full-scale civil war. And yet the transition has not been free of violence, particularly criminal violence. Since the end of apartheid, South Africa has experienced levels of violence equal to those of countries in the midst of civil war. According to David Cohen, whose new book, People Who Have Stolen From Me, details an epidemic of crime in Johannesburg, "official crime figures show that robbery has risen by 169 percent, housebreaking by 33 percent and cash heists, as well as carjacking by 30 percent" in South Africa since 1994.

Cohen grew up in Johannesburg, but since 1987 has lived in London, home to half a million South African, mainly white, expatriates. In the preface he claims that this gives him a "broader perspective," allowing him to know his characters with "intimacy--as well as [a] sense of detachment." The focus of his book is a furniture store in downtown Johannesburg, Jules Street Furnishers. For forty years, the storeowners have sold everything from sofas and beds to VCRs, radios and other consumer goods, catering to a mostly working-class clientele of both black and white customers. Jules Street Furnishers becomes "a fascinating microcosm of life--and morality--in South Africa today."

The store's owners, Harry Sher and Jack Rubin, are Cohen's two main characters. The most interesting parts of the book, however, relate the story of two former hijackers, known by their first names as Veli and Obi, who work for Jules Street Furnishers as debt collectors, mainly in the black townships to the south and east of Johannesburg. Their tale shows how easily guns, the weapons of earlier political conflicts, are available, and reveals that car-jacking, far from being the spontaneous action of amoral young black men, is a multiracial pursuit, generally conducted by organized gangs working with extended distribution and smuggling networks. While on a drive to repossess a refrigerator from a customer who can't keep up with her payments, Obi unpacks the morality of crime in the new South Africa:

You have to put the law to one side and turn to face what you think is the right decision for you. The law was white man's law...and we saw that the people who broke it made good money.... We thought--why not us? When I was taking cars I felt like a hero, like the guys in the car thief movie, New Jack City. In the township, when people go to the movies, they cheer for the bad guys. That was us. White people cannot judge me. If I was a white I would not have had to do such things.

Most of the book, however, lacks the depth and insight of the episodes dealing with Obi and Veli, offering instead a stock rendition of crime in the new South Africa. All too often, Cohen replays the racist and stereotypical descriptions of the blackening of Johannesburg's previously segregated downtown. During apartheid, we read, Jules Street "was a sedate, white, blue-collar street with a mix of residential, retail, and commercial properties." With the end of apartheid, however, the street has resulted in a familiar nightmare: "released to take on its destiny, that of a vibrant, anarchic African city."

At crucial times, Sher and Rubin also sound less like real people and more like the "rainbow"-speak of TV pundits, constitutional lawyers, tourism boosters and centrist politicians. "In between the crime, which...we have to deal with, we become attuned to looking for green shoots of progress," Rubin tells him. "We remind ourselves that our constitution is one of the finest in the world, that we've had a peaceful transition to democracy, that it's only a new democracy, and that all democracies take time to settle." This is nice, and ordinary South Africans may share such sentiments, but they certainly don't talk like that.

Cohen's discussion of the roots of crime is hardly more satisfying. He cites new research documenting "the extent to which crime is carried out by organized gangs for whom lack of employment is not an issue. An extraordinary 40 percent of hijackers and 33 percent of armed robbers are otherwise gainfully employed." But rather than help us to understand why that is so, Cohen reverts to stereotypes: Criminals live "in an unnumbered shack on an unnamed dusty street in a lawless, impoverished township," and "it might be something about an entrenched way of life, about the way these people have become wired." In the end, Cohen does not answer a question he poses at the outset: "What bearing does historic injustice to an entire race of people have on present-day judgments as to who is innocent and who is guilty? How is one to behave as a moral person in a society in which law and order is severely compromised and immorality appears to have become the norm?"

To answer this last question, Cohen might look to the example set by the people who overthrew South Africa's former, criminal regime. Ten years later, their work deserves to be celebrated, but it is not complete. As Bell's book reminds us, apartheid was a totalitarian system, in which the state, business, the church and the security police colluded to shape every aspect of individual and collective life: Apartheid guaranteed full employment for whites while carefully preserving a vast pool of impoverished black labor. It controlled where people could live, what work they could do, whom they could encounter in daily life, learn with, even have sex with. And while apartheid's repressive political and military apparatus was dismantled, the dynamics it engendered in other spheres have yet to be systematically addressed. Cathartic though it was, the TRC dealt with the excesses of apartheid rather than with the deeper workings of the system, while nourishing the hopeful illusion that "normalcy" had somehow been restored and that "normal" market forces could undo the damage caused by that system. The end of apartheid has only begun.

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