A Time Beyond Dreams: South Africa After Mandela

A Time Beyond Dreams: South Africa After Mandela

A Time Beyond Dreams: South Africa After Mandela

Nelson Mandela was a patriarch, Thabo Mbeki a princeling. Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s new president, is purely a politician.


Nelson Mandela Square can be found in the Johannesburg suburb of Sandton, an asphalted enclave of vast shopping centers and tinted office blocks. A generation ago, during the era of apartheid, the New York Times correspondent Joseph Lelyveld likened the place’s aesthetic to “Dallas-on-the-veld.” It’s only gotten wealthier, glassier and more garish since then, as South Africa has undergone a thoroughgoing metamorphosis. White rule has given way to black governance, repression has been replaced by tremulous coexistence, economic sanctions have fallen and Sandton has become, arguably, the nation’s true nerve center. Corporations, banks and even the national stock exchange have moved there, taking flight from Johannesburg’s decaying downtown. Though an air of danger looms over much of the city–South Africa’s murder rate is six times that of the United States, and burglaries and carjackings are rampant–rich people, and especially rich white people, have found a relative haven in Sandton, hunkering down inside fortified luxury homes. Nelson Mandela Square is a centerpiece of the suburb, and by extension, this new South Africa. It is both a monument to a founding father, and, not secondarily, a well-guarded mall filled with expensive boutiques.

Malls occupy an important place in the social life of contemporary Johannesburg; in a walled and wary metropolis, they are precious islands of public space. On weekday evenings, the cafes that fringe Nelson Mandela Square’s pleasant outdoor piazza, constructed atop a parking garage several stories above street level, are full of relaxing office workers and bargaining businessmen, whites and blacks united in South Africa’s renewed common purpose, moneymaking. Looming over the brick expanse is a twenty-foot bronze statue of Mandela. The sculpture–a poor likeness, if truth be told–depicts South Africa’s first black president in a clench-fisted pose, as if readying to box or dance. As they pass in and out of the mall, shoppers and tourists often stop to touch the statue. In their devotion, they have rubbed it shiny in patches.

The monumental figure of Mandela–a man once imprisoned as a terrorist and now venerated like a patron saint–cannot help but dominate any discussion of South Africa’s contemporary history. Madiba, as he is affectionately called by his countrymen, turned 91 this year and is increasingly sheltered from the public eye. But he remains a living symbol of South Africa’s great achievement. As I write, the nation is rushing to finish its preparations for the 2010 World Cup, an event that is likely to double as an international celebration of South Africa’s peaceful transition from a white supremacist state to a multicultural democracy. From the far side of the abyss, it’s worth casting a look back and reflecting on just how perilous this passage was. At the conclusion of his damning book Move Your Shadow, published in 1985, Lelyveld wrote:

The question, it seemed to me, was not whether there would be violence in South Africa but whether there would ever be an end to it. There are lots of ugly possibilities of what could happen along the way to make self-fulfilling the whites’ prophecies of disaster after power slips from their hands. There could be an Argentine-style junta, possibly with a brown or black front man, to bid for Western support. Eventually the whole society could implode on itself as in Northern Ireland or Lebanon. Or, worst of all for the present ruling minority, blacks could govern according to the values that whites have displayed. It is also possible to fantasize a reasonably open and stable society that, having removed the cancer of racial law, begins to fulfill the country’s enormous promise as a model for Africa and the world. Those who now hold power have been hearing about that dreamy possibility from blacks, wayward whites, and interfering do-gooders from outside for decades, and occasionally now, to flatter the outsiders and themselves, they pretend to believe in it. But they don’t, not for a moment. That is why apartheid existed in the first place and why it still survives.

At the time Lelyveld made this prognosis, many South Africans (black and white) presumed that apartheid might conceivably endure for decades. Instead, five years later Mandela was released from prison, and an improbable scenario began to unfold. Confounding the cynics, the African National Congress, Mandela’s movement, took power through a process of negotiation, and governed compromisingly. In politics the party struck a tone of racial inclusiveness; in economics it favored a market-based pragmatism. As for dealing with past injustices, it created a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Over the course of a few heady years, Mandela won his divided nation’s love and the admiring world’s acclaim, making himself into an idol and an impossible act to follow.

When Mandela stepped aside in 1999, with a grace that has eluded so many other African leaders, he left behind some daunting items of unaddressed business. Foremost was his nation’s staggering state of economic inequality, which compounded numerous other problems, including an AIDS epidemic, a crippling crime rate and lingering racial tensions. Such challenges would have tested even a leader of exceptional self-confidence and wisdom; but unfortunately for South Africa, the man who inherited Mandela’s office, Thabo Mbeki, did not turn out to possess either quality in abundance. The Mbeki interregnum, a rough decade of uneven progress and societal unease, came to a dissolute end this past April with the election of a very different sort of president, Jacob Zuma: an earthy, populist and serially indicted ANC politician. Reflecting on Mbeki’s fall and Zuma’s rise, Mark Gevisser writes in A Legacy of Liberation that “South Africa now found itself in a time beyond dreams.” Whether this represents an awakening or the start of a long, hard night is only just beginning to become clear.

In addition to being one of South Africa’s most respected political writers–and a correspondent for this magazine–Gevisser has a multifaceted résumé: he’s curated museum exhibitions, co-edited a book on gay life in South Africa and made a documentary about a communist theater director who was active in the ANC underground. He is, in other words, very much a fixture of South Africa’s white liberal intelligentsia, a group that was morally liberated by the demise of the apartheid system. Now, two decades on, the joy is more tempered. When it was published in South Africa in 2007, Gevisser’s book was titled Thabo Mbeki: The Dream Deferred.

There’s a lot of South African literature about the white liberal intellectuals’ agonies, for the same reason there are so many novels about professors of creative writing. Outraged and ostracized during the apartheid era, the liberals are now dispossessed; they got the country they hoped for, but it still doesn’t fully belong to them. Race remains a defining characteristic. None of this is incidental to Gevisser’s book, because in his telling, Mbeki is an emblematic figure. He somehow captures the two halves of South Africa’s cultural heritage, European and African, within a single contradictory persona.

After the biography first came out, Gevisser writes in the prologue to the American edition–which is less than half the length of the 892-page original–Mbeki sent the author a letter insisting, in his gloating way, on his own inscrutability. “I belong among the uncelebrated unwashed masses,” Mbeki wrote, “offering no rich pickings even for the most highly talented mind reader!” But Gevisser, calling on a vast amount of research, is able to assemble a compelling explanation of this most impenetrable persona, centered around what he describes as a “disconnect” within Mbeki’s identity.

Gevisser is hardly the first to reach for this notion of disconnect; he writes that it was Mbeki who first used the word, in one of the several interviews the former president granted him for the book. Born in 1942 into the black petite bourgeoisie–his parents were members of a group called the izifundiswa, or “educated ones”–Mbeki was essentially abandoned as a boy by his father, Govan, who gave his life over to the ANC. As a young man, Thabo also joined the banned party, which became his surrogate family. He managed to escape from South Africa to Britain, where he attended Sussex University, then a stronghold of the cosmopolitan British left. He hung around with wayward blue bloods, took to wearing a tweed cap and smoking a pipe and had a succession of white girlfriends. Eventually, Mbeki married a politically appropriate woman, a black South African doctoral student, but he did so with a very English flourish. The ceremony was held in a twelfth-century castle in Surrey.

For the rest of his life, Mbeki would style himself a Shakespeare-quoting Anglophile, and reading Gevisser’s book, you get the feeling that he would have been much happier if he had stayed in Britain and become a professor. But that side of his personality never stood a chance–he was Govan Mbeki’s son. A legend of the ANC, the elder Mbeki was cold and resolute in his commitment to the movement, qualities that he seems to have passed down. In 1963, when a young Thabo Mbeki was told of his father’s arrest, which would ultimately lead to twenty-three years of imprisonment, he is said to have given a bloodless reply: “The revolution produces leaders all the time.” Govan’s jailing was just one of many Mbeki family tragedies–a brother of Thabo’s disappeared under murky circumstances, as did a college-aged son–all of which seem only to have redoubled the family’s commitment to the struggle against apartheid. “They believe in politics [more] than real life,” the wife of the Mbeki brother who went missing tells Gevisser.

From his university days, Mbeki was groomed for leadership in the ANC, and there was never any question that after graduation he would return to take a place among the leaders of the party, which was then based in Zambia. At the time, the ANC was an armed movement, tightly aligned with the South African Communist Party, backed by the Soviet Union and steeped in liberationist doctrine. Gevisser, who was able to visit the ANC’s Zambian headquarters as a reporter in the early 1990s, writes that the atmosphere of exile was “fractious, apprehensive, and suspicious, articulated in a language of shadows and circumlocutions.” The big secret–which was actually well-known to the apartheid regime’s spies–was that the ANC was a pathetic military organization. It was the professorial Mbeki, never much of a soldier, who boldly argued that he could persuade the ANC’s adversary, a nuclear-armed government, to give up without a fight.

Gevisser calls Mbeki “the seducer,” and describes all the surreptitious maneuvering behind the apartheid government’s shocking decision to release Mandela and open negotiations. Mbeki, along with his trusted ally Jacob Zuma, the intelligence chief of the ANC’s military wing, laid the groundwork for the peaceful transition through numerous back-channel meetings. (These encounters were riveting enough to be dramatized in the recent television movie Endgame, produced in Britain and aired here on PBS, with the British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor delivering a smoldering performance as Mbeki.) When Mandela won the presidency in 1994, in an election that was more like a coronation, he made Mbeki his principal deputy and day-to-day manager. But the habits that had made Mbeki so successful during the cloak-and-dagger exile era hampered him as a public figure. “Mbeki might have modernized the ANC with extraordinary vigor when it came to ideology and economic policy,” Gevisser writes, “but he would hold to the exile’s understanding of politics–and the outlawed freedom fighter’s experience of intrigue–throughout his years of power.”

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.

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.”

When I last visited South Africa, in 2008, the most promising democracy on the continent was in the midst of a strange presidential campaign, one that was being fought not at the ballot box but in back rooms and courtrooms. In order to witness the spectacle, I went to see Zuma fight his corruption indictment before the Constitutional Court, the country’s highest, which sits on the hilltop grounds of a decommissioned Johannesburg prison that once held many of the ANC’s leaders. Zuma’s lawyers were challenging the legality of a police search that had uncovered more than 93,000 documents, evidence that added up, in Russell’s assessment, to “a straightforward commercial criminal case.” The politics of the proceeding were anything but simple, though, because by this point Zuma had already wrested the leadership of the ANC away from Mbeki in a bitter internal party election. As he faced eleven green-robed justices of various races, Zuma knew that he would soon be president, if he could just manage to stay out of jail.

There were no courthouse protests the day I visited, just a bored complement of cameramen milling around the entryway doors. Inside, in a courtroom that had been constructed in an avant-garde style, with large windows and skylights designed to emphasize the transparency of South Africa’s reformed legal system, Zuma sat quietly in a dark blue suit as his attorney argued that he’d been the victim of “appalling behavior” on the part of the police. During recesses, I could look down from the press gallery and see him sharing a deep belly laugh with Jessie Duarte, a spokeswoman for the ANC, and a group of dapper white lawyers. After the chief justice gaveled the hearing closed, Zuma bustled out of the courtroom, escorted by a pushy security cordon into the back of a black BMW. I did not feel like I’d encountered a rabble-rouser, or a scourge, or a “modern tribal chief,” but rather something profoundly unexotic: an embattled party hack.

Zuma has assiduously worked to cultivate his African “authenticity,” appearing in public dressed in leopard skins and entering into a series of publicized polygamous marriages. And members of the international press corps–including, I have to admit, myself at times–have been more than willing to play along, because it all fits into a familiar narrative: mass discontent gives rise to a Big Man in Africa. But this populist image is of a fairly recent and conveniently timed vintage; back when he was allied with Mbeki, Zuma was considered a colorless moderate. If Zuma is an authentic expression of anything besides his own ambition, it’s the present state of the ANC. The tragedy of today’s South Africa is not the emergence of a demagogue but the degeneration of the liberation movement.

“Party officials liked to regard themselves as high priests of some venerable cult and to pretend that the party never engaged in competitive internal politics,” Russell writes, but his book convincingly demonstrates that precisely the opposite is true. The ANC has always been factionalized, but during fifteen unchallenged years in power, old ideological divisions have been replaced by more craven calculations. Under Mbeki, a government policy of “Black Economic Empowerment,” supposedly designed to right the inequalities fostered by apartheid, became a vehicle to transfer fantastic wealth to a favored coterie within the party elite. “And yet anyone outside the ANC who talked about the corruption of the party faced accusations of disloyalty–if black, Indian, or of mixed race–or, if white, racism,” Russell writes. The sins alleged in Zuma’s bribery indictment took place in the larger context of this internal competition for spoils, which also created resentments that were to fuel his ascent. (His “insurgent” campaign to take control of the party was backed by several ANC tycoons who’d fallen out with Mbeki.) True, Zuma also had the support of left-wingers and union leaders. “But they were as much the foot soldiers in a party putsch,” Russell writes, “as the standard-bearers of a revolution.”

Zuma’s loyalists ultimately forced Mbeki to resign the presidency and installed a pliant caretaker. Prosecutors, under heavy government pressure, abandoned the corruption case. Though some embittered Mbeki supporters bolted from the ANC to form a splinter party, April’s election was a mere formality. Since taking over the presidency, Zuma has not radically altered government policy: there has been a slight shift in tone, some new faces in the cabinet and a few cronies stationed in influential places, such as at the head of the intelligence service. (As a former spy master, Zuma appreciates the political value of secrets.) He’s striven to reassure various interest groups, contradicting himself at times, and has made crowd-pleasing pronouncements, such as suggesting that police officers should be empowered to shoot criminals on sight. While some of the more ideological segments of his coalition are expressing disappointment that he’s done little tangible for the left, formerly skeptical voices have expressed pleasant surprise about an administration that has been, in the words of The Economist, “notably pragmatic.”

It’s still early, though, and “it could have been worse” is not much of a governing justification, not in a country that faces societal challenges on the scale of South Africa’s. When I last saw Mark Gevisser, at a New York lecture in May, shortly after Zuma’s inauguration, he sounded downcast about the future of the ANC, which he said had become “fat and arrogant.” Much to his distress, he’d found himself, for the first time in his life, unable to vote for the party of liberation. Yet he saw some reason for hope. “No one thinks Zuma is a god,” Gevisser told his audience. Mandela was a patriarch, Mbeki a princeling, but the third elected president of the new South Africa is a politician, nothing more and nothing less. It’s not the stuff of dreams, but it’s a reality most democracies live with. South Africa managed to undo apartheid; it should be able to withstand a mediocrity.

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