In his first speech as president, Nelson Mandela spelled out a vision for South Africa free of the racial divisions that had splintered the nation during 46 years of segregationist rule.
“We shall build the society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity, a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world,” he said in his inauguration address on May 10, 1994.
Mandela, 95, died late yesterday with his dream still a work in progress. Schools, universities, and some suburbs are now integrated, discriminatory laws have been scrapped and incidents of racially-motivated violence are the exception.
Yet white South Africans, who account for 8.7 percent of the population of 53 million, on average earn six times more than their black counterparts and still have access to better education, medical care and housing. Just 8.3 percent of blacks over the age of 20 had some post-secondary education in 2011, compared with 37 percent of whites, according to census data.
Percy Tsotetsi, who was just five years old when apartheid ended, is one of the millions of young black South Africans struggling to make ends meet. He says poverty and protests that disrupted his schooling robbed him of a decent education and job, forcing him to eke out a living cleaning cars.
“White people’s lives are much better than ours,” Tsotetsi, 24, said as he took a break on a patch of grass where he was washing a Nissan sedan at a makeshift stand in Johannesburg’s Alexandra township, adjacent to the wealthy area of Sandton. “It will take time for South Africa to cover that gap.”
The disparity in racial income is eroding the national unity and reconciliation Mandela strived for. Just 36 percent of 3,446 people surveyed by Johannesburg-based Ipsos between October and December last year thought race relations in South Africa were improving, down from a peak of 60 percent in 2006. Fifty-four percent of respondents were very or fairly confident of a happy future for all races, down from a high of 86 percent in 2005. The margin of error is 1.67 percent.
The euphoria that followed Mandela’s election waned as the African National Congress struggled to meet citizens’ expectations while facing the mammoth task of desegregating the economy, extending public services and raising incomes for black South Africans.
“We need to be a bit worried,” Ipsos political analyst Mari Harris said in an interview from Cape Town. “There is definitely less unity in the country than what there was.”
Race-based discrimination dates back centuries to Dutch and British colonial rule and became enshrined from 1948, when the National Party took power and began implementing its policy of apartheid or separate development.
Residential areas were segregated. Black people were stripped of their land and citizenship and made residents of remote rural regions known as homelands. Inter-racial relationships were outlawed and schools, hospitals, beaches and the public transport system was racially designated. Whites had by far the superior facilities.
Hendrik Verwoerd, who served as prime minister from 1958 until his assassination in 1966, once described black people as fit only to be “hewers of wood and drawers of water,” drawing on a Biblical passage.
One of the most humiliating of apartheid’s rules was the “dompas,” an identity card that every adult black person was forced to carry, said Johannes Morele, 56, who has sold beer from his home in Alexandra since losing his job as a road-builder.
“What does ‘dom’ mean in Afrikaans? It means stupid,” said Morele, sitting outside his home in the sun. “So they thought of all black people as stupid human beings.”
Mandela was jailed in 1952 for burning his identity document, and one of the worst atrocities of the apartheid era occurred when police shot and killed 69 unarmed demonstrators opposing the permits on March 21, 1960, in Sharpeville, outside Johannesburg.
While some of the most extreme apartheid laws were scrapped from the late 1980s and 1990s as apartheid drew to a close, there was little meaningful move toward racial integration until after the ANC took power.
As president, Mandela retained the services of the white heads of the police, defense force and central bank and reached out to communities across the racial spectrum to assure them that they had a place in the new South Africa. The Nobel laureate, who stepped down after a single five-year term in 1999, even went so far as to visit Verwoerd’s widow, Betsie, in Orania, a whites-only settlement in Northern Cape province, in 1995.
“For me, the end of apartheid wasn’t only about freedom and democracy for the majority of South Africans but it was a personal freedom as well,” Annelize van Wyk, who worked for military intelligence services under apartheid and campaigned for the National Party in the 1980s, said in a phone interview.
“If you live with the feeling of things not being right and that some people are being treated less like human beings than others, it puts a personal burden on yourself,” she said. Van Wyk said she was aware apartheid was wrong, yet stayed with the National Party until after the 1994 elections. She later switched allegiance to the ANC, and now represents the party as a lawmaker in Parliament.
Mandela’s efforts to desegregate the economy were continued by ANC-led governments under his successors Thabo Mbeki, Kgalema Motlanthe and incumbent Jacob Zuma.
Mbeki spearheaded policies to give black South Africans a greater role in the formal economy, pressuring companies to sell stakes to black investors and hire and promote more black staff.
Those programs helped to boost employment and incomes, with the black middle class expanding to 4.2 million today from 1.7 million in 2003, according to a study published by the University of Cape Town’s Unilever Institute of Strategic Marketing in May. Among the criteria the report uses to define the middle class are people earning a monthly income of between 15,000 rand ($1,434) and 50,000 rand and having some form of post-secondary education.
“One of the great tragedies of the apartheid era was that white and black didn’t encounter each other much except in a master-servant relationship,” said Anthea Jeffery, an analyst at the South African Institute for Race Relations and author of “Chasing the Rainbow: South Africa’s Move from Mandela to Zuma,” in a phone interview. “That’s changed a great deal.”
Unlike Mandela’s measures, Mbeki’s drive to empower blacks, while often dismissing opponents as racists, antagonized whites. His leadership style and questioning of AIDS statistics alienated ANC supporters, including labor unions. He was ousted as party leader in 2007.
Disenchantment with the ANC-led government has intensified under Zuma. South Africa had a record 173 protests last year over the lack of housing and basic services, according to Johannesburg-based research company Municipal IQ. Moody’s Investors Service in September downgraded the nation for the first time since the end of apartheid, to Baa1, the third-lowest investment-grade level.
While employment has increased by 3.5 million since 1994, a quarter of the workforce remains jobless, most of them black. As many as 10 million people lack formal housing and 2.3 million households don’t have proper toilets, while literacy and numeracy rates are among Africa’s lowest, according to government data.
For Tsotetsi, Mandela’s dream of a “rainbow nation” is far from complete, with opportunities for the black majority still limited.
“Some do get the chances, but only for a short time,” he said. “You’ll find that two minutes you’re working, and then you’re not.”
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