Point of View

‘Viva Mandela!’ – in South Africa, a slow but spirited progress

June 12, 2013 

From the U.S. perspective, the looming end of racial apartheid in South Africa appeared during the mid-1980s in the shanties that college students were building to protest the oppression.

Duke students built one in the shadow of their Gothic chapel in 1986 to oppose the university’s investments. As effective as they were in drawing Americans’ attention to the unjust regime, they didn’t begin to reflect the reality of the real shanties where black people had to live.

In a visit this month with some friends working in South Africa, I was surprised to see so many people still living in areas euphemistically called “townships” 22 years after the racial separation laws were repealed. In Port Elizabeth, a city of 1 million, we saw a privileged society on a hill overlooking the Indian Ocean and a separate society living in the lowlands inside scraps of tin and plywood.

Known as a “site of resistance” during the liberation struggle, the city’s New Brighton township still provides most residents with water from a community faucet. For electricity, the shanties tap illegally into power lines, a practice that is widely tolerated.

As we walked through one township, our tour guide – Nelson Sebezela – explained that the government under his namesake, President Nelson Mandela, had begun programs to build homes for residents of the townships on public land. These programs are breaking a segregated housing pattern established during colonial times. Small wonder that Africans revere the man who sacrificed a quarter of his life in prison to give them freedom and hope of a better life. Each time Sebezela spoke the former president’s name, he shouted, “Viva Mandela!” and joyfully pounded the van’s roof.

Still, it’s heartbreaking to see people waiting for their government to provide them with decent lives. New Brighton residents surveyed about their priorities for development money favored improvements in infrastructure and essential services. Their misfortune was to live in an African National Congress party stronghold. The politicians wanted to mark the township’s contribution to the defeat of apartheid; the people’s priorities finished last. What Sebezela had to show us then were the rusty-roofed shanties that gave the Red Location Cultural Museum its name. A few new dwellings had been built near the museum, but improved infrastructure and essential services were still on Port Elizabeth’s to-do list.

What chance do South Africans have of raising themselves out of poverty? Even with the most robust economy on the continent, more than 28 percent of people in Port Elizabeth’s province are without jobs. After years of international economic sanctions against the apartheid government, South Africa came late to global trade.

And, not surprisingly, lack of education locks out many South Africans from the jobs now available. A World Bank survey last year found that 60 percent of the country’s unemployed had not completed 12 years of education. Only 6 percent with some college education were jobless.

Strange as it may seem, the day ended on a happy note. My friends and I took heart in the educated – and entrepreneurial – South Africans we met. Paul and Thandi Miedema started Calabash Tours to broaden the reach of tourism in their hometown to the disadvantaged in an effort “to inform visitors about the dynamism of our new democracy.” The Miedemas employ people living in the townships, foster visits to township artisans and work at encouraging respect between tourists and hosts. They also formed a charitable trust to support community-led development.

The tours usually end with an introduction to Principal Nombulelo Sume of the Charles Duna Primary School in New Brighton. Sume teaches – and embodies – a can-do spirit needed to propel South Africa forward. Lacking enough computers for a full computer lab, she found a way to use the school’s few to introduce students to technology. Lacking a janitorial staff, she recruited parents who gladly do the job to help their children build an educational foundation for their future.

As Nelson Mandela takes on his final challenge at 94, it’s worth considering again what people freed from tyranny can do. In time.

Carol Frey, a former editorial writer at the News & Observer, lives in Raleigh.

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