Flying over the veldt with the African dawn streaming in from the left-hand side window brought to mind the first time I did this journey – back in April 1994 on a Swissair flight from Zurich. I had stopped in Athens for a business trip and also to get a paper visa for the Republic of South Africa stapled to my Indian passport. The South African visa department in Athens was small and seedy. You walked up a staircase to an office with an open window. A chain-smoking disheveled man who would not have looked out of place in a Graham Greene novel took in my passport without any questions and a couple of hours later, had a visa stapled to it. The passport clearly said that it was not valid for travel to Israel and South Africa, but as long as I did not have a problem he did not have a problem with it.
It is impossible even now, to put into words the sheer vastness of Africa that I observed from 35,000 feet. I was in my early 30s and full of wide-eyed wonder at the world and the limitless possibilities it offered. The expanse I witnessed beneath me seemed to resonate with my outlook. As the plane started to lose height as we approached Jan Smuts International Airport, neat houses with manicured green lawns and the stark blue of a swimming pool could be seen from up on high. The sun was bright, the air seemed pristine and the sky was blue. Given that I was about to land in a country that was about to put the finishing touches on an amazing transformation, the portents from the weather gods were ominously good.
When I landed, I remember walking into a sepulchral immigration lounge that did not seem very different from the one I had left behind at Zurich. White-shirted beefy white men sat impassive and unsmiling at the visitors. The man flipped through my passport, and asked me in Afrikaans-accented English, “Are you a thraderr? Are you carrying samples?”. I, of course, raised my nose and told him I was leading an assignment to transform the South African Post Office Bank. I don’t think he believed me one bit and normally he would have thrown me out. Except of course, his world was about to go under beneath him. And India was one of the few countries which, thanks to its principled opposition to apartheid, was on the favoured list of the expected new masters.
So I walked into the Arrival Hall. Before I could spot Ian Fraser, my Australian colleague who was there to pick me up, I also saw that most of the Arrival Hall was damaged and police were all over. It transpired that the Afrikaaner Witbroderbond (Afrikaaner White Brotherhood) lead by a crackpot called Eugene Terreblanche, had bombed the Arrivals area and attempted to take over the black homeland of Bophuthatswana to try and disrupt the elections. It did not work and Eugene was on the run being chased down by the very same white Defence Forces he had once served in.
Ian took me to the Sandton Country Club for a shower and change before driving me to Pretoria. All lily white. White people ate and drank served by black people. White people were in the showers and sauna. I was the only non-white person in the club but I did not feel out of place – largely because of my inflated sense of self!
Later that afternoon we hung around in his apartment drinking Castles and listening to the radio. Metro FM was full of news and doings about what was going to happen the next day – free multi-racial elections. Music from all over the world was being played while relaying the news. Ladysmith Black Mambozo, Mbongeni Ngema, many others. Hope was in the air and the DJ was caught up in it. He relayed advice to people who had never seen a voting booth before on what to do the next day. I have a tape of that lying somewhere. It was the most magical afternoon.
That evening Ian’s girlfriend Joyce showed up. She was – well, a prostitute and black – and of course Ian was happily married back home with a wife and son. Without being cynical about what was going on, I think this was also part of the whole new South Africa that was being built where there were no rules, no boundaries. Joyce was a wonderful, simple girl. She was shy and spoke haltingly about how she felt about what was going to happen. The words “new South Africa” are all that I remember. She showed us where they were going to vote the next day. More beers and the braai came out to fry up some steaks and potatoes. A few days later she took us to a shebeen – or black pub – where talk was raucous and the music loud. Our car window was smashed and Ian’s gym bag stolen – perhaps adding another necessary facet to the South African experience.
All around me was first world infrastructure and signs of great wealth – as long as you ignored the black people on whose labour it was all built. I had not visited Europe or the US at that time (ok Greece does not really count!) but later I realised how very modern the country was. It takes a great organisational genius to create what the Afrikaaner had managed to do under sanctions. But no one should forget on what it was built. Legalised exploitation of the worst kind.
What Ian and Joyce were doing would have been punishable under the Race Relations Act and Prohibition of Immorality Acts which forbade relationships between black and white. In order to be sure you were not breaking the law, every citizen had to be classified as “black” or “white. Further, there was no way Joyce could have visited Ian just a few years ago – the Group Areas Act created separate living areas for blacks and whites. Black people living in formerly mixed cities like Jo’burg and Durban were exiled to settlements outside the cities. Then new “homelands” were created and all black people were made citizens of these homelands, and lost their South African citizenship. To exit a “black” area and enter a “white” area you needed a pass – hence the infamous pass laws of which you have heard.
Joyce was not very well read, and not all of that was her fault. Henrik Verwoerd, when introducing the Bantu Education Act in Parliament in 1949 said that “Of what use is mathematics to a Bantu child when he is unlikely to use it in daily life. We need hewers of wood and drawers of water”. Black children were exiled to separate schools, the schools were starved of funds and teachers paid so badly they got the worst. This was just one of the pillars of apartheid.
What used to be profoundly distasteful to me was that South Africa’s apartheid system was founded on law that relied on a few selected sentences in the bible for inspiration. I could not think of anything more repugnant – to law or to the Good Book!
In the history of South Africa, I consider FW De Klerk to be the greater man because, like Gorbachev, he made the South African white population see for themselves that their monstrous system of racial exploitation was going to be hollowed and would collapse disastrously under the weight of its own contradictions. He got them to change and allow change, however reluctantly. He and Mandela were not friends and there is some evidence that Mandela was not all saintly towards him. But together they did something fabulous. Mandela’s essentially good and forgiving nature was what made De Klerk take that enormous risk with his own kind. Just imagine if Mandela had turned out to be Mugabe.
Twenty three years on, here I was, with my little girl and my wife at my side, winging my way to see what the new South Africa looked like. The country has been captured by a sexually voracious thieving President and his three Indian cronies. The ANC are enriching themselves. There is a Black Empowerment Act that states that 30% of all business and jobs must go to black people or black firms. But nothing much as changed. The restaurants are full of white people being served by black people. There are, of course, a few very rich black people and also a few very poor white people – something unthinkable all those years ago.
Democracy is not perfect. In Plato’s Republic, there are cogent arguments for democracy – even the limited, patrician Greek kind – being the foundation of mob rule. South Africa has done well but not well enough. Democracy has delivered enormous corruption but not chaos. The infrastructure is good, and if there was anger we did not see it. Driving past the giant slum of Khayelitsa – just 10 miles from Stellenbosch – was a sobering experience of how inequality was entrenched. It will take fifty years for the country to right itself and it could do with another Mandela if the Gods would be so kind.
When leaving Cape Town after a great holiday my thoughts turned homewards to India. There is so much to be proud of. It tries. It is not perfect, and it is not without flaws. There is so much to criticize and we must! However the process of transformation begun in 1947 continues. People are getting lifted out of poverty and getting healthier, living longer and breaking out of their shackles. We must stop and reflect on that every now and then. And feel pride.