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Ten Years On

It is first light and my wife and her colleague have just driven off to catch a plane to Durban. They will be away a week, teaching health workers from across Africa how better to understand and represent their communities. Rachel’s colleague lives in our village; she is a psychotherapist, she has a British husband, three kids and they employ an Afrikaans nanny. And she is Zulu.

Before the end of apartheid I would not have written this last sentence. In those days we knew all too well the reach of the security branch. I met a man the other day who seemed too young to have been retired several years. ‘I worked for the government’ he said, vaguely. I pressed him for more, but he was reluctant. Finally he admitted he had spent his career in the post office opening mail for the security branch. A Zulu woman Police confront township riots in the 1980sliving with a white man, in a ‘white’ area would have been a red rag to the police – never mind her employing an Afrikaaner as her nanny! They would have arrived, probably in the middle of the night, swearing blue at these ‘liberals and communists’, hauling them away for ‘immorality’ and defiance of ‘group areas’, sending their mixed race children away to a ‘coloured’ institution.

Those bleak days are now a memory. A young black woman, recently asked to reflect on ten years of democracy, said Nelson Mandela was her hero for fighting for freedom and human rights.Asked of her own ambitions, she said she wants toown a BMW Z3. Clearly, she thinks the times have changed. In the 1980s young black leaders instigated school boycotts, marches and insurrection , their lives dedicated to revolution. They were the ‘Young Lions’ that made the townships ungovernable. As South Africa lurched through violent crises and draconian states of emergency it seemed to the world that the clash of the ‘young lions’ and the police would end only in bloody civil war.The battle in South Africa looked as intractable as the conflicts in Palestine and Northern Ireland.

But the story of a miracle unfolded, thanks to outstanding leadership and a willingness to change and forgive, and it has now been ten years since the landmark democratic election of 1994.From among the ‘young lions’ and their compatriots in exile have emerged the businessmen, politicians, TV presenters and poets who lead South Africa today. Many have extraordinary stories. They tell of paths from torture cells to government, militant activism to business empires, exile to Presidency.Wealth and power have followed their political triumph.

Certainly a relatively small number of black people have experienced a meteoric change of fortunes in the last ten years of democracy.They have gained influencWhite and Black queue to vote in 1994 e and prosperity a previous generation could not even have dreamed. Most have been quick to enjoy, and display, the benefits and luxuries of success, lifting the aspirations of all black people. But what of the masses who are not being driven to board meetings in luxurious SUVs? What has democracy meant for them?

In terms of freedom South Africa has taken a quantum leap from an oppressive regime to one of the most liberal constitutions in the world, including a Bill of Rights, and an array of democratic and independent institutions to protect constitutional freedoms, including a Constitutional Court and numerous Commissions. This has created a new social climate.People no longer live in fear.They are citizens and can move freely, and as one man told BBC Online, ‘once you were a nobody… but now you can say what you think’. That sense of liberation has been profound, and you can see it in the confidence and ease that now characterises black people in South Africa.

I am often asked whether race relations in the country have improved. In the past racist bigotry was government policy.Today the constitution and, generally, the government emphasise reconciliation and equality.The media has been a powerful voice for tolerance.The middle ground has shifted away from prejudice towards respect. Attitudes remain largely determined by race, and residual prejudice is very easy to find in all communities. But apart from hardliners, the tone has softened and a recent survey commissioned by the Washington Post has shown that, overwhelmingly, all race groups are glad of the change and show little desire to return to apartheid.The country is still factionalised, but, overall, trust is growing and the trend is definitely towards a greater sense of common nationhood. Surveys show that all communities feel that race relations are improving.

Sadly there has not been such a revolution in the everyday experience of poverty. Apartheid condemned much of the black population to dire straits and the new government has found it hard to break the poverty cycles.They rightly boast of very impressive strides in the provision of electricity and water to rural and informal communities and South Africa has applied its considerable technical capacity to such logistical problems with inspiring creativity and efficiency, including the use of cellular technology to bring modern communications to far-flung communities.Welfare grants have been equalised and increased. Clinics and schools have been built.Housing provision, after a muddled first few years, is picking up speed.

What has proven harder to tackle is the drastic lack of marketable skills in the population. I recently guided a group from Duke University. We visited diplomats, business people, community workers and politicians – and everyone told us the same thing: the greatest challenge for South Africa is skills development. Most of the foot soldiers of the Struggle, the ones who boycotted their classes and fought running battles with the police, remain in the dusty townships, without jobs, dependent on their extended family and tempted by alcohol and crime. They lack qualifications, have little hope of work and, understandably, feel forgotten by the state. Children in Khayelitsha

The lack of skills presents a formidable challenge to overcoming essential problems facing South Africa – unemployment, poverty and government efficiency. Underlying structural unemployment developed in the early 1970s, and grew worse with two decades of economic stagnation.Conservative economic policies over the last ten years have stabilised the economy and brought steady growth (now around 3%) with improving inflation and interest rates, but it is growth without job creation. Forty percent of the population have no formal work, and they lack the basic skills and resources to create work for themselves. Big business has shed jobs, and levels of entrepreneurship in South Africa lag far behind comparative countries like Brazil and India.

The lack of skills also means that people in the government service often lack the ability to adapt to the rapid overhaul underway in every aspect of the civil service in South Africa. Huge changes of policy and organisation have worked well in some departments (such as tax collection!) but in areas like education, where completely new, ‘outcomes based’ curricula and new forms of school policy have been rapidly introduced, only the most skilled teachers and well resourced schools have been able to adapt effectively.Similar problems have affected local government, home affairs, health and policing.

The President himself, recently spoke of South Africa as a house without a staircase – the upper story are moving ahead, characterised by people of all races with considerable skills and ability, but the great mass of unskilled people on the bottom floor are unable to move up. A new emphasis is being placed upon improving government delivery and upon training, both in the state sector and in the private sector through tax and other incentive schemes. NGOs, too, are addressing skills development in the government, private and the unemployed sectors.

The South African miracle achieved a peaceful transition to a democratic state and quickly created a modern constitutional framework that helped to deal with the issues of the past (notably through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission) and establish policies to modernise and democratise South Africa. However, real change does not come with the stroke of a pen. We have the framework, but putting all the pieces together is going to be a long, long journey, one that must start, even, with basic numeracy and language skills. This will not be achieved by a quick miracle but decades of steady improvements, especially in the civil service, and a lot of goodwill and hard work.


 


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