Why South Africa is like a Mexican soap opera

 
Nelson Mandela and Ahmed Kathrada

Related Stories

With the African National Congress party's figurehead Nelson Mandela in fragile health and the country facing a series of difficult problems, this is a critical period for South Africa.

It was late afternoon, and they were still cheering. Every few seconds another name was read out, and the families - some overflowing into the lobby outside the hall - jumped up from their chairs with delight.

It was graduation day at Johannesburg's grand, elegant Wits University this week.

I sat on the steps outside the hall, soaking up the noisy waves of optimism that kept rushing past.

Inside, Ahmed Kathrada seemed to be doing much the same. He is 83 years old now, and a little frail but still very much the same rigorous intellectual heavyweight who spent quarter of a century in prison with Nelson Mandela.

Mr Kathrada was at Wits to receive his own honorary doctorate. Afterwards, away from the well-dressed crowds streaming out of the hall, he sat down carefully, smiled, and said: "A day like this makes you feel good about this country."

Of course, we then started talking about everything that was going wrong - about the prevailing sense of gloom, even crisis, that has settled on South Africa.

"I just wish we could unite," he said solemnly, "as we used to in prison, to fight a common enemy".

Start Quote

It is striking how many people seem genuinely worried about what will happen when Mandela is gone”

End Quote

It has been a rough few months here: The killing of 34 workers at the Marikana mine; the corruption and chaos exposed almost daily within the ruling ANC; the downgrading of South Africa's economic prospects by ratings agencies.

Grim stuff. But it is worth remembering that crisis is something of a speciality here.

Nonsense

If South Africa were a television show, it would probably be a Mexican soap opera - raucous, full of absurd, repetitive plots, with the promise of imminent disaster and salvation around every corner.

It is as if the nation cannot quite let go of its genuinely miraculous, dramatic past and accept the fact that it has become just another messy, complicated country.

Of course, this week we have all been reminded of that past with the news that Nelson Mandela, now 94 years old, is back in hospital.

Nelson Mandela This week, Nelson Mandela was being treated for a lung infection at a hospital in Pretoria

Over time most South Africans have quietly come to accept the fact that he will not be here forever.

But it is striking how many people seem genuinely worried about what will happen when he is gone.

It used to be a few shrill, nervous white people who talked about how it was only Mr Mandela - with his moral authority - who was preventing the black majority from throwing them out of the country or worse. But now you hear black people worrying about what will happen too.

I spent an hour recently, arguing with a bright student who was convinced that civil war was inevitable.

Such fears are, I am sure, nonsense. In political terms South Africa has already been living in a post-Mandela era for longer than it would like to admit.

But the ruling party - the ANC - still leans heavily on its liberation history, and on Mr Mandela in particular, and it does have a lot to lose.

Fractious nation

This weekend the ANC is gathering, as it does every five years, to decide who should lead the party and which policies it should champion.

The run-up has been quite a spectacle. You could argue that the furious power battles are a sign of healthy internal democracy, or you could look at the political murders, and the greedy factionalism as proof that yet another African liberation movement has pressed the self-destruct button.

It is worth mentioning that the ANC, for all its flaws, has plenty of good people - and achievements - under its belt.

And it can adapt. After the disastrous HIV/Aids denial of the past, President Jacob Zuma's government has rolled out the right drugs, and life expectancy for South Africans has jumped from 54 to 60 in five years. A spectacular leap.

From Our Own Correspondent

  • Insight and analysis from BBC correspondents, journalists and writers from around the world
  • Broadcast on Radio 4 and BBC World Service

Over the course of the ANC's weeklong conference there will be plenty of talk about President Zuma's alleged corruption, and attempts to unseat him.

There will be angry calls to nationalise South Africa's mines, and seize all white-owned farms. And there will be more sober, sensible debates about how to make this a less unequal society.

It will all matter hugely - and at the same time - make little practical difference.

The ANC has been noisily pondering these questions for years but its leadership is now safely ensconced within South Africa's growing, aspirational middle class, and it seems to have little appetite for revolution.

And so a fractious nation will rumble on.

For me, the most troubling thing today is not the messy politics, or the inequality, or the unemployment - which, when you include the informal sector, is not as high as often claimed.

The really shocking thing is this:

When it comes to primary school education - this country ranks among the very worst in the world. Below Bangladesh. Below Nigeria.

A generation is being forsaken, which makes the smiles of those graduating university students and their cheering families this week, all the more moving - and bitter-sweet.

How to listen to From Our Own Correspondent:

BBC Radio 4: Saturdays at 11:30 and some Thursdays at 11:00.

Listen online or download the podcast.

BBC World Service: Short editions Monday-Friday - see World Service programme schedule.

You can follow the Magazine on Twitter and on Facebook

 
Andrew Harding Article written by Andrew Harding Andrew Harding Africa correspondent

Qualifications scandal divides South Africa

Allegations that senior officials have faked qualifications is an issue that seems to have divided South Africa, writes the BBC's Andrew Harding.

Read full article

More on This Story

Related Stories

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites

Comments

This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
 
  • rate this
    -7

    Comment number 33.

    31. tobus
    28. The Ship
    "Africa has always belonged to black Africans. The whites have always been mere colonialists."

    That's very racist.
    ///////
    Please expalin, in detail, why that is racist.

  • rate this
    -3

    Comment number 32.

    31. tobus
    That's very racist.
    Do you think...that black people who migrate to Europe should be considered as "mere" colonisers here?
    //////
    A) No, it isn't. B) If they walked in here armed, forcing the natives into submission or into concentration camps and enforcing apartheid on them, yes. Since that is not the case, as you know, no, they are not. They are mere immigrants.

  • rate this
    +12

    Comment number 31.

    28. The Ship
    "Africa has always belonged to black Africans. The whites have always been mere colonialists."

    That's very racist.

    Do you think that Europe "belongs" to white Europeans and that black people who migrate to Europe should be considered as "mere" colonisers here?

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 30.

    The earliest representatives of South Africa's diversity – at least the earliest we can name – were the San and Khoekhoe peoples (otherwise known individually as the Bushmen and Hottentots or Khoikhoi; collectively called the Khoisan). Both were resident in the southern tip of the continent for thousands of years before its written history began with the arrival of European seafarers.

  • rate this
    -8

    Comment number 29.

    @ Jaipur Vegetables: Oh, and look up "The Cradle of Humankind".

  • rate this
    -8

    Comment number 28.

    27. Jaipur Vegetables
    The Boers have been in SA far longer than than black SAs.
    ////////
    Africa has always belonged to black Africans. The whites have always been mere colonialists. Same with the US and Australia.

  • rate this
    +12

    Comment number 27.

    >"Any way, some feel that it was only time
    >before black South-Africans started claiming
    >their country back"

    The Boers have been in SA far longer than than black SAs.
    The Boers date back to 1652, while blacks only arrived in
    about 1850, migrating south from the interior.

    p 5, THE GREAT ANGLO-BOER WAR Byron Farwell ISBN 0-393-30659-3.

  • rate this
    -3

    Comment number 26.

    24. Jaipur Vegetables

    Concentration camps were invented in Cuba by the Imperial
    //////
    Mere detail. Concentration camps existed in South Africa. Whether the British invented them and regardless of the cause of death of the many that died in them, they're a disgrace.

  • rate this
    -8

    Comment number 25.

    21. Jaipur Vegetables

    Ah, a denialist. Look up Lizzy van Zuyl. Didn't exactly starve to death, but a very unsavoury story nonetheless, and equally shameful. Just read up on concentration camps in South Africa.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 24.

    >What, the white people who marched in there,
    >took over the land by force, invented
    >concentration camps and introduced Apartheid?

    No.

    Concentration camps were invented in Cuba by the Imperial
    Spanish in 1896, four years before their use by the
    British in the 2nd Anglo-Boer war.

    http://www.latinamericanstudies.org/reconcentrado.htm
    http://www.amigospais-guaracabuya.org/oagld003.php

  • rate this
    +9

    Comment number 23.

    22. The Ship
    "Any way, some feel that it was only time before black South-Africans started claiming their country back"

    That statement, in response to an accusation of genocide, is an overt attempt to justify white genocide. Disgraceful. You're on the wrong side of this argument.

    Change your position.

  • rate this
    -8

    Comment number 22.

    19. tobus
    This is the situation. You can deny it because you are not a Boer farmer and the media support your ignorance.
    //////
    How do you know? Maybe I, or my family are/were Boer farmers. Any way, some feel that it was only time before black South-Africans started claiming their country back and they they resent everything that was done to them for over the decades.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 21.

    >the English who starved Boer children to death in concentration camps

    THE GREAT ANGLO-BOER WAR Byron Farwell ISBN 0-393-30659-3, page 400:
    "In the concentration camps the food was neither good nor plentiful,
    and certainly did not make for a balanced diet. Still, no-one died of
    starvation."

  • rate this
    -2

    Comment number 20.

    There are two g's in struvvle. Of little use is you do not count that high or use a daft keyborad. Word spellers can make you perfect, what do they hide?

    A simple search on 'Pi over 404', should hit the Oregan Ducks.
    Why?

  • rate this
    +18

    Comment number 19.

    17. The Ship
    Minimise & deny.

    If 8% of the people you went to school with had been brutally murdered over the last 20 years, a further 8% subjected to dehumanising rapes and brutal home attacks and the rest subjected to the constant fear of those things, you would be screaming genocide.

    This is the situation. You can deny it because you are not a Boer farmer and the media support your ignorance.

  • rate this
    -3

    Comment number 18.

    2005 ~ http://users.humboldt.edu/jmmorgan/risp_s05.htm

    Those amongst us who stuggle with the mind, can do no better thsn consider the modern strugle that is Greasy Grass. A story of our virtues.

  • rate this
    -9

    Comment number 17.

    15. tobus
    You're justifying/excusing genocide that is happening now. Shame on you.
    ////
    No. I am saying there is no genocide happening. And the Boers weren't much better than the English.

  • rate this
    -2

    Comment number 16.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 15.

    13. The Ship that died of shame
    ... the white people who marched in there ... invented concentration camps ...

    It was the English who starved Boer children to death in concentration camps, now they're suffering a second genocide and idiots label them generically as "white people". Who's the ignorant racist here?

    You're justifying/excusing genocide that is happening now. Shame on you.

  • rate this
    -2

    Comment number 14.

    Are you adveritising AAp's.... :)

    We will have you, reconsider lamp posts!

    There is no limited liability to criminal intent.

    I intend to see Ms LaBroy under a different light. 65 Million.......

 

Page 9 of 10

 

Features

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.