South Africa: Born Free

16 June 2006
guest column

Washington, DC — An unmarked ambulance—with a black A—has been patrolling during the past two nights. People wanted to know whose it was. None of the agencies said it had an ambulance operating at night. The supposition was that it is the police. The people were asked to take the registration number and report it to the Red Cross. – Notes taken near Cape Town, June 5, 1986, at an emergency meeting of people displaced by vigilante attacks on the Crossroads squatter camp.

A South African friend had brought me to the meeting, vouched for me with the organizers. My notes recall the people’s coats (winter was coming) redolent of cooking fires, of a young Xhosa man who spoke, the spitting image of Nelson Mandela—then imprisoned only a few miles away.

This would be a dark year in South Africa—perhaps the darkest of the apartheid era. The government had not yet fully deciphered the handwriting on the wall. The lessons of the Soweto uprising—just ten years earlier—remained unlearned or misapprehended. The security apparatus was eliminating black leaders and fomenting violence in black townships like Crossroads.

One week later, the government declared a state of emergency. At the Johannesburg airport the next day, as I prepared to leave, I bought a copy of The Weekly Mail, an upstart progressive tabloid. The police soon confiscated every copy they could find nationwide. I still have mine.

A banner headline—"Rule of the big stick”—runs above a large front-page photo of dour, truncheon-wielding white police marching through Johannesburg’s city center. The lead story reported that the Commonwealth Eminent Persons’ Group believed that tougher sanctions were essential to avoid "the worst bloodbath since World War Two.”

On the inside pages, the newspaper ran graphic photographs and reports of the continuing violence at Crossroads, as well as a lengthy interview with retired Brigadier T. J. Swanepoel, who led the crushing of the youth rebellion in Soweto. "I enjoy war,” he is quoted. "I am on the list of those who must be liquidated,” referring to the 9mm pistol strapped to his waist.

There would be no bloodbath in South Africa. And to judge from the pages of a recent edition of The Weekly Mail’s successor, the Mail and Guardian, there is scant awareness among young South Africans—black and white—that apartheid and the "rule of the big stick” ever happened.

To visit South Africa today, as I did last month, is to encounter a nation that is all too quickly forgetting its awkward past, and failing as well to address contradictions which could abort evolution of a stable multi-ethnic society.

Ironically, one of the perceived hazards is the lack of race consciousness among "born-frees"—the generation of youth who have come of age since a democratic South Africa emerged formally in 1994. The Mail and Guardian recently surveyed youth and found them remarkably devoid of racial animosity. But youth were equally deficient in any real understanding of apartheid, its legacy or its latent effect on South African society.

Apartheid, in the view of many youth, was nothing more sinister than separate park benches for black and white. Then Nelson Mandela changed all that. Full stop.

The editors of the Mail and Guardian, born to apartheid and having fought it in the trenches, know better. "Indeed,” they commented on the born-free survey, "there is no image of post-apartheid South Africa more widely propagated than the playground full of colour-blind black and white school kids. It is the consoling myth for our anxious time.”

The born-frees, they continued, need "to understand how race works, and why, if they are to navigate their futures. . . . (B)lunt ethnocentricity . . . remains a dangerous force in our society. But if we recognize that there is no country ‘beyond race,’ we can begin to think, and experience, race in new and hopefully more constructive ways.”

I started learning about apartheid first-hand in the mid-1960s. Over the years, I became convinced that South African blacks had no desire to drive whites into the sea. Regardless of color, South Africans have long had a sense of common destiny that actually deepened in response to apartheid. The question today, as South Africa marks the 30th anniversary of the Soweto uprising, is whether that sense will find new meaning and strength in the absence of apartheid.

Kevin Lowther is regional director for Southern Africa at Africare, a Washington-based humanitarian organization.

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