Monday, January 18, 2016

“Even the Band was white”– thoughts on a visit to the “New” South Africa

Even the Band was white

[Above: New Year’s Eve at the Kelvin Grove Club, Cape Town]


At our guest house in Franschhoek the proprietor made a couple of references to the "New South Africa" in explaining things to us. The things she was explaining were mostly things that didn't work very well, or at all, as she saw it. She was an Afrikaner - a comfortably off and successful one. We didn't talk politics and my impression that she was a decent as well as an able person. But over 20 years since the Republic entered the civilised world clearly not everything is rosy. The hideous Shanty Town close to Cape Town Airport is still there and the poverty gap between the have’s and the have not’s seems as wide as ever. And with the Rand hovering around 25 to the pound (it was 12 six years when we were last there) South Africans struggle to import the commodities they need (though the tourists and some of the exporters are happy).

The most positive development is the continued rise of the Black middle class. The children who at last got a decent education after apartheid was dismantled are arriving in the workforce - many with good schooling and University. They along with their White, Coloured and Indian compatriots inherit a situation of which the memory of Nelson Mandela can be proud.

"Apartheid" is an Afrikaans word meaning "separate development" a concept that institutionalised and exploited South Africa's racial differences. Of course it did not mean "separate but equal development" - it reinforced and passed into law privilege on racial grounds. In "Cry the Beloved Country" (which I re-read during this trip) written and set in 1947 Alan Paton held a mirror up to the reality of that privilege. The white characters are mostly good people many of whom are concerned about the "natives" but only one, the (ironically) murdered by a Black criminal Jarvis, sees the need for a moral crusade and for change. Within a year of this great book's publication Apartheid was formalised - including the hideous "petty apartheid" of separate park benches and the like.

So 65 years on from "Beloved Country" and 25 from Mandela's release where is South Africa now? My first conclusion is that, awkward though they may have been, quotas have worked. Shell South Africa when I used to visit it was an 80% white company - it is now 80% black. A black man scored a fine century at Newlands. Neither of these things would have happened without "positive discrimination". And countless other changes of course. There is also a sense of confidence that the outside world, like me, is comfortable with visiting a society that is so much more equal (though some of that equality is superficial and/or artificial). But there is a long way to go to achieve genuine equality of opportunity.

The weakness of the Rand is a measure of the weakness of the economy as a whole and of the failure of Zuma's Government. In the early days of Mandela's presidency the great man tried to ensure that he had the best people in top Government jobs irrespective of race. This is no longer the case and Zuma is accused of cronyism, or worse. The emergence of better educated blacks in the coming years should mean a broader pool of good people across the races. But to institutionalise a different form of privilege, as Zuma has done, in place of the old one is hardly progress!

At the social level I saw few signs of real progress towards an unselfconsciously multiracial society. Apartheid might have gone but separate development and social barriers are still very much present. An extreme example was the Kelvin Grove Club in Newlands where I had reciprocal membership. This has all the appearances of the expatriate clubs of Hong Kong and elsewhere very familiar to me. At these the Brits (mostly) were the members and the local Chinese served at table (etc.) But Kelvin Grove is not an expatriate club at all. It's members are South African citizens from the white English speaking Cape Town tribe. Not even Afrikaners let alone coloureds or Blacks or Indians. The non whites do the work though. On New Years' Eve not one guest at the dinner dance was non-white. Even the band was white!

In writing about Kelvin Grove I am observing not criticising. I can't see any reason why so long as there is no colour bar (there isn't) a club can't operate broadly as it always did and make an offer that is more likely to appeal to one tribe than others.

Another book I read during my visit was "A racist's guide to the people of South Africa". This very funny and irreverent book describes the English White, Afrikaner, Black and Indian racial groups in terms of their behaviour and aspirations. They are very different - no surprise there then. The author discusses the rising Black middle class - "Black Diamonds" they are called. A subset of this group are those Blacks who don't speak like blacks - the "Coconuts" (brown on the outside, white inside). Unsurprisingly it is this group that the Whites find it easiest to relate to because they are intentionally or not aping the whites in speech and behaviour. But the overwhelming majority of Black South Africans are not Coconuts and have no wish to be. They have no more intention of changing their cultural norms than the Members of Kelvin Grove or the Voortrekkers of Natal!

I remember visiting Nairobi a few times some years ago where a senior Board director of Shell Kenya was Black. He was almost schizophrenic in his lifestyle. During the week he was besuited, spoke educated English and was a highly skilled senior manager. At the weekend he travelled to his “native” village, wore traditional dress and spoke his tribal language. I don't know whether this is common in the “New” South Africa, but it wouldn't surprise me. And, let me stress again, it seems a perfectly acceptable and rational behaviour.

In his “I have a dream” speech Martin Luther King said this:

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream that one day … little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

This was not a “Melting pot” argument. It acknowledged differences and argued for respect of them. But even if massive progress has been made in the “New” South Africa there is a still a way to go. Within the last few weeks some prominent members of the White communities (including broadcasters and Government employees) have been, as the “Cape Times” put it “…embroiled in racism allegations”. This has, they say,  prompted Government to “…include  hate speech and racist behaviour in the Hate Crimes Bill”.

Multiculturalism (and there is nowhere on Earth more multicultural than South Africa) does not need to be changed so that the Blacks all become Coconuts or Kelvin Grove makes their dinner dances wider in their cultural content. What it requires is respect and when that respect is absent then Government needs to act – as it appears to be doing in this one respect at least. On the other hand whilst “Positive discrimination” and quotas was uncomfortable for many it was a necessary thing. But now there needs, it would seem, to be an acknowledgment that there is a sub-optimum situation in some crucial areas of Government (etc.) with able people not being given a chance because of their (white) colour. Far worse than this there is compelling evidence of Afrikaners being murdered on their farms - a scandal of such horrific proportions that it is extraordinary that it is not more in the public eye both within and outside South Africa.

I only go to South Africa every few years and I always enjoy it and marvel at it because of its variety of geography, lifestyle and people. This time I saw nothing that troubled me particularly but old friends I met, and new ones I made, were worried. There is evidence that White administered Apartheid has been replaced by a Black-administered structure which in some respects is not that different. It may be too early to cry again for the beloved country – but it may come to that.


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