South Africa, rise!

I’ve been grappling with more posts from my Botswana trip this past week, and I suspect I’ll continue to grapple with them in the weeks ahead, hoping to flesh out the highs and lows of what was, ultimately, a memorable month north of the border. This will take time; bear with me. If nothing else, my return to Joburg – kinetic, frenzied, mile-a-minute Jozi – has reminded me that I seem to have infinite pressures exerted on my very finite amount of time. The extravagant expenses I racked up in the Kalahari need to bear some sort of journalistic fruit now; I want to keep this blog moving forward, too – to comment on events here in SA, even as I unpack the baggage of my time in Botswana. The result will probably be a messy grab-bag of travel across time and space – a shifting from the frontlines of the union protests in Joburg to the shifting sands of the Kalahari. Be brave, dear reader! Hopefully this will all make sense in the end.

My re-entry into South African life has, on the surface at least, been as smooth as the tarmac from Gaborone. Chez Nous has largely been spared, this past month, the political intrigues and internecine conflicts one might expect from the combustible mix of nine twenty-somethings living in close quarters. Sweet, soft-spoken Amy has found a boyfriend; poker-playing Ryan has found an actual job; Wendy – much absent for most of my three months living in Auckland Park – has finally moved out, fed up with communal life. Otherwise, not a ripple to trouble the surface of our life on Finsbury Lane – Big Brother Africa, this ain’t.

(As a parting gift, Wendy left behind her wobbly, Ikea-style desk – the second piece of furniture to grace my room, and the first to give it the trappings of a genuine workspace. Exciting stuff!)

Meanwhile the usual rites of the young academic year are being piously observed – much cramming in the library, much braai-ing in the yard – while spring, after one last bluster from Old Man Winter, is upon us with all the spryness and fresh-faced vigor of teenage girls in tank tops. The change is swift and dramatic. Clothes are shed; flowers are in bloom; the haze that prefigures the coming rains stretches like cotton wool across the sky. One afternoon I find Jean and Llewelyn toplessly strumming their guitars in the yard, drinking cheap table wine and puffing on their water pipes. Bitten by the bug of college students for whom life – so full of possibilities; so bereft of disappointments – feels like an eternal spring, they seem to offer a reproach to this wizened narrator, who is only just coming to the age at which you start to know a whole lot better.

On the surface, youth, eternal spring, etc.; just below that, turmoil. The old troubles and doubts are creeping in, now that my free-wheeling ride through Botswana is over, and the stresses and obligations of my South African life have returned. Chastened by my financial strife, I’ve fortified myself against the coming month and its temptations – a jazz festival my first weekend back! – with a library’s worth of reading material: newspapers and pan-African magazines and my long-neglected collection of American fiction (Bellow, Hemingway, Salter: I’m back, old friends). Like a good little Raskolnikov I’m holed up thusly, fretting over next month’s rent, fretting over this month’s rent, looking to push my Bushman story on media houses big and small, feeling somewhat sullied by the fact that the Bushman’s plight seems to concern me only in as much as it might translate to an appreciable rise in my income, feeling cheap, feeling broke, feeling that Joburg life – a veritable pleasure dome of long nights, short skirts, and drink specials that might push even the most zealous teetotaler off the bandwagon – is on the other side of a very thick pane of glass, feeling that the entire system of life I’ve constructed these past few years has been built on shoddy foundations, that I would do just about anything for a steady income and dental insurance, that a good lay might change everything, that I feel fat in this shirt, and that the prospect that stretches out before me is of a long, anxious life – or a short, anxious life – of past-due bills, worn-out sneakers, unfurnished rooms and relentless stress, occasionally punctuated by the marvelous joys and epiphanies of life on the road.

This is a shitty reality to come home to. No, Joburg has not gone down well these past few days. The old restlessness has come over me, a manic scurrying of desires in every direction. Maybe it’s the spring. Maybe it’s just the occasional longing I have for home – a place I know and, in some small way, understand, for all its vast lunacy.

Or maybe it’s the dark national mood that has again come over this country. (Remember how bleak things looked a few months ago?) Discontent, malice, fear: they inhabit the air like the smell of a coming storm. Yes, the World Cup honeymoon is over here in South Africa. And Africa’s most turbulent, energetic, schizophrenic and, ultimately, hopeful democracy is once again lurching about in search of its own identity.

The most visible sign of something rotten in the state of Zuma has, of course, been the massive civil service strike that is now entering its third week. More than a million public employees have taken to the streets so far, over demands of increased wages and housing allowances; according to local media, that number is expected to grow this week. There have been ugly reports of clashes between strikers and police; between strikers and those daring to cross the picket line; even between strikers and hospital patients, who have been turned back at healthcare facilities across the country by angry mobs. This is the ugly face of democracy-run-amok – a bitter pill to swallow for those who, having grown with the apartheid struggle, remember the days when labor unions were seen as an important voice of social protest for blacks – one of the few entries into the political space not banned by the apartheid government.

Political protest has given way to political theater, if not outright farce. COSATU – the largest of this country’s labor unions – is flexing its muscles; as part of the tripartite alliance (with the South African Communist Party and the ruling ANC), it still feels itself owed by President Zuma after helping to deliver the presidency to him at the ANC’s historic Polokwane conference three years ago. Now the alliance is under strain, “dysfunctional,” in the words of COSATU general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi last week. “The center cannot hold,” Vavi told the press. More political shuffling, retrenchment, realignment ahead. (Unraveling the history of shifting allegiances, back-stabbing, front-stabbing, broken promises, kept promises, reneged promise, hopes and disillusionments between and within each of the alliance members is more than this reporter can manage.) The government insists that the strikers’ demands are unreasonable, that they threaten to bankrupt its already overtaxed coffers. (World Cup stadium in Port Elizabeth, anybody?) Meanwhile more reports of government misdeeds: ANC cronies linked to a corrupt waste management deal in Limpopo province; President Zuma’s own son implicated in a scandal involving the South African arm of the steel giant, ArcelorMittal. Bitterness, fear, fury. How quickly the dreams of the World Cup have dimmed and faded, like the last gasps of fireworks bursting over Soccer City six weeks ago. It’s back to the dirty business of politics now, to the trench warfare of negotiated settlements – neither line willing to give an inch.

Striking teachers demand a wage increase.

Mad as hell: 8.6% wage increase or bust!

Construction workers join the strike...

...or maybe they're just on a lunch break.

A victim of strike-related violence.

It is important here to remember the good as well as the bad; a recent editorial reminded its readers, after President Zuma and his 300-strong business delegation returned from China, that despite the ANC’s fawning over that country’s state-driven development model, it was India – another vibrant, restive, contradictory democracy – that served as a more relevant lodestar on the Asian continent. The post-apartheid growing pains aren’t easily remedied – what’s sixteen years in the life of a country? There is still much to applaud in South Africa c. 2010: one of the most progressive constitutions on the planet; an active and vocal civil society; a free press that is the envy of journalists and editorial boards across Africa.

And so the ANC now has to tread with caution. President Zuma is on shaky legs; Youth League rabble-rouser Julius Malema last week warned that “if this president is determined to serve a second term, that will be determined by the next congress.” (And elsewhere, to the ANC: “adapt or die.”) Looming in the background, too, are the proposed media regulations that have sent the chattering classes into a frenzy. The Protection of Information Bill being discussed before Parliament – which would empower the government to classify any information it considers to be against something broadly defined as the “national interest” – would be a massive step back for this country. (The journalist R.W. Johnson, in an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal, warned of a return to “the dark ages” – also known as the era of apartheid.) Likewise the proposed media tribunal, which would ultimately make the print media answerable to an ANC-controlled Parliament, seems like a transparent attempt to muzzle a press that, for all its flaws, has done a courageous and necessary job of exposing the corrupt heart of the ANC. As high-profile scandals continue to hit the front pages every day, the government seems hell-bent on finding a way to constrain the press. (Not surprisingly, a report in yesterday’s Christian Science Monitor made it clear that, on the question of a tribunal, the government is not about to budge.) So the question now is: South Africa, what next?

As the Mail & Guardian shouted from its pulpit:

This is not just a question of the profits of mining firms, or of abstract free-speech rights; it goes to the heart of a progressive and democratic reconstruction of South Africa. It is time to make your voice heard through every avenue available — business and civil society organisations, opposition parties and ANC branches, schools and residents’ associations. As the great Desmond Tutu recently admonished in a more cheerful context: South Africa, rise!

One response to “South Africa, rise!

  1. Truly enjoyed reading this and look forward to discovering more of your work. Insightful look at the City and Country that I have always called HOME!

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