Beyond the Miracle: Inside the New South Africa

Beyond the Miracle: Inside the New South Africa

by Allister Sparks

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In Beyond the Miracle, a distinguished South African journalist provides a wide-ranging and unflinching account of the first nine years of democratic government in South Africa. Covering both the new regime's proud achievements and its disappointing failures, Allister Sparks looks to South Africa's future, asking whether it can overcome its history and


In Beyond the Miracle, a distinguished South African journalist provides a wide-ranging and unflinching account of the first nine years of democratic government in South Africa. Covering both the new regime's proud achievements and its disappointing failures, Allister Sparks looks to South Africa's future, asking whether it can overcome its history and current global trends to create a truly nonracial, multicultural, and multiparty democracy.

Sparks sees South Africa as facing many of the same challenges as the rest of the world, especially a widening gap between rich and poor, exacerbated by the forces of globalization. While the transition government has done much to establish democracy and racial equality in a short time, as well as bring basic services such as clean water to millions who did not have them before, many blacks feel it has not done enough to redress the continuing imbalance of wealth in the country. Many whites, meanwhile, feel disempowered and confused about what role they have to play as a racial minority in a country they used to rule and regard as theirs by divine right. Sparks also covers other burning issues, such as the HIV/AIDS epidemic, high crime rates, the diamond wars, the Congo conflict, and the Zimbabwean land crisis.

Writing vividly and often quite movingly, Sparks draws on his decades of journalistic experience and his recent insider access to key figures in the liberation government to take stock of where South Africa has been, where it's going, and why the rest of the world should not turn away from this country where the First and Third Worlds meet. As Sparks persuasively argues, the success of Mandela's vision of a peaceful "rainbow nation" is crucial not just for the salvation of Africa, but also for the world.

“Sparks, a grandfather of South African journalism, has fired one of the first volleys in the 10-year assessment. . . . It is an even-handed work, almost encyclopedic in its breadth. Sparks traverses all the important political terrain.”—Mail & Guardian 

“It is as good a guide to the new South Africa as any.”—Economist

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University of Chicago Press
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6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.20(d)

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By Allister Sparks

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2003 Allister Sparks
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-76859-5

Chapter One


"The Constitution whose adoption we celebrate constitutes an unequivocal statement that we refuse to accept that our Africanness shall be defined by our race, colour, gender or historical origins." - DEPUTY PRESIDENT THABO MBEKI

The inauguration of President Nelson Mandela on 10 May 1994 was the most stirring experience of my life. After more than 40 years of writing against apartheid, of exposing its inequities and cruelties and the sheer lunacy of it, here at last was a kind of vindication, a kind of triumph. More than that, for the first time I felt the stirrings of a sense of national identification. It is a terrible thing to feel alienated from one's own people, and that I had felt my whole life. In my first book, published a decade ago, I had written that although I was a fifth-generation white South African, I felt myself to be "emotionally stateless": I could not identify with the land of my birth because it stood for things I abhorred; I felt no sense of pride when I heard my national anthem or saw my national flag.

Now here, in the grand amphitheatre of Pretoria's Union Buildings overlooking the capital from the slopes of a hill which inspired architect Sir Herbert Baker 80years before with visions of the Acropolis dominating the city of Athens, stood the tall, frail figure of Nelson Mandela, the miracle man, the living martyr who had withstood 27 years of incarceration by one of the world's most heartless regimes, taking the oath of office. It was a clear, cloudless day, the bright-brittle sunlight crisp in the thin highveld air, with just the first chill touches of the southern hemisphere autumn. But from the crowd there throbbed an exuberant warmth. A hundred thousand people thronged the lower slopes of the hillside that sweeps gently down from the Union Buildings into the city, dressed in everything from rags to work clothes to tribal skins and feathers, come to see their hero take power from the oppressors. And up here in the amphitheatre, in all its finery, stood a multinational crowd of extraordinary sartorial and political variety.

I had been to only one presidential inauguration before, a thin and soulless affair in 1984 at which the tough old militarist P W Botha was installed in the presence of just one foreign leader - the Angolan rebel, Jonas Savimbi. Now the whole world was here: Hillary Clinton and Al Gore and Fidel Castro, John Major and Yasir Arafat, the kings of Belgium, Swaziland and Lesotho, the Duke of Edinburgh and the lord chamberlain to King Hussein of Jordan, Israelis and Arabs, Iranians and Turks and Greeks and Russians, Europeans and Asians and Latin Americans, and, of course, the whole of Africa. The pariah state had emerged like a butterfly from its chrysalis into the sunlight of international acceptance.

The Old Man stepped forward and the great crowd hushed. Tall and thin and still, with that immobile face, so like his own wax image in Madame Tussaud's, with not a muscle moving, not a flicker of emotion, until after the oath - and then the smile that everyone has come to know, broad, beaming, radiant. Then back into its immobile mode once more for the speech. A speech that seemed aimed at all the alienated souls of Alan Paton's beloved country. The closing words, slow and measured, booming out across the great crowd: "We enter into a covenant that we shall build a society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity - a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world." And then the pledge, from a man who had once told the judge who was about to sentence him to life imprisonment that he was prepared to die for the cause of nonracialism. "Never, never, never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another, and suffer the indignity of being the skunk of the world."

A military band began playing the lilting harmony of the new national anthem, Nkosi sikelel' iAfrika (God bless Africa), and I felt the hairs stand up on the nape of my neck. My first experience in all my three score years of a sentiment that was, what, patriotism? Six jet fighters, which only a few short years before had been strafing Mandela's men in the bush of Angola, flew low overhead trailing long smoke streamers in the six colours of the new national flag, followed by six helicopter gunships flying the flag itself. Down below, a rock band struck up. The great crowd burst into song, swaying and rocking to the music and forming snakelike trains that wove through the crowds holding the new flag high in the air. The occasion turned, as is wont to happen in Africa, from formal ceremonialism into an impromptu Woodstock.

A rainbow nation. What a wonderful promise in a world riven by ethnic conflicts. What a stunning turnaround for a country bedevilled by half a century of institutionalized racism. Gripped by the symbolism of it, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Nobel laureate, was moved to predict that South Africa, with its own intersection of First and Third World populations, would transform itself from global pariah into global role model. "Once we have got it right," Tutu said, "South Africa will be the paradigm for the rest of the world."

But promises are one thing, fulfilling them another. Can South Africa, with its long history of racial intolerance, really buck the global trend and become a truly nonracial, multiparty democracy? Is nonracialism itself in any event not a pipe dream that ignores the hard realities of human nature? Is democracy not something that can exist in only a handful of developed countries with a high degree of homogeneity and what the political scientists call social balance?

* * *

Looking back after nine years, almost a decade, one can credit the new South Africa with many excellent achievements. We have entrenched a new democratic Constitution, perhaps the most progressive in the world, and bedded it down through four national, provincial and local elections which have been manifestly peaceful and fair. We have a Constitutional Court presided over by world-class jurists to interpret and defend it, and we have established a number of other institutions to give effect to the Constitution, including an Independent Electoral Commission, a Human Rights Commission and a Commission for Gender Equality. Not least we have managed a smooth transition from the Founding Father of our new nation to his young successor in a continent where this is rare.

We have scrapped all the old race laws, guaranteed freedom of speech and the press, abolished the death penalty, legalized abortion on demand, protected the rights of gay people, and advanced women in many spheres of life.

We have brought clean water to more than 9 million people who did not have it before, electricity to more than 2 million, and telephones - that vital connection to the new Information Age - to 1,5 million. We have integrated, at least nominally, more than 30 000 public schools that used to be racially segregated, as well as all the country's universities and other institutions of higher learning, raised the literacy rate of 15-to-24-year-olds to 95%, and brought free health care to millions of children. We have ended diplomatic isolation and rejoined the community of nations to play an influential role on the international stage.

We have resuscitated an economy that was on its deathbed, restoring fiscal discipline, cutting the budget deficit, reducing the national debt, bringing inflation down from double figures to within a target range of 3% to 6%, slashing interest rates from a high of 24% under apartheid to 14% prime; lifting trade barriers, removing a maze of tariffs and import duties, and generally winning universal praise for establishing a sound macroeconomic base from which hopefully to build future prosperity.

It is indeed another country.

But the greatest achievement by far has been to avoid the bloodbath that was so widely predicted for so long by so many as the inevitable destiny of apartheid South Africa. Within the first two years of his presidency, Nelson Mandela had defused the threat of a counter-revolution by the white right and put an end to the internecine violence between his ANC and Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) which claimed some 25 000 lives between 1983 and 1996 - the so-called "black-on-black" violence that much of the media portrayed as a grim indicator of what lay in store for the new South Africa. Mandela did so through a series of extraordinary gestures of reconciliation, which included drawing the IFP into his government and Buthelezi into a senior Cabinet post, having tea with Betsie Verwoerd, widow of the chief architect of apartheid, Hendrik Verwoerd, and even visiting Percy Yutar, the Uriah Heep figure who was the prosecutor in the trial that sent Mandela and his colleagues narrowly past the gallows to their long, harsh incarceration.

The prospect of a counter-revolution was the most real, and feared, danger at the time of the 1994 election, when right-wing Afrikaner extremists formed themselves into militia movements that threatened to link up with the Defence and Police Forces and take over the government by force of arms. But the threat was defused when an attempted putsch in one of the tribal bantustans, or "homelands", Bophutha Tswana, collapsed ignominiously. Mandela then met with the putative leader of the putsch, former Chief of the Defence Force General Constand Viljoen, and persuaded him to campaign for his separatist cause by constitutional means instead. Viljoen did so, forming the far-rightists into an Afrikaner separatist party called the Freedom Front and winning seven seats in the new Parliament.

Today the separatist movement is dead. The Freedom Front won less than 1% of the vote in the 1999 election, and Viljoen retired - while Eugene Terre'Blanche, the bearded demagogue who thundered his threats of a Third Boer War and led the charge into Bophutha Tswana, has served a prison sentence, faces another, and says he has given up the gun for God.

More than that, Afrikaner nationalism, that powerful force spawned by the twin agonies of the Boer War and the Great Depression and which shaped and drove South African politics as a malign force for nearly the whole of the twentieth century, is itself dead, its rump subsumed first into the old party of white liberals led by an English-speaking Jew, and then later into an alliance with the ANC where it will surely shed the last vestiges of its traditional support.

All this the world has hailed as a miracle and venerated its prophet.

Yet you will not travel far into this society without encountering many, on both left and right, who are writing the old President's covenant off as a failure. With unemployment rising and the wealth gap between whites and the vast majority of blacks still painfully wide, it is easy to find disenchanted blacks who will tell you that the new regime has done too much to appease the whites and that for them "nothing has changed". They see whites still dominating the economy and still living in big houses in salubrious suburbs while the black ghettos and pullulating squatter camps on the fringes of every town and city remain. Many are irked, too, by what they see as an unrepentant attitude among whites and a resentful reluctance to have any of the social and economic privileges they acquired under apartheid diminished. As returned author and playwright Mandla Langa puts it, the new South Africa is a country "immured in amnesia, where the past never happened".

For their part many whites, especially the Afrikaner majority among them who ruled the country for nigh on half a century and came to regard it as their God-given right to do so, feel disempowered and confused about whether they have a role and even about their own identity. "Many of us feel alienated because so little thought was given to our place and our role once the war against racism was won," writes Chris Louw, an Afrikaans broadcaster whose first ancestor arrived in South Africa three-and-a-half centuries ago and who has written with angry confusion about his sense of cultural and national alienation. "We still do not know where we fit in if we are unfortunate enough to have been born African, but not black."

Afrikaner nationalism is dead, so what does it mean now to be an Afrikaner? Some even worry about the survival of their language. Five of South Africa's 21 universities were established specifically to nurture the Afrikaans language and the "Christian National" culture that were considered the quintessential elements of national existence. Today those five universities have had to integrate and adapt to the needs of a large number of students who do not speak the language or identify with the culture. That has meant dual-medium instruction, with lectures in English as well as Afrikaans. The Rand Afrikaans University, established in 1967 as the newest and most triumphalist assertion of this volkskultuur with the architectural profile of a protective laager in the heart of metropolitan Johannesburg, now has an enrolment of 13 000 students only 5 000 of whom are Afrikaans-speaking. Many feel it is no longer an Afrikaans university and that without such conservatories the language itself will die. The questions abound. Can a volk, a nation, exist, can a volksgeist, Herder's national spirit, be sustained without a nation-state to call its own? What, ultimately, is to be the identifying culture of the new rainbow nation which faces the paradoxical challenge of trying to build national unity while preserving cultural differences and 11 official languages?

There are practical concerns, too, within the white community and it is not only the Afrikaners who are affected. The English-speaking South Africans, who number 40% of the white population and have remained politically powerless for more than a century in the country they dominate economically, don't suffer from the same sense of disempowerment and don't feel the same threat to their cultural identity, but they too are profoundly conservative, they are less deeply rooted in South Africa, they don't have the same sense of blud en boden, they feel themselves to be members of a global community of English-speakers, and they are more mobile than the Afrikaners.

Two things in particular trouble these English-speakers: the country's high crime rate and the new government's policy of affirmative action which places blacks first and women next in the job queue. Young white men, "pale males" as they call themselves in tones tinged with bitterness, feel themselves disadvantaged. They fear their career prospects and those of their children will be stunted, that they will lose out in the competition for advancement and success in life because of their skin colour rather than their ability. It's a reversal of roles which some may see as poetic justice, but the result is a brain drain which is damaging the economy and restricting the growth needed to provide jobs for the swelling ranks of unemployed young black people.

But deeper down beneath these real concerns about role and identity and fears lies a subliminal unease among many whites, rooted in generations of assumed cultural superiority, that black people can't really run things efficiently, that over time the new South Africa for all its promise is bound to go "the way of the rest of Africa", of The Economist's "hopeless continent". So they sit on the sidelines watching for every sign of mismanagement or corruption that will reinforce these dark forebodings. And expecting the worst, they see it. The result is a persistent negativism that rankles with the new government and raises its hackles, which in turn prompts accusations of hyper-sensitivity, so setting up a polarizing vicious cycle.


Excerpted from BEYOND THE MIRACLE by Allister Sparks Copyright © 2003 by Allister Sparks . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Allister Sparks has been the editor of the Sunday Express and the Rand Daily Mail, as well as South Africa correspondent for the Washington Post, Observer, Economist, and Holland’s NRC Handelsblad. He is the author of The Mind of South Africa and Tomorrow Is Another Country: The Inside Story of South Africa’s Road to Change, the latter published by the University of Chicago Press.

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