CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA — Nearly 23 years have passed since we first visited South Africa. On that trip, the days were filled with meetings with government officials, opposition politicians, racial group representatives and news people. One of the most impressive persons we met was an elderly Indian businessman in Durban, revered in his community. About South Africa’s future, he said, “After the Afrikaners won the government in the 1948 elections, they set out to undo the real and imaginary wrongs visited on them by the British. They now realize that with apartheid they went too far and they’ve begun the process of straightening things out. In the long run, they will get it right.” How long will that take? I asked. “About 20 years,” he replied. He was close. Fourteen years later the historic election took place that brought in Nelson Mandela’s black-led government and the end of apartheid.
There was evidence of the process even then. To facilitate meetings between races, the government declared certain hotels “international,” in which the rules that rigidly separated the races were set aside. Another example: We met the owner of a supermarket chain who treated his employees equally, regardless of race. Technically, this broke the law, but the government looked the other way.
Today, when U.S. newspapers mention South Africa at all, it is usually in short items about violent crime. That is part of the story, but only part of it. Wander about the Western Cape Province, as we have been doing lately, and you will find that the momentous change from the white to black government appears to have ushered in a new period of economic growth — as if a great cloud of uncertainty had been lifted.
Office buildings and houses are going up everywhere; there is a new convention center, the city’s waterfront has been redeveloped, cruise ships make regular stops. Ten years ago, when we were last in South Africa, it had a very good infrastructure. There were excellent roads, well signed. Everything worked as it should: electricity, telephones, plumbing, postal service. Today, the infrastructure is as good or better.
Blessed with a California-like climate and great natural beauty, the Western Cape is growing in population, drawing retirement-bound expatriates from Europe, as well as professionals from inland — especially Johannesburg — who like the business climate here.
Just as the apartheid government made what seemed to be anomalous concessions to the blacks in the Eighties, so the black government early on decided that future success depended upon reconciliation. The Voertrekker monument — to Afrikaner pioneers — still stands outside the capital, Pretoria. Cecil Rhodes, the would-be empire builder, still sits astride his bronze horse at his Greek temple-like memorial on the back side of Table Mountain. The national anthem, “God Bless Africa,” has four verses — one each in Xhosa, Afrikaans, English and Zulu.
While on many levels the New South Africa works very well, there are several major problems, some current, some future. The new government, like the old, has been unable to keep up with the need for low-cost housing for urban blacks who have moved to the cities from the countryside. Between this area’s neat suburbs lie several large shantytowns. Many residents of these have been on waiting lists for low-cost public housing for years. There is not enough money to keep up with demand throughout the country.
Land redistribution is a lurking problem. As the Zimbabwean despot Robert Mugabe continues to expropriate land from white farmers — with an accompanying plunge in agricultural production — there is pressure in the border areas of South Africa for redistribution. “It will grow,” says one retired South African diplomat who follows the issue closely. White farmers, especially in the north of the country, fear for the safety of their families in the wake of several recent rural murders.
Violent crime is not far from everyone’s mind. It has led to the perception that it is unsafe to visit the country’s biggest city, Johannesburg. Awhile back, an American expert was brought in to study the problem. He recommended a thorough housecleaning of corrupt law enforcement officials, along with much better pay, training and equipment for the police. Nothing happened and police resources continue to be stretched very thin.
By far the most daunting problem is AIDS. It is estimated that between 2010 and 2015 the nation’s population will decline from 40 million to 32 million persons. In addition to the cost in lives, the cost in money will be great. There will be huge shortages of medical facilities and personnel. The number of disabled people, dependent on welfare, will grow daily, just as the number of AIDS orphans does now. Most who are afflicted are black, but all South Africans will be touched by its effects. President Thabo Mbeki long denied that AIDS was a problem in South Africa. He has since reversed himself, but his government lacks the money to provide the life-sustaining medicines millions of sufferers will need.
As to making the transition from apartheid to majority rule, both the Afrikaners and the blacks got it right. As to other social problems, those who live in this beautiful corner of the world are no less immune than the rest of us.
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