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Reporter’s Notebook: South African Society Shaped by Racial Identity, Apartheid

BY Admin  February 20, 2009 at 4:53 PM EDT

Children outside a traditional Zulu hut

I can’t get deeper into this trip without talking about race.

Fifteen years after South Africa became a democracy, and more than a century after various forms of legal and customary racial segregation began, the country’s life is still permeated by race consciousness.

It is a reminder of just how pervasive the system of racial separation called “apartheid” in Afrikaans — the settlers’ language that evolved from Dutch — distorted everything about this place: the economy, the education system, and the social patterns of everyday life. The ruling party, the African National Congress, has pledged its desire for a multi-racial democracy for a hundred years. Moving from its idealistic resistance to racism to a practical set of policies for repairing the wounds of apartheid is a little tougher.

Make that a lot tougher.

As the Afrikaans-speaking descendants of white settlers came to dominate politics here, they also used the tools of a modern state to brutally confine, throttle, limit, restrain, and defeat the “pursuit of happiness” of the country’s African majority.

So the new South Africa, born after the release of Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners, a negotiated political settlement and the first all-race elections, began life with a tough hand to play. By any measure of human development, the black people of South Africa, living cheek-by-jowl with their white neighbors, were so far behind them it would be hard to believe the two sets of statistics came from people living in the same country.

Fifteen years later, it is easy to see a new black middle and upper-middle class: waiting at red lights in posh cars, boarding in first class for internal flights, better dressed, better fed, attending private schools with whites. But the great mass of black South Africans, the millions who’ve flocked to the polls to vote for the ANC in successive elections, are still a people apart. For the visitor, it’s still a little uncomfortable.

If something has to be carried, pushed, lifted, watched, wiped, washed or dug … if a job is boring, repetitive, badly paid, futureless, dangerous, and requires living a long way from work, it’s done by a black person. Even though the job reservation laws that guaranteed the best-paid jobs in any line of work to whites collapsed with apartheid, much of the same has been achieved without the force of law. Affirmative action has gone a long way toward creating that new black class, but bringing black citizens to anything like equal opportunity is a very heavy lift.

A little background on what apartheid meant would probably help. All the institutions of South African life were racially coded. Along with whites and blacks, the racial identity laws defined other citizens as “coloreds,” a mixed-race group with its origins in the earliest days of European settlement around Cape Town, and Asians, descendants of late 19th and early 20th century immigrants from India, who, you may remember launched a young lawyer named Mohandas Gandhi’s civil rights struggle.

The definitions were a mix of racial fantasy and social pseudo-science. If you want to get strictly racial about it, the “Asians,” though they certainly came to South Africa from Asia, were not of a different “race” from the descendants of British and Dutch settlers. Yet the Japanese, during the years when the apartheid government coveted their investments, were treated as honorary whites, never exposed to the inferior treatment and separation meted out to the country’s own citizens of Asian stock.

Grand apartheid dictated where you could live, where you could go to school, what work you did, who you could marry and at what emergency room the ambulance would drop you off after a car accident. Petty apartheid dictated such important details as which benches you could park your behind upon and on which bathing beaches you can spread out your towel for a dip.

Successive governments courted Western support by assuring governments in Europe and North America that they were anti-communist, staunchly capitalist, and defending their interests on the African continent.

In reality, building three or four hospitals where you really needed one, and setting aside the best jobs not for the most talented but for the fairest-skinned wasn’t capitalism at all … it was just a rigged game where the players knew who was going to win in advance. I’ve been thinking about that a lot during these past two weeks because the refinements and tightening screws of the later apartheid era set the table in many ways for the country’s life and death struggle with AIDS and tuberculosis.

One of the most striking features of apartheid was its attempt to control the movement and residence of all the country’s black citizens. Not just by racial, but by tribal designation as tracts of the country’s least desirable land, with the poorest soils and the least reliable rainfall, were set aside as tribal homelands.

Successive apartheid governments heaped praise upon themselves for recognizing black history by creating these territories, with lines drawn as not to disturb the livelihoods of the country’s prosperous white commercial farmers.

Whites equated their arrival in the Western Cape in the 17th century, with the arrival over long centuries of African tribes from other parts of the continent. In white telling of history, all South Africans were immigrants, conveniently forgetting the vicious wars of extermination and displacement against the original African inhabitants of the land around Cape Town.

Over the years, a mass system of migratory labor evolved in South Africa. Black men came in large numbers from all parts of the subcontinent to work in the mines and factories, and were forced to leave their families behind. Companies built single-sex workers’ hostels around every big city and industry. The work was hard and low-paid, and allowed only brief home leave across the calendar year. The rigid controls on free movement were enforced through the use of a domestic passport system that set out a person’s race, their “permanent” home, and the places they were allowed to sojourn for work.

Through the Pass Laws, white South Africans could control the number of blacks in every part of the country, and the terms under which they could move from place to place.

A pale imitation of these laws were in place for whites, in order to demonstrate there was no “racial discrimination” in the country, but they were a joke. The law did not bind white aspirations and desires at all … if white people wanted something, the laws could be rewritten to accommodate them, and since they were the only voters, only their opinion tended to matter.

At the end of all this duplication of services, wasted capital, and racial oppression, a pattern of daily life was created for millions of blacks. Men lived far from their families for most of the year, sending wages home, and living with other men. The sex lives of black men and women involved seeking contact outside marriage, unless you had a reasonable expectation that both married men and women would be celibate 49 or 50 weeks a year.

So men would seek out prostitutes or even create relationships with “town wives,” women who had permits to work in and travel to the city, and lived in the sprawling blacks-only townships around the major urban areas.

It was inhumane. It was indecent. But those are squishy words … from an epidemiological view the black world created by apartheid almost seemed designed to spur the spread of the HIV virus. Once HIV really got its hooks into the majority population here, TB jumped on its back for a ride, and went zooming to new, uncharted, and horrifying territories.

The last few apartheid governments were passive in the face of the spreading crisis. The first all-race government had no shortage of daunting problems on its plate from Day One. Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first democratically elected president still calls HIV/AIDS the great missed opportunity of his time in office. Then came Thabo Mbeki, a president who questioned whether HIV causes AIDS, challenged the value of treatment, and appointed health ministers who did the same.

As the epidemic grew and took its terrible toll, South Africans were busy figuring out how to live with each other after years of a small population firmly controlling a large majority. The old ways still survive; in the restaurants with all black wait staffs and all white clientele, in the condescension and suspicion with which many whites still casually address the black people they come in contact with.

The “Swart Gevaar,” Afrikaans for “Black Danger,” of the Cold War years has given way to lurid reports of crime in the cities, gorgeous suburban homes surrounded by security cameras and razor wire, and whites still able to use superior wealth and mobility to mold a daily life, where the president might be black, but nothing much has changed on the ground.

Silent black men follow women from the front doors of supermarkets ready to load their food into the trunks of luxury cars, and those same women scan the block in fear and hesitation as they pull the car into their compound. For all the changes, many whites are comfortable with a world of two black identities, criminal and servant.

However, it would be flat-out incorrect to say the story stops there. It’s been delightful to see more cross-race workmates and friends than was common or even possible during reporting trips in the 80s and 90s. The coal mine we visited to report on employers coping with AIDS not only has a black CEO in a faraway executive suite in Johannesburg, but black engineers and shift supervisors.

Ghostly remnants of the “baaskap,” or rule by the bosses, still pop up in daily social exchanges, when blacks reflexively become obsequious to deal with difficult white customers, or when middle aged white adults talk to elderly black men and women in the same bemused tone they might also use with children. A hundred years of cruel and punitive social engineering is tough to roll back quickly.

A mine manager I spoke to said the policies of past decades, actively discouraging black men from bringing their families to live near work, are over and gone. The mine, he said, participates in housing construction projects, encourages marital fidelity and worker health, and is already reaping a benefit from lower rates of HIV infection, less worker absenteeism, and fewer new AIDS infections.

Much of what had gone on in this country since Jan van Riebeeck and his sailors set up a victualling station for ships headed to Asia’s spice islands was based on the notion that black life didn’t matter all that much except when it benefited whites. That idea, you might say, is in its death throes after almost 350 years. The country has a long way to go, but it’s come a distance that would astound people who knew this place in its earlier incarnations.

To be honest, for every scene of racial interaction that leaves you shaking your head over how much work still needs to be done, there’s another that reminds you how stunningly quickly change has rolled out. After all, there’s Jacob Zuma, in another of his ubiquitous, smiling billboards supporting him for president. With a shaved head and big smile, in Xhosa, Zulu, English and Afrikaans, he assures the passerby, “Together, We Can Do Even More.” Up in the right hand corner it says, “VOTE ANC.”

Just a blink of an eye ago, the ANC was a banned, hunted party, its leaders were in jail or murdered by the state security services. Now you can vote for them. Now black people can vote for a black president. It’s remarkable.

When you catch yourself thinking about a person here in racial terms you might make a mental note, mustn’t do that, but then you remember how many people you’ve met on a packed two weeks of reporting whose lives have been shaped, distorted, limited or freed by that very thing … racial identity.

Carlo our Cape coloured driver… Guiani our Zulu security man… Asian doctors and black community health care workers and Patrick, a man co-infected with TB and HIV who sometimes is made sick to his stomach by the medicines he takes because he so often doesn’t get enough to eat. You needn’t scold yourself for thinking about the people you meet in racial terms — they still do. Race still matters.

Running on a treadmill in a hotel gym, I watched a cricket match on TV. Two integrated teams in colorful uniforms battled it out on the pitch, while a multi-racial crowd danced, swayed, and cheered in the stands. Just the blink of an eye ago the action on the field and in the seats was unthinkable. Those old strains of racism may die out with the first-person memory of legal oppression. The real question is: Will the game be frozen in place in economic terms, with the winners still reaping the benefits and the losers wondering when their luck will change?

Editor’s note: Watch for Ray Suarez’s reports from South Africa on the NewsHour next month.