source: Weekly Guardian and Mail (on-line edition)(Aus.), April 17 1998
by John Pilger
On April 21, John Pilger's documentary, Apartheid Did Not Die, will be shown simultaneously on British and South African television. In this exclusive report for the Mail & Guardian, Pilger describes his first trip back to South Africa after his banning 30 years ago
In the early morning sunlight a watchtower stands silhouetted against Table Mountain; two ostriches stroll by the gently rolling surf. Robben Island is a wildlife sanctuary now, its bleak beauty and silence part of the veneer of the new South Africa.
"Apparently that's the quarry where they worked," said the Afrikaner helicopter pilot as he banked to land, unaware that one of them was sitting next to him. Kathy looked down and nodded, his dark glasses covering eyes permanently damaged by the glare of the limestone where he and Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu and other dangerous men wielded a pick year upon year, decade upon decade.
"It was a bitterly cold winter's day in 1964 when the seven of us were flown here," said Kathy, whose name is Ahmed Kathrada. "We'd all been sentenced to life in the Rivonia treason trial. I was 34 years old and the youngest and the only non-African. I stood here and was issued with the regulation shirt, jersey, canvas jacket, trousers, socks, shoes. Mandela and the others were given short trousers, no socks and as a special favour shoes instead of the rubber type sandals normally given out to Africans.
"Even in winter; the rationale of apartheid was quite simple: in South Africa, Africans were regarded as children. That's still true. You'll find in whites' homes, they talk of their garden boy and their kitchen girl."
A handsome, youthful man in his 60s, Kathy led me to his cell, past the sign "We Serve With Pride", down the battleship-grey corridors silent except for the sound of the wind and the ocean. "This is it," he said, turning the key in the door of what looked like a stone closet, 1,5m by 1,5m. "I slept on that floor for the first 14 years. I had a raffia mat and eventually a bookcase. When we were caught smuggling Mandela's notes, our books were taken away and our studies suspended."
"For how long?"
"What did you miss most of all?" I asked.
"The presence and sound of children. When the warders brought their families, we were made to turn our backs. That was hard."
"How long were you in this cell?"
"Almost 18 years. And you know, they never switched off the light."
The struggle of people against power, wrote Milan Kundera, "is the struggle of memory against forgetting". With the release of Mandela in 1990, the spectacle of people queuing to vote four years later and the triumph of the African National Congress, the popular memory now struggles to recall the years that those like Kathy and Mandela endured and lost.
"South Africa had its own Final Solution," said Father Michael Lapsley, an Anglican priest whose hands and one eye were blown off by a security police letter bomb. "Under apartheid, [the scale of the crime] was of genocidal dimensions."
Like Josef Stalin, the Verwoerds and the Vorsters and the Bothas "removed" up to a million people to a Gulag. They wrenched families apart and denied life to the most vulnerable. In his seminal book, The Discarded People, published in 1970, Cosmas Desmond disclosed that more than 100 000 "removed" children starved to death in 1967 alone.
In that year I was banned from South Africa for "embarrassing the state". I had been smuggled into one of the secret hearings of the Race Classification Board where, in Room 33 every Thursday morning, apartheid's horrific quackery was on display, its moral and intellectual mutation made to appear normal, with forms and regulations and decision-making based on "criteria".
Here, suited officials, men of dour, fraudulent respectability, took evidence: scribbling, whispering and now and then leaning down from their magistrate's bench in order to study the texture of a human head of hair and peer at the whites of human eyes.
After due consideration, "racially borderline" people were classified or reclassified "according to appearance and acceptance", which meant a ticket to a lifetime of privilege or humiliation. Black-skinned people needed not apply.
Stepping off the plane 30 years later, I read about the white expatriate businessman who had sent an anonymous fax to a black trade union leader, calling him a "kaffir, arsehole and trash". For this, he was fined and publicly shamed: a normal act of justice in a civilised country, yet inconceivable until recently in South Africa.
There was the sight of black and white children together in a nursery; and the bold, fluent black voices on SABC radio and television; and the brilliant and brave Afrikaner and journalist Max du Preez explaining to his white compatriots that the Nazi genocidist Adolf Eichmann was also "just ordinary" like them.
Among the black majority there is a new sense of pride that gives meaning to ubuntu, the traditional spirit of humanism expressed in a distinctly African notion that people are people through other people. This is not without the usual frailties, but the evidence of its resilience is everywhere in South Africa; and those seeking optimism about the human spirit need look no further.
I have never conducted interviews that began and ended with a heart-swelling song by an impromptu choir: people who simply came and stood and listened. "How beautifully they have emerged from their nightmare," the great reporter Martha Gellhorn told me on her return from her first visit, which she spent in the townships.
Few whites go into the townships. For them, beyond the multiracial images of the "rainbow nation" - now celebrated, sadly, not by the power of the people's epic story but by consumerist propaganda - is another country. Here live those whose blood, sweat and tears forced the pace of change and who, wrote Allister Sparks, South Africa's great chronicler, "could feel they were proclaiming their equality and that their strength of spirit could overwhelm the guns and armoured vehicles waiting outside". These are the people to whom Mandela said their "hopes and dreams are about to be realised". It follows that they ought not to have merely an expectation of a better life, but a right to one.
The truth is that this right is still denied and South Africa is still not theirs. What is clear is that "reconciliation", to which Mandela has devoted himself to the applause of most of the world, provides little more than a facade behind which apartheid continues by other means. For the question remains: reconciliation for whom?
In 1994, as election day approached, white South Africans hoarded food and fortified their houses against the feared "takeover" by domestic servants, the homeless, the unemployed and the black masses in general. Four years later, the servants are still serving, the squatters are still squatting (and still being evicted by white-led paramilitary police), and the majority are still waiting - while the "madams" and the "baases" experience no real change in their privileged way of life. For them, there is nothing new in the "new" South Africa, apart from the shared discomfort of paranoia and the acquisition of a new burglar alarm.
Fly into any South African city and the divisions are precise and entrenched. Johannesburg offers the most vivid example. On one side, there is Sandton municipality where, in fortified splendour, live some of the most pampered people on earth. They do not all live in "Italinate" palaces, with decorative fountains rising out of rolling lawns tended by garden "boys"; and many do not conform to the stereotypes lampooned, so often hypocritically, in Britain. (Those whites who actively opposed apartheid are among the most attractive people I have met.)
But enclaves like Sandton are apartheid's unchallenged bastions, from which the 5% of the population control 88% of the nation's wealth. This grotesque imbalance of power has not changed since democracy and is not likely to. They, not the majority, have been rewarded by democracy and "reconciliation".
No longer "the polecats of the world", they can now travel and play sport and do business wherever they like, protesting that they, like good Germans, were never part of the system and suffering, as David Beresford wrote, "a collective delusion that they have done enough by `allowing' majority rule".
"And what do you think of South Africa?" is a question I remember from 30 years ago. It is more guarded now, but just as loaded: an invitation to share a view from "the white man's windows", as Breyten Breytenbach wrote, "[which] are painted white to keep the night in".
In a Sandton restaurant, a woman said, "You must understand it's very difficult for young children here." She meant white children. The rest, the 87% of African children who are in poor health, the 38% who are stunted, the 23% who suffer chronic malnutrition, do not exist. When I suggested that the whites were fortunate, given their role in apartheid, to have experienced such a peaceful transformation to democracy, she said: "I don't know what you mean."
What they like to talk about is crime - not the great crime of apartheid's genocide, but that which is "threatening lifestyle", as one commentator wrote. Certainly, there is a lot of crime in South Africa, mostly against property. Eighty per cent of crime is confined to the black townships, where several families live under one roof, often in appalling conditions, and unemployment is as high as 70%.
The gangs in the Cape Flats are the sons and grandsons of whole communities dumped there, in the shifting sand and wind and heat, without hope. Moreover, there is now evidence that organised crime mushroomed in the 1980s as a direct result of state- sanctioned alliances with the security services.
To many white South Africans, "crime" is the euphemism for the migration of impoverished, workless blacks across the old racial dividing lines. In one sense, the issue is quite useful to the corporate elite that controlled the economy under apartheid and controls it now, for it reminds the African National Congress government that it must discipline those frustrated with the lack of change.
What is amazing to me is the degree of restraint exercised by the majority, given the flaunting of wealth by a minority. About 2,5km from Sandton, literally across a road, is Alexandra. Half-a-million people live here, squeezed into a square 2,5km. When it rains, the polluted river floods and houses collapse and the roads run like caramel.
When I was there it was stinking and dry, with a flock of aproned women frantically trying to pick up the stranded rubbish; the spick and span state of people's homes is a wonder. On the hill are two great "hostels", like prison blocks: one built for men, the other for women. Apartheid's planners designed them as a cheap labour pool; everybody else was to be "removed". But the people of Alexandra resisted, and stayed.
Mzwanele Mayekiso grew up in Alexandra and, until recently, was head of the local branch of the South African National Civics Organisation, whose boycotts and direct action during the 1980s helped to bring down the regime.
"Most people over there don't know we exist," he said. "I mean, literally. Our women go over as domestics, our men as labourers and gardeners. No one asks where they return home to. Nothing has changed.
"Long before Mandela was released, the old regime had already dismantled the trappings of segregation. They left intact the most important part, which was always economic apartheid; and this has been adapted and reinforced by the ANC government. I think we are being designed like the United States: divided by class, which generally means race. We are even learning to speak the new jargon of separation, with the majority of people referred to not as the heroes of our struggle, but as an `underclass'."
For most of his life, Cosmas Desmond has been an independent and eloquent voice of the homeless and landless, having suffered arrest and banning by the apartheid regime; and he continues to infuriate its successor by challenging the new received wisdom.
I asked him what had gone wrong. "The ANC was in exile for so long, it was willing to accept power at any price," he said. "It is considered blasphemous to say so, but Mandela seemed never to spell out a vision for South Africa, not like a Nehru or a Cabral. There is no political philosophy: it's like candyfloss, all sweet and fluffy and lovely with a spurious notion of `reconciliation' between those with nothing and those with everything. The people who were the power behind apartheid, the great corporations like Anglo American, are still here, undiminished."
Before FW de Klerk announced the unbanning of the ANC and Mandela's release on February 2 1990, he and the white establishment had reached a kind of gentlemen's agreement with the ANC, following secret meetings, that accommodated the fears of the old order and the demands of the "international community".
The Americans, the British and the World Bank made it clear, without spelling it out publically, that South Africa would be "welcomed into the global economy" on condition that its new government pursued orthodox, "neo-liberal" policies that favoured big business, foreign investors, deregulation, privatisation and, at best, a "trickle down" to the majority who effectively were to be shut out of the economy.
Deputy President Thabo Mkebi, Mandela's successor and one of the transition negotiators, told me that the ANC had "no choice at all" but to accept a series of "historic compromises". The surface could not be disturbed; otherwise there would have been a "bloodbath" and "great suffering across the land".
Certainly, at the time, the perceived threat was from a far-right third force. But if such a threat existed, it turned out to be far less important than the more subtle machinations of De Klerk and his colleagues combined with the ANC's willingness to make the "historic compromises".
As for the "great suffering", while it is true that there was no civil war, the political decisions made by the ANC, which relegated the needs of the majority, have ensured the continuation of great suffering by exclusion - in the disastrous housing and employment policies and the absence of a minimal strategy for redistribution. The reason for this is partly historical. The ANC was always a party of compromise, seeking in the beginning "a place at the table".
People were misled; in 1990, the ANC leadership made clear it would do its utmost to honour the spirit of the 1955 Freedom Charter, which declared that the people of South Africa "shall share in the country's wealth. The minerals beneath the soil and monopoly industry shall belong to the people. The land shall be shared among those who work it. There shall be houses, security and the right to work."
The ANC, said Mandela, would take over the great monopolies, including the mines, and the financial institutions.
"That is the fundamental policy of the ANC," he said. "It is inconceivable that we will ever change this policy." To his people, his words carried the moral weight of a leader who, as Anthony Sampson, Mandela's biographer, has written, has "a moral influence which no politician or newspaper dare challenge".
However, on his triumphant travels abroad Mandela spoke with a different emphasis. The ANC, he said in New York, "will reintroduce the market to South Africa". The "market" in South Africa has a long and bloody history. As Basil Davidson has written, "economic invention" lay at the root of the organised racism that distinguished the British Empire long before the Boers declared apartheid as official policy in 1948.
As prime minister of the Cape in the late 19th century, Cecil Rhodes, the great liberal benefactor, encouraged the dispossession of Africans and their "removal" to cheap labour reserves for the gold and diamond mines. The Oppenheimers, who ran the Anglo American company, also had beneficent pretensions. While declaring himself an opponent of certain aspects of apartheid, Harry Oppenheimer's tentacular empire grew rich on the brutal migrant labour system.
When it was clear, in the 1980s, that the regime of PW Botha was doomed, big business changed its allegiance to the ANC, confident that its multinational interests would not be obstructed as they "opened up" the South African economy and that foolish promises about equity and the natural resources "belonging to all the people" would be abandoned.
Since the ANC has settled into office, Margaret Thatcher's infamous Tina ("there is no alternative") has become the government's touchstone. The policy is known as Gear, for growth, employment and redistribution, but it has little connection with employment, as jobs are being "shed" by the tens of thousands, and even less with redistribution, which seems confined to changing seats on a gravy train. A government adviser told me: "We refer to cautious Thatcherism" - which sounded to me like cautious apartheid.
The Ministry of Finance remains in thrall to the orthodoxy of globalisation; the Minister of Finance, Trevor Manuel, has metamorphosed from long-haired biker and Cape Flats activist to the very model of a modern Blairite capitalist, boasting of his low deficit and devoted to the "economic growth", which Joseph Schumpeter, the doyen of Harvard economists once described as "creative destruction".
There is something surreal about all of this. Is this a country of corporate hustlers celebrating their arcane deals in the voluminous business pages? Or is it a country of deeply impoverished men, women and children whose great human resource is being repressed and wasted, yet again?
"I think the reason behind the ANC leadership going for the International Monetary Fund approach is because they are ashamed that most of the people live in the Third World," said the Africa analyst Peter Robbins. "They don't like to think of themselves as being mostly an African-type economy. So economic apartheid has replaced legal apartheid with exactly the same consequences for exactly the same people, yet it is greeted as one of the greatest achievements in world history."
The social cost was stated plainly by Mary Metcalf, education MEC in Gauteng. "The only benefit of the discredited system we inherited," she wrote, "is the opportunities it necessitates for radical change." She described schools "built deliberately without toilets" and "with no access to running water within walking distance".
For every four teachers, there is only one classroom, and no library, no laboratory, no staffroom, no desks. "What is difficult," she wrote, "is that these historic distortions are being addressed in impossible conditions of financial austerity." In other words, ANC policy has made "the provision of acceptable conditions for teaching and learning an absolute impossibility".
So dedicated are the born-again free marketeers that South Africa's deficit is almost as low as that of some developed countries. For this, the ANC has been honoured with a "Duff & Phelps credit rating for foreign currency debt". What has this to do with a country where most of the children are, as they say here, "nutritionally compromised" and live in desperate conditions?
What the ANC called its "unbreakable promise" was the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP). Two years after the election, the RDP office was closed down and its funds transferred to the Ministry of Finance. When he was minister for housing, Joe Slovo had estimated that half the black population lacked a secure roof over their heads and that a million-and-a-half houses would have to be built immediately.
Nothing like this has happened. The poorest get a R15 000 housing grant, which seldom pays for more than a jerry-built matchbox. In Ivory Park township near Johannesburg, "RDP houses" are known as "kennels".
The ANC's Freedom Charter says: "Reconstruction of land ownership on a racial basis should be ended and all the land divided among those who work it."
Since democracy, little has changed. Wealthy white farmers continue to control more than 80% of the land, and their existing property rights are guaranteed in the new Constitution. Out of 22 000 land restitution cases, only a handful have been settled.
In the Eastern Cape, where few tourists go, silhouettes of women file across the saddle of a hill to draw water from a well where cattle drink and defecate. Most rural people have no choice but to walk up to half-a-mile to get water. Most have no sanitation, no electricity and no telephone, and no work. The shadows you pass on the road are those of stunted children and their mothers, walking, carrying, enduring.
This is the successor generation of the "discarded people" Desmond wrote about 28 years ago. At Dimbaza, 70 families were dumped on a waterless, windswept hillside. Stanley Mbalala, one of the survivors, remembers a forest, which became firewood during the first winter. They lived in tents and wooden huts with zinc roofs and earthern floors. Later arrivals had boxes made from asbestos and cement; these, too, had neither floors nor ceilings and were so hot in summer and cold and damp in winter that the very young and old perished in them. A government official explained the policy: "We are housing redundant people [in Dimbaza]. These people could not render productive service in an urban area."
Physically, Dimbaza is extraordinary. In the centre is a children's cemetery. The graves are mostly of infants aged younger than two. There are no headstones. There are plastic toys among the weeds and the broken glass of shattered flower-holders; emaciated cattle graze.
You trip over aluminium pipes embedded in pieces of broken concrete. These were meant as headstones; on one is scratched: "Dear Jack, aged 6 months, missed so bad, died 12 August 1976".
At least 500 children are buried here, or were. Mbalala told me that in the 1970s heavy rains washed away many of them, and little skeletons appeared at the bottom of the hill. "There has never been the money to make something of this sacred ground," said Mbalala.
During the late 1970s, the rural concentration camp became a "showcase of investment opportunity". Cheap labour and factories were laid out like a vast grandstand overlooking the children's graveyard. Since then, most of them have closed down and unemployment is now at 70%. Mbalala, the survivor, lost his last job a year ago. One of the few working factories overlooks the children's cemetery where, in the brown grass between the graves, desperate men and women wait in the hope of a few hours' work.
By contrast, the grass at 50 St David's Road, Upper Houghton, is green and glistening from the spray of sprinklers. Houghton is the richest suburb of Johannesburg. Here, the walls are topped with razor wire and display signs: You have been warned; 24-hour Armed Response.
On the night I was there, chauffeur-driven Mercedes and BMWs converged on an important garden party at No 50. The guests were white and black, mostly men in business suits who knew each other and affected an uncertain bonhomie across the old racial divide. The party was hosted by an organisation called BusinessMap, which, according to its brochure, gives "guidance on ... black economic empowerment" and staged a "forum for the globalisation of South African business".
The guest of honour was Cyril Ramaphosa, former general secretary of the miners' union and the principal negotiator of the ANC's "historic compromises".
Ramaphosa and others have spoken a great deal about "black economic empowerment" as a "philosophy" for the new South Africa. What this really means is the inclusion of a small group of blacks in South Africa's white corporate masonry, which is overseen by the power of five companies dominating the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. This co-option allows foreign and South African companies to use black faces to gain access to the ANC establishment. "I am," as one new executive told me, "the black ham in the white sandwich".
Certainly, the income gap between whites and blacks has narrowed slightly. However, inequality among blacks has increased sharply as the new black elite gets richer and the majority gets poorer. The new apartheid is one of class, not race.
The tragedy is that there are immediate, practical alternatives. If the government had kept to the spirit of the Freedom Charter and invested directly in the majority of people and their "informal economy", it would transform the lives of millions. With government loans going directly to communities, run as co-operatives, millions of houses could be built, and better health care and education provided. A small-scale credit system would ensure cheap goods and services that cut out the middle men and the banks. None of this would require the import of equipment and raw materials, and it would provide millions of jobs.
Thabo Mbeki told me the problem of poverty was an "absolute priority", but as far as I could deduce, he offered no solution beyond dreams of a "trickle down" effect. He is said to be an enigma. I found him, on the contrary, a straightforward, charming and highly intelligent free market economist.
Nelson Mandela is very different, and perhaps he is the enigma. He repudiates his sainthood with characteristic style. In response to the ignorant, fatuous, snobbish attack on him by Brian Walden, he said: "When treated as an ordinary human being one was prone to do fairly well in one's work. If treated as a saint, one was likely to disappoint."
It seemed to me that his authority and reputation rested on what he represented, rather than his politics. He has served as a mighty symbol, calming and reassuring; this has been his remarkable power.
He also has the rare quality of grace; he makes people feel good. "You must understand," he said when we met, "that to have been banned from my country is a great honour." He listed for me the ANC's achievements: the supply of water to more than a million people, the building of clinics, the free health care to pregnant women and children under six. (To these, I would add the new abortion laws, which have saved the lives of tens of thousands of women, whose death at the hands of back-street abortionists was a feature of apartheid.)
Then he suddenly changed course and praised privatisation "as the fundamental policy of this government", which was the diametric opposite of what he promised in 1994. He quoted an array of statistics about inflation and the deficit, while omitting the terrible facts of unemployment. By the year 2000, it is estimated that half the population will be unemployed: a bomb ticking to its inevitable detonation.
He told me he had repeatedly warned people that substantial change "could not happen over night: that the process might take as long as five years". Five years are up next April. Moreover, it has to be said that the rise of the new elite has not been inhibited by such a time restriction, that their enrichment did, in many cases, happen "overnight".
I was surprised that the president failed to see the irony in his statement that an ANC government, brought to power partly as a result of boycotts and sanctions, was willing to "do business with any regime regardless of its internal policies". The West, he said, had no monopoly on human rights, which were also the rights to health care and education. Amazingly, he gave as a model Saudi Arabia "where students enjoy benefits I have not seen anywhere in the world".
Saudi Arabia and Algeria, both of them serious human rights violators, are current clients of the billion dollar white-run South African arms industry, the source of death and suffering in the region, and which has been reinvigorated under the ANC. On one of his visits to see the dictator of Indonesia, General Suharto, Mandela offered to sell him arms, too.
More than 150 years ago the Chartists, the investors of modern democracy, said that the vote had little meaning if people's lives did not improve. It is five years since a wise Nelson Mandela addressed this in a speech to South Africa's trade union movement, which was at the forefront of the struggle for freedom and continues to draw young, courageous and principled leaders, renaissance men and women from one of the most politicised constituencies in the world.
"How many times," he said, "has the liberation movement worked together with the people and then at the moment of victory betrayed them? There are many examples of that in the world. If people relax
their vigilance, they will find their sacrifices have been in vain. If the ANC does not deliver the goods,
the people must do to it what they have done to the apartheid regime ..."