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Columns Tom Baxter

South Africa: the roller coaster, the casino and sacred memory

By Tom Baxter

(Second of two columns on 21st Century South Africa.)

Progress is sometimes best measured by its most objectionable effects.

If their grandparents knew about it, they’d have sharp words for the school boys who giggle and laugh when they see old footage at the Apartheid Museum of police brutally manhandling protesters. But the children’s irreverence is a clear sign of how much things have changed in South Africa since their grandparents’ day. The oppression the older generation suffered seems a distant memory now.

Similarly, the KFCs, the Steers and the many other fast-food restaurants you see in older townships like Soweto and fast-growing suburban towns like Cosmo City have caused an alarming rise in obesity and diabetes, much like what the New York Times recently documented in Brazil. But to any South African who ever went to bed on an empty stomach, those drumsticks and burgers signify something very different. The nation’s demographics also bear witness to the striking improvement im basic nutrition which has changed many lives since the 1994 election.

The immigration of blacks from other African countries and the emigration of white South Africans are also factors, but we shouldn’t forget the impact of changes in diet. In 1994 there were 29.5 million black South Africans, 5.5 million whites, 3.5 million coloreds (a designation which can be both simple and very complicated) and 1 million South Africans of Indian descent. Today there are 46 million blacks, 5 million whites, 5 million coloreds and 1.5 million Indians.

The bus loads of students who visit the Apartheid Museum every day ride past the big Gold Reef City amusement park and casino, which paid for the construction of the museum as part of a deal the owners worked out with the city of Johannesburg. It’s hard to imagine a lot of schools don’t include a visit to the amusement park as an incentive to go to the museum.

This juxtaposition of roller coasters, enshrined memories and games of chance seems an appropriate metaphor for South Africa today. It’s a deeply uneasy country, yet deeply appreciative of how far it has come.

At O.R. Tambo (formerly Jan Smuts) International Airport, one of the first things a passenger on the daily Delta flight from Atlanta will see is a big Bank of China sign lining the moving sidewalk.

In 1994, there were fewer than 10,000 Chinese in South Africa, so sparsely spread out that the apartheid government struggled to find a practical was to segregate them. I interviewed a Chinese South African as he waited in line for what was, like millions of black South Africans, his first chance to vote.

In the past couple of decades the number of Chinese South Africans has swelled to around 300,000, and China’s footprint can be seen everywhere.

Chinese business people huddle in hotel cafes and restaurants, while Chinese tour groups linger in African souvenir shops. China’s rise isn’t a new story, but Africa is where China has placed its deepest stake, and South Africa offers a striking example of how this has affected China’s influence relative to the United States. They are the imperialists now.

The driver in Johannesburg or the waitress in Cape Town will still tell you they’d move to the U.S. in a flash, and in the modest but ambitious new neighborhoods of Cosmo City, streets have names like Texas and Georgia. It’s another of those objectionable indicators, but the biggest street gang in Cape Town call themselves the Americans, although none of them really are.

As a political and economic power, however, the United States now shares the stage with China, India and other rivals. U.S. influence, and indeed the two countries mutual interests, seem diminished since the days when this country played a considerably role in the transition from apartheid.The South Africans an American is likely to run into are uniformly puzzled that someone like Donald Trump could have been elected president of the United States, but their judgment is tempered by the fact that they hold their president, Jacob Zuma, in even greater disdain.

One of the most impressive new structures in Johannesburg is the Nizamiye Masjid, or mosque, the centerpiece of a complex, built with Turkish money, which includes schools, shops, clinics and a cemetery. It’s another example of the crowded stage the U.S. now shares in asserting its influence.

Islam’s roots in South Africa run much deeper than this. Some of the first prisoners held on Robben Island, were Muslim religious and political leaders from the Dutch East Indies, held there by the Dutch in the 17th Century. In the modern era, South Africa’s Muslim community has been notably successful in resisting Islamic radicalism. Ebrahim Rasool, the former ambassador to the U.S. who spoke with the World Pilgrims on our recent visit to his country, has been a leading voice in opposing violence and terrorism in the Muslim world.

A U.S. foreign policy focused on long term solutions to its problems with the Muslim world might look to South Africa as a valuable resource, particularly in combating radicalism elsewhere in Africa. It’s far from clear, however, that we have a focused foreign policy. And Rasool lost his job as ambassador reportedly because others in the African National Congress had grown wary of growing Muslim influence in the Western Cape, which the ANC doesn’t control. There’s an opportunity here, but its promise is flickering.

One of the criticisms of the Apartheid Museum has been that it presents a relatively narrow account of South Africa’s liberation struggle, focused on the ANC. One result of this is that while many consider him second only to Nelson Mandela in his importance to the freedom struggle, Steve Biko, who died under torture in a South African police station 40 years ago this month, gets relatively little mention. Although its aims were similar to the ANC, Biko was the head of the Black Consciousness movement, viewed as generally more radical in its day.

Nevertheless, Biko’s name retains a striking potency in a country where other liberation leaders have lost some of their reputation as they have aged. Perhaps because of his distance from the ANC, now viewed by many as increasingly corrupt and out of energy, the Sunday Times of South Africa recently devoted several pages to the anniversary, under the headline, “What would Biko say?”

If he could speak from the grave, many South Africans, grown prosperous since the end of apartheid and still betting on their nation’s future, might not like what Steve Biko would say. But the fact that one of the nation’s major newspapers would pose the question speaks to how far South Africa has come.


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Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.


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