Saturday, January 21, 2012

Cry, the Beloved Country

Lovely mountains around Cape Town

It had been more than 50 years since I was last in South Africa, and--to tell the truth--I had very little memory of the country.  But, having grown up in what was then Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, I always maintained a keen interest in southern African developments.  I read much about Zimbabwe and South Africa.  Among these books, I recall reading Nadine Gordimer's novel July's People, written before the change of government from minority apartheid rule to majority rule.  In that work, she postulates the end of apartheid, in a civil war which turns the power structure upside down.  

That vision was entirely credible, and what I anticipated would be the most likely ending of apartheid. 

But, then, the world witnessed the miracle of Nelson Mandela.  Imprisoned for 27 years for his anti-apartheid activities, upon his release he continued working for majority government.  Seemingly, miraculously, he succeeded.  In 1994, he was elected President of South Africa.  A civil war was averted--South Africa managed to make the transition from a minority government to a majority government, escaping the fate of its neighbor to the north, Zimbabwe.

True, many people died on the struggle to reach majority government.  There were multiple massacres of citizens on both sides of the color bar.  Leaders of the African National Congress (ANC) spent years in prison, along side Mandela.  Many of those years of imprisonment were on Robben Island, within easy view of Cape Town's harbor--it must have been maddeningly tantalizing for both sides being so close.   But Mandela seemed to accomplish the impossible--he not only survived; he thrived and honed his deeply moral presence.

Cape Town Harbor with Robben Island in the distance
Under the surface, simmering problems linger that threaten to undo all the creative work to bring the new South Africa into existence.  While the power structure has been realigned, the economics of the country have been largely unchanged.  Unemployment hovers around 25%, with the rate of unemployed youth at 50%.  However, the unemployment rate for whites is around 4%.  Average annual income for blacks in South Africa are around $1,800; for whites around $8,200.

Nowhere is the disparity more evident than in housing.  The three main racial divides in South Africa are white, colored, and black.  Whites are those who descended from the original Dutch and British settlers.  Coloreds (a term I had difficulty with given my U.S. thinking) are those who descend from Khoisan (the original inhabitants of southern Africa), mixed race and immigrants from various Asian countries such as Malaysia.  Blacks are those descended from earlier migration of Bantu peoples from further north on the African continent.  With a population of about 60 million, 80% of South Africans are black, whites around 9%, and colored including Asians around 11%.

A township
Housing is like a pyramid--at the top the lovely houses in urban areas, many in gated communities, are largely owned by whites; in the middle, cinder-block houses in organized communities are owned by coloreds; at the bottom, in a huge swath of housing, are the townships.  The houses in these areas are quickly constructed lean-tos, pieces of corrugated iron thrown up with a roof across.  Township housing lacks internal plumbing; instead townships have communal bath houses where families have to do all their toileting and washing.  Electricity is provided by central poles with wiring from which people string up electrical wires to connect.  Frequently people get electrocuted trying to tap into the power supply.  And these townships just keep growing--one of the largest in Cape Town, Khayelitsha, has over one and a half MILLION people living in it.

80% of farm land continues to be held by whites.  The ANC had promised land reform which intended to restore land ownership to blacks, but over time progress toward that goal has stalled.  Now, newer leaders in the ANC--those who have moved away from the harmonious legacy of Nelson Mandela--promise, or threaten, massive redistribution of land and wealth.  One particular leader--Julius Malema--threatens nationalizing South African gold and diamond mines.

Upon our return from South Africa, my daughter and I set about reading (actually re-reading) Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country.  While many aspects of the novel seem very dated, and also quite simplistic, there is a prophetic sense about the work.  Paton writes:

Have no doubt it is fear in the land.  For what can men do when so many have grown lawless?  ... There are voices crying what must be done, a hundred, a thousand cries this, and one cries that, and another cries something that is neither this nor that.

Paton envisioned a time when the social fabric, which was already tearing in the reality of which he wrote, would dissolve completely.  

As we waited in the Cape Town airport to board our flight back to the U.S., I perused books in the bookstore.  One was titled After Mandela: The Battle for the Soul of South Africa.  Out of curiosity, I thumbed through the book, and read the chapter titles.  The last chapter title brought me up short:  "The Shadow of Zimbabwe."

I can think of no greater tragedy for Mandela's legacy than to see South Africa go the way of Zimbabwe.  So, indeed--cry, the beloved country.

Photo taken by Kristen, my daughter, of Franschhoek, S.A.

Photo taken by my husband, of Klein Karoo

Sunset over Camps Bay Beach


Peruby said...

Absolutely love the photos. So much beauty. Social unrest. Feels like a revolution always on the horizon.

Anvilcloud said...

Cry was part of our grade 12 English course back around 1964. I re-read it sometime in my early adult life. At some point I also read another Patton book, I believe it was called Too Late the Phalarope. Anyway, I hear that it's a beautiful country, and your photos seem to prove that it is so.

Mauigirl said...

We also read Paton's book in high school, late 60s or maybe 1970. I have to confess I don't remember it well - I should reread it now that I'm a lot older and understand the situation he was writing about a lot more! I can't get over how breathtakingly beautiful the country is - great pictures.

Peruby said...

Have you seen the movie "In My Country" also known as "Country of My Skull" with Samuel Jackson?

NCmountainwoman said...

Count me among those who read "Cry the Beloved Country" at far too innocent an age. I read it again many years later.

When I think of South Africa, I always think of Mandela and Steven Biko. I must admit I never think in terms of the beautiful photographs you have in this post. I will think differently now.

Ginnie said...

You have jogged my memory and I will re-read "Cry the Beloved Country". I remember being greatly moved by it years ago.
Your pictures are lovely.

Ruth said...

Beautiful pictures of a beautiful country and an interesting post. I will have to check the books you mention at the library.

KGMom said...

To all--encouraging you to read or re-read Cry, the Beloved Country.
I was struck by how much this simple narrative still resonates. Of course, many things have changed in South Africa, but it still evokes the themes of the old ways passing on, and the new ways not always holding the center together.
And over all is the lyrical expression of love for this beautiful country, still evolving and changing, and on the brink of whatever is to come.

JeanMac said...

A very touching post, Donna.