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Sunday, June 02, 2024

Opinion | South Africa Is Not a Metaphor - The New York Times

South Africa Is Not a Metaphor

A photograph of a man surrounded by campaign flags and posters, looking toward a sunset.
Lindokuhle Sobekwa for The New York Times

By Lydia Polgreen

"Ms. Polgreen is an Opinion columnist. She reported across South Africa for 10 days for this column.

If you want to understand why the party that liberated South Africa from white rule lost its parliamentary majority in the election this week, you need to look no further than Beauty Mzingeli’s living room. The first time she cast a ballot, she could hardly sleep the night before.

“We were queuing by 4 in the morning,” she told me at her home in Khayelitsha, a township in the flatlands outside Cape Town. “We couldn’t believe that we were free, that finally our voices were going to be heard.”

That was 30 years ago, in the election in which she was one of millions of South Africans who voted the African National Congress and its leader, Nelson Mandela, into power, ushering in a new, multiracial democracy.

Nelson Mandela holding up his fist to a crowd of supporters in 1994.
Nelson Mandela on the campaign trail, 1994.David Turnley/Corbis, via Getty Images

But at noon on Wednesday, Election Day, as I settled onto a sofa in her tidy bungalow, she confessed that she had not yet made up her mind about voting — she might, for the first time, she told me, cast a ballot for another party. Or maybe she might do the unthinkable and not vote at all.

“Politicians promise us everything,” she sighed. “But they don’t deliver. Why should I give them my vote?”

That a mighty party like the A.N.C., which delivered one of the most inspiring triumphs of the 20th century, could a few decades later be dismissed by a loyal voter as mere “politicians,” hardly worth a trek to the polls, may seem like a dispiriting outcome. The A.N.C. could be forced for the first time into an unwieldy coalition government with smaller parties that might not make for ideal allies.

This change of fortune naturally sparks fear and speculation: Has South Africa’s transition failed, and is the country headed for the kind of strife that has bedeviled most countries in the aftermath of liberation from colonization?

South Africa has long loomed large in the global imagination. It is a country that was born at a particularly potent time in human history, at the end of the Cold War, built in the aftermath of grave injustice and constituted under a set of egalitarian ideas. It was, and is, a new democracy as a symbol of what a new future might look like.

It is natural that 30 years later, we might ask for a verdict on how it has all gone, especially living as we do now, with sprawling wars on at least four continents, democracy in retreat in many places across the globe and a new conflagration in Israel and Palestine, a place that resonates with South Africa’s story.

A color photograph of A.N.C. representatives at a voting station in a settlement.
The long-ruling A.N.C. party campaigning in Johannesburg.Lindokuhle Sobekwa for The New York Times

I returned to South Africa ahead of the election for my first reporting trip since I was a correspondent here for The Times more than a decade ago. It can be hard to separate the outsize expectations the rest of the world places on South Africa with the ordinary experiences of South Africans. Yet I could not help feeling a sense of relief and even optimism at the prospect of the A.N.C. being humbled at the polls and being forced to compete, openly and vigorously, for the votes of South Africans who have, for understandable reasons, given the party a very long rope.

In 2011, the year I moved to South Africa, people were evenly split on whether the country was going in the right direction, according to the Afrobarometer survey. Last month  in the Afrobarometer survey, 85 percent agreed the country is headed in the wrong direction.

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That’s for good reason. Economic growth has stalled, and a staggering 32.9 percent of the working population is jobless. The government can’t seem to keep the lights on. Political corruption is endemic and rapacious. Violent crime wracks many areas, especially in the townships and informal settlements where poor people live. The country’s roads, bridges and ports — once vaunted as the continent’s best — are crumbling. Inequality between Black and white people, an intentional feature of the apartheid state, has widened in recent decades, within the Black community itself as a new Black elite with close ties to the government and big business has mushroomed.

Mzingeli did not need this litany. She is living it. The first decade after the end of apartheid was a euphoric period: The global political and economic conditions favored the new South Africa, and her own prospects soared. After years of working as a housekeeper, she was able to go back to school 19 years ago to become a nurse, a lifelong dream.

But she has watched with dismay as her children’s prospects have crumbled. Two of her grown children have not been able to find jobs, and in a galling reversal of traditional norms in her Xhosa community, she was supporting them as she aged, not the other way around. The party that promised “a better life for all” was delivering even less to her children than she was able to build for herself.

Take housing. For decades she has lived in a small but tidy cement block bungalow in this sprawling township. Her daughter lives in a tin shack in an informal settlement nearby, one of the millions of people desperate for proper housing in this country. She worries constantly about crime, about the rising cost of living, about whether the electricity will be on.

“I just worry and worry, so many things are going wrong,” she said.

The question now is who will fix it. It might sound counterintuitive that the rejection of the party of Nelson Mandela is a good thing. There are times when the task at hand is so monumental that nothing but total unity will do the job, and a politics of ideological flexibility and ruthlessly enforced unity, the A.N.C.’s stock in trade, must prevail. Ending apartheid was one such moment.

A color photograph of voters lined up at the polls on Election Day.
A polling station at Soweto Emdeni Secondary School in Johannesburg. Lindokuhle Sobekwa for The New York Times

But there are other times when conflict is a profoundly productive force. Competition and contention over ideas is absolutely critical now in South Africa. The country has long labored under the burden of this story, the tale of its exceptional birth. On this trip I wondered what sort of unexpected liberation giving up that story might offer, even at the risk of unleashing unpredictable and sometimes frightening forces like ethnic nationalism and deeply patriarchal traditionalism.

When I moved to South Africa, the shimmering afterglow of hosting the 2010 World Cup, a triumphant moment for a soccer-mad nation, had already begun to fade. Jacob Zuma, a divisive and mercurial political figure, was president, and the early signs of the wholesale looting of the South African state that would happen under his watch were just beginning to reveal themselves.

A critical turning point came in August 2012, when the police opened fire on platinum miners engaged in a wildcat strike in a town called Marikana, killing 34. It was the first time since the end of apartheid that the state had meted out such violence on Black people, and it stunned everyone, including me. I had been in Marikana that day, reporting on the strike, and saw the aftermath firsthand.

The day after I arrived in the country this month, the A.N.C. had planned an election rally just a few miles from Marikana, to fight for votes in the platinum belt, a dusty landscape where low-slung mountains dotted with scrubby brush compete for altitude with giant piles of mine waste. It seemed like a good place to take the political temperature.

When the A.N.C.’s current leader and South Africa’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa, finally arrived, he bounded onstage, energetic in his yellow polo shirt.

“We’re going to win the election on the 29th of May,” he declared, with remarkable confidence for a man whose party has been steadily losing support in the polls. “We are not making a coalition with anybody!”

He ran through a litany of promises: to create millions of jobs, to set up a national health care system, to tackle crime. It was the kind of ambitious agenda that might sound impressive had his party not been in power the past three decades.

Less than a mile away, a party called the Economic Freedom Fighters was holding its own event. In some ways, the party was born out of the Marikana massacre. It has emphasized a populist left-wing program of wealth redistribution, adopting the red beret as a kind of sartorial signifier. But the party is also a vehicle for the political ambitions of Julius Malema, a former A.N.C. youth leader who was expelled from the party amid allegations of brazen corruption. The E.F.F. had a big moment in 2019 when it got over 10 percent of the vote, but its momentum appears to have slowed.

Meanwhile, Zuma has formed his own party, uMkhonto weSizwe, or MK, after the former armed wing of the A.N.C. It’s another breakaway shard, this time with a strong dose of social conservatism and a hint of tribalism. These hardly represent new ideas.

The main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, offers up a mix of laissez-faire capitalism and fealty to white wealth that limits its appeal in a deeply impoverished, mostly Black nation. Small parties have proliferated, some with bizarre or even frightening proposals, like mass deportation of undocumented immigrants and the reinstating of the death penalty to deal with crime.

As of Friday, with almost 90 percent of the results in, the A.N.C.’s share of the vote was at 41 percent, a shocking drop of more than 16 points since 2019. It will in all likelihood lead the next government, but will need the form a coalition with smaller parties. The Democratic Alliance was at almost 22 percent. Zuma’s MK showed surprising strength for a new party, at 13.6 percent, while the E.F.F.’s share dropped below 10 percent One especially worrying sign was the strong showing of the Patriotic Alliance, a small party with a virulently xenophobic platform. In 2019 it failed to qualify for a single seat in the Parliament, but in the early counting it has had a strong showing.

It is clear that South Africa is entering a new period of uncertainty and profound change. Voters will be choosing among many paths, some of which may lead them away from the ideals enshrined in the country’s deeply aspirational but still inspiring Constitution, with its stirring preamble:

“We, the people of South Africa, recognize the injustices of our past; honor those who suffered for justice and freedom in our land; respect those who have worked to build and develop our country; and believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity.”

There are movements that tap deeply into this spirit, building on it and trying to reinvent it for a new era. A small new party called Rise Mzansi, led by a former businessman and journalist named Songezo Zibi, proposes a European-style social democracy, delivered with care and competence, under the slogans “2024 is our 1994” and “We need new leaders.” It faced long odds in this election, so far winning less than half a percentage point of the vote, but building new movements takes time.

“South Africa is moving on, and moving on is tough,” Zibi told me. “One of the reasons we got into politics is to try and provide intellectual and moral clarity in a time of change. We understand that it’s not the sort of thing that you do in one election cycle. You look at 10 to 15 years.”

One of South Africa’s most indefatigable activists, Zackie Achmat, is running for Parliament as one of the country’s first independent candidates. Achmat helped start one of the most effective post-apartheid movements, which forced the government, then run by Thabo Mbeki, an AIDS denialist, to offer free AIDS drugs to millions of South Africans struggling with the disease.

I caught up with him on Election Day in the township of Gugulethu, in the vast flatlands outside Cape Town, where he visited polling stations to thank volunteers for his long-shot campaign. His supporters sang freedom songs, ululating as they performed the toyi-toyi, the high-stepping, foot-stomping dance of the fight against apartheid.

“Parliament is a sewer,” he told me after he walked an older voter, unsteady on her feet, to a voting booth. “I’m going in as an independent who is part of a movement that organizes people living with disability, people who are poor, queer people, people who are hungry, people who are living in informal settlements.”

He told me that if he wins, he hopes to get a seat on the parliamentary committee that oversees the public accounts, and would be a clearinghouse for transparency and accountability. Achmat’s energy has always been infectious, but seeing him roam the townships with his band of volunteers, a mix of South Africans of every race, hinted at new possibilities and energies.

But the most powerful South African energy shows up these days not in the election, but on the global stage, where the country has used its history and moral authority to stand for justice beyond its borders. A group of formidable jurists representing South Africa appeared before the International Court of Justice in December to argue that Israel’s actions in Gaza amount to genocide. The court agreed in a decision in January that South Africa’s case was at least plausible and demanded that Israel take greater care to protect civilians and provide aid. This month the court went further, ordering Israel to stop its incursion into Rafah.

There is a special and complicated relationship between South Africa, Israel and Palestine. The apartheid government had longstanding ties to Israel, and the A.N.C. to the Palestine Liberation Organization, which was for much of the struggle against apartheid an important left-wing ally. Israeli partition and occupation of lands long inhabited by Palestinians have imposed a system of separation and oppression that to many South Africans exceeds the darkest days of their experience with apartheid, in which the races mixed to some degree, by necessity, as Black and brown labor was necessary to the white regime.

Palestinian activists, for their part, have taken inspiration from the South African divestment movement, and some dare to hope that someday, a peaceful one-state solution like the one that ended apartheid here could be possible, creating a truly democratic shared nation under a Constitution that enshrines equality between Palestinians and Israelis under the law.

There are, of course, real limits to comparing South Africa’s transition with the possibilities for transformation in Israel and Palestine. They are different places with different histories, and these are different times. Still, the echoes are useful and are a source of inspiration to activists who have found themselves dispirited by what has become of the A.N.C.

Last week I met with Merle Favis, a Jewish South African activist who had been deeply involved in the struggle against apartheid. The movement for Palestine, she told me over tea in a Johannesburg cafe, harks back to the fights she was involved in back in the 1980s that led to the fall of apartheid. “What was really important was mass struggle, grass roots struggle,” she said. That spirit lives on in campus protests, and in Muslim and Jewish solidarity groups.

In his 2020 book “Neither Settler Nor Native,” the political theorist Mahmood Mamdani offered the idea that South Africa’s transition was possible because of an extraordinary act of creativity and imagination in which the holders of what were once seen as fixed, eternal and opposed identities — settler and native — mutually surrendered those identities and took on new ones, as fellow survivors of a brutal colonial project who would try to build something new from its ruins. It is hard to imagine such a project in Israel and Palestine in these dark days. But what was possible once can be possible again.

What does South Africa offer us today? I had been thinking of its history as a burden, but there is a different metaphor that might emerge from the story of this very special particular nation: It is a map. It’s not the kind of map that tells you the most efficient way to get from here to there, but one that identifies the mountain ranges to be climbed and the rivers to be crossed that you’ll face along the way. It sketches the terrain on which the battle for liberation must be waged, offering clues and inspiration, if not answers.

But it also reminds us that the ecstatic moment of freedom’s birth in South Africa 30 years ago was a beginning, not an end. We call birth a miracle not because we know how it’s going to turn out, but because of the limitless possibility that it contains. The birth of a nation is no different. The new South Africa is still at the beginning of its story. No country, no person, is only a symbol or a metaphor.

Indeed, there are no miracles here, and that is a good thing. Because miracles cannot be repeated. But what can be repeated is the hard, sometimes ugly, always unglamorous work of compromise and negotiation, and the working through of the inevitable consequences of those compromises. It is only through this process of improvisation and invention that true self-determination comes.

The business of ending apartheid as a form of government in South Africa is over. It is never coming back. But if this election tells us anything, it is that the work of building a true multiracial democracy has really just begun.

Mandela once said, “I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.”

He was speaking of himself, but he just as easily could have been speaking of the whole nation. South Africa could be born only at the end of history. But history had other ideas, raging forward as ever, surprising and disappointing us by turns, same as it ever was.

Lydia Polgreen is an Opinion columnist and a co-host of the “Matter of Opinion” podcast for The Times. 

Lydia Polgreen's latest:  The U.S. isn’t the center of the world. Lydia Polgreen thinks beyond borders. Get her column as soon as it publishes."

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  • Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. and his wife, Martha-Ann Alito, in 2018. “The most amazing part is, why do people care about our life,” she said in a 2006 interview, looking back on Justice Alito’s confirmation hearing.

    Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press

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Opinion | South Africa Is Not a Metaphor - The New York Times

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