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Letter From Johannesburg: Bafana Bafana

December 7, 2009, 3:45 pm

We arrived in Johannesburg yesterday and, although we did not visit the City Bowl on our first trip to Cape Town three weeks ago, for the first time since we came to South Africa it feels like we are in the Big City with Big City People. We are staying until tomorrow at the Crown Plaza Rosebank, which is in a suburb (think Westwood in LA or Park Slope in Brooklyn, rather than an American-style suburb) developed in the 1950s, as the apartheid regime was in the swing of creating separate living zones for “Europeans” and “non-Europeans.”

On the way into town from the airport I asked the driver why the South African football team is called Bafana Bafana. He replied, “`Bafana’ means a little guy who fights and win against the big guys. People started calling them that because in apartheid we could not compete with other teams around the world so we fell behind. So now we are ‘bafana’”

That perfectly describes my sense of this place three weeks in: this is a young nation that is eager for the world to know it better, and know it for the beautiful and friendly place it is. Part of why it is interesting to follow the preparations for the FIFA World Cup, for example, is that South Africa is painfully aware that people may still not want to come here, that most of the world does not know the new South Africa well, and that what they do know is crime, crime, crime. If fans are afraid to come to South Africa, the World Cup will not be the opportunity everyone here wants to show their best face, no matter how well they prepare. So the stakes are very high for this event next June: a lot of money has gone into capital improvements, which will be a worthwhile investment regardless, but the new stadiums and sports complexes will be a painful rebuke to a government that has a lot of claims on its money

It is simply true that crime is an obsession in South Africa: people tell you this, you don’t believe it, and then you come here and the warnings are endless. When and where to go to ATMs, don’t walk on the beach alone, never be alone anywhere, unless there is an electric fence, bars on the window and Chubb armed response on the way. While there are crimes that are shocking to US eyes (last year it appeared that “necklacing” might be back in the townships – putting a tire doused in gasoline around someone’s neck and lighting it, a technique invented for police informers in the 1980s) much of the crime is gang-related, poor people are the victims of the worst violence, and it is not dissimilar to crime we read about every day in American papers. Home invasions of affluent whites also receive a lot of attention, mostly because they can be terrifyingly brutal, but also I think because a lot of white people are obsessed with whether they, or their children, should remain in South Africa, and home invasions speak to a more generalized sense of apprehension even liberal whites feel when they are out of power in an African democracy that has not yet decided what it will be.

And yet, speaking as someone who was once attacked by a knife-wielding ten year-old on the Lower East Side when I stopped him from stealing my bike, has had one friend murdered and seen a total stranger murdered with a baseball bat, been sexually assaulted (the majority of women have been), has suffered two burglaries in two different cities, has been pick-pocketed, had cars broken into more times than I can count, it just isn’t clear to me that I am in more danger in South Africa than I am at home. Some of these crimes happened in dicey neighborhoods and some didn’t, but my feeling is that there is something very different in why people talk about crime in South Africa.

I do think that part of it is a kind of generalized anxiety disorder on the part of whites. Until 1994, whether they believed in apartheid or not, there was a big, bad state, a lot of acreage and a huge police force separating the black majority and the white minority. And while all the whites we have conversed with are attuned to the new South Africa, few are happy. Many speak about their anxieties by admitting that they have urged their children to go to university in Australia, Canada or England, and imagine making a life elsewhere. Some will say, only slightly belligerently, “Apartheid was a terrible thing. But it’s our country too, you know.” Part of me wants to say, Is it? Then I think that I made my home in a place where the main difference in the colonizing project was the ruthless decimation of the indigenous population, and I think it’s much better to listen and learn.

But another aspect of this that is clearly cross-racial. Crime is one of five serious and widespread grievances against the ANC, the party that has a virtual monopoly on political power right now: the other four are education, housing, AIDs and corruption. Jacob Zuma, the recently elected president, is facing great expectations in all five departments, expectations that are tempered somewhat by the fact that he was recently brought up on sexual assault charges and escaped a conviction for corruption on a technicality. I’m not sure what that technicality was: one of my informants said dismissively that it was because the documentary evidence presented had been Xeroxed (which seems like a pretty good grounds not to convict if you ask me, but what do I know?) But as our elderly Afrikaans cabdriver (who worked in the finance ministry prior to his retirement shortly after Mandela was elected) said, “If Zuma does half of what he says he will do it will be alright.”

Of course education, housing, AIDs and crime are all connected to each other, and the country’s deficiencies are all a legacy of the apartheid regime. There was a great deal of violence, by the state and against the state, prior to 1994; AIDS had a special opportunity in South Africa because of apartheid labor systems that took husbands away from their wives for all but three weeks of the year; and the education provided to the majority of South Africans was deplorable prior to 1994, even more so because students organized against the state by boycotting school. While nation-building is a difficult and imperfect process that surely takes more than 15 years, it is also the case that the ANC party leadership appears to live very, very well; their connections are in a position to become very wealthy; Thabo Mbeki, the previous president made headlines by announcing, among other things, that AIDs could be cured by beetroot and other traditional remedies; and the vast number of Africans live in 12 x 12 dirt-floor shacks, many of which have been built out of prefabricated tin by the government in places like Khayelitsha on the Western Cape so that voters can be moved to dilute the colored and white vote there, and then more or less abandoned, the permanent houses that were promised left unbuilt. This strategy of moving voters around like chess pieces is failing: the ANC just lost its first election since 1994 in the Western Cape to a new multi-racial party, and organized protests in the townships are increasing pressure on the Zuma government to deliver on its promises.

But I would like to say one thing, having given you, dear reader, the short version of everything I have learned so far: this is one of the most interesting and exciting places I have ever been. The African people, and many of the whites, I have spoken to, are very hopeful about the future despite the daunting nature of these political and social problems. Ordinary people are also incredibly, exuberantly from my point of view, politicized. An unexpected outcome of the struggle against apartheid and its afterm
ath may have been that casual acquaintances in taxis, shops and restaurants talk to you about things like democracy. Our Afrikaans electrician back in Cape Town said at one point, for example, that he wasn’t sure democracy could work in South Africa. “What would work better?” I asked.

He thought for a minute. “Socialism,” he said finally. “Or perhaps communism. What we need to do is equalize the wealth in this country, not create a larger class of wealthy people who are also black.” And then he explained why.

You see what I mean? When was the last time you had such a conversation with someone you didn’t even know, much less in the United States. And when was the last time you had a chance to live in a country that was still bafana?

Posts may be suspended for the next two weeks: the Radical is traveling into the countryside of Natal where an internet connection may or may not be available.

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