Hopes for a united South Africa | Africa | DW | 13.12.2013
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Hopes for a united South Africa

Black and white South Africans are coming together in mourning the loss of Nelson Mandela. Many citizens hope that this will help unite the country. But there is still a deep economic and social divide to overcome.

Deon Vermaak is somewhat exhausted. The 34-year-old teacher from South Africa's capital Pretoria left early in the morning to pay his final respects to Nelson Mandela. After standing in line for hours, he now sits on the terrace of a restaurant in the Brooklyn shopping mall near the Union Buildings where Mandela's body is lying in state.

"If my father knew that I had been to see Mandela today, he would be anything but enthusiastic," Vermaak says. Mandela's party, the governing African National Congress (ANC), makes his father uneasy. "He belongs to a different generation. No matter where they went, they were brainwashed into believing that blacks were no good. Whether they went to church, to school or did their military service, it was the same story everywhere." Deon Vermaak sees himself as a representative of a new South Africa, in which all its citizens live together peacefully.

A long line of people are waiting to pay their last respects to Nelson Mandela. Photo: REUTERS/GCIS/Handout via Reuters

50,000 people stood in line to pay their respects to Nelson Mandela as he lay in state for the third and final day

Common ground

Standing in line for hours in the blazing sun was strenuous – but also a moving experience. "Seeing people united is something wonderful," Vermaak says. He also discovered that there was quite a bit of common ground: such as opinions about Julius Malema, possibly one of the most radical contemporary politicians in South Africa.

Malema had already been in the headlines regularly when he was the leader of the ANC Youth League. He favored the seizure of land belonging to white farmers, called Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe a visionary and publicly sang a song that contained the lyrics "shoot the Boer." The ANC expelled him from the party in 2012, whereupon Malema founded a party called the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF).

Coming together

For this reason, Malema is anathema to many white South Africans. While waiting in line, Deon Vermaak learned that black South Africans also have reservations about him. "Many people are concerned about Julius Malema; only few support him. The people know that you can't deal with the challenges facing South Africa by resorting to militant methods," Vermaak says, summarizing conversations he had while standing in line waiting.

Deon Vermaak sitting at a table with a friend in a cafe in Pretoria. Photo: Daniel Pelz, DW

Deon Vermaak (r) sees himself as a citizen of a new South Africa

In mourning the loss of Nelson Mandela, black and white South Africans have been coming together. That is also reflected in newspaper coverage. In its Thursday edition (12.12.2013), the daily "The Star" showed a photograph of a black soldier consoling a weeping white woman in his arms. She had just seen Nelson Mandela lying in state.

Black and white South Africans still worlds apart

Such scenes are not a matter of course as a look around the Brooklyn Mall confirms: around lunchtime most of the tables in the cafes and restaurants are taken. But there are very few white and black South Africans sitting together at the same table.

Still, Mandipha Gumani says she sees the divide between black and white South Africans gradually disappearing. "I am the only black employee in my shop," says the 25-year-old salesperson. "All the others are white, but we get along just fine."

She is sitting only a few tables away from Deon Vermaak, waiting for her lunch to arrive. That the grief over Mandela's death would bring people so much closer is something she had not expected. "I would have never thought that white and black South Africans alike would mourn Mandela's death like this," she says and takes a sip from the glass in front of her. "Now we see for how many people in our country he meant something."

Great economic and social divide

All the same, the young salesperson is concerned about South Africa's future. There is a deep economic and social divide in the country. According to the World Bank, almost a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line. Even 19 years after the end of apartheid, the income of a white household is on average six times higher than that of a black household. Half the children are living in poverty. Almost 50 percent of the country's resources belong to the wealthiest 10 percent of the population.

Mandipha Gumani sitting at a table with a friend in a cafe in Pretoria. Photo: Daniel Pelz, DW

Mandipha Gumani (l) thinks the divide between black and white South Africans is disappearing

The poverty in the country is a breeding ground for populists like Julius Malema, the EFF leader. He preaches a radical redistribution of wealth and hopes to garner votes this way in the 2014 parliamentary and presidential elections. Malema's politics worry Mandipha Gumani. "I am a bit scared that things might change. … This EFF and the ANC - we don't really trust them. I think they can start a fight again," she says.

Education and more jobs for black Africans needed

Tjatji Nkoane, who is sitting next to her, believes that because of the social divide, a lot needs to be done before South Africa can really become united as a country. "Nelson Mandela has done his part. Now it's up to us to advance our country," says the 21-year-old university employee.

Above all, it is the government of President Jacob Zuma that should be tackling the country's problems. But so far, the head of state seems to be catching people's attention with populist rhetoric, a scandal and the use of public funds for extensions made to his private home. Nkoane wants to see priorities set differently.

"The Black Economic Empowerment program has to be expanded," he says. The purpose of the program is to ensure that more black Africans get public administration jobs and positions on company boards. Nkoane's second big concern is: "It is urgent that they improve our educational system, so that more young people can find work, " says Nkoane, glancing at his little sister.

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