South Africa continues down the road to equality | World| Breakings news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 17.06.2010
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South Africa continues down the road to equality

In the past few days the vuvuzela has come to represent South Africa. But for all its noise, it is a quiet synonym compared to the man who helped get the country to the point it is at today.

Nelson Mandela waves

June 18 is the United Nations Nelson Mandela International Day

When Nelson Mandela walked free in 1990 after more than a quarter of a century behind bars, it was into a fractured and segregated society based on white minority rule. Blacks were disenfranchized and myriad discriminatory laws were in place to prohibit them from using the same buses, elevators, beaches, cinemas, restaurants and so forth as their fellow, white, citizens.

Mixed race marriage was outlawed, the education of a black child cost but a fraction of that of a white one, 87 percent of the nation's sprawling landmass was owned by 13 percent of the population and the allocation of resources was done on a racial basis. The only fair thing about South Africa of the apartheid era was the skin of those calling the shots.

A beach sign reading white area

No mixed race bathing was allowed under apartheid

So when Nelson Mandela took his place in front of the thousands who had assembled in Cape Town to hear him speak on the day of his release, he really was the great black hope for critical and long overdue change.

"Friends, comrades and fellow South Africans," he shouted into the crowd. "I greet you all in the name of peace, democracy and freedom for all."

He thanked his followers for their role in his liberation and made clear the way he wanted to see his country go. He told them that the majority of South Africans, both black and white, had come to recognize that apartheid had no future and that it was up to them, the people, to move to establish democracy. And in conclusion he repeated the words he had used during his trial in 1964, words, he said, that remained true all those years later.

Nelson Mandel and then wife Winnie hold their hands in the air

Nelson Mandela with then wife Winnie on the day of his release from prison

"I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die," Mandela said.

A long walk continued

Rather than die he became president, ringing the final death knell for apartheid. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize along with the man responsible for his release, then president of South Africa, F.W. de Klerk, and last year the United Nations declared his birthday, June 18, the Nelson Mandela International Day.

And over and above that, he has lived to see South Africa follow his lead toward change.

In the years after his release, a progressive new constitution and sound bill of human rights came into effect and the country rejoined the community of nations. It has become an attractive destination for foreign investment, it boasts a strong currency, has a successful, well-regulated banking system, and is looking at healthy growth projections.

Johannesburg skyline

Johannesburg skyline - how one half live

But that is not the whole picture. And while European media reports of a society so bent on crime that the only safe place to be is a guarded compound, is not a true reflection of the state of the nation, there is no doubt that South Africa still has a lot of work to do to fulfill its vast potential.

Tom Wheeler, Research Associate with the South African Institute of International Affairs, says that to live in his country is to live in a duality, developed and developing at one and the same time.

"You drive through one part of Johannesburg and you could be in any western city, and you drive out to the fringes and you could be in any developing world," Wheeler told Deutsche Welle. "Many black people are still socially disadvantaged, they live in difficult conditions without good housing or quality schools."

Pulling together

Inequality remains a feature of South African society, with the inhabitants of the country's townships still at the bottom of the pile when it comes to health, education and housing. In protest they have launched a string of "service delivery" demonstrations, but their action has yet to bear fruit.

Wheeler says much of the problem lies with the African National Congress (ANC) and its practice of party deployment.

A protest with fire in the background

South Africans protest against their poor living conditions

"The governing party thinks it is more important to place party loyalists in government positions than capable managers," he said. "They will take on someone who is quite incompetent and make him city manager rather than appoint someone, black or white, who can really do the job."

Motlotleng Matlou, CEO of the African Institute of South Africa, goes one step further. Acknowledging that poverty and inequality are still the biggest challenges facing the country, he told Deutsche Welle that the best way to overcome them is not to leave them in the laps of the politicians, but to work together as a critical mass.

"We have got to create social cohesion within the nation in terms of seeing that we make better use of the knowledge we have, so everyone puts their shoulder to the wind irrespective of social class, color or gender," Matlou said.

Lessons learned

Very basic slum housing

Outside Johannesburg - how the other half live

He talks of the importance of creating bigger markets on the African continent, reducing trade barriers, looking beyond the West for new partners in trade and learning from the success stories of China, Brazil and India. And he stresses the need to generate jobs, introduce vocational education, encourage entrepreneurship, build houses and create communities. Together.

"The government has built houses but we could have tried to be more innovative because where people contribute, where there is sweat equity in terms of labor, they take bigger ownership of the investment."

The same applies to communities. He says it is essential that housing be more than just roofs over heads, that it become part of communities with social and service facilities, where people can work and go to school. And he has no doubt that the people of South Africa have what it takes to make it happen.

"One of the innovations in South Africa since 1994 is the philosophy of social partnership where government, business, civil society come together for open meetings where we discuss various issues."

Stadium construction in Cape Town

Stadium construction in Cape Town

And overcoming the challenges of staging the World Cup, getting everything ready on time despite outside cries of ineptitude has shown everyone, both outside and inside the rainbow nation, that there is much to be achieved in applying collective energy. That, says Matlou, will be the legacy of the 2010 soccer championships.

"If you are able to plan together, to focus, to have specific goals, deadlines, we can use this as a basis for developing this country, this continent and the world," he finished.

Author: Tamsin Walker
Editor: Rob Mudge

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