The Reality of the Rainbow Nation: 16 Years after Apartheid, South Africa Fights for Its Future

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Sixteen years after the end of the apartheid regime, South Africa is celebrating its return to the global stage as it hosts the football World Cup. Although the country is still a deeply divided and violent place, the rise of the black middle class provides hope for the future.

It is Sunday, May 2, 40 days before the kickoff of the football World Cup, and a warm fall day in South Africa. Police reporter Mzi Gumede, who worked as a waiter until recently, and Sipho Mchunu, who wears a parka even on hot days, are on the hunt for murderers for the Daily Sun in Johannesburg.

Two days earlier, criminals broke into the house of a bookkeeper in Soweto, beat him to death with a wrench and then left, taking a television set, a bowl of potato salad and a few bottles of beer with them. Pickup trucks maneuver around the courtyard of the police station at the Orlando Pirates' stadium. The police detectives say they're going to hunt down "those bastards" today. And they're going to get them.

They drive up and down Soweto's bumpy streets in old Toyotas and Fords, their arms out of the open car windows. They feel good, carrying their 45-caliber pistols in their belts and wearing little checkered hats. Once they've reached the tops of the hills, they'll have a breathtaking, panoramic view of Soweto in the clear light.

Soweto, the most legendary of South Africa's former townships, is not a slum, but a major city in itself. A city with no downtown and with brand-new shopping malls and outdoor cafés, it resembles a smaller version of Los Angeles. A carpet of densely packed houses and huts stretches to the horizon. On the northeastern edge of Soweto lies the massive structure of the Baragwanath Hospital, where, on bad days, more people with gunshot wounds are admitted than in Kabul or Baghdad in a week.

Fifty Murders a Day

These are the facts, which anyone who hopes to do South Africa justice should know and should just as quickly forget: More than 50 murders a day are committed throughout the country, which comes to more than 18,000 a year, a woman is raped every few minutes, and someone is robbed every few seconds. In Germany, which sees 2,000 murders a year, such numbers are inconceivable. But South Africa doesn't need to compare itself to Germany or Europe. After all, the country has enough to worry about on its own.

It has been fighting hard for a future ever since 1994, when apartheid ended. In historical terms, 16 years is a mere blink of an eye. But when the football World Cup begins on the Cape on June 11, a dream will come true for the country and for sub-Saharan Africa that is not unlike the dream China had in the run-up to its Olympic Games. For South Africa, it's a question of proving itself, both to itself and the world, and demonstrating what it can do and what it is. In the case of South Africa, that isn't easy to say.

Sixteen years after the election of Nelson Mandela as the country's first black president, the country remains a large-scale social experiment, the outcome of which remains uncertain. Old differences live on between whites, blacks and the mixed-race population known as "coloureds," and wealth remains unevenly distributed. There are not enough schools and not enough judges, jobs are in short supply and, in many places, there is not even enough water or electricity.

But South Africa and the overwhelming majority of its citizens have just begun a new life, many starting with nothing after decades of a slave-like existence that effectively cut them off from education, trade, culture, the rest of the world and its ideas. Many skeptics outside Africa, who have spent weeks worrying about whether the sale of World Cup tickets is sufficiently well-organized, whether flowerpots are properly set up around the stadiums or whether the locker rooms live up to the standards of the international footballers arriving for the event, should take a serious look at their criteria.

A Land in Turmoil

South Africa is a country in which almost 6 million of its 49 million inhabitants are infected with the AIDS virus. It is a nation that, even 16 years after the end of its regime of terror, still sometimes wakes up from wild nightmares, a country that will soon lose its legendary founding father, Nelson Mandela, and whose society must soon ask itself whether its illustrious liberation movement, the ANC, is truly the best party to lead the country. South Africa is still a land in turmoil. The lists of criteria of the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) are the least of its problems.

At the same time, it is important to point out, now that the attention of the entire world is focused on South Africa, that millions of people there are better off than ever before, that many blacks have become affluent, and that many others have at least escaped bitter poverty and are on the road to achieving halfway decent living conditions. It is also important to realize that violence is no longer enshrined in the law, and to recognize the miraculous fact that the long-oppressed majority did not savagely attack its former oppressors, but instead followed its leaders on the road to a painful and bitter reconciliation. Finally, despite all the setbacks that South Africa experiences from one day to the next, it is important to point out the many minor and major victories that are achieved on a daily basis.

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