Derek Catsam: The New South Africa , Ten Years On

Roundup: Historians' Take

Derek Catsam, Fellow, Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, in Safundi:

In April ten years ago a remarkable thing happened. Many have called it a “miracle,” but that seems rather to ignore the human agency of more than four decades of struggle against an apartheid system that had made South Africa a skunk among nations. South Africa may have become a “Rainbow Nation of God,” in Bishop Tutu's apt phrase, but it was largely because of years of fighting, resistance, sacrifice, and loss.

Who can forget the image of some of Afrikanerdom's most staunch defenders, the men of the military, saluting Nelson Mandela as their planes flew overhead in honor of the relatively peaceful transition from National Party rule to African National Congress ascendancy? In the darkest years of apartheid in the mid-80s, when P.W. Botha, Die Groot Krokodile, imposed onerous states of emergency and stood steadfast in the face of the world with his much anticipated and highly disappointing “Rubicon” speech while allowing his security forces to run roughshod over the Southern tip of Africa, who ever would have dreamed that Africa's most affluent and powerful country would be led by a Xhosa from the erstwhile Transkei?

Yet it happened. And in 1999, when Mandela pointedly chose not to run for a second term, unlike his lessers who took presidencies for life across the continent, Thabo Mbeki took office bloodlessly, almost seamlessly. Soon Mbeki will begin a second term that will hopefully be his last. There is no telling, of course, whether Mbeki will prove to be a vital transitional figure in South African history, or if his occasional megalomania will manifest in an attempt to change the Constitution and serve a third term. One hopes that Mbeki's discretion, or, barring that, the civil infrastructure of this new South Africa will be firmly entrenched enough to prevent Mbeki from doing what so many African leaders before him have done, namely made their countries' coffers their own, taken power through force, and abandoned all of the hope and promise that came with the fall of the colonial control that held the continent for much of the twentieth century.

One of the most contentious and yet important undertakings of the past ten years was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Headed by Desmond Tutu and operating with a mandate from both the provisional Government of National Unity and the permanent constitutional structure that took its place, the TRC forged through South Africa 's grimmest past in hopes of revealing long-obfuscated truths and thus bringing about reconciliation. This effort was imperfect at best, but one must assume that South Africa today would have been worse without it. It was only through the work of the Commission that individual victims' voices could rise and merge with those of others in a chorus of cleansing and tears and anger and frustration and loss and longing and love that, while painful for many was absolutely necessary. Further, amnesty hearings allowed the perpetrators of apartheid's bureaucratic and martial mechanism to come forth and seek a form of absolution after testimony. This effort was at times problematic, as murderers and rapists and thugs and thieves and criminals and bigots and racists often times told half truths, continuing to keep their secrets and thus to torture their victims evermore. But even amidst this rogues' gallery many facts came to light, truths to bear. Many of us have mixed feelings about Dirk Coetzee and Eugene “Prime Evil” de Kock, but their revelations did more good than harm to a country struggling to reconcile a painful past with a hopeful present.

What the future holds is impossible to glean. Poverty and AIDS and the lingering manifestation of decades of racism have fueled a level of mistrust that may be a long time in dissipating. Thabo Mbeki has many issues to confront, including his own proclivities towards power mongering, his sometimes mystifying seeming obeisance to Robert Mugabe, or at least to what he believes Mugabe once was, and his truly vexing positions on AIDS. But these are many of the questions of a civil society in flux, of a liberal democracy dealing with mixed constituencies. If in 1984 someone had painted a picture of this South Africa to those who today read Safundi that person would have been seen as blithely whistling through the graveyard, ignorant of South African society and history. Now, twenty years after South Africa entered its grimmest years, ten years after Mandela took the oath of office, the New South Africa, that Rainbow Nation of God, forges ahead. It is not a miracle. Perfections notwithstanding, it is something far better, far more beautiful and inspiring.

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