During South Africa’s odious apartheid era, Barbados and other Caribbean states were vociferously at the forefront of a determined and sustained global campaign to isolate the pariah country’s white racist regime and bring about justice, dignity and freedom for the oppressed black majority.
Apartheid finally came to an end in 1994 when the late Nelson Mandela led the African National Congress (ANC) to victory in South Africa’s first free and democratic elections. The revered freedom fighter then became the country’s first black president, five years after being released from prison where he had spent close to three decades for leading the anti-apartheid struggle.
With the generally peaceful transition to black majority rule, South Africa then gradually faded into the background of Barbadian and Caribbean consciousness.
As a result, most persons probably lost track of developments there, as South Africa no longer dominated international headlines as was the case during the apartheid era.
Unfortunately, South Africa today is again experiencing political convulsion.
“As South Africa enters its 22nd year since the end of apartheid, it seems another revolution is at hand. Or is it?” observed British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) correspondent Milton Nkosi a day ago.
He went on: “Judging by the tumultuous events of the last few weeks, it seems like Nelson Mandela’s peaceful revolution is about to give birth to its opposite number.”
As the New Year approaches, South Africa clearly is re-entering a period of instability and uncertainty.
During the long anti-apartheid struggle, it was the ANC which black South Africans rallied behind and saw as representing their interests. Today, the ANC, which has been in power for the last 21 years and currently under the leadership of the controversial President Jacob Zuma, is the main target of the growing mass protests.
This news, no doubt, will be disappointing to Barbadians and Caribbean people. At the root of the problem, however, is mounting frustration and disenchantment among a large segment of the black population which believed the end of apartheid and the rise to power of the ANC would have brought about a dramatic improvement in their quality of life.
There is no disputing that certain policies pursued by the ANC government did lift millions out of poverty and helped to create one of the largest black middle classes to be found in the world. However, the dream of a better life remains elusive for millions who continue to live in conditions of grinding poverty.
Another major factor fuelling the protests is a seemingly widespread perception that the current crop of ANC leaders have become corrupt in some instances, lack the deep conviction of past leaders like Mr Mandela, Walter Sisulu and
Joe Slovo, and are basically looking out for themselves. Therein lies a deep
sense of betrayal.
Spearheading the protest movement is a group called the Economic Freedom Fighters or EFF, led by Julius Malema, 35, a former rising star in the ANC as head of its youth wing until he was expelled two years ago for promoting division.
“We are not Mandela,” he has ominously warned. “We do not preach reconciliation. We want remorse.”
Students protesting hikes in university fees have also taken on a front-line role. They have been calling for President Zuma, who has been mired in controversy almost from day one, to step down. Interestingly, the students’ protest has been independent of the EFF or any other political group, though triggered by the same undercurrents.
As Mr Nkosi observed, what Mr Mandela negotiated two decades ago to end apartheid was a political settlement. However, the euphoric masses naturally expected to see sweeping economic change as well that would redound
to their benefit. These expectations remain largely unfulfilled. A recent study showed that black Africans controlled only three per cent of the economy.
Somewhat ironically, the current unrest, two decades after the end of apartheid, confirms the validity of the old saying that the more things change sometimes, the more they remain the same. The current divide between the ANC and the people also brings to mind the well-known “commandment” in George Orwell’s satirical political novel Animal Farm. It states that “all animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others”.
Whenever there is sweeping political change, new elites always have a way of emerging to replace the old ones who were displaced. Nature always abhors a vacuum. During the apartheid era, the country’s elites were exclusively white. Today, many B front-line lacks are included. However, for the majority
of the population, daily life pretty much remains the same.