ESRA Magazine
ESRAmagazine categories

Sign of the times - Freedom and Corruption in the new South Africa

Soweto . . . it was a ‘stunning surprise’ for Cynthia (left). Photos and text by Cynthia Barmor

Contemporary South Africa, to borrow the term from Theodor Herzl, is the "Altneuland" - the old new land - for those of us who were born and bred during the Apartheid era. A recent visit back to the old country, ostensibly to attend the jubilee reunion of our 1964 matriculation class at Good Hope Seminary High in Cape Town, underscored the dichotomy of just how much has changed over the past two decades since the fall of apartheid, while simultaneously, so much has remained the same, or worse. 

Driver Victor in his So-We-Too combi

On the plus side, immense progress is tangible and evident wherever I went: no signs of separate communities, neighborhoods, transport, schools or buildings previously designated only for whites or blacks. There is a complete intermingling of the population resulting in a real sense of freedom, which was quite a revelation. Public and commercial areas are filled with South Africans of all denominations, colors and backgrounds, making up a seemingly calmer, happier and more dignified populace – one nation, a rainbow of peoples and cultures.

Yet, corruption is rife and blatant. Nowhere was this more apparent than the comparison between Cape Town and Johannesburg. Cape Town is spotless, organized, efficient and considered relatively "safe" with security guards noticeable in public areas, even at public toilets (where women have been raped). Johannesburg, on the other hand, is filthy and crime-ridden, with unkempt sidewalks and potholes even in the most upscale neighborhoods. The city center is a dark and dusty dump, with vendor stands covering every sidewalk. Overall, I had an impression of grime and indeed theft of what was once a glorious city with grandeur. 

Table Mountain in all its glory with the city of Cape Town rising up to its slopes

The Western Cape Province, in which Cape Town is located, is ruled by the Democratic Alliance headed by Helen Zille, the (white) popular former mayor of Cape Town who has an impressive track record. The Gauteng Province, in which Johannesburg is located, is ruled by the ANC, the ruling black party in South Africa. The ANC (African National Congress) is headed by the President of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, a profoundly unpopular leader due to his wanton spending of public money for his own personal use. The public discourse about the R250 million (($83.5 million) cost of his family mansion that includes a heliport and sports center is headline news. Yet even this travesty will sadly not stop his inevitable reelection, due to open and overt intimidation by the ANC of its membership ("vote for us, or…."). 

At the Safari Ostrich Farm at Oudtshoorn

Whites (Caucasians) constitute about 10% of today's population of almost 53 million. After the eradication of apartheid in 1995, the ruling ANC instituted a quota system in various sectors - universities, the job market and so on – to ensure the rapid absorption of blacks into the economy and to enhance the redistribution of wealth. While many blacks have risen to middle and upper classes, the overall unemployment rate has worsened. Poverty among whites, previously rare, has increased. On the ladder of job candidacy, white males are on the bottom rung, with preference invariably given to black males.

This situation, together with the escalation of crime (daily: 500 robberies, 50 murders, 178) has caused a vast exodus of many white South Africans. Even the Jewish population, 125,000 at its peak in the 60's, has diminished to some 70,000, a number I assume includes Israelis whom we met everywhere. For those who stayed, South Africa is a contradiction in terms. While democracy and liberty have been attained, the political landscape is bleak and inequality reigns.

Our school reunion in Cape Town and a visit to Soweto in Johannesburg highlighted this inconsistency. Our school, because of its location at the heart of several Jewish neighborhoods, had a predominance of Jewish students, and educated generations of young white women, as well as my mother some 35 years before me. Today, the school is comprised entirely of black and colored (mulatto) students, and although the buildings are the same with some additions, the school struggles to meet its budget to the point that each pupil must bring her own toilet paper. 

South Africa Knysa Heads, a world-famous site along the Garden Route

Three former students were asked to speak at the reunion. The first had left South Africa shortly after graduation and spoke about why she had left for good (for Israel); the second had also emigrated, yet returned each year to Cape Town; and the third had never left. Common to all three were their roots, yet it was the third who spoke about both her love and despair for the future of South Africa.

When I grew up in South Africa, Soweto - a syllabic abbreviation for South West Townships (in Johannesburg) - was a black-designated township and as such, represented an area of abject poverty, shanties, crime and the underworld, with people living under the most shameful conditions. Definitely not a place to be or to visit.

Imagine therefore my astonishment at seeing a modern township, with paved roads and sidewalks, malls and supermarkets, and large homes and gardens that could rival any in upscale Johannesburg. Soweto today boasts a population of almost 1.3 million people and the largest hospital on the African continent with over 6000 beds. Nelson Mandela's house is an ongoing attraction, and quotes from his writings are plastered all over township walls alongside his image. No longer the township of shanties, Soweto is a bustling community, proud of its place in South Africa, as evidenced by the punny "So-We-Too" on tourist buses, t-shirts and hats. 

Souvenirs can be bought For sale . . . colorful for a song
Nelson Mandela’s home in Soweto
Beautiful frescos adorn Soweto’s cooling towers

For all its contradictions, South Africa is a thriving multi-ethnic society with stunning and spectacular scenery. From the mountains, valleys and gorgeous beaches - so arrestingly beautiful that they literally take your breath away - to the rugged, untouched coastline of the Cape Peninsula or the world-famous Garden Route, a visit is an indescribable and unforgettable experience, with scenic magnificence unrivalled by any other sights I have been privileged to see whether in Hawaii, Ireland, the United States or Australia, to name a few. I am clearly biased yet I believe there are many who would agree that in terms of natural beauty, flora and fauna, South Africa, and Cape Town in particular, is in a class of its own.

With regards to the political scene, only time and the dogged pursuit of happiness will tell. 



No comments made yet. Be the first to submit a comment
Tuesday, 16 April 2024

Captcha Image


MagazineIsrael- 2019-homepage
There are pockets of coexistence
which kindle hope.
Old cities and very new cities with amazing stories
Find out about the Israeli art scene
The best tours in Israel with ESRA members