FOR those of us who came of age during the last few decades of the last century and paid attention to world events, South Africa has always had a small but special place in one corner of our hearts. Many of us witnessed its democratic transition, albeit on television screens and newspaper headlines, and were rather overjoyed when it took place, but were equally appalled by the degradation that has taken place since.
The various pieces of mostly arid land that make up modern South Africa of course had their glorious history in the distant past, and were patched together by European colonizers into one or a few entities mostly for the sake of administrative convenience. The first substantive wave of European migration to and colonization of South Africa were not by the British but by the Dutch. They gradually settled down and formed their distinctive, rugged communities of what came to be knowns as the Boers. Competition over land, water and natural resources with the natives was of course fierce, often leading to armed conflicts.
And South Africa is indeed blessed with abundant primarily mineral resources, specifically in the form of gold and precious stones (with diamonds coming foremost tomind). Some of the most prestigious luxury jewelry stores in the world still bear Dutch names, and Amsterdam is still one of the world’s preeminent entrepot for gems.
And it was arguably these minerals which attracted the British to attempt to formally colonize South Africa. This ran of course straight into conflict with both the natives and the Boers. A few so-called Boer Wars were fought between the British and these originally Dutch settlers a century ago, with heavy casualties inflicted on both sides, but eventually ended in a British victory. A sort of semi-colonial, semi-autonomous but white supremacist regime was installed in South Africa and ruled for many decades. The British also brought in South Asians to work in South Africa. The father of Indian independence, Mahatma Gandhi, practiced law in South Africa, and cut his teeth in non-violent confrontation (which later became widespread during India’s independence struggle and famous worldwide) in protest against unfair treatment of non-whites in South Africa. And there is still at least one descendant of Gandhi who has been active in South African politics in recent years.
But what gave South Africa its worldwide notoriety during my time was of course its apartheid policy. A Boer-English term, it denotes the strictest form of officially instituted, not just social but often physical racial segregation, setting peoples of different skin colors “apart” from each other. It was bad enough that for over a century after the Civil War ended in the United States, many states in the American South still segregated their public facilities into “white” and “colored,” but in South Africa in those days it went way beyond that, with the black majority, for example, being consigned to various “homelands” where abject poverty and lack of socially mobile opportunities was the rule of the day.
The world reacted with indignation, with sanctions after sanctions being slapped on South Africa to prod it into abandoning such deplorable racially discriminatory practices. But the Pretoria (the administrative capital then) regime stood firm for many years, even developing its own nuclear arsenal, with the country’s abundance of uranium reserves. Anti-Apartheid activists were jailed and tortured. The most famous political prisoner then was of course Nelson Mandela, who spent 27 years behind bars. Some of these freedom-fighting movements became armed and violent, but that was only to be expected under such dire circumstances.
The situation changed dramatically after F. W. de Klerk became the South African white regime’s last president in the late 1980s. Perhaps he realized by then the almost untenable and grotesque state of the country, modern in economic and technological senses, but frowned upon and even boycotted by most countries in the world. Apartheid was eventually dismantled and Mandela freed, paving the way for South Africa’s first truly democratic election where the newly enfranchised blacks got to vote. Mandela was expectedly elected to be the first majority-ruled South Africa’s president. He and de Klerk shared the Nobel Peace Prize for their gargantuan efforts in ushering in a relatively peaceful democratic transition.
Mandela visited Malaysia shortly after his release from prison. Malaysia was then under the somewhat autocratic Mahathir administration. I still remember the banner that was strung across the stage where Mandela and Mahathir were supposed to stand together. It read: “Mandela and Mahathir: Champions of Racial Equality.” For some of us, it smacked of cheap political propaganda, an attempt by the Mahathir administration to rub off Mandela’s halo. For those of us who are members of the racial minorities in Malaysia knew only too well, then as now, that even a simple and just slogan such as “Malaysia for Malaysians” would be frowned upon by the powers-that-be as being suggestive of attempting to question the special rights and privileges of some. That was a significant part of my lessons in political cynicism, and it might well be, for as it turns out, the same Mahathir is now on the other end of the Malaysian political spectrum.
In any case, however revered the magnanimous character of Mandela may be, he was perhaps not so well versed in the management of a major economy like South Africa. Violence soon erupted even among the majority tribes, leading to many casualties and which subsided only in recent years. The country held together for a while after Mandela stepped down as president. But corruption and all sorts of improprieties haunted the presidency of the just resigned Jacob Zuma. South Africa has to work doubly hard to keep its place as one of the major emerging economies, especially after the last decade of what can only be described as sleazy rule by a kleptocracy.