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1 September 2003

Everybody has got it wrong about my country

Even the left, which invested too much ideological hope in South Africa, sees it as a land of crime

By Liz McGregor

Next year, South Africa will celebrate its first decade of democracy. In April 1994, the world rejoiced at the overthrow of apartheid and at Nelson Mandela’s accession to power. So why is there now such a strong sense of international disillusionment? The dominant view of South Africa abroad is that it is a lawless, unstable place, plagued by crime and corruption; that white people’s days here are numbered, if they are not raped and murdered first; and that property rights are at best tenuous.

Having read such reports, I returned to South Africa from Britain at the end of last year with some trepidation. I have now learnt that the view from abroad is seriously distorted.

The reality of South Africa in late 2003 is that whites are more likely to die by their own hand than anyone else’s – the suicide rate is higher than the murder rate, presumably a sign of an inability to adapt to the new order, given that the rate has soared since 1994. The highest proportion of murders is among young men, killed by other young men in drunken brawls – a murder profile that corresponds roughly to Britain’s. Rape is less a random crime than a systemic enforcement of patriarchy: it is far more likely to affect poor and powerless women and girls than members of the middle class, to which most whites still belong.

Far from being unstable, South Africa is, if anything, too stable – given the huge racial inequalities in the distribution of land and wealth. The latest figures show that the average white person’s income has increased since 1994, while the average black’s has decreased, and the black middle class, though larger than before and very wealthy, is just a small elite. On a broader level, there is no danger of either the ruling African National Congress or the constitution being overturned in the foreseeable future. The rule of law is impeccably observed.

But South Africa’s image in the outside world is imprisoned by its past. Many of the journalists who run newsrooms in Europe and North America today cut their political teeth in the anti-apartheid movement. On university campuses, it was the iconic struggle of the 1970s and 1980s; the emergence of a leader of Mandela’s stature reinforced its righteousness. No other struggle offered quite such a simple opposition of good and evil. And many Britons and Americans could project anxieties about racial tensions in their own countries on to this larger canvas, in a land sufficiently distant to blur any inconsistencies.

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Then revolution gave way to the grey reality of governance, with its inevitable compromises. Pragmatism often took precedence over principle. The South African government embraced neoliberal policies and the left – which had assumed that the ANC shared all its favourite causes, from comprehensive schooling to gay rights – felt let down.

The liberal left would have been better able to come to terms with the new South Africa if it had known the country better. But during apartheid, liberals faithfully observed sanctions, refusing to visit the country. They never developed a relationship with the real South Africa. Once the certainties of ideology and struggle were out of the equation, their attitude became one of puzzled disappointment. Their image of the country reverted to the European default mode of “darkest Africa” – a place incomprehensible, irrational, violent, anarchic.

Oddly, the right, which continued to visit South Africa throughout the bad years, developed a more intimate relationship. To be sure, the love affair was mostly with colonial Africa – the servants, the wildlife, G&Ts under an African sunset – but it was a genuine affection.

This was why Zimbabwe hit the headlines. Into the vacuum left by the anti-apartheid struggle came a new African drama, also starring whites – and whites have to be involved if white Britons are to engage with Africa at all. The white way of life in Africa, with all its colonial nostalgia, was under attack. Britain’s right-wing media rallied to its defence. Even the liberal media climbed on the Zimbabwean bandwagon, especially once the issue expanded from white dispossession to Robert Mugabe’s black victims.

So Southern Africa as a whole is now viewed through the prism of Zimbabwe. It is unjust, inaccurate and, yes, racist. But in the minds of busy desk editors, Africa quickly falls victim to stereotypes. As a freelance journalist writing for mostly British and American papers, I find that stories about rape, murder and dodgy Aids policies sell easily. Anything more nuanced or about the complexities of change is much harder to place.

There is another influence on the negative perceptions of South Africa. Many newspapers and broadcasters have only one staff correspondent to cover the whole of Africa. So opinion-formers such as leader writers and columnists tend to derive their views of the continent from British-based NGOs running aid projects in Africa. And these agencies, splendid as they are, inevitably focus on misery and calamity.

What I find quite scary is that the preoccupations of the most recidivist in the white community here – crime, corruption and Zimbabwe – are the ones that tend to dominate foreign perceptions of the country. There are many white people who have bought into the new South Africa and are up for the adventure of nation-building. But there are many more who remain resolutely stuck in the past. You hear them on radio phone-ins and read them in newspaper letters columns. They are rabidly right-wing and they barely conceal their racism.

South Africa’s negative image overseas is not a trivial issue. If all its people are to have jobs and eat well – the present unemployment rate is 40 per cent – it needs far more foreign investment. It will never get that as long as the country is viewed, wrongly, as a violent and unstable place.

The danger is that the distorted reality of the recidivist whites could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. A recent survey showed that 40 per cent of them will not vote in next year’s general election because they feel alienated from the body politic. The danger is that ten years down the line, another, perhaps more volatile, populist leader, faced with the demands of a hungry new jobless generation, will take the same road as Mugabe and seek a scapegoat. And what better than a marginalised, privileged, racially discrete group which, like Zimbabwe’s white farmers, can be turned on with impunity because the vast majority of the population won’t care?

Perhaps the ten-year anniversary of the triumph over apartheid would be a good time for the left to reclaim the debate from the bigots and the neocolonialists. They will find there is far more to Africa than its lunatic fringes.

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