A fractured society

Published : Aug 13, 2004 00:00 IST

The terrible wounds that apartheid brought to a country already ethnically divided are still evident in South Africa today.

"WHEN you became free," a South African activist said, "you broke into two, became two countries. When we became free, we came together, we integrated." I did not say anything to him then; the remark was so far off the mark that it would have taken ages to explain. But it is symptomatic of the largely illusory world that many I met in South Africa recently like to live in.

If anyone knows about rifts in society, we do - we know and live with caste, community and religious divisions. We live in a country where one community will not let people from another draw water from the same well. And it is precisely because of this that one can sense, almost instantly, the essential and deep divisions in South African society.

The terrible wounds and separation that apartheid inflicted on a land already ethnically divided are still evident. True, there is much to admire on the surface; black, white and coloured, including Indian South Africans, work together and there seem to be no barriers anywhere. And there are none, officially. That is what makes one uneasy in that country.

The official position and the reality are not the same. On the streets, expensive, flashy cars are driven by white people; it is they who work in the large modern office buildings in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban and Pretoria. They are the biggest presence on South African television, SABC (South African Broadcasting Corporation), though there are more black faces evident now than earlier. The South Africans of Indian origin, caught up in a time warp almost a century old, are prosperous enough, but still live in Indian ghettos; those who do not, live in ghettos of the mind. Black people have political power, but very little else.

Ten years after they shook off the oppressive apartheid regime, the better educated, the commercially dominant and successful, and those who occupy positions of consequence in the commercial and the public world are still white; and, yes, there are more black people in universities, there are more black people and Indians in positions of authority, but they do not, by any means, represent the community that shapes South Africa's destiny.

It is as if a First World society has been grafted onto a Third World country; you see the trappings of the First World in some places. But then there are the townships, the shanties, the unemployed in the streets. I did not go to Soweto as a number of the others I was with did. This is because I saw Soweto everywhere, even now; I saw it in the poor, and in the crowds of white people in the five-star hotels and expensive restaurants.

HOWEVER, I met a number of brave people who are working with dedication and dogged, visionary determination, to remove these differences; these are people who had been repeatedly imprisoned during the apartheid regime, and tortured, beaten and treated with a harshness that would have broken lesser, weaker spirits. They work among the deprived, and have been joined by many white people; they work in the field of the arts, striving to alter mindsets, to bring in the true fusion and integration that official declarations say they already have. And they know just how formidable the task is.

Perhaps one of the main reasons for this is the conflicting attitudes that the different communities in the country had to apartheid; attitudes that grew out of the ethos of their own communities. Many of Indian origin appear to have gone along with it, contenting themselves with their professions or enterprises. They did well enough, and the instinctive reaction of most - of keeping to themselves, of being insular - served to seal them off from the inhumanity of the racial ordering of society that was imposed on the country. This may have been a reaction in order to survive, but it did not endear them to the black people, as a whole.

The black people had to endure it as they had no other alternative. They were desperately poor - as large numbers of them still are - and needed whatever work they could get, under any terms. If it meant living in far-flung shanty towns and travelling miles to work, then that is what they did. It was, for them, the only way to survive.

The whites for the most part endorsed the policy because they gained the most from it; in terms of education, economic wealth and power and in the development of their own arts, entertainment and other activities that First World countries had, including sports.

These attitudes have not, from the little one saw, really changed all that much, and it would be fanciful to expect entire communities to reverse their ways of thinking and living overnight. This then, is what those fighting to bring about true integration are up against; ingrained mindsets and ways of life. One of those who have been working tirelessly to change things is Essop Patel, a lawyer and poet; the situation is poignantly summed up in one of his poems:

Seven years later I return with an exile's heart Mother, you witness the tormented seas in my eyes And frantically you ask "why?" "why?" Within me a familiar bird cries "isikathi asikho". Then My soul broke down and cried - Now I know why My beloved mother It is our country I am weeping for... .

AS I left Cape Town, and the troubled country fell away beneath the wings of the aircraft, I felt that far from the brave declarations made that with freedom South Africa had integrated, whereas India had broken into two, it was, if anything, the other way around. We have had our riots, our communal divides and the rest, but somewhere beneath it all there is an undeniable awareness that we are, in this melting pot of castes and communities, together; there, in South Africa, what one saw was the heroic efforts of people like Essop Patel, Benjy Francis and others to pull together communities, which have been, for centuries, deliberately driven apart and kept separate.

The lawlessness that makes people stay indoors after dark, and live in houses with razor-wire fences and heavily-barred windows and doors is only a symptom of what that separateness means. One can only hope that eventually those striving to pull the communities together will succeed, and true healing will start. From the little one saw, it has not yet started.

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