Andrew Austin: Still a long walk to freedom

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The Herald's former chief reporter returned to his homeland this week to cover Nelson Mandela's funeral. Struck by the changes, he wrote this personal view on the country's future

People at a memorial service for Nelson Mandela at the FNB Stadium in Soweto. Photo / AP
People at a memorial service for Nelson Mandela at the FNB Stadium in Soweto. Photo / AP

South Africa is at a crossroads and the death of Nelson Mandela has certainly put that into sharp focus.

For many years, the cry was: "What will happen to South Africa after Mandela?"

That time has come.

With the world's attention firmly on the country this week, it was a chance for the republic to show what it was capable of. Whether it did that is still being debated. Some people called it a shambles, others said it was organised chaos.

President Jacob Zuma had a golden opportunity to stamp his mark as a true leader and statesman, but his rambling speech at Mandela's memorial service on Tuesday ensured he was upstaged by the polished performance of United States President Barack Obama.

As they mourn the loss of their leader, many South Africans are questioning the direction the country is taking and wondering aloud if the values and ideals Mandela held dear will be upheld by the ruling African National Congress.

I last lived in South Africa nearly 12 years ago and, coming back for only the second time in that period, I have noticed big changes in the country. I grew up under apartheid, a policy that stifled freedom of thought and wilfully oppressed the black majority. I celebrated when it ended.

I was there when democracy came about and I joined everyone else to vote in the first democratic elections in 1994. I voted for the ANC.

There was hope in the air and it truly was a Rainbow Nation. The well-known role Mandela had in securing the 1995 Rugby World Cup for South Africa cannot be underestimated. It became a symbol of what the Rainbow Nation could achieve.

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The future looked bright. It was with a heavy heart that I left South Africa in 2002 to spend some time in New Zealand. I had family there and it seemed like a chance to explore another part of the world. I did not leave out of any dissatisfaction with the country and I was not chased away by crime rates. I certainly did not believe I would be away for so long, but sometimes life happens.

Coming back to South Africa has been an interesting experience. There were obviously a lot of emotions because of Mandela's death, but I was excited to see how the country of my birth was faring.

The changes took me by surprise, but I did question whether it was I who had changed or the country. I think the answer to that question is both.

There is something about arriving in South Africa that sets the heart racing. It is still a vibrant country of sharp contrasts and certainly is not for the faint-hearted. There is a lot of noise, colour and a forthrightness that does not often manifest itself in New Zealand.

The fast pace of the country took me by surprise. It was fast when I left but it has become a whole lot faster. The wealth of some and the poverty of others seems to be worse. Driving on the motorways of Johannesburg is quite an experience. They also seem to have become more congested. What jumped out at me was the casual way in which many motorists break the law. The infringements are not minor either, like driving down a lane in the wrong direction for a couple of hundred metres because there are two lanes of gridlock.

I still have fond memories of the unity that emerged during the heady days of the democratic elections and the 1995 Rugby World Cup, but from my observations, the black/white divide is still there and if anything it has got wider in some sectors of the community.

The vast majority of people who went to the Union Buildings were black and the white people who did go stood out. I heard from a number of middle class white people that, though they believed Mandela was a great man, they had no desire to mingle with the masses at the memorial service or the viewing of the body laying in state.

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Another big shock for me was how security has taken over the lives of South Africans. When I left, the big walls, burglar bars and alarms were already in place but things seem to have been taken to a new level. The security presence is immense and not only because of Mandela's funeral. Private security has become even more visible than when I last lived here. Big black vans with titles like Task Force and Tactical Unit are in abundance in wealthy suburban areas.

Crime is certainly still an issue in South Africa and seems to be a constant worry for the black and white middle class, despite the fortresses they live in and the security measure they take to protect themselves.

But it is the concern for the future that keeps raising its head. Zuma's handling of the affairs of state and his perceived lack of stature compared to Mandela has been the main topic of conversation in private conversations, on radio and in newspapers. Newspaper cartoonists have had a field day comparing Zuma to other world and former leaders.

A severe embarrassment for the South African Government was the booing of Zuma by a section of the crowd at the memorial service at FNB stadium near Johannesburg.

They booed him when he arrived and then again when his image showed up on the giant screens in the stadium. Although the African National Congress, through its spokesman Jackson Mthembu, dismissed the incident as the work of a small group trying to politicise the occasion, the word is that the party hierarchy were furious.

Even Prime Minister John Key was surprised by the booing and suggested it may have something to do with corruption allegations against Zuma. The one thing that is certain is that the booing was simply a public manifestation of growing dissatisfaction at the way Zuma is running the country.

Wherever I went this week, people of all races and ages mentioned it to me as a major concern.

People want the country to work and are using Mandela's death as an opportunity show that they are capable of stepping up and keeping his ideals alive.

Young people, both black and white, standing in the queue to view Mandela's body told me that they were determined to keep South Africa on the correct path. They said they had hope for the future, but were unsure if this government was the right one to lead them. This is a remarkable sentiment that seems to be emerging. Eleven years ago there was only one party in town, but the ANC is finding that being a long time government has its problems, especially if some in power believe they are entitled.

Maphuti Mothata, a young man in the crowds at Union Buildings, put it into perspective when he said: "If our Government honours [Mandela's] legacy, things could be better."

Others are a little bit more resigned to no changes happening any time soon.

I asked one middle-class white man, in his 40s, if he had concerns about the future of South Africa.

"If I stop to think about it, I get very anxious, so I would rather not think about it," he said resignedly.

Another woman told me that a change of Government was needed.

"It is getting a bit frustrating. Some days are good, while others are simply frustrating," she said

Locals tell me that there are many visible signs of entitlement, but one to freedom that is the most annoying on an everyday basis in Johannesburg is the way Government ministers at national and provincial level use police escorts to force traffic off the road so that they race past.

During the week of mourning, the nearly 100 heads of state who visited were given police escorts and even John Key seemed to be getting used to it.

But locals tell me that this is a common occurrence, particularly in Johannesburg, Pretoria and Cape Town. People have been prosecuted for refusing to comply with the wishes of the motorcade to pull over.

"It's like a tinpot country, the way they carry on," said one disgusted Johannesburg road user.

Another practical issue that is irritating people attempting to navigate the maze of Johannesburg motorways is the new e-toll system the Government has installed at vast cost, on roads that were already in good condition. With many drivers criss-crossing the city on a daily basis, the e-tolls have struck a nerve. Some people are simply refusing to pay them.

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But the issue hanging over everything is the allegations of corruption against Zuma. It stems from a Government decision to improve the security of his private residence in Nkandla in rural KwaZulu-Natal at a cost of more than R206 million to the South African taxpayer.

The move has angered many people, with some calling on him to resign. High-profile and controversial Radio 702 announcer John Robbie has made no bones about it on air - Zuma must go. Rugby enthusiasts will remember Robbie as a halfback for Ireland and the then British Lions in 1989.

A long-time resident of South Africa, Robbie has been a constant thorn in the side of the Government, but has also been a firm supporter of the new South Africa.

This is not the first time Zuma has faced allegations of corruption. Just before the 2009 elections, he appeared in court on charges of fraud, corruption and racketeering relating to the conviction of his former financial adviser, Schabir Shaik, on charges that were similar. The charges against Zuma were later dropped.

In this latest raft of allegations, the Public Protector, a state-employed watchdog of government, has produced a report that is scathing of the decision to spend taxpayer money on Zuma's home.

Protector Thuli Madonsela's leaked provisional report was published by the Johannesburg-based Mail & Guardian newspaper and it did not make for good reading for the government.

The paper quoted the report as saying Zuma benefited more than he should have from what were supposed to be security upgrades but which ended up going well beyond that. The report recommended that Zuma repay some of the money to the state.

The Mail & Guardian quoted the provincial secretary of the ANC in North West, Dakota Legoete, as saying it was a race issue.

"Corruption in South Africa based on what is being reported by the media has got colour - it's been given a black face."

He also said critics of the expense were discriminating against Zuma because he came from a rural area and that the work would have been completed without a problem if it had been in one of the big cities.

This issue is not likely to go away and probably will be used by Opposition parties during the run up to the elections next year.

The ANC has lost its way, but there are many good people in the party who could play a role in its turnaround. One of those people is ANC deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa, one of the masters of ceremonies at Tuesday's memorial service.

I have met Ramaphosa and he certainly is the finished product. A former trade unionist, Ramaphosa made his way up the party ranks until he had a falling out with former President Thabo Mbeki. He went on to make millions in business and now he is back and would be a good president.

Despite all the negativity and concerns in South Africa at the moment I do have hope for the country.

The determination to make the country succeed and the respect for Mandela many young people have was pleasing. I came away with a sense that if the ANC can just get itself back on the straight and narrow, the country will prosper.

It's what Nelson Mandela would have wanted.

- NZ Herald

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