South Africa’s governing party the ANC celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, but it’s not a happy occasion for the vast majority of South Africans. As I lived there for the first decade of my life, it breaks my heart to see a country once full of promise, on the brink of becoming a shining light in a continent for which the description of ‘Dark Continent’ is now not so much an archaic European term but a grimly apt one, go so far down the wrong path that it’s hard to see how it can find its way back again.
I was born in Krugersdorp just as the sun was setting on the brutal and evil apartheid regime, the year before Nelson Mandela’s long walk to freedom finally reached its triumphant conclusion. For the first 5 years of my life, I was raised by my grandparents as my mother was single and couldn’t work and look after me, until she met and married my father in 1994 (I was a little bridesmaid at the wedding – I consider it a blessing to have been able to actually be there to see my parents get married). It was a happy time – I caught a bus to nursery school every day (which made me feel very grown up at the grand old age of 4) and spent my spare time playing with our dogs and watching the Super Sport channel with my granddad (which I’m pretty sure accounts for my passion for sports). There were however, some painful moments; I was heartbroken when my favourite dog, Brandy, went missing, and despite driving around the area a lot for days afterward we never found him. The town where I went to school, Merriespruit, was devastated when the tailings dam nearby burst, killing 17 people and destroying much of the town. I still vividly recall the gaping hole in the dam and the buildings flattened and covered in mud.
After my parents’ marriage, I went to live with them for good. I was delighted to be with my mother, who had seen to it that I was given the best life possible out of the awful circumstance of single-parenthood she had found herself, and my father, who I’d loved from the word go, and who had immediately adopted me as his own (my parents are truly the most wonderful people I know). We had a very good life – we lived in the kind of house you’d have to be a millionaire to own in Britain in a well-to-do suburb near Johannesburg. I went to a fantastic primary school – which is closer to a combination of the US middle and junior high than the traditional British primary school. Children attend it from the age of 7 through to 14, classes ran from 7.30am to 1.30pm (awesome for kids but a pain in the neck for parents – after school some of my friends and I would go to an aftercare facility run by a lovely woman who we called Aunt Greer). There, I learned how to swim (it had a massive swimming pool and the athletics/sports facilities were excellent as befitting a sports-mad nation), and found my academic endeavours were rewarded and recognised by the headmaster (such, sadly, was not the case in the UK, where the only successes deemed worthy of recognition were on the sports field).
This idyllic existence was undermined by an ever-present sense of danger, which I, being very young, did not appreciate at the time. For example, a private security firm checking up on our security was nothing out of the ordinary to me; now I realise the fact it was actually a necessity indicated how dangerous, even then, it was to live there. However, several incidents occurred which convinced my parents that no amount of private security could provide peace of mind, and so we could not remain in South Africa. My mother’s car was stolen in broad daylight from her place of work. She was mugged as she waited at a traffic light by a black man – he smashed her window, and grabbed her bag and tried to tear her necklace from her neck – and only the light turning green saved her from anything worse. My mother later told me that the most frightening thing about the attack was the look in the thief’s eyes; she felt he regarded her as utterly meaningless and did not see her as fellow human being. And on another occasion, shots rang out in our garden.
By the time I left with my mother and sister (my father had gone on ahead to Britain to find housing and work) in January 1999, my mother was completely unable to get a peaceful night’s sleep. When she returned to South Africa in 2010 for my grandfather’s funeral, she experienced again a panicky sense of fear and insecurity – as by then the atmosphere and conditions in South Africa had further deteriorated; when she drove my grandmother through Klerksdorp, there were signs up warning of ‘carjacking zones’. The move was painful for me: while both my parents were originally from Britain, and were returning to a country they were familiar with, I was leaving friends, my beloved grandparents, and a country I loved for an unknown, alien one for reasons I did not fully comprehend.
But I do now. The country of my childhood has mutated into one where an ANC youth leader, Julius Malema, is defended by the ANC for singing songs about killing white people, but be suspended from the party for the political threat he poses to current president Jacob Zuma, not for inciting racial hatred, They trumpet bringing the appalling high murder rate down from 66 per 1000 people to a still appalling 33/1000 while effectively sentencing millions to death thanks to the AIDS denialism of the Mbeki government. In addition to denying AIDS exists, the government did nothing to discourage the horrific and false beliefs spread by witchdoctors that having sex with a virgin will protect you from/cure AIDS, leading to an explosion of unbelievable evil: baby rape, which compounds an already hideous rape culture wherein 1 in 3 South African women have been raped. Instead, it preferred to inform its people that a fusion of garlic, beetroot and lemon is an effective cure for AIDS (I really wish I were joking).
As if this were not bad enough, the ANC has completely betrayed its own by effectively creating another apartheid: they live in riches and splendour while millions of black people live in the most dreadful poverty and face horrific violence with little hope of escape. For who will help them? South Africa is effectively a one-party-state; there is no significant challenge to the ANC’s supremacy. The ANC, like all institutionally corrupt organisations, will not reform itself as it does not serve their self-interest to reform. Unfortunately, this is why Julius Malema’s Mugabesque calls to seize white-owned land without compensation are striking a chord among poor black South Africans; they know the ANC has not improved their lives, they bitterly resent the corruption which has resulted in them getting poorer while the political elite gets richer, and so, when Malema bangs his populist drum attacking the government for abandoning poor black people, they feel that finally, someone understands their plight and speaks for them. It is becoming brutally clear that if you are a white South African, you have no future there.
I watched Invictus again recently (True story: my dad was given a ticket to that very Rugby World Cup final – which happened to fall on the same day as his and my mum’s first anniversary. He gave it up to take my mum out for a celebratory dinner). The ending, so heartwarming, triumphant and full of hope for a new, united South Africa is no longer a happy one, but tragic – it represents what could have been, what should have been, and how far from that idealistic goal South Africa has fallen.
And on that note, I wish the African National Congress a very miserable 100th anniversary.