Events that every baby boomer will recall

When China’s Tiananmen Square erupted 30 years ago, even the youngest of us baby boomers already was an adult. So every one of us remembers that violent and failed revolution. The peaceful revolution in South Africa, which brought an end to apartheid, came shortly after Tiananmen Square. Yet while we mark what happened in China, we barely take notice of South Africa. In this Boomer Opinion piece, BoomerCafé’s co-founder and executive editor Greg Dobbs tries to figure out, why are they so different?

If you pay even scant attention to the news, you know that this past week was the anniversary of the day China changed at Tiananmen Square. June 4th, 1989. Thirty years ago. What was called the “Democracy Movement” was brutally beaten back. There were mass arrests, purges, and executions. Democracy, which had been only a faint hope anyway, has not been heard from since.

“Tank Man” in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Just a few months later— on February 11, 1990— something happened on another continent that took another nation in a new direction. New, but 180-degrees different. In South Africa, Nelson Mandela was released from prison after 27 years behind bars, and not five years after that, democracy enthroned him in his nation’s presidency. Apartheid was officially dead.

Nelson Mandela

You could attribute all the attention around Tiananmen Square’s anniversary to the dramatic and diabolical outcome of the day. China’s citizens today have riches and freedoms they never dreamt about thirty years ago, but their government still puts limits on their liberties— they lack some of the very rights we take for granted here at home. Discussion of Tiananmen Square itself is taboo. China still is a Communist country at heart.

As I watched observances of that anniversary, it occurred to me that the milestones that marked South Africa’s movement toward black majority rule typically go largely unwatched, largely unnoticed. There is not a single day to commemorate, but several: Mandela’s release, his election, the adoption of a constitution (largely modeled after ours) that guaranteed equal rights for blacks and whites alike. Thousands died and many more suffered during the decades-long struggle against apartheid, but that was over the course of years; there never was an explosive civil war. Contrary to China, South Africa progressed peacefully into its new age.

Mandela’s office.

That might surprise me more than you, because back in the 1970s and into the ‘80s, ABC News sent me down to South Africa for weeks at a time, to wait for the war. Virtually every western news organization had a bureau there, for that one reason. With a revolution by the restive black majority, the swimming pools of white South Africans would run red with blood. War seemed inevitable.

Mandela’s cell on Robben Island.

But it never happened.

Part of that is to the credit of the white minority government, which peacefully passed power to the people they had long oppressed. An equal part, however, is to the credit of Mandela himself. Once free, he singlehandedly persuaded his fellow former prisoners— who wanted to take revenge on their white oppressors— that their way was the way to war, not peace. Ultimately they chose reconciliation over revenge.

Pretty amazing, considering their deprivations. Ahmed Kathrata is the man with whom Nelson Mandela was most often locked up during his decades on Robben Island, the prison for political convicts in the bay near Cape Town. Kathrata told me in an interview— when I went back with a camera crew a dozen years after the end of apartheid to see how the nation had changed— that in all those years as prisoners, they were confined to the far side of the island and never, not even once, actually saw Cape Town, just a few miles off.

The Cape Town prisoners could not see.

He said that it was three months after man first landed on the moon before they heard about it. That for 20 years, he never once laid eyes on a child. One can understand the hunger for revenge.

But Mandela’s argument was that back when they were chopping rocks in Robben Island’s limestone quarries, and would surreptitiously meet in the recesses of a quarry’s walls to talk hypothetically about the shape of their nation under black rule, they had committed to govern a country with equal rights for all. Not just all blacks, Mandela argued, but all peoples of the nation. (Kathrata told me that each man would go up to a different guard and say, “Gotta piss”… and the guard would say “Okay, but be quick about it”… and they’d all meet to piss in the same cave and steal ten minutes together at best, to have these clandestine talks.)

And that’s how it came down. No single day, no single event, no single anniversary. Which means, there is too little perspective about the South Africa that matured from the transition.

That’s why, more than a decade ago, I went back.

Greg at Robben Island.

If prosperity is measured by freedoms, then prosperity was high. Blacks no longer needed to step aside when passing a white citizen on the sidewalk. Or to have a pass, just to be out at night.

But for most black South Africans, prosperity by its more common definition was still just a dream. And when I was there again just four years ago, that hadn’t changed.

Khayelitsha township.

In this squatters camp called Khayelitsha, on the edge of Cape Town, some of its million-plus inhabitants still can’t even imagine living in a place with sanitation, or fresh water, or easily available electricity. Or how easy life is when you don’t have an average of 106 people for every concrete outhouse toilet.

There are other such camps— “informal settlements” they are called— all over the country. At one in Soweto, at the edge of Johannesburg, I asked a woman who was bent over a plastic bucket scrubbing her family’s clothes clean, how long she and her family had lived like this. She said, “For years.” I asked, “How can you ever get someplace better?” She answered, “By getting work.” I asked, “Have you looked?” She said, “For years.”

Soweto’s slums.

At schools in the poor black townships, resources have been poured in and they’re better than they were under apartheid. Yet school was such a joke for so many decades, it created a culture that doesn’t treasure education because it was so inferior and did people no good anyway… even if they’d worked hard to get an education, they still needed a pass to move from one township to another. The country’s minister of education told me it’s one of many problems that probably will take another generation or two to overcome.

Crime is just as impervious. The rate of gunshot murders in South Africa today is more than twice our rate in the U.S., and ours is high. A local newspaper columnist wrote a telling line about the government’s inability to do much about it: “These days, a Ministry of Safety & Security makes about as much sense as a Ministry of Maritime Affairs in Switzerland.”

Archbishop Desmond Tutu

The end of apartheid was the triumph of South Africa, but this is the tragedy. For millions, apartheid died only in daily practice, not in daily life.

I once asked Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, why fulfilling the dream of social prosperity has not gone hand-in-hand with the dream of political freedom. He laughed and said, “How naïve we were, thinking that just because our struggle was noble and our motives were altruistic, we would govern without many of the flaws of the governments that preceded us. What we have learned the hard way is, corruption and selfishness and greed are not just products of people with white skin.”

It is only a quarter century now since the peaceful revolution in South Africa. Too little time, perhaps, to undo 300 years of inequality. Had there been an explosive climax to the civil rights battle, as there was in China, we might take notice. But there wasn’t. So we don’t.

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