Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Guest Post On South Africa: A Roller Coaster Ride Of Pride And Despair


EASTERN CAPE, South Africa -- Madiba arrived in February 1990. That's what we call him, his clan name. Nelson Mandela, the rabid revolutionary, released from prison, dressed in an elegant suit on his first day of freedom, sitting under a tree in a carved chair with the newly liberation African National Congress flag draped behind him, addressing a gaggle of reporters, quiet, intelligent, thoughtful, polite. To many who stood and first introduced themselves he would reply, Ah, Mr. Jolidon. I have read your stories, how are you? The man could have announced the bombing of Pretoria for tomorrow and still maintained calm control. When he stood to leave I turned and began gathering my cameras when I heard something unexpected. I turned back to see the whole international press corps standing and applauding him. Those guys would not even applaud God if given the chance, but this man was something remarkable.

Under his leadership, despite rumors of nationalization of mines and other scary socialist ideas, South African had a chance -- an opportunity -- to do something extraordinary, and that was something for which the world hungered, a better way of doing things, an alternative to scrapping and biting and killing. With a roar of applause, the process began.

It wasn't pretty. A monster as ugly as apartheid doesn't go away politely, not to mention the swath of destruction left to fester for years to come. For the next four years the monster complained and bellowed through the violence that escalated up until the first day of the first democratic election on April 27, 1994. Then a calm settled, the people voted and the freedom train was on its way.

What has happened since Mandela walked into freedom, since that great affirmation for reconciliation over revolution? Has the grand experiment worked?

Sort of. Pretty much. We're still here.

Where are those resilient creative courageous smiling people who defied apartheid's
attempt to diminish their humanity?

Once they lost the enemy that defined their unity, the chorus of humanity scattered, like the end of a sports championship. Folks stopped cheering, packed up their toys and went home. Some quietly awaited the big event, Freedom. For many, the citizenship was enough . . . for a while. Their new government promised to take care of them. Housing, infrastructure, health care, education, opportunity. Respect. Hope.

Others grasped that opportunity, the honorable kind, through education and training.

Some saw an opportunity to take back what was stolen with no consideration for the damage done in the process. The euphoria lasted for about five years. Madiba's successor Thabo Mbeki could not fill the big man's shoes and inspirational leadership flatlined. As the promises failed to materialize for the majority, or the services rendered were too corrupted to feel like improvement, a vacuum in the sense of determination resulted. Most revolutionaries make lousy bureaucrats, and compared to the adrenalin pumping challenge of revolution, government management is downright dull and too full of restrictions.

The more isolated communities fared better than the urban because the traditions that sustained African culture for centuries were easier to protect and enforce.

AIDS arrived and once again the cultural concepts of sickness threw a wrench into what seems to Westerners to be a straightforward situation. The traditional healers cannot heal HIV but the people stubbornly continue to reply on them and their belief in spells and witchcraft thwarts the cause and effect of sexual behavior. Informal polygamy based in both tradition and a history of migrant labor created the perfect storm and HIV is a great exploiter of conditions in the society as well as in the body. Mbeki's denial of the reality of HIV postponed the approval of antiretroviral medications for years, resulting in thousands of senseless deaths and making survival a class issue; only those who could afford them could have them.

I consider myself a recovering believer. A relationship with South Africa is a roller coaster ride of despair and joyous pride. The collapse of the ANC is not a bad thing. It opens the way for a truly democratic system with viable opposition parties. But as long as this presently imploding institution remains in control we are going to be subjected to some pretty desperate and self serving decisions. That ANC Youth League President Julius Malema has the makings of a Mugabe has, for the first time in over 20 years, caused me to question the viability of the Grand Experiment. If he continues to have widespread exposure for his race war mongering rantings, even the sanctioning of the party elders will not be able to stop the flow of retribution against . . . what? whom? I'm not sure they know but it's just that it's not right yet, too many people are still poor, living in shacks, unemployed, uneducated, and hungry. Those white farmers who are the symbol of past wrongs make a pretty easy way to deflect anger from the real culprits, those who have corrupted the system for their own personal gain.

Susan Winters Cook is a photojournalist and humanitarian who has lived in the Eastern Cape region of South Africa since 1997. She previously was a staff photographer for the Philadelphia Daily News, where I was her editor when she made several trips to South Africa to chronicle the enormous changes in that country after Nelson Mandela's release from prison.

Cook's profile of a regional African National Congress leader's struggle to survive transitional political violence won the prestigious 1994 Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award.
From 1997 to 2003, Cook produced an AIDS education periodical for the province, has produced documentaries for the provincial premier, and most recently produced a documentary about a Cape Town squatter community building its own housing.

Cook lives with her husband, anthropologist Cecil Cook, on a farm where she raises emus.

All photographs copyright Susan Winters Cook

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