South Africa - Healing the Wounds

Wednesday 11 December 2013 11.56
Two tyre sales men at their stall in Alexandra township (Pic: Fran McNulty)
Two tyre sales men at their stall in Alexandra township (Pic: Fran McNulty)

RTÉ's Fran McNulty reflects on Nelson Mandela's legacy 

It's summer in South Africa, sure the rain is falling, but these are the early days. The rain that's falling gives Johannesburg its lush green landscape.

A heavily populated city, when you overlook it from the hills or the air, you'd never know you were looking at suburbia.

Some say it’s the largest man-made forest on this Continent. That may be true, but whether or not it is, it's a beautiful place and its people are an inspiration.

But there is massive inequality, economically and socially. Focusing on the racial split, trying to heal the wounds of apartheid, has come at a cost.

Economic discrimination is rampant. You land at Tambo airport when flying to Johannesburg and it's an immediate reminder of the struggle.

Oliver Tambo is a hero for most black Africans. A man who, along with others like Mandela and Sisulu, put an end to a bizarre regime, which tried to keep the black majority down, as a white minority ruled.

Amazing then that two decades after the fall of the regime, people here openly talk about whether South Africa has a future - whether it can manage to deal with the inequality, a cloud that hangs over this beautiful country.

The wealth of natural resources here is mind boggling, as beneath the earth lies untold wealth.

The mining industry may be struggling, but billions of rand in profit still flow out of the ground into the international financial system and out of South Africa every day.

It was an issue too tough to handle after the transition from apartheid to democratic rule. The concern was that if the new system tried to take control, the reaction would have been bloodshed and chaos. That is likely to have been true.

The issue was dealt with by Mandela - he listened, he took counsel. But in the end the man Barack Obama called the "last great liberator of the 21st century" decided taking on the interests could scupper the transition to a unified, democratic South Africa - an ideal he had spent 27 years in jail trying to achieve.

But his decision has come at a high price and is undermining that very unity he sought to attain.

This week I interviewed Ronnie Kasrils, a former minister who served under Mandela and Thabo Mbeki. An unapologetic socialist, he told us how he pleaded with Mandela to deal with the issues at hand and warned of the dangers.

But he didn't shout loud enough and his concerns and observations were listened to but ultimately ignored by Mandela.

Now Kasrils admits, with more than a hint of regret, that he should have pushed harder.

South Africa will never again have as strong a hand as it had during the changeover, to take on the big mining interests. To harness the wealth that lies beneath its earth, to educate its children better, house its homeless and treat its sick.

There is a constant tension in Johannesburg. It's a city that is clearly divided between the haves and the have nots.

It is a city in which you will see garages full of luxury cars. The biggest Ferrari dealership I have ever seen is in Sandton, a plush business district.

But minutes away lies the huge township of Alexandra. Miles and miles of shacks.

There are also houses, well maintained, with gardens and cars, a middle-class township.

But drive further in and you reach a level of poverty few would expect to see. Drive right through the township and you come to an area known as "Mozambique".

It is the place where those not deemed fit to live in the township are isolated. It lies along the flood plain of the main river that runs through Alex. Its water is rancid and stinking by the time it reaches those cast out by a township, which focuses on survival.

It floods during the rains, there is no power. Fresh water is limited.

Many of those who live here come from outside South Africa. The decision to move to Johannesburg for work has proven a bad one. For a country in which exile was the only choice for some of its people, it's an ironic scenario.

Within its borders, survival instincts force a segregated minority onto the outskirts of a township, which itself is a difficult place to live.

Soweto is different. Its people have pride. If you ask someone who lives in that township where are they from, they say "Soweto", with a heavy emphasis on the "T", with pride in their voice.

Ask someone why they live in Alex, they mostly shrug their shoulders. One person tells me it is because it has everything they need. For some it does.