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South Africa’s future uncertain as Thabo Mbeki takes over from Nelson Mandela

Our Correspondent in Pretoria

That the African National Congress (ANC) will win the June 2 elections in South Africa is not in doubt. But it is what will follow that worries most people.

Since the ANC’s victory in the first multi-party elections in May 1994, following the end of apartheid, the party has not lived up to most people’s expectations. Two areas in particular have caused great concern: crime and unemployment. The two are undoubtedly linked. There is high crime because there is little or no employment for young men, particularly those in the townships who had expected that the end of apartheid would mean a radical improvement in their lives.

It could be argued that there is high unemployment in other countries as well but that it has not resulted in a corresponding rise in crime. South Africa’s brutal legacy of apartheid has also influenced the thinking of people. Today it rates as one of the most violent places on earth, surpassing even the US where, as the saying goes, ‘crime is as American as apple pie’.

The new ANC government led by Thabo Mbeki is not likely to depart radically from the policies of his predecessor, Nelson Mandela. Mandela has already become an international icon, praised for his ‘wisdom’ in preventing the country from sliding into civil war. It is not difficult to see who would have been at the receiving end if it had erupted, but prevention of internal conflict has come at a high price.

Mandela’s high international stature has not, unfortunately, solved any of the problems at home. Since the ANC’s coming to power in 1994, South Africa has lost 500,000 jobs, about 186,000 of them in the last year alone, according to Statistics South Africa. True, the situation has been exacerbated by skilled whites fleeing the country now that they no longer enjoy absolute monopoly in every field. Old habits die hard, even those based on injustice and exploitation.

But it would be simplistic to assume that that alone is the reason for the worsening employment situation. Apartheid may have ended but the tiny white minority has not loosened its grip on the economy; permitting the whites to keep the rewards of apartheid was the price Mandela agreed to pay for political change. The result is that black empowerment is still a long way away from being realised; blacks may be in power but they are not in control. Mandela himself admitted this in his farewell address as party president during the ANC annual convention in Mafeking in December 1997. The inevitable corruption that seeps in whenever a new group comes to power after being deprived of virtually all opportunities for several generations only exacerbates the problem.

But the greatest cause of anxiety is the rapidly escalating crime rate. Armed robberies, car hijackings and murders are rampant. Muslims are especially vulnerable because most of them are in business and located closest to the African townships, thanks to apartheid’s policy of segregation. Despite the official end of apartheid, whites still live in largely exclusive neighbourhoods with high security fences and guard dogs. These are also localities far removed from the townships. Indian and coloured areas, on the other hand, are much closer to the townships. They are thus exposed and easy targets. Many Muslims are also in business and so easily identifiable.

A measure of the people’s resentment against crime was reflected in the reaction of listeners to a radio programme which highlighted South African police brutally beating armed robbery suspects after their arrest. The sound track from a BBC TV documentary, shown in England on April 19, was aired on Johannesburg’s Radio 702. To the surprise of the radio hosts, the overwhelming majority of callers supported the police action. Many callers were themselves victims of crime. They pointed out that robbers often kill their victims even after getting the car or whatever they want. Many Muslim women, too, have been shot in execution-style killings in their homes by armed robbers.

Violence has seeped into the psychology of society. Decades of apartheid have brutalised and traumatised entire generations. People live in houses with windows and doors shuttered with steel bars, as in a prison. Those who can afford them also have 24-hour guards outside their home. On May 20, teachers in Scottburg, near Durban, shot and killed one student and wounded several others when the latter rioted. This would be impossible in most societies, but not in South Africa.

Muslims seem to be caught between a rock and a hard place. The anti-drug and anti-gangsters group called People Against Gangsterism and Drugs (PAGAD) has been forced to take measures to defend the community from drugs and gangsters in Cape Town. Yet far from the police supporting them, PAGAD is accused of all kinds of misdemeanours.

The most vicious allegation related to last August’s bombing in the Planet Hollywood restaurant, frequented by the trendy crowd. Muslims were accused of perpetrating the crime without providing any proof. Conveniently, the surveillance cameras at the restaurant were ‘out of order’ at the time of the bombing! This has led many to suspect that the bombing was a set-up job.

As Thabo Mbeki starts his term as president in his own right - until now he has been effectively in charge as Mandela had delegated much of the work to him - he will find that filling his predecessor’s shoes is a daunting task. He does not have the international stature of Mandela. Critics will not be as forgiving of his shortcomings, real or imagined, as they were of Mandela’s. Coming to grips with South Africa’s economic problems, and countering the rising wave of violent crime, are stern tests indeed.

Muslimedia: June 1-15, 1999

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 28, No. 7

Safar 16, 14201999-06-01

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