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South Africa's 'dream' lives on

Published:Wednesday | April 28, 2010 | 12:00 AM

André Wright, Night Editor

Criticism of South Africa's pace of poverty reduction and its mixed success in forging a multiracial society is unwarranted and premature, South Africa's high commissioner to Jamaica, Faith Radebe, has argued.

The high commissioner, who demits office in a couple of weeks to oversee South Africa's intelligence service as inspector general, said it was unrealistic to expect hundreds of years of colonial exploitation to be erased in the decade and a half since state-sanctioned segregation ended.

South Africa was colonised by both the English and the Dutch in the 17th and 18th centuries, which later led to the development of apartheid, a rigid system coloured by racial lines. Apartheid's demise - after the release of iconic African National Congress freedom fighter Nelson Mandela in 1990, and landmark elections in 1994 - has not, however, totally salved deep wounds from years of brutality and inequality which marginalised blacks.

Radebe's beef with some analysts is grounded in her belief that progress has been achieved - slowly but surely - and that today's South Africa is radically different from the divided nation that existed up to the 1990s. Her appeal: Give us time.

"South Africa is still regarded by the world as an example of people who can reconcile, and it has not changed. It does not mean that we do not have problems, but the problems do not change the dream.

"From colonisation up to apartheid, it was more than 300 years. Really, to be fair to South Africa, you cannot expect us, in just the small time of 16 years, to have eradicated almost everything. I don't think it would be fair to our democracy," Radebe told The Gleaner during an interview last Thursday.

World Cup history

South Africa has an opportunity to showcase its progress when it hosts the FIFA World Cup finals in June and July, a milestone for Africa as it will be the first time the premier football competition will be held on the continent. Radebe is upbeat about her country's ability to host a smoothly run and spectacular competition, and believes all the kinks - including the transportation logistics - will be ironed out in time for kick-off.

However, the jubilation around South Africa's mandate to host the World Cup has been moderated by the gravity of widespread social malaise. The United Nations Development Programme's 2009 Human Development Report ranked the nation 129th out of 182 states covered in the index. Even Jamaica, with its own cocktail of developmental problems - at 100 - and Palestine - at 110 - outpace South Africa in per capita development. A dozen states on the continent have higher ratings on the index.

Those stark facts are magnified by the reality that South Africa is a country of contradictions - swanky skyscrapers and sophisticated business districts on one hand, crime- and poverty-ridden slums on the other.

Another troubling statistic is the more than 18,000 murders a year - roughly 50 per day - which makes the country one of the bloodiest peacetime states on the planet.

The high commissioner blamed the vast majority of crimes on housebreaking, which has grown 60 per cent over the last six years. She insisted, however, that South Africa's image as a crime den is overblown.

"Our government has got a lot of programmes which deal with crime. That South Africa is the capital of crime, really, I do not think it is an accurate accusation of the country," she said.

Deadly force

Radebe said the South Africa Police Service has now been emboldened to face off with criminals, particularly with the declaration of chief constable Bheki Cele, who has backed a more liberal use of deadly force, as opposed to rubber bullets which are still widely used. That philosophy has chafed the sensitivities of some human-rights groups, which are concerned that confrontation and excesses will lead to tragedies like the police shooting of a three-year-old boy last November.

The high commissioner, nevertheless, is certain that tougher action will drive down crime.

"It is only now that the commissioner of police said it is not allowed that a policeman should die with a gun in his hand. It is only now that our police are taking on the criminals.

"If he (a policeman) has a gun, he will not die, he will shoot. It is beginning to change. At least we are moving in the right direction," she continued.

The murder wave takes on an even more explosive face when the melting pot of racial tensions comes to a boil. The beating to death of Eugene Terreblanche, a white supremacist, on April 3 stoked fears in some quarters that violent conflict could erupt between blacks and whites.

According to Radebe, Terre-blanche and the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging, a racist secessionist group he founded, represent an insignificant demographic of 3,000-5,000 whose activity cannot develop much traction in modern South African society. The Terreblanche murder, she said, was more a labour dispute than a race-relations issue and will not have broader implications.

Fighting aids

Meanwhile, Radebe contended that South Africa was still undertaking a paradigm shift on developmental goals, including widening the treatment of persons with HIV/AIDS, which continues to be a major concern, as 5.5 million people, including about a third of the reproductive population, have the disease. She said the South African government has allocated nine billion rand in the current budget to tackle AIDS and has ramped up the roll-out of antiretroviral medication across the countryside.

The Jacob Zuma government has launched a campaign to get 15 million people tested over the next year, the BBC reported Sunday. Since election to the presidency, Zuma has been trying hard to change public perception that he is indifferent to AIDS, partly because of his polygamous lifestyle and a rape case four years ago in which he testified that he showered to protect himself after he had sex with the HIV-positive alleged victim.

The South African high commissioner believes that her country will continue to garner international respect and achieve ambitious goals such as becoming a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.

"In our 16 years of democracy, we have moved, we have made big strides for our country," Radebe said.