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Sim Yarrow © 1999


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I've just taken part in the fascinating project of recording the theme tune for a new South African variation on Blind Date. Why so fascinating? Because how they deal with the issue of mixed race couples will be something to watch: common in Jo'burg, unheard of in Vryburg. This is a "world in one country" in so many senses, and one that I've fallen in love with in the three years since I first arrived.

I'm writing partly, though not directly, in response to Dave Renton's interesting comments about this year's elections and the state of leftism here. I think it's worthwhile remembering, ironically, how much the apartheid state had in common with the Soviet bloc. In many ways it was all about Afrikaner National Socialism: most industry was nationalised, monopolistic, corrupt and over-bureaucratic, horrifically polluting, highly secretive. The Afrikaners looked after their own, providing dull jobs for life for dull people. It's also worth remembering that the Communism started life here as a whites-only movement. Personally, I'm grateful that the SACP did not leap into full power here: in the first, rather inefficient years of the new regime, both blacks and whites have remained locked into this outdated, materialist, heavy-industry-for-export perspective. It doesn't work, and thinking is changing. In the meantime, those blacks that can, as in Eastern Europe, have grabbed a slice of the material pie. Daft jobs continue, with no dole and high unemployment: petrol pump attendants, car parking assistants, and maids. When I arrived in 1996 my feelings on maids were thrown when I stayed in two black homes, in middle-class suburbs, which both employed live-in maids, which made me think again about the economy and the people's aspirations.

This brings me to housing. The government has provided subsidised housing to some people since 1994, and -- thankfully -- it has not got very far with its programme. Many of these homes are little bigger than the shacks the owners made themselves, and, since they are made according to modern western building methods, they are hugely energy inefficient, colder, damper, and only marginally more aesthetically pleasing than the shacks. But their occupants like them for being "suburban". The government's lack of delivery means there's still plenty of scope for exciting new/traditional building methods to get broader acceptance through educational programmes and hands-on projects. In Cape Town and Johannesburg schemes involving straw-bale and cob housing are being developed. For around £1,000 you can build a two-storey three-bedroomed house, creatively shaped, naturally ten degrees warmer in winter than outside, and ten degrees cooler in summer, and with a life-span measurable in centuries. You just have to be prepared to make it largely out of the same material with which your tribe once built their huts: mud and straw. I don't recommend monarchy as a political system, but it can make some things happen a damn sight more easily: in neighbouring Swaziland, the King has ensured that traditional building methods are used in many of the country's new housing projects, which will save his people a lot of money, give them better quality housing, and of course keep them culturally rooted. The Swazis I've met and worked with have been confident, culturally integrated Africans -- but many South Africans are understandably confused about what they really want: they are urbanised but still attached to the land, and they are bombarded with American imagery (like most of the rest of us).

Dave wrote from Grahamstown, which is hardly the best place to see the state in an optimistic light. He calls it the Cambridge of South Africa, but a better comparison is with Durham, a tiny, old, overlooked university town in the heart of the country's poorest and most screwed up province, screwed up by the Nats because it was the heartland of the revolution. The Eastern Cape contains two former "independent" homelands, the Ciskei and the Transkei, and both are ravaged by overgrazing, underinvestment, and lack of management. The provincial government's task has been to integrate three administrative and legal systems and bring rampant corruption under control, while paying fat retrenchment packages to the civil servants who are losing their jobs. The provincial government is -- bizarrely -- centred not in the largest city, Port Elizabeth, but in Bisho, a village created as the capital of the former Ciskei by apartheid Military Intelligence, which basically ran the "state". So it's no surprise that, as yet, corruption still outweighs delivery in the Eastern Cape. The government continues to put its faith in the proposed Coega Industrial Development Zone, a capital-intensive export zone for heavy industry: worthy of the old regime, it is quite incorrectly billed as the saviour for the provincial economy. Preventing this IDZ is a huge environmental education task, a fight in which many groups are becoming involved.

One of the real boons for the Eastern Cape will be tourism -- assuming people still want to visit once the steel mills are up and running. Taken as a whole, the province has an incredible variation of landscapes, climates, flora and faura, as well as a rich historical legacy from the early settlers to the Struggle years. The tiny mountain resort of Hogsback, to take one example, is where South Africa's best-loved author, J.R.R. Tolkien, spent a part of his childhood, and the surrounding Amatola mountains are said to have inspired his Middle-Earth landscapes. Yet in the village the only hints of its heritage are pictures of hobbits on the signs for walking trails, and a B&B called "The Shire". The more fortunate Western Cape, by contrast, is getting increasing prosperity from tourism, which has become more noticeable over the last few years. Tourism is now a greater contributor to the national economy than gold, and it creates far more jobs -- and far more empowerment in those jobs, since the industry is not controlled by a large monopoly.

Higher Education in South Africa is, in the words of Education Minister Professor Kader Asmal, "in turmoil". This is, he says, a good thing: it is not, as others have suggested, "in crisis". Reform of the university system has been essential for some time: the immediate result of the end of apartheid was an opening up of universities to students of all races, and universities such as Wits and the University of Cape Town have been going through dramatic changes to their student bodies and restructuring courses accordingly -- in large part to allow promising black students who didn't make the formal entrance requirements to catch up.

Everyone agrees that the problems lie with the "historically disadvantaged" institutions. Many of these were set up specifically by the apartheid government to provide "national universities" in the "independent homelands", and thereby to justify excluding blacks from existing institutions. Fort Hare University has alumni including southern Africa's elder statesman, Nelson Mandela, and her elder embarassment, Bobby Mugabe -- but under this system it became the University of the Ciskei. Guess which two universities are in the worst situation right now, with vice-chancellors on the verge of suspension? Fort Hare and the University of Transkei, both somewhat east of Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape. So when The Star asks if we really need twenty-one universities, it is a question being asked by many people: South Africa has plenty of over-educated managers and not enough good technical staff, and the Transkei has a university and no Technikon. Some of these local "universities" may need to adjust their curricula.

In fact, one model is coming together in the Western Cape, where UCT, Stellenbosch, UWC, Cape Technikon and Peninsula Technikon are beginning to pool resources, and students are taking certain courses at neighbouring institutions. Partnerships are the obvious way out of the "turmoil" as the funding is reappraised. The other current problem is falling numbers as new students choose private institutions (some organised by shark operators or British universities out to make cash given Britain's own funding dilemmas), and which the government plans to regulate soon -- or they simply don't matriculate. The transformation of the primary and secondary sectors is at least as complicated as in the tertiary sector.

Minister Asmal has his work cut out, but he has already proved himself. In Mandela's Cabinet he stood out as Minister of Water Affairs, providing South Africa with the world's most advanced water laws, delivering on connecting people to clean water, and efficiently regulating services, all of which is essential in this dry country. I have a lot of confidence, given his pronouncements and actions already, that he will tackle educational transformation well over the next few years. Besides the adjustment from apartheid education to a unitary examination system, the past few years have seen additional problems with the introduction of a brave new curriculum (much more creative and exciting for teachers than the British equivalent), while the finance ministry has imposed substantial cuts on the department. Why the ANC is choosing to pay off international and national debts incurred by the illegitimate former regime is beyond me, but these are some of the pressures in education. Still, creative work is happening in all education sectors, South Africa just needs to overturn current economic thinking (again, like the rest of us).

No one will deny that there are great tensions in South Africa's society and economy. But these are the tensions of a country finding its way in a world which has gone mad. The international capitalism which is led by the thoroughly irresponsible and consumptive old US of A and European Union generates its own global apartheid, and South Africa is not immune to its pressures. The European Union sees the potential of eco-tourism in the Eastern Cape and has earmarked cash for it, but sixty per cent of this, of course, goes to its own officials for their "research". It will probably take some hectic ecological breakdowns for the more powerful sectors of mankind to think hard about creating people-oriented sustainable societies. I personally think that South Africans -- who are quite unable to sit back complacently like many in the North -- will be more open to the challenges such global collapses might bring. This is all pure hypothesis, of course.

Dave talks of black townships and white suburbs and if Grahamstown is still as divided as on my last visit there, in 1998, I can see how easy it is to say that. But in Cape Town such distinctions are not so clear, and not just because the majority of Capetonians are coloured! In my street, where I live with my wife Carey (a mixed-race South African), white, brown and black children play together, and people talk in Xhosa, Afrikaans, English and Frenchm for there are quite a few Congolese immigrants here. Grahamstown is a small town in a depressed agricultural area, where the divisions are much sharper. Here in Cape Town I could turn on the radio and listen to SAFM or Radio 5, stations largely aimed at white English speakers with white-accented presenters. But this is a multi-lingual society, and there are plenty of FM stations broadcasting in African languages. Or I could turn on Good Hope FM or P4, local populist stations with many coloured and black presenters and vibey music. Or I could turn on the TV, where the transformation since 1994 has been dramatic, despite the prevalence of unfortunate American kak.

Given my involvement in the music industry here, I'm rapidly moving away from talking about politics to talking about culture, which I find far more interesting but which is a matter for another Letter. So I'll leave you with a few thoughts about white South Africans. They may have been villified by us all en masse for years, but more whites here speak a non-European language -- excluding Afrikaans -- than anywhere else in the world: the blonde girl reading the Zulu news is not a token. You have to cross lots of complicated cultural barriers to become a white African! In my experience the most obnoxious whites here are often middle-aged Britons who came here knowing exactly what was happening, those who show their racism through their asides. In contrast to liberal English-speakers, who seem to be retreating somewhat into the business world, Afrikaans is bizarrely going through something of a liberal cultural renaissance. so that the the Nasionale Kunsfees gets better reviews than the Grahamstown National Arts Festival right now, so if any of you are planning a visit, I recommend learning some of the oppressors' language before you come. Dit is 'n mooi taal, wat gee jou meer toegang na die opwindende wereld van Suid-Afrikaanse kultuur.




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