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Out of South Africa

The constitutional landscape of Africa is littered with the wrecks of emerging nations, rising from the yoke of imperial powers like Britain, France and Germany, writes Abhishek Singhvi.

india Updated: Jun 20, 2007 03:09 IST

It is entirely justifiable to miss a column or two during the year, especially when one is travelling on a holiday. The newspaper is very accommodative and life is easier if one does not worry about deadlines. But it is the kick one gets out of telling oneself that one has not missed more than five columns in four years that makes one write columns from buses, planes, trains, ships, on holiday, on work, without access to research material, using hired internet services, beating the deadline by minutes and successfully overcoming diverse other pressing exigencies. Sending in this piece while travelling, one is tempted to write soon on the art of meeting deadlines from diverse locations!

This June has been diverse and any one of my destinations, South Korea, Stanford (in the US), South Africa and Romania, would qualify as a column subject. I chose South Africa as I spent the longest time there. One could comment on its great natural beauty, its history as a second-time independent nation as recently as 1994 (post-apartheid), its natural links with India and so on. But I prefer to summarise my personal perceptions on my first trip to Africa.

My first feeling was that of all the newly-independent African nations, South Africa is better-managed, better-run, more prosperous and relatively more stable. The constitutional landscape of Africa is littered with the wrecks of emerging nations, rising from the yoke of imperial powers like Britain, Netherlands, Belgium, France, Germany, Portugal, Spain and Italy, only to collapse into a vicious cycle of coups, dictatorships, misrule, poverty and the inability of institutions to grow and take root. South Africa has defied that cyclically pessimistic paradigm and presents a striking parallel to India.

Second, while the country has overcome the initial hump of what could have been a bloody transition on account of the magnanimity of Nelson Mandela as well as because of statesmanship exhibited by several of its other Black rulers, the transition is by no means complete. Any act of shortsightedness or misrule by a leader or absence of an inclusive, pluralist approach could tear the uneasy equilibrium of the country apart. Whites remain apprehensive about the future while Blacks lament the lack of opportunity and material prosperity.

Third, South Africa is still a far cry away from even partial empowerment of the deprived classes. In my 10-day stay, I did not see any Black in a self-employed or business position of authority (apart from government jobs). Ownership of shops, businesses and enterprises remains with Whites, and the Blacks I encountered were either engaged in menial tasks or were employees, but not as owners or partners. Apartheid had enforced legally mandated segregation of residences and localities. Significant economic disparity perpetuates this status quo despite the absence of legal sanction. All the pretty residential areas and the four-and five-star locations I saw were overwhelmingly settled by Whites.

It is obvious that a large number of White South Africans, many of whom are not racist and share progressive values, cannot avoid an inherent superiority complex. Comprehensive affirmative action over many decades alone will bridge this generational chasm. But Whites are extremely concerned about the aggressive affirmative programmes initiated by the government, including compulsory employment of a minimum percentage of Blacks in private corporate enterprises executing government contracts and tenders. Renaming of roads, towns, airports or other institutions after eminent freedom fighters belonging to the South African nationalist movement is also a matter of concern among some Whites.

It is, however, good that things in South Africa are not brushed under the carpet. In Robben Island, off the coast of Cape Town, where Mandela spent 18 years in a 2x2 cell in solitary confinement (he spent a total of 27 years in prison), I was pleasantly surprised to find a young Black university student and a former political prisoner on the island as my guides. Both gave unabashed political lectures to the coachful of tourists from at least 10 nations (including South Africa). They talked about the massacre at Sharpville, of the uprising at Soweto, of the brutal murder of several Black activists, of the personal trials and tribulations of the guide who had served time on the island during apartheid. It was done very matter of factly and without any rancour. Despite the presence of several English tourists, we were reminded of the callous attitude of Margaret Thatcher who, as recently as 1987, had described Mandela as a “self-confessed terrorist”. I came away feeling that, like India, here was a young multicultural, multi-racial, multi-ethnic and multi-religious, vibrant democracy whose best was yet to come.

Abhishek Singhvi is Member of Parliament, Congress National Spokesperson, and Senior Advocate, Supreme Court