Revisiting South Africa


Regina Mundi Church in SowetoMy last visit to South Africa was in 1989 when apartheid was in its death throes and Mandela was about to be freed after 27 years of incarceration. At that time, I was accompanying the late Archbishop of Glasgow, Cardinal Thomas Winning, to show solidarity with the churches opposing apartheid. In one of the iconic sites of the anti-apartheid struggle, Regina Mundi Church in Soweto (site of Madonna and Child window, pictured), he preached about freedom. Outside, my abiding memory is of his beaming face in a sea of joyous African women, ululating to heaven.

The Cardinal's joy returned to me when I went back to a renewed Soweto where small but decent houses had replaced many of the shacks and where memorials to the struggle peppered this home to one and a half million people. The atmosphere of fear and oppression had been substituted by one of limited hope – 'limited' because a democratic South Africa is still faced with huge challenges. Dehumanising poverty is still endemic. Half of the young people between 15 and 24 are unemployed. The only difference between then and now in the gap between the poor (mostly black and so-called coloureds) and rich is that some blacks have become the 'nouveaux riches' of the new South Africa.

Xenophobia against those fleeing war and oppression in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe and other African states on the verge of failing is widespread and deaths have resulted from clashes. Many young, professional whites whose parents fought against apartheid in the ANC are leaving as positive discrimination for blacks in white collar jobs limits their chances of employment. 20% of the population is living with HIV or AIDS. Corruption is, Italian-style, everywhere – from the top echelons of society to the humble worker. Crime is so bad that thieves even stole cables from the new train to the airport, grinding the service to a halt.

Education as a source of empowerment has not been stressed. One student in a shantytown showed me his science assignment from his teacher – impossible for him to do without a computer (they had been stolen from the school months earlier) and a laboratory (not existent). I naively said to him that he should tell his teacher it was not possible to complete it. He shrugged and said 'She will say she has done her job by giving the assignment. She didn't even go through it with us. She doesn't teach us anything'. Yet his hunger for a decent education was palpable.

I visited a facility in KwaZulu-Natal for orphans and the 'chronically sick', a euphemism for the mentally impaired and young people and adults so severely handicapped that they could only lie in beds, staring, and wait for the sisters to feed and stimulate them. It was an apocalyptic scene. This project, as with too many others, is reliant on the occasionally fickle responses of NGOs or donors who forget that the schools or clinics they construct need funds for maintaining services beyond the initial building.

The 'rainbow nation' contains an undercurrent of danger, brought to the boil occasionally by politicians who, to massage their own egos or to hide their own incompetence, stir up ethnic or racial tensions – total craziness in a country as diverse as South Africa.

But despite all that, there was hope in the air. We must remember that you don't get rid of the consequences of an inhuman system like apartheid in the space of the seventeen years that separate Mandela's victory in the first democratic elections from today. We outsiders underestimate its pervasiveness and its depth of depravity. A tour round Johannesburg's gut-wrenching Museum of Apartheid shows that the system was more akin to the Holocaust than a 'mere' colour bar.

Yet it was in the museum, that place of the systematic record of humankind's capacity for evil, that I saw a real symbol of the new South Africa. A young white man wandered round hand in hand with his black girlfriend, their caresses undermining a system which barred love between races. That became for me an icon of hope for the country and, since I was there to do some work for the Dominican Order, the words of that great Dominican laywoman, St Catherine of Siena, came down the centuries to me from medieval Tuscany: 'Be up and doing for there is no cause so difficult, no stronghold so impregnable that it cannot be broken down – and you built up – by love'.

Duncan MacLarenDuncan MacLaren is a lay Dominican and was in South Africa to address the Indaba ("Gathering") of the Dominican Family in South Africa. 

Topic tags: South Africa, Soweto, Duncan Maclaren, Dominicans, apartheid, poverty, education, xenophobia



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Existing comments

The continuing deprivation of non-white people in South Africa is deplorable and shows the injustice caused by the power of the wealthy, black or white - as exists in many countries including Australia.
Here, the bottom 20% of income earners receive 4% of the total while the top 20% collect 48%.

Wealth distribution is even worse. The bottom 20% own less than 1% while the top 20% own 65%.

Bob Corcoran | 31 August 2011  

As always, most interesting and powerful Duncan. Thanks, Steve

steve sinn | 31 August 2011  

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