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Last Updated: Tuesday, 13 April, 2004, 14:58 GMT 15:58 UK
How South Africa has changed
By Justin Pearce
BBC News Online, Johannesburg

It was a conversation at a Soweto high school that made me realise how much South Africa has changed - and how little.

Johannesburg schoolchildren
There is still a long way to go to iron out education inequalities
In a classroom with broken windows and not a textbook to be seen, I asked an overworked teacher how she felt when she saw the formerly white schools - now open to children of any colour whose parents can afford the fees - with their libraries and sports fields.

The teacher replied politely that she could not answer the question, since she had never had a chance to look around the white schools.

Then one of her colleagues chimed in, complaining that her pupils' parents - the generation who faced the police bullets during the education protests of 1976 - "still have the idea of schools as being places of struggle".

"The minds of black children must be turned away from politics," she said.

In other words: On the one hand, South Africa is still so divided that the poor are barely able to see how the other half lives.

On the other hand, the struggle for freedom and equality, which was fuelled by the legally entrenched injustice of apartheid, has lost its momentum.

Ideological certainties

It's an old truism that South Africa is a land of two realities. It has never been more than a short drive from lush gardens and shopping malls to tin shanties and open sewers.

Soweto township
A number of shanties have now been replaced with small houses
Today, the contrast remains blatant, even if many of the shanties have been replaced by matchbox houses, and the well-dressed shoppers in the malls are no longer exclusively white.

But in the old days, you could call upon the ideological certainties either of apartheid or of the struggle against apartheid to try and make sense of it all.

Those certainties are no more. Apartheid officially no longer exists, but its legacy is plain to see.

Those who led the struggle are now those who preside over that legacy.

Eking a living

So after 10 years, is the ANC government the solution or the problem? Or does the question simply not matter?

Under the palm trees in Durban, I asked a woman operating a public phone centre what difference 10 years of democracy had made to her life.

"No difference" was her first answer.

It took some prompting before she started to number the things that have changed: new houses in her neighbourhood, with running water and electricity.

There has been no change physically in my life, but I am optimistic
Durban resident

Quite a change, when you think about it, even if she was still battling to make a living.

Deep scepticism

In the sandy streets of Cape Town's Nyanga township, an elderly man grumbled that the government was doing nothing to stop crime and unemployment - but added that he would vote for the ANC because he had always been an ANC man, and he was now too old to change.

In a society that was once so highly politicised, politics seems to have become divorced from the world people see around them.

Where things have changed for the better - where houses have been built, where black people now feel free to go anywhere they choose - this is often taken for granted.

Where things have not changed - where people remain unemployed or live in terror of crime - there is a deep scepticism whether any political party has either the ability or the will to do anything about it.

"The politicians come and make promises, then we won't see them for another five years," is a common complaint.

Consistent fears

In the last month, Thabo Mbeki has reinvented himself.

1.6m new houses built for poor
Stable economy, low inflation
70% households electrified
9m access to water
30% unemployment
5.3m with HIV/Aids
Massive wealth inequality

The aloof and staid intellectual of the last election has learnt to be photographed talking both to poor country folk and to BMW-driving suburbanites; he has learnt to dance on stage at ANC rallies.

Those rallies are still able to pull in the crowds - and it would be a mistake to underestimate the dedication of the ANC faithful, and indeed of anyone who takes a longer-term view of the process of change.

"There has been no change physically in my life, but I am optimistic," said a man in Durban, aged 32, he was old enough to remember the bad old days, but also young enough to see a better future.

"The government listens to people, not like the previous one."

People's hopes and aspirations may differ, but their fears remain strangely consistent.

Hangman's noose

Whether black, white or brown, rich or poor, South Africans will, almost unfailingly, name unemployment and crime as the two biggest problems facing the country.

crime suspects
The high rate of crime is a big concern among South Africans
Some saw the connection between these two ills.

"Our children are out of work - so they steal, they do this, do that," said one elderly lady from the Western Cape.

But many others see crime as a problem best dealt with by the hangman's noose.

When, after the 1994 elections, a Constitutional Court was set up to re-orientate the country's laws towards human rights, its first ruling was to abolish the death penalty.

On the streets of Johannesburg, Cape Town or Durban, the painstaking negotiation of the new constitution, and the learned legal arguments that put an end to capital punishment, count for nothing against what people see as a swift solution to an immediate threat.

Never mind the fact that most criminals never even get arrested in the first place.

In a South Africa where the dual realities of old have given way to 40 million realities - a different one for every citizen - people are eager to grasp at something that at least seems simple.

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