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return to dragon mountain?

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When I returned from South Africa, in late 1991, the country was still an international pariah state, thanks to “apartheid”. I could compare the way the country was portrayed in the media, first from the inside, and with the view from the outside. While I learned a lot, I came to some conclusions that might surprise some.

In the English-speaking community, not only were we well in touch with the way South Africa was viewed, we didn’t think or act in a racist fashion, and we could see the inevitability of change. The “white” community in South Africa was never united in favour of apartheid; my last two years of school were in a large town, big enough for multiple schools, and mine was definitely British, both in language and culture. Even among Afrikaners, the divisions were clear, with a liberal Afrikaans press taking regular pot-shots at government policies, though it was rare to hear openly anti-apartheid rhetoric there.

The business community can take more credit, for the end of “apartheid”, than any number of politicians or protesters. Money talks, and business interests such as the Anglo-American Corporation – who I worked for and still hold a few shares in – were publicly pushing for change. By 1992, President F.W. de Klerk had released all the political prisoners, notably Nelson Mandela, and pushed through the repeal of the laws that formed the legal basis of apartheid. By 1994, the ANC was in charge, after the first elections to include all citizens.

My work for Anglo-American (late 80’s) was for the Highveld Steel company and subsidiaries, and the workforce was divided; but it was more a class division than a racial one, at that time. We had three obvious working classes – management, skilled, and unskilled – which you could take as a reasonable model of the country’s population. The first two were mostly, but not exclusively, white, but improvements in education meant that my fellow apprentices were of all colours, and management was starting to go that way too. Meritocracy was, in principle, the order of the day.

The unskilled majority were unionised, and walked out a few times, once with fairly serious consequences. The rest of us weren’t unionised and didn’t understand what the strike was about, so we were quite happy to keep things going, scoring overtime and bonus pay as a result. Over one memorable fortnight, just two of us ran a whole division of the factory at night, with a manager occasionally dropping in to check on us. It was mostly manual work, mainly controlling conveyors for loading of coal into coking furnaces, that produced carbon monoxide to fuel the steel furnaces. We didn’t find it too difficult, and actually got in a few hours sleep in the middle of the shift – but it took about 20 workers under normal conditions.

The experience brought home an essential point about the role of the company as an employer: these unskilled workers needed the work, and far more of them were employed than were actually needed. The company played a larger social role, offering adult education, health care, and other social benefits. It’s not surprising, looking at it from that angle, that their wages were low; yet their grievances were, if I recall correctly, related to pay and employment security.

This to me is the true legacy of apartheid, one that will take many more years to correct: a huge under-educated majority is not something that can be sustained in a modern economy, and the last decade has not seen sufficient improvement in education standards and availability – the major challenge facing South Africa today. Factories such as the one I worked in are huge concentrations of employment, so much so that many workers are migrants, far from home; they were once prevented by law from settling in “white” areas, and even though the legal restrictions are now gone, the economic problems barely make life any easier today. The fact that South Africa has not yet gone up in flames, due to economic unrest, is laudable, but the long honeymoon is almost over, with so much more still to do.

Back in London, however, I found an incredible wilful ignorance about the complexities of the South African situation, and the ties to British colonial history. (For example, the word “kaffir” is a racial pejorative, yet it comes from the Arabic “qafir”, meaning “unbeliever (of Islam)”. It was once benign and was used in a official capacity by the British government long before it became insulting.) Instead, all I found was blind prejudice and soundbites, and an assumption that anyone who lived there, even a Brit like myself, had picked up racism and carried it with them like a virus. The opposite was true: I was not brought up as a racist, and didn’t feel I had to go to extraordinary lengths to fight apartheid visibly, or preach loudly against it. We just got on with life, did the right things, and that was enough.

Today brought the news that South Africa is to host the 2010 World Cup Soccer tournament: a signal that South Africa is now truly accepted in the international community, in a way they haven’t been for as long as SA has been a country at all. The year is significant and may have played a part in the decision, even though I didn’t hear it mentioned: 2010 will be the centenary of the Union of South Africa, the first time that all the major provinces came together as one country.

Perhaps, in a few years, I wil feel ready to go back there for a visit, preferably when I have learned to drive. Like America, the cities alone are not the main attraction, and though I have seen the Rockies and the Alps, I will have no trouble recognizing the Drakensberg when I see them again. JRR Tolkien, who lived in the area as a child, hadn’t seen them for years before writing The Hobbit, yet the “Dragon Mountains” are a clear inspiration for his descriptions of landscapes.

Written by brian t

May 15, 2004 at 12:40 pm

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