By Marisa Stone
He has been investigated for criminal activities, corruption and being in the pocket of billionaires. And yet he survives. Donald Trump? No, an even more unpopular leader, President Jacob Zuma of South Africa. On Aug. 8, a constitutional motion of no confidence in Zuma was defeated in the Parliament 198-177, with nine abstentions. Zuma will stay in office for another year.
The election of Nelson Mandela, and the abolition of apartheid in 1994, was a cause for euphoria in South Africa, after decades of harsh repression and a litany of injustices against the vast majority of the population. But that euphoria has become crushing disappointment, as black South Africans realize that one of their own, a leader of the once beloved African National Congress (ANC), has enriched himself and his family, while a third of his fellow citizens live in tin shacks without benefit of sanitation services or running water.
Our driver throughout most of our Southern Oregon University Democracy Project trip in South Africa, was Nick, a 50-year-old black man who lives in Alexandra Township near Johannesburg. I asked him if he liked living there. “No, it is chaos,” he said, “but I was able to get my daughter out to go to school.”
Nick was an articulate and hardworking man, but because of a lack of education — as a result of apartheid’s residual effects — he has never been able to develop the skills to find a better job.
During our tour of Soweto (an abbreviation for Johannesburg’s Southwest Townships), Queen, our guide, told us that many of the girls in the townships drop out of school before graduating. When pressed for the reason, she said that many of them could not afford sanitary pads during menstruation. To avoid embarrassment at school, they stay home, get too far behind in their studies, and often never return.
Hearing that, one of our Democracy Project group members suggested we all chip in and buy some feminine-hygiene supplies. So we did, several bags full, that we gave to Queen to distribute to those young women in Soweto, who could not afford something so basic. Of course, this was a bit of charity that made us feel good, but was such a trivial thing when compared to the misery these people suffer through every day.
What surprised many of us was how isolated people were in their homes. In Johannesburg and Pretoria, beautiful homes were surrounded by high walls topped with barbed wire, sharp pointed poles, and glass. South Africans, black as well as white, often fall prey to “Afrophobia,” in which they stereotype immigrants coming to South Africa from other African nations, in search of economic opportunity. The similarity to current American politics was unnerving.
The hope for the future of South Africa lies with the young people born since 1994, for whom apartheid is “ancient history.” We met some of these young people at the University of Johannesburg, when we visited the University’s Political Science and International Relations Department. These young graduate students were united in their contempt for President Zuma, but did not always agree about the future of South Africa, and the best path forward.
Some opined that South Africa was not yet ready for democracy and perhaps they should model their government on that of China. The ANC has retained power for over 25 years, and in some ways already resembles China’s “one-party state.”
Others saw the education of young girls, the country’s future mothers, as the key to economic recovery. Research conducted by the United Nations and various universities around the world, demonstrates that educating girls and women leads to a reduction in child mortality, growth in jobs, and greater democratic participation. See http://en.unesco.org/themes/women-s-and-girls-education.
Most the students were cautiously optimistic because of the strengths South Africa possesses, such as a diverse economy, well-developed transportation network, literate and skilled workforce, healthy financial institutions, advanced medical facilities (in some locations) and a vibrant system of higher education. Whatever their beliefs about South Africa’s future, these smart, articulate young graduate students left us all with a sense of hope that one day soon, it would be they who would finally realize Mandela’s dream of delivering economic equality and justice to all their citizens.
From a distance, it is easy to criticize the rocky and uneven path to democracy that South Africa has taken since 1994. What we need to remember is that it is a young democracy; consider the first tenuous quarter century of America’s history. Democracy is not easy, but it is worth it. Perhaps the quote attributed to Winston Churchill articulates it best, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”
— Marisa Stone is a participant in Southern Oregon University's Democracy Project.