Richard Smith: Healing from apartheid

Richard SmithSouth Africa is a country scarred by apartheid, and during my week in Cape Town I had a chance to get a sense in my own small and idiosyncratic way of how far healing has progressed.

My first experiences were discouraging. I stayed in the Vineyard Hotel at the foot of Table Mountain. It’s as wonderful a hotel as I’ve stayed in anywhere, not a concrete monstrosity but an old, colonial style hotel with luxuriant gardens filled with indigenous plants and with a sign saying “Tortoises on the loose.” The hotel is large and many people visit just for the restaurants, but I couldn’t help but notice that all the guests were white. Once I’d been there six days I eventually spotted a black guest. In contrast, almost all of the staff were black or “Cape coloured,” and the few white staff seemed always to be supervisors.

People in South Africa understandably feel uncomfortable with conversations about race, but they crop up all the time. Almost every day the newspapers had articles about politicians being accused of being racist. Presumably calling somebody a racist is the worst possible condemnation. For years government documents didn’t ask about race, and it’s easy to be confused by what to call people. Black and white seem uncomplicated, but “coloured” is a confusing term. In the days of apartheid it meant Asian, but now coloured includes mixed race people and Khoikhoi and San, the original inhabitants of Southern Africa. Most coloured people speak Afrikaans, “the language of the oppressor,” but they are transforming the language and using it to write rich poetry. Some traditional Afrikaaners don’t like the way their language is evolving; others are impressed.

South Africa, colleagues told me, has the biggest inequalities in income in the world, and 30 minutes drive from the Vineyard Hotel is Khayelitsha, a “township” or slum that contains as many as one million people. The gap in income and housing is huge, and over 50% of the South African population is under 25 and half of those are unemployed. These are ingredients that have fuelled the rebellions in the Arab world, and columnists in the South Africa press wonder if something similar might happen in their country. One crucial difference is that South Africa is a democracy, and while I was in Cape Town I saw dozens of posters urging people to register to vote.

Perhaps my richest insight into the healing from apartheid came from the workshops I conducted at the three universities. The University of the Western Cape (UWC) was founded in the apartheid era as a “Bush college” for non-whites. Stellenbosch was the Afrikaans university with a great tradition of rugby. The University of Cape Town (UCT) was the English speaking university containing what one of Nelson Mandela’s captors on Robben Island called “kaffir lovers.” All of the universities had people who opposed apartheid, and the free, open, and equal debate that is fundamental to academic endeavour didn’t fit well with apartheid.

I knew the history and wondered what differences I would find. What struck me in the workshops were the similarities. The workshops, which included some 30 to 40 people, were more similar than dissimilar in their racial mix. All racial groups contributed to the discussions, and some of the most radical ideas came from Stellenbosch, which stereotypically I thought the most conservative. UCT had slightly more people for whom English was their first language, but there wasn’t much in it: all three had many people whose first language was not English, although teaching in all three universities is in English.

The positive experience of the workshops was in my mind as I made the trip to Robben Island. As we sailed across to the island, which is 13 km from Cape Town, I remembered being at the anti-apartheid demonstrations at Twickenham in 1968 and thought of my South African friends in London who went to prison for their mixed race relationships.

The trip to Robben Island is a major tourist enterprise, and there must have been 200 people on the trip I made. People came from all over the world, and the South Africans are keen to present Robben Island not as a place where gross abuses were routine but as a symbol of overcoming oppression and coming together. It’s hard to “get in touch” with the past in such crowds, but everybody is moved by the small cell where Nelson Mandela spent 18 years. I found most affecting the cave where the prisoners “relieved themselves” and wrote 60% of the present South African constitution. The cave is in a quarry where the prisoners broke rocks.

When I was at Twickenham in 1968 I assumed, like many, that there would eventually be a blood bath in South Africa, and the world was hugely impressed by how power was transferred peacefully in 1994. That change and the dignity of Nelson Mandela has inspired the world, and the Football World Cup last year showcased the progress made in the “rainbow nation.” My impression, particularly from the universities, is that progress can continue, but the gross inequalities will surely have to diminish.

Competing interest: RS was visiting Cape Town to visit the Centre of Excellence for Chronic Diseases in SubSaharan Africa which is funded by the UnitedHealth Group, for whom RS works, and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. All three of the Cape Town universities participate in the centre.