The first thing I noticed in South Africa were the barriers. There are walls surrounding most businesses and homes in “nicer” parts of Johannesburg, walls often topped with barbed wire or broken glass.
Everyone I spoke to considered them a necessity. “There was a war, you know,” said a taxi driver, by way of explanation.
Last month I traveled to South Africa for the first time. I’m still not sure how the place works, not in terms of infrastructure or crime or elections, but in terms of the simplest definition of politics: how its people decided to try and get along. But I am astonished and overwhelmed.
Every year, at our church in Washington, D.C., we hear from young South Africans who participate in the programs of the Bokamoso Youth Foundation. They tell us about their lives, their pursuit of education and skills that can provide for their families. And they sing.
The Bokamoso youth enter the sanctuary in a line, swaying to “Shosholoza,” often described as South Africa’s second national anthem. A song sung by miners and prisoners during apartheid, it has a simple melody but several settings; a rough translation of the main verse is “Go Forward.” If you’ve watched the movie “Invictus,” about South Africa’s rugby World Cup victory in 1995, you’ve heard it.
I hadn’t watched the movie before, but it’s a long flight to Johannesburg and South African Airways has it in the queue. For a movie about a sport that enjoys niche status in the United States, it was enjoyable and also slightly unbelievable. Not the rugby parts; but the idea that on becoming president of a newly free South Africa, Nelson Mandela became convinced that the Springboks, the national rugby team — revered by Afrikaners — should not only win the World Cup but should do so with the backing of the entire country, including the president himself, seemed sort of crazy.
Surely Mandela had greater issues to address? Surely the very last thing his supporters, people who had been beaten, jailed and worse, would imagine to be on the agenda would be a full-throated endorsement of this bastion of Afrikaner identity. A perfect movie story, I guess, but really?
And yet Mandela understood, in a way that made him both a gift to his country and the world and a very tough act to follow for every South African leader, that there were precious few opportunities to speak to the entire nation in a way that everyone could understand and approach. Whether you started from the vantage point of “We love the Springboks” or “We love Mandela,” his ask wasn’t too much: if you can support the Springboks, you can support the new South Africa, and vice versa.
On my first morning in Johannesburg, I took a walk from my hotel in the city’s Parktown neighborhood over to Constitution Hill, where the Old Fort that served as a prison still sits next to portions of the court buildings. It was a Sunday, so the exhibits were closed, and there weren’t many people around.
But that made my perception of the task set in front of Mandela more than 20 years ago even sharper. This was the past, but it’s not far away. How did South Africa emerge? Even with as many issues as they have now and will have, how did they do it? What do leaders do when common goals aren’t universally shared?
The centerpiece of the exhibits were two stairwells from the Awaiting Trial Block, where black South Africans were jailed, often repeatedly. Most of the block had been torn down to build the new Constitutional Court, but the two stairwells remained as a reminder of what had happened there (they are the glass-topped structures in the picture above). The image of them standing apart from the new court — that the old system would be a constant reminder, but not a permanent presence in the new court building — seemed like the right message.
On the walk I noticed that, even in this part of the city, white people don’t really walk around, even on a Sunday morning. Maybe it’s different during the week, but on a nearly 45-minute excursion I saw one other white person, and he was pretty clearly homeless. Part of that could be because I took a detour through Hillbrow, a neighborhood of apartment buildings and shops without many walls. I walked past open markets and stores advertising ways to send money back to Zimbabwe. Nobody paid me much attention, and I never felt unsafe.
Rebuilding a nation that has harmed itself for decades isn’t simple, and the South Africa I saw reflected that. Security is a big issue, which means that people of all colors who have the means congregate at malls and other mostly enclosed areas. During my stay we had lunch at one mall, changed money at another and went shopping at a third. One had a flea market operating on its rooftop garage.
I did go out for dinner one evening to an Indian restaurant in Randburg, which seemed to me to be a fairly upscale place. Still, the walls were everywhere, and the people who were out walking on the sidewalks were mostly young. I took a taxi there and back; it wasn’t walking distance from the hotel, but I began to wonder what walking distance meant in a city like Johannesburg.
For my entire visit and for some time after I got back, the walls unnerved me. I don’t know if I was just naive in expecting them not to be there, or as much of a permanent fixture, but I found it hard to reconcile with the idea of a nation moving forward, where the election commission was troubled by the fact that the percentage of eligible voters casting ballots in elections earlier in the year sunk to 73.48 percent, a post-apartheid low that made American voting rates seem even more anemic.
But then I thought about the taxi driver who mentioned the struggles that drove whites to erect walls around their homes and businesses. Yes, there is crime, and the ANC of 2014 is not exactly the ANC of 1994. But this was a country that 25 years ago could have descended into madness like Rwanda did. It didn’t, but making its way out of where it was would take time.
It made me think of Antietam, about an hour’s drive from where I live in Maryland’s suburbs. Some 23,000 Americans were killed, wounded or missing after 12 hours of butchery in one of the most beautiful places you’ll ever see. How many years did it take us as a nation to heal? 80? 100? How slow was the progress?
Which brings me back to “Shosholoza.” The miners and prisoners sang it not only as a distraction from their misery and boredom, but to maintain their solidarity and sense of purpose. They were not standing still, but going forward. The song is performed all over the world, by American high schoolers, at Polish gospel workshops and Finnish music festivals. My church choir rehearsed it this week.
My favorite YouTube version is one by the Cenestra Male Choir from near Johannesburg, performing in Britain. Around the 3:40 mark, you can see an older woman practically explode out of her church pew, clapping along with the joy that surges through the song. It could have been the first time she had heard it, or the 100th. But she moved. She went forward. Whatever the pace, I think I understand South Africa a little bit better.