by Rory Carroll
Special to Global Wire
It was an interesting few years. I was mugged, burgled and branded a liar. I betrayed the confidence of someone with HIV and chased a stranger in the hope of stabbing him. I listened to people moan from want of medicine while the wind howled through their shacks. I watched the country inch closer to a one-party state, and that party slide into scandal and crisis. I would like to say I fell in love with South Africa. But I didn't.
After almost four years in Johannesburg, the time has come to move on, and I do so with a sense of detachment. This never really became home. Partly it was running to the airport every other week for overseas trips; partly it was being white and European; but mainly it was because South Africa was such a fraught place to live. The anxiety about crime, the crunching on racial eggshells, the juxtaposition of first-world materialism with third-world squalor - it all added up.
Which is a shame, because there is much to love. This is a complex, beautiful, extraordinary country. The people are among the warmest I have encountered anywhere, smiles as wide as they are genuine. From the ashes of apartheid here is a stable, peaceful democracy with a surging economy. It is a beacon for the continent, drawing millions of migrants. I am optimistic about its future. On occasion I lost my heart here but more often I lost my peace of mind. This can be a raw society and it took a sledgehammer to some cherished liberal views on race, sex and crime. I did not enjoy their bashing, though those that survived are stronger for it. Imagine a boot camp for progressive ideals.
Let's start with crime. The government says violent crime peaked in the 1990s and has been steadily declining, with annual murder rates dipping below 20,000. You are still 12 times likelier to be killed than the average American, or 50 times likelier than the average western European, but that is progress none the less. The fall in car hijackings has been even steeper. So with crime easing, a good liberal should, perhaps, campaign for gun control, or better conditions in horrendously overcrowded jails, or work placements for released convicts.
None of those issues sprang to mind when an afternoon stroll was interrupted by a knife to my chest and a demand to hand over my bag. What sprang, as I complied, was fury. Fury as inexplicable as it was instant. So I gave chase, sprinting through traffic and up into a wood. In his haste the mugger dropped the knife. I scooped it up and debated, as I closed in, where to stick it. A few strides later I dropped the idea and the knife. Not out of reluctance to spill human blood for material gain, but out of fear that in a tussle I might be the one left wounded. The pursuit ended in a negotiated deal, the mugger returning everything except my wallet. But I will not forget those few seconds when I wanted - really wanted - to take a life.
My opposition to capital punishment was challenged a second time when my neighbourhood was plagued by a petty thief dubbed the "vaulting wanker" for his masturbating in the bushes and his ability to leap over fences to elude private security guards. I blamed him for three break-ins which cost me a passport and a bicycle, among other things. A neighbourhood meeting yielded an intriguing option: Eugene de Kock, a jailed apartheid killer known as Prime Evil, had read about our plight in an Afrikaans newspaper and offered to dispatch one of his former army comrades, a bush war veteran, to track down the vaulter. I and several others were all for it, discussing with relish the steel traps to be set in our gardens. "But what if he kills him? We could be accomplices to murder," protested one neighbour. To my dismay, the proposal was vetoed.
I was mugged again. It was midnight and I was on foot. A car stopped, two guys jumped out, pointed a gun at my nose and took my wallet, phone, keys and shoes. I was left wandering the streets barefoot and shaken. Walking had been a deliberate choice to root myself in my surroundings but I vowed henceforth to use my car even for short journeys. It was a retreat, and I knew it.
Less dramatically, but in a way more troubling, was the disappearance of a cheap radio cassette player from my house. I was 99% sure it was my Zulu gardener. He denied it unconvincingly. The dilemma was whether to fire him. Or to put it another way: whether to make an enemy of a man who had a key to my house, knew my routine and had a way with shears. My shameful solution was to fob him on to a newly arrived neighbour who needed a gardener.
Everywhere I turned, South Africa presented awkward choices. As a singleton it was easy to meet women on Johannesburg's vibrant social scene. It would also have been easy to get HIV. The UN has a global Aids map with the west coloured a faint pink, Russia and India an ominous orange and sub-Saharah Africa a fiery red that burns brighter the further south you go. "No way would I ever sleep with anyone from here," said an American friend.
Statistics suggest black South African women are more than twice as likely to have the virus as white women. Condoms slash the risk of transmission - but there is still a risk. Is it wrong, then, to date only white people, or expats? Some months ago an acquaintance confided that she was HIV positive. Later she flirted with a friend of mine who did not know her status. Should I have tipped him off - or respected the confidence and trusted her to tell him herself? I tipped him off and he fled. She felt betrayed.
The most distressing side of South Africa is the HIV/Aids pandemic. Out of 47 million people, more than 5 million are infected. An estimated 1,000 die daily, a staggering toll. Several years ago President Thabo Mbeki made headlines by questioning the existence of the virus as well as the safety and efficacy of antiretroviral drugs, which can extend life by decades. Surfing the internet, he had become enthralled by quasi-scientists who said the disease was largely a western distortion intended to demean Africans as lusty savages. As a result the one sub-Saharan country with the resources to tackle the crisis did next to nothing.
At a cocktail party in 2002 I asked the health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, a close Mbeki ally, why the government preferred to buy new German-made submarines instead of Aids drugs. "Look at what Bush is doing," she replied. "He could invade." Even for a gaffe-prone minister, citing a US threat seemed extraordinary. My slack jaw prevented follow-up questions so I filed just a short story using that quote. The article caused an uproar which briefly overshadowed an African National Congress conference. The health minister denied the comment and at a press conference the foreign minister, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, said it was a lie. A braver journalist would have taken pride in the rumpus. I blanched.
Months later, the government, besieged by critics over its inaction, did a U-turn and announced an ambitious roll-out of Aids drugs. Now, three years on, it boasts one of the world's biggest treatment programmes, with hundreds of thousands receiving antiretrovirals. It represents a victory for advocacy groups, Nelson Mandela and other campaigners who spoke out and forced the government to change tack. It should have been a reason to love South Africa.
But instead I feel sad and angry - because the battle is not over. Mbeki has not recanted his eccentric views on HIV. Instead of showing leadership, he has retreated into a sullen silence on the subject. No cabinet minister or ANC MP has openly challenged him. Tshabalala-Msimang still champions a diet of garlic, beetroot and potatoes as a substitute - rather than a complement - for antiretrovirals. Her department indirectly supports a controversial vitamin salesman who claims his product can cure Aids.
The confusion is pervasive. During his recent rape trial, the ANC's deputy president, Jacob Zuma, admitted having consensual and unprotected sex with a woman he knew had HIV. There were no condoms handy, so as a precaution he showered afterwards, he said. This from the former head of the national Aids council and moral regeneration movement. Zuma was acquitted of rape, but his ignorance - or recklessness - was shocking.
The disarray in Aids policy confuses ordinary people, cripples health administration and exacts a devastating toll. In Kamhlushwa, a village on the Swazi border, I visited skinny, coughing shack-dwellers resigned to never receiving treatment. Instead they asked for blankets as protection against the wind. "The bureaucracy is not responding to HIV/Aids," said Sally McKibbin, the founder of Thembalethu, a home-based care initiative. "The government has not catered for this disaster."
My guess is that the disease will not unravel South Africa. It is hitting teachers, police officers and other important groups, and a generation of children is growing up without parents. But apocalyptic images of collapse and a country overrun by feral child gangs seem fanciful. When people here are confronted with any task, the stock phrase is,"Make a plan", and invariably people do. However stretched, family and community networks, as well as the state, are likely to keep things together.
The latest estimate is that Aids will knock 1% off the annual population growth rate, currently clipping along at 5%. It could be decades before we know the pandemic's full human and economic cost. There are countless individuals combating the pandemic but the tragedy is that with better leadership, much of the suffering could be averted or ameliorated. How can you fall in love with a country that forfeits the chance to save so many lives?
Economic growth is a happier story. Having inherited a near-bankrupt treasury and stagnant economy in 1994, the ANC did wonders stabilising the fiscus and wooing investors. But the zippy growth needed to dent 40% unemployment proved elusive - until now. From a low base, the black middle class is growing fast, by some estimates at 50% every year, and it is driving a consumer boom. Vehicle sales are breaking records (especially of BMWs, aka the Black Man's Wish) and property prices are soaring, notably in the newly gentrified parts of Soweto and other townships.
There are alarm bells, such as the rapacious materialism and perilously high debt levels. More importantly, the gap between the arrivistes and those left behind yawns wider. Despite government schemes providing electricity, clean water and decent houses to millions, there is a consensus that not enough has been done for the poor. I was reminded of this every day by the two elderly vagrants for whom the footpath opposite my house was home. Early this year, impatience flared into riots. "We used to like the ANC because it brought freedom. But freedom is not enough," Solly Nyathi, an unemployed 18-year-old, told me in Khutsong, a township of burning barricades.
But instead of a bloody nose in local elections, as pundits predicted, the ruling party increased its share of the vote to 66%. After 12 years in power, the ANC still enjoys massive support. It controls two-thirds of the seats in parliament, all nine provinces, and every major city except Cape Town, a lone opposition outpost. Obviously, the party is getting many things right.
But there has been an erosion in democratic accountability. Parliament has become a rubber stamp, its committees seldom barking at, let alone biting, government decisions. The public broadcaster, SABC, has banned certain political commentators from its airwaves and recently shelved a TV documentary critical of the president. Judges fret that proposed legal reforms will clip their independence. After losing control of Cape Town, ANC members responded by throwing chairs at the opposition mayor.
The biggest check on government power is the ANC's internal democracy. My previous posting, Rome, was useful training because, in its subterranean plotting and coded statements, the former liberation movement resembles the Vatican. Serious problems are brewing. As the presidency has grown more powerful, party branches have decayed. Jacob Zuma's bid to succeed Mbeki, who constitutionally must step down after this second term, has triggered a vicious power struggle involving hoax emails, dirty tricks and surveillance by intelligence agencies. Zuma has painted his pending corruption trial as a conspiracy against his leftwing constituency.
"I'm telling you, man, it's going the way of Zimbabwe," a white car mechanic told me last week. He spoke for many who say that, as with its northern neighbour, the second decade after liberation is when corruption, misrule and authoritarianism kick in. It could happen to South Africa - but probably won't. The political turmoil is cause for unease, not alarm. The ANC's convulsions are clumsy gear-changes, not the wheels falling off. The U-turn on antiretrovirals and the increased spending on housing, health and education, for instance, show a party still responsive to voters. The steady rise in foreign visitors and investment, and the successful bid to host the 2010 football World Cup, testify to widespread confidence.
But the mechanic's glumness was not surprising. Skin colour still defines political outlook. It has been that way since Dutch sailors in the 17th century planted a bitter-almond hedge to separate themselves from indigenous inhabitants in the Cape. Maybe the reconciliation rhetoric of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu raised the bar unrealistically high, because it is depressing, 12 years after apartheid crumbled, to find that race still permeates everything.
When I went out for the night with a black woman some months ago, other customers clocked us as we entered a bar, not hostile but curious at what remains an unusual sight: a mixed-race couple. The exception was a stocky black guy sipping an Amstel, who grimaced. He leaned over and hissed into my date's ear: "Prostitute." Why else would she be with a white guy other than for his money? A second's pause, then with a lightning jab, she extinguished her lit cigarette on his forehead. He screamed, bouncers charged in, and so ended that evening's attempt to live the rainbow nation. Because of incidents like that I have always felt more at ease in other African countries where whiteness is an issue but without South Africa's sting.
It is easy to criticise those white people who refuse to acknowledge the obscenity of apartheid. What about the others, those who consider themselves progressives and are largely upbeat about the new South Africa - but who live behind high walls, cannot speak a word of the African languages, and have far more white friends than black? Are they hypocrites? I hope not, because I was one of them.
My explanation - my excuse - is that you get by perfectly fine speaking only English and that it is natural to socialise mainly with people of a similar income and education level. Whether this rationale is reasonable or not, the price you pay is detachment from swaths of society. Forays to townships and dusty villages do not alter the uncomfortable fact that I lived in a bubble. On occasion I tried to puncture it, to let the energy and variety of this wonderful country suffuse daily life. That this article is not a love letter to South Africa shows that I failed.