South Africa is a complex and fascinating country. Try as I might, and despite probing everyone I met, I just can't get a good grasp of what has happened, is happening, and will happen in this historically-volatile land. As best as I can figure, the past went something like this:
Thousands of years ago, native black tribes roamed the bush in a culture that has remained alive, uninterrupted, from the dawn of history to today - a feat only duplicated by the aborigines a continent away. Later, perhaps around 1000 AD, black tribes from the north pushed south in a slow, inexorable surge. Eventually, Europe learned that India could be reached by boat around the point, leading to the establishment of first trading posts and then settlements on the southernmost cape. This led to hammer-and-anvil effect as the northern black tribes and southern Europeans (primarily Dutch) pushed the more passive native inhabitants, through a combination of trade, coercion, deceit, and force, almost into extinction. When the two met, bloodshed ensued as has never been seen before.
With the approach of modern time, the black tribes (Zulu, being the primary) were beaten into submission and forced into the rigid borders set down by European colonialists, creating a sort of uneasy peace. Inside the region now known as South Africa, the mostly-Dutch rulers built a vibrant and modern country with the assistance, though not participation, of the black tribes. At the same time, this powerful government slowly eroded the ability of the black tribes to live according to their traditions, creating a class of citizens increasingly dependent upon the technology and modernity of the new white masters. Though outright slavery of the sort widespread throughout the Americas was rare, the black tribes didn't have the physical, political, or economic strength to transact with the white government in an equitable fashion. At some point, a rabidly-conservative wing of the government came into power and enacted a number of highly racist and restrictive laws and policies, eventually resulting in the system of apartheid.
The apartheid system worked very well, in some senses. All of the country's natural resources were channeled into the creation of an incredibly rich and modern society. However, that society only included a tiny fraction of the total population. This naturally led to extreme tension that, when set off by changes in neighboring countries, led to an overnight bloodless-coup in 1994. With the world watching and cheering from the sidelines, Nelson Mandela was released from prison and put in charge of reinventing the Republic of South Africa in a more democratic and equitable fashion. From here on out, however, it gets much more complex, and it's impossible for me to recount my observations without walking some dangerous lines. But, with that caveat, this is what the "word on the street" is of modern history in South Africa.
The apartheid government took drastic measures to maintain their precarious control over the overwhelmingly black population. They drafted laws of morality to prevent intermingling of races (though a large population of "colored" people exist - a non-derogatory term here - that can only be explained by these laws failing). They set land use policies that prevented the use of self-sufficient tribal customs. Basically, the black population was banished to poorly-maintained slums and cheap labor, while the white population reaped the rewards.
Thus, when the new government came into power, it seems reasonable for them to take drastic corrective measures. However, and I'll be honest, some were very drastic. For example, a massive system of affirmative action was implemented that, in effect, replaced every skilled public position (and many private positions) that was once held by a white worker, with a black worker. White private property was seized by the government and reallocated to black citizens (for example, if a yard was too big, it was cut in half for black squatters to resettle). These actions had dramatic consequences.
Remember, for generations the black population had been given no chance to succeed. They had virtually no education, no economic prosperity, no skilled jobs, nothing. This is not to say that the blacks were inferior people, but people held down for a long, long time. Though there are obviously exceptions - and some shining ones at that - the majority of the population was in extreme poverty and depravity.
Furthermore, they come from an entirely different cultural history than the white population. Even to modern times, tribal customs and cultural norms are very much in effect. Basic assumptions that apply to people brought up according to white European traditions do not apply to much, if not most of the population. Again, this is not a matter of moral superiority, but innate differences of people.
Though corrupt and racist to the core, the apartheid government was stable and basically got the job done. The government more or less accomplished what its tiny group of western and westernized citizens wanted. However, when this government, designed and run by a western group to serve a western group, was handed wholesale to non-western workers and applied to a non-western citizenry, problems ensued. Corruption and crime skyrocketed. The economy dropped. Those professionals that could afford to, left. In essence, a once strong and vibrant (and incredibly racist) nation, became fragile, volatile, and somewhat less racist. Needless to say, many were not happy with this change.
Seeking to understand this change, I asked anyone and everyone in sight about their thoughts, white, black, and colored. Virtually everyone - even the blacks and colored - to my extreme surprise saw the changes as changes for the worse. The new leadership apparently made wide promises: free houses and electricity for everyone, good jobs, education, the works. In reality, none of these happened, and things actually got worse. Everyone was happy to see the apartheid system go, but they seemed very hesitant to say that it was worth the cost.
For example, to my complete amazement a black taxi-driver with whom I rode said that "At least then you know what the rules were and had a decent job. Now, there are no rules, and no jobs." Another taxi driver, this time colored, said "Under apartheid, the whites were on top and the blacks on bottom, with colored in-between. Now blacks are on top and whites on bottom, but the colored are still between. Our position hasn't gained anything, though we've lost all our jobs." Indeed, most seemed to agree that the major change is that a super-elite class of black citizens, living corruptly off of public money siphoned from government offices, has been created that is little better than before.
Now, obviously I'm seeing a very small and very skewed perspective of the world. But I can't help but be swayed by the uniformity of answers I've been given. Few dispute that the apartheid government had to go - after all, it was voted out of office with overwhelming support. But equally few think the current government is any better. In theory, perhaps, but in practice most people do not seem impressed.
With all this in mind, my trip through South Africa has been incredibly interesting. It's a nation in change like I've never seen, where the joys of ridding the country of the past are muted by the pains of dealing with the present. The question, of course, is what the future holds. In this, there was little uniformity. Many expressed confidence that the current problems, no matter how severe, would be resolved as the corrective actions swing back to the middle. Many, however, were skeptical, and seemed to predict a long decline into nothingness. A few even saw revolution of another sort on the horizon.
Me, I have no idea. Indeed, that's the only thing I can say confidently about the matter.