JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman, 13.7.12
SUNDAY MORNING in Johannesburg; and with a couple of hours to spare before my next appointment – a revival of the great anti-apartheid show Woza Albert!, at the Market Theatre – I saunter out to have a look at the area around my hotel. I’m not unaware of the dangers of sauntering in Johannesburg; high crime statistics, keep your hand on your purse, anyone who has visited has heard the warnings.
Yet the young comedy producer I interviewed on Saturday night told me that in this area, those restrictions don’t apply; because this is Melrose Arch, a brand new European-style urban area built for affluent people who don’t need to steal each other’s money. And although the gates are usually open, Melrose Arch – like many other new areas in Johannesburg – is essentially a gated development. There’s a nine-foot barrier at the entrance that could snap shut in an instant, if anyone without the right credentials tried to get in. And when I wander out into newly-built nexus of half a dozen tree-lined streets and squares, I’m not surprised to see high, spiked fences at the end of every artificial street; with the land beyond dwindlng away into suburban scrub, and traditional low-rise housing.
For what I’m seeing, in Melrose Arch, is the face of South Africa’s new social divide, not quite as rigid as the historical separation of races known as apartheid, but often as fierce in its impact on those who feel themselves excluded. The credentials for entering Melrose Arch are not racial, although a high proportion of those inside the enclave are white. Essentially, what’s needed for access is a fat credit card and a smart car, like the one driven by the young comedy producer; he laughs as he tells me how the new class of prosperous, upwardly-mobile black people are called “Benzies”, in tribute to their preferred mode of transport, the Mercedes Benz.
The trouble is, though, that the vast majority of black South Africans – and some people from other racial groups too – are being left behind in this wild dash towards affluence, which is often fuelled by personal connections in government, as much as by personal enterprise or effort. And out on Johannesburg’s freeways – packed with large, smart cars – South African society has an increasingly American look, with a wealthy elite pulling away from an increasingly hard-pressed lower-middle and working class; and with many young people, particularly in the black townships, increasingly angry and restless over the blatant inequality of opportunity and wealth that disfigures their society.
And if some of that seems familiar, despite the unique conditions of recent South African history, then there’s also something recognisable about the levels of political disillusion that accompany these shifts. Back in 1994, when South Africans voted for the first time in a free, fair and non-racial election, the process of generally peaceful political change led by Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress seemed little short of a miracle.
18 years on, though, the ANC is widely regarded as a travesty of the movement Mandela once led, with ministers accused of corruption, rape, and an entrenched culture of sexual misconduct; and down at the Market Theatre, after the performance of Woza Albert!, the two actors in the show offer me another glimpse of the reasons why. The play, written back in 1981, is a “poor theatre” piece about two black workers, and their adventures on a strange day when the Saviour, or “Murena”, arrives in South Africa, to answer the prayers of the people; a global sensation 30 years ago, not least in Edinburgh, it’s now a set text in South African schools.
Yet according to the actors, the young people from expensive private schools who come to the show tend to react with disbelief, and to question the need to revisit “all that old apartheid stuff”; whereas the few chldren from state schools who make it to the theatre – the representatives of the vast majority of South Africans – instantly recognise the story as a reflection of their own families’ township struggle for survival, barely changed over the last 30 years.
And as the actors talk, I recall the words of the fine Cape Town writer, actress and singer Thembi Mtshali-Jones, whose show Mother To Mother, about the brutal killing of a white American student in a black township in 1993, will also be in Edinburgh this August. “It’s not that there are no good people,” said Thembi. “There are wonderful people, often women, doing terrific work in communities all over South Africa. Yet those people will never go into formal politics. The political leadership is just not trustworthy; and the way they abuse the old slogans of the struggle to justify their power, and to encourage intolerant attitudes among young people, is really dangerous.”
And I guess, to those involved in community work in Scotland, some of that will seem familiar too. As always, the South African story is more violent, more graphic, more extreme. Yet where in the world, now – outside the best-regulated Nordic countries – can we see a society that is really prepared to tackle and reverse the growing economic inequality that is destroying social solidarity, and undermining any hope of real social justice; and where can we see a people who really trust their political class to stand up for ordinary citizens and voters, rather than defending the interests of the wealthy.
Here in Scotland, as in South Africa, we have had a chance of a new start, with the coming of our parliament in 1999; and we may have another chance of a new beginning, in the next decade. Yet the likelihood is that those new beginnings will turn into false dawns, for most people in our society, unless we – alongside the people of South Africa, and ordinary citizens everywhere – can find a way of reversing the economic trends of the last 30 years, and refounding our societies on that basis of solidarity, sharing, and basic human empathy that makes all things possible; while its absence makes life empty and brutal, even for those enclosed in their fortresses of privilege, surrounded by kitsch decor that reeks of artificiality and lies, and by people with smart clothes, and frighteningly empty eyes.