The long walk to equality
After recently hearing US civil rights icon Jesse Jackson talking about how South Africa was “free but not equal”, this writer encountered two things that made the reverend’s words even more poignant.
For the record, Jackson was here (South Africa) a couple of weeks ago to receive a top honour on Freedom Day from President Jacob Zuma, for being one of the “Companions of OR Tambo”.
He said, “What I want the present generation to know is that the struggle is not over. You are free but not equal. You have freedom to equality and globalisation but that doesn’t mean you are free from the humiliation of skin colour apartheid in land ownership, apartheid in education, apartheid in banking and apartheid in who owns ships and planes and trade and business.”
The two incidents that made this statement resonate with me relate to a personal/business visit to Sandton.
Sandton is known to be the home of the opulent and famous of South Africa.
A colleague and friend had just flown into South Africa from a neighbouring country and after he attended some meetings, we planned to meet at his hotel in the evening.
I undertook the journey by train – a shiny, golden and fast machine – which still hugely confounds senses of distance and time.
The two legs of the journey to and from Sandton saw me – a black African in Black Africa – share the space with mostly white co-travellers.
At the brief meeting with my colleague, who had also used this particular train for the first time, he remarked how wonderful and comfortable the ride had been, noting that he had once had the revulsion of travelling by train in South Africa.
And, how could a train, for its crowdedness and crime have entered an international airport like OR Tambo, anyway, he had mused before his pleasant surprise?
Suffice to say, he had imagined the crowded, filthy, noisy, creaking and legendarily nasty “freedom trains” that ran in Zimbabwe.
I told him they were here also.
I had been a witness to them passing with the famed crowds aboard.
The last time I saw such a train, one to Tembisa I think, the passengers were so many that some hung precariously on the doors of the coaches but they sang and cheered and whistled all the same.
Someone had also told me they had waited for a free ride on the last train, around 9pm, as many others do when there are fewer ticket checkers and security personnel than during the day.
Not in the world of our golden train: a world of smart access cards, clean platforms, white people: civilisation!
It was while sitting in Nelson Mandela Square in Sandton that I first started really digesting Rev Jackson’s words.
Under the towering statue of struggle icon Nelson Mandela, one could not resist the sensation of being inspired and a kind of halo around the deified first democratic leader of South Africa, whose face represents – on paper at least – equality and freedom in South Africa.
Only the colour configuration here in Sandton was very curious – just like in the golden train.
Apart from the two of us and another colleague, there was not another black face in the sea vicinity of white people.
A lovely, slim, tall girl with a cosmopolitan look was another black soul hereabout.
Only she was standing by the door and judging by the whispers she made to my colleague, which were dismissed as promptly, it was discernable she was here for some kind escort service.
Oh yes, pardon my misrepresentation: there were several other blacks – waiters and waitresses at the posh restaurants and eateries.
When we left a restaurant after a quick meal, the lady I thought was part of an escort service was still standing near the door.
I looked back at the giant statue of Mandela, night-charcoal grey but rendered some gilt from the surrounding lights.
Perhaps Mandela is the symbol of freedom but not equality in South Africa, I thought.
Perhaps that is why a particular group could well be cosy under his wing, in the massive shadow of his colossal statue; while the rest crowd on noisy and filthy trains as they head to dirt-poor slums.
Will the inequality that has hitherto subsisted in democratic South Africa ever be changed, threatened or otherwise be reversed? And just how upwardly mobile are blacks in South Africa and at what rate is such mobility?
This brings into play one of the other significant things that this writer encountered on this particular day.
It was the day in which the media were proclaiming the auctioning, or “knocking down” as one paper put it, of the unfinished house of former ANC Youth leader Julius Malema.
This could be read as the continued downfall of the man who claimed to represent the aspirations of the poor of South Africa and stood for the ANC Charter of the 1950s which called for equal economic opportunities among South Africans.
Malema called for the nationalisation of mines, among other controversial issues earning him enemies and admirers, almost in equal measure.
Some called him the wrong bearer of good tidings.
Malema, too, had become rich (by whatever means) and had settled in Sandton, a haven for the rich.
His wealth and influence has now been whittled down to nothing, and Sandton will not give a whimper, actually.
Perhaps Malema may end up being homeless, or staying anonymously in the townships or even shack compounds with the poor whom he represented so passionately.
South Africa has been the holder of the unenviable title of being the country with the biggest gap between rich and poor (perhaps with the exception of Namibia and Brazil according to the Gini coefficient) in the world.
Authorities like Professor Motsoko Pheko have noted that blacks in South Africa fare worst in human devolpment indices: health and sanitation, education, water, income, etc.
And while education may play a key to improving the lives of blacks, as Jesse Jackson counsels, it has been noted that the education for the black kid is poorer and under-resourced even today, in Mandela's free country.
So when will those shiny trains come to our townships? Indeed, when will the townships be replaced by far more modest replicas of Sandton Square so that ordinary people can live as well as whites and foreigners?
Where is South Africa’s freedom train?