[The following was written before the “Protection of Information Bill” was unveiled]
Noticing someone sitting in a cramped area beside me in a restaurant, I pushed my seat sideways. We got talking. He was a South African visiting a business partner in Hong Kong. Naturally, our talk turned to the Football World Cup, which was soon to begin in South Africa, as well as to the state of politics in his country. After the World Cup got under way, I emailed John Almon, voicing excitement at the prospect of South Africa hosting what is arguably the greatest show on earth.
Why was I excited? Growing up in India, I learned about Mahatma Gandhi and the beginnings in South Africa of his non-violent action strategy. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, any newspaper reader would have learned of the Black Power and Black Consciousness movements, the Soweto uprising of 1976 by black youths against the Apartheid regime’s policies and of the work of other campaigners for majority rule.
When I got my first passport in 1984, it had a printed notice that it was valid for “all countries except the Republic of South Africa”. India and many other countries were boycotting the Apartheid regime and I found that gratifying. A debate raged among world leaders and in the world press over sanctions imposed on the regime.
Happily, that is history. South Africa has become a vibrant multi-racial democracy. Of course, it has major problems such as high levels of crime, poverty and unemployment. But then which country is faultless? My own is plagued by myriad problems.
While living in Beijing in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I had a couple of occasions to rejoice on account of South Africa. The first was the globally televised release of Nelson Mandela on 11 February 1990 after 27 years of incarceration. A couple of French correspondents in whose company I saw the telecast, lamented that Mandela had not yet then been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Some months later Mandela visited China and addressed a press conference, looking tall and dignified in a dapper suit. Yes, those days he still wore suits and it was only later that to the chagrin of his close friend, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, he discarded them in favour of batik shirts.
In Hong Kong since the mid-1990s, I befriended many South African journalists, gentle anti-racists with stories to tell of experiences in the Apartheid era. Why had so many of them left their country? Some were no doubt seeking to experience other cultures and greener pastures but many were dissatisfied with the way their country was being run. Thabo Mbeki was not their first choice as successor to Mandela. They would have preferred the man Mbeki managed to sideline: former trade unionist Cyril Ramaphosa, a dynamic and respected negotiator. Ramaphosa, now in private enterprise, later served with former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari in decommissioning IRA arms dumps in Northern Ireland and was drafted by former United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan to mediate in the violent crisis in Kenya following the disputed election there in 2007. Mbeki’s two terms as president were a wasted decade, with rising violence and crime. It did not help that he turned a blind eye to the ravages of AIDS, which South Africa has only now begun to tackle.
But South Africa has scored achievements it can take pride in. Merely holding together as a multi-racial democracy is one. Another is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that Archbishop Tutu chaired. The TRC remains a major, if much debated, model for states dealing with legacies of massive human rights violations. Some judgments rendered by South African courts, relying on an enlightened post-Apartheid constitution, are quoted around the world by judges and academics. A prominent jurist, Navanethem Pillay, is now the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and anti-Apartheid activist Kumi Naidoo is the International Executive Director of Greenpeace.
Enthusiasm for South Africa is widely shared. I watched the France-South Africa match a couple of weeks ago in the company of working class Hong Kongers in sweaty T-shirts and shorts, with toothpicks dangling from the corners of their mouths, in a standing-room only betting outlet. The cries were loudest when South African strikers got the ball in or near the goalpost.
The Hong Kong Public Libraries’ electronic catalogue shows that all eight copies of Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation, the 2008 book by John Carlin, have been borrowed out or reserved. (Yes, eight blessed copies in the public library system in one city!) The book deals with the historic 1995 Rugby World Cup at which Mandela wore the cap and team shirt of the white-dominated Springboks, who won the tournament. He congratulated and thanked the captain, Francois Pienaar. “No, Mr. President,” Pienaar replied. “Thank you for what you have done for our country.” A dramatic and electrifying moment in modern South African history! The DVD of the film Invictus, based on that book and directed by Clint Eastwood, starring Morgan Freeman as Mandela and Matt Damon as Pienaar, has been reserved by 15 people at last count at the University of Hong Kong library, even though the campus is deserted as these are summer holidays.
All this enthusiasm has to be tempered by realism, of course. The renowned journalist, John Pilger, says “economic apartheid” persists in South Africa, where the unemployment rate is estimated at between 25 percent and 40 percent. President Jacob Zuma, who succeeded Mbeki, had faced serious corruption charges and the charge of having had non-consensual and unprotected sex with a woman. However, so long as he tolerates criticism – and he seems to be doing so – there is hope. And so despite the fact that little of the huge funds the country has invested in the World Cup will trickle down to the poor, one may take heart that the country took to cheering the event with gusto, as manifested by the ever-present Vuvuzelas blaring away in the stadia.
These were some thoughts expressed to John Almon. A few days later, he emailed back: “We are very proud of being South Africans. The World Cup is in full swing and there is an incredible feeling in the country. It certainly has had a binding effect. Wonderful.” He later added: “You can not believe the feeling (we call it “gees” – an Afrikaans word) here. It is almost tangible… The fact that Bafana Bafana (the South African team) are out is not an issue either. In fact the nation were right behind them and are very proud of their performance.” Journalists, in both print and broadcast media have echoed this observation over the past weeks: Whites and blacks, Coloureds and Indians, Muslims and Jews have all been affirming their South-Africanness.
And so over these weeks of World Cup excitement, I’ve been with the South Africans and would joyously have draped myself in the Rainbow Nation’s flag if I had one and sung its anthem, “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika”.