When we were talking about gap years in the Upper Sixth, I remember one of my friends eagerly telling me about her volunteering placement at a school in South Africa. And I must confess, my immediate reaction was ‘why?’ I mean, South Africa’s all right, isn’t it? You don’t hear about famine there, or droughts, or civil war. Unlike many countries further north it isn’t a dustbowl; large parts of it are beautiful and green, rich with natural resources and able to support bountiful crops. And Sir Bob has certainly never expressed concern. ‘Why don’t you volunteer in Ethiopia?’ I said. How naïve I was.
I went to South Africa last summer, and although, post-Apartheid, black and white people now have the same legal status, socially the chasm still exists. Go to any city or town and you can guarantee that any cleaner, toilet attendant or shop assistant you see will be black.
Buying some stamps from a shop, I asked the (white) shopkeeper where the post office was so I could send my cards. “Oh don’t worry about that”, she smiled, gesturing towards her assistant, a mature black woman who was sweeping up, “I’ll send my girl with them later.” Now, I wouldn’t suggest that was the attitude of all white South Africans. But it was hard not to notice the huge gap between rich and poor – and the colour divide that often went with it.
Visit any large settlement and you won’t fail to see the townships – you’ll have to drive through them for at least half an hour before reaching the outskirts of the town proper. Flying into Johannesburg airport you can see the townships sprawling in all directions, little shacks no bigger (and often worse-constructed) than garden sheds, ankle-deep in water because they’re built on the floodplain land that nobody else wants. Usually without running water, sometimes without electricity, they can house as much as a third of the population of the city.
I couldn’t believe the contrast when I went down to the Cape region and visited the wine-producing valley of Stellenbosch. This area is the home almost exclusively of white, Afrikaans-speaking South Africans of Dutch descent. And as I looked at the vast vineyards, at the pristine white mansions, more reminiscent of ‘Gone with the Wind’ than Africa in their colonial splendour, I couldn’t have felt further away from the townships, where black families live ten to a shack and a toilet block equipped for eight is shared by 12,000. Meanwhile urban white people live behind electric fences and high walls, shielded by barbed wire and huge dogs from the desperate underclass that nearly fifty years of Apartheid created.
Of course, it would be naïve to complain that South Africa didn’t magically become a utopia immediately after Apartheid ended; the country hasn’t seen 20 years of freedom yet, and it will probably take a number of generations before colour no longer dictates social status.
An important step yet has to do with the welfare state that we take so much for granted here – no pensions, no benefits, no state-funded healthcare, and crucially, no free education. Schools are divided into ‘private’ and ‘government’ schools – but the latter aren’t like state schools. They may be cheaper, but they’re often over-crowded and short of resources and equipment.
For the poorest families – and all too often, this means black families – sending their children to school is simply not an option. To me, this is the thing that most hinders progress. In a township outside Swellendam, many of the young black people I spoke to were ambitious and aspirational, but they were all too aware that they simply didn’t have the money to fulfil their potential. Black undergraduates are increasing in number slowly, but are still hugely outnumbered by their white peers. With their parents unable to send them to a good school – or, in fact, any school – many children can’t get the qualifications they need to get a well-paid job, and can’t afford to send their children to school in turn, whole families trapped in a vicious circle of poverty and lost opportunities. When access to education is limited, so is social mobility.
This isn’t to belittle the achievements of Mandela, the ANC and De Klerk or to ignore the progress that South Africa has made. The contrast between life under the Apartheid system, when buses, beaches and even park benches were segregated, and now, is unbelievable. Nobody could forget that a few months ago when Nelson Mandela came to London to unveil his statue in Parliament Square.
But where strict social laws used to keep people separated by colour, now financial constraint does the same. And this is unlikely to change until black and white children have the same opportunities. In Britain, where all children have had free access to education for decades, it’s all too easy to forget just how important education is as a tool to change society. South Africa has come so far, but it still has such a long way to go. It’s so easy to become complacent about countries like South Africa, to pass them by in favour of more obviously troubled nations like Zimbabwe or Sudan, and not to give them the attention they deserve. In Britain we take our rights so much for granted – we mustn’t take their rights for granted too.