Free and Fair
01 June 2004

The elections underlined the progress we’ve made in a decade.

South Africa’s democracy is ten years old. After two previous successful elections, it never even crossed my mind when we went to the polls in April to question whether the elections would be free and fair. I took it for granted. Risky, taking Africa’s record into consideration? No, the elections underlined the progress we’ve made in a decade. An international observer commented that the 2004 election process compared with the best in the world. Perhaps South Africa should offer to help with the vote counting in Florida in the US presidential election later this year!

A mandate for trouble
The African National Congress (ANC) got more than two thirds of the vote and President Thabo Mbeki has promised not to fiddle with the constitution. The New National Party, descended from the infamous party that institutionalized apartheid, virtually disappeared.

The Independent Democrats, the new party of plucky and outspoken Patricia de Lille, won seven seats. She has been a thorn in the side of the government. At the post-election victory party President Mbeki suggested with a twinkle that she should take a muchneeded break before coming back to Parliament and creating more trouble. ‘Did your hear that?’ she said triumphantly to all who would listen. ‘I’ve got a mandate from the President to create trouble in Parliament!’

Fourteen years ago in Germany I was asked to address a group of people on South Africa. It was in the final days of the National Party, two months before the ANC was unbanned and Nelson Mandela released from jail. I said: ‘I am an Afrikaner and I love being an Afrikaner.’ Silence. How could anyone who was a member of the polecat tribe of the world make such a statement?

I still feel that way. My roots go deep into the African soil. But as a white South African, one’s professional options are becoming fewer and fewer. Max du Preez put it bluntly. (In the Eighties he launched South Africa’s only Afrikaans antiapartheid newspaper, which was finally closed down by government pressure.)

‘After years as an independent operator I decided it was time to get a job and I applied for something right up my alley. But: “You and I know you’re ideal for this job, but it’s politically and strategically impossible to appoint a white person,” I was told by the interviewer. “We have to go black now. History is against you, my brother.” ’

This experience led du Preez to write his latest bestseller, Pale Native. ‘I can change my personality, my qualifications, my appearance—I could even have a sex change. But I cannot change the colour of my skin,’ he says.

‘The energy I feel gushing from the soil into my spirit tells me who I am. The ancient mountains around me whisper to me that I am where I belong. In Africa.’ I am with Max on this. It’s not colour, it’s love and commitment.

Who are Europeans?
This leads to one of those fundamental questions— Who am I? South African? African? Afrikaner? Englishspeaking South African? We whites are sometimes still labelled ‘Europeans’ which I find peculiar, seeing my French Huguenot ancestors arrived in Africa in 1688. Are Australians or Americans Europeans? Are Argentineans Spaniards?

In your face
South Africa, as a new democracy with a rainbow of cultures and colours, is still struggling to understand itself, to find a comfortable identity. Besides du Preez’s, two other current bestsellers are stirring the debate. In A Change of Tongue, poet Antjie Krog traces the ‘humour of change and the pain of belonging as South Africans try to find new footholds in a democratic space’. Redeeming Features by media and social commentator, Denis Beckett, is a personal and often agonizing look at the schizophrenia so many of us suffer from—being deeply critical of the damage caused to black and white by politically correct ‘transformation’ and ‘affirmative action’, and then breaking one’s heart over the sheer generosity and humanity that South Africans show one another.

Difficult issues confront us. We have to work through them with honesty, courage and hope if the ‘South African miracle’ is to survive.

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