South Africa’s 22 Years of Democracy: Myth Busted

By Published On: 7th March 2017

Commuters hang on to the outside of an overcrowded Metrorail passenger train in Soweto. Photo: Michel Bega

South Africa celebrated its first democratic elections in 1994 which marked the end of political apartheid. This period was esteemed as the new dawn of a better life for the previously disadvantaged – better times ahead with promises to address unemployment, inequality and land ownership. Two decades into democracy, the “promised land” can be likened to a 22 season run of the television show Myth Busters – a science entertainment television program that uses a scientific method to test the validity of various rumours, myths, movie scenes and even YouTube videos. The initial popularity of the show was in that the myths that were often selected were usually widely accepted as truths.

The post-apartheid myths that have over the past 22 years been busted include the construction of the Rainbow Nation, the ideas around the post-colony and most notably the concept of the Born-Frees – a label that has been imposed on South Africans born post-1994 and who have ostensibly been born into freedom. The slow pace of social transformation, material change and socio-economic redress and reform has led to the rejection of the term Born-Free by many young South Africans. This is because the majority of South African youth do not experience significant material differences in lived experience to that of their parents’ generation.

One of the lasting legacies of Apartheid is the socio-spatial divisions. Formal policies of segregation have permeated into spatial planning and arrangements, practice, tradition, and tend to operate in far more insidious and often ‘invisible’ ways. Schools, neighbourhoods and many places of leisure remain largely racially homogenous and the limited contact that does happen is often characterised by feelings of mistrust, disease and even anxiety. An interesting and highly problematic example of this is the public transport system with specific reference to the train system operating in and around Cape Town.

Every day I travel by train to and from work. I spend three and a half hours of my day on the train. This excludes train delays and the time that it takes for me to get to and from the train stations. Trains on the Northern and Central lines have an interesting design. The train is divided into two classes – metro and metro-plus. Because of the difference in price the physical layout of the seating in the carriages differs. The seats in the metro-plus carriages are softer and more comfortable. Seats are positioned back to back in rows running vertically through the breadth of the carriages. This affords commuters some degree of privacy between rows. The seating in the metro carriages is in stark contrast to that of the metro-plus carriages. Here commuters are seated on two opposing, continuous hard plastic seats that run through the length of the carriage. In these carriages, there is no such thing as personal space. This design and layout are problematic because, despite the official name change, commuters continue to refer to the carriages as first and third class with white and some coloured people occupying first class and some coloured people and largely black African people occupying the third class carriages. This is reminiscent of the apartheid design which segregated public spaces into European and non-European.

The layout and design of the carriages are a microcosm of the South African landscape. The socio-spatial isolation of groups continues to further exacerbate intergroup prejudice. It illustrates the ways in which existing systems operate and if not changed how they perpetuate assumptions about race and deepen racial prejudice. Segregation as a legacy of colonialism and apartheid continues to govern the patterns of interaction and contact between South Africans. It is no more evident than in the spatial ordering of communities. In real terms, very few opportunities exist for meaningful interaction between identity groups.

Race continues to be the foremost social division among South Africans and remains inextricably linked to class and socio-economic status. Few spaces are available for positive inter-racial contact. Urban planning and other systems perpetuate this. RDP houses continue to be built on the periphery and in areas formerly designated by the apartheid government for people of colour. The lack of these spaces contributes to the entrenchment of racist patterns of behaviours.

If we are to make inroads into changing the legacy of apartheid and fostering new ways of being with one another as fellow South Africans we need to critically consider these everyday injustices and actively work toward dismantling systems which perpetuate apartheid thinking. Apartheid and colonialism were deliberate systems, therefore, efforts to bring about positive social change must be conscious and equally deliberate. Above all these actions must be demonstrable.

Eleanor du Plooy is the Project leader for IJR’s Ashley Kriel Youth Desk, in the Sustained Dialogue Programme.

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