After Twenty Years

Post-apartheid South Africa turned out to be a revelation for Fouzia Saeed

After Twenty Years
I was handed a ticket which said in bold letters, ENTRANCE FOR BLACKS ONLY as I stood at the ticket counter outside the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, South Africa, with a puzzled look, when the person in the ticket window said, “this is just to give you an experience of what it was like”.  Of course the entrances were marked and I saw several real streets and restaurant signs from the apartheid era identifying COLOURED ONLY, BLACKS ONLY, WHITES ONLY, with enlarged pictures of ID cards through which people were stamped like different species. Earlier, while roaming around the city of Johannesburg, it was interesting to see blacks, whites, browns living together now, 20 years after Nelson Mandela had helped to end apartheid in 1994.  Many people who had previously hated each other must still be alive. Perhaps the same police officers, seen in short films in the museum beating blacks and killing protestors, may now be living in these mixed communities . Why did the world put up with such racist atrocities for so long? Has Mandela’s reconciliation process worked? Did his death undermine the process? Full of questions I plunged into a trip that was part-educational and part-touristic.

My reason for being in South Africa was a Civicus Conference where civil society leaders from over a hundred countries were gathered. South Africa is not only the head office for Civicus, but is also considered a hub for inspiration on social change. None less than the last wife of Nelson Mandela, Garcia Michel, gave the welcome speech.

"Now it is the economy that segregates us"

Our taxi driver, appropriately named Pretty, told us that she doesn’t have any issues with the integration of blacks and whites, but said with a smile that “now it is the economy that segregates us. Poor dwellings and lower jobs are mostly for blacks. We have political power, but the economy remains in the hands of whites, said a restaurant waiter”.

Slavery in South Africa was abolished by the British in 1807 after they took over from the Dutch in 1795 through a series of battles. However, the apartheid regime set up by the British was as brutal. They pushed the blacks out of the main cities into settlements and restricted their movements to certain areas. Standing in front of Mandela’s prison cell on Robben Island and visiting the quarry where he was forced to work at the hard labour of breaking stones, it was difficult to understand how anti-apartheid leaders like him suffered and still came out so positive, with no desire of revenge for those who took years of their life away. Mandela was fully focused on what was best for his nation. After his release from prison, he even sacrificed relations with his wife, Winnie Mandela, because she actively opposed his reconciliatory approach.

Nelson Mandela's cell
Nelson Mandela's cell

In Cape Town the area where Muslims cluster is marked by brightly coloured houses

Later, when I travelled to Cape Town on the southern coast of South Africa, I had a chance to meet with many Asians, mostly from South Asia, Malaysia, Indonesia and other countries, who blended together into one community. This was yet another story of slavery. After taking lands from the Africans, the Dutch did not trust them to work the fields, so they brought their workers from Asia. People from different countries were thrown together where they developed a language of their own, somewhat close to Malay. After slavery was abolished, Muslims tended to stick together as a community, trying to recreate their culture. In Cape Town the area where they cluster is marked by brightly coloured houses, which has become a tourist destination. They close off the roads to have festivities and dancing. There are many shops where a great variety of spices are available, giving the area the strong fragrance of eastern cooking. In general the South Asians in Cape Town take care of a large segment of retail and wholesale business while Whites focus mostly on high end business investments.
I was moved to find the places where Mahatma Gandhi started his journey

I was moved to find the places where Mahatma Gandhi started his journey, and was imprisoned in Johannesburg. His pictures and statues marked the area and his philosophy of non-violence heavily influenced Mandela, who succeeded in actually putting it into practice.

My iPhone, that survived several trips to Karachi, disappeared during an unobtrusive, but highly efficient, street mugging

I was told not to walk around openly in Johannesburg because of the high crime rate. However, I could not help roaming around Cape Town, as it has much more tourism and beauty to absorb. Sure enough, my iPhone, that survived several trips to Karachi, disappeared during an unobtrusive, but highly efficient, street mugging.

The taxi-driver, Pretty
The taxi-driver, Pretty

However, I was at the southern tip of the African continent for just a few days, so I could not let this event dampen my spirits. I had to go around to check out both the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Indian Ocean on the other. I had to say hello to the only penguins in Africa. I had to eat dosas at Eastern Market on Darling Street. And, naturally, I had to go into the water with Great White Sharks. That last one required getting up at 4am, driving for two hours, then taking a terribly rough one hour boat ride before coming face to face with these beautiful rulers of the seas…yes I even got a certificate as evidence that I met these particular sharks in their element.


Talking to people in South Africa, seeing the typical high rise skyscrapers, modern shopping malls, world class hotels, as well as miles and miles of slums all together told me that much remains to be accomplished.  However, seeing so many different people, brought together by such a variety of circumstances, living in one country and calling it a home was instructive. They are not trying to carve out their own countries and are struggling to make space for everyone. The process of reconciliation, which was clearly articulated by the current leadership, remains on track.

South Africa contains many lessons for us. We never initiated any reconciliation with the country we separated from and that failure has left our families split and our wounds unhealed. We never even sought reconciliation among all the nations we pulled together in the country called Pakistan. Rather than appreciating our differences, our leaders have long demanded that everyone acknowledge that we are all the same. Leaders with short term visions, and a great desire for personal gains, kept taking centre stage. Perhaps, with the recognition of our diversity in the Constitution after the 18th amendment, we might now begin to evolve back into the pluralistic nation that we once were.