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Beyond the South African rainbow

Can South Africans move beyond promises and expectations?
Last modified: 14 Jun 2013 15:24
Will South Africans be able to lead the country to a greater future? [Al Jazeera/Safeeyah Kharsany]

Johannesburg, South Africa - Nelson Mandela is revered the world over. He's revered in South Africa, too, but here in the city of Johannesburg, there is a feeling that once Mandela dies, so too will the promise, the hope and the dreams that many have held sacred for so long.

The struggle for freedom from apartheid was no single-goaled mission.

And for this country's people, Mandela's own life and his efforts symbolised much of that struggle. His freedom also came to symbolise a vision of freedom for the majority of South Africans while his presidency informed many a dream and expectation.

Promises of free education, free housing, free water, and free healthcare aided the path to stability.

These were promises upon which personal dreams were built – of a life in the suburbs, or a new car, or a new dress, or simply a life without struggle.

Today, not even the government pledges that were made have fully materialised.

And many critics would argue that such promises were, in fact, wildly dubious. That's a dangerous thing to build a future on, where only scars were marked before. 

But that future was built anyway, in the minds of people who very much needed something to dream about in a space where pain, injustice and misery once occupied.

Stoep talk

Today, it is the bitterness surrounding these 'failed' dreams and promises which dominate stoep (front porch) talk.

In a shebeen (local pub) in Soweto, a man asks me why black people still have to pay for water. "Water is life. The government should pay for this water," he tells me.

His says that black peoples' needs should be redressed because they were so economically disadvantaged by the apartheid regime. So economically disadvantaged, and perhaps also so ill-prepared for the challenges that a free world and a free market would bring. 

South Africans, and especially black South Africans, were isolated by internal segregation within the country, but also by the sanctions placed on the country from abroad. 

In a taxi, another man tells me that it is "unfair" that "foreigners" find a way to make a living but that locals cannot. This baffles me. He explains that asylum seekers and refugees have more money and that they have a network to rely on so they are able to continuously compete more effectively in the business sector. This continues to baffle me. 

At the home of the surviving sister of famous struggle hero, I am told that the country and the government is unjust. 

"How?" I ask. 

She says her family benefits in no way from government's use of her family name and that she wants her permission to be sought first. That permission would no doubt be linked to remuneration. 

A short while later, after interviewing a former 'freedom fighter', who says he believes in Black Consciousness, a movement born out of the teachings of Steve Biko, he asks for remuneration for the interview, too.

An action which in itself seems largely out of place with Biko's universal teachings of self-actualisation and self-sufficiency - particularly for black people.

Wallet measure

This is where South Africa's freedoms have come to be measured, in the wallets of citizens still struggling to catch up with their ideal of the rest of the world – while at the same time struggling to put a meal on their tables.

It is in the countless service delivery protests, in the miners' strikes and in a resurgence of racist and prejudice talk in public and politics, this sentiment of expectation is also echoed.

And while a lack of service delivery is not unique to South Africa, beneath these unfulfilled expectations, is a belief and demand that those promises and dreams will still be realised by the democratic government. 

But these expectations are a tall order for any government, least of all a liberation movement that has experienced its own tribulations in the process of transforming into a governance vehicle.

And yet it cuts to the very rawness of the reality. 'Freedom', as managed by the ruling ANC-government, has not transformed the economic reality of the majority of South Africans - the black population. 

And where economic freedom has failed, South Africans themselves have largely also failed – to realise their own role in the transformation of the country. 

From the conversations I've had, people seem to be still looking for someone to blame. Many still cling to the more convenient veneer of promises, dreams, hope – and expectation. 

Expectations are no less dangerous now than they were in 1994.

The youth are signing up to more expectations in the form of the catchy new title of "Economic Freedom Fighters" - the alleged new "formation" of expelled youth league leader Julius Malema.

Economic freedom

In the taxi again, telling me about the "unfairness" of the economic situation, the young man of around 34 says he agrees with Malema's ideologies.

He says the country has entered the second phase of the struggle. The struggle for "economic freedom". Then he says, "the government must give black people back their land". 

It is a sentiment echoed almost everywhere I go, from the double-breasted suits, to the spectacle-wearing intellectuals and to vendors on the street.

But economic freedom policies can do little to change the immediate situation of the average person's wallet. It takes discussing, and vetting, passing and then "roll out" - an ominous word referring to months or even years of long drawn out implementation processes.

It will do little to bring sustainable change fast, something I think even my fellow taxi-commuter is well aware of. The urgency in his voice betrays it. 

It betrays how despite what he tells me, he is in fact well aware that the time for expectation is over. 

When Mandela does pass, accepting that this time has also passed, will be unavoidable.

Many question if the country's current leadership will be able to take South Africa forward, into the more crucial era of its democracy.

But listening to people here, it makes me wonder if South Africans can find the potential within themselves to be the leaders of their own future. 

The question, for me, as a South African, is: Can South Africans move beyond the dreams? 

Can South Africans lead themselves beyond the rainbow?