Wednesday, May 20

Two Capes, Two Countries

I am facing north, due north. To my left lies the green Atlantic, turbulent and cold. To my right, the Indian Ocean, warmer, more placid. Behind me they converge, two distant oceans melting harmoniously into one. Or do they collide? Perhaps their meeting is a swirling clash of distant rivals drawn close. Am I on the Cape of Good Hope or the Cape of Storms? Either way all of Africa, hell, all the world lies before me.

But what kind of a world is it? It is too big a question, so I refine it to what kind of a country? The answer, at least metaphorically, lies in the seas behind me, whether they converge or collide, whether they clash or commingle.

In the 1990s, South Africa went from being the Apartheid State to the Rainbow Nation. The pass laws are gone, the planned Bantustans are a distant nightmare, the ANC is in power and the nation rests upon one the world’s most liberal constitutions. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has reconciled as much as it can, Mandela is as respected and beloved a figure as anyone alive today and the World Cup is coming in 2010. If South Africa is indeed a rainbow, then why do I still see so much here in black and white?

One explanation is that I am the issue, that as a white man, an American, or even just as a student of history, I am unable to escape my prejudices and preconceptions and see the world as it is, instead of as it was.

Another possibility is that my itinerary has dictated my mindset, that it is impossible to think of anything but race when Robben Island and Drakenstein Prison, Mandela’s first and final places of imprisonment, and the Cecil Rhodes Memorial are prominent on the itinerary.

The final possibility is that I perceive only what it there; that in South Africa, much is still about black and white.

The trite yet probably true explanation is that it is a combination of factors, yet I find myself fascinated by the itinerary theory. While Robben Island’s long history as a leper colony, political prison and, finally, a monument has been the worthy subject of extensive thought and commentary, the contrast between the Rhodes Memorial and the tribute to Mandela at Drakenstein seems to reveal more about today’s South Africa, and certainly reveals more about my perceptions of it.

The memorial to Cecil John Rhodes is a masterpiece of colonial grandiosity and grotesquerie. In a forest of ionic columns, Rhodes’ spirit, though not his body, which rests in Zimbabwe’s Matobo National Park, is guarded by a pride of eight bronze lions. Within the temple sits a bust of the brooding Rhodes looking out over the city from which he ruled a personal empire.

He looks exhausted and sour. Even the inscription seems to agree that this was a pissy man.


The epitaph is somehow ennobling and antagonistic at the same time, perhaps due to Rhodes’ complicated relationship with the Boers—he courted them and cursed them alternatively as it served his interests. A man must be astonishingly dour for even his eulogizers to describe him as “brooding.” And while the assertion that Cecil John Rhodes was the land in life and her soul in death, when he was not even from the land in question is breathtaking in its colonial arrogance, the expression that he shall “still quicken and control” does hint at the magnitude of his lust for power. Here is a man who knew what he wanted, and more importantly, who he wanted to be, and was prepared to do anything to achieve his goals.

Yet despite the bravado of the inscription, the bronze Rhodes inside the temple seems to know that he is beaten. He wearily rests his heavy head on his right hand while his left arm lies flat, bracing his body against his pedestal, as if trying to support the colossal weight of empire.

Forty minutes away in Paarl, just outside the front gates of Drakenstein prison, know as the Victor Verster Prison while Mandela spent his final years of confinement there, stands a statue of the great man erected in 2008. The bronze Mandela, looking tired but triumphant, raises his right fist in celebration of his victory, looking every bit the boxer he once was. He has taken his lumps and rolled with the punches—the fight has aged him—but after 15 brutal rounds, he has emerged victorious. The judge called History scores the fight for Mandela, noting that he will be remembered as one of history’s giants, a man with the patience and purpose to rope-a-dope an entire nation, absorbing blow after blow from the Apartheid regime with the certainty that it will punch itself out, leaving itself vulnerable to one well-place left hook. The judge called Morality scores the fight for Mandela too. While Mandela was not a pacifist, he supported armed insurrection, the justice of his cause, his reliance on sabotage rather than bloodshed, and his extraordinary ability to choose reconciliation over retribution has given him Morality’s card decisively.

But the fight was not scored unanimously for Mandela. The third card remains blank. The judge called The Future has not yet submitted a score. Rightly or wrongly, Mandela will be judged to some extent on the men who follow him. To be sure Mandela himself cannot be held responsible for the acts of Mbeki, Zuma or any of his other successors. But he is the father of the country, and rightly or wrongly, the behavior of the child reflects on the father. Mandela’s willingness to relinquish power was extraordinary. It showed an awareness of his limitations that is rare in politicians and an understanding that he was not the state. But the outcomes still matter. George Washington, who like Mandela yielded power freely, is judged a great success by history not only for his revolutionary achievements but for establishing the role of President. Had that role of a powerful but limited executive been undermined by his early successors, as John Adams nearly did with the Alien and Sedition Acts, Washington’s legacy would have been different. Perhaps he would have been the good man who preceded the age of tyrants, rather than the father of liberty.

If the new South Africa someday descends into chaos, if crime continues to expand, if vast inequalities in wealth persist or worst of all, if a South African Mugabe emerges, than Mandela may not win on that final scorecard. He will have won, the fight to be sure, but it is still too early to tell if the bronzed man standing on a platform of marble etched with images of barbed wire won by a unanimous or a split decision. Will his legacy be unambiguous or mixed?

It is puzzling that these two monuments can exist in the same country, that victorious Mandela and defiant Rhodes, that the liberator and the colonizer can both be lauded in the same province, can both be addressed with reverence.

The conventional wisdom is that this is the genius of Mandela; in victory he was magnanimous, that now even as Rhodesia is no more and South Africa has come under majority rule, Rhodes can be allowed to have his temple and his scholarships in peace. One hotel even ups the ante, taking the name the Mandela Rhodes Place, attempting to suggest that they are both, in their own ways heroes of South Africa.

But magnanimity is much harder in defeat and is perhaps even unwise, suggesting an excess of passivity. Which leads me to ask: Who really won? DeKlerk’s goal in negotiating the end of Apartheid was not to end white privilege, but to preserve it. Continuing to preserve white dominance with a legal system based on the presumption of white superiority was never defensible, but as the world changed and the cold war ended, it began to look absurd and even self-destructive. At some point, the black population would have launched a violent, full-scale revolt against Apartheid, and the consequences would have been terrible for the white minority. DeKlerk turned to negotiation because it offered the best chance for the survival of his people and his lifestyle.

And as we look 15 years after Mandela came to power, it seems from a walk around Cape Town that DeKlerk may have succeeded and that perhaps old Cecil Rhodes had as many tricks in death as he did in life.

After a week in the country, entirely in the Western Cape province save for one night in Johannesburg, I am hardly qualified to reveal any deep truths about South Africa. All I can report is what I see. And what I see, small sample though it is, is a country where, despite the overwhelming black majority, almost all the faces in the fine restaurants are white, where the shantytowns are exclusively black and where DeBeers, the company that Cecil Rhodes purchased and transformed into the world’s diamond monopoly is still an overwhelming presence.

So who really did win? Mandela or Rhodes? Do the oceans clash or combine? The answer seems to be both. Today’s South Africa is Mandela’s country. People of all races are free, elections are basically fair and there is a black elite that has earned a share of the country’s wealth. Today’s South Africa is still Rhodes’ country. The wealth is still controlled by a tiny elite consisting disproportionately of whites.

South Africa is the Cape of Storms and the Cape of Good Hope. While storms rage throughout the country, storms of crime and violence, storms of poverty, storms of inequality, Good Hope remains.