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A South African diary *LINK*

by David Batstone
June 19, 2002

I have spent the last 17 days in South Africa along with 22 of my students from the University of San Francisco. I won't bore you with all the travel details. A few snapshots may hint at the range of emotions I'm riding my last day in Durban, before I head back to the USA.

*Last night I took to the streets of Durban with Tom Hewitt, who has been working with street kids here for the last eight years (I highly recommend his book, "Little Outlaws, Dirty Angels," wherein he relates his work with South Africa's street children). At midnight we ran across a dozen kids, ages 10-14, all black. The kids were sitting around a makeshift fire ring they had built on a traffic island on a main Durban thoroughfare. It struck me how prematurely old the kids seemed, evoking images of hobos by railroad tracks or the homeless in Harlem. But these dispossessed were pre-teenage kids. After we said our goodbyes, Tom remarked that nearly all of these kids are destined to die of AIDS unless some other tragedy does not take them earlier.

*One out of three South Africans are HIV positive. Those numbers are horrific enough. More troubling still is the government's denial of the crisis. President Mbeke has rejected an infusion of medical aid, casting doubt on the fatal gravity of the HIV virus and saying that South Africa will deal with HIV in its own African way. But several African nations have more aggressively addressed the crisis with modestly successful results. It's hard to come up with a logical reason for Mbeke's position. Then again... One of my students asked a respected South African professor and UNESCO representative how the nation could hope to boost its economic productivity with the prospect of losing one out of three of its people in the next decade. His reply: "With 40% unemployment and scarce resources, perhaps the HIV virus is actually a blessing." Can it be that Mbeke and his ruling coalition have reached the same cold, calculated decision, to force euthanasia onto the nation's poor, all in the name of the common good?

*We spent a day with Steve Biko's widow, Ntsiki, who is an inspiring activist in her own right. Part of Steve Biko's life - and death at the hands of South African police - is depicted in the movie "Cry Freedom." I've often wondered whether Steve rejected religion as he formed a radical political philosophy for Africa. Ms. Biko told me that Steve did view a European version of Christianity as the perfect ideal for colonizing and subjugating black Africans. But while he denounced religion of this sort, Ms. Biko said Steve met secretly - and regularly - with Christian liberation theologians to find meaning in black people's understanding of God. Steve often said "No nation can win a battle without faith," while stressing that faith must be seen through the eyes of those who struggle for justice, not in the vision of those who dominate and oppress.

*I met an alarming number of people here - above all young activists - who are deflated by the dearth of economic achievements delivered by the ANC. Corruption by public officials adds to the sting of ineffective economic restucturing. In Steve Biko's home township of Ginsberg, youth unemployment is at 90%. One young black woman from Ginsberg who was very active in the anti-apartheid struggle expressed her disaffection. While thrilled to cast her first vote in an election that brought the ANC to power, she said that it also would be her final vote. She no longer believed in the political process. The widespread disillusionment brought back memories of my work in Nicaragua in 1988. At the time, no one thought it was possible that the Sandinistas would lose a fair election. But I became convinced that revolutions - and elections - come down to rice and beans, not ideology. For that reason, I believe the ANC is in trouble politically in the near future.

*Yet democracy is alive and well in South Africa...for blacks, coloreds, Indians, and whites. Maybe that alone is a sufficient endorsement of what has happened here since 1994. It's refreshing to hear so much open debate about how society should be run. An ANC community activist in Duncan Village - one of the most conflictive townships in the anti-apartheid struggle - told us bluntly that some ANC officials are corrupt and diverted funds designated to his projects. In the same breath, he spoke of his patience for the democratic process. "Building democratic institutions does not happen overnight," he noted. I also spoke with Afrikaners and Indians who believe the black majority have made a mess of things for the country since '94. Some of their critiques were credible, others blatantly racist. Most notably, these critics are not imprisoned, threatened, or economically marginalized for voicing their opinions publicly.

Closing thought: Africa is commonly viewed as a world of problems. The USA and Europe consider themselves a world of solutions. I would reposition the formula in a way onto which 9/11 serves as an exclamation mark: Our solutions are linked to their problems, and their solutions rapidly are becoming our problems.

DAVID BATSTONE is executive editor of Sojourners.

This article originally appeared in SojoMail

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