Maxwell Barnes ’16
“He’s a dickhead” was the curt response given to me by a Michaelhouse boy after asking him on his opinion of Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s current president and a man I had just found out existed. That answer seemed to be the general consensus between other South African teenagers during my first night on my student exchange while roaming the streets of Johannesburg. My only premonitions of South Africa before arriving were that this thing, apartheid, happened. In addition, this guy, Nelson Mandela, happened. This in turn caused apartheid, for the most part, to stop happening. So why all this resentment against a man who represents the party that saved a decaying nation from racism? It has been over twenty years since apartheid ended, so why isn’t this happy ending I’ve heard about a reality? In fact, I think the most honest opinion of what is occurring in South Africa lies within the youth of the nation, appropriately nicknamed “born-frees” for being born after the apartheid era. These are the youth that are forced to bear the burden of apartheid and expected to fix the decaying nation within the coming years.
As we drove in cheap Übers throughout the city, we passed kilometer upon kilometer of electric fences, spreading over the city as a large and efficient attempt to prevent home and business invasion. “Is crime really that big of a problem here?” I naively asked to another boy. The boy explained to me the rampant crime brought upon by extreme poverty and lack of education that exists in South Africa as a chilling side effect of apartheid. I suddenly became uncomfortable, understanding that I was not as generously safe as I was in America. As I asked more about Jacob Zuma, the tenth highest paid president in the world, I began to understand why things have remained so unfixed in the past decade.
Jacob Zuma was an activist in the apartheid movement alongside Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo in the African National Congress, a political organization dedicated to racial equality, quickly becoming a national leader during the 1994 dismantling of apartheid and racial segregations. The black majority of South Africa was finally able to vote, and, in thankfulness for their political efforts was able to ensure the ANC’s electoral success for a consecutive five national elections. However, as the party became powerful, corruption and cronyism began to arise, making party leaders such as Zuma in perfect positions to use now-unbalanced political system to their advantage. The spread of Zuma’s corrupt influence since Mandela’s death in 2013 has consequently led the South African Rand to plummet more than 50%, leaving the rand at 6 cents to the dollar. This is what made my Übervan from Johannesburg to Pretoria a mere $35, compared to a $15 starting fare back in the states.
Zuma himself does not have a High School education, having dropped out of school after grade 7. Zuma is also a polygamist, and has been married 6 times and has 19 children. Zuma clearly believes in his own personal right to love, but opposing LGBT rights, having stated that homosexuality is “a disgrace to god.” Zuma himself was also charged of rape in 2005. The alleged victim was from a well-known ANC family, and the daughter of a deceased friend of Zuma, and also an AIDS activist who was known to be HIV-positive. In addition to his disrespect for those living with HIV/AIDs, Zuma told those with the disease to “take a shower” in order to get rid of their ailment. Perhaps more shocking than any of these things is the fact that Jacob Zuma is still able to hold the most powerful position in Africa and the 10th highest paying presidential role in the world. It is clear that Jacob Zuma would not have come to power without riding on the success of the Nelson Mandela, and has sadly reached a point where no matter what he does, he will still be supported by the corrupt ANC.
Although, it’s become clear to me how delicately the future of South Africa, and Africa as a whole, rests in the hands of the free-borns I have been meeting along my journey. These will have to be the children who will say no to using both racism and the accusation of racism in order to fix the centuries of racial inequality that has haunted Southern Africa. It is no wonder why the biggest celebrity of this nation, comedian and daily show host, Trevor Noah, is so popular. Trevor Noah himself, a mixed free-born, represents the attitude and want for change shared by white, black, and colored youth across the nation. Noah uses the power of America’s free speech and his own ability of analyzing political confusion to give hope to the South African youth, a shining reminder of how powerful a single voice can be in the face of corruption.
Perhaps one day Johannesburg homeowners will not need to pay such a hefty tax on electricity for their fences, perhaps they can use that money to send their children to a school such as Michaelhouse or Hilton, and perhaps it will be because of the boys and girls I’ve met here over the past few months.