I have just attended a lecture by the South African High Commissioner to the UK (i.e. the South African ambassador), Ms Lindiwe Mabuza, and thought I’d share my impressions (sorry, this is going to be a long one…)
Most of the lecture was very boring and was aimed at patting the British on the back for all the help during the anti-apartheid struggle and describing all of the “10 Years of Democracy” celebrations held this year with “old friends”. Then she turned to talking about the issues facing South Africa and, quite surprisingly, decided to tackle the two issues of HIV/AIDS and Zimbabwe head on. I suppose it was to pre-empt some prickly situations during question time.
On HIV/AIDS, she begun by saying that she needs to “dispel the myth” that President Mbeki ever doubted the link between HIV and AIDS. She said, straight out, that Mbeki never, ever made any “official statement” denying the link. Honest. I couldn’t believe it either. She then went on to describe how the government’s programme of nutrition provision was endorsed by the WHO, and how condoms are universally available in South African clinics. Not a word about anti-retrovirals.
On Zimbabwe, her comments were unsurprising. She stated that under no circumstances would South Africa ever militarily intervene in Zimbabwe or contemplate cutting off its electricity or any other resources - this was “quite frankly, illegal”. She promoted the use of the UN, the encouragement of the Zimbabwean people to sort out their own problems, and perhaps a quiet word to Mugabe from Mbeki because “they actually get on”.
The interesting bits came during question time. The first question, from a South African student, questioned that if Mbeki had never denied the link between HIV and AIDS, why had he never confirmed it? Surely the people of South Africa deserved this? She remained steadfast that Mbeki had been consistent in his views.
The second questioner, another young South African student, basically directly accused her of lying and quoted Mbeki out of a Time Magazine article saying that he doubted the link between HIV and AIDS. She brushed this off as not understanding how it related to his official stance, which is unchanged. His question to her was whether the South African government believed that the election that returned Mugabe to power in 2000 was “free and fair”. She replied that the observers only knew what they saw and what they saw indicated that that it was legitimate, so that was the government’s official position.
The third question, from me, was as follows:
“Given that you have said South African will never intervene militarily in Zimbabwe, and given that you said South Africa’s greatest challenges now relate to poverty, could you elaborate on the direct threat to our country that has prompted the government to spend more money on hi-tech weapons than it does on housing?”
High Commissioner’s response (as best I can remember):
“I cannot comment on how much government spends on housing, or health, or education, or whatever else... [pause]. We fought hard for our democracy, and now it must be protected. [and I’m thinking, “From whom?!!”]. We must protect it from attack. It can be attacked from anywhere…from the sea…you may have heard about some trawlers that were captured off the coast…”
[Another long pause during which she (and many others) just stares at me]
Chairman: “Is that all you are going to say?”
High Commissioner: “Yes, that’s all I’m going to say”
Super. All my fears of government corruption and crony capitalism seeping into the higher echelons of the liberation government have now been allayed. It is quite clear that we justifiably bought R66 billion (or more?) worth of jet fighters, submarines, Corvettes, and whatever else, so our fish will forever be safe from Taiwanese trawlers. Fantastic. I’ll sleep better tonight.
The rest of the questions were mostly from British ex-anti-apartheid movement people patting the government (and themselves) on the back for doing so much for South Africa, and asking what they could do to continue helping the government with its good work. Yawn.
It struck me that there may be a fundamental difference between the way that the “apartheid generation” and the youth of South Africa view the country and its issues. While the older generation constantly looks back to the struggle and how things have or have not changed, the new generation is looking forward. We are looking at current actions and decision that affect the future of our country. We speak out about the failures and the imperfections and we look positively towards solving them in the future.
Now I am the first person to say that apartheid should never be forgotten, and that its effects will continue to be felt in our country for many generations. However, the history of our country cannot act as a buffer with which those in power defer responsibility to act on current issues. We can relish in our history and our successes over the last 10 years, but don’t let self-congratulation get in the way of progress.