Madiba 20

SA celebrates Mandela amid worry

2010-02-08 15:08

Special Report

Obama calls Mandela
Obama calls Mandela

US President Barack Obama has called former president Nelson Mandela to mark the 20th anniversary of his release from prison.

Johannesburg - Josephine Mji was a teenager when Nelson Mandela walked out of prison 20 years ago. South Africa's fortunes have soared since then, but the mother of three is still struggling to escape poverty and enjoy her freedom.

"When Mandela was released, everyone believed that we had conquered, but look at where we are now. I have nothing to call mine," said Mji, selling fruits on the sidewalks in an affluent Johannesburg suburb.

"So long as I am still struggling, have no job or home, nothing has changed, freedom has not brought any change in my life," the 35-year-old said.

"I have not achieved freedom. Anywhere I go, doors are shut in my face. This is not the situation I wish on my children," said Mji, who lives in a shack and blames the government for "not doing enough to support the poor".

Dignity

But Richard Maponya, a trailblazing black entrepreneur, believes that Mandela's release opened a floodgate of opportunities.

"Blacks have regained their dignity. Now we can contribute to the economy of the country," said the leading businessman.

Maponya battled apartheid laws which prohibited blacks from opening businesses and owning property.

In his plush home in a northern Johannesburg suburb, Maponya said the country is headed in the right direction, despite "worrying pockets of racism".

"The country has made great strides in the last two decades. The future will be better than today," he said.

"But we have not fully achieved economic freedom. The purse strings are still held by the white people, but with time things will change," he added.

Social ills hit blacks hardest

Political change has created a growing black middle class that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago, buoyed by 17 years of economic growth interrupted only by a nine-month recession during the recent global slowdown.

But about 1.1 million families still live in shacks. Unemployment is about 30%, while staggering levels of crime leave an average of 50 people dead every day.

While South Africa's social ills hit blacks the hardest, the non-black population also expresses a nagging discontent about the country's direction under the new government.

John Swanevelder, a 29-year-old white Afrikaner engineer from Pretoria, said the new government and its affirmative action policies had created new racial tensions.

Disunity among races

"It brought a lot of good and bad things," Swanevelder said of Mandela's release. "Suddenly blacks gained more power and they did not handle it properly."

"The power in the hands of black people has caused a lot of disunity among races. It created power struggles in the workplace, business and communities," he said.

Catherine Jeremiah, who lives in a small mixed-race community in Kliptown, south of Johannesburg, blamed the politicians who came after Mandela for not living up to his ideals.

"Mandela was a good man. Those who came after him have not done a good job. They are not in touch with the people they are serving," said the 73-year-old grandmother.

Jeremiah has lived all her life in Kliptown, famed as the venue for the 1955 signing of the Freedom Charter, which mapped a vision for a united, non-racial and democratic South Africa.

'Nothing has changed here'

While she welcomes her political freedom, Jeremiah said her quality of life hasn't improved.

"Nothing has changed here. It will be a miracle if something changes in the next 20 years, because we have not seen anything in the last 10 years of democracy," said Jeremiah.

But in nearby Soweto, renowned as the home of the country's largest black middle class, photographer Sizwe Kumalo feels the new government has opened up a new world of opportunity for young blacks.

"The youth have more opportunities and a lot of black people are entering the business scene," said Kumalo.

"Look around here, development has taken place everywhere," he said. "Soweto is now a fully-fledged suburb, something which was only a dream 20 years ago."

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