When the party's over

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 April, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 April, 2004, 12:00am

On April 27, 1994, after votes were cast in South Africa's first democratic, multi-racial elections, Nelson Mandela - who had been freed just four years earlier after serving 27 years in prison - declared: 'We are starting a new era of hope, reconciliation and nation building.'

Ten years after the fall of apartheid, the country's third democratic elections this month marked the end of the beginning. Although the African National Congress (ANC) - widely regarded as the 'people's party' whose legitimisation in 1990 heralded the end of white minority rule - has, as expected, increased its stronghold over South Africa's government, opinions are divided over the country's progress.

'The elections were very fair and free. Again, people voted to follow the clarion call of a better life for all - there is great confidence in the government, and the people want it to lead on,' says Mario George Masher, who was appointed South Africa's Consul-General to Hong Kong and Macau last October. A jovial and engaging figure, Mr Masher served as a member of parliament from 1988-2000 and was director of security at the Department of Foreign Service in Pretoria before coming to Hong Kong for the first time to start a four-year term in his diplomatic post.

Having served as an MP for the Labour Party during the apartheid era, Mr Masher says South Africa made a peaceful transition to democracy thanks to the interim constitution of 1993, which forms the basis for the country's present constitution. He sees the constitution and good governance as a bedrock for success in the country - and ultimately, across Africa.

'[Back then] there were several summits held with the unbanned groups. Either way it was a foregone conclusion that if there were a one-man, one-vote system, the black majority would come into power. So those checks and balances in a democratic order were put into place,' Mr Masher says. 'South Africa could be credited for teaching the world how to transfer to a new democracy smoothly and effectively.' But Mr Masher would not comment on Hong Kong's political transition process.

He says the Truth and Reconciliation Commission - which was chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and had hearings on human rights crimes by former government and liberation movements during the apartheid era - was instrumental in maintaining the country's unity.

'The Truth and Reconciliation came with the most atrocious things on the table. [It was] the order of the day where people sat across the table looking across to each other and said: 'I am sorry for what I have done.''

But while the ANC's resonance as the party of black emancipation is reflected in its record vote share - it won almost 70 per cent of the national vote, compared with 66.3 and 63 per cent in the 1999 and 1994 elections respectively - some worry that the country is becoming a one-party state. The ANC also won a two-thirds parliamentary majority in the election.

There is evidence of a continued white/black polarity among voters. The country's traditionally 'white' opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) won 12.33 per cent of the vote, up from 9.5 per cent in the 1999 election. Some say this support came from white voters who moved away from the New National Party (NNP) - the successor to the party that ruled under apartheid - after the NNP went into an alliance with the ANC last year. The NNP's share of the vote dived from slightly less than 7 per cent to less than 2 per cent of the vote.

Mr Masher admits that there is still a difference between white and black voter mentality, particularly with regard to older, white, farming communities. 'I think one must look at the DA's original mandate, it was 'hang them and get them behind bars' and so on,' he says. 'These would be the older, more staunch voters of the past in the white fraternity who would still have that fear on the farms.

'In the farming community in the rural areas you did have incidents, and it was portrayed as what is going to lead to what happened in Zimbabwe. So that's where the fear came in, although there is legislation and protection of ownership of land. None of that which happened in Zimbabwe happened in South Africa.'

When discussing South Africa's young democracy, Mr Masher uses the term 'people-centred government' several times. He says involving previously disenfranchised groups is the core of the ANC's mandate to provide 'a better life for all'. 'If you don't have good governance you will not be able to provide for your people in the country,' he says firmly. 'Not only economically, but socially as well.'

It is precisely on these points that criticism has been levelled at the ANC government. Critics have cited problems such as unemployment - real unemployment stands at about 40 per cent - poverty, crime and the ongoing Aids epidemic.

In his annual state of the nation address, South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki said that 1.6 million houses had been built, more than 70 per cent of homes now had electricity, and secondary school enrolment had risen to 85 per cent since the election of the country's first black-led government 10 years ago. However, the government has been under fire for taking too long to deliver on its promises.

There have also been accusations by white South Africans of 'reverse racism', citing cases where the government's 'Black Economic Empowerment' initiative has pushed qualified white workers out of their jobs. The initiative was introduced late last year to shift economic power from the white elite to the majority of black workers.

'The main thrust is to make sure that those who have been previously disenfranchised enter the market, so that you have an equality in the industries and in the economy. You just can't have a lop-sided economy,' Mr Masher says, denying reports of unfair hiring practices. 'I think the job market with regard to South Africa is a fairly open situation. People are not forced, in fact no persons are forced out of their work.'

Mr Masher says that crime figures are down. He points out collective schemes on the municipal level that encourage communities to go into joint ventures with the government in several areas: policing, building and infrastructure repairs.

But crime does appear to be a major concern in South Africa - the opposition DA party played the crime card to its favour during the election.

Mr Masher admits that this tactic worked for the DA, as crime is obviously a voter concern, but adds: 'What do you want - a draconian society controlled by police or do you want a democratic society?'

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing the country is the Aids epidemic. South Africa has the highest number of HIV-positive people in the world - an estimated five million (a five-fold increase since 1994) out of a population of 43 million. An estimated 600 people die of Aids every day.

Although the government has started distributing free anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs in public hospitals - only two weeks before the general elections - this was only after years of legal battles brought by the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), which accused the government of unnecessary delay.

The government had resisted pressure to distribute ARVs to those who were HIV positive, saying it would be too expensive, and questioned the drugs' effectiveness.

Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang famously urged people to eat garlic and beetroot to combat Aids and Mr Mbeki shocked many in 2001 when he denied there was a link between HIV and Aids.

Mr Masher says the reason for the slow process is due to the system the ANC government inherited from apartheid. He also cites a lack of awareness in the rural areas, as well as a cultural stigma against admitting to the disease. And he says Mr Mbeki may have been misinformed about the link between HIV and Aids.

'It wasn't Mbeki - it was the Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang [who was in charge of that process],' he says. 'You have the drug there. But do you have the capacity to get those people to give [the drug] to those people who are responsible then for administering the drug? You've got to get a qualified person to do that.' He says that after apartheid there were only 2,000 qualified doctors in South Africa, mostly based in urban areas.

Besides these domestic challenges, the government has taken on several international commitments. South Africa led the drive to establish the New Partnership for African Development (Nepad), which aims to promote economic development and good governance through reforms across the African continent.

'What we are doing there is promoting the African renaissance - ending poverty and underdevelopment, and building a better life for ordinary people in Africa, especially the poor,' Mr Masher says, picking up a sheaf of bullet-pointed policy documents from his desk.

South Africa has overcome the biggest hurdles since the end of apartheid - maintaining political stability and creating a functioning democracy. GDP has held steady at an average of about 3 per cent a year since 1994, and South Africa continues to be the largest investor in Africa.

But the government still faces the daunting tasks of further curbing crime, redistributing jobs and making ARVs more widely available.

Although the 10th anniversary of the death of the apartheid system which was deemed 'a crime against humanity' is cause enough for jubilation, it is also a reason to judge the ANC's next term against its own - and not apartheid's - record.