One of the pleasures of travelling is the opportunity to learn about the places you visit. There are many “quick and dirty” ways of learning about places. My favourite is starting up conversations with local taxi drivers.
They may not give one the full picture, but they certainly capture some essentials, especially the more contested aspects of life in a society. And so it was that when I visited South Africa recently, I went back to my old habit.
Thanks to previous visits and a bit of reading here and there, I wasn’t entirely unfamiliar with what has been happening there over the past decade.
It is just over 10 years since I packed my bags and left, having cut some of my professional teeth there while trying to make sense of the lives of Mozambicans who, several years before, had fled their country as Frelimo and Renamo fought over who had the right to rule their country.
The famously unconventional Thabo Mbeki was still president, still a few years away from being deposed by his party, the African National Congress — for, among other sins, being too intellectual, too aloof and apparently out of touch with the lives of ordinary South Africans.
All the taxi drivers I engaged had broadly similar stories with regard to how they felt about South Africa 20 years after the ANC came to power. One old man, however, stood out, courtesy of the range of issues he explored and evidently felt very strongly about. I couldn’t resist the urge to switch on my voice recorder.
How did he feel about living in a democratic South Africa? Democracy, he said, was “damaging this country.” Damaging? How? We were in Johannesburg’s upmarket suburb of Rosebank and heading for less posh Brixton.
First, he pointed to the road we were travelling on. “Look at how damaged this road is. During the apartheid era, it would have been closed for resurfacing by now. But no one is doing anything about it. It is as if we have no government in this country. The ANC is undermining all the achievements of the Boers. I am not praising the Boers, my brother I am telling you the truth”.
Was he really serious in claiming democracy has not been good for South Africa? He was. “Under apartheid, you could not just build anything anywhere. Now you find mkuku [shacks] anywhere. Even here (he points at an open space) foreigners can come and put their mkuku here and sleep and no one will tell them anything.
“In the townships, Somalis have taken over all the businesses every business our people used to do. Under apartheid, business in areas where black people lived was for black people. Now it is for foreigners. Even Indians are there.”
What was the government doing about that? By now almost yelling, he said: “Nothing! They say if you touch a Somali, you touch Zuma and his government. They only look after foreigners. People are afraid to say anything.”
And what did he think of President Zuma? “Ayi, ayi, ayi,” he yelled. “I can run this place better than Zuma! Zuma has done nothing for this country.” Did South Africans not remove Mbeki because they believed Zuma would be a better president? He was having none of that: “Ayi, ayi, ayi! Don’t say South Africans. The people who removed Mbeki were Zuma’s friends. They are the ones taking our money now. Democracy has been good for them. Democracy is good for the criminals. It is good for those who want to take other people’s things.”
Would he vote for the ANC if there were an election soon? “Ayi! No! I voted for the ANC in 1994. I voted for the old man. After that, I said ‘hamba ANC’ (go to hell, ANC). No one who thinks right can vote for the ANC.”
Who would he vote for? “I like the DA [Democratic Alliance]. They are doing good things down there in Cape Town. The ANC has messed up this country.” But what really is wrong with the ANC? “They work for foreigners. There are too many Nigerians here.
They drive big cars and have bought all the big houses. And when you go inside, all you find is dagga [marijuana] and cocaine. They are making cocaine there.”
If by now you think he’s xenophobic and that his problems are the ANC, Zuma and foreigners, not quite.
We got to Brixton and he went for fellow South Africans. “Look at all the rubbish here. Under apartheid, there was no rubbish in the street. This place was for Indians. When black people came in with all the rubbish, the Indians ran away to Mayfair. Wherever blacks go, they take rubbish there.”
Why don’t they dispose of it properly? “Because no one is forcing them! They are free to do anything. Under apartheid, you could not throw rubbish anywhere. Now you can roast meat in the street. No one will say anything.”
It was a simple analysis of a complex reality that, nevertheless, gave pause for thought.
Frederick Golooba-Mutebi is a Kampala- and Kigali-based researcher and writer on politics and public affairs. E-mail: email@example.com
SOURCE: THE EAST AFRICAN