Listen to this article
When I close my eyes and think back to apartheid, it’s 1984 and I’m sitting on my grandparents’ veranda in Johannesburg. It’s a blazing December day, and I’ve just had a swim in their pool. Nesta, the black maid who lives behind the kitchen, is cutting the chocolate cake. In the garden below, her grandchildren are playing in our old underpants from Europe. We all know that apartheid will last forever.
Twenty years ago this Sunday, South Africa’s first multiracial elections officially buried apartheid. But I still see apartheid everywhere I go. In part, this is a personal deformation. The apartheid I witnessed on visits to my grandparents was the most vivid sight of my childhood, more interesting than anything in the small Dutch town where I grew up, and so it remains my frame for understanding the world.
True, the analogy with South African apartheid is never perfect. Today’s apartheid isn’t as naked. No country now has laws dividing people by “race”. No country proclaims a policy of “Bantu education”, which deliberately teaches blacks only just enough to do lowly jobs for whites. And yet things often seem to end up that way.
I especially see apartheid in the US. True, the country has made racist speech taboo. Use a racial epithet in public and your career combusts. That’s lovely. However, American school taxes are usually raised locally, and many neighbourhoods are segregated, and so most poor black children attend underfunded schools where they learn just enough to do lowly jobs for whites. The US later tries to airlift a few victims out of the ghetto through “affirmative action”, but by then the damage is done. Like apartheid South Africa, the US ensures through schooling that most black people won’t succeed. It just doesn’t call this “Bantu education”.
My instinctive measure of a society is how closely it resembles South African apartheid. On that score the Netherlands – despite ample racist speech – arguably beats the US, because the Dutch give so-called “black schools” more funding than white suburban schools. Similarly, ethnically mixed-up London has less apartheid than segregated Paris.
South African apartheid determined people’s life paths from before birth. If you were a white embryo, you’d be fine. A black embryo wouldn’t. I remember, aged about 16, sitting on the porch of some ridiculous white adult fraud, listening to him preach about the stupidity of his black servants, and realising: this guy needs to believe he made his own success. Few people at the top can think, “Luckily, I chose the right parents.” Instead they tell themselves a story about work and talent – even though their maid probably outworks them, and nobody ever cared whether she had talent.
Inequality is the new apartheid. Your life path is largely determined before birth. The ruling classes pass on their status by sending their children to exclusive schools, much like in apartheid Johannesburg.
Happily, ethnicity is no longer always decisive. Still, today’s apartheid delivers outcomes as unequal as the old apartheid did. One measure of a society’s inequality is its Gini coefficient. South Africa’s Gini in 1995, just after apartheid, was a shocking 0.59 (where 0 is perfect equality, and 1 is perfect inequality). But Manhattan today has almost exactly the same Gini: 0.6, according to the US Census Bureau. Amazingly, South Africa itself has become less equal since apartheid: by 2009 the country’s Gini had risen to 0.63, says the World Bank.
Political talk today often sends me drifting back to apartheid. I remember white South African liberals bemoaning apartheid while the maid served supper. I grasped only recently (after reading Mark Gevisser’s excellent new book Dispatcher, about Johannesburg) that most of them didn’t want to end apartheid. They just liked talking liberal talk. It made them feel virtuous, and set them above peasants who actually believed in apartheid. In fact, apartheid liberals resemble liberals today who bemoan climate change while flying everywhere and not voting for parties that would tackle the problem (I know: I’m guilty too). As climate change gets forgotten, the latest fake liberals are the Davos types who bemoan inequality at billionaire-sponsored cocktail parties.
Still, South Africa showed me that progress can happen. Apartheid ended partly for the same reason why communism collapsed in 1989, and why inequality may yet diminish: the ruling class became ashamed. Apartheid’s demise taught me that politics matter, that individual politicians matter (the white regime trusted Nelson Mandela with the country) and that history never happens the way you expect. South Africa avoided civil war. Instead, as the old communist Albie Sachs told me, “The communists made the liberal revolution.” I’ve learnt that utopia never arrives: South Africa won’t ever be Switzerland. But it could become Chile.
Some things have got better. Nesta, while working for my grandparents, simultaneously raised her own grandchildren in her house five hours away. This month she died, aged about 85. Her grandchildren buried her. She had worked them hard. They read books. Several of them graduated from university. They have a slightly better chance in life than she did.
To comment on this article please post below, or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Letter in response to this column: