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By the time he was released from prison in 1990, after 27 years behind bars, Nelson Mandela could no longer cry. During his detention on Robben Island, the notorious penal colony 40 minutes across the water from Capetown, Mandela worked in a limestone quarry. Day after day, he and other political prisoners were forced to hack into a wall of earth with picks and shovels. The sun’s glare off the white limestone was blinding, the heat brutal. Many prisoners ended up with permanently impaired vision. Mandela’s eyes were rendered incapable of producing tears. Photographers are still forbidden to use a flash to take his picture.
There are guided tours now of Robben Island, and one lesson they impart is that working in the quarry was actually one of the prison’s lesser punishments. More humiliating was the guards’ game of ordering an inmate buried in the ground up to his neck and leaving him there all day to roast in the sun while guards took turns urinating on him. More gruesome was the practice of hanging a prisoner upside down from a tree and waiting as the hours passed for him to pass out and, in one case, to perish as his body’s blood supply gradually accumulated in his brain, starving it of oxygen.
Hearing of such abominations firsthand, and seeing where they took place, makes a visit to Robben Island as unforgettable as a pilgrimage to Dachau or Hiroshima. One departs with a renewed awe for what Mandela and his comrades endured in their struggle against apartheid, and especially for their ability to emerge preaching forgiveness and reconciliation. That awe is balanced by dismay, however, when one returns to the mainland, spends a few weeks traveling in South Africa, and sees what uneven progress has been made in the eight years since Mandela was elected president in April 1994.
To be sure, South Africa’s political transformation is nothing less than exhilarating. But social and economic conditions have stagnated, if not deteriorated, since apartheid was overthrown, leaving many South Africans impatient with the African National Congress (ANC) and its leader, Thabo Mbeki, who succeeded Mandela as president in 1999. Mandela had pledged upon taking office in 1994 to build a million new houses within five years, fund massive jobs programs, and provide free education for all. But those ambitions were doomed even before the ANC took office, thanks to a little-known agreement between the new government and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). As Anthony Sampson writes in his authorized biography of Mandela, the pact committed the ANC to reducing the country’s deficit, raising interest rates, and privatizing parts of the economy in return for an $850 million IMF loan. In addition, the ANC government would be expected to repay $50 billion in debt left behind by the apartheid regime, an obligation that by itself would consume one-fifth of the incoming government’s annual budget, making new social welfare initiatives all but impossible. In the current global political climate, Mandela felt he had no choice but to agree to the deal.
Today, South Africa is ravaged by street crime and homelessness. Some 4.2 million people are living with AIDS, more than in any other nation in the world. Driving these trends is a 30 percent unemployment rate that has been rising since apartheid fell. “I voted for this new government, but I do not like it,” says Malcolm Adams, a 32-year-old bus driver who says most men in his Capetown township lack real jobs. “The ANC promised us jobs, but where are they?”
These developments, lamentable in their own right, are all the more disturbing in light of the September 11 terrorist attacks against the United States. Poverty is not the only cause of terrorism, but it does help the recruiting process: A young man with no job, or hope of getting one, is more susceptible to a fanatic’s enticements than one who sees a better tomorrow. The CIA recognizes this threat. Last year, it warned in its “Global Trends 2015” report that the growing global gap between rich and poor “will foster political, ethnic, ideological, and religious extremism, along with the violence that often accompanies it,” as close to a prediction of the September 11 tragedy as one could ask for.
South Africa is no hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism, though its influential Muslim minority did manage to pressure Mandela to moderate his endorsement of the U.S. military attacks in Afghanistan. But the larger point is what South Africa’s economic difficulties portend for Africa as a whole, where Islam is growing faster than any other religion. If despite all its advantages–abundant natural resources, a modern industrial infrastructure, a progressive governmenT–South Africa still cannot deliver a better life for its people, is it any wonder that other nations in Africa and throughout the Third World are floundering? Or that more and more of their people are embracing the beguiling certainties of radical Islam?
Self-interest-not charity-compels the outside world to look carefully at what has gon
e wrong in South Africa and how to put it right. The cause is by no means hopeless; practical reforms were on the table before September 11. President Mbeki has proposed a Millenium Africa Recovery Plan that has been praised by African and Western leaders alike and is scheduled for action at this summer’s G-8 summit in Canada.
It’s worth recalling, however, that Mandela proposed a similar idea when he took office eight years ago. Mandela envisioned a kind of Marshall Plan for South Africa: Wealthy nations and corporations would pour in aid and investment to jump-start South Africa’s economy and would, in turn, benefit from the new markets and supply sources thus created. Mandela made his Marshall Fund pitch to numerous high-powered audiences-in New York, Davos, London, Washington-but despite his great charisma and moral authority, he returned home empty-handed. In fact, his government was forced to accept even more punishing market disciplines than had been demanded of the apartheid regime. The experience left a bitter taste. After two years as president, Mandela complained that South Africans were finding it ‘more difficult to defend the freedom we have won than struggling or fighting to gain it’-sobering words from a man who saw the horrors of Robben Island.
IN 1991, SHORTLY AFTER the Persian Gulf War, I was traveling in northern Kenya. After hours of desolate, parched landscape, our truck pulled into a village that boasted little comfort except the only sizable tree for miles around. Lounging in its shade were a dozen men and boys. When they saw that, except for two black drivers, our truck contained prosperous-looking white people, the boys leaped up and started to shout, “Give me Coke, give me watch.” When we made no reply, they grabbed stones and made as if to throw them. It seemed like a game until one boy actually let fly and hit the side of the truck. The others began cheering and yelling, “Down with George Bush. Saddam is great. Saddam is great.” Our driver quickly sped off.
I have no idea where those boys, now young men, are today, but I know their equivalents can be found in countless villages throughout the Third World-villages where education is absent, jobs are unavailable, hunger and illness are common, government is corrupt, and hope has all but died. Fanatics like Saddam and Osama bin Laden, with their black-and-white morality and promises of salvation, appeal to people who feel victimized by forces beyond their control. Already, one third of Nigeria’s 36 provinces have instituted Sharia, the hard-line Islamic law that punishes thieves by cutting off their hands, relegates females to fourth-class citizenship, and condemns all Western influence. The potential is all the greater in such nations as Pakistan and India, the Gulf states, Malaysia, and Indonesia, where widespread poverty coexists with a deep-seated Islamic cultural presence.
“When the poor rise, they will rise against us all,” President Mbeki warns in advocating his Africa Recovery Plan. Like Mandela’s dream of a Marshall Plan, Mbeki’s plan calls for substantial debt relief and other infusions of Western capital to fund basic development needs: health, education, jobs, infrastructure. But Mbeki’s plan is no mere plea for handouts. In a crucial twist, the plan insists that African governments get their own houses in order-halting border wars, prosecuting corruption, upholding human rights, ensuring transparency in government decisions-before they expect assistance.
The heads of state of the world’s eight richest economies approved Mbeki’s plan in principle at last July’s G-8 summit in Genoa (the only official agreement reached at that violence-stained gathering). As promising as that sounds, it’s easy to be cynical about summit declarations. Is it a coincidence that the G-8 leaders discovered a sudden passion for uplifting Africa’s poor at the very moment when street protesters were criticizing them for favoring the rich? Probably not, but their reaction suggests that, just as the anti-apartheid campaigns of the 1980s forced reluctant Western governments to impose sanctions against apartheid, so could today’s anti-globalization campaigns pressure Western governments to fund genuine reform in South Africa and across the continent.
But reform must work both ways; African governments must live up to Mbeki’s call for more responsible conduct. Mbeki should lead the way by scaling back South Africa’s unwarranted arms buildup. His country is neither at war nor likely to be any time soon, so how can he defend spending $5.3 billion on jets and high-tech weaponry? If Mbeki wants Western banks to cancel African debt, he should cancel the arms deals.
Will Western governments endorse the enlightened, generous program of debt relief and job creation that South Africa and its neighbors so urgently need? Tony Blair’s government in Britain has urged a doubling of Western aid to the world’s poorest nations. The Bush administration rejected that idea but has engaged the issue. Flanked by Bono, the U2 singer who has become a high-profile advocate of debt relief and poverty reduction, President Bush announced in March that the United States would increase its foreign aid by $5 billion over the next three year. But that increase, which Congress must approve, is a drop in the bucket compared to the enormous needs in the Third World (not to mention the administration’s proposed $48 billion annual increase in U.S. military spending). Bush says he now understands that the war against terrorism must include a war against poverty and other underlying causes of terrorism. But will he go beyond rock star photo-ops to make it happen?
Mark Hertsgaard, whose books include Earth Odyssey: Around the World in Search of Our Environmental Future (Broadway Books, 1998) and On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency (Farrar, Straus