Nelson Mandela’s inauguration as president of South Africa in May 1994 was seen as heralding the creation of a new non-racial and more equal South Africa. But although there was some progress in the early years and South Africa has a progressive foreign policy, it is still the world’s most unequal society. Thirty years after the end of apartheid, DAVID KENVYN examines the balance sheet and looks at how ACTSA (Action for Southern Africa) is still working for justice and equality in Southern Africa.

30 years ago, apartheid ended.  There is much to consider about what has happened since then.  It has been a bumpy road, like many of the Eastern Cape’s rural roads and, without doubt, not all of it has been good and some of it has been very bad indeed.

In 1994, there was a great deal of hope as Nelson Mandela set about rebuilding the Rainbow Nation.  It had been torn apart by the ravages of apartheid, with thousands murdered, sometime brutally, and many people not knowing what had happened to their loved ones.   

Archbishop Desmond Tutu had the task of finding out the truth and seeking reconciliation in the Commission of that name, which he led. It is not necessary to read the documentation presented to the TRC to recognise the monumental nature of its task. Antjie Krog’s book Country of my Skull gives sufficient chilling detail of the horrors that were committed in apartheid’s defence. It is questionable that the TRC could achieve the goal of reconciliation, but it gave people back their dignity, it recognised their grief, and for many it allowed them to find out what had happened to their sons and daughters, their sisters and their brothers for the first time. This is an achievement that should never be underestimated.

A new constitution had to be written, and what emerged in the course of the next two years was a truly remarkable document. South Africa’s constitution enshrined the right of everyone to be treated equally irrespective of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation or age. But more than that, it enshrined the rights of everyone to healthcare, education, housing and social welfare. It proclaimed the right of all people to be treated with decency. In many of these things, it was the first country in the world to enshrine these rights in its constitution.

There was practical action to ensure that these constitutional rights were put into action. When I was in Hobeni in the Eastern Cape, I watched the vaccination teams going out every day. The apartheid state did not vaccinate black children against diphtheria, rubella and other childhood diseases, so approximately a fifth of all black children died before they were five years old. This no longer happens.

The health campaign that was a disaster was HIV and AIDs. It began well with the South African Government taking the pharmaceutical companies to court and eventually winning the right at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to use generic anti-retroviral drugs, at a tenth of the cost of those manufactured by the drug companies. But that was still too costly at about $80 million a day for treatment to be given. There was also the unnecessary embarrassment of the President querying how it was possible for a virus to turn into a syndrome. Quite frankly, who cared? People were dying, and there was a reticence in talking about the disease because it was sexually transmitted. Civil society responded and the Treatment Action Campaign took on the government, setting an example to the whole world.

South Africa’s foreign policy over the last 30 years has been consistently independent. Taking action against the pharmaceutical companies at the WTO was one example of South Africa not kowtowing to the USA. Another was the decommissioning of its nuclear weapons. South Africa is the first and, indeed, the only country to have done this. Joining the economic bloc that is known as BRICSA (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) is another example. The most compelling, however, is taking Israel to the International Court of Justice and getting its agreement that there is a plausible case that Israel is committing genocide against the Palestinians, and securing a call for an immediate ceasefire from the ICJ. South Africa’s insistence that all states are subject to international law has reverberated throughout the international community, leading to the increasing isolation of Israel. Another example of South Africa’ s internationalism is the fact that it took the lead in making sure that the continent had fair and equitable access to Covid vaccinations. These are all things to be celebrated.

What cannot be celebrated is the way that apartheid’s tentacles still stretch across the country. When a wildcat strike was launched at the Lonmin-owned Marikana mine in 2012, the South African police reaction was brutal. They opened fire on a miners’ demonstration, killing 38 people and wounding many more. This was a stark reminder of the apartheid era’s brutal massacres, and is a blot on South Africa’s international reputation.

The other stain on South Africa’s reputation is corruption. This was endemic under apartheid. The Bantustan leaders sold their souls to the apartheid government in order to get their noses in the trough. During the Eschel Rhoodie corruption scandal, Connie Mulder and Jimmy Kruger had to resign from the apartheid government because of the misappropriation of funds. But Jacob Zuma and his cronies, the Gupta brothers, transformed pilfering into looting on a stratospheric scale, aided and abetted by major international companies such as Bain & Co, HSBC, the Bank of Baroda and KPMG. Bain & Co were so complicit that Jacob Rees-Mogg took action against them! Hundreds of charges of corruption are still outstanding against Jacob Zuma and he has already been gaoled for contempt of the Constitutional Court. His newly formed party is now the third largest in the South African Parliament. Corruption is an issue on which the new government and the international solidarity movement must take a stand.  

ACTSA (Action for Southern Africa) has played its part in helping to transform South Africa. It supported the court case against Cape PLC to gain compensation for South African asbestos miners and their families. Cape PLC claimed that they had cleaned up its former mines. In 2002, an ACTSA Scotland delegation visited one of the areas around the Penge mine and Ga-Mathabatha.   We took photographs that proved conclusively that Cape PLC was misleading the court in its assertion that the area had been cleaned up. We found great lumps of blue asbestos on the ground. Cape PLC went bankrupt to try and void paying the compensation, but the court assigned £8 million of its assets for that purpose. Since then, ACTSA has taken up the cudgels for gold miners In South Africa and for copper miners in Zambia.

In 2004, an ACTSA Scotland delegation visited the Phelophepa healthcare train) in Idutywa in the Eastern Cape. We saw how the train was offering health and medical treatment to hundreds of people. On our return, Glasgow Caledonian University was persuaded to send ophthalmology students to the healthcare train each year. It is now almost 20 years since this project started.

The key task facing the new government of South Africa is the eradication of poverty. The main task for ACTSA, in helping to overcome the legacy of apartheid, is to assist in that programme. The struggle continues and we cannot turn back until the task is completed.