A glimpse of South Africa’s racial progress

December 10, 2013

(Rajesh Jantilal/AFP/Getty Images)

I saw Nelson Mandela only once, and from afar, when he was sitting on a stage at an African National Congress election rally in 2009. It was a much-dissected and somewhat uncomfortable appearance -- Mandela was frail, and the party was accused of parading him in support of future president Jacob Zuma, a polygamist who had fought off corruption and rape charges and was often held up as a symbol of how far South Africa had drifted from Mandela’s legacy.

Signs of the cracks in that rainbow-hued legacy surfaced at every turn in the year and a half I spent living and reporting in South Africa. As those elections approached, township residents I interviewed complained bitterly about the government’s failure to lift most blacks out of wretched poverty. The hip young Zulu journalists who translated for me during one reporting trip faulted Mandela for having “sold out” blacks by negotiating with the apartheid-era government.

I am white, and white South Africans sometimes made disparaging comments about blacks to me, with a tacit wink and nudge that indicated that they assumed I agreed. All the housekeepers and gardeners in my majority-white neighborhood were black -- including those who worked for me -- and I sometimes felt as though I were living in the segregated American South.

And yet viewed through another, broader lens, South Africa looked to me like a constant miracle. Yes, the race relations were tense, the inequality was appalling, the violence was abhorrent. But most people lived in relative harmony, and the country seemed to be trudging slowly toward the ideals enshrined in its progressive constitution and embodied by Mandela.

I was The Post’s last correspondent based in South Africa. The bureau, such as it was, closed in 2010, a sign of the tight times for American newspapers. But that closure could also be viewed as a backhanded compliment to the South Africa Mandela left behind this week. For all its troubles and marvels, it is stable and peaceful enough to be deemed a low news priority -- an outcome few would have expected three decades ago, and one that Mandela made happen.

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Max Fisher | December 9, 2013