Thursday, April 30, 2009

Perfect insiders, perpetual outsiders

When we talk about South African politics, we think of whites, blacks and the coloureds but what of the other ethnic group, the Indian minority? What is their view on the Zuma ascendancy?

Along with about 23 million South Africans, I stood in line for an hour on Wednesday at an election station to cast separate votes for the national and provincial government. If democracy means a willingness to vote despite keen disappointment with the choices on your ballot paper, then South African democracy is in wonderful shape. But it doesn’t feel that way.

It felt as if many of us, including the great majority of Indian South Africans, were voting to try and prevent a runaway government from marching us into a catastrophe. Zimbabwe’s example can’t help but be near to our minds. Our neighbour, like one or two of India’s, is a failed state. There may be as many as five million refugees from Robert Mugabe’s rule inside our borders.

Arithmetic was against us. Jacob Zuma’s ANC should collect about 67% of the vote because two-thirds of the country — disproportionately poorer, blacker, more oppressed, more willing to keep accepting the ANC’s currency of excuses and evasions and also more grateful for the enlargement of the water and electricity grids — outnumbers the one-third richer who are also less black.

From the outside, South Africa is seen as a post-apartheid society, attempting to overcome a history of intolerable racial inequality. But from the inside it seems, to borrow a phrase that a number of South Africans are using, much more like a “post anti-apartheid society,” dealing with the disintegration of the movement that defeated apartheid in the 1980s.

Criss-crossing political journeys since 1990 have brought former white nationalists into the ANC and have taken doctrinaire socialists, trade-unionists, and intellectuals as far away from the ANC as the predominantly white Democratic Alliance with its able leader, Cape Town’s mayor Helen Zille. Given their own fears of the majority, Indians and people of mixed descent — South Africa’s “coloureds” — have mostly rejected the ANC. Many of us fear that the new president, Jacob Zuma, may turn into our Mugabe. If he doesn’t, and the auguries are not altogether negative, he may be a huge improvement on his predecessor Thabo Mbeki.

To ask the inevitable question: Is it good for the Indians? An ANC leader defined the paradoxical situation of Indians in today’s South Africa with characteristic brutality: “Everyone has their own Indian.” That’s the polite way of putting it. In that statement one hears the mixture of clientage and bribery, threats of expropriation and grants of political access and political friendship that typifies minority-majority relations on most of our continent. Indians in South Africa are at once perfect insiders and perpetual outsiders. Fiction writers are usually forgiven for our comparisons so I will say that this situation, in my opinion, makes us pretty Jewish.

Mbeki’s old clique, and cabinet, was disproportionately staffed with Indian lawyers, educators, and activists. Around Zuma the Indians are less visible but they tend to be the funders, finance guys, fall guys, tycoons, reliable government managers, opportunists, and all-round enablers. Zuma’s home province, KwaZulu Natal, harbours an Indian minority which is relatively strong, in its economic and professional development, but insecure politically and psychologically. Zuma’s alliance with the Shaik brothers, one of whom was involved in the corruption case which almost ended Zuma’s career, will not be the last of such fruitful collaborations. In many ways the old Indian way of doing business — under the table, between friends, amongst the family — is wonderfully suited to the ethos of the ANC.

While the votes were being counted the IPL cricket tournament had merrily relocated to South Africa. Apparently there is great interest because of the South Africans playing in the tournament. Indian South Africans are at once further from the old India than they were, say, twenty years ago, because they are less directed by tradition but also much closer to the new India because of the internet, Indian television, and the far greater openness of this country to the outside world.

Even in South Africa, however, there are limits to the determining power of racial identity. I may be the one South African, and the one Indian, who has no interest in cricket. In my final year of boarding school, in 1987, I was promoted to scorer for the First XI. I could never work out whether an over had six balls in it, or eight.

The ballot count in South Africa will be much more exact than my high school cricket scoring. But the calculations South Africans made at the polls this week, and their consequences, are supervised by the real governing force of this country — which is, uncertainty.

Imraan Coovadia is a South African writer and teaches at the University of Cape Town.

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