My parents were born in Johannesburg, and I have been visiting there all my life. When I close my eyes and think back to apartheid, it’s the Christmas holidays, we’ve just flown in from freezing Europe, and I’m climbing out of my grandparents’ swimming pool while their maid, who I will call Nomuula, serves chocolate cake on the veranda. Nomuula lived in dank rooms behind the kitchen. On Sundays she hosted church services in my grandparents’ garage. She died in 2014, aged about 85, having raised her grandchildren almost single-handedly, after a life filled with tragedies.
I was back in Johannesburg last week. News reports from there rightly focus on President Jacob Zuma’s uselessness and alleged corruption, but my question is the same as it always has been: away from politics, away from the silly trope that South Africa will either “make it” or “collapse”, are black people like Nomuula’s grandchildren doing better now?
A drive around Johannesburg’s central business district offers a quick introduction. My grandfathers had offices there but since then most white businesses have fled north to Sandton, and now the CBD showcases the variety of black experience in today’s Jo’burg: yuppie insurance executives, slum-dwellers living packed into formerly white office buildings, Ethiopian-run shops, and even a tiny hipster neighbourhood with pavement cafés and artists’ studios.
One afternoon I had tea with Nomuula’s granddaughter. Pushed by Nomuula to read books, she had somehow got through South Africa’s appalling state schools to graduate from university. Now she has a middle-class job. Millions like her — “clever blacks”, Zuma derisively calls them — have made this ascent since apartheid ended. South Africa has changed.
Like most middle-class blacks, this woman spends what little she has supporting relatives who have almost nothing. Her cousin, who like so many South Africans may never find work, lives in Nomuula’s old house in the countryside. Maybe he will succumb to the country’s “nyaope” drug epidemic. The granddaughter says: “I always worry that one day I’ll get a phone call that he has killed himself.” Her beloved uncle, who looked fine when she saw him at the latest funeral, recently dropped dead. “We are born to suffer,” she told me. “Only a few actually make it.”
Yet black lives are improving, from a terrible base. Ten years ago, Soweto’s roads were lined with advertisements for funeral homes. A generation died of Aids. Since then South Africa has had the world’s largest rollout of anti-retroviral drugs. National life expectancy jumped nine years to 63 between just 2005 and 2014, according to the South African Medical Research Council. William Gumede, who chairs the Democracy Works Foundation, marvels: “I have black friends who are in their sixties. And they look good.”
Still, most middle-class blacks there are one mis-step away from calamity. “It’s almost an existential experience,” says Gumede. If you lose your job, you may have to take your late sister’s children out of private school. If you get ill, it’s worse. One man described to me a cardiology ward in Soweto’s Baragwanath hospital, where patients sleep four to a bed: “They are the lucky ones; the others are on the floor.”
Rising beyond middle-class precariousness is hard. “There is a sense of a ceiling,” says Vuyiswa Mutshekwane, CEO of the South African Institute of Black Property Practitioners. “You still report to a white boss. You start your first job on a lower pay grade, because the person employing you lived under apartheid.” That boss might promote his golf partner’s son ahead of you. And how do you start your own business when you have no capital, and banks won’t lend you any?
No wonder South Africans are finally debating race openly. Nelson Mandela’s line — right for the 1990s — was to hug white people. Today, Fees Must Fall, the mostly black protest movement in mostly white universities, highlights historical unfairness. The populist Julius Malema race-baits whites. Sometimes Zuma does too.
But few black voters here have ever shown any interest in driving whites into the sea. Lungile Madywabe, a political researcher, says: “Ordinary black South Africans have seen a lot of violence in their lives. They don’t want any more.” Anyway, he adds, he refuses to hate whites. That would be apartheid-thinking. “I am a liberated African,” he tells me. “Apartheid did not get inside my brain.”
In August’s municipal elections, urban blacks, many of whom feel embarrassed by Zuma, helped the previously white-led Democratic Alliance gain control of Johannesburg and other cities. Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters polled just 8 per cent. “I don’t know anyone who wants a revolution,” says Mutshekwane. “We want white people to stay. We just want them to share the toys.” Today’s mainstream isn’t demanding “transformation” or a “rainbow nation”, but simply boring incremental change.
The cities may achieve that. South Africa now offers strange echoes of Donald Trump’s US. Older, rural, lesser-educated people back the charismatic but fraudulent president. The more educated cities have abandoned him. Life for urban blacks in South Africa remains fantastically hard, but much better than it ever was for Nomuula.