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Prof. Njabulo Ndebele: "Goodbye Sandton, Hello Soweto! 20 Years of South African Democracy and Beyond"

In his deeply impressive keynote address, author, public commentator, and educationalist Njabulo S Ndebele reflected on the past 20 years of democracy in South Africa. In his critical appraisal he pointed to the fact that South Africa had focused too much on macroeconomic performance and too littel on building livelyhoods.

Njabulo S Ndebele is a fiction and essay writer, public commentator, and one of the key figures in South African higher education. Since 2013, Ndebele has served as chairman of the Mandela Rhodes Foundation and the Nelson Mandela Foundation, and in 2012 was appointed Chancellor of the University of Johannesburg. As a publicist he is known for his essays about South African literature and culture as well as his precise interventions in political questions. His most well-known publications include the collection of essays “Rediscovery of the Ordinary” (COSAW, 1991), the Noma Award-winning volume of short stories “Fools and Other Stories” (Ravan Press, 1984), his novel “The Cry of Winnie Mandela” (Ayebia Clarke, 2004), and the essay collection “Fine Lines from the Box” (Umuzi, 2007).



Goodbye Sandton, Hello Soweto!
Keynote Address: 20 Year of Democracy

Njabulo S Ndebele
Berlin 28 August, 2014

Goodbye Sandton, Hello Soweto! You must be asking yourselves what it is I could be having up my  sleeve with such a title. Well, it is no secret. I wanted you to be asking yourselves questions. Consider the distance from Sandton to Soweto. It is nothing compared to the distance between Johannesburg and Berlin. But your understanding of this distance might change when you consider that the journey between Sandton and Soweto partly begun in Berlin on the 15th September, 1884.

On that day, we are told,[1] 14 states of some of the great powers of the time, including the United States, met in the grand ballroom of the Palace of Chancellor Otto von Bismark. A 16ft high map of Africa dominated the room. Part of the spirit of that conference is captured in two clauses of the preamble to its outcomes.

“WISHING, in a spirit of good and mutual accord, to regulate the conditions most favorable to the development of trade and civilisation in certain regions of Africa, and to assure to all nations the advantages of free navigation on the two chief rivers of Africa flowing into the Atlantic Ocean;

"BEING DESIROUS, on the other hand, to obviate the misunderstanding and disputes which might in future arise from new acts of occupation (prises de possession) on the coast of Africa; and concerned, at the same time, as to the means of furthering the moral and material well-being of the native populations … “. The journey from Sandton to Soweto had begun. This was the Berlin Conference of 1884 - 1885.[2]

A little before this conference, the wars of conquest in Southern Africa had just about ended decisively with the defeat of the Zulus in April of 1879. At the time of the conference, diamond mining was underway in Kimberley and gold mining in Johannesburg about to begin in earnest. Cecil John Rhodes was on his way to leaving his stamp first on the nature of capitalism in Southern Africa and second, on the shape of the landscape on which it would develop and flourish. The administration of conquest in Southern Africa was well underway. The Berlin conference gave such administration a permissive global character.

While you ponder in the back of your minds these weighty facts of history, I would like to shift your gaze to a slice of life far less dramatic. It comes in the form of a nine-bedroom residence in the village of Violet Bank, in  the province of Mpumalanga. It reportedly cost its owner R19m. The house looks so huge and unweildy in its surroundings  that the Johannesburg Sunday Times which published its picture last July 13th observed it  could “easily be mistaken for a hotel”[3]. But it might just carry some significant meaning for the future of South Africa.

        It may not be as grand as Chancellor Bismarck’s palace, but it attracts attention with its “nine en suit bedrooms, each with its own fireplace and chimney. The main bedroom has an office. There are three lounges, two bars, a threatre and an entertainment area suitable for all seasons. There is also refrigeration room.” Here is the human imagination at its freeest, conjuring into reality the dream house of 40 year old Mr. Tshepo Magabane who plans to use it for holidays and ultimately for his retirement. Meanwhile, he lives in another mansion in Pretoria with his family of four young children.

        A board in front of the house bears the words: Dithamaga Baropodi. They ring like a self-displaying proclamation. Next to this verbal self-identifier is its visual message. It is, according to the Sunday Times, a “drawing of a tiger, which according to Pedi culture, is a symbol of strength, wisdom and luck.” This house seems to project the pride of its owner. It conveys a message of his success. It seems Mr. Magabane has a lot of money, and a lot of it remains after he has built his mansions.

    Interestingly, the article attracted two letters to the editor. One came from Mr. Mawale who while writing from Johannesburg, originates from the village of Shatale, also in the province of Mpumalanga. This reader is proud of Magabane’s achievement. He thinks that people like him who overcame hardships to acquire an education should not have to “build a matchbox when he can afford a mansion of his dreams….We from Bushbuckridge are proud of people like Magabane. They inspire us.”

        The second letter comes from Mrs Thobeka Shangase of Durban. “For three years” she writes intriguingly,


“I lived in a three-bedroom house in the suburbs. I felt, at the time, the suburbs were the next step for me. When it came to making our dream house a reality, my husband and I explored many options. We soon realised that a dream house in the suburbs came with a huge price tab. We decided to buy land in the township where we grew up and build our dream house here. We were able to build a seven-bedroom house there for a fraction of the price and living there is far more economical than living in the suburbs would be.

“For the past five years, there has been a huge influx of black people leaving affluent suburbs such as Westville, Ballito and Umhlanga and building big houses in the townships.

“This is not a case of flaunting one’s wealth. For many, building in the townships is a smart financial decision.

“Some of my neighbours have ocean-view properties that they got cheap because they’re in the township.

“It’s a good thing that there is a return of people to the townships - people who are there to build and not destroy. The township is also a place where dreams area shaped and can be realised.

“People can be successful and they don’t have to run to the suburbs.

“By living in the townships we are able to send our children to a private school. We wouldn’t be able to do that if [we] were living in the suburbs.

“If we want to slaughter a goat or a cow, we don’t have to first get written permission from anyone or face fines. In the township were are able to live and live well.”


        In Mr Magabane is the story of generations of people who traveled from far and wide to work in the mines and factories of a consolidated country that came to be called South Africa. At first, they moved out of compulsion. Taxes levied by the their new rulers, who carried a mandate from the Berlin Conference, transformed them into captured labour. Dispossessed of their conquered countries, they were compelled to work. Others came far beyond the borders of South Africa in a massive movement of people. They built the mines, factories, farms, towns and cities of South Africa.

        In time, compulsion transformed into opportunity. Decisions to go in search of work and opportunity began to have personal origins in addition to external pressures. There was a life to lead despite the new conditions. If the dreaming of the dispossessed was forcefully restricted for much of the 20th century it intensified in the new democracy after 1994. Mr. Magabane’s mansion is a factor of galloping dreams. Opportrunity and money suddenly abounded.

        Mrs Shangase’s choice, on the other hand, is more considered and calculated. It is creative, resourceful, and practical. She is a symbol of a strategic and practical imagination.

        Much of the country that was imagined in the course of a liberation struggle of close to a century, has been embodied in the South African Constitution. The question we must now ask is how much of that imagined country has been created taking into account the imaginative and practical resourcefulness of Mrs Shangase’s choices? It is more as if the new democracy was catching up rather than creating and adjusting creatively. The messages of creative social adjustments are abundant in townships across the land. They call for determined political expression.

        It could be said that presidencies of Mandela and Mbeki complemented each other in high level sort of way. The overarching, transcendent, and evocative presidency of Mandela that prioritized nationbuilding through reconciliation would give way to the hands-on state management of Mbeki.

        Despite Mandela’s broadly transcendant approach, there was also a grand sweep of provision. The doors of learning from primary to higher education for millions of South Africas, opened wider. So did health facilities. Clean drinking water and better sanitation, and electricity became more universaly available, even in informal settlements. Wages went up and consumer goods of all description a general feature of life.

        Particularly in the urban centers of South Africa in their varied sizes, hundreds of thousands of houses were built to meet a demand that had grown over many decades.  South Africans could travel more easily throughout the length and breadth of their country for business, leisure, or private obligations of any description.

        The scale of public social communication rose to unprecedented levels as South Africans talked to one another through radio, television, and print media. Facebook and Twitter have added to the criss-crossing of billions of words among people. Freedom of speech in particular, enshrined in the constitution, among other rights, allowed for the flourishing of a robust press that is as vigilant in the new democracy as it was courageous in the dark days of apartheid.

        The high global regard for South Africa as a model country for peaceful transitions in the face of intractrable complications in its history  and a vision for its future enshrined in a much admired constitution made for high visibility and impact in the new democracy’s international relations.

         It was a grand moment! But a spectral question rose to the surface: what will it take to sustain it? Not enough time was spent on this question. The speed of delivery was not tested for sustainability and durability. Houses, electrical wires, satellite dishes, and water taps have an immediate visual impact of sweeping presence, their instant provision almost certainly dependent, in the most part, on capabilities inherited from the apartheid state.

        The desire to achieve a similar sense of dramatic immediacy in the educational realm for example, saw catastrophic mistakes in the public schooling system. More about this a little later. But state capability across the spectrum of national life, depends on the education system, which takes many years to built, and would be hard to reproduce within an immediacy framework.

        What prompted such discontinuity within the schooling system cannot be dismissed. The record of history is clear that white people in South Africa, through their historic and purposeful dominace of the commanding heights of government, the economy, and the range of cultural institutions located themselves in domains of the highest value in the national life of the country. Those domains accorded them the autonomy to thrive within them at the same time as they created and entrenched dependence on the part of black people purposefully excluded from them. “White” laws reduced black people into instruments in a system that needed them to maintain it in their required subsevience to it. Black people may have resented the situation, as they did, but grew to be dependent on it.

        Thus, both white master and black servant were equally attracted to where this highest political, economic, legal, and social value of national scale was concentrated. There they lived and worked together more in a state of managed conflict than willing collaboration.

        It goes without saying that should an opportunity arise, the dispossesed, instrumentalised, and excluded millions will want to seize control of the commanding heights of national life and replace the people who have dominated it to their exclusive benefit for over one hundred years.  It is the most natural thing to expect.

        But this seizing control can come with both opportunities and threats. Are the newly enfranchised now in power able to find the critical balance between aspiration and the necessary conditions critical to deliver the desires of aspiration? Was the intellectural, political, economic and cultural self-interest of the new citizens of the republic as robust, focussed and principled as the colonial self-interest that  dominated and shaped them over a century?

        The strategic gap between aspiration and achievement in the first five to ten years of the new democracy was necessarily narrowed to put a stamp of legitimacy to the state in the transition into democracy. But sustaining achievement became much more unpredictable in the second term of President Mbeki as the opportunities of intervention turned into threats, widening the strategic gap. The levels of unpredictability are critically high in the on-going tenure of President Zuma. The ability for the twenty-year-old democracy to deliver on its promises has become perilously uncertain.   

        One way to understand this is to reflect on how we have since 1994 dealt with in an essay published four years ago[4] I have called  resilient factors that stand in the way of the fundamental transformation of the South African state towards a qualitative democracy.

        Resilient factors are conditions that resist change even as they give the appearance of being changed. Such conditions, the focus of good intentions, soon undermine such intentions through the depth and durability of their embedded effects. Change that is genuinely sought is delayed because the permanent solution sought is impossible to achieve within a timeframe of immediacy, regardless of the justice of the desire for it. In the accumulation of such delays the sense of transition risks becoming frustratingly permanent because the process towards a desired lasting end is seldom spelt out as a feature of political management. The resulting state of inertia may generate its own politics, which may be as vibrant as any but actually produces the effect of dancing on the same ground: exciting but of little essence.       

South Africans will recall that in the first five years of democracy the transformation objective of changing the demographic composition of teachers in the schooling system led to the offering of early retirement packages to teachers. In the main, many of the best left in large numbers. Many of the not so best remained. Fifteen years later, the public education system, where millions of the poor are educated stands on its knees. Education, as the base for cross-generational reproduction of social capability, has yet support a new democracy for the long run.

Then there is the resilience of the inherited apartheid landscape. For a people so extensively traumatised and anguished by settlements created for their dehumanisation, the new citizens of South Africa have displayed an exasperating lack of urgency in their commitment to changing these conditions in radical ways. The townships, orientated towards an outward reality of service in servitude remain dormitory enclaves which still export their energies in ways conceived, designed and carried out over a century.

Post-apartheid provision of housing has not produced bold models that represent alternative conceptualisations of settlements that answer to the dreams and desires of the dispossessed. The statistically successful provision of houses has not extended the horizons of social imagination. When we built millions of houses, we forgot that we needed to build communities.  

        I have also pondered the state of trade unionism in South Africa today. Since 1973, the trade union movement gave tremendous impetus to the anti-apartheid struggle inside South Africa. Its impact has been in the key sectors of the economy: mining, health, manufacturing, education and transport. It has consolidated itself to take full advantage of the democratic spaces created in a post- apartheid state. But its engagement with the embedded mechanisms of a capitalist state appears to have locked it into a logic of redress and redistribution.  In that context the struggle for higher wages has inadvertently subordinated a larger objective to the wage demand. The wage demand, however understandable, fights the system on its own terms. The wage has become disembodied from the broader lifestyle enhancement sought for workers and their families in an overarchingly capable state. The dormitory townships in which millions of union members live persists. Workers are still alienated from the state in a manner reminiscent of pre-liberation days.

The quest for a collective interest to channel diverse loyalties towards a a redesigned state is far from over; the state is unable to manage diverse conflicting interests towards the coherent and overriding goals of a collective interest. The fundamental goal is universal social enablement in which the net of opportunity and state support is cast as widely as possible over the ocean of South Africa’s human talent. That goal is properly situated in an overarching project of nation-building.

        Perhaps the greatest symbol of embedded resilience is the ultimate achievement of the Berlin Conference in Africa. It is a place that has within it what has been described as the“richest square mile in Africa”.  It houses the largest stock exchange on the continent, with a market capitalisation of US$903b in 2012.[5]  This place is the last home of the Johannesburg stock exchange since it moved there in 2000 after abandoning the almost decayed central business district of Johannesburg.

Of course, the central business district of Johannesburg was itself the ultimate achievement of the “old money” of nineteenth century goldmining. After over a century of accumulated assets and a business culture that reproduced its origins, the Johannesburg stock exchange sought a new home and found it Sandton. It was a long journey from the establishment Africa’s first stock exchange on 8th November, 1887, two years after the Berlin Conference. Sandton! Attracting immediate attention with its massive modern buildings, it exerts a solid authority of modernity. Mr. Magabane’s mansion in Violet Bank, in its architectural resonance, aspirers towards Sandton.

 It is now clear that more was needed than evocative aspiration in the desired and necessary replacement of white power by enfranchised citizen power. The historical contest between white and black, developed and sustained by whites as a justifying ideology, has increasingly been restored in the new democracy as the primary site on which to place the critique of state capability. This is a mistake.

        Race relations may be important in the first twenty years of South Africa’s transition to democracy. But it has been a wobbling bamboo bridge. To keep focusing on race relations and their restrictive instruments of “affirmative action”, “economic empowerment”, and “black this and black that” as various notions of transformation is to put formalin around social transition and to render permanent the wobbling bamboo bridge.

        To retain and maintain racism’s evocative power as primary to the psychology of transition is to deflect attention from other perhaps even more fundamental tendancies in South African history. While racial thinking and its variations have shaped much of South African history, they are not fundamental to its future.

        What is more fundamental was not created by racial thinking but what racial thinking was mobilised for: the growth of western economies in the nineteeth and twentieth centuries. It was for these economies that mines and factories were established in South Africa. It is the labour for these mines that necessitated the dispossession of conquered peoples of their lands, the destruction of their economies, and their massive conscription as labour.  What the dispossessed became when they congregated in the mines, factories, and farms of South Africa is a story yet to be told.

         When Mrs Shangase and her family decided to move from their Durban suburb back to their township, there were part of growing trend. Soweto, the ultimate symbol of the South African township is taking back her children. Sandton, with all its glitter, turned out not be home. Moving there may have been part of affirming the constitutional rights of movement and claiming back the land. But the suburbs were no home.

        It makes sense. South African suburbs are a product of a long history of political racism.[6] For the dispossessed let into them, they represent existential discomfort, and deep political anxieties. If you were once there out of compulsion, you may be there now to make a statement. That statement, you learn, could never be the sum total of your reason to be.

Your reason to be took more than a century to establish. Soweto, a sprawling city of approximately 2 million people, is unrecognisable from its origins in 1904 when “British-controlled city authorities removed Black South Africans and Indian residents of Brickfields to an evacuation camp’ at Klipspruitg municipal sewage farm … outside the Johannesburg municipal boundary, following a reported outbreak of plague.” It is fascinating that people feared to be possible carriers of plague where moved to a sewage farm were the plague was guaranteed to have five star hotel conditions to proliferate.  Two further townships were laid out to the east and the west of Johannesburg in 1918. Townships to the south west of Johannesburg followed, starting with Pimville in 1934 (a renamed part of Klipspruit) and Orlando in 1935[7].

And so, what came to be Soweto grew into a multi-ethnic melting pot, a congregation of millions of the dispossessed throughout the sub-continent of Southern Africa. Once there they lived and worked together and over the decades and became different people. They heard new languages and spoke them. They experienced new cultures, and lived them. They intermarried.

They became the first full-blown working class of Africa;  a new people with a vastly expanded awareness far beyond that of their rural origins. They either lived in mine compounds or set up their own homes. Some among the nascent intelligentsia began to talk about the “New African”. They became the first people in Africa to undergo a vast industrial, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-intellectual adaptation. This is the miracle that came along the way of the dispossessed. They found one another there and built social solidarities they had never experienced before.

What the multi-ethnic founders of the African National Congress hoped for, to unite the dispossessed, came on its own over decades of urban consolidation. As the economy they built and the laws that supported it grew in their power over, them they began to resist its deleterious economic and political effects on them. Their efforts ultimately led the democracy that was born on April 27, 1994.

        Sandton is in Gauteng, the richest province in South Africa and the heartbeat of its economy. Hundreds of thousands from all corners of South Africa and beyond travelled to Johannesburg, a city that fired their imaginations. They called it eGoli or Gauteng, the city of gold. But the gold reef spread east and west of Johannesburg such that Gauteng became a generalised area beyond its Johannesburg centre. Today it carries the name of an entire province. The naming of this province is a just recognition of a phenomenon that that even the constitution missed.

        Section 1(b) of the founding provisions of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa refers to the values of “non-racialism and non-sexism”. The extensive consultative process to put the constitution together missed out two critical values built over a century of living them in the townships of South Africa: non-ethnicism and multi-culturalism. The dominance of race relations in the public imagnation has blocked out the treasure of South African history: a cosmopolitanism that flourished in various ways in the townships.

The real strategic alternative to “whiteness” is not “blackness”, but multi-ethnic identities in a common constitutional citizenship in which multi-ethnic bonding took place to various degrees in the townships of South Africa. Even if tragedies and triumphs occurred, it was bonding nevertheless. White South Africans chose formally to stay out of that historic process. Mostly they were blissfully unaware of it, where they did they sought to tear it apart. They are now free to become part of a greater human solidarity: the township’s greatest gift to South Africa, and perhaps to the world.

        Sandon in its triumph represents an economy that has been and continues to be in a predatory relationship with the overwhelming bulk of its population. If the primary purpose of an economy is to enhance the welfare of its citizens, then the wealth of South Africa should no longer be exported to the same degree for the continuouos enrichment of other countries regardless of the merits of globalisation. If Sandton fundamentally continues to serve that role, if it structurally represents the ultimate purpose in Africa of asset global accumulation and value accretion in the long journey from Berlin it cannot be the symbol of the success of South Africa’s economy, but of its failure. While Sandton cannot be irrelevant to the success of the South African economy it cannot, in its current orientation, be its defining essence. Its opulent success contains deep within itself a moral repudiation it has not even begun to address.

        There are people in South Africa who have begun to dream of a return to pre-colonial land dispensations. These are dreams too ghastly to contemplate. They will almost certainly tear South Africa apart. The Berlin Conference parcelled out territories in Africa for better or for worse. The unitary image of South African as land mass, internally rearranged since 1994, is fixed in the minds of the overwhelming majority of South African's whatever their ownership relationship to it, so is its economic landscape, and social landscape. We cannot afford to undo the legacy of multi-ethnic and multi-cultural congregation that continues and which now requires the express attention of a democratic state that has rediscovered a key and necessary foundation for its future. 

        The families of Mrs Shangase and Mr Magabane, who have returned to the opportunities they have discovered in their respective formative origins, enjoin us to take the journey with them, part real, part conceptual, from Sandton to Soweto. They urge us to go along with them into the future.  Then perhaps, armed with success we will pass by in Berlin on that journey, where Berliners will have surely agonised over the implications of Thomas Picketty’s Capital in the Twenty-first Century for global peace and welfare and we will say to them: we have found new ways to truly humanise capitalism and perhaps avoid the next global wars.

        We have reconceptualised and restructured South Africa’s economy to make life livable for all its citizens. New political parties have emerge to give political energy to emergent visions informed by a new awareness. We have reconceptualised asset ownership and the accretion of its value; and we have in the process even confronted capitalism’s illusion of the absolute autonomy of the individual; that millions and billions and trillions of rands, dollars, and euros owned by few individuals and nations include in them quantum’s of appropriated global and local social value; and that real estate purportedly owned by them can never, in the scheme of human evolution, be entirely theirs.

        So perhaps with this festival celebrating twenty years of democracy in South Africa, Berliners and Sowetans  will begin a new journey of sharing the world. Soweto in this context may very well be a new Mother City[8]. On that day in Berlin we may even meet in the Chancellor’s palace with huge 16ft high maps of Germany and South Africa on the walls to share the stories of how we have remade outselves.

[1] http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03ffkfd

[2] Otherwise known as: as the Congo Conference (German: Kongokonferenz) or West Africa Conference (Westafrika-Konferenz).

[3] Sunday Times. July13, 2014

[4] Njabulo S Ndebele. “Arriving home? South Africa beyond transition and reconciliation” in Fanie du Toit and Erik Doxtader (eds). In The Balance: South Africans Debate Reconciliation. Johannesburg: Jacana, 2014.

[5] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/JSE_Limited

[6] “Political Race” is a concept Lani Guinier and Gerald Torres develop and explore in The Miner’s Canary. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2002

[7] http://sowetovibe.co.za/facts

[8] Crain Soudien’s wish at the University of Cape Town



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