Sieraaj Ahmed

A Muslim, gay, ‘Coloured’ South African examines how much has really changed in Mandela’s beloved Rainbow Nation.

It’s not an easy time to be a proud South African. In just the first six months of 2015, xenophobic violence against fellow Africans; angry debates about colonial and apartheid monuments conducted along depressingly racial lines; regular blackouts as a result of poor government planning; unprecedented parliamentary chaos orchestrated in defiance and in defence of a seemingly Teflon-coated and corruption-tainted president; and the spectacle of a government circumventing a court order to allow Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir to leave the country…all these are just the depressing “highlights” of the headlines conspiring to make this a rather difficult moment to whisper, “Still…we’ve come a long way…”

But, here I am: Still a proud South African. One who loves few things more than showing off my country to visitors. And no matter where the visitor is from, one question always comes up: “So…Has anything changed… really?”

Twenty-one years into my country’s post-apartheid story, it’s a question I feel less qualified to answer with each passing month. For I am a firmly middle class South African and – difficult as it has been to acknowledge – my completely overhauled post-1994 reality is not reality for the “average South African”. I’m upfront about my bias: I am a 39-year-old, Muslim, gay, Coloured (as we used to be called under the apartheid master plan) South African divorcee…one who is acutely aware that, just a few decades ago, I would have been persecuted on all those counts in the bizarre country I was born into.

Today I live in one of the few countries in the world where every part of that short descriptor is protected and honoured – by our renowned Constitution and our government. I live in a country where, just 21 years after people of different backgrounds started mixing freely, I very rarely have to explain or defend any part of who I am, because in the new South Africa we’re creating (at least at middle-class level, so far), you rarely need to explain or apologise for being exactly who you are.

So my response to the question is always (at least) two-fold. Yes…for me, and for most middle-classers of all races and sexual orientations, everything has changed. Our second democratically elected president, Thabo Mbeki, spent much of his nine years in power (1999-2008) repeatedly reminding South Africans that we live in two nations: “One white and prosperous, the other poor and black”. Mbeki infuriated white South Africans by harping on this fact. But he was right. In 2015 South Africa, his mantra remains mostly true, but (thanks mainly to his own government’s focus on black economic empowerment) that “white and prosperous” nation has become “multi-racial and prosperous”, while the other nation remains mostly poor and black.

If you want only the good news about South Africa, you need look no further than this middle-class bubble. In this bubble, comprised of about 25% of South Africa’s 51 million people, I see constant signs of change, change that whispers of the birth of the “Dream South Africa” we want. In this bubble I see a racially mixed middle class who’ve now been working and playing together for most of 21 years. I see cross-cultural curiosity and growing understanding in a country which has 11 official languages, one whose democratic myth was built upon its multi-culturalism but one where there was only fear and mistrust when post-1994 affirmative action first started forcing white capital to diversify workplaces. I see a middle class in which nobody ever has to explain what halaal means, because everyone’s had a Muslim colleague or friend for two decades. It’s a rather amazing, breathlessly progressive bubble in which gay marriage is already passé. South Africa’s gay marriage law came into effect on 1 December 2006. After nearly a decade, most people in this middle-class bubble have been to a gay wedding and are rapidly moving on to counting gay divorcees among their friends. But for all its transformed beauty, this middle-class bubble remains an illusion. And it’s very important, for inhabitants of the bubble and our foreign friends who pop in for visits, to remember that it remains merely a surface veneer to the reality of life for the up to 75% who survive on individual monthly income of R1,400 ($115).

When my marriage ended in September 2012, I retreated from everyone except my family. But hiding the split from my domestic worker, Nokuthula, on that first Wednesday was not a possibility. My ex-husband and I had always wondered how she really felt about working for a gay couple. She seemed genuinely fond of us, but Nokuthula is a black, religious Christian who speaks regularly of her faith in God (which automatically made her a “socially conservative African” to my ex and I, raised as we were on a Western- and apartheid-fed media diet). We’d always wondered if she only “put up with these two moffies” because of the economic realities foisted upon our country by centuries of colonial and apartheid corruption and mismanagement. But her reaction to our split was something I couldn’t have predicted, and remains one of my sweetest memories from a very difficult period.

As she walked into our apartment on that early spring morning, she paused in the doorway, puzzled by the empty walls, stripped of photo frames. I ushered her in, sat her down on the couch, broke the news and held my breath. I was gobsmacked when she burst into hysterical tears. “No, Sieraaj, you can’t split! You two love each other so much! I’ve seen it!” She cried so hard that I ended up making her a cup of tea and letting her hug me until she calmed down to a manageable whimper. Then she whipped out her phone and said, “I’m going to call him! He must be possessed!” I stifled laughter and tears as I coaxed her into putting her phone away and made her promise that she would not, under any circumstances, call my ex-husband and beg him to come back.

Three years later, while attempting to write about “Change in South Africa” and increasingly frustrated by my own #MiddleClassWoes take on the country, I felt the truth behind SA’s fourth-place spot on the income-inequality ranking. The middle class – formerly nearly completely white but now approaching a racial mix representative of the country’s 79% black majority – remains so cut off from the poor majority that often the only connection we have to the “real South Africa” is via our domestic worker (or former domestic worker– Nokuthula and I were forced to break up a year after my divorce). So, slightly bemused but mostly horrified at the realization of how far apart Mbeki’s “Two nations” coexist, I asked Nokuthula out to a catch-up lunch (and bonus reality check for me).

Nokuthula Bomvana is 39 and would, on the surface, seem to be a more “average” South African than my friends and I. She lives in a three-roomed shack in Khayelitsha, a poor township area on the outskirts of Cape Town, with her three children. But even on the dusty streets of this township, the definition of “average South African” may be shifting. After 14 years of working as a cleaner, Nokuthula is now months away from completing a four-year degree in social work, making her the first person on her street to obtain a university degree. That piece of paper has been a dream 21 years in the making. “It’s what I always wanted – to be a social worker,” she beams. “It doesn’t matter how old I am – I got it. It’s been a long fight for it.”

In 1994, when she was 18, an ecstatic Nokuthula volunteered for Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) in the run-up to that first democratic election. By 1996, she seemed the embodiment of the New South African dream: Awarded full financial aid, she started studying toward a degree in Politics and Sociology at the University of Cape Town. When she moved to UCT she left behind her mother’s two-roomed shack, then occupied by 19 family members– and the family’s sangoma (traditional healer). “I was the first person in my family to go to university. Everyone was so proud,” she says. But her dream wasn’t going to come true just yet. At the beginning of her second year she got pregnant and dropped out. To support her daughter, Zikhona, she became a cleaner – a “temporary plan” that turned into 14 years of cleaning offices and private homes.

With her long-held dream finally in sight I wonder: Does Nokuthula think our country has changed? “Yes. For the better,” she says emphatically. “I remember those days of pass books and ‘Whites Only’ all over Cape Town. It was terrible. I’ve been a domestic worker like my mother and when I compare… She had her own cup and plate and couldn’t use her boss’s stuff. Me, I was so free in my employers’ houses. I could use any plate, any cutlery.”  She is happy that the ANC government, who’ve held national power with majorities of between 62 and 69% since 1994, has delivered greater protection for SA’s most vulnerable workers – usually black and often uneducated. “In my mother’s day her bosses could fire her just like that. Now they can’t just chase you away. It’s a huge difference before ‘94 and after ‘94. Back then you couldn’t learn in English in the townships, now everything is in English. If you can’t communicate in English you can’t get a job. If you compare my child’s English to mine, she’s much better.”

Like many South Africans, Nokuthula is disappointed by the slow pace of economic transformation, promised to black South Africans as “Coming soon!” after the heralded democratic transformation. The latest statistics show unemployment at 26% – mostly black youth. “Apartheid wasn’t easy for all of us – not just for black people. There was so much joy in ‘94, but now things are stuck. There has been change, but now most of our leaders are grabbing things for their own, not for the nation.”

The leader most on South African minds is, of course, President Jacob Zuma. South Africa’s third democratically elected president, Zuma won the ANC presidency in 2007 and the country’s presidency in 2009, after a lengthy battle with his predecessor Mbeki – which included the laying and eventual dropping of more than 700 corruption charges. Derided by the middle classes as an uneducated (his ANC profile says he received no formal schooling), socially conservative and corrupt man, the ANC (with Zuma on its posters) was nevertheless handed a 62% mandate at the 2014 national election. Zuma has become the most frustrating symbol of the middle class’s powerlessness. The country’s Twitterati may hold sway over the global opinion-making about South Africa, but it doesn’t yet have the power to sway elections away from the ANC, which is held in power by working-class and rural voters who still trust the “party of Mandela” more than the horde of opposition parties that have come and gone (the strongest, the Democratic Alliance, won 22% of the vote in 2014 – up from 16% in 2009).

One year into his second term, the ANC remains in thrall to Zuma, with even the spending of R246 million ($20 million) of state funds on his private home in Nkandla, KwaZulu-Natal, creating only increasingly unseemly political contortions to protect the president. Zuma has continually dismissed the outcry, literally laughing off critics in parliament and consistently saying he knew nothing about the ballooning expenditure. The Nkandla palace saga gets the middle class nuclear, but is the issue as infuriating to voters in townships? “All ANC members are criminals,” Nokuthula says, angry-sad.“It’s impossible and unbelievable that someone can build your house and you don’t know where the money comes from. Zuma has his palace at Nkandla because he takes our money. And everyone in the ANC has to defend Zuma because they are all in it with him. Our people are still using drop toilets. But we say we are free...I’ve been on the waiting list for a house for 11 years, and they just keep saying, ‘It’s coming.’”

For the decade preceding the start of Zuma’s first presidency in 2009, crime was the constant dinner-table obsession of middle-class South Africans. Since the “Zunami” hit, crime has taken second place to growing fears of creeping state corruption rotting the country’s still unsteady foundations as civil servants at all levels of government seemingly play “Follow your leader”. Still, high levels of violent crime remain a pressing concern, with township residents at greatest risk.

“I felt safer in Khayelitsha [township] in 1994,” Nokuthula says. “Yes, it was dark. We didn’t have lights then…Now there are lights and roads, but also more crime. Two shacks in my road were broken into recently; one of them was a policeman’s shack.” Voter apathy is the new normal on her street. Her neighbours are angry at the ANC but not yet willing to take their votes to other parties – including the Democratic Alliance, which recently elected its first black leader, Mmusi Maimane, an election that means, for the first time, South Africa’s largest opposition party is led by a black South African. “People here don’t like DA. They may be disappointed in ANC but they don’t want to vote DA. They will rather not vote. But something has to change. Maybe with Maimane, the DA can now take the lead. Maybe then the ANC will learn...I wouldn’t feel safe putting a DA poster up; my shack would get burnt.”

In my day-to-day middle-class existence I consistently notice small to huge examples of South Africa’s 19-year-old Constitution taking root around me…school kids growing up with friends of all races and religions, with gay uncles and aunts as part of the daily tapestry of their lives, pro-poor court rulings reshaping our cross-class interactions, a hopeful mix of individual-rights-centred thinking married to the idea of collective responsibility for each other’s wellbeing, as enshrined in our country’s founding document. I ask Nokuthula if she notices anything similar “taking root” in her daily life. Her example is far from what I’d hoped to hear, but contains a seed of hope in its chilling detail. “When the youngsters here get caught stealing, the community puts a tyre around your neck and burns you, or beat you or stone you. They don’t trust the police, so they do it themselves...This street justice is also changing. The focus used to be to punish. Now there’s more desire to speak to and help the youth. I think people are learning about the Constitution even if they aren’t always aware of it.”

On a personal level, I wonder about being gay in the townships. In my middle-class bubble, same-sex public displays of affection stopped garnering real interest rapidly after the legalisation of gay marriage in 2006. But, yet again, the middle class reality is far removed from the majority’s reality. “I think things have gotten a little better for gays,” Nokuthula tells me. “You do see more being openly gay and lesbian. But only the very brave, because it is still dangerous. They still rape lesbians, to show her she is a woman. So the gays and lesbians have to walk in threes or bigger groups. It’s not fair, but I hope it’s getting better.”

She's proud of the path she’s beaten and excited about the next chapter. Her studies were funded by the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) – another government body mired in claims of corruption. But she’s had no problems with NSFAS, and her excellent grades meant all four years were fully financed. Now she’s paying it forward in her community, where her success story is still unusual and an inspiration to neighbours looking for a route into an economic system they were excluded from for centuries. “I get visits from youngsters and old people who’ve heard I’m studying. They don’t know how to apply for money, so I go through the forms with them. It’s a small thing but I’ve been graced by God, and I like that I can now help other people do it. Things have to change around here.”

She remains angry about the path the ANC has chosen under Zuma. “I tell my neighbours, ‘You have to make your life worth it. You can’t depend on politicians.’ Parliament in Mandela’s years was a house of honour… now it is like a shebeen [a township tavern] – there’s no respect. Our government is supposed to help those who can’t afford to help themselves. Then they say you must stand up and do it for yourself, and I’ve done that. I’ve improved my life and built my own house, even if it is a shack…But I’m lucky. God keeps me positive. I’ve had a mother and bosses who helped me. But what about people who don’t have help? If government isn’t going to help them, who is?”

As we part again, I wonder at the neat synchronicity in our seemingly worlds apart but essentially parallel stories: Both born in 1976, by accidents of birth to families in different strata of apartheid South Africa’s ridiculous rules, with different skin colours that at the time defined nearly our entire life stories; drawn together by uncomfortable economic realities foisted upon us by history. Both of us are about to embark on new post-divorce heights: me off to Columbia University in New York City to study Journalism, Nokuthula grabbing her degree in Social Work. Coincidentally, we will both graduate around May 2016.

Nokuthula beams. “You know, Sieraaj…In 1994 I saw myself becoming a social worker… now, 21 years later, regardless of the situation, regardless of me still living in a shack, regardless of all the challenges in my life, the doors opened for me. Things may not have happened for me or the country as fast as we would have liked, but the change is happening.”

Sieraaj Ahmed is a journalist from Cape Town, South Africa. He wrote and edited copy for many of South Africa’s most widely read magazines for 12 years, holds degrees in commerce and journalism and will study toward an MA in Political Journalism at Columbia University in New York City in 2015/2016. Twitter @Sieraaj_Says