Let me say a few words in response to the request by several commentators for an update of my “Report on South Africa.” When I first arrived in South Africa in 1986, I found that there were three groups of people in the opposition to the regime: the small group of leaders, most prominently Nelson Mandela, who had been held in jail on Robben Island for years; a larger group of émigrés who had escaped from South Africa at roughly the same time that Mandela was jailed; and a very large multiracial group of opponents to the regime within the country. It was members of this large group within South Africa whom I met and talked with in the early days of my involvement in South Africa. In addition to these three groups of people there were two other groups of individuals who had a claim to recognition and a share of power in any new South Africa led by Mandela – the so-called “traditional tribal elders” of the various ethnic groups that made up the African portion of the population and the rulers of the puppet governments that had been set up in the supposedly independent “Homelands” by the white regime. It was clear that once democratic elections hadIf if been held and Mandela had become President of a new South Africa, one of the unresolved questions would be how all of these different groups would share in the power that would come to the black majority.
Mandela, as I understood it, chose to put his Robben Island comrades and the older generation of exiles in positions of prominence in the new government, leaving the leaders of those who had been struggling in the country for years against the regime to take positions of prominence in the various provincial governments. This was a decision much questioned at the time by those with whom I talked. Although they held the old bulls in high esteem, they believed that it was time for the new generation to take positions of leadership.
One small anecdote will, I think, capture the extent to which I did not really understand what was happening in South Africa. After I had launched my scholarship organization at the University of Durban – Westville, one of the historically black universities, I returned to South Africa for a visit and stayed for a while with my friends in Johannesburg. When I left, I was driven to the airport by a young white couple who had been very active in the opposition to the old regime. During the drive, I spoke with great excitement about what I saw as education in a new South Africa. I said that I hoped that historically black universities like UDW and Western Cape would take over leadership of higher education from the historically white institutions like the University of the Witwatersrand and Cape Town. My hosts scoffed at the idea and assured me that the children of the new black leaders would attend Wits and Cape Town. They were right, of course, and I was wrong, caught as I was in a radical fantasy that had no relation to the reality on the ground.
The problems facing Mandela when he became president were of course overwhelming. Living conditions in the townships were terrible; living conditions in the “informal settlements” or shack assemblages were worse; and then there were the millions living in the homelands. Simply providing regular electricity and water to a majority of the population was an overwhelming problem.
And then the AIDS epidemic hit.
I did what I could of course in my tiny way. By the time AIDS hit South Africa I had brought my scholarship organization to the University of the Western Cape. A wonderful woman there named Tania Vergnani had created an effective AIDS awareness and prevention campaign for the students on the campus. I revised the selection criteria for my organization so that recipients of scholarships had to be involved with her organization, and I continued in that fashion until 2013, when I finally brought my organization to a close.
One other point about the South African political system should be mentioned that is especially interesting to me in light of the problems in the United States with gerrymandering and associated obstacles to democracy. Members of the national assembly did not represent geographic regions of South Africa. Instead, each party put forward a ranked list of candidates for as many positions as there were seats in total. After the votes were counted, each party would get a number of seats proportional to its national vote and the individuals thus selected were read off from the party lists in the order in which they had been listed. This went a long way to correcting the problem of what Lani Guinier in a famous article called “wasted votes,” but it had the consequence that members of the government were not responsible to particular groups of constituents.