Saturday, July 4

South African encapsulation


THE slow rail journey from Victoria Falls to Pretoria was punctuated both by spectacular beauty provided by lingering sunsets against shifting greens and browns, as well as unpleasant jolts that wasted Rooibos tea blamed on the poorly maintained colonial-era tracks.

A brief safari recapitulation at Hwange National Park yielded an entirely new sight: a baby elephant had recently died (or been killed), and a pack of wild dogs had begun feasting on it. Watching from nearby trees, committees of vultures were ready to swoop in. It was a stark reminder that the death and consumption of beautiful animals is simply part of the circle of life.

More resolutions awaited in the conclusion of my Africa trip.

In my first article, I described the unique experience of politics and development in Tanzania and its relations with Kenya. Last week I shared my observations of attitudes towards the colonial legacy on both sides of Victoria Falls, particularly within the tourist industry, and in stark relation to more recent political experiences under Robert Mugabe.

A new angle emerged as I arrived in South Africa. On the train I had been reading about the Anglo-Zulu War and the Boer Wars, which expanded the British Empire and helped to define modern borders.

The content of Johannesburg’s Apartheid Museum continued where my reading left off: showing how previous colonial-era policies were resuscitated and expanded upon by the government elected in 1948, beginning with the Population Registration Act that defined the White, Black, and Coloured races – with Indians being added later. Documents, photographs and video footage powerfully exhibited inequalities in life opportunities based of the race that the government designated you as.

I could not help but think that many of my fellow citizens today advocate for similar policies to permanently privilege one race of people. However, at the Conference of Commonwealth Prime Ministers in 1960, the Malayan Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman led the condemnation of apartheid, and South Africa withdrew from the body upon becoming a republic the following year. For many Malaysians today, it might seem contradictory that a leader of a race-based political party could take such a stand. But that assumption also stems from an over-simplistic reading of history; one that also jumps to misinterpret policies (whatever their other flaws) as being part of an ethno-nationalist agenda, such as the teaching of khat calligraphy.

Alas, according to a witness of the time, Tunku Abdul Rahman was prevented from meeting Nelson Mandela when the latter visited Malaysia shortly after his release from prison, due to domestic politics, as the Tunku was supporting Semangat 46 in opposition to then Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir.

The museum’s exhibition on Nelson Mandela provides an excellent overview of his life story, the evolution of his views, and the impact of the decisions he made that promoted reconciliation in a long-divided country. Although the Truth and Reconciliation Committee is perhaps the most famous example of this (and often touted as a model including in Malaysia), my favourite single act – perhaps because the video footage shows the effect so palpably – is when he wore the jersey of the country’s rugby team when the sport was traditionally and overwhelmingly dominated by whites.

However, the museum refrains from asking the really difficult questions such as Mandela’s involvement in armed struggle (particularly, to what extent he was cognisant of the civilian deaths caused by the strategy) and his continued closeness to communist leaders who were less repentant of violence.

It is important to recognise that many people who are considered heroes are flawed, and indeed, some people choose a contrarian view and continue to harbour hatred based on past misdeeds.  That too is an important lesson for individuals: understanding when the benefits of forgiveness and reconciliation outweigh the instinct to hold grudges.

Alongside the breath-taking beauty of Cape Town’s physical geography, I also witnessed the resilience of the Cape Malay community in Bo-Kaap: first arriving at the Dutch Cape Colony when Melaka and what is now Indonesia were also Dutch, and later participating in the struggle against apartheid.

But as I travelled throughout Africa, the impact of overseas investment also became increasingly apparent. Indeed, my Cape Malay driver mused how China, under its communist party, was present in almost all areas of the South African economy. Certainly, Chinese flags were more visible than those of other countries.

Though I had learnt massively from seeing animals in the wild, and the geology of ancient waterfalls, I ended my trip contemplating the evolution of human societies over the centuries: of the ability of leaders and governments to justify their actions, to co-opt or defeat local stakeholders, and to gauge and respond to shifting public opinion.


Tunku Zain Al-Abidin is founding president of Ideas.