Part 7: South Africa Acts Up

Building a Movement on the Ruins of Apartheid

Makhalemele's home region, KwaZulu-Natal, suffered some of the worst terror, because here a three-way war raged between the white regime, the African National Congress, and the Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party. AIDS activist Musa Njoko grew up in KwaMashu, a forbidding township outside Durban, the kind of place where people seem so beaten down that they are looking for someone weaker to kick. "The boys treated me very roughly," Njoko recalls. "I thought someone would get hurt for being HIV-positive." So she was "shocked but not surprised" when last December a woman named Gugu Dlamini declared that she was HIV-positive and got beaten to death three weeks later because, as some of her assailants were heard to say, her honesty shamed the township.

Three months after Dlamini's murder, the Treatment Action Campaign was kicked off with a nationwide petition drive, and Makhalemele, who had worked with Dlamini, decided to confront AIDS stigma by sending her petitioners to KwaMashu. Wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the photo of the slain activist and the slogan "Never Again," about 20 activists arrived in the township shopping center, a dusty place with bars on all the windows. The activists had requested a police escort, but with no police in sight, they fled.

Makhalemele never made it to KwaMashu. A few days earlier she had asked for the train company to provide the activists free transportation from Durban to KwaMashu. She asked again when she got to the station, and again the answer was no—and something inside her snapped. She sat down in the middle of the station, launching a fast that would last for seven days.

Lucky Mazibuko, an HIV-positive columnist, protests U.S. trade policies that allow drug companies to set prices.
photo: Mark Schoofs
Lucky Mazibuko, an HIV-positive columnist, protests U.S. trade policies that allow drug companies to set prices.

Sitting on the floor of the train station, she starts to weep. "I'm going to a Catholic mission," she says. "I'm going to stay there to heal the sorrow, the pain, the rage I have from working for seven years as an AIDS activist in this country."

Apartheid was never merely a racial system, but also an economic one that created copious wealth. It is possible to travel to Capetown or Johannesburg and believe one is in London or New York. The mansions are palatial. The phones work. The roads are good. All this gives the country a critical mass of educated, prosperous, urban inhabitants—no longer all white—who have a sense that they are entitled to a democratic society that works as well as any nation anywhere. The comparatively strong economy also means that people with HIV can dare to hope for at least some medication to extend their lives.

Of course, South Africa's wealth was created by ruthless exploitation, so the country is also blighted with poverty on a staggering scale. Illiteracy is rampant. Millions lack electricity and running water. This is what people mean when they talk about South Africa as a country of extremes or, as Mbeki puts it, two countries within the same borders. But this does not begin to describe the far-reaching devastation wreaked upon the nation.

To understand apartheid, go not to KwaMashu or even Soweto, but instead descend in a mine-shaft elevator deep below the surface of the Witswatersrand region to the reef, a band of sediment created millions of years ago by prehistoric rains. It's hard to see the gold, but it's there—tons upon tons of it scattered through the reef in mostly microscopic particles. Here is the simple geological fact has shaped modern South Africa more than anything else: Each ton of Witswatersrand earth yields only a few ounces of gold, and the richest deposits lie buried under eons of newer geological layers. So South African mines must plunge deeper than any others—as far down as five kilometers—and miners have to haul up colossal aggregations of earth. Without very cheap labor, it would have been impossible to make a profit.

Yet gold has long been the country's largest revenue producer. For example, the West Driefontein mine in Carletonville has extracted more than 4.5 million pounds of gold. The company has provided splendid housing for the mine manager: a gated mansion complete with manicured garden. The ordinary laborers also live in company housing. Typical is a room about 20 x 20 feet, crammed with 14 bunk beds and lockers no bigger than those in a school gym. The men who live in this room come from across southern Africa, and they are all married. But their wives are back home. The miners see their families only every two or three months, usually for just a few days at a time.

It is a system that was invented nearly a century ago by the diamond and gold industries. Africans were crowded into reservations, where hut taxes forced them into wage labor. Chiefs were paid to supply men—but only men. Housing black families would cost money, and letting black workers settle permanently in mining towns would make it easier for them to organize resistance. So workers were housed in all-male barracks, called hostels, much like the ones at West Driefontein.

Apartheid's mesh of more than 100 interlocking laws basically nationalized the pattern devised by the mining industry, which at its height employed more than a fifth of black South African adults. Apartheid's hated pass laws, which restricted the movement of blacks, grew out of company policies designed to shuttle workers between their homes and the mines. And in the 1960s, the government forced as many as 3 million Africans into barren and degrading reservations they called Bantustans, an Orwellian term intended to prop up the sham that these were independent nations.

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