Life after Mandela

Writer Andri Brink contemplates a South Africa without its aging national hero, Nelson Mandela

Published January 28, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

In another startling illustration of "reconciliation," five former South African security officers have applied for amnesty after confessing to the 1977 murder of activist Steve Biko, a figure almost as important to the cause of black liberation in South Africa as Nelson Mandela.

The country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which has been uncovering state crimes committed during South Africa's apartheid years, called the development Tuesday "a major breakthrough," and said it expected additional revelations and confessions in the next weeks and months.

Rather than wreak bloody revenge, South Africa's black majority government, mainly through the commission, has put more emphasis on reconciliation and mercy as it attempts to forge a viable future for the nation. Despite the call by Biko's widow for a trial, it is considered likely that her husband's killers will be granted the amnesty they have requested.

While South Africa's relatively peaceful transition from white minority to black majority rule has been universally praised, the country has lately fallen on hard times. Crime and unemployment are soaring, foreign investment and its currency have plunged, and Pretoria has run afoul of other Western governments with its desire to sell weapons to Syria. While President Mandela's popularity remains high, there are growing doubts about the post-Mandela era.

Salon recently spoke with South African writer and essayist Andri Brink, whose latest novel, "Imaginings of Sand" (Harcourt Brace) is his first since the end of apartheid.

How thin is the so-called "South African miracle" starting to wear?

A lot of things have been going wrong, especially in the last year. A lot of politicians have totally disillusioned us with the greed and corruption that they've shown. There is the perennial demonstration of the corruptibility of power, or the way that power corrupts anybody that comes close enough to it. A lot of the elation that carried us through the elections of 1994 has dissipated. But much of the dissipation goes hand in hand with a greater sense of realism. People realize they can't expect drastic changes overnight, there's a lot of hard work that's required.

And Nelson Mandela embodies that optimism. What happens when Mandela is no longer president?

This question preoccupies everybody at the moment, because the date which he leaves -- if he lives until then, and one sincerely hopes he does -- is only two years away. Still, I think there are several reasons why the "South African miracle" can continue. Even if there isn't a second Mandela around, there are very capable people who have and will have the trust of a majority of South Africans. I think, perhaps romantically or even sentimentally, the country holds Mandela in such incredible esteem that when he goes there will be a surge of feeling that for his sake we've got to prove we can continue with what he started. It's a kind of debt of honor, really, that the country as a whole will have to pay.

Mandela has the trust of both blacks and whites. Will his successor have the same? Or will there be more bombings by white extremists, like the recent bombings in Rustenburg?

That was very alarming indeed, because it came so totally unexpectedly. We all thought that kind of thing was firmly behind us. But I think these bombings, alarming as they are, represent a very small part of the overall reality of the country. It is a lunatic fringe that is involved here. It is not symptomatic of a new tendency.

In "Imaginings of Sand," your characters grapple with the differences between personal stories and wider history, an issue that the country as a whole continues to face with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings.

It's very tricky, the relationship between truth and story, or story and history. But I think a story, when it is really worthwhile, encapsulates a kind of truth that transcends mere fact. So I think it is only when the workings and findings of the commission can be extended into fiction -- when one can find metaphors, and one can tell stories in a sort of allegorical way to demonstrate in the form of a story what is happening inside the mind, inside the imagination -- that this whole exercise can really be worthwhile. I think unless that happens, this society cannot be healed altogether. Unless one can make that jump with the imagination, I don't think one can ever really achieve a kind of sane society again.

Have you been able to make that leap with your own fiction?

Under apartheid, it was almost natural to write about the political set-up as a very simple, terrible, practical reality that one lived every single day of one's life. Whatever else one wanted to write about -- the relationship between a parent and a child, between a woman and a man, anything else -- was imbued with the awareness of a political system that created the mentalities that one had to deal with every day in South Africa. Now that that situation is changing quite drastically, there is a wonderful, exhilarating sense of horizons expanding, of a whole spectrum widening of possibilities of things one can write about.

Is it in some way more challenging for you as a writer in this post-crisis era?

Well, it is so good at long last to be able to concentrate on the technique, and the technicalities of trying to tell a story as well as one possibly can. I continue to think that any valid writing, any really important writing, has a dimension of morality attached to it. When one deals with larger issues -- not just the issues of the day, but the specifics of a political system -- one can look at the larger image of humanity through the light and darkness of the human mind. All of that is tremendously challenging.

Ban ebonics?

A California lawmaker tries to bar funding for "black English"


The ebonics controversy took another twist today with a California lawmaker introducing legislation that would bar all funding for ebonics teaching in California school districts and instead encourage the teaching of "proper" English.

State Sen. Raymond Haynes, R-Riverside, sponsor of the legislation and co-founder of the "Stop Ebonics/Save Our Children Committee," said that teaching ebonics would "divide children along racial lines" and set back civil rights advances of the past 40 years.

The bill, titled the "Equality in English Instruction Act," would prohibit the use of state or federal money for the teaching of ebonics in California schools. It would also give more money to school districts that improve students' linguistic skills and take away money from districts where reading and writing skills decline.

Haynes said his bill was a response to the Oakland, Calif., school board's resolution last month recognizing ebonics -- or black English -- in the classroom as the "primary language of many African Americans," as a means to raise standard English test scores. Since then, some of the school board's more controversial rhetoric -- notably relating to the "genetic" basis of ebonics -- has been removed, but not enough for Haynes.

Salon spoke briefly by phone with Haynes in his Sacramento office yesterday.

What prompted you to draw up this legislation?

When the Oakland school board said that speaking ebonics was "genetic," that really upset me. No one is genetically inclined when it comes to speech. That is a racist comment. They are telling black children that they are not as smart as white children. It amazed me that that argument was made in a majority-black school district. If I had suggested a genetic link to speech, it would have been reported in every newspaper in the state. The idea that genetics factors in to speech harkens back to the 1930s and the days of "Amos & Andy."

Also, a couple of African American parents in my district came to me and said they didn't want their children learning ebonics.

The Oakland board took out the genetics language but still maintains that children will learn better if they are taught using their own diction.

You do not teach students better by lowering their standards. If kids aren't learning it's because teachers are not teaching correctly. School bureaucracies in Oakland and Los Angeles and other districts where ebonics is being used need to get off their tails. Ebonics is a fad. It's an excuse for the bureaucracy. But if it's going to engage in bad teaching -- and ebonics is bad teaching -- then it'll have to find its own money.

You also say school districts will be rewarded or punished according to literacy scores. How will that work?

By standardized tests. We will develop tests based on objective criteria. If students do better on standardized reading tests then those districts will be rewarded financially. We haven't finalized details on how to punish districts where children don't perform well. I'm tired of school districts getting rewarded for doing a bad job.

Should Ebonics be banned? Join the discussion in Table Talk.

Quote of the day

Kitty ate your baby?

"Do Australia a favor: kill a cat. What do you want? Do you want cats or do you want koalas?"

-- An Australian journalist, explaining his country's anti-cat sentiment, which includes an MP's call for their "total eradication." (From: "For Australia's Errant Cats, 9 Lives Might Not Be Enough," in Tuesday's New York Times.)

By Cynthia Joyce

Cynthia Joyce has been a writer, editor and Web producer for 20 years. A former Arts and Entertainment editor for Salon, she lives in Oxford, Mississippi, and teaches journalism at the University of Mississippi.

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