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Black South Africans Defy Prophets of Doom

By Michael Hill | The Baltimore Sun | February 12, 1995 | 4 pages

Johannesburg, South Africa — Before South Africa’s first democratic election, many whites spoke of black expectations with fear and trembling. Now, it’s done with a wink and nudge.

But the white perspective remains the same: “They” — meaning blacks — think they’re going to get everything without working. “They” say President Nelson Mandela has promised them all a Mercedes and a big house, and there’s going to be big trouble when these things do not come to pass.

Before last April’s election, journalists from around the world ventured into the black townships and rural settlements in search of these unrealistic expectations. They could find none.

But that anecdotal evidence had little effect on the conventional wisdom: that blacks thought wealth was going to be delivered to their doorsteps along with the right to vote.

From the right came predictions of South Africa’s becoming another African calamity. From the left came claims that unless the demands of the masses were met, revolution would result.

Now a systematic study has dispelled the myth of unrealistic expectations, instead finding a politically sophisticated population that understands the limitations of its new government.

Conducted by the Johannesburg­based Center for Policy Studies, the report is based on 13 focus groups, a research method that uses directed discussions to get to underlying feelings and opinions.

“If these are bad tidings for some pundits, the news is potentially good for our new democracy,” said Steve Friedman, the center’s director, of the study’s findings.

“We are not nearly as polarized as we think, and our voters — in any event, those who participated in the focus groups — are as, if not more, sober, sophisticated and nuanced in their approach to socioeconomic issues as those in more mature democracies.”

Participants in the focus groups ranged from educated young men from Soweto to women with less than a sixth­grade education living in shacks on the East Rand. Eight were urban, five were rural. The discussions took place in the members’ native African languages.

“Far from having unlimited expectations and no awareness of constraints, the group members have expectations that reflect reality and a clear consciousness of limits pressing on the government,” wrote Craig Charney, a Yale doctoral candidate who conducted the study.

Time and again, Mr. Charney found that those in the discussions expected improvement but not miracles, understood that that they might not get what they want, and were willing to sacrifice short­ term gain for long­term progress:

“What appears remarkable is not that grass­roots Africans display maturity, pragmatism and reasonableness in their political attitudes, but rather the fact that so many on the right and the left have convinced themselves without solid evidence that ‘the masses’ do not do so.”

The study showed that there was often a disparity between what was termed the “elite” view of the important issues facing South Africa and the view from the ground about those issues.

For instance, in education much of the government and media focus is on a new curriculum and getting more blacks into what had been the white educational structure. But the focus group showed that most people were concerned about lack of discipline.

“Schoolchildren should stop toyi­toying,” said a woman who lives in a shack near Johannesburg, referring to the protest dance. “They should study. They have no reason to toyi­toyi.”

Another elite assumption is that land is of paramount concern, that since the taking of land in apartheid years only furthered the historic plunder of black African land by white colonialists for the past century, restoring land to its appropriate owners should be a top priority of the new government.

But the study showed that land ranked far down among the people’s needs — well below, for instance, water, as the rural groups in particular realized that it was better to have work on a piece of arable land than to have ownership of a piece of arid land.

Indeed, if there was one consensus to emerge from all groups it is that the No. 1 priority should be jobs, giving the lie to any assumption that blacks expected prosperity on a platter.

“Jobs rank as a high priority across the board, in town as well as country, for young and old, men and women, working people and unemployed,” Mr. Charney wrote.

In a similar vein, the study also uncovered widespread approval of self­help plans, whether it was getting people to help build their own homes, paying fees for school or helping to subsidize the costs of electrification and better water service.

If there was anything particularly African about the findings, it was that the people were willing to accept less as individuals in order to spread the benefits more widely across the community. This is the way life has been for generations in South Africa’s black townships, the few who have jobs spreading their wages to extended families and beyond.

“Judging by their responses, Africans in the groups generally prefer policies that reach all, even if offering lower rewards, to those which provide high­quality benefits to part of the community,” Mr. Charney found.

This led, in many groups, to anti­union feelings as unions were seen as disruptive elements, out to help only their own members, who have jobs, not to see that more jobs are available to the masses of unemployed.

“I think there are too many strikes,” said a male blue­collar worker from Soweto in a typical comment.

“When whites see these strikes on TV, they will be reluctant to invest their money.”

The report is not all positive. It makes clear that the new South Africa faces huge problems and that unless there is a perception of widespread improvement, however small, there are going to be tough times ahead.

But the expected reaction is not revolution, but cynicism. “Rather than rebellion, a turning away from politics is likely, marked by declining electoral participation, a less vigorous political system and an increase in disorganized social protest, crime and violence,” Mr. Charney concludes.

The sophistication found in the study may mean that South Africa does have some time to deal with these problems. Most participants understand the difficulties faced by their new government and will be patient. And they are glad that the election has brought some intangible benefits.

“Yes, when we speak about personal dignity, it’s there,” said an unemployed Soweto man. “I’m proud. Previously when you were walking and you bumped against a white man it would be a serious matter. The blame would be on you. Now they know, ‘This is a human being.’ Now, if you bump against him, you both ask each other’s pardon.”

But others found it difficult to celebrate such success without tangible gains.

“I haven’t felt that freedom to be proud about my being black because my dreams have not yet been fulfilled,” a young Soweto resident said. “The things I wished I could get ­— like being educated, having my own car at the age of 18. I’m now 22 and I don’t have anything. I still live with my mother, I’m still being supported and I still have to beg a white man for a wage.”

And an older woman who lives in a squatter shack said that some attitudes haven’t changed. “When our children go job­hunting, the whites tell them to go to Mandela,” she said.

Michael Hill is chief of the Johannesburg Bureau of The Baltimore Sun.

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