We’re just back from South Africa, that miracle of a country – though you wouldn’t believe it from the media. The papers, TV and radio news were awash with crime stories, corruption scandals and criticism of the government. The stabbing of a man waiting by the roadside after his car broke down; the report on the Marikana killing (of 41 miners by police in 2012); the furore over President Zuma’s use of public funds to secure his Nkandla mansion: such news hardly suggests a miracle. And digging deeper doesn’t help. According to the most recent UN data, Cape Town has the 7th highest murder rate in the world*. Marikana was the most deadly single act against civilians by South African security forces in 52 years. And outrage at the Nkandla renovations, which cost taxpayers 246 million Rand (€17 million), is hardly surprising in a country where more than a fifth of the population still lives in extreme poverty.**
So where’s the miracle?
Perhaps it’s hard to see when you live there. But returning after ten years, we found it everywhere. In the bubbling democracy, for starters, that allows the media to uncover corruption, and citizens to rail against it. What a triumph after the monstrous legitimised corruption of apartheid. Then there are the personal stories of achievement and opportunities denied to older generations. A friend told us how his mother was a domestic worker, how he scrabbled together a basic education and how his children have now gone to university. Another friend, who missed years of education because of the Soweto uprising, now sends his son to a top Cape Town school. And the daughter of a refugees who, ten years ago, were selling souvenirs on the street, is now studying law.
Of course there are still racial tensions and injustices, both personal and economic. Crime, unemployment and social inequality are huge. As a visitor, I don’t have to wrestle with them every day. I understand little and have no right to judge the incredible complexities of South African society. But I can celebrate the magnificent achievement of a country that could so easily have exploded into civil war, genocide or yet another dictatorship. Please South African media, for every grim story find a good one.