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After South Africa's Trump


An energised resistance movement brought down Jacob Zuma, the post-apartheid demagogue. 
But was democracy saved?

By EVE FAIRBANKS January 9, 2019 



Photographs by Paul Shiakallis for The New Republic

I didn’t expect, when I first moved to South Africa in 2009, how much it would feel like America. Every place does, more and more; or every place feels increasingly like every other place, a globe of placelessness, the world as duty-free lounge. But South Africa was even more so. It was as if the geographical strata of American society—gentrified urban, marginalized urban, suburban, country—had been compressed into a much smaller area. Outside South Africa’s cities is cowboy country, with wide, fenced ranches punctuated by townlets featuring beef-jerky stores and tractor wholesalers. Closer in are rings of suburbs with split-level houses with pools and the occasional American-style shopping mall. The cities are divided between zones of economic despair and bourgeois-bohemian enclaves reminiscent of San Francisco or Austin.

The two countries also share a similar history. South Africa had its own (eastward) expansion by white “pioneers” in ox-wagons who set up “republics” on occupied lands. Both of their origin stories were defined by exceptionalism: America was the “city on a hill,” while South Africa’s European settlers saw themselves as chosen by God to civilize Africa’s native inhabitants. Both narratives were undermined by terrible racial prejudice. Their successful civil rights struggles led portions of both countries to feel they had overcome a substantial part of their original sin and had, perhaps, fulfilled their redemptive promise in an unexpected way.

With Nelson Mandela’s ascent to the presi­dency in 1994, South Africa became the rare country other than the United States in which historical white power
had been substantially challenged by the rise of previously oppressed peoples of color; the only country in which whites and blacks coexisted with the latter forming a serious demographic challenge to the former; and also the only country anchored, in its identity, not on a long-defined territorial definition or on an ethnic base, but a set of ideals: tolerance, reconciliation, freedom.

There’s a conscious affinity. South Africa’s remarkable jazz was inspired by waves of African-American musicians employed on American ships that stopped in Cape Town during the late 19th and early 20th century, including the Confederate warship Alabama. (A tune whose name translates to “Here Comes the Alabama! from Afrikaans—the Dutch-derived creole that was the main language spoken under apartheid—is still one of South Africa’s most-covered folk songs.) Its street style took inspiration from American gangster movies the apartheid authorities screened in black townships in the hopes they could get blacks to sympathize with the law-abiding sheriffs. (They couldn’t.) South Africans adore American hip-hop and country music. I once snapped a picture of a young man in Johannesburg named Madiba—Mandela’s nickname—who’d gone out clubbing in an American-flag puffer jacket. Yankees caps are hot.

The parallels, when I first arrived, had one major exception—the president. The United States was beginning Barack Obama’s first term. In South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, a figure a little like Obama—handsome, intellectual, rhetorically refined, slightly aloof—had been replaced by a far less lofty figure: Jacob Zuma.

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Gated Estate in Midrand, South Africa

Sandton, Johannesburg, South Africa

Mothakge Makwela, an early Zuma supporter, believed Mandela and the ANC didn’t do enough for blacks at the end of apartheid. “We are suffering now because of the deal they agreed to.”

Fighting Zuma’s corruption made people like journalist Tshidi Madia more cynical, a shift in attitude that lasted past his ouster.

Tshidi Madia in Sandton, Johannesburg

Mothakge at Footloose bar in Diepsloot

Diepsloot overlooking the new residential development, Riverside 

Mothakge and Armstrong stare in awe at the security gate of Steyn City

Zuma’s failures changed South Africans’ political expectations. “So, Ramaphosa is the friend of the white people,” said Armstrong Nombaba. “Is it wrong?”

- Armstrong at his home in Diepsloot, Johannesburg

A women watches Trump on TV at a house in Diepsloot

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