Sunrise over Alexandra township is an unimposing affair. Night gently rolls itself away, revealing a rust-coloured smudge of wood-fire haze, hanging on the horizon above the hundreds of silhouetted figures silently walking to work along narrow streets.
Every morning, on their chilly commute, they pass newspaper headlines hanging from lamp posts. In the past year, these have spoken of the 34 miners shot by police at a platinum mine in Marikana, the Mozambican taxi driver found dead in his cell after he was dragged by a police car, the secret millions spent on upgrading the President’s homestead, the young girl gang-raped and killed in Cape Town, the model shot dead by her Paralympian boyfriend and the debates about gun crime and domestic abuse that followed.
Over the past week, the posters have given daily updates of former president Nelson Mandela’s health, declaring it to be ”serious, but stable” after he was taken to hospital for a recurrent lung infection.
Alex, as its residents call it, is one of Johannesburg’s oldest informal settlements, a natural starting point for those who’ve arrived in the big city, seeking their fortune. It is where Mandela found a home decades ago, when he arrived in town as a young legal clerk.
There have been some improvements in recent years. A concrete block with vast glass windows has appeared on the edge of the township, casting shadows on the neat new state-funded homes with solar water heaters on corrugated iron roofs. It is a promise fulfilled: a Gautrain station, a high-speed rail service connecting Alex and its affluent suburban neighbours to Pretoria and downtown Johannesburg.
The walk between platforms offers a view of South Africa’s newfound diversity: to the right, the gleaming office blocks and mall towers of Sandton, some of the country’s most expensive real estate, mosque minarets and an industrial park; to the left, a few rows of government-sponsored housing masking a sprawling, litter-strewn squatter camp on the banks of the Jukskei River.
It is 3 degrees at dawn. On the platforms, there are no blue overalls, no menial labourers, gardeners, factory workers. They cannot afford to take the train, so they walk.
On Gautrain Platform A, heading north, receptionist Jacky Tshabalala clutches her black handbag and shakes her head.
”What’s happening in our country when we say have freedom?” she asks. ”Where is that freedom? Maybe we don’t understand the word freedom. We have to be free, but the freedom, we don’t feel it.”
”Those years when I was still at school, we asked ourselves what’s going to happen if Mandela was released? We are going to live that normal life. But the normal life that we are living, we are living in fear, and everything is so expensive.”
Those who have benefited – the former Alex residents now living in the luxury of neighbouring Sandton – have turned their backs on the crime and poverty, she explains.
On Platform B, heading south, 28-year-old Trevor, dark blonde, blue-eyed and on his iPad, says he’s disappointed, too.
”Twenty years later, we’re still blaming apartheid for our economic woes,” he says. ”Mandela would be sad to see this lack of leadership. It’s not what he would have envisaged. But he’s an old man, he’s given so much, it’s time to let him go.”
Security guard Justice Muluvhahothe watches the commuters – black, white – come and go. He smiles widely as he speaks of change and opportunity, but his grin disappears as he talks about the government. ”People are just taking advantage. They are hiding behind their political parties, they’re like lions in the sheepskins. They say they do it for the people, but they do it for themselves.
”We are only voting ANC because of that man, Mandela. If he is passing away, we won’t vote for them again.”
Justice is not alone in his disillusionment. Desmond Tutu, former Anglican archbishop of Cape Town and close friend of Mandela, says he, too, can no longer vote for the African National Congress, the liberation movement and ruling party that Mandela headed.
Last month, the Nobel laureate wrote: ”The best memorial to Nelson Mandela would be a democracy that was really up and running, a democracy in which every single person in South Africa knew that they mattered, and where other people knew that each person mattered.”
Nineteen years after voting for freedom, South Africa is suffering a painful, pimpled adolescence, full of self-doubt and disillusionment and needing reassurance.
Now the country’s safety blanket, its father, its anchor in legitimacy – both outwardly perceived and inwardly believed – is being slowly pulled away. Without the comforting smokescreen of liberation legitimacy, the country will be forced to examine its own reflection.
”He hasn’t been very politically active since he left he presidency, but he was the man where we expected moral leadership,” says Professor Adam Habib, vice-chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand, where Mandela once studied.
”Is South Africa likely to have some major challenges?” Habib asks. ”Will it make big mistakes? Yes. But it’s to do with its own failures and successes, not about Mandela’s presence or absence.”
Habib believes the elder statesman would be ”utterly disappointed and sad, if he was fully aware of what South Africa is today”, but would not necessarily act. ”If there was a weakness to Mandela, it was that he was a party man to the core. He subscribed to collective discipline, and I don’t think he would have raised his voice.”
Habib describes a growing cynicism about the democratic process, especially among the generation of those ”born free” after 1994.
”We are going through a period of disillusionment and Marikana was a symptom. The fundamental cause is inequality, a polarisation of society. If he’d remained president, Mandela would have been sullied by the smuttiness of government and the decisions required. By leaving government, he went from national leader to global icon.”
A belief in possibility is as dangerous as it is inspiring. South Africa is grappling with how it turns the imagined into the real: houses, health and education for all; a labour force that demands better conditions and better pay with strikes that cripple the economy; a citizenry violently protesting in the streets because it wants more from the government.
Outside Mandela’s first Johannesburg house, on 7th Avenue in Alex, the streets are tarred, but a tangle of wires snakes from cables where residents are tapping into the electricity supply. Makeshift shacks of cardboard and metal lean against rough brick walls.
A monument local authorities built to Mandela’s heritage lies empty and unfinished. His prison number, 46664, is scrawled on a cement wall in black paint, in place of a street number. Around the dirt yard, 16 families share three toilets in a corrugated iron outhouse.
Mangisi Xhoma is plugging headphones into his scarlet smartphone, for his walk to college.
He is an ”almost born free”, born in 1993, and will vote for the first time next year.
”Mandela, he’s played his part,” Xhoma says. ”And he’ll be forever remembered. But it doesn’t feel the same with me as it does with my grandparents. He did a lot. And, well done.
”We must try to be different from our parents, and the struggle.
”We’re way past that right now. Now it’s time to look ahead. Let’s forget about then, and focus on now. That’s all that matters.”
The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.