Jay Fleitman: Views of southern Africa
NORTHAMPTON — My wife and I just returned from a trip that had us visit four nations in southern Africa including Namibia, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana. Despite having traveled elsewhere in Africa and in other non-Western countries, at some level before we left we feared that we would die of malaria, get mauled by lions, be arrested by some dictator’s thugs, or all of the above. These worries were absolute nonsense.
What we found instead was the remarkable physical beauty of these countries, and throughout this trip we met intelligent, industrious, and hospitable people. No different than us, they were living their lives in the context of their surroundings and circumstances, working for the betterment of their families with a keen awareness of their national politics and international events.
I would never presume to be an expert in southern Africa after only three weeks in these countries and some months of reading before this visit. That won’t stop me from making some observations.
The topic of conversation brought up over and over again by both black and white Africans in these countries and clearly close to the surface of their minds was that of the quality of their children’s education. They were very concerned that their public schools were not giving their children the tools they needed to succeed in a modern world.
Particularly in South Africa, we heard many complaints that their teachers’ union was strangling their school system, being more interested in protecting teachers’ jobs than caring for the children. We were repeatedly told by locals in these countries that they were deeply angered by government interference with how their families are raising their children.
We were surprised when a South African cab driver, who was a poor black living in a shantytown/slum known as a “township,” expressed his fury over his 6-year-old child’s indoctrination by her school to call the police if she were to observe any of a long list of behaviors by her parents, which included yelling or discipline.
South Africa and Zimbabwe made for stark political comparison. Both have histories of being prosperous during white minority postcolonial rule. South Africa was lucky to have had Nelson Mandela as it transitioned out of apartheid. After 27 years as a political prisoner, he emerged as his country’s leader urging his nation into a future that could only be successful if blacks and whites worked together.
There is no denying the deep respect for Mandela held by South Africans of all races. South Africa is the economic powerhouse in this region. Even though Mandela is passing from the scene, his influence has left South Africans with cautious optimism for the future of their country.
Zimbabwe is a different matter. In the transition out of white rule in Rhodesia, the reins of government were taken by Robert Mugabe, who is in essence a gangster. With Mugabe’s ascent to power, the property of whites was confiscated, political opponents were suppressed or killed, corruption became rampant and the country is an economic basket case. Zimbabwe does not have its own money, as hyperinflation killed its currency, and uses the American dollar or South African rand along with considerable bartering. We were often offered trade for our sneakers, hats, T-shirts and reading glasses. We met lovely people who are now hoping that their country is stabilizing, but Zimbabweans scramble in their economic lives.
The quality of political leadership is crucial. We should appreciate how simply lucky we were in the United States to have had principled and capable leadership in the early decades of our nation. It is not so far-fetched to consider that our history would have been very different if we had had a Robert Mugabe instead of George Washington.
There were those soon after the American Revolution who urged Washington to become king. Fortunately, Washington was dedicated to a new democratic model. Aaron Burr was near the levers of power early in our country’s history, but as demonstrated in his later life, his interest was to rule his own empire. It is sobering to consider that he could have possibly played the role of an American Napoleon bringing an early end to the American democratic experiment.
Does the United States have anything to offer the people of these nations? We are no more intelligent or industrious than they are. They are fully aware of world events, democratic principles and modern technology. They are just as concerned about the future of their families as we are of ours. Yes, they like our movies, and unfortunately seem to have a taste for our contemporary music, but this is of little importance.
They do not need or want our handouts. The Africans seem much better at protecting their wildlife and environment.
We still hold the torch. We remain the society seen as coming closest to the democratic ideals that value the freedom of the individual and the opportunity to succeed by one’s own efforts.
I’m not so sure this view of America still is true. With an ever enlarging government that reaches into increasing aspects of American life, a free press under assault by the government, with government agencies targeting political enemies, and with a government that has little hesitation in lying to its citizens, we may be only left with shreds of that ideal.
Jay Fleitman, M.D., lives in Northampton. His column appears the first Tuesday of the month. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.