Leaving the U.S.A. at the end of 1994, it was difficult to avoid feeling a little relieved. The voters exuberant hostility to central government had begun to pull the United States into new, and perhaps unfriendly, political waters. In the course of the same year, our home, South Africa, had witnessed a considerably more dramatic political revolution. In both countries the most enduring and difficult social problems of the twentieth century have become subject to widespread public scrutiny and debate.

    At its heart, the congressional assault by Republicans in the United States seemed to be a rejection of the welfare state. In South Africa, by contrast, a widely accepted, and expected, responsibility for massive social engineering has devolved upon a very largely unreconstructed state. The April, 1994, election campaigns promised a massive program for a managed revolutionary transformation. The Reconstruction and Development Programme, or RDP as it is ubiquitously known, is South Africa's New Deal. It is targeted at every aspect of central and local state infrastructure: water, roads, housing and electricity for the urban and rural poor, the realignment and reshaping of the civil service, and the reorganization of public institutions like universities and primary and secondary schools. That these changes (some, like electrical services, are more quickly realized than others) have generated widespread discussion is hardly surprising. But the enthusiasm displayed by white entrepreneurs and capitalists for this potentially enriching, and certainly cathartic, social transformation is a little disconcerting to many. Most astonishing is the ease with which the program of social investment has become hegemonic. While it is not unusual to hear criticism of the very high levels of personal income tax, or a supply-side critique of taxation in general, there is no public opposition to the RDP itself. Economists involved with the outreach programs of organized business argue quite openly that the massive investment in the RDP is an investment in political stability, and the closest thing to political debate has been the claim by undercapitalized white farmers that they too require reconstruction and development.

    In a similar way, at precisely the same time as the Republican Party seeks to reintroduce affirmative action into American political debate, South Africans have come to rely on affirmative action as a means of redressing the concrete racism of many of the state institutions and businesses. Although the ideological questions are sometimes framed similarly in South Africa, affirmative action here is not really the same political issue. The South African economy is complex and relatively wealthy, but it is enormously dependent upon a single highly centralized state. This has meant that — before the new government spent any new funds on the RDP — the old patterns of spending offered it enormous leverage over the hiring practices of the para-statal and private corporations bidding for state contracts. In a similar way, the predominantly white liberal universities have found ways to transform their student bodies from predominantly white to overwhelmingly black. Changing the demographic profile of the faculties continues at a glacial pace, exacerbated by the fact that many qualified black candidates have moved from academic jobs into government posts. In March there were protests on many of the campuses, as students, workers and administrators have struggled to come to grips with the transformation of these institutions.

    In other ways, the new South Africa bears a strong resemblance to the old America. A debate over the national health service — one of the pillars of the RDP — has very quickly become an attempt to join what is economically feasible with what is politically necessary. Unlike the Democratic Party, the African National Congress has not lost sight of the fact that a national health service will allow the state to address some of the most pressing crises in the lives of its constituents. (Nor does it hurt that South African private health insurers are presently standing on very weak financial legs). An early post-Apartheid cabinet decision made health care free for all young children and pregnant women, but did little to increase the resources available to the hospitals, thus leading to criticism of overcrowding of clinics and access points and the poor treatment of many at the expense of good medical practice. In the past few weeks, the new Health Minister, Dr. Nkosazana Zuma, has been at the center of consultations with a range of medical, civic, business and policy groups. Partly in response to stinging criticisms at the start of the year from newspapers serving a predominantly middle class and white constituency, Dr. Zuma has adopted a popular new catch phrase in South Africa when she describes her department's approach: “transparency.” Zuma, like Hillary Clinton, faces sustained pressure from corporations and professional organizations — for example in her efforts to regulate doctors fees — but unlike health care restructuring in the United States, the political pressure for reform here is massive and unwavering.

    Political violence has declined across the country, except for a few key areas, especially pockets of the KwaZulu-Natal province. Up until last year, the battle lines in this region were located between rival ANC and Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) supporters. However, since the very public fallout between the Zulu monarch, King Goodwill Zwelithini, and his erstwhile ally, Mangasotho Buthelezi (now Home Affairs Minister in the Government of National Unity) the lines of contention have become more muddied. Every day papers in KwaZulu-Natal ring with news of rallies, court actions and protracted struggles over the fate of the monarchy in the region. Here the multiple ambiguities of colonial and settler rule, together with years of Apartheid governance — where an attenuated form of chiefly rule survived and flourished — frame a complex of questions about authentic Zulu culture. Unlike last year, however, it is more and more difficult for the IFP to claim that it alone represents the authentic Zulu aspiration and world view. The King himself has now instituted a court action challenging Buthelezi's claim to the position of traditional Prime Minister.

    A key feature of daily South African life at the moment centers around news and discussion of several trials of former and present members of the police and security forces accused of murder, fraud and robbery. These cases, expected to last through the year, are already cross-referencing evidence in anticipation of a national Truth Commission, set to begin in the coming months. The inauguration of the Truth Commission, and the creation and first sittings of the new Constitutional Court, have provided a special moment for the entry into public office of some of South Africa's most respected human rights lawyers and advocates, most of whom fought from the other side of the bench for the bulk of their legal careers. The issue chosen to open the proceedings of the Court is the legality of the death penalty under the new Constitution. South Africa, like the United States, was notorious in the 1980s for its high execution rates; many of the people on death row were black men. The public debate around the death penalty has been complicated by the fact that sitting on death row at present (all hangings have been suspended pending the outcome of the new Courts decision) are members of fascist groups convicted of murder in the last months of the old regime, including Chris Hani's assassins.

    Despite the daily struggles to improve wages, create more jobs, build houses, provide health and education for the poor, and eradicate the violence of domestic life for many — particularly women — in this country, the effervescent hope and spirit of newness which bubbled up in April last year has not dissipated. There are visceral signs of this: new radio stations, TV programs and print media speak in new ways about a new South Africa to new audiences. Locally this has fed a sense of common purpose. And, at the same time, the sharp increase in news about the rest of the African continent, and the increase in programming from the U.S.A. and the UK, and the enormous institutional enthusiasm for the World Wide Web and the Internet in particular have also underwritten the global awareness that permeates the new South Africa.


    Keith Breckenridge and Catherine Burns are lecturers in the Department of History, University of Natal, in Durban, South Africa.