February 15 - 23, 2013

Upstairs at Chicago Shakespeare

World Premiere of a new play
by Omphile Molusi
directed by Omphile Molusi
incollaboration with Rick Boynton

South Africa's Transformation: A Scholar's Perspective

by Elke Zuern

The defeat of apartheid dramatically changed South Africa's international image. After years of violence and struggle, the pariah state became a model of reconciliation and justice. Its best-known political prisoner and former freedom fighter, Nelson Mandela, was inaugurated as president to celebrations around the world. The country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission became a model for other states seeking to address a violent past. All citizens, regardless of race, ethnicity, class or gender, were promised a bright new future.

The creation of nonracial democracy was a truly pathbreaking legal transformation for South Africa. Under apartheid, the state systematically and brutally institutionalized racial and economic inequality. Each South African was classified into a racial category. Those not classified as "white" faced severe discrimination. "Homelands" were created for Africans, and millions were forcibly removed from their homes into overcrowded and impoverished areas far from urban centers and jobs. All Africans over the age of sixteen outside the "homelands" were required to carry a passbook at all times. Failure to do so resulted in imprisonment. Marriages and even sexual relations across racial groups were prohibited. Jobs were reserved for certain races, and strikes were illegal for black workers. Passive resistance was also illegal, and public meetings of over twelve persons were subject to government control.

After decades of brutal oppression the end of apartheid made all South Africans full legal citizens in the country of their birth. But the inequalities institutionalized during decades of apartheid have proven incredibly difficult to undo. Poverty remains pervasive among black South Africans. Roughly a quarter of the population lives below the international poverty line of just $1.25 a day. Unemployment in South Africa is approaching three times that in the US. Half of all young men and women have never had a job. Many are too frustrated by their lack of prospects to continue looking. While a small number of black South Africans have become extraordinarily wealthy, the majority still struggle to get by.

The campaign against apartheid was a struggle not just for democracy but also for liberation from oppression and poverty. This wide-ranging campaign was eulogized, supported and expanded through the work of innumerable artists and writers. The music of Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, and Lucky Dube; the writing of Mongane Wally Serote, Zakes Mda, Nadine Gordimer, J. M. Coetzee, Andre Brink and Breyten Breytenbach; and the plays of Athol Fugard and Mbongeni Ngema, among many others, drew attention to the crimes of apartheid and the struggles of those living under it. Today's generation of South African activists and artists continues to draw attention to the challenges many citizens and residents still face.


Elke Zuern, Associate Professor of Politics at Sarah Lawrence College, is a specialist in sub-Saharan African politics. Her book, The Politics of Necessity: Community Organizing and Democracy in South Africa was published in 2011 by the University of Wisconsin Press.

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