In actual numbers, casualties of the “xenophobic” outbursts in South Africa this week have been low by world standards, even if the details are gruesome — deaths are in the dozens, with tens of thousands displaced, mainly immigrants from other African countries. The damage in the area of human hope and aspiration is more striking.

South Africa had seemed to be a rare and inspiring tale: It defeated racist apartheid with relatively little violence and created an explicitly anti-racist democracy. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission dealt with the rage that still festered. Its epic hero, Nelson Mandela, emerged from prison to become president, then retired, undiminished. A Broadway musical about him is on the way. But now this.

A friend, John Saul, has been a participant and observer in African politics for 40 years. He has never stopped pointing out that issues of race are interwoven with issues of class, social standing and economic conditions. The fights against European colonialism and apartheid were fuelled by a sense of unjust exploitation by the rulers. Overthrow those rulers without altering the accompanying social injustice and you’d better watch out. This has clearly happened in South Africa.

There’s been an economic boom that benefited a wealthy minority, now including some blacks. But the rich-poor gap grew, as did unemployment.

Housing and basic services flagged. This has created a “tinderbox of unmet expectations,” for which refugees from other countries are being blamed unjustly or, sometimes, with a certain limited accuracy.

It seems painfully ironic, especially since many of those African countries once provided refuge in exile for South Africa’s anti-apartheid leaders. Thirty years ago, in Maputo, Mozambique’s capital, I met some. They spoke proudly about South African youths going into the streets at home to protest daily, knowing that not all of them would survive. Now, foreigners in South Africa are being called “Maputos” and some of those same courageous youths may be among their attackers. It’s dispiriting.

But it may also involve another set of unmet expectations: our own.

I think we expect too clean a story line in politics and history. A victory should be clear. Heroes should stay heroic. When you look from a distance, as historians, pundits or outsiders, it’s easy to see grand patterns. You can hail victories and lament their breakdown. But inside individual lives, nothing moves that way: It’s all slow, laborious, regressive or static. There are infinite gradations and shifts. You don’t live your life in terms of historic patterns but of momentary needs such as jobs, electricity or housing. Seeing the current sad situation as ironic is less true or false than it is beside the point.

Viewing real events in storytelling terms is deceptive. Maybe that’s why sports is so appealing: It’s true-life drama with an ending. The season finishes, there’s a champion, full stop. But victory over apartheid isn’t like the Stanley Cup, because it’s a tale that didn’t really end; it just continued in new forms. The success was never total. There was a huge price still to pay, for instance, for the generation that went into the streets instead of going to school. There’s a reason all those revolutions took as their motto: The struggle continues. It continues because you can never fully win.

When Mozambique gained independence from Portugal in 1975, John Saul was invited to the victory celebration as Canada’s unofficial official representative. He was called up to meet the new president, Samora Machel, whom he’d known from their days in Tanzania. Samora embraced him and said, “So. We did it!” Then, he added vigorously, “Now, we continue.” Ten years later, he died in a plane crash, probably assassinated by the South African regime for all he’d done to ensure its defeat. What can you say? It continues. It’s not a story, it’s a process.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.