Fences and hope in Madiba’s South Africa

Pretoria, South Africa—Fences. They’re all over Madiba’s South Africa. They are part of South Africa’s everyday life, a testament to its recent history.

And they’re not just ordinary fences. They’re built of steel or hard concrete. Many of them do not just have spikes on top of them. Instead, they have electric wires. Nope, they’re not just intended to shoo away intruders. They have enough electricity to kill.

Sadly, these fences are considered necessities. In fact, they are installed and maintained by monolithic security companies that served as precursors to companies like Blackwater in Iraq. They’re private but are now relied upon by the rich Caucasians as key to their survival in Madiba’s Africa.

Not all is well with Nelson Mandela’s South Africa. While the nation truly mourns the loss of one of humanity’s greatest freedom icon, the future of the country for whom Mandela would have died appears to be unsettled.

Breakdown of peace and order is the primary concern. Almost everyone that I have spoken to here has been a victim of a violent crime: a consul and his wife whose room at a bed and breakfast in the good part of town was broken into, a UN official robbed at gun-point, an elderly Filipina who was hogtied by robbers who broke into her house. Senior diplomats have not been spared, triggering security concerns for Vice-President Jejomar Binay’s security who moves around town with only a handful of security personnel. There was the Thai diplomat whose vehicle was hijacked in broad daylight, the Uruguayan Ambassador whose diplomatic residence was broken into. Mrs. Yoko Ramos, our Ambassador’s wife, says that the security concern in genteel Pretoria is so bad that her “four-year-old daughter and her yaya do not venture into the secured garden of the Philippine Ambassadors residence” already located in the best part of town.

Why is there a breakdown of peace and order? Why has Madiba’s country become the crime capital of the world?

Certainly, an explanation is that South Africa remains to be a society in transition. It has only been 19 years when the icon now lying in state about 2000 meters from my hotel room became President of a country that was notorious for apartheid—the systematic racial segregation of the black and whites. I first read about this racist policy in grade school and was moved to tears when I read about it on a current affairs handout. But unless you personally see the charm of the areas intended for the whites- such as Joberg and Pretoria—and compare it with the black enclaves of Soweto, one cannot have a clear picture of how pernicious the system of apartheid was.

But beyond being a transition society, it is also an economy of such harsh contradiction.

I expected Joberg to be a giant slum area much like Mumbai which I saw in 1996. But it isn’t. For all intents and purposes, the Dutch and the British have transformed this part of Africa into a not-so-little Europe. And looks are deceiving. For while Joberg and Pretoria are amongst the most picturesque cities in the world, it has one of the harshest economy with 35 percent  of the population, almost all of whom are black, currently unemployed. And unless one ventures two hours beyond the limits of Victorian Pretoria into the wilds of the Northeast, one does not see the metal houses occupied by majority of the blacks today. Yes, they’re no different from the slums of Malabon or Pasay. But slum dwellers here, unlike in Metro Manila, have to live through very cold winters and chilly summer nights of 18-20 degrees Celsius.

But they still mourn and celebrate the life of Madiba. It was he, after all, who led the revolution against the racist apartheid regime. In so doing, he sent the message to all that people are equal no matter what their skin colors may be. And while he himself spent decades in prison and was a victim of torture, he rejected the temptation of revenge and preached forgiveness until his dying moments. By the standards of many, it was his willingness to forgive that makes Nelson Mandela a saint.

So is there hope for Madiba’s land now that he has moved on to the great beyond?

Certainly. It has the natural resources that have made it the economic powerhouse of Africa. It is the world’s second-largest producer of fruits, much of it consumed by its former colonizers in Europe. It is an industrial economy, largely because it has had to live through many years of economic isolation. But more importantly, it will survive because Nelson Mandela, one of the greatest men to have roamed this earth, taught them that freedom should come with hope and the ability to forgive.

Our Ninoy and Cory Aquino will surely relish Nelson Mandela’s company in the great beyond. Meanwhile, though, I’m sure both are wondering: why is their son, President Noynoy, not here?


I am here in Pretoria as coach to the UP Law Team that competed in the 5th World Human Rights Moot Competition. Our thanks to the hospitality extended to us by Ambassador Bong Vingno and his wife, Madame Yoko.


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