After the Miracle: Can South Africa Be a Normal State?

After the Miracle: Can South Africa Be a Normal State?

Mini Teaser: South Africa today, to paraphrase Marx, is haunted by a specter: the specter of the rest of Africa. This ghost hovers not only over whites, and over investors who are influenced by them, but over blacks as well.

by Author(s): John Chettle

The lessons of history are sometimes learned as much from what did
not happen as from what did. Thus a historian on a slow day might ask
himself what would have happened if Nelson Mandela, on taking office,
had denounced his opponents and then taken draconian measures against
them. What if Mandela had gone on to seize their lands, remove their
rights of citizenship, ban them from certain occupations, and levy
fines and heavy taxes upon them? What if, following such actions, a
million whites, including most of those prominent in government,
business, and the bureaucracy, had fled South Africa?

A country so reborn would now be on a life support system. It would
surely not appear on any list of emerging markets. The compilers of
country risk indices would find such a country an easy call. And yet
the circumstances described here--with a few small changes to conceal
the analogy--conform almost precisely to what happened in the early
years of the United States. The opponents of the new government in
the United States were the Loyalists, those who took their oath of
loyalty to the Crown seriously. They were dealt with in exactly the
way described, though some of this was done during a war in which the
Loyalists were in active support of the King. When the war was over,
there was little inclination on the part of the new government to
return the confiscated lands, and some of those who attempted to
recover their property were killed in the attempt. As moderate a man
as George Washington declared of Loyalists that "there never existed
a more miserable set of Beings than those wretched creatures", and
Benjamin Franklin dismissed them as "mongrels."

The situation caused the dean of Gloucester Cathedral, who regarded
himself as well disposed toward the United States, to say that

"As to the future grandeur of America, and its being a rising empire
under one head, whether republican or monarchical, it is one of the
idlest and most visionary notions that was ever conceived even by a
writer of romance. . . . The mutual antipathies and clashing
interests of the Americans, their difference of government, habitudes
and manners, indicate that they have no center of union and no common
interests. They can never be united into one compact empire under any
species of government whatever; a disunited people till the end of
time, suspicious and distrustful of each other, they will be divided
and subdivided into little commonwealths and principalities. . . ."

The purpose of this analogy is, of course, not to compare the United
States unfavorably with South Africa, nor Washington with Nelson
Mandela. Each confronted a different strategic situation. For much of
the early period the United States was involved in war, or the threat
of the resumption of hostilities. Mandela, by contrast, took office
at a time when his former enemies still controlled the army and the
police. That alone would have dictated a more prudent response.

But the analogy serves several useful purposes. First, it underlines
the sheer magnanimity of Mandela's actions. After all, he had been
the prisoner for twenty-seven years of the very government from which
he was taking over; F.W. de Klerk, the man who became his deputy
president, had been, in effect, his jailer; many of his party
supporters, intimate friends, and his own wife had suffered bitterly
at the hands of the apartheid government, some losing their lives;
his party had been involved for many years in what can best be
described as a low-grade civil war. The analogy also indicates, by
comparison, how little change Mandela has sought to make in the
fabric of South African life: no expropriations, no redistribution of
wealth, and no nationalizations, despite the promises of the African
National Congress' own Freedom Charter, its program of principles.
And finally, the comparison does perhaps give us an historical
perspective and a renewed awareness of the dangers of prediction, a
sensitivity that may be particularly useful when we contemplate the
casual confidence with which South Africa's destiny is treated as one
with that of the rest of Africa.

We should also understand the limitations of this perspective. For
most of those outside South Africa who have at least economic
influence over its destinies--the businessmen, the executives of
multinational corporations, the investment bankers, the vice
presidents of emerging market funds--none of this matters a damn. For
many of them history began yesterday, and the future is the next
quarterly report.

They are operating in a world where investment funds are limited and
in which almost everyone professes to follow the free market.
Business follows the money, and there isn't much money in Africa.
Forty percent of sub-Saharan Africa's 600 million people live on less
than one dollar a day. The continent receives less than 3 percent of
foreign direct investment flowing into developing countries. In 1995
it received $2.1 billion--less than China received in two months.
According to this view, without education, without infrastructure,
without consumer buying power, and without stable governments, Africa
looks increasingly hopeless. This view may be exaggerated, but it is
nonetheless very pervasive.

South Africa today, to paraphrase Marx, is haunted by a specter: the
specter of the rest of Africa. This ghost hovers not only over
whites, and over investors who are influenced by them, but over
blacks, who, by themselves and in company they trust, give vent to
similar fears. The underlying concern is that South Africa will
become--perhaps is already becoming--a typically chaotic, corrupt,
and inefficient African state; and that having received its
independence as a democracy with a fine infrastructure, a functioning
bureaucracy, and a highly organized private sector, it may revert to
the chronic inefficiency, endemic tribalism, one-party dominance,
authoritarianism, and economic stagnation that characterize most of
the continent.

Of course, the South Africa that existed before 1994 was neither as
good, nor Africa as bad, as these stereotypes would suggest. In what
follows I shall argue that fears of the Africanization of South
Africa are almost certainly ill-founded. The truth is that, despite
its problems, South Africa is becoming a stable state, not yet akin
to the social democratic states of Europe, but one with a high degree
of agreement among its elites as to its political, economic, and
social foundations.

Throughout much of its history, the conventional expectations about
South Africa have usually been wrong. It was not destined to be a
white man's country, nor a loyal and strategic outpost in a worldwide
empire; nor was its liberation destined, as anticipated in the
mid-1980s, to be deferred for a generation; nor was it going to fall
to communism. So one should be humbly aware of the dangers of any
prediction.

White Perceptions

South Africa has always been a mining camp, subject to wild
fluctuations of emotional boom and bust. In the aftermath of the
election of 1994, a mood of euphoria prevailed. Two and a half years
later the mood is generally bleak, and that mood has itself
contributed to the drop in the South African rand by some 25 percent
in the past year--giving rise to exaggerated fears in the City of
London and on Wall Street.

This derives in part from the fact that perceptions of South Africa
are heavily influenced by the South African white upper class. It is
this white upper class that conveys its impressions to visiting
bankers and investors, and that, in travels abroad, is seen as a
reliable source of information. It is in its environs that overseas
journalists live. And yet it is precisely this group that is
adversely affected by current developments. It is their homes that
are subject to the most dramatic increase in crime, despite high
walls, barbed wire, security systems, watchmen, and dogs. It is they
who are usually subject to the current spate of often deadly car
hijackings. It is they who have most dealings with a bureaucracy in
the process of transition, and a bureaucracy that is inexperienced
and often inefficient. It is they who are subject to rates of
taxation that are high for a developing society. And it is their
children who may be finding it harder to get jobs in a society where
heavy unemployment prevails and affirmative action is being
vigorously pursued. One former senior cabinet minister, Gerrit
Viljoen, a supporter of the move toward democratic government, told
me that much of the euphoria and commitment of the young Afrikaners
to the new South Africa has faded as it has become clear that their
participation in the process is not a real objective of the African
National Congress (ANC).

These concerns as a whole belong to that category of problems that
you can do something about--as opposed to those you can't, except
over a long period. It may be useful to discuss South Africa's
problems in this order.

A good deal of attention, at least that of whites, has been focused
on the early ejection, usually accompanied by all the comforts of a
golden parachute, of skilled and experienced professionals,
particularly from the civil service, and their replacement by less
experienced ANC personnel. At least a third of the directors-general,
the professional heads of governmental departments, have been
replaced. There are inevitably parts of the bureaucracy that now work
less efficiently than before, although the South African bureaucracy
under the previous regime was not famous for its efficiency. More
often, an uneasy collaboration continues between newly appointed
officials and their predecessors, often retained as consultants. The
result, however, is usually something less than one for the price of
two. A staple of conversation in business circles revolves around
appointments not kept, letters not answered, calls not returned,
decisions not made.

Essay Types: Essay