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 picture is not one of unalloyed optimism. The government deficit
still represents nearly 18 percent of the total budget. From 1989 to
1994 debt climbed from 34 percent to 57 percent of GDP, a disturbing
rise, but more a reflection of the fact that South Africa prior to
1989 was unable to borrow on international markets. By comparison,
the European Community is currently trying to make its members
conform to a debt limitation of 60 percent of GDP, and most of them
fall outside that limitation. The trade surplus has been eroding
since 1990 and the current account is no longer quite as healthy as
it was. Investors look at these trends, but it is hard to see the
negative features as seriously outweighing the positive, which
include the government's demonstrated courage in doing things that
its predecessor could or would not.

And this is perhaps the most reassuring answer to the underlying
concern about the government's policy. That anxiety rests upon the
fact--known to insiders but rarely discussed in the media, either in
South Africa or abroad--that to all intents and purposes the South
African Communist Party (SACP) has dominated the ANC. The call upon
the ANC to rid itself of its Communist members is bogus. Both of
Mandela's heirs apparent, Thabo Mbeki and Cyril Ramaphosa, are or
were members of the SACP. So are the ministers of Finance, Defense,
Trade & Industry, and Safety & Security, among others. The
explanation for this dominance, and the contribution made by
ideology, convenience, careerism, and necessity, would no doubt be
instructive. But no informed person believes that it is still
relevant, at least in ideological terms. The only conceivable
relevance would be if South Africa's present economic policy were a
total failure, and in those circumstances it is hard to know what
would replace it.

The real long-term threat to South African economic policy arises
more from certain structural problems in the economy than from the
managerial matters just noted. They center on poverty, productivity,
and education.

The worst problem is poverty. Among comparable middle-income
developing countries, South Africa has one of the worst records in
terms of health, education, safe water, fertility, and income
inequality. According to the World Bank, unemployment rates stand at
50 percent among the poor. The lowest 40 percent of households,
equivalent to 53 percent of the population, account for less than 10
percent of total consumption. The chief result of the change of power
in South Africa has not been to improve the lot of the disadvantaged
but that of the aspiring and educated black middle class, many of
whom are very rapidly becoming wealthy.

A second structural problem is that of productivity. The World
Economic Forum in Geneva placed South Africa at the bottom of 43
countries in terms of competitiveness. Dutch Economics Minister Hans
Wijers, even while announcing a rise in Dutch aid to South Africa,
cited low productivity by highly paid laborers, coupled to the high
crime rate and "uncertain politics", as key factors that made foreign
investors reluctant.

One of the main results of the campaign against apartheid was to
raise the wages of those who had jobs at the expense of broadening
the opportunities for work. Combined with the effects of inflation,
this trend has made South Africa's gold mines, once the cheapest in
the world, now the most expensive, and has caused the mining industry
to lose 200,000 jobs. According to a study of the motor industry in
1995, while a South African car worker costs 40 American cents an
hour less than his Mexican counterpart, it takes him nearly three
times as long to build the same car. A study by the Afrikaanse
Handelsinstituut (the Afrikaans Chamber of Commerce) claimed that the
average hourly rate for a worker in South Africa was R22 (about
$4.75) compared to Malaysia (R7), Poland (R6), China (R2), and
Indonesia (R1).

A third structural problem is education. A recent study of education
in 45 countries, evaluating the results of 13-year-olds, found South
Africa the worst performing country in both mathematics and science.
In Japan there are 71 scientists and engineers for every 1,000
people; in South Africa the figure is 3.3, and falling. The reason
lies mainly in the appalling mess in which black education was left
during the apartheid years, but is not helped by the extraordinary
conduct of the present Ministry of Education, which, in trying to
right the disparity between white and black education, gave senior
white teachers large financial incentives to leave the profession.

Democracy and Pragmatism

Though the problems described above are very similar in nature, if
not in extent, to problems elsewhere in Africa, it needs to be
emphasized again that South Africa is not a typical African state.
That is true not only in terms of its infrastructure--an extensive
financial, educational, and industrial base, and good communications
and roads systems--but also its history. For well over a century the
country, or its constituent parts before Union in 1910, has had all
the institutions of democratic government. The conflict that has
consumed the last half century did not concern so much the adequacy
of those democratic institutions as their failure to include all the
people. In that sense the conflict is analogous to the American civil
rights struggle, where blacks were not questioning American
institutions, only their failure to be included. That said, it is
true that that inclusion raised far more fundamental questions in
South Africa because blacks were in the majority. That fact
necessitated a new constitution, but the constitution left the
democratic institutions of South Africa intact--it merely extended
them and introduced safeguards for their preservation that had
hitherto been missing.

If this has been a good example of the reassuring pragmatism that has
prevailed in South Africa, there is still the problem that, to a
greater degree than almost anywhere, democracy in South Africa means
different things to different people. To whites, fearful of the
untrammeled excesses of a black electorate anxious to receive the
good things of which they were previously deprived, the notion of
democracy is linked to the protection it affords, and more
specifically to prohibitions against expropriation and arbitrary
power. Most, although not all, blacks see democracy in terms that are
almost the polar opposite: as the logical outcome of majority rule.
They see it as their guarantee that life will change for the better,
that the economy will improve, that opportunities and above all jobs
will become available, that education, health, housing, and
transportation will reflect that change, and that violence and crime,
which threaten them more than the whites, will diminish. In that
sense, the dilemma accurately foreseen by Nelson Mandela, writing to
the government from his jail cell at Victor Verster Prison, persists:
"White South Africa simply has to accept that there never will be
peace and stability in this country until the principle (of majority
rule) is fully applied." But he also foresaw that the demand for
majority rule in a unitary state had to be reconciled with white
demands for structural guarantees. That reality remains. All that has
changed is the way in which the dilemma is worked out.

The great hope for South Africa continues to be that neither whites
nor blacks will prove to be as unrealistic as the more extreme
statements of their respective positions would suggest. Most whites
know that their privileges cannot continue uninterrupted; most blacks
do not have utopian visions of their immediate future. Modest changes
would meet most expectations. A growing economy--growing, that is,
faster than the rate of population increase--would not only lift all
ships, it would enable a good deal of bilgewater to be discharged as
well. There is, in short, a degree of pragmatism in South Africa on
both sides of what it would no longer be quite accurate to see as the
racial divide, and a healthy sense of interdependence. It is the
quality first identified by Tocqueville as a distinctive property of
American democracy.

Every government exists within a society and an institutional
framework that it influences and by which it is in turn influenced.
In this respect, too, there is reason for optimism about South Africa.

In the years prior to 1994, the South African judiciary did not
generally distinguish itself in the way in which it dealt with
apartheid legislation, though individual examples of independent,
courageous, and resolute action were numerous. The inadequacy lay in
the traditional commitment of English jurisprudence to interpret
legislation literally, without incorporating wider notions of equity
or constitutional protection. The addition of a comprehensive Bill of
Rights to the new constitution brings it closer to the American model
and provides a degree of protection above and beyond previous South
African experience. This is reflected in a recent decision of the
Constitutional Court to send the draft constitution back to the
Constitutional Assembly for further work because certain provisions
did not conform to the principles enunciated in the constitutional
negotiations. The searing experience of state terrorism inculcated in
some of the judges--Albie Sachs, a judge of the Constitutional Court,
had his arm blown off by a parcel bomb--is likely, if anything, to
accentuate this independence.

Essay Types: Essay