Report card on a decade of democracy

By Allister Sparks

The completion of the new South Africa's first decade as a nonracial democracy governed by its majority population after three-and-a-half centuries of segregation and apartheid makes this an appropriate moment to assess its performance and deliver a report card. On balance it is a report that should not be displeasing to those members of the family of nations who have shown concern for this wayward child. "Given the broken home from which this student came," the headmaster may note, "he has done surprisingly well and in some subjects has come top of his class. But in others he has failed and will have to work harder next term. He is promoted to the next grade."

To some casual observers even such a qualified report may come as a surprise, for this is a country that has always invoked pessimism. All my life I have listened to apocalyptic predictions about its future, of how it would surely end in a bloodbath some day with the black majority rising up to wreak vengeance on their white oppressors, of black servants slitting their masters' and madams' throats in the night. Nor has it helped that Africa as a whole has a record of enough failures and human disasters to produce a general attitude of Afro-pessimism, to expect the worst even of the best.

The mood has also affected our own people who, as former Treasury chief Maria Ramos has observed, have a tendency to look on the dark side of the moon. One will not travel far in this country before hearing whites complain about affirmative action and black empowerment, about crime and falling standards and how everything is going down the tubes; or hearing blacks assert that in its eagerness to placate the whites the government has betrayed the revolution, that nothing has really changed, whites still dominate the economy and call all the important shots, that in the name of "reconciliation" they want to forget all the evils they committed in the past while yet retaining an attitude of superiority and contempt for people of colour.

All this is both true and false. True in that elements of these complaints exist on both sides; ten years is not enough to eradicate the attitudes and wounds and social damage that such a long history of inequality has wrought. False in that the whole social, political and legal environment in which all South Africans are living has been transformed, and it is that which is steadily, inexorably changing people's attitudes, relationships and economic opportunities.

The country and its people are being transformed daily before our very eyes, but like parents with growing children we hardly notice the incremental changes. It takes a visitor from outside to see how dramatic the change really is. "My goodness you've grown!"

This is not to overlook the failures, but as I note in my book, Beyond the Miracle, by any reasonable standard of judgment the balance between success and failure must come down on the side of success. We are a success story in a world that is going through a bleak phase.

To appreciate this, one need only think back to the stormy 1980s, with violence racking the black townships, and to the early nineties with factional war in KwaZulu/Natal province between supporters of the African National Congress (ANC) and Chief Mangosuthu Butlelezi's Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), with agents of the apartheid regime's security services constituting a "third force" which fanned that violence in an attempt to derail the political negotiations then taking place; with the far right-wing Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (Afrikaner Resistance Movement) bursting into the building where the constitutional negotiations were taking place; with a right-wing militia waging a bloody battle to try to seize control of the nominally independent tribal "homeland" of BophuthaTswana and use it as a base for launching a counter-revolutionary war; and with foreign correspondents streaming into South Africa to write their doomsday stories of the racial bloodbath that had always been predicted as the deserved fate of the apartheid state.

Recall that, then consider where we are now, barely 10 years later - a stable democracy that has already undergone three peaceful, free and fair national and local elections and is about to undergo a fourth; a country with perhaps the world's most progressive constitution, protected by a Constitutional Court that includes some of the world's finest jurists; with freedom of speech and the freest (if not the best) media in all our history.

Recall, too, the state of the economy back in 1994, an isolated siege economy on the edge of bankruptcy. When the new government took over it inherited a public debt of 254-billion rands (about 31,4-billion euros) which it had to service at a rate of 50-billion rands (about R6,21-billion euros) a year. Gross foreign exchange reserves were down to less than three weeks of exports, and the budget deficit had reached a record 8,6% of gross domestic product.

Since then the economy has been completely restructured. With the steep decline in both the value and production of gold, historically the main pillar of its economy, South Africa has had to become a manufacturing exporter competing in the challenging new globalised market-place. Despite these difficulties it has maintained an average annual growth rate of around 3% through a global recession that has seen all three of the world's major economies -- the United States, Europe and Japan -- in recession.

It is a country in which all schools, universities and other educational institutions, all health and other civic services, all living areas and fields of employment, are now racially integrated. Even the geo-political map of the country has been redrawn, to wrap the 10 little tribal bantustans into a single nation of nine provinces instead of four, and to incorporate the hundreds of sprawling black urban townships into their adjacent former "white" towns and cities governed by single municipal councils in which black councillors dominate.

It should be noted, too, that this is now a country ruled over by a black majority party, the ANC, which is one of very few in Africa not rooted in a tribal power base. South Africa has no majority tribe, so any party which commits itself to one, as Buthelezi's Zulu-based IFP has done, also commits itself to a minority role in national politics. From its birth 92 years ago when its founder, Pixley ka Seme, summoned the leaders of all tribes to an assembly to form an alliance to campaign against a law robbing black people of their land, the ANC has been a pan-tribal movement which later committed itself to the principle of nonracialism as well. This immunises the new South Africa from the destructive inter-tribal competitiveness that has blighted so many other African countries, from Nigeria to Zimbabwe to the Democratic Republic of Congo and beyond.

All this surely amounts to a significant achievement in the short space of one decade. Yet the biggest achievement of all is one that is seldom noted. To appreciate what it is, one should first have a clearer understanding of what apartheid really was.

Yes, it was about racial segregation and discrimination, as everybody knows. But it was much more than that -- much more than the long segregationist issue that afflicted the United States and with which apartheid South Africa was most frequently compared. Apartheid was not just about segregated schools and park benches and buses and lunch counters. At bottom it was a struggle between two ethno-nationalisms over the ownership of a country.

Whose country was South Africa? Afrikaner Nationalism claimed it as theirs. The Afrikaners saw South Africa as a white nation, pioneered by their ancestors and dominated by the white Afrikaners who numbered 60% of the white population. Pioneered, moreover, by ancestors who had come here on a divine mission to Christianise and civilise the "dark continent". South Africa was theirs by divine right, the theology of which was underwritten by the Dutch Reformed Church which declared that the Afrikaners’ right to their own separate nationhood was embedded in the Calvinist concept of the "Ordinances of Creation" and therefore immutable. And while the bulk of South Africa was to be this Afrikaner-led white nation, the black Africans were to exercise their nationhood, their "separate freedoms", in the ten little bantustans which together constituted 13% of the total land area.

For their part the African nationalists, the ANC, the Pan-Africanist Congress and Steve Biko's Black Consciousness Movement, all rejected that notion and claimed their right as an indigenous people to be full citizens of South Africa which in turn should be ruled over by the majority -- i.e. themselves.

That is what apartheid was really about. And where else do you find such a struggle over rival claims to the same piece of territory? Not in the United States, but in the Middle East between Israelis and Palestinians. Between the Catholics and Protestants of Northern Ireland, the Greeks and Turks of Cyprus, the Sinhalese and Tamils of Sri Lanka.

And how are they all doing? Not very well actually, because this is a particularly intractable form of conflict, far tougher than anything the American Deep South ever faced.

To appreciate the full scale of South Africa's achievement in this short decade, one should consider what the equivalent of the South African solution would be if applied to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Not the two-state solution of the Oslo Agreements or the so-called "road map," for those are segregationist, apartheid, solutions, as is divided Cyprus and the ethnically segregated former Yugoslavia.

No, a South African solution in the Middle East would see Israel itself, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank become one country ruled over by an elected majority, which some time around 2010 would be a Palestinian majority government with the Jewish people living in this Greater Israel as a minority group, albeit an economically dominant one.

If such a prospect should seem inconceivable to many, then that is the measure of South Africa's achievement. In achieving it the new South Africa has become a paradigm for a world riven by racial and ethnic strife. It has proclaimed a covenant of nonracialism in a world where we see Basques and Tamils and Serbs and Croats and Chechyens and Russians fighting bloody struggles to separate themselves. A frightening world of ethnic cleansing and religious fundamentalism.

But if all that warrants the headmaster’s comment of very good for a student from a broken home, there are the failures that he alludes to as well. The new South Africa has failed dismally, perhaps criminally, to confront the terrible HIV/AIDS pandemic that is taking a tragic toll on its population. It is beginning to do so now, but much harm has been caused by the years of denial.

South Africa has failed, too, to deal effectively with the crisis of economic collapse and tyrannical rule in neighbouring Zimbabwe. And on the domestic front, while some black people have advanced spectacularly in economic terms others have fallen further behind than they were before, so that the gap between rich and poor is now wider than ever.

In assessing all this, one must recognise that South Africa’s decade of democracy falls into two phases – the Nelson Mandela phase and that of Thabo Mbeki, two men sharply different from each other in personality, style and mandate.

Mandela, tall and regal, was brought up as a member of the royal household of the king of the Tembu tribe in Eastern Cape Province, a childhood that protected him from many of the humiliations of racial discrimination and gave him an inner security and a presence that has marked his personality ever since. He later went to university then to a law practice and active politics in Johannesburg, which overrode his traditionalist upbringing and stamped him as a thoroughly modern man.

But it was Mandela’s long imprisonment that really moulded his character. There he learned both humility and the importance of fellowship, but it was his close observance of the people who were imprisoning him that really shaped his political persona. The warders on Robben Island, where he was held for most of his 27 years of incarceration, were from the lower economic end of Afrikaner society – poorly educated, racially prejudiced and brutal in their treatment of black prisoners. Mandela soon realised that if he and his colleagues were to survive their maltreatment he had better get to know and to understand them.

So he set about studying them, learning the Afrikaans language, reading its history and its poetry and generally trying to get inside the heads of his jailers. As he did so he came to realise that fear was the driving force behind their racism and their brutality – the fear of being outnumbered and one day overwhelmed and becoming the victims of a retributive violence and cultural extinction.

Armed with this understanding, Mandela emerged from prison deeply aware of the Afrikaner “nation’s” survivalist imperative and its awesome military capability. He believed, more sharply than any of his colleagues, that the ANC’s dream of majority rule in South Africa would be stillborn unless key figures in the Afrikaner establishment could be persuaded that they had a secure future in it. And so, while he proved to be a tough negotiator, once in power Mandela cast himself in the role of the great reconciliator. He became the master of the grand symbolic gesture, appointing key members of the old security forces to top police and military positions, and paying courtesy calls on old enemies, including the court prosecutor who had sought the death penalty at his trial and the widows of former Afrikaner Prime Ministers and Presidents, including the chief architect of apartheid, Hendrik Verwoerd.

President Mbeki’s role has admittedly been a difficult one. It is tough to follow in the footsteps of a giant figure: perhaps in modern times only Harry Truman has managed it after Franklin Roosevelt, but then Roosevelt was dead whereas Mandela lives on, a huge magnetic presence who can draw public attention away from the President at every appearance. But Mbeki is also Mandela’s opposite in almost every respect -- short of stature, a reclusive intellectual rather than a charismatic presence, warm and charming in small groups but uncomfortable on public platforms, and a politician who hates open confrontation and deals with issues in a manipulative behind-the-scenes manner.

Above all, despite a superior intellect which he undoubtedly has, Mbeki reveals a curious insecurity that makes him hyper-sensitive to criticism and seemingly unable to admit to error or to change his mind.

Whereas Mandela was a hands-off President who delegated authority to his Ministers while he played the symbolic role of a chairman of the board, Mbeki is the totally involved chief executive who likes to run everything himself and tends to surround himself with courtiers rather than challenging advisers.

Their roles have also been different. While Mandela’s was the phase of racial reconciliation, Mbeki’s has been that of delivery aimed at improving the quality of life of the black population. Thus the last five years have seen an emphasis on affirmative action and black empowerment, which at times has caused resentment in the white community some of whom accuse the new President of abandoning nonracialism and turning to reverse discrimination.

The complaints may be understandable but they are essentially unrealistic. To imagine that the ANC government could have left the gross inequalities caused by apartheid in place is simply absurd, as is the suggestion that all appointments should be made purely on merit. Apartheid left behind a legacy of unequal education and skills levels and to insist that all should now compete on an equal basis would perpetuate the discrimination of the past. Government intervention to begin redressing that legacy of inequality is not only just but politically essential, and in the long run in the best interests of the whites themselves if they are not to suffer a backlash of bitter racial resentments.

To that end the Mbeki era has been marked by a policy he has described as “deracialising the economy,” which means negotiating charters with different sectors of the business community, setting targets for progressively increased black ownership in various sectors of the economy, from mining to manufacturing, financial institutions and the like. It is a revolution in itself, one of many taking place simultaneously in this rapidly transforming country.

The upside of Mbeki’s policy is that the “two nations” he spoke of at the start of his term, one white and rich the other black and poor, have been reconfigured. There are now as many rich blacks as there are rich whites, while the bulk of the black population remain poor. The downside is that the gap between rich and poor is wider than ever.

What is happening is that the old racial stratification of the South African population is being overlaid by a new class stratification. There is now an emergent multiracial middle class of growing affluence and a huge black underclass who lack the education and skills to enter the formal economy. It is this gap between rich blacks and poor blacks that is as wide as ever it was between white and black,.

Today Mbeki no longer talks of two racially different “nations” but of two economies which he likens to a double-storied house with no stairway between for those down below to rise to the top.
The challenge of his second term, which will follow next April’s elections with absolute certainty, will be to provide that stairway. Mbeki has already announced an extensive set of public works programmes on the lines of Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal” that helped America out of the Great Depression of the 1930s, and other innovative interventions are likely to follow.

Here again South Africa is a reflection of the world at large, where the forces of globalisation are making the rich richer and the poor poorer within countries as well as between them, and where innovative policies are needed if the wretched of the earth are not to lash back in fury with what has always been the weapon of the weak against the strong – terrorism -- and which has now found its own deadly accurate delivery system in the suicide bomber.

Thus has the old pariah nation of the world become its pathfinder.

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