Monday, February 15, 2010

South Africa at 20: It Is Still An Astonishment But For Different Reasons

A foreign journalist's perspective, largely valid.

“We astounded the world in 1990 and in 1994, and we shall do so again,” wrote former South African president F.W. de Klerk on the 20th anniversary of the day in February, 1990 when he announced the end of the apartheid system. But in 1990 and in 1994 the astonishment was about the fact that disaster had been avoided, and even now it is not astonishment at the country’s success.

South Africa has the second-highest murder rate in the world (after Colombia), the education system is one of the worst in the world, and AIDS accounts for 43 percent of all deaths. It may be true that South Africa is doing better than was expected, but that only shows how low expectations were when Nelson Mandela was freed from prison twenty years ago this month.

It took four years of tough negotiations between the apartheid government and the African National Congress (ANC) before the first election in which non-whites were allowed to vote, and many people had grave doubts that a peaceful transition was even possible. Indeed, the most common question I heard at the time was: will there be a civil war?

It was exactly the same question I had heard so many times when I was covering the collapse of the Soviet Union a couple of years earlier, from frightened people who hoped that a foreign journalist might know the answer. I always said no, there will not be a civil war, and I turned out to be right both times, but I must admit that I was less confident in the South African case. There was certainly a lot more shooting in South Africa.

In the end, South Africans’ shared interest in a peaceful and prosperous future triumphed over racism and tribalism—and a fairly peaceful and prosperous future is what they got. There have been two lawful and orderly changes of president since Mandela took office after the 1994 election—and with only six percent of the population of sub-Saharan Africa, South Africa accounts for more than a third of its GDP.

However, it is not exactly an economic miracle. As the only industrialised country in Africa it has always towered over the rest of the continent economically, but its growth rate in the past 15 years has been only a modest improvement on the near-stagnation of the later apartheid years. A new black middle class has emerged, but the gulf between the comfortable minority of all colours and the poor black majority has only widened.

South Africa does not control its borders effectively, and the result is that at least 10 percent of its population are undocumented foreigners. Most come from nearby countries like Zimbabwe and Mozambique, but there are significant numbers from as far away as Nigeria. They are often better educated and more enterprising than the locals, and the resentment of poor South Africans exploded into vicious anti-immigrant violence in May, 2008.

There will almost certainly be further violence unless most of the illegal immigrants are sent home, but the ANC says that it owes the other countries of southern Africa a debt of gratitude for having given its members shelter during the years of the anti-apartheid struggle. Those countries now depend heavily on remittances from their citizens who are in South Africa illegally, and the ANC cannot bring itself to expel them.

That is a high-sounding moral motive that we can all admire, but the presence of the illegal immigrants also serves to divert the anger and envy of poor, black South Africans from the homegrown middle class, black and white alike, that has been the real beneficiary of economic growth since 1990. Almost 40 percent of black South Africans are unemployed, and they are well on the way to becoming a permanent under-class.

These are the people for whom the state boasts that it has built three million new homes since the end of the apartheid, but almost all of them are cramped two-room houses in the typical township style. More millions of these houses now have electricity, water, and sanitation services—but a huge proportion of the people in them don’t have jobs, mainly because they lack skills that are relevant to a modern, developed economy.

Education for black South Africans was always poor, and during the final fifteen years of constant anti-apartheid protests there was a “lost generation” that scarcely went to school at all. The end of apartheid should have changed all that, but it didn’t. The money was spent on providing houses and services to keep people quiet, not on building a school system that would give them a future.

According to the World Economic Forum, South Africa’s education system ranks 119th out of 133 countries. Only a quarter of South African children finish high school, and a mere five percent go to university. Most of those high school graduates and university students are now black South Africans, but the country is becoming a two-tier society with a hereditary under-class that gets only the crumbs from the table.

The thing about South Africa that is truly astonishing these days is that the poor put up with it.

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