Sunday, March 04, 2007

On South Africa: An Article from "The Economist"


This article from "The Economist" arrived yesterday from my friend Vuyisile Nkomo, South African cardiologist living and working here in Rochester. It paints a powerful picture of the economic and political landscape of present day South Africa. I encourage you to read it, and reflect on the many issues present in a country struggling in it's early democracy, after years of the oppressive apartheid rule. Clearly, there is much hope and promise that exists. Simultaneously: so much that plagues the nation.
In my contemplative work, as writer, Christian, teacher, global citizen, this article raises numerous questions:

What is our power?
As citizens of the wealthiest nation on the planet?
As human beings called to a live a particular life and honor the universal charge to be aware...?
How does this tale relate to our own country's history? (As Americans or citizens from abroad?)
What can we learn stepping into an arena to pose our own questions and have the courageous conversations on race, class, privilege, governmental systems, justice?


I know a number of you saw the production "Amajuba" at the Walker last weekend, offering a powerful performance of the actors' personal narratives growing up in the apartheid era. With my own dear friend, Auntie Mo Dabula arriving next month from the Eastern Cape, this article provides a larger context for all of us receiving her.

I invite you to read and weigh the following as another way into the landscape, heart, circumstances, and situations of a people abroad, and a people right here.

Love, Peace,

Mar 1st 2007

Africa's richest country, not yet free of demons, is facing a year of

THE township of Soweto, Johannesburg's largest, was once a byword for violence and black deprivation. Look at it now. In the Diepkloof neighbourhood, shiny new cars are parked next to elegant houses protected by security systems. Shopping malls are planned, banks have
opened and tourists are coming. New bars and restaurants stay open all night, drawing in the rich blacks who now live, during the week, in quiet suburbs of Johannesburg that used to be all-white.

Even the poorest corners of South Africa now look better. Roads are being paved. People who were left in the dark and cold by the apartheid regime, which ended in 1994, now have lights, a roof over their heads and access to fresh water. Flush toilets are replacing buckets. Black
South Africans are pushing up property prices and propelling the economy in general; black economic empowerment, brought in to redress the injustices of apartheid, has spurred the creation of a small but wealthy black business elite.

The economy is now growing steadily, at almost 5% last year; inflation has been tamed; investment is looking up; trade has been liberalised; and public debt has been cut by half since 1999. In his budget last week Trevor Manuel, the finance minister, announced a surplus for the
first time in history. Another is expected in the coming year. A whopping 2 trillion rand ($285 billion) will be spent in the next three years, mainly on social services and infrastructure, and a social security system will be set up, all being well, by 2010.

South Africa now has an efficient constitutional court, a free press and active watchdogs--from a vocal (if small) political opposition to a crowd of think-tanks, campaigning groups and civic organisations. Flushed with virtue, the country that used to be an international
pariah has become a mediator of conflicts in such cockpits as Burundi and Congo. President Thabo Mbeki was a driving force behind the creation of the African Union and the New Partnership for Africa's Development, which (if only it were brave enough to challenge Robert
Mugabe in Zimbabwe) is meant to foster an African renaissance.

The country's influence extends beyond politics. Large South African companies, once corralled by international sanctions, have turned into proper multinationals. South Africa, which has 6% of sub-Saharan Africa's people but accounts for more than a third of its GDP, has a diversified economy and first-world financial services. Nigeria's economy, the next-largest in sub-Saharan Africa, is three times smaller.

The reaction to Mr Mbeki's state-of-the-nation address last month, however, was not as upbeat as all that. This is a young, vulnerable democracy, and democratic ways still need to grow much deeper roots. The next general election is in 2009, but much of the country's future will be decided this year: the ruling African National Congress (ANC) will thrash out policies in June and almost certainly choose its next leader in December.

A good economic performance has failed to make much difference to the lives of millions of South Africans. Although half a million jobs are being created every year, unemployment remains stubbornly high at 25%--or, on a broader definition, close to 40%. Almost half the
population are poor; around a quarter get government handouts. The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and the Communist Party, the ANC's allies, argue that the government's economic policy has been far too business-friendly.

The government has also come under fire both at home and abroad for its catastrophic handling of HIV/AIDS. The virus now infects 5.5m people, affects many millions more and kills close to 1,000 people every day. Failure to see disaster coming in the mid-1990s was later compounded by Mr Mbeki's blinkered views of the disease--and he still cannot bring himself to say that HIV causes AIDS. The health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang--a fan of beetroot, garlic and traditional medicine--was temporarily replaced this week as a strange lung infection confined her once again to hospital. She too has been attacked for giving muddled advice about anti-retroviral drugs.

Under much pressure, the government has now made anti-retrovirals
available to around 250,000 people. Although campaigners argue that this roll-out is far too slow, two people--the dynamic deputy president, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, and the straight-talking deputy health minister, Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, are breathing new life into the official response. Activists and the government talk to each other these days, though new AIDS infections show little sign of abating.

Crime also remains a serious worry. In Soweto recently Thato Radebe, a 14-year-old schoolgirl, was raped, stabbed and stoned to death near her home. Her body was found in the veld with condoms, bottles and sticks around it; the whole community was shocked. Ever more government money is being thrown at crimefighting, to little effect. Though official
numbers, now almost a year old, show a slow improvement in most crime rates, violent crime remains among the worst in the world, with more than 50 people killed every day and a serious assault every two minutes. Armed robberies have spiked dramatically over the past year.

The government's generally respectable policies, backed by a plump budget, are often defeated by weaknesses in the civil service. It inherited a fragmented administration whose main purpose was to deliver superior public services to the white minority, while keeping other
South Africans under the apartheid boot. The democratic government tried to create a unified, efficient bureaucracy that would reflect the new political dispensation. In the process, many experienced white civil servants left or were pushed out.

This has changed the face of the administration, but severely hurt its ability to deliver at every level. Ministries, hospitals and schools are struggling to hire enough skilled people; many prefer the better salaries and working conditions of the private sector, or are going abroad. Municipalities, half of which are in serious trouble, are finding it harder to deliver basic services, let alone to expand provision of water, sanitation and electricity.

Angry demonstrations last year made it clear that the poor are frustrated. The left wants a change of economic direction and more government intervention, and to some extent this is occurring. A plan to accelerate economic growth and share wealth was announced last year.
The government and various state-owned enterprises have embarked on a programme to spruce up infrastructure, not least in time for the football World Cup in 2010 for which South Africa, to its delight, is host nation. The final will be played in Soccer City on the outskirts
of Soweto, where the country's biggest stadium is being rebuilt and roofed to take the crowds.

The real ticket out of poverty, however, is education. One of the worst legacies of apartheid has been inferior schooling for South Africa's black majority. Plenty of government money has been pumped in, but with slim results. Although enrolment is up, the schools fall far short of
what is needed. One international survey ranked South Africa last of 45 countries in science scores, behind Ghana and Botswana.

The government's frustration is evident in the way it handles
criticism. Critics are often denounced as racists or "coconuts"--black
on the outside but white on the inside. People who "whinge" about crime
are told that they should leave the country; those who do leave are
called traitors. Debate feels more stifled than a decade ago.

The increasing centralisation of power is also disturbing. The
president--who leads both the country and the ANC--now chooses not only
his own ministers, but also provincial premiers and mayors of large
cities where the ANC has won a majority of the votes. That used to be
the job of the local party. Parliament needs to put on some muscle to
become a better check on the executive. As it is, state institutions
risk becoming extensions of the ruling party. Political pressures on
the South African Broadcasting Corporation are undermining its

Fighting within the ANC may also be weakening institutions. The
National Intelligence Agency has been racked by a scandal involving
unauthorised surveillance and allegedly fake e-mails suggesting a
political conspiracy to prevent Jacob Zuma, the former deputy
president, from getting the top job. The agency's head has lost his job
but is fighting back; the whole mess smells of political dirty tricks.

Reports of conflicts of interest or outright corruption surface
regularly. This shows that the country's watchdogs are alive and
barking, but also that public office is too often seen as a way to get
rich. Some politicians and government officials move into business with
worrying speed. Black economic empowerment (BEE), which, among other
things, encourages companies to hive off a slice of equity to blacks,
has been accused of mainly helping a lucky, well-connected few, rather
than nurturing entrepreneurs and creating jobs. Revised rules, which
should spread the benefits more broadly through procurement, employment
and social programmes, are at least some improvement on how things have
been done in the past.

Mr Mbeki deplores what he sees as the relentless pursuit of personal
enrichment. The ANC is making new rules to clarify the fuzzy line
between party and government jobs on the one hand and business
interests on the other. The sacking in 2005 of Mr Zuma when his
financial adviser, Schabir Shaik, was convicted of fraud and corruption
was generally applauded. Yet many South Africans feel that the fight
against wrongdoing is not even-handed.

The main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), has largely
failed to capitalise on these shortcomings. It has built its base by
appealing to the white and Coloured minorities. So far, only one-tenth
of its electorate is black. Until it reaches black voters, who make up
80% of South Africa's 47m people, the DA--which is to choose a new
leader this year--has no prospect of coming to power.

The main opposition comes from the left-wing ranks of the ruling
alliance itself. (No doubt the ANC's leaders think with horror of
Zimbabwe or Zambia, where the opposition to liberation movements
ultimately emerged from trade-union ranks.) The Communist Party has
been making noises about running its own election campaigns. The ANC's
trade-union allies have criticised the government's handling of
Zimbabwe, HIV/AIDS and BEE. Both complain that they have been sidelined
by Mr Mbeki's centralising rule. But for all their posturing, and
despite lively rumours, neither group is likely to part company with
the ANC for some time yet.

Unless the lot of the poor improves faster, pressure from the left
will become ever harder to resist. Calls for a more pro-poor,
pro-labour stance strike a strong chord with the party's rank and file.
The battle should come to a head in June, when the ANC debates a policy
platform ahead of the party elections in December. Since the party
dominates South African politics--with 70% of the vote at the last
general election--its next boss is more or less guaranteed to become
president in 2009.

Disagreements over economic policy and leadership style have now
crystallised around the political succession--and Mr Zuma, who remains
the ANC's number two. He was cleared of rape last year, and charges of
financial shenanigans were kicked out of court in September. Mr Zuma's
most ardent supporters, mainly within the left-leaning ranks of the
ruling alliance, maintain that these trials were political devices to
prevent him from becoming South Africa's next president.

Mr Zuma's chances rest on three things: a court case, support within
the ANC, and the alternatives. The National Prosecuting Authority has
not ruled out reviving the corruption charges. This would kill his
chances only if he is found guilty; otherwise, perceptions of
victimisation would probably boost his popularity.

His standing within the party is hard to gauge. ANC leaders in KwaZulu
Natal, his home province, have said he is their presidential candidate.
So has the ANC Youth League. Elsewhere, it is a toss-up. Party
branches--and, after them, the party's regional and provincial
outfits--nominate candidates for the top ANC jobs, including the
president, and also choose delegates to the party conference that
elects them. As many of these branches are revived for the campaign,
trench warfare is likely to erupt over the succession.

The support of the party bigwigs is also vital. Traditionally only one
candidate is left by the time the presidential vote takes place at the
party conference. Potential candidates are not even supposed to say
they are up for the job. Recent allegations that Tokyo Sexwale, a
prominent businessman and a former provincial premier, has been
canvassing for support were slapped down by party leaders. Even Mr
Zuma, known for his loud singing, has been rather quiet lately.

He is charismatic, charming, and can stir up a crowd--especially a
Zulu crowd--like no one else. Yet many people, both inside and outside
the ANC, are aghast at the thought that he might be president. The
cloud of suspicion related to the fraud and corruption charges has not
yet faded, and he has shown serious lapses of judgment (including
believing that a quick shower could protect him from HIV infection). A
pragmatist to the core--or perhaps shameless populist would be closer
to it--Mr Zuma seems much cleverer at saying whatever people want to
hear than at formulating a policy and sticking to it. This makes him a
skilled negotiator and peacemaker, as he showed when he intervened in
the early 1990s in KwaZulu Natal, then on the brink of civil war. But
according to Raenette Taljaard of the Helen Suzman Foundation, a local
think-tank, he would be "a malleable, pliable president"--and one who
might be too inclined to endorse the interventionism the left is
pleading for.

Other names are also mentioned. The party's secretary-general, Kgalema
Motlanthe, is considered a potential compromise candidate, but his name
has been linked--rightly or wrongly--to the trouble at the National
Intelligence Agency. Cyril Ramaphosa, a former trade unionist turned
businessman and a key negotiator in the democratic transition, could
make a political comeback, but may not please the left. The deputy
president, Ms Mlambo-Ngcuka, is mentioned; but she owes her political
fortunes to Mr Mbeki, and probably does not have enough standing of her
own within the party.

Lastly, not impossibly, the shrewd and technocratic Mr Mbeki might
stay. The ANC leadership in the Eastern Cape has called for him to seek
a third term as party leader. Mr Mbeki, who has to step down as
president after two terms, may be tempted to remain in the party post,
which has no time limit.

Whoever he or she turns out to be, the next president will have to
rebuild bridges not only within the party, but also within the country.
The warm and generous feelings of Nelson Mandela's time have receded,
and Mr Mbeki has failed to paint a vision to inspire South Africans of
every creed and colour. Both the government and the opposition have
played the race card when it suits them. Pieter Mulder, the leader of
an opposition group called Freedom Front Plus, recently remarked: "We
do not know each other and do not debate with each other."

South Africa's democracy is young, and its institutions still need to
be nurtured, protected and shaped. The space for debate needs to be
broadened, and race relations handled with care. Racial fractures did
not disappear with apartheid, and the followers of political parties
can still largely be divided into black and white. Fewer Indians and
Coloureds have been showing up to vote, indicating that many have not
found a political home.

The astounding success of a recent song about Koos de la Rey, a famous
Boer general during the war against the British, is raising many
eyebrows. Some fear that the old-fashioned nationalism of the
Afrikaners (whites of European descent) is raising its head again. But
Tim du Plessis, the editor of an Afrikaans newspaper, argues that
Afrikaners are merely migrating to a new space, between dead-end
radicalism and ANC co-option. He points to a young, post-apartheid
generation of Afrikaners reclaiming and reinventing their identity,
unburdened by their parents' guilt.

In his candid speech last month, Mr Mbeki appealed to South Africans to
help eradicate "all that is ugly and repulsive in human society". He
regretted that South Africa's ability to unite in pursuit of a
"commonly defined national agenda" was still in question. But solving
the problems of crime, AIDS and unemployment requires just such unity,
as well as a fresh approach, and the government needs to get better at
bringing everyone on board. It is with this daunting task in mind that
the ANC must choose its next president.

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