South Africa in crisis (part 1): race and history may yet shred Mandela’s dream
13 Sep 2018|

Focused on big events and inconsequential forms of entertainment, the West’s news media have never been good at reading international trends—still less in this age of presidential tweets and micro attention spans. And Africa fares worse than most, with trivialities—such as the demise of Cecil the lion at the hands of an American dentist—outstripping serious reporting by a magnitude of 10 to 1 or more.

It’s of little surprise, then, that South Africa—a cause célèbre in the 1980s and ’90s—has largely dropped off the radar, save the odd story about white ‘genocide’ and indignant counternarratives about the country’s complexities and ‘far right’ simplifications.

Complex it certainly is. But make no mistake about it, South Africa is in crisis. The systemic problems it faces are multitudinous—among them, declines in GDP growth for every year bar three since 2007, population growth of 8 million in the same period, and an unemployment rate of over 38% for 15- to 34-year-olds. That’s just a small sample, and one that elides entire categories like stratospheric levels of corruption and crime.

But these massive developmental challenges—which would test the most cohesive societies and competent governments—are, increasingly, not what most exercise South Africans and their political leaders. Instead, the national conversation is unswervingly centred on race and the past. And therein lies the more profound crisis. Twenty-five years after the end of apartheid, Nelson Mandela’s ‘rainbow nation’ is sliding deeper into a Manichean vortex that threatens to rip South Africa’s trembling foundations asunder.

It’s not that there aren’t glaring discrepancies, rooted in history, which are there for all to see. As the World Bank notes, South Africa is, by any measure, one of the most unequal societies on the planet. In 2015, 47% of households headed by blacks were poor, while it was less than 1% for whites. The average wage for whites is nearly three times that for blacks, who constitute almost three-quarters of the labour force, and inequalities of wealth between the races are even more pronounced. Geographically, the worst poverty is concentrated in the townships and former black ‘homelands’, areas reserved for blacks under the apartheid system.

Those who bear the weight of such persistent imbalances need few reminders of their reality. And few with any sense contest the urgent need to address them. Yet it is the groundswell of angry, populist solutions—and the mythologies that instruct them—which imperil South Africa and may render its poor far worse off than they already are.

Land is the latest vector through which the toxic race debate passes and—like a virus—reemerges more virulent. White commercial farmers continue to own the majority of the country’s agricultural land, providing equally fertile ground for the political demagoguery of what purports to be the radical left, represented by Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). He has succeeded in mainstreaming the issue: in February, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) voted in favour of an EFF parliamentary motion to amend the constitution, allowing for the expropriation of land without compensation.

Amid the ugly debate that has followed, typified by an unrestrained social media storm—#givebacktheland, et al.—voices of reason have struggled to point out the many contradictions that mar the demand for ‘radical transformation’ through ‘land reform’. These include the fact that almost two-thirds of South Africans live in urban areas and stand to gain nothing from transfers of rural land. It’s also a fact that the government’s data are in a shambles. No one knows precisely how much land is owned by whom—or how successful the ANC’s pathetically small land reform program has been in alleviating the poverty of its beneficiaries.

The more perceptive commentators have recognised that the ferment over land is not fundamentally a technical issue. For many, it’s more about taking something from whites than it is about giving something to blacks. The ANC—facing an election and a crisis of legitimacy akin to Robert Mugabe’s when he launched Zimbabwe’s ‘fast-track land reform’ 20 years ago—also appears to recognise this sentiment. That’s why it now insists that land is South Africa’s most pressing social matter, despite its own internal research showing that land reform doesn’t rank in the top five.

South Africa is, perhaps inexorably, drowning in an identity quagmire that emphasises collectivist moral binaries more than it does developmental imperatives. This represents a quantum shift away from Mandela’s nation-building vision—and a slide back into the abyss of race-based notions of value, virtue and guilt that made apartheid what it was. The increasing denigration of Mandela as a ‘sell-out’ who pandered to white interests is a sure sign of how tenuous South Africa’s future has become.

The problem with junking his unifying approach is not only moral but pragmatic. Even for those who, like their former oppressors, care not a jot for the injustices of group punishment, there will be an economic whirlwind to reap if the rights of the individual to property and due process are thrown to the wind. It is possible to wreak vengeance on a minority, but it’s simply impossible to do so without demolishing the trust of the investors, domestic and international, on whom any hope of a broad-based anti-poverty initiative depends. President Cyril Ramaphosa’s current attempt to have it both ways—promising to unwind the willing seller, willing buyer principle on land, while seeking US$100 billion in new investments—is a fool’s errand.

The ultimate reasons why South Africa has reached this point are convoluted and numerous. But one thing is sure: if the nation does not resile from its headlong rush towards punitive collectivism, it will disintegrate in ways that will condemn its people to generations of poverty.