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A Flourishing Democracy Takes Root in South Africa

Author: Max Boot, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies
March 22, 2004
Weekly Standard


HAPPILY, I do not recall writing anything about South Africa in 1994 when the country adopted majority rule. If I had, I would no doubt have parroted the prevailing wisdom of sophisticated circles: There goes another one. Another African country descending into the heart of darkness. Another place where the economy will get trashed, ethnic violence will break out, and the middle class will flee.

There was every reason to believe this would be the case. The African National Congress was stacked with card-carrying Communists, many of them trained in the Soviet Union. Like so many other "liberation" fighters, once they grabbed power, they would surely be as oppressive as their colonial predecessors. The press coverage of the 1994 handover called to mind the cliché, "one man, one vote, one time."

Well, that was 10 years and two general elections ago, with a third due on April 14. It's time to acknowledge how wrong the naysayers were. A flourishing democracy has taken root in South Africa's rocky soil. A government of former Communists and trade unionists is pursuing fiscal and monetary policies that could have been designed by Goldman Sachs. Whites haven't been hounded out of the country; instead, some who emigrated in the past decade are trickling back.

In a local newspaper, Rian Malan, a prominent Afrikaner writer, recently issued a giant mea culpa: "On this day, 10 years ago, I was hiding gold coins under floorboards and trying to get my hands on a gun before the balloon went up. As a white South African, I was fully expecting war as right-wing Boers and Bantustan chiefs conspired to annihilate Nelson Mandela's people. . . . In my view, peace would never come. There was too much history, too much pain and anger. . . .

"What's it like now? . . . This is a question I've been dreading, but if you must know, it's amazing: peaceful, stable, one of the fastest-growing tourist destinations on the planet. In season, buses park on the road above our house, disgorging foreigners who gape at the view, dumbfounded, then turn their binoculars on us, clearly wondering what it's like to live in this paradise."

That is pretty much my impression, too, having just spent a week in South Africa, along with some other American policy wonks, as a guest of its government. Cape Town, the country's second-largest city and one of two capitals (Pretoria is the other), is a bit like San Francisco: full of trendy cafes, secondhand clothing stores, young people with pierced eyebrows, and world-class restaurants. Nearby are green vineyards, brown hills, and beaches with sand as white as the old ruling establishment.

The placidity of Cape Town comes as a bit of a surprise to anyone who has followed the country only through the news media. Whenever you read about South Africa, the news tends to be negative— mainly AIDS and crime. Those problems are very real, but so is South Africa's progress. The "South African miracle," as some are calling it, upsets the smug assumption that democracy is fit only for a small club of mainly Western countries. This prejudice, once limited to the political right, is increasingly prevalent on the left. "Progressive" reactionaries screech that Iraqis, for one, aren't ready for self-government. Granted, South Africa was much better prepared for the transition than Iraq, but it's sobering to recall how many people were equally pessimistic about its prospects a mere decade ago.

When apartheid fell in 1994, there was a widespread expectation that the ANC would turn the country upside down— punish the whites, take their wealth, and redistribute it to the oppressed masses. Nothing of the kind happened. ANC leaders who had spent decades in exile across Africa had learned much from the mistakes of other postcolonial governments. They decided to chart a different path, and in Nelson Mandela they had a leader with sufficient stature— the kind that comes from spending 27 years in prison— to ignore the demands of the militants.

Instead of Nuremberg-style tribunals, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission was set up whose goal was to document the crimes of apartheid, not to punish the guilty. Only a handful of the worst apartheid thugs have been jailed.

Instead of redistribution, the government focused on economic growth. A number of state-owned enterprises were wholly or partially privatized. Farm subsidies were eliminated. Tariffs and taxes were reduced. The South African Reserve Bank has pursued a tight monetary policy that has reduced inflation from almost 10 percent in 1994 to 4 percent today. The rand has appreciated against other currencies including the dollar. The government is now relaxing exchange controls. The only monetary blemish is that interest rates remain high— about 11 percent— which economists here attribute to an unwarranted "risk premium" being demanded for South African bonds in leery foreign markets.

On the fiscal side, the government has reduced the budget deficit from 10 percent of GDP in 1994 to 2.4 percent in 2004— lower than in the United States. Unlike almost every other African country, South Africa has low foreign debt. It doesn't need World Bank or International Monetary Fund handouts, or the bossy foreign bureaucrats who come with them. The government finances itself with a tax burden that consumes 28 percent of GDP— lower than in Europe, about the same as the United States. Corporate and capital gains tax rates are lower than in the United States. Helped by the lifting of sanctions, South Africa has been growing at 2 to 3 percent in recent years. The economy is no longer entirely dependent on exports of diamonds and precious metals. The manufacturing sector, led by foreign auto companies like DaimlerChrysler, BMW, and Toyota, has been growing fast, and so has the service industry.

With a per capita GDP of $9,409 (adjusted for the cost of living), South Africa is richer than Russia, China, Mexico, Turkey, or Poland, to say nothing of the rest of Africa. That's the good news. The bad news is that the gap between haves and have-nots is the size of the Kalahari Desert. South Africa's income inequalities are exceeded only by Brazil's. About 15 to 20 percent of the people (mainly whites) are as rich as any First Worlders; the rest are as poor as any Third Worlders.

Just a few miles outside Cape Town, with its gleaming office towers and luxury hotels, are shanty towns of almost unimaginable squalor. In one giant township, Khayelitsha, most of the 500,000 blacks live in handmade shacks of tin and sheet metal. The vast majority lack electricity, and they're lucky to have an outhouse. A typical hut is less than 40 square feet— the size of a walk-in closet in one of the seaside mansions located a few miles away. This is the kind of place where wild dogs and little children roam the dusty lanes, men sit around drinking beer at midday, and the mamas do the laundry by hand.

Similar shanty towns surround all of the major cities. The government's focus since 1994 has been on improving basic services in these townships. And, driving around Khayelitsha, one can see utilities going up, small stores opening, and some stucco homes replacing the tin shacks.

The one thing the government has not been able to deliver is enough jobs; more than 30 percent of the population is unemployed. It would have been easy enough to organize giant public works and welfare schemes but, as Zola Skweyiya, the minister in charge of social development, puts it, "We do not want to create a syndrome of dependency on the government." (How often do you hear talk like that in the developing world?)

The government has been pushing a Black Economic Empowerment program, whose goal is to transfer 25 percent of land and businesses to blacks over the next 10 years. Like most affirmative action schemes, this has mainly benefited the middle and upper classes, making tycoons of many well-connected former ANC big shots. There's nothing especially wrong with this, but the impoverished masses have been left behind.

The ANC has shown commendable restraint in not pursuing the redistributionist schemes urged by its left-wing coalition partners, the Communist party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions. The question is whether the ANC will continue resisting calls for Zimbabwe-style land grabs even if the majority remains desperately poor. In all probability it will, so long as President Thabo Mbeki and his close associates remain in charge, but the continued existence of mass poverty casts a shadow on the country's future. Such extreme deprivation, existing in close proximity with great wealth, is a proven incubator of various social pathologies.

Since 1994, South Africa's crime rate has spiked to among the highest in the world. In the last few years, it has at least stopped rising and stabilized, though at very high levels; a few categories, like murder, have seen small reductions. Attacks on whites receive a disproportionate share of media attention, but most crime is black on black. Whites have taken refuge behind walled compounds plastered with security company stickers promising "armed response." The government, which had initially focused on revamping the security services, is now fighting crime by increasing police funding and manpower.

The AIDS crisis has also been a story of disaster followed by a conscientious if belated response. South Africa has more people with HIV than any other country: some 5 million of its 45 million people, of whom about 500,000 have full-blown AIDS. Mbeki, who has governed since 1999, was dismayingly slow to address this epidemic. Even as hundreds of thousands died, he publicly mused about whether HIV really caused AIDS and whether anti-retroviral (ARV) medications were really effective. As a consequence, only about 30,000 South Africans are now getting ARVs, almost all of them from private health plans.

Finally, late last year, under pressure of public protests endorsed by Nelson Mandela, Mbeki unveiled a comprehensive AIDS prevention and treatment program that includes handing out free ARVs. But even now the government is showing little urgency. Mbeki made only one passing mention of AIDS in his State of the Nation address in early February, and his health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, continues to suggest that beetroot, ginger, and other folk remedies are as important as cutting-edge drugs.

The government's dilatory response to this public-health disaster underlines some of the weaknesses of South African democracy. The ANC controls 66 percent of parliamentary seats and seven of nine provinces (the last two it rules in coalition with other parties). Its members of Parliament have little independence. They are all selected by the party central office and run in nationwide elections; they are not elected by local constituencies, as in Britain, where backbenchers can challenge and even overthrow their leaders. In South Africa, the president's displeasure can end the career of an ANC MP, and so the MPs are afraid of crossing him, even when, as during the AIDS crisis, he has displayed terrible judgment.

There is no chance of the ANC losing the next election or the one after that. For the foreseeable future South Africa seems destined to be a one-party democracy like India prior to the 1990s or Japan today. This is far from ideal, but freedom can be maintained by vibrant civil institutions, which, fortunately, exist in abundance in South Africa.

A number of opposition parties, led by the Democratic Assembly, which appeals mainly to whites, sit in Parliament and fiercely criticize the ANC. So do many newspapers. There are also plenty of nongovernmental organizations; one of the most effective is the Treatment Action Campaign which led the fight against AIDS. And then there is the independent judiciary. The Constitutional Court has ruled against the government in many cases, including one in which it required the use of ARVs to treat pregnant women with HIV. A lower court ruled against black squatters who had illegally occupied white-owned farmland, Zimbabwe-style; they were forced to vacate.

Opposition politicians may gripe that the government is highhanded and arrogant; some even say they have had their phones tapped by the intelligence service. But there is no sign of the kind of repression evident in other struggling democracies such as Russia. Public debate is free-wheeling and often vitriolic. No one from President Mbeki on down is spared criticism. And opponents of the government have no fear of winding up in jail or the morgue.

The most inspiring thing about South Africa is that there seems to be so little rancor. From Yugoslavia to Rwanda, ethnic groups have exacted a brutal revenge on those who once victimized them— but not in South Africa. In the township of Imizamo Yethu, south of Cape Town, we met a community leader named Kenny Thokwe, who, as an ANC activist, was in and out of jail during the 1980s. One of his closest friends was shot to death by an apartheid policeman, he says, yet when he visits his hometown, he shares a beer with the very same man, his former oppressor, his friend's killer. "We learn to forget yesterday," Thokwe says. "We forgive them. Our enemies are our friends now."

This spirit has helped make South Africa an example to many of its neighbors. President Mbeki has emerged as the leader of the new African Union, which he organized to replace the ineffectual Organization of African States. (He beat out Muammar Qaddafi for the AU presidency.) He has also launched NEPAD (New Partnership for Africa's Development) to help other states establish freedom and prosperity. Many South African firms are doing business across the continent, and South African soldiers have been dispatched as peacekeepers to Burundi and Congo. During a private meeting with our group, the nattily dressed president said that a number of other African leaders, from Congo to Nigeria, have been calling him for advice.

Sadly, Mbeki has not used his influence to counter the brutal policies of his neighbor, Robert Mugabe. Even as repression and famine sweep over Zimbabwe, Mbeki refuses to condemn Mugabe's assaults on private property, the judiciary, and the free press. Mbeki has actually described Zimbabwe's rigged 2002 elections as "free and fair." He argues that his soft approach, seeking negotiations to ease Mugabe out of office, will be more effective than the confrontational style of Britain and the United States. But it is also the case that Mugabe is popular with ANC militants who like the way he's socked it to whites. And Mbeki has to stay on the good side of those ANC militants. But if he fails to negotiate a peaceful end to the crisis in Zimbabwe, Mbeki will pay a heavy price— not only in chaos spilling across his northern border, but also in lost credibility as the leading statesman of Africa.

It is very much in America's interest for Mbeki— who is said to have a good relationship with George W. Bush— to emerge stronger than ever. Africa's problems have taken on added urgency since 9/11, as outsiders realize its most disordered states are breeding grounds for international terrorism. And yet there is little willingness in the United States to commit the money and manpower to straighten out Liberia, Sierra Leone, Congo, and Somalia. Our best bet is to encourage the emergence of a few regional hegemons to spread liberal values. Based on its track record so far, South Africa appears to be the best candidate for the job.

Max Boot is Olin senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and a weekly columnist for the Los Angeles Times.

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