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South Africa in Retrospect

Author: Princeton N. Lyman, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Africa Policy Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
September 14, 2006
Council on Foreign Relations



There are several ways by which to measure South Africa’s progress and prospects. One is of course to compare its achievements against the contemporary performance of other countries, using such indexes as that of Freedom House, the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals, or the performance of other “emerging markets.” In this regard, South Africa does rather well: rated “free” by Freedom House (one of only eleven states so rated in Africa), having a steady if not spectacular growth rate and having avoided the financial and banking crises of several other emerging markets, and ahead of many other developing countries in reaching the MDGs. Another is to measure South Africa against the challenges the country faces, for example whether the rate of growth is sufficient to cut into the high rate of unemployment, whether the programs to combat HIV/AIDS are equal to the magnitude of the problem, etc.  In this regard, the country fares less well. Growth rates have stayed within the range of 3-5% at best, whereas most estimates are that rates of at least 6% are needed to make inroads into the unemployment problem. South Africa provides anti-retroviral drugs to more HIV/AIDS victims that almost any other affected country outside the industrialized world, but most observers fault the government for obtuseness and denial in reacting to one of the highest rates and largest number of HIV/AIDS affected people in the world.

Another way, however, and the one adopted in this paper, is to measure South Africa’s performance against the expectations of the period when it was on the brink of emergence from the apartheid period. What did experts and informed observers predict for South Africa, given its history, its plethora of problems, and the challenges it faced? In this respect, South Africa’s record is in some senses extraordinary if flawed.

Peaceful or Violent Change

In the 1980s, whether looking at the fiction of writers like Nadine Gordimer and Mongane Wally Serote, or indeed much of the political writings of the time, the prospects if not the outright prediction was that South Africa would eventually undergo a bloody and perhaps devastating civil war. The war would bring about an end to apartheid but also perhaps a black dictatorship with dangerous prospects for the white minority. A distinguished panel of American experts warned in 1985 that “time was running out” for peaceful change. [i]  A liberal white writer, acknowledging the bankruptcy of the apartheid dream and philosophy nevertheless feared the worse for both blacks and whites. 

The townships are hell-holes because everyone is afraid…Garbage collectors are afraid.  Rent collectors won’t go near the townships.  Repairmen are afraid.  Residents are afraid….The black townships are a mass approaching criticality.  Everyone searches for a way of defusing them: the Afrikaners, the other whites, the moderate black leaders – even the less moderate black leaders have cause for fear.  No one yet knows if a way will be found. [ii]

Not everyone was so dire.  Already Nelson Mandela was sending signals that a post-apartheid South Africa would not tolerate black oppression any more than white.  The armed attacks of the ANC were in fact relatively limited and rarely aimed at civilians or  large scale loss of life – a far cry from some of the tactics of other movements in our time.  There was also movement within the apartheid government, seeking a new vision and disposition, leaders whom the Afrikaner write quoted above described as having “hearts large enough  to make the dramatic leap.”

In the 1990s, the predictions of chaos and mayhem gradually lessened as the process of negotiation proceeded and the leadership of Nelson Mandela and his entourage became manifest.  But they did not disappear.  Right up to the final days before the 1994 election, the resistance to the election from Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s Inkhata Freedom Party created the prospect of civil war after the elections, not dissimilar from Robert Mugabe’s brutal attack on Matabeleland in Zimbabwe with repercussions that last to this day. That threat in South Africa was averted in an almost bizarre series of events that brought Buthelezi into the electoral process at the last moment.

Still fears were evident. On the eve of the election of 1994, whites emptied the stores of paraffin, canned goods, and other emergency supplies. There were warnings that all services would collapse on the day after the election, that blacks might storm white neighborhoods and take over homes.  On the part of the blacks there were fears, right up to the day of the election that it might all come to naught.  Bombs at the Johannesburg airport on the morning of the first day of voting sent chills into many observers (including this one).  However, the security forces acted quickly to apprehend the bombers, the elections proceeded peacefully, and majority rule was established. Whites were soon relieved.  In the days afterward, and indeed the years afterward, life went on remarkably as it had before.  (The emergency supplies fortuitously were donated to Rwanda relief.) 

In the aftermath of the elections, the political violence that had wracked South Africa during the negotiations virtually disappeared. Buthelezi went on to serve in the national government as a minister for more than a decade and at times served as acting President. The military underwent a gradual transformation, without ever threatening a coup or overt political activity. Other problems arose or persisted, but there was no bloody civil war and whites would continue to enjoy not only freedom but continued economic superiority. Today these things are taken for granted. In the 1980s almost s no one would have predicted them.

The Prospects for Democracy

Once the questions of chaos and mayhem were put aside, the issues that took prominence were of what kind of rule could be expected from the new government.  And equally important, what would be its economic policies?  Even with the relatively peaceful transition and a constitution filled with guarantees of civil and human rights and various forms of citizen protection, there were worries that South Africa would follow the path of so many other African countries where one party rule turned increasingly into political autocracy, oppression and even brutality.  Even as fervent a supporter of the anti-apartheid movement as Trevor Huddleston voiced this concern.

It will also become obvious that the transitional period will be a struggle for political power, which history shows to be full of ethical and moral dangers.  African countries (like all other countries seeking national identity) since achieving political independence from their colonial masters, have all seen just how dangerous power can be.  South Africa will not be the exception. [iii]

The longer term viability of democracy was debated extensively among many scholars as well as pundits in the run-up to the transition.  Some democracy analysts like Donald Horowitz were pessimistic.  Horowitz argued in his 1991 book, A Democratic South Africa? that the intrinsic nature of liberation movements as well as the inevitable role of ethnicity would lead the ANC, once in power, toward autocracy.  Only strong institutional arrangements, such as federalism, would constrain it.  Others were more optimistic.  Stephen Stedman, Robert Price and others argued that the very use of ethnicity to divide people during the apartheid regime had discredited ethnicity and promoted a sense of national identity among black South Africans.  They also pointed to the emerging capacity for negotiation and compromise in the ANC, and the strength of civil society in South Africa as important forces in support of democracy. [iv]  Fears that South Africa would follow the history of other African countries down the path of autocracy and ethnic domination of one group over others have in fact proved unduly pessimistic. 

One of the key determinants of how matters would progress came in the agreement during the transition period to establish a set of principles that would guide all future constitutions and governments.  These principles would be monitored and enforced by a Constitutional Court.  The test however was what would happen once the ANC was in power.

The immediate cause for concern was if the ANC received a two-thirds majority in the Parliament, the number needed to amend the constitution. Would it then undo many of the most protective provisions of the constitution? Indeed, the number required for amending was one of the most contentious issues in the transition negotiations, leading in large part to the breakdown of negotiations in 1992 (de Klerk had pressed for 75 per cent).  In what most analysts believe was a behind-the scenes deal between Mandela and other leaders in the wake of muddled electoral returns, the ANC was awarded 62 per cent, alleviating these fears. But these fears have also been put to rest for the longer term – at least so far.  The issue arose again, when the ANC in 1999 specifically urged its supporters to give it a two-thirds majority.  However, the ANC promised at the same time to consider only “technical changes” to the constitution.  The ANC received more than the two-thirds majority needed in the 1999 election and again in 2004. But as promised, it has made no move to amend the constitution in any major way. 

Other tests of the viability of the democratic provisions of the constitution have been passed.  Twice AIDS activists have taken the government to court over the provision of anti-retroviral drugs.  In both cases, and in other cases before the Constitutional Court, the government lost.  Unlike in Zimbabwe where, after losing a case, the government forced the resignation of the Chief Justice, and has since basically emasculated the judiciary, South Africa’s government bowed to the courts’ judgment (if not altogether gracefully or with enthusiasm).  Justice Edwin Cameron, a champion of the provision of treatment and other programs for those with HIV/AIDS, began a recent address to an American audience by reminding them that “The first thing I want to emphasize is that South Africa is a democracy. Because it is a democracy we could take our case for treatment to court and win, and today treatment is being provided.”

While the government often bristles over press criticism, and raises worries by occasionally playing the “race card” in pointing to continued white ownership of major newspapers, the press remains free.  Civil society also remains vibrant, though receiving far less foreign support than it did during the anti-apartheid period. 

What is most worrisome for the long run is the utter failure of any other parties than the ANC to capture support among the black population.  The National Party had totally unrealistic dreams of eventually playing that role and has now virtually collapsed into the ANC!   But the once liberal Democratic Party has also failed, in part because it has chosen to position itself as a sharp critic of the ANC (and therefore in the minds of black voters critical of the liberation movement) and in part because of the ANC’s continuing claim on black South Africans’ loyalty.  Efforts by black politicians, like Bantu Holomisa, or leaders of the Pan African Congress, have been similarly unsuccessful.  The result is that South Africa is governed as almost a one-party state.  Only a serious split within the ANC would produce anything like a serious competition for power.  And how such a split would come about, and whether it would engender efforts to constrain the political process by those resisting the split is one of the remaining concerns. 

In the meanwhile, the ability of the ANC to dominate the Parliament’s agenda, and often its investigatory process, through its majority and sometimes strict enforcement of party  loyalty, reduces the checks and balances that are desirable. In particular Parliamentary investigations of government corruption and competence are inhibited. Much of the most serious debate over government policy and performance thus comes from within the ANC, a desirable process in itself but not sufficient for a truly open democratic system.

Economic Policy

The second major source of concern in the 1990s was over economic policy.  Many believed that the ANC’s history of anti-capitalist rhetoric, coupled with enormous expectations on the part of the black majority for post-apartheid benefits, would lead the ANC to resort to deficit spending, government control of the economy, and distributive policies that had proved ruinous in other African countries.  R.W. Johnson, one of the most consistently negative commentators on South Africa during this period (and beyond), stated it this way:

There is almost no power on earth which will prevent politicians (and certainly not ANC politicians) from taking large bags of money if their constituency is frantic for houses and jobs and the money is on offer.  There will, in other words, be almost inexorably a debt-led boom, with money poured into black housing, education, and welfare, into an increased public sector and, of course, into politicians’ bank accounts. [v]

Even more sympathetic observers thought the pressures on the ANC were irresistible.  Jeffrey Herbst wrote:

Once in power, the ANC will probably try to retain most of its constituency by widely distributing increases in government spending even at the cost of incurring a high deficit.  The historical pattern of trying to gain maximum popular support is so deeply ingrained in the ANC that it will have great difficulty shedding certain groups to avoid deficit spending. [vi]

The prognosis proved incorrect.  To the surprise of many, and indeed to the consternation of some of the ANC’s most important constituencies, e.g., the labor movement, the ANC led government proved almost paranoid in its fear of debt and determined to avoid the mistakes of other African countries it had witnessed during its long period in exile.  It resisted the earnest courting of the World Bank, eager to lend, taking full advantage of the Bank’s grant-funded  technical analyses but fending off any loans for years.  It similarly refused the seemingly generous (but high interest rate) offer of credits from Japan in the wake of the transition.  Instead it pursued a policy that put stabilization at the heart of its fiscal policies and met its dedication to increased social services through savings.  Thus in the first five years after Mandela’s election, the ANC administration reduced short-term foreign debt by 80 per cent, reduced inflation by an average of 15 percent to little more than six per cent, and by 2001 achieved perhaps the first budget surplus in decades.  At the same time, more than nine million people were given access to clean water, and 1.5 million people gained electricity.  One million houses were built through subsidies and support of new mortgage systems, rather than direct government expenditure.  Free lunches were provided to all school children, and free medical care to mothers and children. [vii]

Unfortunately, these policies, applauded by the World Bank, the IMF and most economists, failed to generate the level of growth or investment that had been expected.  A widely publicized set of economic scenarios produced during the transition period had predicted that while a burst of deficit spending would produce a short-term boom it would lead to a later economic downturn, while such policies as the ANC adopted would in a few years produce growth rates of 6-7 per cent.  Throughout the balance of the 1990s, however, growth averaged no better than 3 per cent.  In the formal sector a half million jobs were lost.  Foreign direct investment was only one third to one-tenth that in other emerging markets.  South Africa learned that profuse congratulations on the relatively peaceful end to apartheid, and promises of great post-apartheid support, did not in fact translate into positive decisions by the foreign business community. At a conference of the leaders of the European Union in 1998, Nelson Mandela was urged to take advantage of all the praise being expressed to ask the leaders to open their checkbooks.   With a wry smile, Mandela replied, “They have no ink in their pens.” [viii]

Nevertheless, despite deepening criticism within the ANC, and a growing demand for more expansive economic policies, the ANC has remained committed to the same basic economic policies. A recent assessment by the IMF noted that inflation was now being held between 3-6 percent, the South African Reserve Bank was maintaining a flexible exchange rate system while continuing to build up international reserves, external debt had declined, and the fiscal deficit had fallen to 0.3 per cent of GDP. The conclusions of the IMF assessment sum up South Africa’s achievements and the predicaments of such policies quite well:

Supported by well designed macroeconomic policies and structural reforms, growth in recent years has been strong, inflation had remained within the target band, and employment has increased. The public finances are sound, and international reserves have been rebuilt. Directors noted also that South Africa continues to face important challenges over the medium term, including reducing high unemployment [the IMF noted that the rate of unemployment had remained unchanged], inequality and poverty, and staunching the HIV/AIDS epidemic…. Directors considered the economic outlook for South Africa is broadly positive. Continued solid policy implementation and favorable external conditions should establish the foundations for sustained growth.[ix]

It cannot go unnoted here that in 1994, the representatives of the IMF were among the most openly critical and pessimistic about South Africa’s future economic policies and prospects under an ANC regime.

There is no doubt that the conservative economic policies followed by the government are now the most divisive issue within the ANC. They form the core (at least substantively) of the competition between President Mbeki and the supporters of his erstwhile Deputy President Jacob Zuma. Some of the implications of this debate will be discussed below. But first it is important to note that these relatively conservative policies have not kept the government from greatly increasing spending on social services and the poor. To the contrary, such expenditures have been significant, but financed by reduced debt and better tax collection. For example, in 1998, 24% of tax revenue went for debt servicing, in 2005 it was 14% and by 2009 it is predicted to drop to 10%.

In the meanwhile there have been significant achievements since 1994. Electricity has been extended to 3.5 million homes, water supply infrastructure now reaches 90 per cent of the population, 3.9 million poor households now receive free water and free basic electricity reaches 2.9 million homes.  More than 1300 clinics have been built and 2300 upgraded, and health services now receive 101 million patient visits a year. School fees will be phased out in low income communities in 2006. [x] Problems surely remain, and on a large scale, but the amount of progress, within conservative fiscal policies, is admirable.

But perhaps most significant, for maintaining minimal incomes and perhaps even more for stability, is the provision of direct social security and social assistance grants to vulnerable households. Alone among developing countries, South Africa provides a “safety net” for the poorest. These grants have been the fastest growing category of government expenditure since 2001 and now amount to R70 billion (around $10 billion) a year, or 3.4 per cent of GDP. They reach more than 10 million beneficiaries, nearly one quarter of the population. Social grants account for more than half the income of the poorest 20 per cent of households. [xi] Added to these grants are the pensions that go to every retired schoolteacher, nurse, or other government worker, on which many households depend (pensions between whites and blacks, unequal in the apartheid period, were equalized as one of the first acts of the ANC regime).


These social programs have undoubtedly contributed to the surprisingly extended “window” of opportunity for the government to address, what has not yet been able to address sufficiently, the high rate of unemployment, the deep levels of absolute poverty, and the continuing and glaring inequality between the incomes and economic ownership of whites versus blacks.

If widespread economic benefits were slow to come, some analysts had in 1994 predicted that the country could become unstable in a matter of a few years.  The population, they said, would grow disillusioned with the ANC.  The proliferation of arms in the region would be further cause of concern. 

The nature of a significant portion of the ANC’s constituency suggests that it will have a relatively short grace period before it is under extreme pressure to deliver the political goods.  … South Africa’s population is highly politicized and there are already numerous politicians and groupings around which aggrieved urban residents can coalesce….A further aggravating factor, in contrast to most other African countries at independence, machine guns, mortars, and land mines are readily available in South Africa because of the long armed struggle, the regional arms markets that developed from the conflicts in Mozambique and Angola, and the greater local capacity to produce weapons.  Thus, a future South African government will face a much more demanding population that is more concentrated, easier to organize, and better armed than was the case in the rest of the continent. [xii] 

The material changes for most black South Africans did not in fact improve dramatically in the first several years of Mandela’s presidency and for many they are still dire today.  But the fears of instability and disillusionment also proved unnecessarily dire.

During the run-up to the election, most people spoke of black expectations and white fears, i.e. black expectations that there would be immediate gratification in terms of houses, jobs and other material benefits, and white fears that this would cause attacks on white privileges and even physical attacks on their person and possessions.  But an astute observer of South Africa at the time voiced a different concern, of white expectations and black fears: white expectations that nothing would change and black fears that they were right.  That has turned out to be closer to the truth.   Ten years after the transition, whites continue to enjoy wages and benefits far greater than blacks, hardly any diminution in their standard of living, and indeed to continue to own the vast majority of the nation’s wealth.  South Africa’s growing array of modern shopping malls and luxury hotels are largely filled with white South Africans and tourists.  While there is a steady growth in the black middle class, the vast majority of black South Africans continue to live in sub-standard housing, suffer unemployment at rates between 27 and 40 per cent, and barely crack the senior levels of management outside the government. 

However, the predictions that this would cause unrest, or at least a turning away from the ANC, have proved wrong.  Polls and surveys have continued to show that black South Africans have a remarkably sophisticated view of how long it takes to alter such basic social and economic conditions, while basking in the new freedoms and absence of oppression that the transition has brought about. 

In some ways the polls defied the analysts looking at them.  Writing a preface to the description of polls and focus groups conducted from 1992-1998, Padraig O’Malley – not an unsympathetic observer –wrote:

Not that things were falling apart.  For that to happen they would have to have been together in some way, and in South Africa they never were.  Once the repression that held the country together was removed, once the glue that held the separate bits of separate peoples together, they had gone their separate ways, each committed to the pursuit of its individuals, with little sense of a common cohesiveness, other than a generalized selfishness in the face of the needs of others. [xiii] 

Yet the polls showed something quite different, and constantly defied the pundits.  In 1992, the surveys suggested the vast majority of blacks would not flock to the polls in the first truly democratic election.  Yet in 1994 the turnout was overwhelming.  Six months after the election, another survey found that the fashionable belief among “many politicians, journalists, business people and academics” that the new government would be unable to meet or manage popular aspirations was unfounded.  Instead the survey conducted at that time found that while people were disappointed with the pace of change, there was not widespread discontent with the government.  “Rather the findings suggest that the public is considerably more aware of the limits facing the new government, more realistic in its expectations than conventional wisdom holds.” [xiv]

In 1996, a survey found that general satisfaction with political developments had dropped from 76 per cent to 45 per cent.  For economic matters, the drop was from 51 per cent to 34 per cent.  The pundits were quick to see the worst:

As a result, the mood on the ground is gradually becoming more adversarial, more impatient with the slow delivery of the most basic needs (water, sanitation, housing) the governments’ failure to support community development initiatives, and the continued day-to-day experience of unemployment and poverty. [xv]

However, a closer look at the data revealed that pessimism was higher among the whites, whose income and lifestyle was more vulnerable to market forces such as rising interest rates and market instability.  For the vast majority of the population, these factors did not touch their lives.  Not surprisingly, the same survey found that while white consumer confidence dropped in this period, black consumer confidence did not.  Moreover, none of this changed voter attitudes toward the various parties.  While responses indicated a drop in favor of the ANC, attitudes toward other parties did not change and the ANC continued to reap an undiminished share of the vote.

Differences in perception among whites, Asians, and blacks continued through the 1990s.  The political gains since 1994 dominated the overall positive view of black South Africans, while issues such as crime were at the top of white and Indian concerns.  For blacks the issue of jobs came to dominate, but it did not generate a negative view toward the government as a whole.  For all parts of the population, the country had settled into relatively normal politics.  Focus groups in 1998 expressed the following:

One the one hand, voters protest the insufficient level of change to their lives.  On the other hand, they have settled into the business of elections and democratic representation.  They often have highly critical assessments of government, but cherish the notions of elections and the electoral power afforded to them.

Voters protest the fact that “so little has changed in their lives.” Yet all participants in these groups, especially black South Africans, acknowledge the value of human rights, human dignity, and political power.  These are the victories they hope to consolidate.  Elections and voting are the means through which they envisage the consolidation will happen. [xvi]

Predictions that disappointing economic performance might turn people away from the government, especially disillusion blacks from the ANC, continued to be proved wrong.  The issue of jobs did rise steadily as the number one issue among blacks as formal employment declined and few inroads were made on overall unemployment.  There was also growing despair by the end of the 1990s.  Especially at the community level, people complained that they still lacked basic services, that where such services were installed they lacked the jobs to pay for them.  Church leaders complained of the collapse of moral fabric.  “Something has gone terribly wrong, said one judge.  “It seems there has been a collapse of moral fibre.  Maybe the new freedom is being interpreted in the wrong way.” [xvii] 

Despite these complaints about the pace of change, and especially the lack of jobs, the population continued to show remarkable patience and understanding:

They criticize but their criticisms are tinged with an understanding that the demands on government are enormous, that government needs more time, and the inexperience in office often contributes to mistakes being made.

Despite their disappointments that democracy did not deliver more, faster, the voters continued in their dreams for a “better life.”  They commonly agree that a second chance should be given to the existing government to accomplish the better life that they are still dreaming about.  There is hardly any perception that government is not trying.  The catch phrase is that government should be trying even harder. [xviii]

No armed resistance to the government rose either.  Violent crime, ignored by the apartheid era’s security forces, did burst its bounds from the segregated townships into the major cities, often abetted by corrupt police officers – the first two senior police officers assigned after 1994 to combat carjacking in Johannesburg were found to be in collusion with the hijackers. While whites expressed far more concern over crime than blacks, blacks were in fact the primary victim of it.  Despite the fact that the Constitutional Court had ruled capital punishment illegal under the constitution, a large majority of South Africans – black and white –now favor it. 

But, with the exception of some white right diehards and an extreme Muslim group, none of the violence in South Africa after 1994 was politically motivated or connected.  Populist leaders who did challenge the ANC on its lack of progress in social and economic matters – Winnie Mandela, Bantu Holomisa, the Pan African Congress – never undertook to form armed followings.  A serious problem with political overtones was drug trafficking.  This did give rise – or rather excuse – to an extreme Muslim group named PAGAD, to engage in a form of vigilantism to combat drug traffickers in the Cape flats.  Later the group was accused on bombings of several night clubs in Cape Town and its leaders were arrested.  Its motives were, however, unrelated to general economic conditions and in no way linked to the majority population.

The economic debate has most recently surfaced into a major competition within the ANC and threatens at least some mass protests and possible violence. At heart is the battle over succession to Mbeki in 2009 and the control of the ANC. Rallying around Jaob Zuma, who had been dismissed from his position as Deputy President on corruption charges, the unions and the Communist Party within the ANC are demanding much more expansive fiscal policies, with more government spending on public works, social programs and the like, backtracking on privatization (on which the government has not been very fast in any case), and generally a more populist set of policies and programs. It is too early to know the outcome of this competition. But it is unlikely to destabilize the country, only perhaps lead closer to what many believe is inevitable, a split within the ANC into a more moderate/conservative business-oriented wing and a left leaning populist one.

Angst: The Black Middle Class, the Black Wealthy, and the Soul of the ANC

One aspect of this growing debate over economic policies is whether the policies and programs followed by the government have produced real transformation in the heritage of inequality of apartheid or instead simply profited a small well-connected elite of blacks some of whom are now billionaires (in Rand terms) and others who are part of a growing but still seemingly elite black middle class.  The recently enunciated policy of Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) is designed to extend the transformation that has taken place up to now to an ever broader number of blacks. It requires every business sector to meet targets over the next ten or more years for equity, management, general employment, and other facets of both opportunity and ownership for blacks.

BEE is a political response to the criticism over earlier affirmative action programs, which seemed to have benefited most of all a small elite. But it is also a recognition that over time much broader equalization of ownership and opportunity for the majority black population is essential both for stability and long term economic growth. Today black-owned businesses account for but 3.3 per cent of the capitalization of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. Unemployment, concentrated among blacks, continues to hover between 26 and 41 percent.

This paper does not attempt to assess the specific policies and processes of BEE. But behind the debate over BEE is a deeper one within the ANC, one that will affect the future of economic policy and perhaps political direction of future administrations. And ironically, one can most easily examine this debate within the policies and the psyche of President Thabo Mebki.

Some years ago, in the annual Oliver Thambo lecture, Mbeki shocked some business leaders with an attack on the “black bourgeoisie.” He accused the up and coming black business community of selling its soul to white capitalistic ethics and principles rather than retaining a more singular racial identity and more socially oriented outlook. A few weeks later Mbeki made amends to the business community assuring it that the speech did not herald a shift in the economic policies of the administration.

The irony is that Mbeki’s policies have been directed precisely to helping build a black middle class and black entrepreneurs. Large amounts of government funds, together with government-supported bank loans, went into “empowerment” deals that shifted corporate control over several companies to black owners. The government’s explanation of BEE defends the policy. Acknowledging the criticism and shortcomings of these efforts, the government nevertheless contends:

We have also seen a black middle class emerging, which is a necessity for the success of government’s overall goal of achieving transformation of our economy. This black middle class has been credited for being the key drive of growth in some of the sectors of our economy such as the monumental increase in car sales, property sales, and the much talked about consumer boom currently being experienced. [xix]

Yet deep within Mbeki’s mind there is something dangerous in the very policies he has so assiduously followed. In the Nelson Mandela Memorial Lecture he delivered on July 29, 2006, he returned to his earlier concerns. This time he railed at the very heart of capitalism as the cause of the distortion of values among the newly enriched South Africans.

The new order [in South Africa], born of the victory in 1994, inherited a well-entrenched value system that placed individual acquisition of wealth at the very center of the value system of our society as a whole. …Society assumed a tolerant or permissive attitude towards such crimes as theft, corruption, especially these related to public property.  The phenomenon we are describing, which we considered as particularly South Africa, was in fact symptomatic of the capitalistic system in all countries.

Quoting Karl Polanyi, Mbeki went on:

…The capitalistic market destroys relations of kinship, neighborhood, profession and creed, replacing these with the pursuit of personal wealth by citizens who have become atomistic and individualistic.

And then he concludes in this portion of his speech:

Thus, everyday, and during every hour of our time beyond sleep, the demons embedded in our society, that stalk us at every minute, seem always to beckon each one of us towards a realizable dream and nightmare. With every passing second, they advise, with rhythmic and hypnotic regularity – get rich! get rich! get rich!

But here is the irony, the dilemma that faces this and every future South African government that seeks to retain its more radical or at least populist roots. After this long and emotional attack on capitalism, Mbeki refers to “the undoubtedly correct economic objectives our nation has set itself.” South Africa will continue to have to wrestle, within their souls, like Mbeki, and within their policy decisions, with the dynamic tension between what are undoubtedly sound, business-oriented economic policies, and the deep desire for something new and more dramatic than the ways of middle class and even richer folks who will direct the economy those policies produce.


The AIDS crisis was not unknown in the 1990s.  Indeed by 1994, the handwriting was on the wall.  While estimates at the time were probably low – 550,000 infected – the rate of increase was not:  a doubling of infections every 13 months.  The U.S. Center for Disease Control predicted that if unchecked, the number of persons infected by 2000 would be more than five million.  The prediction was close to the mark -- the UNAIDS estimate in 2000 was just over 4 million. 

At the beginning of the Mandela administration there was optimism that the issue would be addressed.  In 1992, Nelson Mandela had opened the first conference of the National AIDS Committee of South Africa (NACOSA), a government and civil society body that was charged with coming up with a national program.  In 1994, Mandela appointed Nkosazana Zuma as Minister of Health.  Dr. Zuma had headed one of the NGO’s dedicated to addressing the HIV/AIDS crisis and was chair of NACOSA.  An AIDS newsletter wrote at the time:

The commitment of Dr. Zuma, the new South African Minister of Health, and her staff to the fight against HIV is beyond question.  She has announced a multi-million rand program against AIDS and we expect she will get most if not all of it. [xx] 

Alas, these early hopes were to be disappointed.  Dr. Zuma’s program became bogged down in a controversy over funding for an anti-AIDS musical.  President Mandela did not return to the issue for the rest of his term.  A national program was begun but with limited funding and little widespread participation.  By the end of the decade, the whole issue had become embroiled in controversy.  In 1999, President Thabo Mbeki questioned the scientific basis of the link between HIV and AIDS and suggested that western countries were pressing governments on the issue in order to make countries like South Africa dependent on western pharmaceuticals which they could ill afford.  Mbeki saw the emphasis being placed on HIV/AIDS as a diversion from the basic need for poverty alleviation and at a minimum from the need for basic health services which the vast majority still lacked.

While Mbeki was raising important issues relevant to the connection between poverty and susceptibility to AIDS, and the importance of linking HIV/AIDS programs to the wider need for basic health services and development – points since accepted in international circles – his stance created conflicts and confusion within the governments’ own programs.  As noted, the issue pitted activist HIV/AIDS NGOs against the government and resulted in court cases regarding the availability of anti-retroviral drugs.  It remains one of the most controversial issues in South Africa and in South Africa’s international relations.

The irony is that today South Africa budgets more for HIV/AIDS than most affected countries in the world. It has placed more people under treatment for AIDS, 175,000, than any other developing country. One commentator has even suggested that the slow, cautionary approach the government has taken to introducing treatment – now available in 192 hospitals and clinics – will avoid the development of drug resistant strains and other mishaps that are taking place in countries that rushed into treatment with inadequate infrastructure and poor oversight.

But the face of South Africa’s AIDS policies, the Minister of Health, has constantly discredited herself and her country by touting unproven “natural” remedies, downplaying the very crisis she is charged with addressing, and continuing thereby to send mixed messages to a population that has yet been engaged sufficiently to changes its practices and outlooks that underlie the pandemic. One of the principal aspects of this is the treatment of women. Only recently, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the 1956 women’s march on government, has President Mbeki recognized that South Africa has largely neglected the degree of violence and intimidation and desperation that mark the lives of many of South Africa’s women.  In 2003, there were 52,425 official reported rapes, a third of the estimated actual number. 40 percent of the victims were 18 years or younger. The conviction rate for rape was 7 per cent. [xxi]

South Africa and the world

There was little question that South Africa, once free of apartheid, and with an economy far greater than much of Africa put together (South Africa produces 60 per cent of the continent’s electricity) would lay a major role on the continent and beyond.  Vice President Al Gore, at Mandela’s inauguration, warned the new president that he would be called upon around the world and should be careful to husband his energies for the immediate tasks at home. But the United States was one of the first to make that appeal, in 1995 asking for South Africa to send security forces to Haiti, and the rest of the world was not far behind. 

Mandela resisted getting too heavily involved, lending his moral authority more than South Africa’s resources to far flung conflicts and demands.  But from the beginning, South Africa assumed a major role in the region, joining the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) and helping transform it from an economic entity to one that addressed political and security issues as well.  South Africa soon learned, however, that prestige alone would not enable it to control such alliances.  In 1998, Robert Mugabe hijacked SADC’s incipient security organ to commit, on behalf of SADC, military forces into Congo, against Mandela’s wishes.  Mandela was forced to endorse the intervention as a means to regaining leverage over SADC and the Congo situation. 

If South Africa moved cautiously at first in asserting itself across the continent, by the end of the 1990s, South Africa was embarked on a series of engagements that would put it at the center of almost every peace and security issue on the African continent and soon at the center of Africa’s political and economic policies.  The spread of South Africa’s governmental influence was accompanied and abetted by the expanding role of South African business.  By the first decade of the 21st century, South Africa had emerged as the largest foreign investor elsewhere on the continent.

Not long after the transition, South Africa became the chair of SADC, the chair of the nonaligned movement (NAM), the leader of the G-77, a member of the UN Security Council, and host to numerous international conferences.  Nelson Mandela would become the chief arbiter of the Burundi peace process and Thabo Mbeki would emerge as a major figure in bringing about an end to conflicts in Congo, Liberia, and Cote d’Ivoire.

Once engaged well beyond its borders, economic power was one asset for South Africa, but military power was also essential. Two issues were of concern in the 1990s about South Africa’s military capacity.  One was how well the South Africa Defense Force (SADF) would be integrated with the liberation forces – most writers concerned themselves with the MK (the ANC’s armed wing) but in fact the first black leader of the army would come from APLA, the armed wing of the PAC – and the impact on internal stability.  Would a new defense force be free of “Third Force” elements that had carried out covert actions against anti-apartheid leaders and sought throughout the transition negotiations to instigate violent conflict between the ANC and the Inkatha Freedom Party?

A related question was whether South Africa would pose a security threat to its neighbors.  Laurie Nathan, one of South Africa’s most astute security analysts, expressed concern that without a change of culture the South African military force, dominated by the old SADF leadership, would alarm neighboring countries.   

In [Nathan’s] analysis, continued SADF control of the new defense force could mean the continuance of the military’s potential to destabilize and disrupt; a low level of legitimacy in the perception of the masses; and feelings of suspicion and insecurity in Southern Africa as a whole, particularly among Frontline States.  Countries like Mozambique and Angola that have had to divert vast resources to defense may be inhibited from substantially reducing force levels and military spending. [xxii]

These fears were perhaps exaggerated with regard to neighboring states.  But the integration of the military did not go entirely smoothly.  Mandela made the decision to keep de Klerk’s chief of the SADF, General Meiring, in his post and disciplined ANC members who resisted direction from their white officers.  But Mandela eventually dismissed Meiring over a confusing report of a coup attempt and step by step the new South Africa National Defense Force (SANDF) has come into being.  Its legitimacy at home has not been a serious problem.  Third Force elements appear to have been removed.  The ANC further mollified military leaders with a huge purchase of military equipment that has on the other hand caused much controversy, not only over the expense but because of charges of corruption.

The original assumption was that South Africa could safely reduce its military expenses.  But that assumption did not take into account the growing demand for South Africa’s political role on the continent and a concomitant demand for participation in peacekeeping.  By the late 1990s, UN and related peacekeeping on the African continent was exploding.  New international peacekeeping forces were being deployed in Sierra Leone, the Central African Republic, along the Ethiopia-Eritrea border, and eventually in Liberia, Burundi, Congo, and Sudan.  At the same time, South Africa’s political role on the continent and the world was expanding.  Soon South Africa was called upon to play a major military role as well. 

An abortive intervention in Lesotho, under SADC auspices, demonstrated that the SANDF was neither as strong nor as well trained for interventions or peacekeeping operations as some had assumed.  But in subsequent years, South Africa has deployed peacekeepers to Burundi, Congo, Darfur, and elsewhere.  On the whole, these deployments have been very effective.  But the growing number of SANDF members with HIV/AIDS poses a serious limitation on the South Africa’s ability to maintain this role.  One estimate is that South Africa cannot deploy more than 3,000 personnel abroad because of the prevalence of HIV/AIDS.  A second problem is the recent charges of misconduct (rape, prostitution) affecting South African along with other contingents in the UN peacekeeping force in Congo.  Older cultures seem to have lingered within the SANDF, with reports that South African officers summarily rejected any cooperation with the UN investigating the charges. 


The ANC government has defied nearly every prediction in instituting economic policies that were at heart conservative: reducing rather than taking on debt, bringing down inflation, lowering rather than raising taxes, eschewing any forms of nationalization, and even instituting some programs of privatization.  All the while expenditures on health and education, on support of housing, electricity and clean water were able to rise.  The policies produced stability and even helped South Africa weather the worst of the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s.  But they failed to make even a dent in unemployment.  They did not result in anywhere near the levels of foreign direct investment that some had hoped.  Growth moved along for a long time at no more than 2-3 percent, more recently 4-5 per cent, rather than the 6 per cent or more that most analysts believed was necessary.

Pessimists about the strength of democracy have also been proven wrong. Democracy has been institutionalized, with no signs of either ethnic divisiveness nor any trend toward oppressive government.  A new constitution after the 1994 elections retained the basic principles of the interim constitution, established various instruments to protect human rights, and an independent Constitutional Court whose decisions have been respected.  A second election went smoothly in 1999, a third in 2004.  The ANC has emerged even more strongly as the dominant party, raising a serious concern over the lack of a credible opposition, and limiting somewhat the independence of the Parliament in which the ANC is dominant.  The relatively incomplete investigation into possible corruption in relation to arms purchases was an example.  Nevertheless, the press remains free and lively debate continues to characterize South African politics.

South Africa has become almost inevitably a major player on the continent.  As its political role expanded, so too did its economic reach and its military role.  Whether South Africa can retain or rebuild enough military capacity to maintain this degree of involvement and influence is not yet clear. 

On the negative side, problems of crime, drugs, and above all AIDS ran rampant in the first ten years of freedom, partly because they were more than a new government could handle, partly because the government failed to act sufficiently.  AIDS has become one of the most divisive and challenging issues of the next century.  The lingering problems of inequality in wealth distribution between whites and blacks, the slow progress in reforming the dysfunctional education system, and joblessness will put steadily more pressure on the government in the decade ahead, posing challenges to both government and the private sector.

As one observer commented in 1999, contemplating the end of Mandela’s presidency:

When he retires from office in June 1999, Mandela will leave a South Africa full of contradictions, with enormous social and political challenges to overcome, a South Africa still in the process of transformation, a South Africa not yet out of the woods, not yet one in which democracy has fully taken root, although the vine is ripening.[xxiii]

One can say seven years later that while the path out of the woods has been rather faithfully followed, there is still more forest ahead and more vines to harvest.

[i] Study Commission on U.S. Policy Toward South Africa, South Africa: Time Running Out, (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1986.

[ii] Marq de Villiers, White Tribe Dreaming, New York, Penguin Books, 1987, p. 361.

[iii] Trevor Huddleston, Return to South Africa, London, Fount Paperbacks, p. 138.

[iv] Stephen John Stedman, ed., South Africa: The Political Economy of Transformation, Boulder, CO, Lynne Rienner, 1994, pp. 12-13, 24, 187-88.  

[v] R.W. Johnson, “When That Great Day Comes,” LondonReview of Books, July 22, 1993, p. 9.

[vi] Stedman, p. 38.

[vii] Princeton N. Lyman Partner to History:  The United states Role in South Africa’s Transition to Democracy, Washington DC, United States Institute of Peace, 2002, p. 257.

[viii] Quoted on O’Malley, p. 133.

[ix] IMF Executive Board Concludes Article IV Consultations with South Africa, Public Information Notice No. 06/102, September 7, 2006.

[x] Trevor Manuel, Minister of Finance, Budget Speech 2006, pp. 4-5.

[xi] Ibid, p. 4.

[xii] Stedman, pp. 37-38.

[xiii] Padraig O’Malley, ed., Southern Africa:  The People’s Voices, National Democratic Institute of  International Affairs, Cape Town, 1999, p. 117.

[xiv] Ibid, p. 130.

[xv] Ibid, p.151.

[xvi] Ibid, p. 162

[xvii] Quoted in Ibid, p. 174.  For polls on jobs and other issues, see pp. 188, 190.

[xviii] Ibid, p. a58.

[xix] Department of Trade and Industry Deputy Minister Thabethe Addresses in South Africa, September 20, 2005.

[xx] AIDS Analysis Africa, Southern Africa Edition, Rivonia, South Africa, Aug/Sept. 1994, p. 2.

[xxi] Amnesty International, Summary of South Africa, 2004.

[xxii] Stedman, p. 148.

[xxiii] Padraig O’Malley in Ibid, p. 194