from Africa in Transition

Remarks on Morning in South Africa

June 15, 2016

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The following text is the entirety of John Campbell’s speech delivered as part of the Department of State’s Ralph J Bunche Library Series, on June 8, 2016. 

From a certain perspective, South Africa is a mess. Many South Africans are disappointed by the way the country has seemingly squandered its promise as the ‘Rainbow Nation.’ Under the Jacob Zuma presidential administration, the country is treading water with respect to poverty and addressing the lasting consequences of apartheid. Corruption is rife. You can read all about it in the Mail and Guardian or the Daily Maverick.

As a person, Jacob Zuma is very far from Nelson Mandela. He is mired in scandal. There was the misuse of public funds on his private house, Nkandla, including a swimming pool billed as a “fire retardant feature.” There is the rape charge. Though he was not convicted, much of the public believes him to be guilty. The public prosecutor may reopen the numerous charges of his personal corruption with respect to arms sales. His cronies, the Gupta brothers, have been meddling with high level government appointments. There is fear that Zuma and the people around him are seeking to undermine South Africa’s model constitution to advance their own financial interests.

The general sense of squalor is captured by a joke that is making the rounds. It goes like this:

Snow White, Superman, and Pinocchio were out for a walk in the enchanted forest. They saw a sign for a contest for the most beautiful woman in the world. Snow White promptly entered. A half hour later she rejoined her friends and announced she had won – hands down.

They walked on and came to another sign, a contest for the strongest man in the world. Superman promptly entered. A half hour later he rejoined his friends and announced he had won, “aced it.”

They continued to walk, and came upon a third sign, this time for a contest for the greatest liar in the world. Pinocchio, up to now feeling left out, perked up and announced that with his nose, he would enter and certainly win.

A half an hour later he rejoined his friends, who asked how it went. Through his tears of disappointment, Pinocchio could only say, “Who on earth is Jacob Zuma?”

Yet, I have written a book with the core argument that despite the corruption and incompetency of the Zuma administration, the country’s democratic institutions are strong enough to weather the current period of poor governance. Just as the United States weathered Richard Nixon in the past, and perhaps will be required to weather another deeply flawed personality in the future, South Africa can weather Jacob Zuma and his cronies. In both countries there is an independent judiciary, a free press, and strong civil society based on the rule of law. The book is called Morning in South Africa. In the spirit of the Tappet Brothers shameless commerce division, the easiest way to get it is on Amazon.

The book is aimed at American readers who stopped paying attention to the South African story after the 1994 election and Nelson Mandela’s inauguration. I hope to bring them up to speed on what has happened since, and to assure them that as rocky as things might appear now, the country’s “deeper truths and better angels,” in Simon Barber’s words, remain intact. Politically the country is a fully functioning democracy with among the best protections of human rights in the world.

Morning in South Africa, the title, recalls the theme Ronald Reagan used for his re-election campaign in 1984, “it’s morning in America.” Which, if you were black and poor, or a union organizer, or an anti-apartheid activist, it certainly was not.

Nonetheless, Reagan’s optimism was infectious and the slogan did reflect a broader national reality. What with Watergate, defeat in Vietnam, stagflation, energy shortages and the Iran hostage crisis, the ‘70s had been difficult. Relatively speaking, things were looking up at the end of Reagan’s first term.

I mean the title of the book to capture a similar ambiguity about South Africa; there are grounds for a parallel optimism notwithstanding Jacob Zuma and the slow pace of economic and social change since the end of apartheid.

The book opens with an orientation to the history of South Africa and certain of its parallels to that of the American south. A review of current demographic trends highlights the persistent consequences of white supremacy and apartheid.

Whites continue to have much longer life spans than everybody else, a reflection of their access to better education and health services. For whites, it is about the same as in Israel or Russia; f or blacks, in Nigeria or Cameroon.

The book includes a discussion of education, health, contemporary politics, and land reform with an eye as to how South Africa’s democracy is responding to thorny challenges.

The book highlights the strength of constitutionally mandated institutions, the rule of law, and the independence of the judiciary. South Africa is a constitutional democracy, not a parliamentary democracy. The constitution limits what governments can do at all levels and has among the most elaborate protections of human rights of any country in the world. It is a check on the African National Congress’s (ANC) huge parliamentary majority and frustrates Zuma. Notably, South Africa has outlawed capital punishment and is the only African country that permits gay marriage. Both are the result of judicial rulings based on human rights provision in the constitution. Both are deeply unpopular. But such is the popular respect for the constitution that there has been no significant effort to amend it to permit the first and ban the second.

Despite current pessimism, there is little that is new about South Africa’s root challenges. They include the consequences of apartheid and pandemic disease, especially HIV/AIDS. Corruption is not new. It was a characteristic of the apartheid state. The current gloom, the depth of which is new, owes much to the slow economic recovery from the worldwide slump of 2008, the effect of falling commodity prices, and discontent with President Jacob Zuma’s style of governance.

Nevertheless, post-apartheid South Africa is stalled, not broken. The highly respected Ibrahim Index of African Governance for 2015 places South Africa at the top of its five analytical categories: safety, rule of law, human rights, economic opportunity, and human development. The only states that it rates higher are small and relatively wealthy, such as Mauritius, Botswana, and Cape Verde.

But like other developing countries, South Africa is characterized by gross inequality of income and wealth, but even more so. South Africa has the highest Gini coefficient of any country in the world. There is a small minority of rich people and a huge majority of poor people. But, a generation after apartheid, in South Africa, economic and social inequality is still largely along racial lines. To cite two examples:

  • The gulf between white wealth and that of everybody else is greater now than it was in 1994. In other words, whites are richer now relative to everybody else than they were during the last days of apartheid.
  • On the other hand, male unemployment in the black townships approaches 50 percent.

Such realities help account for the ANC’s – and Zuma’s – electoral success. They also drive irresponsible political movements such as Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters.

Yet, in the face of current scandals, it is easy to lose sight of how much the ANC governments of Mandela, Mbeki and Zuma have accomplished since 1994. The institutional and ideological props of white supremacy are gone. In education, the ANC government has rationalized and deracialized the nineteen different systems inherited from apartheid. In public health, under Zuma, there has been a turn for the better with respect to HIV/AIDS, perhaps his signature accomplishment as president.

The ANC government has established a safety net of allowances that has cut in half the numbers of the very poor. There are about 17 million beneficiaries, out of a population of about 50 million. Beneficiaries are mostly children, the elderly, the sick, and the disabled. Social allowances are about 4 percent of GDP, judged sustainable indefinitely if growth is 3 percent or better, as it usually was from 1994 to 2008. Government economic policy has promoted the growth of a black middle class. There is a political consensus over a National Development Plan that provides a blueprint for economic growth and reform of education and public health.

Electoral democracy is strong. The country has conducted credible national elections in 1994, 1999, 2004, 2009, and 2014. In addition, there have been four, also credible, local government elections nationwide, with another coming up this August. The Economist Democracy Index in 2012 rated the quality of South African elections as only slightly below those of Japan and the United States.

Democracy as a form of governance in South Africa remains popular. An Afrobarometer poll showed that 72 percent of the respondents were committed to constitutional democracy, 11 percent were indifferent, and 15 percent held that nondemocratic methods are sometimes preferable. Since 1994, South Africa has been a functioning democracy conducted according to the rule of law, largely—though not completely—without legal reference to race even if social and economic change has been slow and incomplete.

Ownership of the economy continues to be dominated by whites, now joined by well-connected blacks, but the “face” of South Africa, ranging from television presenters to post office clerks, reflects the country’s racial demographics. Blacks are present in elite institutions ranging from formerly all-white universities to hospitals and country clubs, though by no means in proportion to their share of the population. Nevertheless, black Africans are no longer strangers in their own country.

Earlier in my remarks I observed that South Africa has a developed democratic culture. What did I mean? Let me provide an example.

The contentious issue of land redistribution from whites to blacks illustrates the strength of the rule of law. At least 80 percent of the population across all racial lines believes that it should be done, but strictly according to the law. Blacks much more than other racial groups believe that whites are due no compensation for their property that the state redistributes. But they, too, affirm that any such distribution must be governed by the law. And the constitution –especially sacred to many blacks because it ended apartheid – recognizes private property.

There are signs that many in the ruling ANC power structure have determined that Jacob Zuma must go. It remains to be seen whether South Africans will demand inclusive leadership in the model of Nelson Mandela that would address the needs of the majority population without compromising the country’s democratic institutions. Nevertheless, the argument here is that thanks to the strength of its democratic culture and institutions, the odds are good that South Africa will meet successfully its current challenges.

How to account for South Africa’s positive trajectory? Part of the answer is history. South Africa as a limited democracy dates from 1911. That year only white males had the right to vote. White women gained the suffrage in 1939, and then all races and genders in 1994. In 1994, democracy was extended to hitherto excluded parts of the population. But, it did not have to be invented out of whole cloth. Similarly the independence of judiciary dates from the periods of Dutch and British rule and was maintained during the darkest days of apartheid. Democracy and the rule of law have become indigenous to South Africa.

A final word about the bilateral relationship.

The United States and South Africa share democratic commonalities and the historical experience of white supremacy and its consequences. That would seem to be a good foundation for a special diplomatic relationship. At the time of the 1994 transition, many in the Clinton administration anticipated that future bilateral ties between the two multiracial democracies would be close, exceptional, and mutually beneficial.

However, almost a generation later, the official relationship is correct, barely cordial, and hardly special. Moreover, the likelihood is remote of a close partnership anytime soon. In February, the ANC Secretary General Mantashe accused the American embassy in Pretoria of plotting “regime change” – by means of the Young African Leaders Initiative. In fact, the Embassy had consulted with Mantashe, along with others on South African nominees for the program.

What happened? One answer is the relative absence of shared diplomatic goals or common security concerns. This reality mitigates against a close partnership. Economic links, while not trivial, were not important enough to overcome the lack of shared security goals.

At a deeper level, back to history. History, and often the distorted memory of that history, has been a brake. South Africa and the United States were allies during World War I, World War II, and during the Cold War. Jan Smuts and Woodrow Wilson were close collaborators in the creation of the League of Nations. But, those now in power in Pretoria regard the South African governments that participated in those struggles as at best “colonial” and fundamentally racist. Both Smuts and Wilson are at present condemned as personal racists. Hence, many in the ANC view these wartime alliances with ambiguity if not distaste. For former freedom fighters, there is little history of a community of interest between South Africa and the United States. A consequence is that our bilateral relationship is much closer with, say, Nigeria, than with South Africa. A warming of the official, bilateral relationship will probably have to wait for a generational change within the ANC.

Meanwhile, however, the myriad other links between the United states and South Africa, ranging from the economic to the cultural to the scientific to the artistic to mutual tourism are going from strength to strength. The bilateral relationship is more than Jacob Zuma.

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