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South Africa: a progress report

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Robin Lustig | 15:28 UK time, Friday, 23 March 2012

I've been in South Africa this week to report on the country's political and economic prospects. Verdict, in the words of my old school reports: Could do better.

In theory, this should be a country with just about everything going for it. A wealth of natural resources (including gold, platinum, chromium, and diamonds); a relatively well developed infrastructure, and an industrial base which should be perfectly placed to grab the opportunities offered by rapidly expanding markets elsewhere on the African continent.

So why isn't it happening? Well, up to a point it is. Current economic growth is around 2-3 per cent a year, which by UK or Eurozone standards isn't so awful. But compared to South Africa's emerging economy competitors (it's now joined Brazil, Russia, India and China in the so-called BRICS group), it doesn't look quite so impressive.

The official unemployment rate is around 25 per cent, but among young South Africans it's closer to 50 per cent (which, as the finance minister Pravin Gordhan gently reminded me in an interview, is about the same level as it is in Spain).

Take the economy first. Unlike India, South Africa has not been able to cash in on the IT revolution. Unlike China, it has not set itself up as the world's producer of everything from children's toys to plasma TV screens. Unlike Russia, it has not banked billions of dollars in revenue from oil and gas reserves as prices rocketed.

And unlike Brazil, it has not put in place a structured welfare system designed to pull millions of its poorest families out of poverty. The squalid townships which grew up under the old apartheid system are still there, as grim as any slum or favela in Brazil, India or China.

The economic analyst William Gumede argues that the post-apartheid government wrongly concentrated its efforts on what it called "black empowerment", offering advantages to black-owned companies to enable them to compete more successfully against their white-owned rivals. What that policy did in effect, he says, was to empower people who were already empowered: the educated middle class, and those who had connections to the ruling ANC.

What it didn't do was help the people at the bottom of the pile, by providing basic welfare programmes and decent schools. As a result, South Africa has now replaced Brazil as the country with the widest gap between rich and poor.

None of this is to say that nothing has changed for the better over the 18 years since apartheid was finally laid to rest. Even in the townships, there are now paved roads where before there were none, and millions of people have access to basic essentials like water and electricity where before they did not.

But it comes at a price. Just this week, there were violent protests against the privatisation of water and electricity supplies, with providers now installing meters and demanding payment upfront. Campaigners claim too many people are being cut off for non-payment, and too many bills are based on inflated usage estimates, because the companies aren't bothering to read the meters.

So what about the politics? After the heady days of hope when Nelson Mandela was president and guided the country through a peaceful transition to majority rule, today South African politics are not a pretty sight. (Yes, I know that's the case pretty well everywhere, but here the contrast is so much greater than elsewhere.)

The president, Jacob Zuma, is enmeshed in corruption allegations, as he has been since before he took office three years ago. He's under attack from left-wing critics in his own party, particularly from the ANC's traditional allies in the trades unions, and from the Youth League, whose president, Julius Malema, has been expelled from the party.

There's an ANC leadership election due at the end of the year, and behind the scenes there's talk of Zuma's party critics manoeuvring to have him ousted by his deputy, Kgalema Motlanthe. Whether the party is ready to turn against yet another leader (Zuma's predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, was removed in a party revolt in 2008) remains to be seen.

The biggest complaint about the ANC that you hear in the townships is that the party has broken its promises to deliver basic services, affordable housing and jobs to those who need them most. The response from the finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, is that you can't undo the damage caused by 300 years of white minority rule in a mere 18 years.

But if you add to the disappointment over broken promises the constant swirl of allegations of corruption and cronyism, then you have what could become a combustible mix. The ANC still wins about two-thirds of the vote in national elections, but the numbers are falling - and it knows it won't go on winning for ever.

My reports from South Africa will be on air next Monday and Tuesday, so I hope you'll be able to tune in. If not, they'll be available online or as podcasts in the usual way.


  • Comment number 1.

    'South Africa has now replaced Brazil as the country with the widest gap between rich and poor'

    There's a lot of it about.

    But, at least, if viewed through the right prism, it all 'looks' so much better to those who view, and often report through selective rose-tinted optics.

    '..you can't undo the damage caused by 300 years of white minority rule in a mere 18 years.'

    An argument that, closer to home, seems often less sympathetically received if form the 'wrong' source by many who, perhaps, still have a eye to getting back what they prefer. A gilded minority 'elite' who claim to speak for the poor and oppressed but are not too keen on giving up the trappings they enjoy by cornering the market in saying it if not doing much of substance.

    Sometimes 'progress' gets defined by those in control of the edit suite, and too often it's a narrow, even highly personal definition indeed.

  • Comment number 2.

    South Africa will never actualize full independence until it is able to implement laws that acknowledge & shape South African realities.Such a transformation will be highly contested by minority groups &/or opposition parties that fear fear for their own economic & social interests.
    South Africa has a thoughtful, intelligent Minister of Justice, Radebe. He joined African National Congress (ANC) in 1976. After an unsuccessful secret mission by the ANC, Radebe was arrested in 1986, convicted under Terrorism Act of the then Apartheid Govt. He was sentenced to a 10-year imprisonment on Robben Island, released after a successful 12 day hunger strike in 1990.
    Radebe: right now, perceived fairness, correctness of law & its application is hugely dependent on historical factors such as one's social standing, education, exposure & more important one's view of how the world operates. Of course one's perception & experience with racial discrimination always has a huge role to play.
    Real democracy is the only way to draw together black & white; look at the American justice system & its treatment of black people, and you will see the great divide between black & white justice.

  • Comment number 3.

    IN SOUTH AFRICA THE RACIAL QUESTION HAS NOT RESOLVED ITSELF & if South Africa is to be seen as fair & impartial, it must promote the transformation of the South African Judiciary so that its make-up reflects the society it seeks to judge. In other words, the South African Judiciary must predominantly consist of blacks at all levels. Without this, there cannot occur true justice.
    It is naive to believe that during apartheid & colonialism, laws were interpreted from a perspective of black people; rather, truths & standards were set by the ruling class - white minorities. Most laws were there to protect minority economic & social interests e.g. Cecil John Rhodes. This was interpreted as a "good" thing by the crown because it benefited the crown. Cecil John Rhodes was never hauled before the courts, accused of crimes against humanity, theft & abuse of Africa's natural resources. He was, in fact, rewarded. Blacks perceived all institutions, laws & practices were established to protect white minority capital & advancement of the Western economic & political interests. All assassinations, economic projects, imposition of political leaders, appointments of the judiciary, administrators and civil servants sought only to enhance the economic benefits of the West and local minority groups. That is the quicksand from which South Africa struggles to free herself.
    That context is changing, bu not fast enough. The transformation of the judiciary is therefore critical for the progress of the South African. Blacks need to protect social and economic interest 1. by ensuring that no ruling party has cart blanche and 2. second that we have a strong opposing black voice that ensures that standards in the judiciary and the delivery of justice to the masses is not compromised by the interests of the ruling class. Black injustice is a huge problem that can only compromise meaningful social & economic transformation in South Africa.

  • Comment number 4.

    A local version of state capitalism has fostered South African illusion that the government is in control of the economy – despite youth unemployment levels nudging 50%.
    When assessing Jacob Zuma's chances of winning a second term as president of the ANC in December, it is realistic to examine his likely opponents or successors. Almost to a man, they are plutocrats. The only candidate who is not knowingly a multi-millionaire is Kgalema Motlanthe - everyone's favourite as at least caretaker president.
    Two substantive runners – Tokyo Sexwale and Cyril Ramaphosa – are acknowledged billionaires, thanks mainly to state-backed deals with South Africa's giant mining houses. Other serious candidates – KwaZulu-Natal premier Zweli Mkhize and JUSTICE MINISTER Jeff Radebe – preside over multi-million-dollar family fortunes. Even Nelson Mandela's grandson Mandla, will inherit a substantial family fortune.
    Zuma's position is not lonely in Africa. In Angola, indisputably plutocratic President José Eduardo dos Santos is casting around for a successor this year. Step forward Manuel Vicente, managing director of one of Africa's biggest state companies, Sonangol.
    Assessing Jacob Zuma's chances of winning a second term as ANC president it is eye-opening to look at his opponents – plutocrats, almost to a man.
    Yet when the black youth sing, these are songs praising Malema and calling for Motlanthe for President; you hear these songs over sound systems, as well as shouts of "Viva Malema" & "Viva Limpopo"
    Colonialism has not ended in S. Africa, Democracy is writhing in birth pangs. The Judiciary needs reform...Backs must stop imitating powerful whites, & gather the courage to build black foundations in black ways, especially towards a black judiciary of merit.

  • Comment number 5.

    The poor present perplexing problems for governments as they allocate incentives and contracts to the well off and allocate meaningless amounts to the poor. The governmental bureaucracies have a vested interest in the poor remaining poor. Those who escape poverty are presented as examples to other poor that they lack initiative and it is their own fault for remaining poor. One should note that there are different types of poor. In many places people eek out a living scratching the dirt but grow and earn enough to be sustaining. When isolated from the governments they can be satisfied with their lives and the maintaining of their traditions. The tentacles of Consumerism reach out and tell them they are poor and need to be in a position to purchase more....mainly not to their benefit but to make others wealthy. The promises of Capitalism have not proven to solve these matters. Poverty is a relative term. These are systematic problems and the systems have no incentive for things to change. Competing bureaucracies waste much of the resources and corruption takes most of the rest. There are real issues of cultural costs related to economic advancement and not everyone sees the trade-off as good. In the modern world you are what you own...your beliefs, traditions and culture have no value. Presently providing the poor with iPods and cell phones is believed to be the magic solution...I have never tasted either...I hope they come with recipes.

  • Comment number 6.

    Although I have not followed SA in recent years, I thought many years ago (over a decade ago) that Thabo Mbeki was taking SA down the wrong path. We on the left called this the neo-liberal path, which is to sell-out to foreign multinationals instead of concentrating on internal development which in the SA case of course refers to upgrading the education and economic prospects of the vast black underclass. In Mbeki's favor was the fact that the West was booming in those days so there were many eager multinationals waiting to take advantage of the situation. This caught up to Mbeki when the world economy went "south" in 2007-9. After his ouster, it appears that the momentum of neo-liberal illusions continued under Jacob Zuma except that more than for Mbeki, corruption zoomed, to take up some of the slowing growth in the West. Of interest to me is the growing privatization of vital water and electricity resources which is of course occurring everwhere else in an increasingly resouce challenged world.


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