Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Diversity of South Africa

With the repudiation of apartheid, release of Nelson Mandela from prison and the election of African National Congress (ANC) into power in 1994, South Africa became a democracy governed by the wishes of the majority. The world applauded the selection of Mandela as the first head of the new nation. The successful hosting of the 2010 World Cup seemed to suggest that South Africa is on the way to joining the ranks of fast growing nations such as the BRICs, (Brazil, Russia, India and China).

We spent nearly two and half weeks travelling around South Africa and came away impressed with the tourist potential of this country with its diversity in flora and fauna and in its spectacular scenery. South Africa is also diverse in its people but instead of being a plus, the diversity of people seems to work against the nation than being an advantage. While South Africa has been held up as the standard for other African nations to aspire to, I see troubling signs ahead.

The most obvious is corruption at the top. While still a poor second to the king of Swaziland, who is on to his 14th or 15th wife, President Zuma has announced his intention for take on his fifth, or is it sixth, wife. As our township guide, an ethnic Xhosa, said to us, “As the leader of this nation, he is setting a terrible example for the people.” (Zuma is a Zulu.)

Then there is the leader of the ANC Youth League, Julius Malema, who is merely scary. He struggled through more than the required years to complete eight grades of schooling. He is a fiery orator and self proclaimed admirer of Robert Mugabe and he has been advocating nationalization of the mines. Because as much as 20% or more of South Africa’s black youth have no gainful employment, Malema’s rabble rousing rhetoric finds a receptive audience among the restless youth. Zuma was one time leader of the Youth League and thus Malema could be regarded as a potential future leader of this nation. Needless to say, for a Mugabe-like leader to turn South Africa into another Zimbabwe would be a prospect of enormously frightening proportions.

Some of the policies since the ANC came into power seem to have been taken from Mugabe’s book of governance. For example, we were told that admission to the medical school is strongly biased in favor of the blacks. The minimum entrance test score needed to qualify for admission for the blacks is around 70, but 82 for the colored people and 92 for the whites. One can only shudder at the future of South Africa--where world’s first ever heart transplant was performed--staffed by mediocre doctors that are poorly trained and poorly qualified.

The whites in South Africa are decreasing in absolute numbers and in relative percentage. Some of the whites left South Africa just before the end of apartheid fearing for the uncertainty of the transition. Others have left since the end of apartheid because they now face fewer opportunities under economic policies that are tilted in favor of the black majority. The whites that leave tend to be professionals and thus causing a brain drain. The end of apartheid seems to have been replaced by reverse apartheid.

Corruption by government officials is probably not avoidable but there are two general kinds of corruption. When a government only knows how to line their pockets and does little or next to nothing to develop their domestic economy, those countries are inherently unstable and face occasional uprisings of Egyptian proportions or trudges along in a zombie state where the rich stay very rich and the poor have no hope of a future, not unlike many of the banana republic’s in Latin America.

The South African economy is growing but not fast enough to be considered as a rising economy in the league of BRICs. Furthermore, the rate of growth has been slowing to around 3% per year—not enough to create the number of new jobs necessary to employ a growing population of young blacks and illegal immigrants. Most blacks still live in townships where the school system has been degrading from bad to worse. Most of the young people are not trained for productive work and thus suffers from high unemployment, as high as 30% in places. With so much idle youth, high crime rate is a persistent problem. Without the safety network of state sponsored pension that comes from regular employment, the people in the townships procreate more kids as a form of security in retirement. Thus a downward spiral is formed.

When Mandela first came into power, he declared that no one should live in the dismal hovels found in shanty towns. So far the government has built enough housing for 5 million people, a tiny fraction of the number needed in order to get rid of the shanty towns.

South Africa has a nice highway system. Most of the roads were built during the apartheid rule. For the 2010 world cup, the government built a number of new soccer stadiums. Many have been underutilized since the world cup. The one in Cape Town located in prime real estate has been sitting unused. The local government is said to be considering tearing the new stadium down to save on the annual maintenance cost. Of course, new public works projects create opportunities for graft, which is the biggest driver to spending taxpayers’ money.

Despite its troubles, South Africa is better off than rest of Africa and thus is a magnet for illegal immigrants. The continuous inflow of immigrants adds to the burden of having to provide them with basic services.

South Africa recognizes 11 official languages, English and Afrikaan being two of these. The other nine are languages of the black native tribes dominated by Zulu and Xhosa. Ironically by insisting on each ethnic tribe being allowed to teach in their respective language, it is encouraging de facto segregation and separateness.

Ultimately, the economic well-being of the people of South Africa depends on having good government. By becoming a democracy ruled by the majority does not guarantee good government. Whether South Africa will continue to be the beacon for the continent will depend on the current and next generation of leaders.

Overturning apartheid was South Africa's greatest day in history. Now the leaders will have to deliver for not just the black majority but everyone and put the nation on the path to greatness. The nation may be at a tipping point either leading to economic growth and stability or to disaster. Only time will tell.

We were on a tour of South Africa organized by Overseas Adventure Travel. This tour company emphasize discovery and learning as part of the travel experience and made sure that we had a chance to interact with blacks (which represent the majority) as well as the colored segments of the population. We automatically interacted with the whites because our guides were white and so were most of the managers of hotels and restaurants.

Among the dozen travelers in our group, we had two retired professional African American women who were particularly interested in and sensitive to the racial issues of South Africa. They led pointed discussions with our white tour director. Their presence added zest to our discussion, even if we may hold varying views.

A racist could attribute what ails South Africa or even the continent of Africa to race, blaming the supposed inferiority of the black race. The counter to the racist point of view is to argue that educated black leaders such as a Mandela can be as capable and effective as any leader. The crux of the matter is whether black leaders care enough about the population they lead to bring everybody up, to make sure they all get quality education, and to create economic opportunities for all. To the extent they fail to do so, they are reinforcing the biases of racism.

I will write about South Africa as a tourist destination in a future blog.

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