Thursday, March 31, 2011

A Brief History of South Africa

As recorded history goes, South Africa is a young country, and that's because the original people, the San (also called Khoisan), had no written language and left only rock art. For centuries, they were protected by an east-west, coast to coast belt of deadly swamp full of malaria bearing mosquitoes, Tse Tse flies and poisonous water that isolated South Africa from the rest of the continent. The eventual southern migration of the Bantus from Central Africa pushed the hunter-gatherer Sans to less desirable land.

The Portuguese were the first white men to land in the Cape Town area on their way to India. Their swords and lances were no match against the greater number of Sans' wooden spears augmented with herds of charging cattle. The heavy casualty suffered at Table Bay (in today’s Cape Town) convinced the Portuguese to keep sailing around the horn of Africa and establish their bases elsewhere.

By the time the Dutch arrived about 150 years later, they had guns and the strength to push their way in. They came to settle and farm and were known as Boers (Dutch for farmers). Together with slaves from other parts of Africa and Far East along with Khoisan and protestant immigrants from France and Germany, they made up the Colored and Afrikaner populations of the Cape Town area of South Africa.

About another 150 years go by (until just before 1800) before the British captured Cape Town to protect the trade route and keep the strategic area out of the French hands. The Boers that did not care for British rule moved out of the Cape Colony toward the interior and came into contact with various tribes of the Bantus that had settled in areas north of the colony.

The fiercest of these was Shaka, king of the Zulus. Ironically he was able to make a technological breakthrough in war craft using iron from the Europeans to devise a short thrusting spear, suitable for repeated thrusts against the enemy and not just one heave and hope for the best. For a brief time, he even held the firearm equipped British soldiers to a standoff.

With the discovery of diamonds (1868) and gold (1886), all hell broke loose. The British had to get their hands on all that wealth from the ground. Some of the biggest diamonds from South Africa literally found their way to the crown jewel collection of the British throne. The British proceeded to fight the Zulus and the Boers to achieve hegemony over South Africa which they eventually accomplished. The different states were consolidated into the Union of South Africa, sometime in the early 20th century.

Seeds of apartheid were already sown by this time as segregation was widely practiced in the urban areas. The de facto practices were steadily formalized into laws and regulations by the white ruling class culminating into official policy of apartheid formed shortly after WWII.

There were two black heroes that wrestled Africa from the white ruling class. One was Robert Mugabe who won control of Rhodesia and turn it into Zimbabwe in 1980 and the other was Nelson Mandela who came to power in South Africa in 1994. Mandela has since stepped out of the limelight and bask in accolades showered on him as a senior statesman. Mugabe, alas, does not know when to retire and has earned worldwide scorn or even worse epithets.

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.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Some People Can't Wait to see the Jasmine Revolution Invade China

One of the first to see the revolt of Tunisia as the beginning of the dominoes that will topple China was Gordon Chang. He suggested that after Tunisia and then Egypt it could be China. He made this bold prognostication on January 30, weeks before Mubarak took the actual tumble.

Mr. Chang, known to boldly sally forth where no real experts would, is famous for his book on the coming collapse of China, which was published in 2001. That China has only more than doubled their economic output and become the second largest economy in the world since the publication of his book does not cramp his style in the least. He continues to hammer on the collapse theme as if constant repetition will eventually make him credible.

Others in the western media are even more "proactive" than Mr. Chang. They are reporting mass unrest and movements of Jasmine proportions in China with sleigh of hand, cut and paste photos. Old photos of mass protest in China against Japan and other equally deceptive file photos became handy tools to illustrate how revolution in China is alleged to look.

The media in the West can get away with such shenanigans in disinformation because they presume that the audience in the west can't tell the difference between a Hong Kong cop, or a Taiwan mass protest or some patriotic movement in China and a disturbance they purport to be reporting. In such cases, photos do lie.

Anyone with a smidgen of understanding about China would realize there is no analogy between what has happened in North Africa to what might happen in China. Yes, there is vast unequal distribution of income in China and yes, corruption and injustice is a major problem. But that is about as far as it goes before the parallel diverges.

The standard of living of the Chinese people has never been better. A great majority of people are satisfied with their lives and the way things are run. Most important, the central government of China far from ignoring the plights of their people actually care and spend a great deal of energy to look after the general population. The leaders of Beijing are sensitive to public opinion and there is no mass feeling of disenfranchisement.

Beware of pundits and their wishful thinking and those desperate enough to fit the facts to their flawed vision.