South Africa’s election must be a turning point

By Jonathan Power

South Africans of all races know how to behave at election time- responsible as voters and honest in their voting procedures. This is part of the legacy of Nelson Mandela who, as his funeral last year made clear, was the most honoured and respected leader in the world.

The country that has tripled its income in the years since the end of apartheid has achieved a lot more, much of it totally unexpected by white opinion. The Financial Times recently wrote, “What was in 1994 a divided country and a broken polity is now an unrecognisable, modern, investment-grade economy”.

Inflation has been tamed and support for the poor has been expanded with weekly cash grants to 16 million people. Every year 1 million people join the middle class. There has been a dramatic widening of the tax base and the civil service is no longer staffed by a white elite. The government has appointed first class people to the top positions in managing the economy.

One should also mention the football World Cup held four years ago. Despite the vast numbers who came, the many stadiums that were built and the difficulty of transporting big crowds, it went off without a hitch. Crime was low. Foreigners travelled into Johannesburg from the airport on a new, high-speed, train. One cannot help compare it with the greatly flawed preparations now afoot in Brazil, a far richer country, for this year’s World Cup.

True there is a revolution of rising expectations. The striking platinum mine workers demanding a large pay increase are one manifestation of this. (If mine owners had met them half way at the beginning, the strike would have been long settled.) Generally, despite social progress, poorer people want more. It is understandable given the most skewed income distribution in the world.

Nevertheless, one should look at the government’s achievements with a non-jaundiced eye. In 2002, 30% of households reported they had experienced hunger. Now it is down to 12%. In 2002 one in eight had no proper toilet. Now all but 5% have a flushing one. Almost two-thirds of homes have their rubbish collected regularly. Over 90% have access to running water. Around four-fifths have a television, an electric stove and access to a mobile phone. More than half live in their own home and only 14% in state-subsidised housing. School enrolment is now almost 95%, although the teaching is often of poor quality. The number of black engineering students at university is now the same as whites. The government has set up the world’s biggest anti-retroviral treatment program for HIV/AIDS.

As for middle class whites they continue to do well. Indeed, whites who fled to the UK or Australia are trickling back. Among the young professional class lots of inter-racial friendships have been formed and there are inter-racial marriages. The cabinet has four white members and whites can sit on the executive committee of the ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC).

Prime Minister Jacob Zuma has been in office now for five years. Accusations of large-scale corruption from the days when he was deputy president still hang over him but he has achieved much. He has set up an independent National Planning Committee to advise on complex long-term issues such as water management, energy and the environment. He has shown much more interest in the plight of the poor. He scores high in opinion polls.

Yet his government is manifestly shot through with corruption. Cronyism is ubiquitous. Intolerance raises its head both among whites and blacks- not least the anti-white rantings of the populist, Julius Malema.

Crime frightens most people. The country is listed among the world’s worst ten countries for crime. Nevertheless, it has cut its murder rate by half (statistics that have been checked for accuracy by outsiders). Nevertheless, over 2000 white farmers and their families have been murdered.

Prosperous white-owned farms are a sore issue among the African rural population whose land was stolen by Afrikaner and European immigrants. On taking office the ANC promised that 30% of white-owned land would become black-owned. But under the “willing seller, willing buyer” program (no shades of land grabbing, as in Zimbabwe) only 5% of farmland has been re-distributed, despite a great willingness to sell.

Unemployment remains high. Some say it is the highest in the world. Half the young black men don’t have jobs. Shanty towns are still growing on the edge of big towns. Growth will have to double to at least 5% to make an indent in these figures. Mining needs to be resuscitated, power shortages dealt with and African education and health services sharply improved.

South Africa’s competitor for being the continent’s largest economy, Nigeria, has had sustained growth the last decade at between 6 and 7% and is aiming for 10%.

Mandela left a great legacy. But it has to be continuously built on.

Copyright: Jonathan Power 2014

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