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How Long Will South Africa Survive?: The Looming Crisis
How Long Will South Africa Survive?: The Looming Crisis
R.W. Johnson
Hurst, 2015
288 pp., $35.00

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Sarah Ruden


Day of Reckoning

South Africa's prospects.

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Further, the leadership has gotten away with imperial, self-rewarding lifestyles (still in my time, President Thabo Mbeki reportedly had seventy personal servants) and with Black Economic Empowerment (forcing the endowment of politicos and their cronies with large shares of companies). The edge of the envelope has been pushed into all-out looting: millions upon millions of dollars unaccounted for, pols flaunting palaces, fleets of luxury cars, regal overseas junkets, and Lucullan banquets—without providing any evidence of the work of governing.

I struggled to believe—though I was an eye-witness—that a hungry crowd could be called on to watch a platform full of chunky ANC officers stuffing their faces with potato chips and one by one holding forth about their party's glorious delivery of justice and opportunity. Now, according to Johnson, the careless hypocrisy has progressed to where funds for mementoes and food at Mandela's funeral itself were swiped with impunity.

Johnson seems correct that the center may well not hold. Ordinary poor and middle-class Africans, disgusted and angry, feel less loyal toward the party of liberation. Moreover, the old white liberal Democratic Party has become a multi-racial alliance that governs the Western Cape relatively well; this was where, for example, antiretroviral drugs were available to AIDS patients in spite of the national government's withholding of them from other provinces. There are other opposition parties as well, disadvantaged by ANC mafia tactics yet energized by opportunity. But the ANC looks set for electoral bribery and fraud on a giant scale, and if it loses anyway is unlikely to cede power.

The financial crunch increases the chances of destabilization. Overspending and imaginative promises constitute the regime's main legitimacy for its core supporters, making it impossible for leaders to step back and impose discipline. The August 2012 Marikana massacre by police of miners in a wildcat strike for their pay to be tripled suggests a breaking point at contact with reality. An International Monetary Fund bailout may be essential, which would come only with stringent conditions; the ruling party's acceptance of which would mean, in essence, bowing out of office with heartfelt apologies for nearly everything they have done and neglected to do—hardly likely. It is hard to see a way out of a Zimbabwean-style calamity.

I am—and this is embarrassing in the face of so much knowledge, hard work, and patriotism—even gloomier than Johnson. Whereas he finds some hope in the calculations of classical economics, I see doom in human nature.

South Africans do have a certain amount in common with Americans. In both cases, an originally small, devout colonial population came to a big, resource-rich land and, feeling mightily and uniquely blessed, dealt with indigenous and imported populations however was convenient—and taking land and compelling toil proved very convenient.

The latter went on until rage threatened to topple the house, but the house had plenty of riches and know-how on which to stand, and plenty of smug experience of success to encourage the belief that success would continue, whatever else transpired. By the time the end of both resources and patience was in sight, everybody was so used to feeling intransigently righteous toward everybody else that real reconciliation and cooperation (as opposed to self-deceiving gestures) were extremely long shots.

As to South Africa, take those ATMs. Once in a while, a man in a laborer's overall was at the machine while I waited in line, and he was punching the same buttons again and again, though getting one disappointing printed slip after another instead of money. Over the years, the country taught me why he kept on, his face frozen in frustration. He had a card and the prescribed formula, and the system was communicating with him—but to no benefit: this was one more set-up. He wasn't familiar with mathematics or the rules of the financial system, let alone the indifferent technology of modern banking, because apartheid had deprived him of all the experiences that could render an ATM his servant and not his tormentor.

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