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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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With that in mind, I couldn't respond with pompous pique to attacks on me as an imported American higher-education functionary (I was teaching—yeah—Latin, Greek, and mythology); most people who attacked me, I realized, had no idea how or why I had gotten my degrees, or what I did in the library or my office or the classroom to earn my salary, and how it all might (sometime in the future, at some far remove) help someone downtrodden. I was just a haughty corsair; whatever I had, I had taken.

Hence, Johnson's statement that South Africa is an apt country to develop on the basis of low-wage labor seems—I have to say—rather abstract, though it's correct within a numerical frame of reference. It reminds me a little of certain assertions of "scientific socialism." It doesn't account for the fury of the laborers (a fury readily exploitable by cynical politicians) or the exasperation and contempt of the employers; or for the many situations where the rubber hit the road a long time ago.

One such situation—which I present because it's a perfect dead end, like a Rubik's Cube that scrambles itself whenever it seems nearly sorted—is that of the ocean fisheries off South Africa's extensive coastline. In the 1990s, the post-apartheid government was already too weak even to try regulating catches of the myriad traditional fishermen with their tiny boats. White technocrats, still on the scene, devised the best system they could. (I discussed it with one of them during a mountain hike of University of Cape Town faculty.) To prevent extinction of all the commercial species, only large companies must be allowed to fish, and the black and "colored" (mixed-race) fishermen must retire. To replace their livelihoods, they were to get fixed payments from the big companies.

But as it turned out, the companies cheated the designated beneficiaries, paying little or nothing, because they could. In the unlikely event that the unsophisticated small fishermen found themselves with enforceable contracts and all the resources necessary to pursue their due, enforcement still depended on a legal system that was another part of the increasingly dysfunctional government. This illustrated for me how the magical hand of capitalism usually allocates resources in the Third World. Capitalism's obvious superiority to any other economic system—some of the worst antics of South Africa's present government are sanctioned by its avowed Marxism—began to look like a counsel of despair.

The upcoming crisis (whether momentous or only momentary) will grieve (as well as startle) many in the West, but we will not do much to help. As with Zimbabwe, we have little practical reason to. South Africa is not strategically located; nor is it an important trade partner. It is an ideological donkey, hauling an outsize amount of feel-good for us concerning race and poverty, and not, in our opinion, even entitled to a honest assessment of its people's sufferings and possibilities, in case that impedes the donkey's progress toward our inner Disneyland.

But Johnson, in a noble passage near the end of the book, writes in so many words that the truth is hope. For the adherents of Alcoholics Anonymous, the admission of helplessness in itself takes some of that helplessness away. For Christians, there is paradoxical comfort, and an opening to new resolves, in admitting our own despair-deep depths of sin. I feel hope for South Africa, and my mind is enlivened about the future of the country, when I acknowledge how badly I often behaved there. I hear Jesus laughing at all of us concerned about foreign affairs, and saying, "Well, you can hardly help doing better than you have before."

Sarah Ruden is a visiting scholar in classics at Brown University. She recently finished translating the Oresteia of Aeschylus for a Modern Library series with funding from the Guggenheim Foundation. The Face of Water: A Translator on Beauty and Meaning in the Bible is forth-coming from Knopf.

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