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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., 37.50

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Sarah Ruden

Day of Reckoning

South Africa's prospects.

Sad as it is, I can't dispute R. W. Johnson's latest account of South Africa. He is South African himself and a meticulous career expert on destabilizing forces in the country. This is actually his second book with this title, the first one having appeared in 1977. If you want—and maybe you don't—the last word in bad news from the southernmost, most developed part of the troubled continent, you couldn't find a more fearless source than this Marxist long ago turned free-market enthusiast.

The post-apartheid regime recently proposed (and this is just one example of its head-spinning recklessness—Johnson tends to devote just a sentence or two to each example, there are so many) that 50 percent of the nation's remaining commercial farms be appropriated, and that their former owners be forced to remain on them to train newcomers in farm management. But land redistribution has already broken the back of the once-mighty farming sector and raised the threat of national food insecurity. An attempt to enslave white farmers (whose physically embattled cause Genocide Watch took up a number of years ago) as facilitators of their own dispossession would trump neighboring Zimbabwe's folly. Zimbabwe's leaders at least let farmers run for it.

I must stress that my tone isn't Johnson's; he's chiefly a numbers man, though he clearly reads everything, gets around, and talks to every player who's willing. Unfortunately, his macro-economics and assessment of high-level political strategies on the one hand, and my daily and personal observations (supplemented by contacts maintained with South African friends and colleagues, now that I live in the US again), tell the same frightening story.

I moved to the country in 1994, shortly before the first multi-racial elections, and I can attest that development was excellent by African standards. I marveled at the sheer number of ATMs. (My sister, a biologist, had warned me about Cape buffalo, as if they roamed the streets.) Whites were of course far better off, but their districts were integrating fast with the rising black middle class—legal segregation had been eliminated long before political inclusion came—and everyone but a few we classed as nut-cases cheerfully projected that high standards would push out to the chaotic "townships" and the rural wastelands. Then there would be peace and prosperity for all.

Nobody I knew imagined the relentless electrical grid failures Johnson cites. Still, within a few years problems were common. Zzzzt. Out went the lights in a mall while I was getting a haircut, but the staff in the windowless salon were prepared. A second beautician and two tea ladies approached with lighted candles and held these around my head while the original beautician continued snipping; it was fun, actually, like a piratical slumber-party game, but the result looked bad in daylight. A lot in South Africa came to look startlingly bad, like the gibberish of the "sign-language interpreter" at Nelson Mandela's memorial ceremonies.

Obviously, breakdown of this kind can't be blamed on white racism. Nor, as Johnson argues, does Western bullying and gouging figure in South Africa's present fate. The country is geographically isolated, politically all but autonomous, and unbelievably resource-rich (having the densest concentration of valuable minerals in the world), with a posh inheritance of infrastructure and expertise and a great accumulation of international goodwill. The new majority government is blowing it all.

Johnson looks toward the probable crisis, the nationwide municipal elections of 2016. Under Jacob Zuma's presidency, his African National Congress's abuses have gone from ordinary for the developing world to X-rated. "Cadre deployment," or the attempt to control all sectors of civil society with dedicated ANC operatives, has become open political violence and intimidation, with legal consequences headed off or disregarded, and often openly sneered at.

Chapter 2 opens with five men, armed with AK-47s, piling out of a vehicle in broad daylight in a busy city and heading toward Durban's High Court, with a view to stopping some inconvenient proceedings. Camera footage later identified the driver as a policeman, and Johnson lays out in lengthy detail the government's connections to such a brazen eruption of organized crime; these connections are in fact common knowledge in what remains of the independent local press.

On the policy side of the governance mess, largess of public-sector jobs has imperiled the fiscus, captured a destructively high proportion of public spending in salaries, helped inspire a private-sector "investment strike," and pitted the large entitled corps of the overpaid employed against giant numbers of the unemployed. (Alas, many of the new functionaries are incompetent or no-shows.) Most pitiful to me—and perhaps most dire for the country's long-term future—is the hollowing-out of the public school system, now ranked at the bottom worldwide.

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.

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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