Progress in South Africa

The transition from a totalitarian regime to a democratic government, particularly when that democratic government will be dominated by the segment of the population that had formerly been subjected to the totalitarian rule, has rarely gone smoothly. Consider the example of the French Revolution that ensued in 1789. The peasant class, called the “Third Estate” in France, had fallen into abject poverty, to the point where even the purchase of bread had become financially infeasible. When the reigning queen, Marie Antoinette, responded to news of the plight of the poor in her country with the infamous quote “Let them eat cake,” the wrath of the country boiled over. The nobles who were not able to escape the country were fed to La Guillotine, one by one, for month after month, as the Reign of Terror under Robespierre raged in Paris, fed by the rage and paranoia of the former peasants. However, Robespierre was never able to turn his movement into a stable democracy, and the country never returned to stability, because of the endless slaughter. Finally, Napoleon Bonaparte emerged as a candidate to bring France back to a position of glory – and to bring the chaos to an end. The result was a unified nation, but once again the country had a totalitarian ruler, as French society was not yet ready to move toward democracy. In South Africa, the basis of the totalitarian regime’s authority was not simply financial; rather, it was based on ethnic prejudice. Ever since the first colonists had arrived in South Africa, a regime of apartheid has been set in place, and the indigenous peoples had been excluded from any opportunities for power. In 1994, though, the regime of apartheid collapsed, and it was replaced by a democracy. The progress that the country has made under democracy has been significant, and it has been far more peaceful than the transitions that have taken place in other parts of the world. However, there are still many challenges that South African people face, 18 years after the end of whites-only rule.

It is important to remember that South African might not have transitioned from totalitarianism to democracy, if the Soviet bloc had not collapsed in Eastern Europe. Before that time period, the major superpowers of the world (the United States and the Soviet Union) were too concerned with one another to impose their will on areas outside NATO and the Warsaw Pact nations. Once the United States remained as the last superpower, and the free-market capitalism that dominated the American economy became the way of the world, it became clear to the African National Congress, which had been banned from participation in the political process in South Africa, that it would be possible to gain American leverage in support of change in South Africa (Guelke, 2009, p. 421). Because the main priority in a capitalistic society is the profit margins of business, the ANC knew that they had to find common ground with businesses with white South Africa in order to move forward with reform (Booysen, 2006, p. 732). Because the common ground with business would revolve around money, rather than skin color, what had been an impasse blocked by centuries of racial prejudice became a negotiable situation based on ownership and money. According to Simkins, the key questions were following:

  • How would land ownership be reconfigured in a free society?
  • How would the employment system move from prejudice to equality for blacks?
  • How would the civil service change from African control to an equal system?
  • How would the ten “black homelands” and the four white provinces be joined in a new system of provinces for the country?
  • How could the constitution be amended to cover all of these changes? (Simkins, 2011, p. 105).

Obviously, the white establishment in South Africa had nothing positive to gain from negotiating with the ANC, at least from the standpoint of history. After all, the whites in South Africa owned everything, ran the civil services, kept the homelands in subjugation, and had access to all of the meaningful working opportunities. On the ANC’s side, though, simple access to the system would not be enough. After all, in the Freedom Charter, which the ANC had composed in 1955, there was a call for nationalization of all sources of wealth: the banks, the nation’s mineral rights, and the assets of all of the monopoly industries. This nationalization would not go over with the white establishment, and so there would be a need for negotiation. This meant that one of the most difficult steps involved in the removal of apartheid was convincing leaders on both sides to change from a paradigm of emotional conflict to one of pragmatic negotiation.

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With a change from totalitarianism to democracy came a change in the level of stability in government. One of the early post-apartheid presidents, Thabo Mbeki, faced significant challenges regarding the South African economy, as the leadership tried to answer all of the questions that the ANC and the white business establishment had faced together. Initially, some of the major white-owned businesses in the country began lining the pockets of key ANC leaders in order to improve their standing with the government when it became time to start issuing contracts. However, efforts to address black unemployment did not begin in earnest until 2003, when the government passed the Broad Based Black Economic Empowerment (BBEEE) Act (Simkins, 2011, p. 106). In 2009, Mbeki could not run for presidential post again, because of the two-term limit, and the years after his leadership featured a mishmash of economic policy decisions. Also, a global economic crisis did not leave South Africa immune, and as was the case with many of the world’s governments in 2008 and 2009, the South African government found itself without the necessary funding to carry out the sort of social engineering that would be necessary to fundamentally alter the country’s employment structure. The 2011 proposal by the ANC Youth League to allow the nationalization of mines, petrochemicals and steel production facilities without compensation made the economic picture even murkier.

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In addition to the economic uncertainties that South Africa faces, the biases that served as the foundation of apartheid have not yet gone away. In 2011, while whites were only 9 percent of the country’s population, they brought in 39 percent of all household income. It should be noted, though, that in 1970, the percentage of whites in the country was similar, but they brought in 70 percent of all household income, so some progress has been made. The federal poverty line in South Africa has been set at R400 per month; 91 percent of those who live below the line are blacks, while only 3 percent are whites (Simkins, 2011, p. 107). Who Owns whom, an organization that puts together a list of the 50 richest people in the country each year, had no blacks on the list in 1996. In 2005, there were five, and in 2011, there were 16, whose aggregate wealth is approximately worth US$6 billion (Simkins, 2011, p. 107). However, while the black middle class has been growing since the 1970s, even with the institution of apartheid in place, there is no evidence that the inequalities in wealth have stopped at all in that time. In some ways, poverty and inequality have actually worsened, even though grants for child support from the government have been aimed at poverty since 2001.

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There are several reasons behind the long duration of inequality and poverty in the country. One of these was the 1913 Land Act, which set aside a number of “scheduled” areas inside the country. Those areas were the only parts of the nation where blacks could buy land – and only about one-twelfth of the country was “scheduled.” This was expanded to about one-seventh in the 1936 Land Act. To make things worse, much of the land that had been “scheduled” was expropriated and exchanged, in situations where “scheduled” land was interfering with white interests (Giliomee, 2003, p. 374). In addition, white farmers would keep only those blacks on the land that they needed for their labor needs, shipping the rest off to black homelands – this would affect millions between 1960 and 1990. Add in systems that kept blacks away from their assets, and from access to education, it is clear that the country was designed to make the bias against blacks a permanent part of the culture. This meant that when transition negotiations began in 1994, the anger that had resulted was an obstacle. As with property ownership, ameliorating the other areas of dispossession also meant that both sides had to set aside their emotional attachments to the issue in order for progress to take place. In the 1996 Constitution, Section 9(2) was included to codify these changes. The purpose of this section was “to promote the achievement of equality, legislative and other measures designed to protect and advance persons, or categories of persons, disadvantaged by unfair discrimination may be taken” and to legitimize the practice of black economic empowerment (BEE). Sections 25(6) and 25(7) redressed the wrongs that the Land Acts in 1913 and subsequent years. Sections 26(2), 27(2) and 29(2) all obligated the national government to give every citizen access to health care, water, housing, food, education and social security (Strand, 2001, p. 48). Sections 25(1) and 25(2) forbade any nationalization of property except in the public interest or for a public purpose – and they required compensation (although that may soon change) (Simkins, 2011, p. 109-110).

It is one thing to provide governmental mechanisms that require certain levels of equality, but it is another thing to provide the funding to make that equality a reality. Between 1980 and 1994, per capita gross national income fell from US$5,100 to US$4,200 – almost 20 percent. Even after the end of apartheid, this metric continued to fall, and years of uneven performance meant that the GNI per capita in 2001 was the same that it had been in 1994. Even though the GNI per capita increased by 28 percent between 2001 and 2008, the global economic downturn that arrived in 2009 destroyed many of those gains. Even though the economy had almost doubled in size, per capita income in 2009 was still less than it had been in 1980.

To add to the drain on public funds, the population exploded. The 2010 fertility rate in South Africa is 2.38. In 2010, the population was 50 million, a 1000 percent increase over 1900 – and a 16 percent increase over 2000. While the continent-wide AIDS/HIV epidemic has slowed the growth of the population, the damage that the disease has brought to the population (and the economy) has been considerable. Roughly one in 10 South Africans has HIV, and roughly 10 percent of South Africa’s children have lost one or both parents as a result of AIDS (Simkins, 2011, p. 110). Less than two-thirds of the HIV-positive population is receiving the antiretroviral medications that it needs to thrive with the condition. Adding to the irony is the fact that South Africa is faring better than many of its neighbors, which means that immigration is a considerable factor. Between 1996 and 2010, 1.3 million blacks entered the country. The borders are fairly porous, and there are only weak controls over immigration. This has led to violence when Mozambicans and Zimbabweans, over the past thirty years, have sought to escape unrest in their own countries by fleeing to South Africa, only to find a hostile and xenophobic culture awaiting them. This has not yet spurred the government to firm action on the question of immigration.

In the last quarter of 2010, the unemployment rate was approximately 24 percent, and there are several economic factors that may be involved. Some researchers have found that product competition has been severely limited because of high tariffs on imports and loyalty wages paid to insiders, to keep turnover down. This means that outsiders to the job market have a particularly tough time getting in, as employers are maximizing their returns from each employee and giving them incentives to stay, benefits that they would not receive elsewhere. Also, in many industries, wages are set across the entire industry by agreement between unions and business interests, so there is no competitive edge that companies can use to lure workers (Lodge, 2005, p. 741). In fact, though, there is no incentive for companies to lure in workers, outside of the highly skilled professions, because of the high numbers of available workers. Finally, the wage scales still show the markings of apartheid, as the wages that are available for unskilled workers have different levels based on gender, population group, education, age, union affiliation, size of business, and location in the country. This means that entire industries can set their wages to propagate the success gap between blacks and whites. The only difference is that the excuse given is an economic one, not an ethnic one. After all, there are many more black laborers available in the country – skilled and unskilled – and so if wages can be differentiated by population group, it is in a company’s best economic interest to hire as many of the lowest-paid people as it can, particularly if those people are going to be unskilled. Indeed, even though the national unemployment rate was 24 percent, for blacks it was almost 29 percent at the end of 2010 – and only 4.9 percent for whites (Simkins, 2011, p. 111).

A factor that goes hand in hand with economic equality is access to education. As in many other developed nations, South African schools offer twelve grades, with an additional year before the first that is not mandatory. Schooling is compulsory between the ages of seven and fifteen. After the ninth grade, students leave school, enter vocational training or prepare for an academic examination that serves as a precursor to university study. However, the actual quality of the system is quite poor. In 1999 and 2003, South African students finished dead last in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, and in 2006, they finished dead last in the International Reading Literacy Study. One problem is the presence of teaching in the classroom. While the school week is supposed to contain a minimum of 22 ½ hours of instructional time each week, a 2005 study found that the average time of instruction is actually 16 hours, as teachers either do not show up on Fridays, by and large, or no teaching took place in the classroom (Simkins, 2011, p. 113). While there was a system of accountability in the school system as recently as the 1980's, when the unrest began, the inspectors were forced from the schools, and currently there is no oversight for the country's educational system. If you combine a lack of oversight with the general attitude, pervasive after the fall of apartheid, that strict authority should be replaced with progressive inquiry, you have a system with little accountability, and dreadful results.

The impact of this educational system on a social structure like that found in South Africa is devastating. While the public school system helps absolutely no one, those students who come from more affluent families can afford private education, or can live in school districts with teachers on the higher end of the motivation spectrum. For students in primarily black and poor neighborhoods, the schools are on the lower end of the motivation (and quality) spectrum, which means that while the government may officially be dedicated to equality, the education that the children of the poor will receive is virtually guaranteed to trap them in a cycle of poverty and ignorance. Even though they nominally attend schools that have the same scope and sequence that is taught throughout the country, these students are basically being warehoused and given child care until they are old enough to turn loose into the job market. The irony, of course, is that the “education” they receive barely equips them to subsist. There is virtually no chance that students in this educational environment will ever be able to achieve wealth. The gap between rich and poor, between white and black, is only being exacerbated by the South African school system.

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The question then becomes a speculation as to whether or not there will ever be good news for the blacks in South Africa. Matters are not as dire for the group as a whole as it may sound. Indeed, since the 1970's, there has been a growing black middle class in the country. If it had not been for this middle class, in fact, apartheid would not have fallen from within, as the black middle class provided the impetus for the arrival for equality. The integration of middle-class blacks into power structures within the country has been slow. Despite the good news from hosting the World Cup of Rugby, celebrated in the film Invictus, there is only a weak sense of unity within the country as a whole. Apartheid ripped holes in the social fabric. AIDS and unemployment have kept leaders from finding the time to close up those gaps. If the government can provide some strong oversight to the educational system and modify the tariffs and union agreements to bring some reason to import laws and labor policies, this will help the country's growth as well. However, the ravages of poverty will define the country for the foreseeable future.

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There are two reasons for optimism, though. The first is that most of the country still supports the democratic experiment. As long as a solid majority in the nation supports democracy, progress will move forward. Another reason is the government's relatively low level of corruption. While there is significant corruption in the private and public sectors, the truth is that there are many countries with more corruption, and as long as the country stays focused on improving qualities for all, and doing so in an atmosphere of integrity, there is hope for optimism in South Africa. For now, though, that hope is tempered by knowledge of the grim realities of extended poverty.

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