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Is South Africa another failed African state?

February 10, 2008

Imagine my shock this morning, in opening the Sunday edition of the Glasgow Herald, to discover, courtesy of Fred Bridgland, that “the lights are … going out all over South Africa as crime, corruption and mismanagement push the rainbow country towards becoming another failed African state.” I nearly choaked on my coffee. Is he writing about the same country I visited three weeks ago?

It’s always interesting to observe reports of my country’s immanent demise in the papers, and then compare it to the relatively prosaic reality: Yes, there’s plenty wrong with South Africa, but there’s been plenty wrong with it since white people landed in 1652. Hopefully we’re beginning to fix some of these things now.

The reality is far more complex and nuanced than Bridgland suggests. Despite serious problems, the country is far from a lost cause. Today, it is infinitely better than it was under apartheid, and it is still a work in progress.

Here’s Our Man in Johannesburg:

AFTER BATHING in the warm, fuzzy glow of the Mandela years, South Africans today are deeply demoralised people. The lights are going out in homes, mines, factories and shopping malls as the national power authority, Eskom – suffering from mismanagement, lack of foresight, a failure to maintain power stations and a flight of skilled engineers to other countries – implements rolling power cuts that plunge towns and cities into daily chaos.

Major industrial projects are on hold. The only healthy enterprise now worth being involved in is the sale of small diesel generators to powerless households but even this business has run out of supplies and spare parts from China.

The currency, the rand, has entered freefall. Crime, much of it gratuitously violent, is rampant, and the national police chief faces trial for corruption and defeating the ends of justice as a result of his alleged deals with a local mafia kingpin and dealer in hard drugs.

Bridgland has been reporting Africa for decades. He really should know better than this. The rand is not, for example, “in freefall”. It’s gone up and down over the past few years, but it’s stronger now than in 2000 and many people think a weaker rand would allow us to create more jobs anyway.

“The only healthy enterprise now worth being involved in is the sale of small diesel generators….” Is he really saying that this is the only viable business in South Africa? We have growth rates of 4.5% – I don’t believe this is all down to people buying generators. We also don’t have the debt problem being experienced by the US economy.

He is incorrect to say, as he does, that Zuma “narrowly escaped being jailed for raping an HIV-positive woman”. Being acquitted is not the same as narrowly escaping jail. He was found innocent of rape by the court that tried him. I am no fan of Zuma, but for an experienced journalist like Bridgland to distort the truth like this is shocking. The article reads as if it was written by the DA press office.

To suggest that South Africa is heading the way of Zimbabwe and other failed African states betrays an ignorance and superficiality of analysis that is astounding in an international correspondent – Bridgland doesn’t deserve to write for newspapers if he can’t come up with better than his pessimistic tales of woe.

I am also deeply concerned by Eskom and the power cuts, which are an embarrassment, but hardly unique to South Africa. Enron, anyone?

Does anyone have a useful contribution to make? The government claims that better than expected economic growth lead to an unprecedented surge in demand for power – which is good news, surely? The white right blames the crisis on affirmative action (this is possibly a factor, since the government doesn’t spend money training Black people, believing it is sufficient to merely put them in post), while the WIVL (aka the Trots) believe that “the main reason for the sustained blackouts are to provide justification for the accelerated mass privatization of Eskom to General Electric and other related giant companies and banks.

Nice theory, but they don’t present any evidence in their press release, which makes it as valuable as the Illuminati plot theory that was doing the rounds a while back.

Regular readers will know that I am not one to gloss over South Africa’s failings. I am also appalled at the South African government, which has delivered so much less than we hoped for. I think attacking our government’s record is crucial. But it’s important to be accurate and honest in our criticism, and to balance the critique with a look at some of what is working about South Africa.

For instance, as much as the prospect of a Zuma presidency worries me, I feel that the process that saw him elected shows that there is still a tremendous amount of contested political space in South Africa – certainly more so than in Britain, where the status quo is monolithically powerful, and will only be shaken by financial or environmental crisis.

South Africa isn’t falling apart. It’s in a bit of a scary shape, but broadly it functions. Despite government, many people are managing to do useful work.

I have more faith in South Africa’s long term future than in Britain’s. We can at least feed ourselves. Britain is an imperial hangover that is addicted to war and consumption. I am seriously worried about surveillance, detention without trial, and all the other road signs on the highway we are taking to pro-corporate fascism.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. August 16, 2008 10:13 am

    Well said, and very true. Fred Bridgland’s report is extreme, but the other side of the equation is also valid.

    The advent of Nelson Mandela’s Rainbow Nation, the bloodless transition from the old repressive apartheid regime promised so much. It was an unlikely fairy tale and it took us by surprise. The bogeyman of black majority rule was a misnomer after all. Everything was going to be alright.

    But it wasn’t to be. The rampant corruption within the ruling party, the crumbling into ruin of state facilities, the rising, raging crime that soon affected everybody — and I mean everybody — dispelled all illusions.

    We have come down to earth with a bump, and disappointment at the state of affairs is acute!

    And that’s the mitigating factor for the negative reporting on South Africa which is being featured in publications all over the world. In my blog I refer to it as the hundredth monkey syndrome. It’s a trend which won’t easily be reversed anytime soon.

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