Mandela's South Africa

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Three years after the 1994 elections that marked an official end to apartheid and brought Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC) to power in South Africa, euphoria has given way to worries about crime, unemployment, and other problems. South Africans, writes columnist Anthony Lewis in the New York Times Magazine (Mar. 23, 1997), are wondering whether Mandela, "the Great Reconciler," is also a great president. Crime is rampant. There were 18,893 murders in 1995—which translates into a homicide rate nine times higher than the U.S. rate. Car thefts now equal nearly half the number of automobiles sold. "When one links that to the evidence that police rings are organizing car thefts, that many of the stolen cars are exported, and that 30 percent of all goods landed at Durban’s port are disappearing," notes John Chettle, a Washington lawyer who formerly directed the South Africa Foundation for North and South America, "it suggests very extensive corruption among police, customs, harbor authority, and other officials." This, he adds in the National Interest (Spring 1997), "may be the most serious remnant of the moral corruption of apartheid, and if it is not defeated soon the consequences could be profound." The crime and corruption, he points out, are encouraging the notion that South Africa is turning into another lawless African state with an incompetent government—and are also prompting some young professionals to leave the country.

"The apartheid system did create conditions for crime: oppressive racial discrimination, deliberate denial of decent education to blacks, miserable housing and economic policies that left millions jobless," Lewis points out. "But [Mandela] was right that the responsibility is his government’s now, and its performance so far has to be judged a failure."

Nevertheless, Chettle maintains that "fears of the Africanization of South Africa are almost certainly ill-founded. The truth is that, despite its problems, South Africa is becoming a stable state, not yet akin to the social democratic states of Europe, but one with a high degree of agreement among its elites as to its political, economic, and social foundations."

It was fortunate in a way, Chettle observes, that democracy in South Africa arrived only after the statist ideologies that had sustained the National Party and the ANC— apartheid and Marxism, respectively—had both been discredited. Mandela’s government embraces "prevailing Western economic views: ones that stress budgetary restraint, lowering the deficit, controlling inflation, creating an environment friendly to business, cutting regulation, and—most remarkable of all in a party that in its freedom charter pledged to nationalize the commanding heights of the economy—moving toward dismantling state monopolies and selling off their assets." Inflation dropped to seven percent last year, the lowest figure in a quarter-century.

Reducing poverty is the country’s great challenge, Chettle writes. Yet the economy has been growing at only about three percent a year—not enough to significantly reduce unemployment, which approaches 40 percent. "Among comparable middleincome developing countries, South Africa has one of the worst records in terms of health, education, safe water, fertility, and income inequality." Mandela’s government hasn’t much changed that. Lewis calls gross inequality "a time bomb." But Mandela told him: "We must not be unrealistic. We want to bring about change without any dislocation to the economy." Ever since he was elected president, Mandela "has treated his job as more ceremonial than executive," note the editors of the Economist (Apr. 5, 1997). Seventy-nine years old this July, Mandela has increasingly left the running of the government to deputy president Thabo Mbeki, his designated political heir. Mandela’s term ends in 1999.

Mandela’s shortcomings as chief executive, Lewis concludes, are dwarfed by his achievements in the last three years. "He has taken a country utterly divided by race and made it one where people of different races actually share a vision: where ‘the two worlds have begun to overlap.’. . . He has transformed the political system without creating unrealistic expectations in the newly enfranchised. He has taken a country where fear was everywhere and made it free. He has given a society marked by official murder a culture of human rights." A new constitution and bill of rights are now in place.

Despite its serious problems, Chettle says, South Africa "is not a typical African state. That is true not only in terms of its infrastructure—an extensive financial, educational, and industrial base, and good communications and roads systems—but also its history. For well over a century the country, or its constituent parts before Union in 1910, has had all the institutions of democratic government. The conflict that has consumed the last half century did not concern so much the adequacy of those democratic institutions as their failure to include all the people." The recent political reforms, Chettle says, have been "a good example of the reassuring pragmatism that has prevailed in South Africa."


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