South Africa is a micro-cosm of a world economy in transition — with all its risks and opportunities.
So, having writer that the future lies in the South, I took my own advice and headed there for a while, returning to South Africa for the first time in four years. This country, hauntingly beautiful and troubling all at once, may be unusual for its peculiar history and resulting extreme inequality. It may be that no country on the planet has a more uneven distribution of wealth and income, and the end of apartheid in 1994 has scarcely made a dent in this. But in that respect, South Africa is a microcosm of the world economy, and the imperial structure which created this unequal distribution — about which I’ve been writing in a series of blog-posts. Accordingly, I submit, as goes South Africa, so goes the world: not that we are doomed to repeat the course of this country’s transition away from its imperial past, but because we can study its lessons to know the way forward.
On his recent visit to Kenya, US President Barack Obama spoke of Africa’s new dynamism, referring to it as a continent ‘on the move’. He’s right about that. After decades of being dismissed as the globe’s basket-case, a continent of little more than wars, starving children and AIDS, Africa is now finally starting to get seen abroad in a positive light. If Western reporting on Africa still tends towards the coverage of conflicts and wildlife — did anybody say Cecil the Lion? — now the good news is starting to get out. In fact, Africa is currently, on average, the world’s fastest growing continent, economically. Kenya, for instance, which is Obama’s ancestral homeland, is leading technological innovation by pioneering mobile payment platforms — an idea which will probably reach the West in the due course of time.
However, this growth is very unevenly distributed: Africa has power-houses, but it still has basket-cases. Moreover, Africa seldom makes things easy. Nigeria is a country that has seen a lot of its people return to ride the wave of economic dynamism, and it’s not hard to find them on social media, complaining about the challenges of life there. The theme of the challenges that await those returning to their homelands after living in the West has driven the popularity of the Ghanaian hit-series An African City, which has been described as Africa’s answer to ‘Sex and the City and chronicles the lives of five women returning to Ghana after spending most of their lives abroad. If anything, it’s sometimes harder for returning nationals to settle back in than for first-timers, simply because they have higher expectations and think they’ll be welcomed back — when in fact, returning emigrants everywhere confront ambivalence when they come home. The continent illustrates the basic economic principle that risks and rewards vary in equal proportion: if you can pull off setting up a business here, you will prosper and live well; but it will be a hell of a challenge to pull off, and it isn’t for the faint-hearted.
In Globalization and Inequality, I wrote that one of the enigmas of South African apartheid is that a regime which excluded the mass of its base could have lasted as long as it did. Skilful manoeuvring by successive governments managed to demobilise the opposition for a while, but the regime was doomed to collapse from the start. And when it did, the transition was bound to be difficult. A state that had siphoned resources off to support a small minority at a First-World standard of living would now have to expand its service-provision drastically. You see the effect of this the moment you arrive. I first landed in Johannesburg over twenty years ago, into what was then Jan Smuts Airport, right on the eve of apartheid’s end. Then, the immigration and customs officers were all white. When I landed over the weekend at what is now Oliver Tambo Airport, all the official faces I encountered were black. This huge expansion of the state, and the preferential hiring of blacks over the previously-favoured minorities, has obviously created issues of capacity. It was going to be impossible to expand quantity that rapidly without some trade-off in quality. And most anyone who has lived long enough here will tell you that the quality of public administration has declined, and corruption worsened.
But let’s remember, public services now reach far more people. Take policing. Homes in Johannesburg’s former white suburbs are equipped with grills, security gates, alarms and panic buttons, and the neighbourhoods are policed by private security companies. These used to be quiet, safe neighbourhoods; but that was because poor people were kept out by influx control, and police resources were heavily concentrated in these areas to allow white people to live in comfort. Post-apartheid, police resources were distributed more equally throughout the country. The white suburbs are much less safe than they were in apartheid’s days. But the overall crime rate in the country has not got worse, and many black townships are now safer than they used to be.
That’s not a bill of clean health for this government. The quality of political leadership in this country has declined markedly since the days of Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela, and President Zuma’s willingness to blame the country’s economic sluggishness on a slowing world economy is not fully honest. But it is to say the picture is more complicated than it sometimes appears. South Africa, like the continent as a whole and the global South more generally, needs to be judged not against an ideal but against reasonable expectations of where it could be at this point, given its past. And, as I’ll go on to write, if you penetrate the bad news, there are reasons to hope that the future may yet be one which its independence leaders promised — a future in which skilled people would want to come to rather than leave South Africa, as they are now doing.