How South Africa’s present reveals our future
I went off the radar these last two months as I devoted all my time and energy to producing a rough draft of my next book. I hunkered down in Johannesburg, lived off brandy and boerewors, and enjoyed the warm onset of the Jacaranda season that announces the end of South African winter. I was there as the nation descend into a funereal gloom when it lost its opening match in the Rugby World Cup to (hitherto) rugby-minnow Japan, and saw the team salvage some semblance of self-respect when they went on to have a half-decent tournament. I got lucky with power-cuts and water lock-offs, completely escaping the first and suffering only two afternoons’ worth of the second. I watched the government struggle ineptly with a sudden upsurge in student protest, whilst breaking the bad news that there was no longer any money in its kitty to meet student demands as the economy slid into recession. I led a hermit’s life, but the result is a completed manuscript, ready for my revision. Now that I’m back in the UK (however briefly), I can turn my attention back to other matters — such as resuming this blog.
South Africa is always fascinating, and it is going through a time that is even moreso for all the challenges it poses. I have long maintained that the country i a microcosm of the West, and is twenty years ahead of us in the adjustments it is struggling to make to its post-apartheid reality. Where it goes, we will follow, and its experiments in crafting a viable model for the new, sustainable society it’s trying to build provide useful lessons for us all.
In Volkskapitalisme, the historian Dan O’Meara described apartheid as a marriage between an emergent Afrikaner (the descendants of Dutch settlers) business class and the poor white South Africans who would provide the political support-base of the white supremacist regime. The business-class wanted to capture the South African state and use its resources to aid it to build its own competitiveness with the then-dominant British capitalists. In return for the votes of the numerically-dominant (among whites) Afrikaner working class, the National Party which took power in 1948 inflated incomes and living standards for poor whites by steering public services to their neighbourhoods, reserving certain jobs — especially in government services — for whites, and setting aside the choicest areas for them to live in, which were then equipped with the best schools, universities, post offices and police stations. With the resources coming from a farming and mining economy manned largely by black workers, whose much-lower wages boosted the revenues of the owners, the apartheid regime was able to create islands of prosperity in a sea of poverty. As a result, you can today drive through large stretches of Johannesburg and feel like you could be in Miami, given the comfortable homes, trendy cafes and expansive shopping malls filled with European fashion-chains and American diners. But visit the townships, or worse, the sprawling squatter camps and poorer farmlands, and you step into another world altogether.
The essential difference between South African cities and those of the West, in fact, is the distance between the white suburbs and the black townships. South Africans were on the frontline, we in the West were able to put a more comfortable distance between us and the poor workers at the base of a world economy that was operating mostly to our advantage. But as I have written previously, the world economy over the last two centuries was just a global version of apartheid, with the prosperous ‘white suburbs’ of the Western countries living off the cheap labour of the poor ‘black townships’ of the developed world.
Like any regime that exploited the majority for the benefit of the minority, apartheid was bound to be unstable. Two distinct forces combined to bring it to an end. First, poor blacks rose up to challenge the regime. And rich white business-owners, having got onto a solid footing, wanted to move to the next stage of their development. Once they had reached the limits of the national market, they hungered for foreign sales. But that meant, if they were to compete with other Third-World countries, that they had to stop paying First-World wages to protected workers. South African businesses wanted access to township labour, and wanted to do away with job reservation. In the battle to end apartheid, white business owners formed common cause with black-nationalist politicians. As the latter consolidated around the African National Congress led by Nelson Mandela, the former got together to bring the reformist F.W. de Klerk, who came to power in 1989. Within months, the new president had freed Nelson Mandela from prison. Four years later, in 1994, apartheid came to an end.
What has followed has been anything but easy. But as we’ll go on to see, what South Africa has been going through in the intervening two decades has provided the plot for our own dramas of the last few years. Understanding that story will help us to read the tea-leaves of our own future.