We’re All South Africans Now – The Price of Justice

South Africa shows how difficult it is to build a true democracy

Even the most socially-minded of older white South Africans, though they will decry apartheid and say it had to end, will nonetheless struggle not to sound nostalgic when talking of the old days. Then, they will tell you, the streets were safe, the police honest, the post offices efficient and the schools excellent. Now — well, don’t get them started.

Before we judge such ‘old-fartness’ too harshly, we’d do well to note how often many of us resort to the same sort of wistfulness when speaking of our own past. We too, not least those of us on the left, will wax eloquent about the old days of the Keynesian welfare state, full employment, the social compact between rich and poor, and the greater social cohesion. Subsidised in no small measure by the cheap labour of the Third World. That social compact wasn’t so wonderful for everyone, and it ended for much the same reason apartheid did — because it was never sustainable.

During apartheid (the Afrikaner word for ‘apartness’), white South Africans could live as well as they did partly because  black workers were not only underpaid, but received a disproportionately small share of the public goods and services the state offered. The regime justified this by pointing out that black South Africans got better wages and schools than other Africans — that’s why why so many of them migrated to work in South Africa. But that didn’t mitigate the injustice of a regime which nonetheless acted like an upside-down funnel, hoovering wealth from the majority to keep a privileged minority in the style to which they’d grown accustomed.

We in the West used the same model to build our own high standards of living. Before Europe colonised the Third World, global incomes were about on par. After two centuries of empire, the gap between the West and the rest had widened massively. As I have written before, we then used our political dominance to organise the global economy in such a way as to steer its resources disproportionately towards us. Third World countries were our black townships.

At its peak, South Africa’s white community amounted to about one in six of the country’s population. Surprise, surprise, that’s about the same share of the world population that the developed countries of the West account for. And it’s just a little uncomfortable to note that most of the beneficiaries at the top of of this global economic system have historically been, well, white. Moreover, when you think of the rhetoric we have trundled out to justify this state of affairs, we can sound a bit like old South Africans, saying that even if the workers in the factories supplying our clothes and mobile phones are much poorer than us, they’re still better off than they would be if they didn’t work for us. Strictly speaking, that may be true, but it’s like the old Mozambican saying that the only thing worse than being exploited by South Africa is to not be exploited by South Africa. Finding an evil that’s lesser than yours doesn’t make yours good.

I don’t want to overstate this point, nor understate the value added through the know-how and technology generated in Western countries in the era in which we dominated the world economy. As I wrote in an earlier post, we did more than simply live off the riches of other people. We used it to power technological change and raise incomes in such a way as to sustain demand for not just our industry, but the global economy as a whole. China went backwards and got poorer after its forced opening but many other parts of the world, like India, actually experienced rising incomes. But as I write in my upcoming book, The Money Cult (Simon & Schuster), colonial riches pumped the fire of our Industrial Revolutions higher, and we ensured we got a disproportionate share of the riches that resulted by slapping controls at our borders. What South Africans called influx control, we called immigration policy. And as happened in apartheid South Africa, while incomes may have risen across the board in absolute terms, they rose much faster in Western countries than in the colonies.

It’s easy for a ruling class to appear generous when it doesn’t have to share its own wealth, but can stiff someone else with the bill. In apartheid South Africa, that was the black majority. In modern Western democracies, it was the former colonies of the Third World, where lived the majority of humanity. With the end of apartheid in 1994, South Africa’s black majority, organised under the African National Congress, finally took power. Since then, the state has re-allocated public resources in a far more egalitarian manner. So far, the results have been mixed (as I wrote when I landed back in South Africa three months ago). The country is no less unequal than it was in 1994, revealing some unexpected problems in the government’s strategy. On the other hand, black South Africans have better access to government services than they did before. Whites have felt an obvious decline in the quality of governance, but this is in large measure because they now have to share with everyone what was once exclusively theirs.

Apartheid ended in 1994. In 1999, the West’s share of global consumption peaked. Since then, the out-sourcing of jobs to the Third World has raised incomes there, and constrained them here. Just as white South Africans feel the redistribution of resources as a net loss in living standards, so do we feel the pinch as the Third World rises. Driving these twin processes is the same underlying force, as I’ll go on to write about in my next post in this series. South Africa’s experiment with transition offers a lot of insights into how we might best move forward into this new age. There have been many mistakes among the successes, but the country’s experimentation still gives enough reason to hope that a better world for everyone might yet emerge.


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