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South Africa in black and white.

When I travel round the world, I am interested by how South Africa's transition from apartheid to democracy is celebrated overseas. The common epithet that is thrown around is `miracle'. This romanticization is not all good news for South Africa, because it conceals some harsh realities about the post-apartheid challenges we face, and their devastating effects on our society and on our people's psyche.

To be sure, South Africa and its citizens have achieved a great deal over the past decade. The legitimacy of the democratic order is scarcely questioned; procedural democracy seems to be maturing by the day; even `pathological spoilers'--to borrow a phrase from the American scholar Steve Stedman--on the lunatic fringe use democratic means to challenge the state.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in spite of all its pitfalls, was able to promote a sense of forgiveness and political reconciliation, especially amongst political elites. Former President Nelson Mandela still enjoys a saint-like aura and is called upon to make peace throughout the world. President Thabo Mbeki's government is engaged in efforts to democratize Africa.

No wonder there is all the talk of the miracle; but it is a fragile `miracle' at best.

The future of our past

The `new' South Africa is under overwhelming stress to address apartheid's social and economic legacies. The apartheid-based structures of the civil service and the mechanisms by which government delivers services are not yet transformed. Relationships between political leaders and the old civil service often highlight the challenge of unaltered racism in our country.

In many respects, it is the provincial and local governments that face the greatest challenges. At the provincial level, converting the four provinces and 11 homelands of apartheid into nine new democratic provinces--all but two within new borders--was a daunting task. Many of their administrations are still grappling with the Bantustans' legacies of mal-administration and corruption.

If the recent debates around race and racism in South Africa are anything to go by, it is clear that the country remains a deeply divided society. White South Africans, who had a remarkably and necessarily soft landing offered by the transition, are the ones who often cry wolf. Many of them do not always appreciate the fact that South Africa's divided society exists in the frame of a dualistic Third World-First World economy with tightly skewed social characteristics.

The country boasts a sizeable industrial heartland, with the largest, most diversified and most advanced economy in Africa. Its GDP is three times Nigeria's. But it is a giant with serious limitations, conjuring both hope and fear. Unemployment hovers around 35-40 per cent.

President Mbeki depicts South Africa as `a country of two nations'. One nation is the chronically underdeveloped majority population, with a standard of living similar to that in Congo-Brazzaville. The other, much smaller, nation is highly developed and largely white, with living standards similar to Spain's. South Africa and Brazil are the world's most unequal societies.

These grim inequalities will have a sharp fall-out for reconciliation. The Mandelaesque political reconciliation between blacks and whites is necessary but far from sufficient. A materially determined reconciliation, that seeks to close the poverty gap, will be just as critical.

At the risk of generalizing, it seems that there is little appetite on the part of white South Africans to gauge the imbalance between their own security, prosperity and lebensraum and those of the overwhelming majority of their black compatriots. Many whites opt out of South Africa's democratic experiment and nation-building exercise. They prefer instead to build fortresses and lagers around themselves, or to join the white flight and brain drain from the country. And the wealth gap between black haves and black have-nots is also growing.

From promise to delivery

South Africa's allies and friends abroad, notably in the West, must move towards turning their promises of goodwill and assistance into tangibles. South Africa and its neighbours urgently need direct foreign investment, not just informal portfolio investments on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. We need the kind of investment that will create jobs and help to educate the populace.

Countries from both the North and South could also help to strengthen the governing capacity--and regional peace-making capacity--of what is still a largely inexperienced and overstretched state.

It is important to recognize that not only reconciliation between black and white South Africans is needed, but also between and amongst black people and different societal levels. Any reconciliation regime should seek to involve all of South Africa's divided pockets and communities.

Beyond that, the priorities are restructuring institutions and policies and creating wealth for all South Africans. Unless these issues are addressed concurrently and urgently, the `rainbow' may soon start to lose its glow.
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Author:Landsberg, Chris
Publication:For A Change
Date:Jun 1, 2000
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