Thoughts on Post-Mandela South Africa

My latest column is a very brief political history of post-apartheid South Africa. I argue that though Nelson Mandela was an admirable figure in many respects, his successors in the African National Congress have not had a very successful economic track record. I was particularly struck by the contrast between South Africa and neighboring Botswana. As recently as 1994, Botswana and South Africa had virtually identical levels of GDP per capita (PPP). But between 1994 and 2012, South Africa’s GDP per capita (PPP) has increased from $7,422 to $9,860 while Botswana’s has increased from $7,262 to $14,639  (in constant 2005 dollars). Malaysia, a country that is in many respects quite similar to South Africa — both are middle-income, multiracial societies with affluent minority communities and relatively poor indigenous majority communities, as Dani Rodrik observed in a 2006 paper on “Understanding South Africa’s economic puzzles” — had a GDP per capita (PPP) of $8,868 in 1994, which has since climbed to $14,775. This is not to say that South Africa is alone among middle-income growth laggards. Brazil, for example, has had a similarly modest growth performance in recent years, despite generous heapings of hype — its GDP per capita (PPP) has gone from $7,502 to $10,264 over the same interval. Yet the ANC has made expansive commitments to its poorest citizens, which have often been cast in terms of racial justice. South Africa’s weak economic performance has thus engendered a great deal of bitterness, and a political and social climate that has led large numbers of educated young South Africans of all ethnicities to emigrate. The tragedy is that the South African economy had many advantages relative to other countries in its economic weight class, including a relative large English-speaking minority well-suited to thriving in a knowledge-intensive economy and relatively good infrastructure. Despite the ANC’s economic policy failures, it has not faced a serious political challenge, at least not yet.

Leaving economic policy aside, there are also many indications that the South African state is growing more authoritarian. In 1994, Mandela gave an address to the International Press Institute Congress, which included the following passage:

The removal from South Africa`s Statute books of the scores of laws, ordinances, regulations and administrative measures that have empowered government to abridge the rights of South African citizens to know the truth, or which repress the freedom of the media to publish, or which limit citizens` rights to express themselves are, in our view, essential for a democratic political climate. Freedom of expression, of which press freedom is a crucial aspect, is among the core values of democracy that we have striven for. To realise and institutionalise these freedoms requires that, in the first instance, we have a government representative of and based on the will of all the people.

A critical, independent and investigative press is the lifeblood of any democracy. The press must be free from state interference. It must have the economic strength to stand up to the blandishments of government officials. It must have sufficient independence from vested interests to be bold and inquiring without fear or favour. It must enjoy the protection of the constitution, so that it can protect our rights as citizens.

It is only such a free press that can temper the appetite of any government to amass power at the expense of the citizen. It is only such a free press that can be the vigilant watchdog of the public interest against the temptation on the part of those who wield it to abuse that power. It is only such a free press that can have the capacity to relentlessly expose excesses and corruption on the part of government, state officials and other institutions that hold power in society.

I have often said that the media are a mirror through which we can see ourselves as others perceive us, warts, blemishes and all. The African National Congress has nothing to fear from criticism. I can promise you, we will not wilt under close scrutiny. It is our considered view that such criticism can only help us to grow, by calling attention to those of our actions and omissions which do not measure up to our people`s expectations and the democratic values to which we subscribe. [Emphasis added]

Yet in the years since, the ANC has launched numerous attacks on press freedom and the party’s leaders have grown dangerously permissive about the use of racially inflammatory rhetoric. The good news is that the ANC appears to be fragmenting, a development I briefly discuss in the column. I was, however, a bit sloppy in suggesting that the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and the South African Communist Party (SACP) might break from the ANC, as a more likely scenario is that COSATU will form the foundation of a left-wing opposition party while the SACP will stick with the ANC bitter-enders out of Leninist discipline. The even better news is that Mamphela Ramphele, the widow of Steve Biko, a leader of the Black Consciousness movement and a martyr in the struggle against apartheid, has formed a new centrist political faction that promises to eat into the ANC’s support at the next general election. Perhaps we will some day see a coalition between Ramphele’s new Agang South Africa and the Democratic Alliance, the liberal opposition party rooted in the country’s white and colored minorities, or even a merger. But for now, South Africa still labors under a liberation movement that is past its sell-by date.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute Policy Fellow. He is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and National Affairs, a member of the ...

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