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November 23, 2004

Testing the Faith: thoughts from South Africa

Posted by Lincoln Allison

I first went to South Africa in 1995, after the first universal suffrage election and just before the national team's victory in the Rugby World Cup and the symbolic moment when Nelson Mandela wore Francois Pienaar's Springbok shirt. This was the new South Africa at its newest, combining emotional symbolism and wild optimism with the fear that society would disintegrate rapidly. When I saw the legacy of Crossroads and Soweto and compared what was there with the 9-bedroom, 3-servant places with swimming pool and "armed response" which even an academic colleague could afford it was not difficult to conclude that this was a society which would probably fall apart and, at the very least, would take generations to mend.

Visiting ten years on, after an election in which the ANC, now led by Thabo Mbeki, had won an even bigger majority, "Are things going well or badly?" was fascinating. Asked of the UK or Australia this question would refer to relatively minor fluctuations of mood and achievement, but in South Africa the graph is of melodramatic proportions.

Consider the case for pessimism: The official unemployment figure is up to 42%. The Republic is experiencing its full share of the AIDS crisis, which it has not handled well. It has one of the highest rates of violent crime in the world. The vastness of rural poverty is on a scale not seen in Europe since (say) Ireland in the first half of the nineteenth century. As the Africanisation of jobs proceeds many of the talented young white people are emigrating.

Even the most cocooned of tourists cannot ignore these things. The symptoms of poverty are everywhere in the countryside. The young man who calls you "baas" and asks you for money for his baby looks visibly sick. You are constantly warned about muggings and when and where you should visit. There are always offers, Liverpool-style, to "mind" your car: prudence and a vague sense of guilt combine to suggest that you do pay for this service. Almost every elderly white person you meet complains that they cannot afford to visit their grandchildren in London or Perth or Los Angeles.

But this is also a place of wonder with a vast diversity of peoples and landscapes, a veritable "world in one country". It has probably the best wildlife in the world. It is as friendly as it is dramatic. The food is superb, ranging from Cape Malay curries to the haute cuisine of the Huguenot towns in the Cape and including the world's finest range of meats: we ate springbok, ostrich, impala, kudu and warthog, all delicious. The wine is a serious candidate for the best in the world; personally, I favour that made from South Africa's own grape, the Pinotage. Thus it is not far-fetched to say that South Africa in the twenty-first century could become the best place in the world to live and the top of every traveller's "must visit" list. Or it could collapse into poverty and chaos.

The central problem is one familiar from nineteenth century liberal political theory. Lord Acton, John Stuart Mill, Sir William Lecky et al. lived and struggled with the idea of the "tyranny of the majority", with the equation that Democracy + Poverty + Ignorance = repressive, confiscatory government. And, we might add, slow, steady Soviet-style social collapse. Just as in nineteenth century England the statistics are terrifying. If you add up the whites, the "coloureds", the Asians and the black professional class, all of whom are in a position to benefit from existing arrangements, you don't quite get to one third of the population.

In these conditions and for the moment the ANC is doing well. The double miracle in which the personality of Nelson Mandela and the collapse of communism formed the context in which the ANC finally achieved power, which drew its Mugabeist sting, is still in place. The decision to challenge no property holdings except those which have resulted from specifically racist policies since 1913 is masterly. "Colonialism" is too big an historical event for which to seek redress. On the other hand, the range of racist laws which deprived people of property rights for biological reasons, were unjust from a conservative point of view, morally parallel to communism.

The injustice was massive and monstrous. But here it is important to make a theoretical point, one which is obvious and essential to the understanding of society, but which only conservatives accept: the idea of social justice is essentially incoherent, a chimera. The typically massive unfairnesses of history and genetics can never be remedied. The Roman definition of justice was suum cuique, meaning to each what he deserves. Here in South Africa that would mean a good deal of stringing up (particularly of Boers, in my view) and a decent life for a lot of decent Africans. But what good would any of that do? Attempting to achieve the latter would destroy the economy for the moment. The ANC are right to emphasise "truth and reconciliation" rather than social justice. In a Sweden or an Australia you can tinker with law and policy and think you are furthering the ends of social justice. But where the human condition gets tough and serious as in the broad, raw ethical context of South Africa, Utilitarianism is the only philosophy which makes any sense. The question is whether South Africa will collapse by 2050 or whether it will get some way toward fulfilling its potential. The answer depends on whether the leadership of the ANC can fend off the left, the trades unions and the "populists" (a word used to describe Winnie Mandela, among others). As a betting man and an optimist I think it will be OK just.

Lincoln Allison has recently retired as Reader in Politics, University of Warwick.

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