Here we go again. The drumbeat of negativity has already started. Soon the heavy shelling will begin. From early June, South Africa will be in the spotlight of the international media for the first time since the end of white rule. It should brace itself. A decade and a half after the “miracle” of the negotiated revolution, the footage will not be of burning barricades, but rather of shining new stadiums as some of the planet’s most beloved sportsmen parade their skills in the World Cup. But one element will be all too familiar from those jittery days. An undercurrent of this summer’s narrative is already pulling in a predictable, dark direction: South Africa is slithering into the abyss.
As the coverage intensifies, I am reminded of the alarmism of the early 1990s. Back then, there were genuine grounds for trepidation as the white rightwing threatened civil war, even if, in the end, the Boers’ fulminations received more credence than they merited. There must be something about the historical resonance of khaki-clad rightwingers that delights international news editors. Intimations of racial conflict are covered with glee sometimes, as if they confirm that South Africa is going to hell in a handcart after all. “England fans could be caught up in a machete race war at the World Cup in South Africa,” reported a British tabloid, the Daily Star, in April on its front page, after the murder of the far-right leader, Eugene Terre’Blanche by his farm workers. Broadsheets hinted at a similar risk, even though it has long been clear that Terre’Blanche’s AWB party is little more than a few extremists and a fax machine.
Those headlines came just a few months after the hysterical response to the attack on the Togolese football team en route to the Africa Cup of Nations in Angola. Exasperated Fifa officials found themselves having to calm fears for the World Cup. The northern tip of Angola is around 2,000 miles from South Africa. It was as if people were assessing London’s readiness for the 2012 Olympics through the latest events in the Caucasus, or safety for Vancouver’s recent winter Games via the drug wars in Mexico.
And so the narrative will unfold. The plot lines for the coming month will be too inviting to resist. I should know. I have used them frequently in nearly two decades of writing about South Africa. Target number one, as in the old days, will be race. We will learn, in tones of sadness rather than anger, how Nelson Mandela’s imagined Rainbow Nation has proved just that, an old man’s fantasy. Commentators may then be tempted to cut away to footage of the reconciliatory festival that was the 1995 Rugby World Cup, as recently lionised by Clint Eastwood in the film Invictus. The moral will be clear: hope has been derailed.
Then there is the violence. South Africa’s frightening crime statistics have been prime fodder for journalists for decades. One German newspaper has already advised players to wear body armour when leaving the team hotel. Finally, there is the patchy record of the ruling African National Congress. Much will be made of the contrast between Cape Town’s modern airport and the squatter camps that line the road into town. “Has anything changed?” opinion writers will ask. “Will the tournament leave the country anything except a psychological hangover and empty stadiums?” In the background will stand the cautionary image of neighbouring Zimbabwe, a once-prosperous state ruined by the regime of Robert Mugabe.
But as such breathless observations circulate, commentators should stop and ask whether they are reporting on South Africa or making use of a trusty stereotype that draws on decades of African failure to reinforce the idea that it is somehow inevitable that South Africa, too, will fail.
This is a sensitive issue. There is, after all, plenty of material to reinforce a bleak view of the country’s prospects: it may “fail”. Crime is appalling. Race relations are awkward. Acute inequalities persist. South Africa’s rulers have forfeited our sympathy. As the Dalai Lama told me last year, many in the ANC have abandoned public service for self-enrichment, and some present a disturbing vision of the future. What is one to make of Julius Malema, the dyspeptic leader of the ANC’s Youth League? The baby-faced 29-year-old, the first national politician to emerge in the post-liberation era, has toured the country calling for nationalisation of the mines, saluting the land confiscations of Mugabe, and, in defiance of the courts, singing the old anti-apartheid song “Kill the Boer”.
These are genuine concerns, but that does not mean they should fit snugly into a long-running narrative that South Africa will be the setting for some kind of apocalyptic, post-colonial African endgame. It is time to put the archetype away.
Most mornings begin the same way for Lourens Ackermann, a 44-year-old Afrikaner lawyer in Cape Town. At around 8am, he drinks a cappuccino in the staff canteen of Edward Nathan Sonnenbergs, South Africa’s largest law firm, and looks out over the Atlantic Ocean. The view of Table Bay from the 14th floor of the firm’s glass-fronted headquarters belongs on a postcard. Ackermann finishes his coffee and heads downstairs to the carpark. Then he gets in his Nissan and drives to Mitchell’s Plain.
His commute transports him between the traditional poles of South African life. Mitchell’s Plain is on the windswept, sandy flats east of Cape Town. It used to be a township for “coloureds”, apartheid-speak for people of mixed race, and was once the scene of street battles between residents and the police. Now it is a microcosm of the post-apartheid state, facing wrenching challenges, including 30 per cent unemployment and high crime. Just down from the over-run magistrates’ court is the small lime-coloured house where Ackermann runs his pro bono legal project.
The routine is simple. Every day someone from head office spends the morning in Mitchell’s Plain. Sometimes it is an articled clerk, sometimes one of the senior partners. “It’s easy to practise arm’s-length pro bono,” says Ackermann as we drive past blocks that house “The 28s” and “The Americans”, two of the neighbourhood’s notorious gangs. “I say, ‘Guys, you have to sit across the table and see the woman with tears pouring down her face because her life is so miserable.’ This is about individuals, not ideas.” Clients must earn less than R5,000 (£445) a month to qualify for aid.
The office may be an outpost, but ceremony obtains. Clients see their lawyer in a “boardroom” where legal tomes line the walls. On this particular morning, a young articled clerk sits with Ackermann as they meet a steady stream of people bearing humdrum complaints. The first two clients are apologetic, silver-haired men in their fifties involved in a dispute over a building. They own it and want to use it as a madrassah, but are up against others in the community who want to turn it into a mosque. Part of the problem, the men say, is a “two-faced imam”.
“This is not legal advice, this is practical advice,” Ackermann concludes. “Why don’t you just change the locks?” He offers to draw up a legal letter, although he concedes later it may not have much effect.
The “surgery” continues. A woman with a thin, sad face wants to sign over her house to her former husband. It means giving up tens of thousands of rand and her householder rights. But she is clearly desperate to escape from his reach. There have been “incidents of violence”, she says, carefully. “Boiling water has been thrown.” As she leaves, a wiry man wearing an Islamic skull cap and a flowing robe skips into the room. He is a flower seller. A friend has alerted him that his face appears in an advertisement for Cape Town. Surely he should be eligible for compensation?
This may sound like a typical piece of corporate social responsibility. The Cape Law Society, after all, insists that lawyers do 24 hours pro bono a year. Or it might come across as yet another trite tale of an Afrikaner breaking the mould; in the 1990s, it became a cliché for journalists to write about the old oppressors reaching across the racial divide. But Ackermann’s work represents more than that. He was never a stereotypical Afrikaner – his father was on the first post-apartheid Constitutional Court. The “surgery” does not just settle differences that might have festered in the apartheid era; it is also part of what distinguishes South Africa from many other developing countries – its civil society and rule of law – and makes it so hard to interpret.
This does not make the country’s juxtapositions any easier to explain. Driving back to Cape Town, Ackermann reflects on the enigma that is his country. It is sub-Saharan Africa’s only industrialised economy, a magnet for investors. It has a first-world network of roads and telecommunications, and a banking system that is the envy of the continent. But it also has millions living in poverty and a government that often seems determined to prove the theory that liberation movements lose their way in power.
We pass the shanty towns next to the motorway: Langa and Crossroads. Once known across the world as battlefields in the fight against apartheid, they are now mere slums. Spider webs of cables over the tin roofs testify to the electrification projects of the past 16 years, but it is invisible things – such as a functioning code of law, overseen by an independent judiciary – that actually mark out the difference between here and, say, Luanda’s Boa Vista, a cruelly named slum that overlooks the Angolan capital’s harbour.
The pro bono project, or the “banking the unbanked” initiative by Standard Bank, the country’s largest bank by assets, are part of an array of private-sector schemes run in townships that operate almost in spite of the inefficiency and corruption of government. They may chip away mere fragments from the edifice of injustice and inequality. But they do underline the strength of the private sector and civil society, and their support for democratic institutions upon which South Africa’s future depends.
To appreciate the importance of this, it is unquestionably easier if you come from another emerging economy. To visitors from India and Brazil, and also China, they form part of a rather more dynamic and comprehensible country than western visitors tend to see.
Raman Dhawan, the silver-haired head of Tata Group Africa, moved to South Africa in early 1994 or, as he puts it, “as soon as passports could be stamped”. He had spent long years in Zambia when Indian companies did not do business in apartheid South Africa. Gazing out over Johannesburg’s forested suburbs from his office window, Dhawan acknowledges the country’s disadvantages: the high costs of labour, stemming from legislation allowing a minimum wage and entrenching workers’ rights, and the cost of telecommunications. The injustices of the past, too, are still sore. Dhawan appears to be alluding to Julius Malema and his call for the nationalisation of the mines. But the opportunities are vast. From his headquarters in the heart of the “City of Gold”, as Johannesburg was traditionally known, Dhawan plans Tata’s expansion into Africa.
The company’s business model appears reminiscent of Anglo American’s in its heyday in the 1980s, when it was involved in just about every sector of the economy. Vehicles, telecommunications, IT, steel, agriculture and tourism – Tata is in all of them. Earlier this year, the company opened a five-star Taj hotel in a grand old Cape Town mansion, opposite St George’s Cathedral. It has invested in a ferrochrome smelter in the eastern port of Richards Bay and has taken a stake in the communications network operator Neotel. Tata is not the only Indian company deepening its relationship with South Africa. In April, Jet Airways started daily direct flights from Johannesburg to Mumbai.
“It was clear even in 1994 that South Africa would be the engine that would drive the rest of Africa, and indeed be the benchmark for the rest of Africa,” says Dhawan.
He is more fulsome on the record than some business leaders are in private. The mining industry, for instance, is infuriated by the government’s opaque “new order” mining rights. When ANC officials visit London these days, they face blunt questions from frustrated miners wavering over long-term investments. Malema’s splenetic outbursts have not helped the mood.
The challenge is how to assess all this. Is Malema the harbinger of Mugabe, his sometime hero? Or is he just a passable obstacle on a bumpy road? Looking at their own country’s history since independence, much of it under a single dominant party, Congress, Indians tend to see South Africa’s ups and downs through a longer lens. In the early 1990s, Congress had been in power more or less continually for over 40 years, and commentators despaired. Yet few now dispute that India is an emerging world power. When more than 70 policemen were killed by Maoist insurgents in April, no one suggested that India’s future was imperilled. Instead, it was a reminder of India’s inequalities and the need to address them. In South Africa, by contrast, every setback runs the risk of being construed in the west as another step to certain doom.
“I find it reminiscent of the transition we have made,” says one Indian official of South Africa’s recent past. “The timeline is compressed a bit, and the pressures are different but there is the same phenomenon of a monolithic, big-tent movement coming to power at the end of a longish struggle. Many [leaders] suffered from fatigue and lost their commitment to the values. But if you look at much of the criticism it ignores the reality. There will be terrible troughs, but there will be ups as well as downs.”
China’s ambassador to South Africa, Zhong Jianhua, takes an even longer and more admiring view. A tall, reserved man with an aristocratic mien, he has been in South Africa for three years, overseeing a dramatic increase in trade between the two countries. When I first interviewed Zhong soon after his arrival, his embassy was a bungalow in need of upholstering. Now an imposing new mission stands in its place, with marble walkways and sculpted water gardens. The grandeur suits China’s most important foreign mission on the continent. South Africa sees Beijing as an increasingly strategic ally in a changing world order, as well as a source for insights into “state capitalism”. Zhong, meanwhile, thinks South Africa can play the same role for Africa as Hong Kong did for China in the 1990s, as a repository of investment and business savvy.
Zhong is initially perplexed when I suggest to him that western negativity over South Africa stems from a “long line of disappointments” in post-colonial Africa. It is a reminder of how differently Beijing sees the continent. China still remembers how newly independent African nations backed its readmission to the United Nations in 1971.
To emphasise the point, Zhong tells me a story about meeting Christian missionaries in Los Angeles on their way to Africa. “They had a mission to save these miserable barbaric natives,” he says. “If you want to make the continent like this or that … when you cannot finish [your mission] you will be disappointed. When China comes here we don’t have a secret mission to change it,” he adds. “We think: ‘What can we do for you?’”
Critics of China’s recent re-engagement with Africa, in particular its dealings with Zimbabwe and Sudan, might find that remark disingenuous. But Zhong’s admiration for South Africa sounds authentic. He regards the country as a teenager. At this stage of China’s political development, he recalls, it was about to enter the Cultural Revolution.
“We always argue about how we can define this country,” Zhong adds. When Chinese trade delegations visit South Africa, they tell him how astounded they are by the business world, how much they will have to learn if they are to compete. “They say, ‘This is not a developing country. This is not Africa.’”
The admiration of the envoy of a one-party communist state will not reassure everybody. For many white South Africans, accustomed to the living standards of the developed world, Indian and Brazilian analogies may also be rather disconcerting. But whatever the ANC may have promised, South Africa was always going to have to settle for a middle course. What matters is perspective.
When, as he did in April, Malema throws a BBC reporter out of a press conference with a volley of abuse, the incident clearly merits headlines. It was a troubling outburst from a man with presumed ambitions to lead the country. “You are small boy, you can’t do anything,” he told the hapless Jonah Fisher. “Go out, bastard! Go, you bloody agent! When you are here, you are in a different terrain. You are in our space … This is not America, this is Africa.”
One of the country’s leading merger and acquisition lawyers told me that Malema’s speeches have left businessmen at their most fearful in years. “I’ve got clients saying they are selling up and getting out of here,” he says. But that says as much about the mindset of white South Africa – which oscillates from hope to despair and back again at vertiginous speeds – as anything else. (Just a year ago, after his election, the sometime populist Jacob Zuma was being hailed in white metropolitan circles as a sure-footed pragmatist. Now the previous pessimism has returned.) It is wrong to assume that the masses are chanting for Malema.
On Freedom Day, this year’s rain-swept anniversary of South Africa’s first all-race election on April 27, 1994, I have lunch with Gigi Mafifi. I first met him in 1993 when he was an angry young man. He is in his thirties now and works in an office. We meet at a McDonald’s, the official restaurant of the tournament. The clientele is half black and half white, unthinkable when we first met. Freedom has not delivered his dreams. He still struggles against racism from colleagues and is in and out of work; he raises his children in a shack; he snorts at the idea that he might have gone to a rally to mark the big day. But for all his frustrations, Mafifi has no time for Malema – nor, he says, does anyone in his township. “When he saluted Mugabe, that was the icing on the cake,” he says. “He is damaging South Africa. No one takes him seriously.”
One man who knows all about perception and reality is François Pienaar. The blond, blue-eyed Afrikaner who led South Africa’s rugby team to victory in the 1995 World Cup is part of one of the founding myths of post-apartheid society. Mandela’s embrace of the sport, which had been an emblem of Afrikaner domination, was a masterstroke, helping bind Afrikaners to their reincarnated nation. Hollywood’s saccharine portrayal of the relationship between Pienaar and Mandela in Eastwood’s recent film may have had some viewers rolling their eyes, but it held a truthful essence. Mandela attended Pienaar’s wedding, and Pienaar still verges on tears when he describes Mandela’s appearance in the team’s changing room before the final, wearing the Springbok jersey. He saw the “old man” for an hour last month.
“It wasn’t a panacea,” says Pienaar, of the 1995 triumph. “But he [Mandela] gave us a platform to be proud. We woke the next morning and we were all South Africans. It cut across all creeds.” Pienaar, who now runs an education charity, does not brush aside the anxieties over Malema and the ANC’s trajectory. But he decries much western analysis of the country as reflexively pessimistic. “If anyone said to me in 1994 that in 15 years, South Africa would have had three more peaceful general elections, that the Indian Premier League, for security reasons, would have left India and come to South Africa and been a major successful event, and that in 2010 we were hosting the biggest event in the world, I would have said, ‘You are absolutely smoking something.’”
The west has always found it hard to understand, let alone explain, the paradoxes of developing countries. South Africa, with its tortured racial history, has special dilemmas. But it is time to see it for what it is: an emerging market economy stalked by inequality and high crime, overseen by an incompetent, corrupt elite – rather than a lurid morality tale. It is a troubled country, muddling along, no more and no less.
In short, South Africa’s prospects appear quite similar to India’s or Brazil’s a decade or so ago. There does not have to be an endgame. South Africa may flounder. Or it may flourish. But nothing is written in the stars.
Alec Russell is comment and analysis editor of the Financial Times. In his last piece for the magazine, he returned to Romania 20 years on from the overthrow of Ceaucescu. Read it at www.ft.com/romania