A Turbulent and Yet Vital Country

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It is very hard to capture the essence of a place in a short visit to a far away land. I am still trying to digest all that I saw and heard while in South Africa over the last couple of weeks.  Although this trip was not my first visit, it was for me the most sustained time that I spent there.  And I had the good fortune to spend time at the University of Pretoria with good colleagues and also with: a variety of folks from the diplomatic community; as well as officials from the government of South Africa.

For those of us interested in global summitry, South Africa is a significant new player in the global governance game.  It is the first, and to this point only African state that participates consistently at the “high table” of G20 leaders.  Moreover, and I’d say most critically, South Africa is a turbulent yet vibrant member of the democratic community in global summitry.

Today South Africa remains the largest national economy in Africa, though growth has been increasingly a question mark for this most southern nation in Africa.  South Africa may be taken over by Nigeria in the not too distant future.   While I was in Pretoria  the government released two vital pieces of information.  First, and due to its most recent census, South Africa had reached a population of some 50 million people.  Second, as I mentioned in the previous blog post, “An Apparently Potent Flavor of the Month”  South Africa has acknowledged that its official unemployment rate has climbed to 25.5 percent.  Now that is a nasty piece of business but let’s not forget – and I was reminded about this in recent new reports – that Spain, yes Spain, part of the eurozone, has an official unemployment level about the same as South Africa.  Definitely food for thought.

Now a quick examination of the pros and cons on the national ledger.  Official statistics reveal that violent crime is on the decline, though what we here in North America at least call b&e is not.  In fact on that front what the South Africans call “smash and grab” is seemingly an ever-present reality. Indeed, one of my colleagues at UP, or as it is affectionately known and called – Tuks – has suffered through three incidents in just a year.  In fact this colleague was on the way to pick me up when an assailant put a brick through the car passenger window and lifted the bag and credit cards of my colleague.  The more than pleasant guest facility that I was temporarily housed in had a high fence surrounding the entire facility where swiping a card was required to gain entry.  Even more sadly the University, which was only about ten minutes walk from this same guest facility was completely surrounded by an equally high fence and there was absolutely no admittance without a card or by way of a thorough check and the guarded entries.  It was to say the least unnerving.

On the wider civil society front there have been stormy and even violent labor strikes recently.  The most notorious was the Marikana strike – mines near Rutenburg – where in August 47 people, mainly miners, where shot and killed by South African Police Services personnel.  Strikes have not ended in the mining sector though they have abated, but there have been recent strikes by agricultural laborers  that have led to hectares and hectares of vineyards being torched.  Not pretty.  The social unrest is real and disconcerting and it has allowed the most populist political elements to seek advantage.  Also not pretty.

But on the positive side, I would suggest that the democratic impulse  is a tangible and ever present sense in the country – among the elites and more importantly in the broader South African society. This is a vibrant democratic society.  In response to the Marikana shootings, for example, the government struck a public commission of inquiry.  Now it could be a “white wash” and possibly a serious effort of political deflection but the instinct and impulse is right – and it is evident that this is what the South African people expect.

On the democratic side, the real impediment to a deep and deepening  democratic entrenchment is the continuing stranglehold on political life, and the national government, of the current ruling Tripartite Alliance – the amalgam of the African National Congress (ANC) the Communist Party of South Africa (SACP)   and the Congress of South Africa Trade Unions (COSATU).  This ruling party, and government, is a consequence of the struggle against apartheid.  But the alliance now impedes – my political science is about to shine through, sorry – the “circulation of elites” and the holding accountable of office holders in particular.  Unfortunately, the stranglehold of the ANC alliance saps the prospect of democratic renewal and accountability.  While the DA or Democratic Alliance opposition has made gains – even holding provincial government – it remains viewed by the black majority as a white party.  The DA requires more change.  Thus, South Africans have to rely on the interplay of factions, including reformist factions, within the ANC to renew democratic accountability and to punish cronyism and graft.  It is not adequate. Extremist elements continue to call for a “second revolution” – threatening private property and in the end the rights of all citizens.  A truly bad business and unlikely to encourage investment in the economy from within or from without.

Storm clouds or not the democratic presence in South African life is palatable and to be nourished.  It was encouraging that colleagues saw the unique South African character. Notwithstanding the current Administration’s fantasies over the BRICS membership – and an unlikely South African leadership in it – colleagues and experts  were alert to the leadership and partnership prospects in the India-Brazil-South Africa partnership – IBSA.  South African leadership needs to see it as more than a development forum.  The democratic values at the core of this alliance gives this organization the critical foundation for these emerging powers and potentially a values driven institution.  And just within the G20 there are immediate partners – Turkey and Indonesia.  This is the way forward for South African leadership in global influence. Let’s encourage it.


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