A letter from Africa - Karen MacGregor


Fifty years ago, on 21 March 1960, police opened fire on thousands of people gathered outside a police station in Sharpeville near Johannesburg, killing 69 and injuring 180. They were protesting peacefully against pass laws – one of the pillars of apartheid, designed to racially segregate the population and restrict the movement of black people. The massacre kicked off an explosion of marches and strikes in South Africa as well as international protests, condemnation by the United Nations and eventually the country’s isolation.

Two decades ago, on 2 February 1990, then President FW de Klerk announced reforms that signaled the end of apartheid, unbanned the African National Congress (ANC) and released the liberation party’s leader Nelson Mandela from prison after 27 years. Universal franchise elections were held on 27-28 April 1994. The ANC scored a massive victory and South Africa’s ‘miracle’ democracy was born. The country re-entered the world community of nations, opened its borders and economy and became Africa’s most vibrant democracy.

Now the eyes of the world are once again on South Africa, for a very different reason: the 2010 FIFA World Cup, the fi rst time the global soccer competition has been held in Africa. South Africa has come a long way, to a free country few would have predicted back in 1960 when the Sharpeville massacre occurred, or during the three dark decades that followed it. But behind the smiling painted faces of fans in this soccer-mad nation, what is the state of South Africa’s democracy today? Life has improved for millions of South Africans. Between 1994 and 2009 the government delivered 2.8 million housing units to the poor. The number of households with electricity grew from 4.5 million (51%) to 9.1 million (73%) in 2008.

But millions remain mired in terrible living conditions, and lack of service delivery, such as running water, electricity and toilets, by skills-short municipalities has prompted rising numbers of demonstrations. Service delivery protests peaked in the first four months of this year, with at least 54 countrywide.

Unrest in poor areas has undermined political stability and the government has responded with concern, but has so far been unable to improve the many municipalities that Minister for Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, Sicelo Shiceka, last year admitted were “in a state of paralysis and dysfunction”.

Last September Dr Johan Burger, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, wrote that at this point service delivery protests were only symptoms of socio-political instability. However, “if this situation is allowed to continue over a prolonged period it has the potential to spread and develop into a fully-fledged revolt.”

Black diamonds

There has been good news on the fi nancial front, with economic growth up to an average of 4% a year from 1999. Bloomberg rated the Rand as the second best-performing emerging market currency last year, and South Africa was ranked by the IMF in the top 10% of growth projections for 2010. Consistent economic policies and a solid banking regulatory system helped withstand the meltdown better than Western nations.

Economic growth has enabled rapid expansion of the ‘black’ middle class. In a 2007 survey the University of Cape Town’s Unilever Institute reported that every month more than 50,000 ‘black diamonds’ – the nickname for the new black middle class – were moving from poor townships into middle-class suburbs.

However, growth and a strong, diverse economy – which generates 45% of Africa’s GDP – is not creating enough jobs. The global recession cost the country 870,000 jobs last year, and by the end of 2009 the offi cial unemployment rate was 24.3%. A mostly sub-standard school system is failing to produce the skills the country needs. Although the government has handed over 2.9 million hectares of formerly white-owned agricultural land to black people dispossessed under apartheid, the goal of distributing 30% of farmland by 2014 is unlikely to be met and the bulk of productive land transferred today lies fallow, threatening production and future food security.

South Africa remains one of the most unequal societies on earth. Real per capita incomes of the poorest rose from R783 in 1993 to R1,041 in 2008 – but the incomes of the richest 10% of South Africans grew faster. Although inequality “deteriorated somewhat” with economic growth and social grants that now reach more than 13 million people, inter-racial inequality remains high and – along with unemployment – is a driver of horrendous violent crime levels and potential instability.

Proudly free

After 1994 civil society activity faded, with the prevalent view being that democracy had been achieved and NGOs and activists no longer had a role. But growing realisation of government weaknesses and the continued need to protect rights and democracy has reinvigorated civil society in the past decade. One example is Treatment Action Campaign’s activities, including court actions against government HIV-Aids denial and high drug prices charged by global pharmaceutical companies.

There has not been a single amendment to the country’s progressive 1996 Constitution, despite the fact that the ANC has the two-thirds parliamentary majority required to make changes – although there have been many threats to do so. However, chronic shortages of staff are undermining the criminal justice system, along with an ineffective and frequently corrupt police force, dismantling of effective law enforcement units – and recently, the political appointment of an unabashedly pro-ANC head of the National Prosecuting Authority.

Of great concern is the populism that has followed the election of Jacob Zuma as head of the ANC in 2008 and as President the country in 2009. This is embodied by Julius Malema, head of the ANC Youth League. In recent months Malema has ignored a High Court ruling to stop singing a ‘liberation’ song calling for white farmers to be murdered, has abused the judiciary, damaged South Africa’s mediation efforts in Zimbabwe and ejected a BBC journalist from a press conference. Recently, he was lightly disciplined by the ANC for bringing the party into ‘disrepute’.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, South Africa’s moral compass, seemed to despair somewhat in a recent newspaper interview: “Something has happened to us. It looks like we have lost our pride. And it’s not because of poverty. I don’t want to make apartheid the scapegoat, but it might be that we are unaware of the damage that was caused. To all of us South Africans.”

While the damage wrought by apartheid continues to haunt South Africa, there are always stirrings of optimism. The Word Cup may not draw the half-million tourists that were projected before the international economic crisis, but it has reinvigorated the spirit of the country, as South Africans of all races put aside their differences to showcase the one thing that they do share – a great pride in an extraordinary country.

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Karen MacGregor is a freelance journalist. She can be contacted at editors@iafmca.com.

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