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The Unfinished Revolution | The Nation

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The Unfinished Revolution

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I was 25 when I and the rest of black South Africa were eligible to vote for the first time. South Africa celebrated the tenth anniversary of that event this April.

About the Author

Sean Jacobs
Sean Jacobs, a native of Cape Town, is on the faculty of The New School in Manhattan. 

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Although most black South Africans revere Mandela and his party for defeating apartheid, many are realizing that fighting inequality and achieving full citizenship will mean taking on the ANC.

  For many observers of the past decade, South Africa has come to epitomize successful "democratic transition." They marvel at what is perceived as the wholesale transformation of South Africa's political and social foundation and the apparent consensus achieved between whites and blacks. This is what has come to be known as the "South African miracle."

The miracle fable goes something like this: Starting in February 1990, the last apartheid president, F.W. de Klerk, lifted the ban on liberation movements, most notably the African National Congress, released ANC leader Nelson Mandela from prison and reluctantly began negotiations for a new political system. On April 27, 1994, millions of South Africans of all races went to the polls for the first time, for an election that to the surprise of many went ahead peacefully. The results gave the ANC a comfortable majority. Consensus-style rule in a Government of National Unity (GNU) followed during the early phase of democratic rule. Two years later the legislature passed a new Constitution--one of the most liberal in the world, recognizing abortion rights, same-sex unions and the responsibility of the state to poor citizens--as well as a number of institutions that "strengthen constitutional democracy" such as a Human Rights Commission and a Commission for Gender Equality. Finally, in one of the most cathartic episodes in postapartheid history, South African human rights offenders and their victims spoke openly of their experiences before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which put past atrocities on record "to a degree unequalled by any other post-conflict inquiry," as Allister Sparks, a leading South African journalist, puts it in his new book, Beyond the Miracle.

Even when de Klerk's National Party left the GNU shortly after the new Constitution was established, the aura did not fade, perhaps because of the hopes invested in it. The ANC government, especially then-President Nelson Mandela, worked hard to foster a climate of "reconciliation." In a pointed departure from the practice of many leaders on the African continent, Mandela stood down after one term, making way for South Africa's current president, Thabo Mbeki. Despite the imposing shadow Mandela cast over his successor, the new president initially cut an impressive figure. Mbeki charmed whites and business elites, and took popular and symbolically resonant steps toward ending South Africa's longstanding isolation from the continent. Two further sets of elections followed peacefully and freely. Moreover, civil society institutions proliferated, ready to guard against abuses by the state.

Resilient and attractive as the myth of the miracle is, it tends to obscure some significant continuities in South African society. According to COSATU, the ANC-affiliated trade union, South Africa today ranks third among the most unequal societies in the world (after Brazil and Guatemala). Most estimates put poverty at 45 to 55 percent of the population. Unemployment stands at approximately 40 percent. Sixty percent of "Africans" (to use the terminology that apartheid has left tragically relevant) are poor, as compared with one in every hundred whites. Early on, the ANC flirted with redistributive policies. Within two years of the transition, however, the government--under pressure from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank and threatened with capital flight--settled on the "Growth, Employment and Redistribution" (GEAR) policy, a neoliberal macroeconomic plan that promotes an "open economy" with relaxed exchange controls, foreign investment and privatization as motors of growth.

Not surprisingly, it has delivered only modest growth, and the promised foreign investment has not been forthcoming. According to Patrick Bond, a leftist political economist, South Africa has lost more jobs since 1994 than any country in history outside of wartime or depression. Land reform is moving forward at a glacial pace, about 3 million people are homeless, 18 million lack sanitation services and privatization has meant that millions more risk losing access to water they can't pay for. As if that weren't enough, South Africa has been hit with devastating force by a plague even more lethal than racism--AIDS. In 2000, 40 percent of adult deaths were caused by AIDS-related illnesses, and an estimated 5 million of the country's 45 million citizens are HIV-positive. Researchers predict that if left unchecked, the virus will have taken the lives of between 4 million and 7 million South Africans by 2010.

So what are we to make of the new South Africa? In their new books, Allister Sparks, Terry Bell and David Cohen all try to answer this question.

Sparks, now in the twilight of a half-century-long career, was one of the country's leading white liberal journalists under apartheid. The author of two acclaimed books and a former correspondent for the Washington Post and The Economist, Sparks is well-known and respected in the United States and England, and it is safe to guess that his book will be received here as a definitive account of the first decade of democratic rule. This is a shame, because, its title notwithstanding, Beyond the Miracle is written largely in miracle-ese.

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