Development and culture: the case of South Africa

Alec Russell, After Mandela: The Battle for the Soul of South Africa, London, Windmill Books, 2010; Rian Malan, My Traitor’s Heart: Blood and Bad Dreams: A South African Explores the Madness in His Country, in His Tribe and Himself, Vintage Books, 1991.

On May 10, 1994, millions watched as Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first post apartheid President, invited his compatriots to “enter a covenant” and build “a rainbow nation at peace with itself and with the world”.  Invoking the ANC’s Freedom Charter, the only viable state form for the country, Mandela stated, was constitutional democracy, predicated on one person, one vote.

Blood and Bad Dreams.

Rain Malan’s book provides a crucial insight into how close South Africa got to civil war, and how unexpected the peaceful transition proved to be. Malan is a descendant of Jacques Malan, a Huguenot who fled the France of Louis XIV, and brought with him Calvin’s literalist interpretation of the Bible, particularly the Old Testament. The Malans have been prominent throughout the history of South Africa, and definitely one of the pillars of apartheid. As Rian Malan writes of his people, “they found the New Testament (Christ’s talk of forgiveness) less palatable, and some of them seemed to disregard everything in the Bible save the bit about stern punishment”.  When in the eighteenth century enlightenment ideas began to percolate into the wilderness, his forebears consulted their bibles and their preachers and concluded that the new ideas were Godless.

So between 1835 and 1845 Boer families rode into the interior of southern Africa on the Great Trek in search of land, and in “a flight from light”.  In 1838, a small Boer force defeated the formidable army of Dingane, the Zulu leader, at the battle of the Great Fish River-a sure sign, the Boers concluded, of God’s divine benevolence. Malan expresses it more prosaically: the Boers concluded, he writes, that “you have to put the black man down, plant your foot on his neck, and keep him there forever, lest he spring up and slit your white throat”.  The later lesson from the Boer war of 1898 to 1902 was to split the Boer people between those, like General Smuts who made peace with the British empire, and others, like Malan’s own family, who never did. Many Boers supported National Socialist Germany during the world war of 1939 to 1945.

Following the elections of May 1948, Daniel Malan became Prime Minister in the first Nationalist government. As Rian Malan points out, it may have been possible to make apartheid work had the proposals of the 1954 Tomlinson report been followed to redistribute vast tracts of land from white to black farmers. But this was never on the cards. The screws were tightened on the ANC, and in 1960, Hendrik Verwoerd had South Africa declared a republic. Blacks were driven off their land into separate areas, with the economy recording high growth rates into the 1970s. But high oil prices, the collapse of the Portuguese empire in nearby Angola and Mozambique, US pressure on Rhodesia to end white minority rule, and above all the spread of black consciousness among the younger generation combined with the strengthening of the trade unions in the mines set a beleaguered apartheid South Africa on a near permanent war footing.

In the 1980s, under Piet Botha, “die groot krokodil”(the great crocodile), and then under F.W. de Klerk, the regime moved reluctantly to reforms, while ruthlessly clamping down on internal opposition. With German unity in the winter of 1989/1990, and the implosion of Soviet power, de Klerk sought to end his country’s status as an international pariah, released Mandela from prison in February 1990, and thereby launched the country on the transition to becoming a multiracial democracy.

Two questions were asked about South Africa at the time: why did the formidable Boer tribe abandon apartheid? And why did South Africa not dissolve into a spiral of ethnic violence?

Rian Malan’s book is an impassioned account of the break with his own family’s beliefs, a break that did not extend to a rejection of his own tribe.  His book in many ways is also about the slow motion cultural revolution that undermined Boer confidence in their own righteousness. On Sundays, young Rian studied the Calvinist catechism, which was, he writes, “full of solemn warnings about idolatrous Catholicism and heathen Judaism”. This was a world in which there was no TV, due to Boer fears, shared with Mao Tse Tung, of spiritual pollution through the dominant western, mainly, US culture and media.

Pollution seeped in nonetheless. In 1967, Life magazine ran a story about Che Guevara in the Bolivian jungle. Rian put two and two together,”and bingo, I was the just White Man, champion of the downtrodden, sworn foe of racism, and ardent proponent of Communism”. There followed news about the May 1968 “events” in Paris, the music of Bob Dylan, the black American culture of James Brown and James Baldwin, through to Rian’s recruitment as journalist in   the Argus Group, a liberal media organization.

Malan was not the only convert:  US sitcoms peddled the ideas of tolerance, fairness, and sexual and racial justice into Boer homes. Even more important,  trainees who went to study in the seminaries of the Dutch Reformed Church in the Netherlands, imbibed the prevalent liberal critique of inherited Calvinist verities, and returned to spread the new gospel in South Africa. The Dutch Reformed Church subsequently withdrew its blessing of apartheid, splitting the Boer tribe in factions.  By the time de Klerk came to high office, conviction about the rightness of apartheid was a thing of the past.

Battling for South Africa’s Soul.

Alec Russell’s book is a highly readable assessment of South Africa two decades on by a journalist who went straight to Johannesburg from covering the civil war in Bosnia. Clearly, the expectation was that South Africa risked the same fate, as street violence erupted while white and Zulu opponents of a unitary state issued blood-curdling threats if their group rights were not respected.

Writing in the early days of the transition, Malan’s is the book to read for some understanding of  the violence seething in South Africa at the time. The violence he depicts is not that of apartheid, so much as of the older gods and spirits who still inhabited the souls of many Africans, including of course the Afrikaners of his own tribe. Take, for instance, the case of Simon, the Hammerman. Apparently a perfectly nice person, he hammered white couples to death in their beds, behaviour explained by the fact that as a child of incest, it was believed that he could never become human. Or the terrible story Malan tells of Neil Alcock and his beautiful wife Creina, who lived their lives to better the lot of the Zulus; whose adopted Zulu children stole from them; and who eventually died by Zulu hands. As Malan gloomily writes, Neil and Creina Alcock were pioneers in the country which South Africa will one day become: a truly African country where whites will have no guarantees.

Malan’s skepticism about the impending transition was deep. Clearly, he did and does not share the smiling optimism which he considers characteristic of white (Anglo) liberals. But in the short term, his dark pessimism did not fit with what happened.

Few counted on the impact that Mandela would have. Here was a man who had spent 27 years of his life behind bars, with time on his hands to understand that power is about people and emotions, not about abstract structures and systems. In his book, Knowing Mandela, John Carlin recounts the story of Mandela’s meeting with General Constand Viljoen. The General was plotting an Afrikaner guerrilla war, and Mandela wanted to persuade him that this was not a good idea. According to Viljoen’s account, Mandela greeted him warmly and asked him in Afrikaans whether he would like a cup of tea. “I said yes and he poured me a cup. He asked me if I took milk. I said yes and he poured me milk. Then he asked me if I took sugar with my tea. I said I did and he poured the sugar. All I had to do was to stir it”. As Viljoen told the author, “Mandela wins over all who meet him”.

Mandela was not just convinced of the rightness of his cause for a multiracial Africa. He was pragmatic about how to achieve it. The late Anthony Sampson, in his authorized biography of Mandela, tells the story of  his February 1992 visit to the World Economic Forum at Davos where he was dissuaded from nationalizing key industries when the leaders from Vietnam and China told him that this was not a good idea in an interdependent world economy.  “Chaps”, Mandela told his people back home, “we have to change”.

What were the results, as Russell reports, over a decade later? On the positive side, growth rates in the first decade of the new millennium rose significantly. In 1994, 80% of the budget was directed to 15% of the population. By 2007, the tax base had risen from 1.6 million in 1996 to 5 million. In that time, 1.7 million jobs were created; 2.6 million homes were built; the number of homes with electricity doubled to nearly 9 million; 87% of people had access to running water. Over 14 million people were benefitting by welfare benefits, the largest welfare programme in sub Saharan Africa. Despite a volatile foreign exchange rate, South Africa had and continues to enjoy, a solid reputation for sound public finances.

But the downsides were also numerous. The most important underlying trend in the two decades or so since the foundation of the new South Africa has been the growth in inequality. Russell cites a trade union report of 2008 where whites are reported as enjoying an average income 450% higher than blacks, while the Gini index, which records income distribution, actually reports a steep rise in income disparities since the handover of power. This has gone along with high continuing rates of un- and under employment; an explosion in crime; and reported high levels of corruption.

What may one conclude? First, it is clear that in 2014 the new South Africa is still a work in progress. There have been three presidents, Mandela, Mbeki, and Zuma, very different personalities, all with records which have been challenged at home by a free press. The ANC remains the dominant party-movement, much as was the case in India for decades after independence in 1947. The opposition parties exist, but neither they nor the ANC have successfully broken through the racial divisions of South African politics. What holds the fort in South Africa is the country’s rich natural endowments; a reputed central bank and finance ministry; a world class financial centre in Johannesburg; some powerful corporations; good universities; a considerable, and increasingly inclusive infrastructure; and not least an independent-minded judiciary.

Second, there has been clear progress along many of the lines that the ANC originally dreamt of achieving. As averages go, South Africa is a middle income country, and a member of the BRICS (the high potential emerging markets of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). Far from the isolation of apartheid, South Africa is deeply inserted in the global diplomatic network; is a  target for inward investment; a beneficiary of the boom in raw material prices, with China now its prime trade partner;  and is positively ranked in the World Bank’s ease of doing business index . It is also a significant part of the world’s Anglosphere. What is most noticeable in 2014, is that an improved economic performance is underpinned by the constitutional state: in 1994, the constitutional state was overwhelmingly the main positive feature of the country, while the main drag on the country’s development as apartheid’s economic legacy.

Third, popular expectations  have inevitably been disappointed. For the years 2000 to 2012, growth averaged 3.6% per annum, against sub-Saharan Africa’s 6.3%. Inequalities have risen, limiting thereby the potential of the domestic market, and registered in a lack of skills, and wide gaps in health and education. Government programmes are held back by weak local government capabilities. Black businesses have prospered, but the commanding heights of the economy remain in white hands: under 10% of corporate assets in South Africa are in black ownership. There is also a sense that, while a new class of super rich has been created through the black empowerment programme, corruption has become a cancer that could destroy all that has been achieved. A token of this gap between expectations and wealth disparity is the rumbling debate a about possible radicalization of South African politics, leading to a Zimbabwe-type land grab, and the accompanying fear of a collapse in what remains as a prosperous agricultural sector.

The conclusion must remain that the new South Africa has achieved much, but its achievements remain fragile. The one reason why moderate optimism is justified is that there is no serious challenge to the constitutional state by extra constitutional forces. South Africa’s messy constitutional democracy is the only game in town.

About Jonathan Story, Professor Emeritus, INSEAD

Jonathan Story is Emeritus Professor of International Political Economy at INSEAD. Prior to joining INSEAD in 1974, he worked in Brussels and Washington, where he obtained his PhD from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He has held the Marusi Chair of Global Business at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and is currently Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Graduate Schoold of Business, Fordham University, New York. He is preparing a monograph on China’s impact on the world political economy, and another on a proposal for a contextual approach to business studies. He has a chapter forthcoming on the Euro crisis. His latest book is China UnCovered: What you need to know to do business in China, (FT/ Pearson’s, 2010) ( His previous books include “China: The Race to Market” (FT/Pearsons, 2003), The Frontiers of Fortune, (Pitman’s, 1999); and The Political Economy of Financial Integration in Europe : The Battle of the Systems,(MIT Press, 1998) on monetary union and financial markets in the EU, and co-authored with Ingo Walter of NYU. His books have been translated into French, Italian, German, Spanish, Chinese, Korean and Arabic. He is also a co-author in the Oxford Handbook on Business and Government(2010), and has contributed numerous chapters in books and articles in professional journals. He is a regular contributor to newspapers, and has been four times winner of the European Case Clearing House “Best Case of the Year” award. His latest cases detail hotel investments in Egypt and Argentina, as well as a women’s garment manufacturer in Sri Lanka and a Chinese auto parts producer. He teaches courses on international business and the global political economy. At the INSEAD campus, in Fontainebleau and Singapore, he has taught European and world politics, markets, and business in the MBA, and PhD programs. He has taught on INSEAD’s flagship Advanced Management Programme for the last three decades, as well as on other Executive Development and Company Specific courses. Jonathan Story works with governments, international organisations and multinational corporations. He is married with four children, and, now, thirteen grandchildren. Besides English, he is fluent in French, German, Spanish, Italian, reads Portuguese and is learning Russian. He has a bass voice, and gives concerts, including Afro-American spirituals, Russian folk, classical opera and oratorio.
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