Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Parting Thoughts on South Africa

Beyond a scribble on a map, I wish to round off these writings from Southern Africa with a look back to my first entry ( In this I alluded to a lengthy conversation with a South African I met on my first night. He painted an apocalyptic picture of South Africa's future. Crime, corruption and disease combining to bring the country to its knees. Flight of people and capital. Implosion.

At the time my reaction was as follows:

"I really did not know what to make of all of this. So for now I make no comment. I have 6 weeks ahead of me to explore, debate and learn. I hope I find his predictions way off the mark."

Throughout this trip these predictions have rumbled around and about my brain. As I spiralled around from Zambia, into Malawi, down Mozambique and eventually into South Africa itself I raised this subject with many I met and added context with readings about the region.

It is painful to admit that the majority opinion rested not far from that found on the first night. Rife corruption choking up systems of business and politics. Despite solid economic growth, crippling economic problems. An unemployment rate somewhere between 20 and 40% (depending on the method of calculation). Massive problems of inequality only partially tempered by the rise of an affluent black middle-class. Large sectors of the population feel let down. Their expectations have not been met and frustration is simmering. A crime profile as frightening as any place on earth. It seemed everyone I met knew a friend, family member or colleague who had been a victim of violent crime.

Then comes AIDS. In comparative success stories like Mozambique, this devastation is wreaking havoc, wiping out the most productive parts of the population. On the brink of meaningful, long-lasting development, countries are cruelly pulled back. In South Africa, a country on a different stratosphere of development to its neighbours, this scourge threatens to push it economically and politically over the edge. The unfathomable incompetence of Mbeki in this regard has only confounded the problem. Despite the best efforts of many, in a country with such a difficult past and of such social and monied extremes, the balance is delicate.

Unfortunately, it seems plausible that the combination of complicating factors could destroy this balance and tip the country backwards, fast. To what ends how can one predict, but the ruins of Zimbabwe are bone-chillingly near.

So what for hope. South Africa has come along way from its divisive past. For many it is a miracle that it has come this far. It is the economic power-house of Africa, the doorway to the region. This is not merely a statistical fact. On crossing from surrounding countries, the level of infrastructure and modernity shifts seismically. It has a head start.

Alongside the millions who have little, there are many who have much. The sight of just how much and the stern character of many who have it suggest numbers will stay, however circumstances develop (in reality, many could not leave even if they had the desire). South Africa needs the skills and knowledge of these people for all to develop, but if the politics turn sour and the country further divides on racial lines, havoc is on the horizon. If neither side budge, South Africa walks the line of conflict.

In this regard Mandela has been a shinging light. I am in awe of his lack of spite and sheer bravery. The message of reconciliation from someone of such stature and who had sacrificed so much was and is glue that helped South Africa come this far. Alas he has long relinquished the reigns and can not live for ever. If his ideals die with him hope fades.

I freely admit I have had but a thin introduction to this complex arena and am not in a position to give a valued opinion. But, none the less, my opinion this is.
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