I must confess that I have been part of the European-African political community for almost two decades, and South Africa has been my most frequent destination on this continent. Everyone says (still does) that it is the only real thriving market economy in Africa, probably the only real democracy and much more. The reality is that the situation is changing every day. And not for the better. Three decades ago, when apartheid was abolished, the question was asked whether the South would eventually become like the European countries or like Zimbabwe, where apartheid had been abolished a few decades earlier. Then everyone said it would be like Europe; today, they say… in every way.
The war in Ukraine has affected South Africa and its foreign policy in its own way. The country’s government keeps talking about some kind of neutrality between the aggressor and the victim, but this ‘neutrality’ seems like a cynical desire to win something for themselves in that war. There is something to be gained because South Africa is a member of the so-called BRICS group of countries, and the summit of the so-called BRICS countries is due to take place in Johannesburg in August. One of those countries is Russia, and there is an international arrest warrant out for its formal leader, so the South African authorities simply have to handcuff Russia’s Putin as soon as he appears on the tarmac. But will they? Will the government honour its own international commitments, given that the BRICS countries can agree to make their currency of communication… gold and South Africa is known to be an important supplier of gold.
It is not only gold that rules us, it is not only gold that rules South Africa. There is a lot that is strange about this country, and we do not know much about it. More accurately, we accept it as we would like it to be, not as it is. What is wrong with that?
A few decades ago, when the world believed in the ‘end of history’, South Africa was the last ‘systemically bad’ country on the continent. With the abolition of apartheid, it almost immediately became supposedly “systemically good” – with a fair economy and no religious or ethnic rivalries. We still sincerely wished it happiness…
But has South Africa – then described as a happy and harmonious rainbow nation – really become happy?
The country’s politicians (of different races and persuasions), who have been interviewed on several occasions, basically accept that apartheid should have been abolished. It was no longer an economic or political problem but a most painful moral problem. A problem for everyone in the country, no matter what they really thought of their country or what colour their skin was. Apartheid was to blame for the fact that South Africa as a country was rich and its blacks were poor, apartheid was to blame for the fact that the country was under the pressure of economic sanctions that distorted the free market. Apartheid was even to blame for the fact that blacks were slaughtering each other more and more cruelly in suburban ghettos. Apartheid was not an accident; it was quite a form of it, given the possibilities. Let us not forget that Europe and the USA bought the diamonds, but not the miners, whatever their colour. The miners were always black, and the diamond sellers were white.
The country was becoming increasingly isolated in the international context. Although natural ‘apartheid’ can be found in dozens of Asian and African countries, although Catholics and Protestants created apartheid in Northern Ireland for political reasons, politicians once divided Berlin and Nicosia, and apartheid Muslim ghettos sprang up all over Western Europe, it was only South Africa’s fault. The end of the Cold War took away the last argument for the development of separate communities. Nelson Mandela, who had communist views, became a Freedom and Justice Formalist, no longer able to be threatened for his views because the whole system of communism was no longer threatened. There was no shortage of local politicians who realised that a demonstrative change of the system, monitored by the international community, was far preferable to the “revolutionary” plunder of the country. Moreover, a significant number of whites hoped that the lifting of sanctions would enable profitable business in the region and open up new opportunities.
For a time, South Africa became a show democracy with eleven official languages. Whites in the new state tried to convince themselves that this was not a defeat but simply a new reality. The social status of the white community had changed only slightly, from a formal elite to an informal but equally real one. Blacks have had the shock of transformation, their elite has gained full recognition, and a kind of middle class has grown up, but for the vast majority, formal rights have not changed their lives – they continue to live in clumsily constructed boxes without a steady income… Around half of the country’s people live below the statistical poverty line, and one in five are very poor. The majority of the country’s population receives benefits to a greater or lesser extent from the national treasury. There is still money to pay out, but more is paid out every year than is created, and gold and diamonds run out at some point. A kind of collective kleptocracy, of which the best example is the government itself.
South Africa is one of the most socially differentiated countries in the world. Whereas differentiation used to be caused by differences between whites and blacks, differentiation is now increasing within individual racial groups, especially blacks. According to the United Nations Human Development Index (HDI), South Africa ranks a modest 109th, alongside several Caribbean countries. Formally, it is not even the best in Africa. The country’s economic growth is almost unnoticeable, and despite all the efforts and propaganda, we still have to talk about two economies, and the second one, which is for the vast majority of black people, is Africanly feeble. The AIDS epidemic has reduced life expectancy by a decade, and it has affected mainly the less well-off. I commemorated the bicentenary of the abolition of apartheid in the famous town of Soweto (a historic suburb of Johannesburg), which was a kind of symbol of black residency. Today, it is a city with its own ‘elite’ neighbourhoods and unchanged shanty towns. You could often hear a question: Is this really what we fought for?
As for the moral side of the death of apartheid, the picture is also mixed. A rainbow nation has the right to exist as its unique history has made it. The 20th century needed such a state in Africa in its own way, even though it was dangerous in its own way; now it is the 21st century, it is different, but Africa in the 21st century is unhappy again in its own way.
Will it be easy for South Africa to allow the Moscow administrator to enter the country freely? Not very easy because whatever the lure of the BRICS, South Africa today is more dependent on the economic realities of the West than on Russia or China. I would very much like to be with those who win, and the question of winning, like the question of the comma in the title of this text, is being decided in Ukraine.