« A tipping-point in Zimbabwe? | Main | Educating Globally Competent Citizens »

South African democracy.

Earlier this week I heard the Soweto Gospel Choir, invited by a neighboring college, sing with energy and enthusiasm in Duluth, Minnesota. Individual members of the choir spoke with commitment and pride about ‘their young democracy’. The Choir, singing in Sotho, Zulu and English, demonstrated the diverse cultures of South Africa. Members afterward also collected money for their AIDS Charity. What are the prospects and problems currently facing South Africa?

After many years of civil unrest, street protest, international sanctions and armed struggle, the African population achieved enfranchisement in 1994. Nelson Mandela, who consistently refused to be released from prison until members of the ANC were free to return to South Africa, became the first President under the new constitution. The current office holder is Thabo Mbeki.

South Africa is the most industrialized and most urbanized country in sub-Saharan Africa. It is a prosperous country when compared to the rest of Africa, though problems with the distribution of income and wealth inherited from the previous regime are still present. Under apartheid, its wealth and resources were concentrated on the whites and under grand apartheid many efforts were made by the Nationalist Party to protect poorer whites from competition with black workers. Ownership of the most productive land was in the hands of white farmers and the African population was pushed into marginal areas designated as tribal land and later as Bantustans. One of the reasons that Mbeki has difficulties in confronting Zimbabwe about current abuses in human rights is that the issue of white farmers and land ownership, the product as in Zimbabwe of (former) white control, is a problematic issue within South Africa itself.

The ANC came into power as a freedom-fighting organization constructed on a broad alliance and had to face the challenge of developing as a political party. Its origin was in the fight against apartheid and its ideology was, as a freedom-fighting movement, socialist and communist in orientation. In office it has come to adopted policies of commercial and industrial growth based around the acceptance and furtherance of the free market, fiscal discipline and growth and job creation. This has helped sustain South Africa’s economic growth and its ability to compete regionally and internationally. Within the economic strategy there are polices for the promotion of black business enterprises and for the promotion of women in business so that there is activity that reaches beyond the macro-aspects of policy. Soweto, the huge high-density township where the members of the Choir come from was a dismal and neglected place during the final years of apartheid. It has experienced at local level benefits including better roads and schools, investment in better sanitation and in urban services, including the development of modern shopping malls.

Given this strong financial framework, the redistribution of wealth and incomes has tended to focus on efforts to promote equality through educational investment, health and welfare. Schools are of a very high priority for the Government and for parents in place such as Soweto. It was the revolt of young school children in Soweto that initiated the beginning of the end of apartheid. The legacy of apartheid educational policy is still to be fully-overcome. The delivery of altered educational opportunities is of key significance to the future development and stability of the country.

Unemployment is high nationally and poverty is still wide-spread. The traditional supporters of the ANC in the townships and within the Trade Union movement think that the government has not done enough to redistribute income. Violence, initially engendered by brutalization associated with apartheid and then enhanced by the civil struggle, remains a key issue. Guns are still circulating in huge numbers. The nature and level of the violence has continued to shock all communities and Mbeki recently recommitted his Government to making further investments in policing and in police training. AIDS is another huge issue and one on which the Government has not made, in the past, an adequate response. The policy in neighboring Botswana is much more advanced than that currently being applied in South Africa. The Soweto Choir collected for their AIDS Charity after the performance, illustrating just how close to individuals the concerns are. The ANC leaders may have consolidated their position as members of the middle and upper classes but their supporters still live in the less well–off parts of Soweto. Mbeki is near the end of his term as President and the challenge for change is likely to come from the left. People in the townships, if the evidence of the energy and optimism of the Soweto Gospel Choir is anything to go by, are remaining positive and hopeful about the future.