Apartheid Pariah, 10 Years Later

Share via

Remember South Africa? In the 1980s and early 1990s, it was on the front page every day; today news about it is hard to find, unless it’s on crime and AIDS. Yet, without much attention, South Africa is showing how democracy and capitalism -- under siege from Russia to Haiti -- can be successfully institutionalized in the developing world.

I recently visited South Africa, along with some other American policy wonks, as a guest of its government. One of the most moving experiences I had was visiting Imizamo Yethu, a dirt-poor shantytown south of Cape Town where we met a community leader named Kenny Thokwe. He had been in and out of jail in the 1980s for resisting apartheid. He had even seen one of his friends shot by a policeman. You might expect this would make him a bitter man with a sense of entitlement. Far from it. Thokwe is the soul of equanimity as he describes the need for township residents to work hard and not rely on handouts. As for his former tormentors, he says that when he visits his hometown he shares a beer with one of the officers who shot his friend. “Our enemies are our friends now,” Thokwe said.

That attitude is not, of course, universal. There are black militants who nurse a grudge, and whites who are not reconciled to the post-apartheid order. But the spirit of reconciliation conveyed by Thokwe animates the leadership of the African National Congress, which won the last two general elections and expects to win the next one, on April 14. Instead of bashing the white minority and stealing their property, the ANC, led first by Nelson Mandela and now by President Thabo Mbeki, has tried hard to win the confidence of the largely white business community. No Zimbabwe-style land grabs here.


The government has increased social spending to provide services for the black majority. But it has been careful to keep spending in line with revenue. South Africa’s budget deficit has fallen from 10% of GDP in 1994 to 2.4% today -- lower than in the United States. Farm subsidies have been eliminated. Taxes and tariffs have been cut. The central bank has pursued a tight monetary policy that has cut inflation from almost 10% in 1994 to about 4% today. The business climate is favorable enough to lure big foreign companies like DaimlerChrysler and Toyota to open new plants.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that the gap between the haves and have-nots is the size of the Kalahari Desert. About 15% to 20% of the country (mainly white) is as rich as any First Worlders; the rest are as poor as any Third Worlders. Just a few miles away from the gleaming skyscrapers and luxury hotels of Cape Town, you can find Khayelitsha, a sprawling township where half a million blacks live in handmade shacks of tin and sheet metal. Most lack electricity or even outhouses.

This kind of extreme poverty, which hasn’t been seen in the U.S. in many decades, has helped foster rates of crime and HIV-infection that are among the highest in the world. The great shame of Mbeki’s government has been its dilatory response to these crises. Even as hundreds of thousands of people died annually of AIDS, Mbeki publicly speculated that antiretroviral medications did more harm than good. He even questioned whether HIV caused AIDS. More understandable was the government’s lax response to crime: It initially focused on retooling the security forces, which had been instruments of apartheid. In both cases, the government is trying to make up for lost time. Late last year, Mbeki unveiled a comprehensive AIDS treatment and prevention program, though activists fret that he’s not moving fast enough to implement it. And, thanks to hikes in police funding and staffing, crime rates have stopped climbing and even declined slightly in some categories.

The longer-term challenge for South Africa will be preserving a democracy with one party dominating its politics for the foreseeable future. India and Japan have shown it can be done. South Africa has a good chance to follow in their footsteps because of its vibrant civil society.

When the government messes up, there are plenty of people, from opposition politicians and community activists to feisty journalists and independent judges, who voice their disapproval. No one, from Mbeki on down, is safe from criticism. And, unlike in Russia or Haiti, critics have no fear of winding up in jail or the morgue. That alone is reason enough to celebrate South Africa’s achievement after 10 years of majority rule.

Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, writes a weekly column for the Los Angeles Times.