My theme for tonight is “Where in the World Is South Africa?” Delivering it here in the mother of Parliaments and the cradle of so much of my own country’s history is both apt and instructive.
Back at home, as South Africa faces its most difficult challenges and crises since 1994, there is a tendency to also look back. Many in the ruling party want to be remembered for the struggle to liberate South Africa from the shackles of racism or for the golden footnote in history Nelson Mandela’s storied presidency gifted to South Africa and the world.
But it is not the denial of apartheid and its legacy which informs so many of the widening circle of critics of President Jacob Zuma and his government, but an updated reminder of a wise observation of Henry Jackson’s Senate colleague William Fulbright. Speaking of the apogee of Cold War in 1963, he said: “The Soviet Union has been our greatest menace not so much for what it has done, but because of the excuse it has provided us for our failures.”
Obviously, the effects of apartheid are writ large over today’s South Africa, but so too is the all-purpose cover it has provided successive post-apartheid governments for their failures in office. But recent events suggest this, like the unlamented system it replaced, is now wearing thin for the ruling party.
I was privileged to participate in the historic constitutional talks which led to South Africa’s democratic transition in the 1990s. It was the hope of many of us, in the careful compromises which were reflected in the constitution finalized 20 years ago in May 1996, that we had planted a mighty oak tree on the ravaged terrain of our conflicted landscape.
But some of the predations against the cause and reality of constitutionalism since Mandela left office in 1999 might suggest that we had, instead, planted a modest bonsai tree which provided little shade for the rights and entitlements of the citizens, both the majority and for minorities, and for the establishment of pro-growth policies favorable to investors and the market economy.
The 20 years since the constitution was enacted has been a tale of paradox, dualism, and a lot of both hopeful upsurges and missed opportunities and more recent damage to the constitution and the prospectus it boldly promised for a free South Africa.
As a country South Africa this year is stress-testing, almost to destruction, the observation which former .S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates recounts in his memoir, Duty: “I told President Bush and Condi Rice early in 2007, the challenge of the twenty-first century is that crises don’t come and go, they come and stay.”
South Africa today is at inflection point of crises which have come and stayed; some imported, some as a consequence of our geography and emerging market bracketing and resource dependency, but in truth most of them are of our own creation and several of them exemplify the absence of the adaptive, visionary, but tough leadership which Nelson Mandela and F.W. De Klerk exemplified.
When Zuma became president in 2009, he had to flatten many of the admired instruments of public investigation and prosecution to escape, like Harry Houdini, from the coils of over 700 charges of corruption, tax evasion, and racketeering. This did great damage to the rule of law and vandalized the constitution. On Nkandla there has been a happier ending, of which more in a while. But as Archbishop Desmond Tutu said of this saga, “It is the Zumafication of the State –an unconscionable spending of hundreds of millions of Rands on spurious security needs and the manipulation of justice comes at a great cost."
Indeed, in his seven years as president, Zuma has done much damage to both the country’s constitutional promise and to investor confidence.
South Africa, which loses every year an estimated R30 billion to corrupt, wasteful, or inappropriate expenditure (according to the government’s own auditor general), demonstrates this thesis on steroids. R.W. Johnson identified the core of the problem: “The ruling party has become a conglomerate of factionalized commercial interests—most of them highly parasitic on state power . . . determined to enrich themselves by raiding public money.”
The country also needs thorough-going reform to change its dysfunctional education policies and dismal outcomes and its sclerotic labor relations, not to mention its key economic policy making, most of which has been outsourced or captured by the SA Communist Party.
I am however, for all this, an optimist. I remind myself that your own country in 1979 was widely regarded as the ‘’the sick man of Europe,” until a certain remarkable woman came along to refresh it and change its prospects.
The biggest corporate merger in the world right now is taking place between SA Breweries and AB InBev. AB InBev’s chief Carlos Brito said on a recent charm offensive in Pretoria that he takes a long-term view of the country’s prospects: “The fundamentals in South Africa have not changed. The population, the demographics, the Middle Class, the GDP, the natural resources . . . you’re not going to stop investing because of one or two years.”
His company has injected over R10 billion into the local economy and he underlined the facts that 35 million of the country’s 54.9 million people are aged 15 to 64, meaning it has a demographic dividend, not a population of retirees. But that is a lot of people to educate, employ, and feed, and to create opportunity for.
Perhaps, finally, it might well be that one of our greatest assets may, with irony, turn out to be our challenges and our problems. It is said that Australia’s greatest problem is that it has no great problem. No one can say that about us!
We have no room for complacency.
Perhaps the greatest international statesman produced by my country before the advent of Mandela was General Jan Smuts. Indeed he gave an inspirational address to this Parliament in 1942, during the height of this country and my own nation’s global fight against Fascism and Nazism during the Second World War. Of South Africa he once said: “It is a country in which neither the best nor the worst ever happens.”
Seventy years after he said it, this remains, as our turbulent history records, true of South Africa today.