South African Election

11 April 2004

South African Election

By Gwynne Dyer

Patricia de Lille, leader of South Africa’s Independent Democratic Party, took a very public HIV test as part of her campaign — and challenged all the other candidates in the country’s third democratic election (on 14 April) to do the same. Not many will, for fear of embarrassing senior colleagues who dare not do so: over one in nine South Africans is HIV-positive. But then her whole campaign is based on outspoken and sometimes brazen challenges to the more established parties, and she stands no chance of winning a share of power anyway.

Everybody knows who is going to win this election: the African National Congress. What’s more, it’s going to win with around two-thirds of the votes, so President Thabo Mbeki won’t need to share cabinet posts with any other party — and it’s been that way since the end of apartheid ten years ago. Yet neither the United Nations nor the European Union is even bothering to send election monitors to South Africa; they know that the vote will be above suspicion.

By every conventional measure, this is not a country where a party that has been in power for ten years should get two-thirds of the votes in a free election. Quite apart from the AIDS plague, which is now killing at least 600 South Africans a day, there is 40 percent unemployment, the murder rate is still the highest in the world (though it is down by almost a third from its peak), and half the population lives on less than a dollar a day. Where is the impatience? Where is the anger?

The ANC is very lucky: it still basks in the afterglow of having been the steadfast and finally triumphant opponent of the apartheid regime. Most of the country’s black majority (about three-quarters of South Africa’s 44 million people) still give the ANC full marks for trying, and forgive it for its failures. But it’s not just the ANC that’s lucky; South Africa is too, for patience was definitely what was needed after thirty-six years of apartheid.

When the ANC took over in 1994, there was no money to provide all the services to the black majority that had long been neglected under apartheid. The siege economy run by the white minority regime was teetering on the brink of collapse and the state’s coffers were empty.

Instead of sharing the wealth with its mostly black supporters who had waited so long for freedom and a piece of the prosperity, the ANC had to impose strict pro-market policies to fix the economy. Its promises to the poor on housing, electricity, piped water, and education would have to be curtailed, and a head-on attack on the huge problem of black unemployment would have to wait.

Nelson Mandela, the first post-apartheid president, used his immense popularity to make the ANC accept a policy of tough budget discipline and fiscal orthodoxy, but its real architect was his then deputy, Thabo Mbeki. Because of the austerity, the ANC has built only 1.6 million houses for the poor and 56,000 new classrooms in the past ten years: a lot, but not nearly enough. It has done better on services: the number of people who have electricity has doubled to over two-thirds; 85 percent of households now have running water, and almost two-thirds have proper sanitation. Mere statistics, but they change people’s lives.

What the ANC could not deliver was jobs, because Mr Mbeki’s first priority was to stabilise the economy. Ten years of that would have ruined any other government, but now the task is accomplished is done, and Mbeki says the economy is ready to grow fast and produce jobs. Everybody hopes he’s right, and they are willing to give him a chance because they understand, despite all their grousing, that they are living through a miracle.

The ‘rainbow nation’ was just a hopeful phrase ten years ago; the reality was a country so deeply divided by race, language and tribe that people talked freely about civil war. When I visited with my family five years ago, we stayed with black friends in Pretoria and whites in Cape Town and our black friends saw only other black families, and the whites saw only whites, and my youngest daughter, then six, came home believing (as I discovered only later) that we had visited two different countries.

There’s still far too much of that: the races mix at work and in public, but not at home. But the real hope lies with the mall rats. It’s probably too late for most of the adults to change their ways, but the schools were desegregated ten years ago, and most of the whites are not rich enough to put their kids in private schools, so in many urban areas the schools are racially mixed, and the kids who started in those schools a decade ago are now teenagers hanging around the shopping malls. In racially mixed groups. History is not fate.

I used to believe that South Africa’s long, tangled, bloody history was its fate. But at least it HAS a real history, and everybody’s past connects (though often in painful ways). There is a South African identity that transcends race, tribe and language emerging out of all that pain, and that’s a start. I think they’re going to make it.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 6. (“By…anger”; and “Instead…wait”)