South Africa: The foreign view

For most tourists visiting a free South Africa it was a paradise of natural beauty, exotic animals and friendly people. To the Western world, South Africa represented a microcosm of global harmony. Not so for visitors from Africa, particularly the millions of illegal migrants who eked out a living as street hawkers or car guards. Denounced as competitors for scarce jobs, drug dealers or criminals, these invisibles – pejoratively dubbed makwerekwere by black South Africans – bore the brunt of xenophobia.The image of post-apartheid South Africa was inextricably linked to Nelson Mandela. Even bitterly opposed ideological foes praised Mandela. People in power, from the Iranian regime to the Israeli prime minister, from Cuba’s Castro to the Bush administration, endorsed him uncritically.

Mandela’s glowing reputation was greater abroad than at home, where by 2006 the picture was decidedly mixed. The country was struggling with the world’s highest HIV infection rate, was riddled with crime, and the Mbeki government persistently refused to act against or even condemn the atrocities of Robert Mugabe’s regime in Zimbabwe. Well-disposed foreign governments were stunned by the South African government’s ineffective response to the HIV-Aids pandemic. At the same time they were impressed by South Africa’s re markably robust media debate and a truly free press – comparable and even better than most parochial US counterparts.

Left-liberals in the West bemoaned the widening inequality between a small nonracial economic elite still largely dominated by whites and a vast impoverished underclass almost exclusively consisting of an unemployed and under-educated black youth. Some considered a fragile democracy rooted in such disparities as inherently unstable.

International business, on the contrary, praised the neo-liberal policies of the postapartheid government. Levelling inequality required a growing economy, to which fiscal discipline, prudent privatisation of state assets and unpopular market-oriented policies were seen as essential foundations.

Even if Mbeki’s centralisation of decisionmaking violated left-liberal tenets of participatory democracy, it was recognised that a developing country needed a strong executive. Influential foreign media – from the Wall Street Journal to The Economist or the Frankfurter Allgemeine – lauded the progress made in socio- structural reforms, from the provision of some basic housing, clean water and electricity to access to rudimentary health services for many. This economic perspective rightly celebrated the success that was achieved.

Post-apartheid legitimacy opened the gates of Africa for South African business. The self-declared southern ‘engine of growth’ was not yet half as resented as comparable US multinationals in their backyard of Latin America. In the first decade of inclusive democracy South African companies invested an estimated R200 billion in the continent. Only eight of the top 100 firms listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange did not operate in the rest of Africa. The areas of investment included retail, financial services, telecommunications and transport. Shoprite Checkers, Pep Stores and other South African companies began to sprout in African capitals like Lusaka and Kampala.

Probing the growing international disillusionment a dozen years after liberation, not one event, but an accumulation of moral turnarounds, can be blamed. Not all of these can be attributed to the shortsightedness of leaders. Many deficits derived from structural conditions that the new power holders inherited.

Among the most serious blotches on the South African image among informed foreign observers were HIV/Aids, crime and in action against Zimbabwe, followed by the government’s arms purchases, seen as wasting resources on frigates and fighter planes when South Africa did not face external enemies.

Next on the list was corruption. Corruption of high-ranking officials partly stemmed from the arms deals, but pervaded other sectors as well, such as massive social welfare fraud and patronage arrangements.

Parliamentarians, managers and executives allocated themselves disproportionately large salaries and perks in the face of widening income gaps. Ordinary South Africans were dismayed. When Desmond Tutu criticised this practice, an ANC spokes person replied: ‘The Archbishop should stick to religion.’

The end of the apartheid morality play normalised South African politics. Pragmatic compromises and the politics of expediency robbed the country of its former moral stature. The costs of such moral losses were difficult to calculate, but showed up in a reduced influence in the arenas of international diplomacy.

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