It is quite easy from the upper floors of one of Johannesburg’s high risers to see the tin-sided shacks of the not-so-distant black township. That vista of stark socio-economic difference displays vividly the amazing lack of change in the last 17 years since the election of Nelson Mandela and the creation of the new Republic of South Africa.
The nation that has the African continent’s “most developed corporate and industrial base” — as the Financial Times has termed it — still struggles to bring its black and colored population into the mainstream of economic development. To begin with, about 65 percent of the public school students drop out of the educational system each year. With a million children registered, that means 650,000 leave annually before they are 15 years old without any certificate of achievement.
This statistic is both an indication of the scope of South Africa’s problem of inequality and at the same time an explanation for it. Nonetheless, this is not the only root of the inability of such an abundantly endowed country to provide a fair and encouraging environment in which the entire population can develop.
The disparity of advantage that existed less than two decades ago among the races — white, black, colored and Asian — could not be overcome simply by good will or government fiat. The original expectation was for the indigenous black and colored community to be able swiftly to exploit the newly created “even playing field.” That was just unrealistic.
One of the reasons, among many, for the lack of a major employment shift was that the expected downsizing of the white population through emigration because they were unwilling to live in a black majority-governed country just did not occur in large numbers. While many did leave, there was also a rise in immigration from poorer countries of Europe. The administrative and supervisory jobs in industry previously exclusive to whites simply did not open up in the amount that was expected by the newly enfranchised black community.
Although there was a period of serious economic growth, especially related to tourism, there was no hugely stimulating boom to allow for the non-whites, now better educated and socially attuned, to attain management positions appropriate in number even near the demographic breakdown of this 50.9 million person country. With 79.5 percent of the population black, the political pressure is on.
Unskilled jobs still exist, of course, but they did not increase as the leadership had hoped and expected so as to satisfy both political desires and economic needs. The imbalance in respect to non-whites with degrees in management and science has not been brought into equilibrium, even taking into consideration the hoped-for considerable socio-economic change in the course of only one generation.
The result has been a growth of political activism that views increased government involvement in all aspects of life, and a strong movement toward nationalization, as the only answer to this dynamic nation’s perceived inequities. The focus is on transferring corporate ownership of the mining industry to the South African government. From the Left’s point of view, this action would allow for a more equitable division of profits and quicker rearrangement of the racial alignment of industry and commerce. It’s Marxism, but no one calls it that.
The black and colored elite have thrived in the well-managed South African market economy. However, an unemployment rate of approximately 29 percent and 24 percent for the black and colored workers, respectively, has produced a wide cry in the “settlements” for the nationalization of the mining companies and expropriation of agricultural property. When 50 percent of the black/colored demographic lives below the government standardized poverty line, it is hardly surprising that the political future of the nation shows signs of a radical drift of the still disadvantaged to the volatile left.
The traditional leadership of the dominant political party, African National Congress (ANC), downplays as “emotional and irrational” the talk about nationalization. But then this older group has benefited well in the last nearly two decades from the historic political economy and its inheritance thereof. Next year will contain the potential for a serious turning point in leadership of the ANC and thus the direction of South Africa.
The best of the worst-case scenarios of corporate planners is any legislation of major- appearing but substantially modest actions of increased government ownership of industry and agriculture. The same strategic planners base their forecast on the rather optimistic perception that the dominant black leadership has done quite well under the “old system” and would be unwilling to see it radically change. As one major white executive put it: “Frankly they (black leaders) can’t afford the change anymore than we can.” The question remains, if that is the case, whether the aging black leadership will be allowed to remain in its power positions by its own younger party structure?
To extol Pretoria’s march toward social change has become a given in the last 17 years. Nonetheless, such moral judgments should not blind one’s assessment of political economic realities. South Africa is under severe stress.