Anyone in South Africa, white or black, rich or poor, who reads R.W. Johnson's new book could be forgiven for rushing to the airport. It's a familiar tale of African hopelessness, with one disaster following another. If South Africa fails, then the continent fails, and will be plunged into the depths of yet greater darkness. Apartheid was morally repellent and in the end unworkable, yet the successor governments of the African National Congress have proved unable to live up to their promise of making a 'better life for all'. The dominant exile faction, schooled in Moscow, East Germany and Lusaka, was economically illiterate and has proved to be irredeemably venal. To be sure, they inherited a bankrupt, rundown economy, and despite a series of calamitous errors, restored it to reasonable financial health. Yet ultimately, in Johnson's view, the ANC lacks the technical knowhow to oversee the most advanced economy on the continent, has no serious appreciation of the risks undertaken by business, has ignored the need to manage and develop the country's infrastructure, and has allowed the standard of basic services, notably health and education, to decline catastrophically; the provision of electricity and clean water is not far behind (Nigeria here we come). Houses are built, but they are substandard; new schools are put up, but there are few competent teachers to staff them; and land reform gives good land to untried black farmers, who are set up to fail while white farmers, if they aren't slaughtered by armed gangs, face an uphill battle to prevent South Africa becoming a net importer of food. Economic growth has turned positive since 1994, but this is overwhelmingly a result of the recent commodity boom: the high returns for a country rich in minerals have restored average individual incomes to 1980s levels.
LRB 8 October 2009 | PDF Download