The Afrikaner still reigns supreme in the Kruger National Park, South Africa’s largest and most popular game reserve. The reception desks, restaurants and stores in the reserve’s rest camps are now manned by blacks, but otherwise little has changed in the past thirty or forty years. Afrikaans-speaking South Africans in khaki clothes and floppy sun hats still dominate among the almost exclusively white clientele. Practical, if not official, apartheid lives on in the Kruger Park, as it does in most of the formerly white areas of the country.
At a Saturday food market adjacent to the Waterfront shopping complex in Cape Town, my daughter and I played “spot the black.” There were many black people, of course, but they were all preparing and serving food. Those paying the money and eating the food were white. When we eventually spotted a colored (mixed race) man eating at one of the tables, we agreed to count him as black. We were bored with the game by then.
Wall-to-wall whiteness also prevailed at Cape Point Vineyards, where I tasted seven wines, one of them magnificent and three pretty good, while overlooking the spectacular beach of Noordhoek on the Cape peninsula. (The tasting, by the way, cost 60 Rand or $4.50.) Same story at Constantia Glen, a boutique winery set among exquisite hills and vineyards close to the city.
At the Waterfront itself, a vast, gentrified portion of the old Cape Town port, there were quite a few, coloreds, Indians and even blacks among the swarming crowds, but that was a semi-multiracial exception. The malls and restaurants in Johannesburg were again solid white. The only times I mingled with substantial numbers of non-white people were in a buffet restaurant in Cape Town (situated in the building that formerly housed The Cape Times newspaper), a weekend market in Hout Bay (which, many whites will tell you, has been “overrun” by their more swarthy countrymen) and at an Indian restaurant in the predominantly Indian area of Fordsburg south of the Johannesburg city center.
And then there was the mall at the Carlton Center, deep in downtown Johannesburg. These days, the city center is a no-go area for whites, who prefer to live with their own kind in the leafy northern suburbs of the city. My friend Jeremy and I ventured into the Carlton Center mall for coffee, finding ourselves the only whites in the place (as far as we could see.) It was a bit unsettling. No-one seemed to pay us any attention and the people we encountered were typically friendly, but after almost two months in South Africa I had grown used to predominantly white surroundings. The Carlton Center was pure Africa, which is a pejorative concept for many whites on the tip of the continent. “Welcome to Africa,” they say, when the electricity suddenly goes out or a black cashier takes too long counting out the change.
Social apartheid is still alive and kicking in South Africa. Twenty-three years after the last apartheid government fell, white families still have black servants, shop in predominantly white shopping centers and live in large houses (with high walls topped by electrified fences) in white suburbs. Today it is a segregation enforced by economics, rather than law, but it looks and feels like the good old days of apartheid and white privilege.
In Sea Point, a mainly white suburb of Cape Town perched between the mountains and the sea, the bid by a Jewish educational trust to purchase an abandoned school and its property led to a full-scale crisis. Social activists demanded that the provincial government, which owns the land, use it instead for building affordable housing for poor people who currently commute long distances to work in the suburb. The government eventually decided to sell the property to the trust, but not before the controversy had aroused a lot of bad blood. All the whites I spoke to about the issue, most of whom would probably describe themselves as liberals and former opponents of apartheid, were opposed to the use of the property for low-cost housing. They used such terms as “social incompatibility” and “lack of economic logic,” but their real objection was to the influx of poor blacks into their white neighborhood.
To be fair, the precedents for building low-cost housing in the midst of middle-class (read white) neighborhoods have been less than successful. In Hout Bay, formerly a mink and manure oasis some twenty-five kilometers down the coast from Cape Town, the authorities built a few permanent houses for homeless people who had been living on a local beach. Those houses soon turned into a massive squatter camp of some 20,000 people that today straggles a good way up one of the mountains that surround the town. Hout Bay locals say that crime has spiraled and property values have plummeted, both by dozens of percent.
A fire broke out in the camp while I was there and nine people died. Fire engines couldn’t make their way through the sprawl of makeshift housing to fight the blaze.
The concerns of the residents of Sea Point are real. It’s not necessarily racism to be concerned about the value of one’s property and rising crime and it’s arguably human nature to want to retain one’s standard of living. But there’s something seriously askew when the wider context of those concerns is the most unequal country on earth (according to both the Gini index of inequality and the Palma ratio.) By and large, South Africa’s whites have thrived since the end of apartheid, despite the niggling inconveniences of black empowerment, university entrance quotas and bureaucratic bungling. But the majority of the population remains entrenched in horrific poverty.
The failure of the four ANC governments since the first democratic elections in 1994 to tackle poverty and provide basic living conditions (housing, education and healthcare) for the majority of the population has been catastrophic. The incumbent President, Jacob Zuma, doesn’t even seem to have tried, preferring to enrich himself and his cronies. The result has been what South Africans call “state capture,” the takeover of the levers of political and economic power by Zuma and his allies for their own personal financial gain and to solidify their hold on power.
Things reached boiling point at the end of March, when Zuma sacked his finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, who had been an obstacle to some of the president’s more flagrant escapades. His replacement, Malusi Gigaba is expected to be a lot more amenable to the Zuma-led kleptocracy. The sacking of the respected Gordhan outraged the international financial community and resulted in the downgrading of South Africa’s debt to junk status by Standard & Poor’s and Fitch Ratings, two of the Big Three international credit rating agencies. Foreign investment in South Africa is now an endangered species.
Zuma, who is scheduled to step down as the head of the ANC at the end of this year, is said to be grooming his former wife, Nokosazana Dlamini-Zuma, as his successor. If elected, she would replace him as president in 2019, when he has to step down according to ANC rules. Assumedly, he is planning on retaining political clout after he leaves office, not to mention staying out of jail after he loses immunity. With 249 seats in the 400-seat parliament, the ANC is unlikely to lose a no-confidence vote before the end of Zuma’s term. Nor is there much chance of a significant number of ANC MPs turning against the president; Zuma has wisely spread the largesse.
As things stand, then, things are at an impasse. Zuma isn’t going anywhere and he has given no indication that he intends to change his thieving ways – nor those of his allies in provincial governments, the public service, the security forces, the judiciary, parastatals and more. But the money will soon run out. Here are two possible scenarios of what could transpire:
Bereft of foreign investment and bled dry by the kleptocracy, South Africa turns to the IMF for assistance. The terms offered by the IMF are unacceptable – both because they would mean the end of the corruption orgy and because the traditional fiscal recipes of the IMF are anathema to the influential Communist Party of South Africa and its trade union allies. Left to its own devices, South Africa dwindles into an African basket case, with less and less development, state services and growth. Power cuts become routine, infrastructure crumbles and poverty and crime both soar, with the underfunded police unable to cope. The tribal clashes that led to some 14,000 deaths before the 1994 elections flare up again. Armed and hungry men roam the countryside. Whites are now the obvious and natural target. Those who can, pack up and leave, now a lot more concerned for their lives than for their living standards. South Africa becomes a failed state, like Somalia and South Sudan.
Another scenario is that Zuma undertakes “radical economic transformation,” which in South Africa is synonymous with nationalization, income and land distribution and stripping whites of company and business ownership. That frees up the capital held by whites and reduces the need for foreign investment. But the poor to whom the land and businesses are distributed don’t know how to farm or how to run a business. Soon, the land is lying fallow and commercial activity is at a standstill. Deprived of their livelihoods and much of their property, most of the whites leave. South Africa becomes a second Zimbabwe.
Perhaps I’m being over-negative and there is still a good scenario for South Africa. But I don’t see it. Even without the corruption of Zuma and friends, the country would still be a bog of inequality, racial tension and class conflict. It remains deeply segregated and has few prospects for growth. The end of apartheid certainly improved human rights and sparked the growth of a small black middle class, but very little prosperity has percolated down. South Africa desperately needs sound leadership and heavy investment, neither of which is visible on the horizon. All I see is a solid mass of very black clouds.