Yesterday I listened to a podcast of a talk-show hosted by one of my favorite radio presenters, the topic was, Is South Africa on the brink of Zimbabwe’s fate?. Newspaper publisher Trevor Ncube and another guest were in studio talking about a warning Ncube had tweeted about how South Africans risked becoming like Zimbabwe. Now this warning is not uncommon, in fact, it has become more commonplace with every passing economic and political scandal in South Africa, no need to mention them here.
With every person who repeats it this theory has gained traction, become increasingly easier to swallow so much that I too, have said a thing or two in this regard. However, after some reflection, I realize I have been wrong. South Africa is not on the road to becoming another Zimbabwe and never will be.
I realized I too, had fallen victim to easy comparisons and the expectation of African failure because, well, this is Africa and that’s what Africans do right? Our continental post-independence history does not do us any favors, from Ghana to South Sudan there are just too many stories of failed or failing states. It becomes easy to believe there is a template for African failure and resign one’s self to the “fact” that at least we’re not as bad as (insert name of appropriately failing African state here). This illusion allows us a false cushion from our reality, even today, with things as bad as they are in Zimbabwe you will frequently find somebody saying “at least we’re not as bad as . . . . . “.
Now in South Africa, Zimbabwe has become the ultimate bogeyman. From that scary story told to by business to the media so they keep an eye on government and not them, to a shrill cry on talk radio from sunrise to sunset and beyond. I believe this is wrong and incredibly misleading. South Africa is a unique country with a history and economy like no other, she should only be measured against herself. An often trotted out line when government talks about how great things are in South Africa is “before 1994. . . .”, it is now 22 years after that and 26 since the country set on the path to majority rule. South Africa should be measuring herself against the goals set since 1994 and what has been achieved since. Measuring South Africa against Nigeria or Zimbabwe is a cheap cop-out when the post-1994 data is there for all to use. It is always curious to me when people don’t pay more attention to this.
It is also easy to berate South Africa for not having achieved economic freedom for all after 22 years of independence but that is unfair considering what a mammoth task that is, despite successive governments’ promises. A man I admire recently gave this analogy:
If the white economy was a cup of boiling water and the rest of the population a lake of cold water, pouring the cup into the lake will not change the temperature of the lake.
He was speaking to the redistributive practices of every developing state, post independence, it is not just an African problem. In South Africa, things started out a little differently. The first 20 years of democracy saw the economy grow by over 60%, a phenomenal achievement, however, the demands of the population reliant on this economy grew by far more, now please allow me some statistical latitude. Prior to 1994 10% of the population controlled and benefitted from virtually the country’s entire means of production. Post 1994 an economy which had been designed to benefit some 5 million odd now had to sustain almost 40 million. What is really scary is, this is pretty standard for post-colonial independence and comes with a hefty social development debt from international financiers that, more often than not, can never be paid off.
South Africa did a remarkable job of growing the economy under this incredible pressure and for the most part, citizens were accepting of the challenge before them, “Mandela Magic” some called it. Fast forward to 1998 and then deputy President Thabo Mbeki’s famous two countries speech, suddenly it was out in the open that despite government and the majority population’s efforts, South Africa had entrenched economic structural problems characterised by jobless growth and growing inequality that were not just going to be swept away by post-94 euphoria. Considering all this, how does one even start to bring Zimbabwe into the picture?
The increased service delivery protests since and more recently nationwide unrest across tertiary institutions are testament to the growing impatience of citizens who have grown tired of waiting for their elected government to deliver. The protestors have it right, they know South Africa is not another Zimbabwe and are calling on those responsible to account. The protestors know to measure South Africa against what was promised and what was delivered. South Africa is a country gifted a bounty that is more than adequate to sustain her citizens and a majority citizenry willing to do the hard work to make this happen. Problems arise when those who have benefitted from historically skewed resource allocation want to maintain their status at the expense of those who are just trying to get ahead in life. Try telling them “at least you’re better off than Zimbabwe” and let’s see what happens.