I just spent a week in South Africa, attending a fascinating conference of limited “godder” interest. I have been coming to that country for over twenty-five years, watching with empathy its transformation from an odious racist regime to a vibrant democracy. This was a visit after an interval of about three years, and once again I was intrigued by the ongoing changes in the society. Throughout the week the major story in all South African newspapers was a very public quarrel between two important figures in the government. It struck me as containing in a nutshell some of the most pressing political and indeed moral challenges before the country.
Both men involved in the contretemps are prominent members of the African National Congress (ANC), the party which has been in charge of the national government since the first non-racial election in 1994. Their dispute highlights some growing fissures within the party. It also points to some troubling moral questions about the direction of the country.
Jimmy Manyi, a government spokesmen, observed in a speech that there were “too many coloureds” in the Western Cape and that they ought to disperse more evenly throughout the country. Manyi was passionately attacked by Trevor Manuel, himself a “coloured,” former minister of finance in the Mbeki administration, now given a rather nebulous job heading a national planning commission appointed by President Zuma. Manuel called Manyi a racist, as bad as Hendrik Verwoerd. A leading ANC official then attacked Manuel for playing politics as if he were “king of the coloureds.” Whatever else the “new South Africa” may lack, it has an unrestrained free press, and other voices noisily supported both sides in the dispute.
The language of the two men must be understood in the context of recent South African history as well as of its present political landscape. The term “coloureds” refers to people of mixed race. The apartheid regime gave this group some significant privileges as against blacks, which resulted in the term acquiring a certain opprobrium. In the movement of resistance to apartheid, many “coloureds” repudiated the designation and defiantly called themselves “black.” Thus Manyi’s use of the term has very unfortunate associations (perhaps roughly analogous to an American politician referring to “Negroes”). Between 1950 and 1966 Hendrik Verwoerd was first minister of so-called “native affairs,” then prime minister. He was rightly called “the architect of apartheid”. While he was in charge of “native affairs,” some of the most hated apartheid legislation was enacted, including the Population Registration Act (which classified every individual within an official racial hierarchy), the Group Areas Act (which determined where different racial groups were to live), and the law that required all non-whites to carry passes while staying in designated white areas. The analogy would be calling a White House press secretary “worse than Goebbels”.
The present political context is significant too. The Western Cape, which contains the city of Cape Town, is the only province whose government is controlled by a party other than the ANC—the Democratic Alliance. It is also the only province in which blacks are not the overwhelming majority. Many mixed-race voters have moved to support of the DA. Local elections are coming soon, and the ANC is eager to gain control of the province. Critics of Manuel have suspected him, an ANC member, to curry favor with mixed-race voters—though it is hard to see how the ANC could possibly gain from this dispute. Reading Manuel’s text (it was released as a public letter to Manyi), one gets the sense of genuine personal outrage rather than political calculation. Incidentally, Manyi has sort of half-apologized, suggesting that he only wanted to say that “coloureds” should have equal opportunities throughout the country.
The recent political history of the two men is also significant. As finance minister, Manuel presided over decidedly market-oriented policies which have almost certainly brought about the respectable economic growth and stability of the country—and which have enraged the leftist components of the so-called triple alliance (which links the ANC with Cosatu, the labor federation, and the CPSA, one of the few remaining openly Communist parties in the world). As to Manyi, he was formerly the top civil servant in the department of labor. In that capacity he was in charge of enforcing so-called Black Economic Empowerment (BEE), which imposes a quite radical affirmative-action regime on the economy. Currently a law being proposed would set racial quotas throughout the country by national rather than regional demographics, with obviously devastating effects on mixed-race people in the Western Cape (as well as people of Indian descent, who are strongly represented in Kwazulu/Natal). So far President Zuma, who generally avoids making controversial decisions, has only said that mixed-race people and Indians should not worry about their jobs.
The Manyi-Manuel spat comes in a period of widespread disillusion with the ANC government (though in all likelihood nowhere near threatening its dominance among black voters). There has been a widening series of corruption scandals, some lapping at Jacob Zuma himself. Unrest has spread over failures to provide basic public services and to reduce unemployment. There has been a disturbing discrepancy between the democratic ideals of the “new South Africa” and its foreign policy (consistently voting with authoritarian regimes against human rights in the UN, refraining from opposing the Mugabe tyranny in next-door Zimbabwe). Desmond Tutu, the former Anglican archbishop of Cape Town and hero of the anti-apartheid struggle, has been vocally critical of some of these failings.
It would be very premature to see these developments as heralding the collapse of the democratic experiment. South Africa, despite its many problems, has a functioning democracy, a robust market economy, and a vibrant civil society. Everyday relations between the races are remarkably amicable, as manifested dramatically during the recent World Cup. Many of its failings demonstrate once again that long periods of one-party governance breed corruption and misuse of power (compare the former hegemony of the Democrazia Christiana in Italy and of the Liberal Democratic Party in Japan). All the same, the present developments in South Africa reinforce an old insight: It is very difficult for a nation to keep to the moral high ground. (Americans—take notice!)
There was the bright promise as Nelson Mandela walked out of jail and presided over the remarkable transformation of an entire country. There was a palpable reality to the slogan of South Africa as “the rainbow nation”—widely perceived throughout the world as a shining example of non-violent revolution and multi-racial democracy. Is the rainbow fading? It is a bit, perhaps inevitably. In time all icons lose some of their shine. But promises, once given, can be renewed. One may hope so, and not only for the sake of South Africa.