South Africa: Promise Unfulfilled?

Back in 1995, I was in London and spent an evening hanging out with six guys from South Africa.  This was just a year after the new post-Apartheid era had begun.  These guys were angry.  They were white and their parents were part of the privileged elite.  Now in the post-Apartheid era, their fathers had lost their high level jobs and they felt the country was going down the drain.  "You wouldn't believe how incompetent the people are that are governing South Africa." I remember being shocked.  Our images of South Africa were all so positive.  This racist country led by white Afrikaners had peacefully allowed true democracy to occur allowing the African majority to vote in Nelson Mandela.  It was a triumphal moment in human history (and it still is).  South Africa was a wealthy, modern, racist state.  The big question lingering was "could it continue to be as successful?"  It was too early to tell in 1995, but I hadn't heard anything negative---until meeting these guys.

Now, a long-time South Africa watcher has written a book about the post-Apartheid South Africa; and it doesn't paint a pretty  picture.  There seems to be bad governance.  From the Wall Street Journal Review:

Trevor Manuel, the South African finance minister from 1996 to 2009, got his job when the aging Nelson Mandela asked, at a cabinet meeting, who was a good economist. Mr. Manuel raised his hand thinking Mr. Mandela had asked who was "a good communist." Mr. Manuel served his country ably. But the appointment of the sole competent minister in the first government of African National Congress was a matter of blind luck.

A weakening economy:

Today the economy and infrastructure are in shambles. Unemployment is 25.3%, up from 17% in 1995. When I last visited South Africa in 2008, the state-owned energy giant Eskom was implementing rolling blackouts because of low capacity and booming demand—the predictable effects of the ANC's drastically subsidizing the price of electricity.

And as is often the case, the revolutionary leader is often a lousy governor (Castro, Mao Zedong, Nelson Mandela).

But at the heart of the country's sickness is its governing party the ANC:

Mr. Johnson has been a prolific critic of the ANC's 16-year tenure in power. "South Africa's Brave New World," his political history of the post- apartheid era, amounts to a book-length indictment of the ANC. Its leaders come through as so corrupt, lecherous and violent that governance is not even an afterthought.

So this is some of what those guys in London were talking about.  Cronyism run a muck and a country with a strong economic foundation weakening quickly.

In Africa's latest renaissance, South Africa has been a pillar of African globalization.  Africa needs a strong South Africa.  While much of South Africa's successful institutions were built by whites upon the back of black workers, South Africa has people of all races that could make it a well-governed nation.  The recent World Cup held in South Africa was a big deal for all of Sub-Saharan Africa, not just the country of South Africa.  Much of what ails South Africa already plagues some of the rising African nations like Nigeria, Angola, and Liberia.  Will South Africa be more like the countries of Sub-Saharan Africa in the future?  Or will Sub-Sahran countries look more like the modern South Africa of the present?

Of course Sub-Saharan Africa is not a monolithic thing---there are many cultures and peoples on this continent, but there are enough commonalities in these countries that South Africa will always be the big example--for better or for worse.  I'm glad this (most likely) politically incorrect book has been written because Africa is getting its second chance at rapid modernization and it needs to get as much right as it possibly can.