It's not all sunny in the Rainbow Nation

Beyond the Miracle
August 13, 2004

This is the final book in Allister Sparks' trilogy on South Africa's history. The first two volumes took the story to the end of apartheid in 1994. This last part deals with events since that time.

Sparks presents a generally optimistic view, but he shows that South Africa still faces immense difficulties. An affluent black middle class is emerging, but huge numbers of blacks still live in squatter camps. South Africa has a multiracial Parliament, but party politics tend to polarise along racial lines. Sparks is positive about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which he believes has helped to heal past divisions, but he admits that not all South Africans were happy with it. Many whites regarded it as a witch-hunt, while blacks felt that it did not go far enough in exposing past evils.

Sparks was once editor of the Rand Daily Mail , which the old regime considered a liberal nuisance. The changes in the media are therefore of great interest to him, and it is on these that he is perhaps most informative. South Africa, after years of censorship, has a fully free press, enshrined in its constitution. The South African Broadcasting Corporation, once an all-white propaganda agency for the old Government, has been transformed, a process in which Sparks played a part as chief of the newsroom. Unfortunately, the new Government does not seem entirely happy with press freedom and, understandably perhaps, objects to criticism from still largely white-owned newspapers.

The greatest changes have been economic. The ruling African National Congress, as a liberation movement, was committed to nationalisation.

Before gaining power, however, it realised that this was unworkable if foreign investment was to be attracted. Accordingly, the ANC embraced economic liberalism. The short-term effects have been problematic. Half a million jobs have been lost, and there is tension between the Government and its powerful ally, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu).

Significant foreign investment has not materialised, either.

rks believes investors have been put off by a poorly educated workforce and by South Africa's appalling crime rate, both of which he blames on apartheid. The poor education is undoubtedly so, for the apartheid regime gave blacks substandard schooling. Crime is a more complex matter.

The chapter on President Thabo Mbeki is especially illuminating. Sparks describes Mbeki's early experiences as an ANC exile in the apartheid years, which, in his view, influenced Mbeki's later conduct and may partially explain why an "intelligent and pragmatic politician" can follow policies that have called his competence into question. His bizarre stance on HIV/Aids is an example, even though his views have been misrepresented.

South Africa could be crucial in reversing poor perceptions of the continent as a whole and in attracting badly needed investment, but it is too early to say whether it will be able to achieve this vital success.

Alexander du Toit holds a degree from the University of Cape Town and a PhD in imperial and colonial history from London University.

Beyond the Miracle: Inside the New South Africa

Author - Allister Sparks
Publisher - Profile Books
Pages - 370
Price - £14.99
ISBN - 1 86197 337 3

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