A Busman’s Holiday In South Africa

Over Easter my wife, Michèle, and I spent eleven days on a family holiday in South Africa. As luck would have it, and I was not entirely able to convince Michèle that this was pure chance, our stay coincided with the South African general election.

On Election Day we were in a beautiful place called Franschoekk in the heart of the South African wine country. There was no evidence of electoral malpractice in this quarter of the Western Cape and the organisation of the local polling station would not have been out of place here in Westminster, each of the main political parties having tables and banners at a discrete distance from the entrance to the Polling Station.

I met with a member of the International Electoral Commission who was there to see fair play and he welcomed me with great enthusiasm despite me being a very unofficial observer. I could see, and I accept that this may not have been entirely typical, that unlike elections in so many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, the voting was entirely free and fair. As to the results, the size of President Mbeki’s margin of victory on behalf of his African National Congress (ANC) Party would make even Tony Blair green with envy! Such a majority is part of the problem that potentially lies ahead for the country. The ANC’s dominance is absolute. The party that brought South Africa one man one vote democracy has for a third consecutive election won a massive victory. However, a healthy democracy cannot exist in what is essentially a one party state and the ANC’s dominance points to some worrying signs ahead.

Prior to entering parliament I ran a business recruiting lawyers for leading international law firms here in London. It was evident to me from the late 1990s that a substantial number of young, recently qualified white South African lawyers were leaving their homeland and seeking to live and work in London. I met up with many who sought new positions. Yet in spite of large scale affirmative action programmes, there is little evidence of a sizeable black professional class developing in South Africa. Michèle and I ate meals at various middle of the range Cape Town restaurants and what was very evident was how all of our fellow diners, without exception, were white. Those black South Africans who are associated with the political ruling class have benefited from affirmative entitlement schemes by taking on a clutch of directorships whilst relatively few other black people are represented at the higher levels in established businesses in South Africa.

Having last autumn spent an enthralling eleven days in India it was evident that there is in that country a vibrant economy with people trying to sell you their goods or services on virtually every street corner. This was not the case in South Africa. There is a strange absence of entrepreneurial or commercial spirit in the streets, and this augurs badly – in my view, for the future.

In view of South Africa’s natural beauty and its attraction as a tourist haven, coupled with its sophisticated commercial and financial services sector I am hopeful that its more mature economy will protect it from the political upheaval that has faced many other African countries after the end of white rule. By the same token only five or six years ago many knowledgeable folk retained equally high hopes of Zimbabwe which benefited from a buoyant economy and substantial mineral wealth. We all know the path which that country has followed under the dictatorship of Robert Mugabe, who has been in power for the past twenty-five years.

That said, all is not gloom and doom in South Africa. Many predicted at the end of apartheid ten years ago that the country would be engulfed in a bloody civil war. This did not come to pass despite continuing levels of murder and violence which should be regarded as entirely unacceptable here in England. On the other hand levels of poverty and unemployment (which currently tops 40% among the black population) and ill-health (there has been an explosion of AIDS and HIV infection which continues to worsen) suggest that an improvement in the quality of life for many South Africans is going to be a long haul.

I suppose what worried me most reading South African newspapers and watching television was that the culture of victimisation seems very strongly engrained in much of the South African population. Unfortunately political correctness across the globe has encouraged millions to spend less time trying to better themselves and more pointing the finger of blame at others for their historical misfortunes. Everyone supports the encouraging of a more just and affluent society, but surely the duty of all policymakers is to encourage people to look forward and build for the future rather than focusing their energies on the wrongs of the past. Whether in the Middle East, much of Central and Eastern Europe or in sub Saharan Africa the peoples of these often impoverished continents deserve better than wasting valuable energy on blaming others for their plight. Education is key for all within South Africa but there is still a long way to go.

Rightly, the emerging young white South Africans feel no guilt for the apartheid era in which they had no involvement. Similarly, I believe it is absurd that people in this country should be made to feel any sense of colonial guilt for actions which took place decades before they were born. Unless and until we can learn to look forward with hope, optimism and reconciliation, the future, especially throughout Africa, will be very bleak indeed.