‘Keep believing in the new SA’


24 October 2006

There seems suddenly to be a rash of commentators predicting that the South African miracle is over. They point to what is undoubtedly going to be a bumpy succession when President Thabo Mbeki goes, citing anecdotal evidence of a worsening crime situation in recent months.

My reply is that those who believed in South Africa a decade and more ago should not get cold feet now.

When I became the first major investor in the new South Africa back in 1993 with the purchase of Argus Newspapers and the creation of Independent News and Media SA, I never thought it was going to be an easy ride.

But I had fundamental faith in the country’s leaders, its people and their commitment to building a decent democratic system out of the ruins of apartheid. The doomsday artists predicted we would quit when the going got tough, but 13 years later we are still there, our investment has been an excellent one, and I have never regretted a moment of it.

Thabo Mbeki’s successor
I still regard South Africa as a modern-day miracle, thanks to the inspirational leadership of Nelson Mandela and the leadership and management skills of his successor, President Thabo Mbeki. Mbeki steps down in 2009 after 15 years as president and deputy president, and there is a great deal of debate about his successor and the direction he will take the country.

The ruling ANC meets in December next year to select a new leader who, in the nature of things, would be expected to succeed to the presidency 18 months later. I have no doubt that South Africans will choose the right leader to oversee the next phase of their development when the time comes.

Already a rigorous and healthy debate is taking place about the country’s future, and how to ensure that the excellent base built by the founding leaders for long-term political stability and sound macroeconomic management survives.

Even without Mandela
South Africa’s exemplary transition to democracy was called a miracle because few outside observers thought it would work. Expectations were low and, even when the pessimists were proved wrong, there was a tendency to say that South Africa was lucky because it had Nelson Mandela, implying that without him things would have been different.

I love Nelson Mandela and would count myself among his greatest admirers, but he would be the first to do justice to all those others who made sacrifices for a just and democratic system. Mbeki’s government contains many highly talented and focused ministers: Trevor Manuel, for instance, has now been Finance Minister for 10 years and is regarded by his peers as one of the best in the world. He is not the only one.

It is to take nothing away from Mandela’s stature as one of the towering figures of our age to say that, among South Africans, he is no anomaly. To the contrary, he is the quintessential South African. That is why it is always a mistake to sell South Africa short.

The achievements of the past dozen or so years have been remarkable by any standard. As the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has said, South Africa today, with its robust economy, stable democracy and commitment to the rule of law, points the way to the African continent and the world as a “beacon of tolerance and mutual respect”. This is not a miracle, but a testament to the calibre of the country and its leadership.

Patience rewarded
It is important to remember how easy it would have been for the first post-apartheid government to throw macroeconomic sense to the wind in seeking to redress the imbalances left by apartheid.

Instead, the collective wisdom of the African National Congress as it settled into office was that imbalances created over generations of white rule could not be fixed overnight and that the first order of business must be create the conditions for sustained economic growth – a tall order given the sclerotic state of the economy in 1994.

Today, we are starting to see the payoff, with growth in the past year of more than 5%, a rapidly reducing budget deficit, a growing tax base, an emerging black middle class, a housing boom in areas such as Soweto and other former townships, and a steadily deepening social cohesion.

Growing pains
With growth, however, comes growing pains. It has been clear over the past year that South Africa has outgrown its infrastructure and its supply of skills. Booming car sales have exacerbated traffic jams. Demand for electricity outpaces capacity. Infrastructural projects are running behind schedules, and government departments have often not been efficient enough to spend their allocated budgets. Service delivery has faltered in many areas. Immigration from the neighbouring (and poorer) African countries, plus a major drift off the land and into the cities, has swelled shanty towns despite the government’s priority on building houses.

The rising economic tide has lifted many boats, but too many remain mired in poverty. Unemployment remains stubbornly at 25%, and is falling only very slowly. Poverty in the midst of conspicuous wealth incubates crime.

Yet when South Africans put their minds to something, they usually succeed. Tourism, for instance, has been a great success: last year South Africa comfortably accommodated a record 7.5 million visitors, the vast majority of whom went home glad they came. Before 1994, the number was less than 1 million.

The government is all too aware of its problems and is intensely focused on overcoming them. The new Accelerated and Shared Growth Initiative, and associated US$60-billion (£32-billion) capital expenditure programme, is aimed at raising growth to 6% by 2010, and halving poverty and unemployment by 2014.

I am a member of the President’s International Advisory Board, which includes figures from world business such as Ratan Tata, Jurgen Schremp, George Soros and Lakshmi Mittal, and to a man we are enthusiastic about what we see as a new and vibrant South Africa, which in turn has huge implications for the rest of Africa.

South Africa’s HIV/Aids programme gets serious and uninformed criticism around the world, but from what I have observed the government is very serious about HIV/Aids. It is spending billions of dollars on prevention, care and antiretroviral drugs, more than any equivalent country.

Leadership contest
There is no doubt that race to succeed President Mbeki has unnerved a number of observers, but the truth is that it is not so much a presidential succession battle as a leadership contest, not all that unlike in the United States or even Britain where both leaders, like Mbeki, are drawing towards the end of their periods in office.

The members of the governing alliance are thrashing out their differences in public, via a free and energetic media, which is the democratic thing to do.

Last week, Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, one of the political giants of the past two decades and a man with immense influence among the Zulu population (the biggest in South Africa), eloquently outlined his support for the Constitution and the democratic process – a very important intervention at this particular time.

To be sure, there is a fair amount of name-calling and challenging of democratic credentials. But who said democracy had to be polite?

Ideological shift in the ANC?
Are we about to witness an ideological shift in the ANC? I don’t think so. The only “ism” that reliably applies to the governing party is pragmatism – a principled pragmatism in pursuit of an ambitious agenda to redress poverty, unequal opportunity and the other legacies of the country’s history. That is unlikely to change whoever is chosen as the ANC’s presidential candidate next year.

The agenda will remain the same – actually, it is in effect mandated by the Constitution – and so will the realities that constrain the options for implementing it. One of the strengths of South African society, and one of the great sources of its stability, is a political culture of consultation and consensus, time-consuming though it often is. This remains an important feature of the ANC ethos.

To call South Africa an “unqualified miracle” is to assert that the people who were responsible for what was called a miracle have somehow changed or gone away. Last time I looked, South Africans were still South Africans and still very much there. And it would still be wrong to underestimate them.

Sir Anthony O’Reilly is chief executive of Independent News & Media. This article was first published in the London Independent and is reproduced here with the kind permission of the author.