A Dangerous Perspective

(The A Dangerous Perspective’s title is derived from the truth that a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing. Being a tourist for a few weeks does not give me the credentials to have a remotely authoritative understanding of a continent or a country. However, it does give me a perspective and here it is.)

South Africa along with its nearby neighbours is a lovely, interesting and welcoming place. Whether you follow the well-worn tourist routes or even venture off the beaten path slightly, you could believe you were anywhere in the modern developed world. Dining, lodging, transportation systems are all world class. And of course, they have the corner on big game viewing. Go if you get the chance and it will rank up there with any of your best vacations.

However, scratch beneath the surface only slightly and you’ll find a huge underclass that doesn’t share any of that apparent prosperity even though they are a major contributor to its existance. South Africa rivals only Latin America in having the largest gap between those that have and those that don’t. Those that have (and have had) the wealth and the knowledge and the skills to exploit it, no longer have the electoral capacity to effect change. But they still have the wealth and the knowledge and the skills. The underclass believed their world was going to change for the better with the events of the early 1990s. But after a pretty good start, they now have found themselves with leaders that are some combination of corrupt or incompetent. The sad fact is that the country seems to have all the resources they need to go around; minerals, agriculture capacity and so on; more than enough to provide a decent quality of life for all of their citizens. They “just” need to find the right social contract that will allow for a shift in the distribution of that wealth. Surely even a modest shift would accomplish much. When you’re working for $1.00 an hour you would think that an orderly transition to $2.00 an hour could be accomplished without upsetting the applecart completely while providing an enormous step up to the recipients and their families. Yet suspicion and resentment lurks everywhere. Those that have the wealth have gotten used to the system. Not only do they worry that any change would be a slippery slope, many don’t even see unfairness; it is just the way it is. Many of those that are in poverty have demands that are not in context with what is possible and sensible. And those in government seem to feel that holding office has more to do with enriching their own lives than serving the electorate. There’s a sense of it being “their turn” at the trough.

So on the surface the status quo looks intractable and the only question is whether it can be sustained in its current state or whether there will be massive disruption. Recent labour disputes in the mining and agricultural sectors and the deterioration in some large urban areas hint at the latter. That would be a shame. It is such a beautiful and rich country that has been through enough. And as so often happens, any massive disruption may not accomplish the underclass’s aims at all but may only make things worse for all. The good news is that Africa as a continent, in spite of its poverty, is experiencing positive economic growth. Six of the world’s 10 fastest-growing economies are in Africa. There’s a school of thought that says the next 30 years will be transformative in the way that China’s experience has been for the last 30 and that it is on the way to becoming a middle class continent. So maybe, just maybe, as dictators die off and are overthrown and as neighbouring countries find their voice and footing in a modern world, South Africa will be pushed and pulled into a quiet and controlled correction that will benefit all. And I’ll raise a Castle to that.

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