South Africa Re-Visited

I was brought up in South Africa, went to school there and read a 4 year History Honours degree at Natal University. I also did military service after I was conscripted to the army and so my foundation knowledge of the country runs deep. I left South Africa in 1964, at the height of apartheid, but apart from regular visits to see family, friends and cricket, have never been tempted by a permanent move back. There have been various reasons for this: I married an English girl, I did not want my children to be brought up under the shadow of apartheid and by 1994, when South Africa became a true democracy, my career in the UK was well established. I suppose that I could have retired back there but by then I felt well and truly British. But my affection for South Africa remains unbounded and so it was with excitement and anticipation that we planned to spend January there. The fact that it was high summer, it is a comparatively easy flight, the England cricket team were touring and the South African currency, the Rand, had nosedived to 24 to the pound were all added bonuses. Our itinerary took us to the major cities of Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, Johannesburg and Durban. In addition we visited the remoter high veld (so called because it is over 5000 feet above sea level) drove through part of the Eastern Cape and up through KwaZulu/Natal and the eastern Orange Free State from Durban to Johannesburg. All that, plus 2 Test Matches, gave us quite an insight into the country - we talked and stayed with many South Africans although they were predominantly family and friends.

What did we find? According to the great Victorian constitutionalist, Walter Bagehot, revolutions take 25 years (a generation?) to achieve their effects and now that it is 22 years since non-white South Africans achieved the vote, we detected the first signs that wise old Bagehot was probably right. Almost half the population has no direct experience of apartheid and as each year goes by, the ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), loses its emotional grip of being the party that conquered discrimination. There is a distinct gap appearing between the urban and rural black South Africans. The former want competence and good governance but it is in the rural heartlands where the current President, Zuma, has his power base. Superficially things look good - the airports are as good as any that you will find, the roads are free of potholes and well maintained and the cars (mostly made under licence in South Africa) reflect a high level of prosperity. There are many wonderful hotels and restaurants and while South Africans take security very seriously, there is much less talk of crime. Cities still have no-go areas but the shanty towns are shrinking. Johannesburg which, until recently, was notorious for crime and violence, is beginning to open downtown areas that reflect its cosmopolitan character and are safer. Only in KwaZulu/Natal, Zuma’s heartland, did we feel ill at ease in supermarkets and elsewhere. However I am reliably informed that while the rich are getting richer, the poor are certainly getting poorer.

South Africa has huge problems. Porous borders have exacerbated the acute unemployment statistics, world commodity prices, on which the economy was so dependent, have dipped alarmingly and while the gold reef has not run dry, it has gone too deep to be economically mined. But, above all, corruption and cronyism is rife. This affects many levels of government with perhaps the most obvious example being an electricity grid that is teetering on the edge of collapse. We experienced regular power and water cuts. All this is made worse by a devastating drought and while some rain has come, albeit late, the shrivelled maize fields in the Orange Free State provide a haunting memory. Since Smuts was voted out in 1948, South Africa, with the notable exceptions of Mandela and de Klerk, has been ill served by its political leaders. President Zuma damaged the economy considerably when he recently sacked the competent Finance Minister and replaced him with a lackey. When the ANC top brass then applied pressure on Zuma, the new man was removed and a third (happily competent) minister was appointed. Three Finance Ministers in a week! The damage had been done.

The solution to many of South Africa’s problems lies in education. While there are many good schools, too many, particularly the vast majority of rural schools, are dire. Here, too, corruption and cronyism are rife. Even many of the Anglican schools cannot escape criticism. Recently, the Archbishop of Cape Town conducted a review of Anglican schools. While there were some stunning exceptions, he was horrified by what he discovered. Happily, he has galvanised the church into action - an Anglican Board of Education has been established, funds are being raised and an extremely competent Chief Executive (the recently retired Headmaster of my old school!) appointed. As a result, the worst schools are being brought up to the mark and new ones created. Let us hope that a future government (constitutionally Zuma must stand down next year) follows the Archbishop’s example.

Despite all this, South Africa remains a country of infinite possibilities and one shouldn’t ignore the huge change of mind-set that has taken place since the end of apartheid. For example, few will forget the universal and unbridled joy among all races when at the Newlands Test match, Temba Baume, all 5 foot 3 inches of him, became the first black South African to score a century. The fact that Kais Ramada, aged just 20, led South Africa to victory with his 13 wickets in the final Test merely underpinned the revolution that has taken place. Basil D’Oliviera, in heaven I hope, must be smiling.

Peter Lapping