Johan Fourie's blog

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Flocking to a new future

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Vuli Nyoni's Murmuration at the GUS Art Gallery in Dorp Street last year.

Part of Vuli Nyoni’s ‘Murmuration’ at the GUS Art Gallery in Dorp Street last year.

There is no doubt that the Rhodes statue should move from its current location. It should have moved a long time ago. The remarkable thing is not that there are students – black and white – that demand its removal. Instead, it is remarkable that a man that caused so much pain expropriating the lands of blacks across southern Africa and Boers in the Republics could escape the furies of so many for so long. Not anymore.

#RhodesMustFall is a no-brainer. But what should substitute Rhodes’ statue is the far more difficult question. Not only on the premises of UCT, but across South African campuses. Offensive names across the country – like the DF Malan centre at Stellenbosch University (despite my attempts last year to suggest that it can be seen as a victory over the past) – have changed. But, as far as I can see anyway, there is no discussion about forging a new, inclusive identity. This has to do with the unfortunate way the Rhodes statue has given rise to groups that want to score cheap political points; the poo-throwing, militaristic, nationalistic and even extremist sentiments expressed in many of the student meetings are an unhappy result of UCT dragging its feet. Now Rhodes’ statue will fall at the hands of opportunists instead of a progressive movement for change.

It’s necessary to recast the past, of course. It’s also easy. What is much more difficult is to define an inclusive vision of the future.

So let me try. On Thursday evening I attended the International Food Evening at Stellenbosch University. More than a thousand students descended on  Academia residence to taste the cuisine of our international  visitors; food from Belgium (who won first prize) to Zimbabwe (who came third) was on offer, as well as that of 23 other countries. It was fun and festive, delicious and diverse. These are not the pictures, unfortunately, the Cape Times report on their cover, because they don’t fit the stereotypical image of Stellenbosch as the last bastion of Afrikaner racism. Instead, Congolese and Canadian, Zulu and Zambian, Swazi and Swiss, Angolans and Afrikaners were conversing under the stars, tasting foreign foods and drinking beer. That image, to me at least, represents a future Stellenbosch, and a future South African society.

That is, a society that is not uniform (where we all look, think, act the same), but united in our purpose to build a prosperous society for all. For too long in our history, those in power had a vision of South Africa that excluded those who lived in it: Rhodes’ vision of a British Empire in Africa had no space for black or Boer. The Afrikaners’ vision of apartheid South Africa had no space black South Africans. And, in truth, the current regime seems to hell bent on disenfranchising amakwerekwere, Africans from countries outside South Africa. A recent estimate suggests that at least 5% of the people in this country are Zimbabweans, more than 3 million in total. What is happening to them is much the same as what happened to blacks during apartheid.

How do we build this inclusive, prosperous future? First we must step away from the strive toward uniformity. Nationalism is an idea that has been tried before and it has failed, again and again. When we flock, as Vuli Nyoni pointed out in an US/Leuven Thinktank seminar earlier on Thursday evening, we tend to lose track of our personal convictions, our personal identities. Perhaps our emphasis on ubuntu – I am who I am through other people – has made us (and here I include not only black South Africans because I think Afrikaners have this characteristic too) prone to groupthink, or flocking. Birds of a feather flock together is what we like to say, but instead of shared appearances we should be focusing on a shared purpose.

Second, we must grow. I don’t want to discuss economic policy here, but consider the collective entrepreneurial spirit of the Asian countries over the last three decades. Government, business and civil society shared a vision of a prosperous future, implementing pro-growth policies that allowed millions to escape poverty and thousands to become millionaires. India, China, and South Korea, despite their own legacies of colonialism, now have large middle classes that can enjoy the fruits of capitalism. South Africans, by focusing so much on the injustices of the past, should be wary of trying too hard to create a new past instead of a new future.

Which brings me back to Rhodes’ statue. What will replace it? Once we’ve (finally) destroyed the myth that we should all be English, or Afrikaans, or South African, what next? Que vadis young South Africa?

Written by Johan Fourie

March 21, 2015 at 11:47

Buffalomania

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Sable

Bidders had come from far to attend what was widely speculated to be the auction of the year. The rich and famous of seventeenth-century Dutch society were present; all with the aim to acquire some of the most unique tulip bulbs on offer at exceptional prices. The auction at an orphanage in Alkmaar on 5 February 1637 was the height of tulipomania, one of the first and most spectacular financial bubbles in history.

Tulips have no intrinsic value. They are beautiful, of course, but there is no explanation for the rapidly escalating prices of tulip bulbs during the 1630s and especially during 1636 and 1637. Everyone in Holland, it seemed, were captivated by the craze; tulips were cultivated with the aim to produce distinct and unique varieties that would attract even higher prices at auctions. One of the most expensive varieties – a Viceroy – sold for two lasts of wheat, four lasts of rye, four fat oxen, eight fat swine, twelve fat sheep, two hogsheads of wine, four tuns of beer, two tons of butter, 1000 lb. of cheese, a complete bed, a suit of clothes, and a silver drinking cup. A futures market even developed, which would later help the development of Amsterdam as a financial center. The only reason for the escalating prices, it seems, was that buyers believed prices would continue to increase.

SemperAugustus

The Semper Augustus, the most expensive tulip sold during Tulipomania

And then, of course, the bubble burst. Not long after the Alkmaar auction, another auction was held in Haarlem. The auctioneer offered the first bid of Witte Croonen (White Crowns) for 1250 guilders. Silence. After an awkward moment, he put in a lower bid. More silence. And then panic. The news soon spread across Holland that tulip prices were on the decline. The fortunes that had been created over the preceding years were wiped out in an instant. Those that had gambled their life savings on tulips, were ruined.

I was reminded of these events when reading about a game auction in South Africa earlier this year. The auction on Piet du Toit‘s farm in South Africa’s North-West province saw record prices for unique variations of game: R7.5 million for one impala, R9.5 million for a gemsbok, and R13 million for one wildebeest. That is R30 million (or $2.4 million) for 3 antelope. Also sold were 25% shares in a West Zambian Sable bull (pictured) for R15.5 million each, valuing the animal at R62 million (or $5 million). Buffalo prices are similarly high: South Africa’s richest man, Johann Rupert, paid R30 million for a bull in 2013, and Cyril Ramaphosa, the country’s vice-president, paid R20 million in 2012. But it is the high prices of the antelope varieties that has drawn attention recently. As research from the Western Cape department of agriculture shows, more than half of all price records for game were set in 2014 alone.

These prices are extraordinary. There is no way buyers can recoup their investment except if prices continue to increase. Yes, foreign hunters are willing to pay excessive prices for unique varieties, but not in the order of magnitude of these numbers. (At best, a unique variation can earn maybe $50 000 in hunting income.) The only reason that prices are increasing is that buyers believe prices will continue to increase. That is the logic of bubbles: if prices go up, they will continue to go up.

Until they don’t. No one can be sure when and how this will happen. But I can imagine something along these lines: a large gathering of bidders on a farm in South Africa’s Limpopo province. Much excitement as the first bid – an impressive Zambian sable bull – is presented for R20 million starting price. Silence. A lower starting price perhaps: R10 million. More silence. The realisation, suddenly, that no one is buying; the awkward silence broken by discreet phone conversations to anxious owners: ‘The bubble, sir, has burst.’

Sources: 1) Mike Dash. 2001. Tulipomania. Broadway books. 2) Louw Pienaar, Western Cape Department of Agriculture.

An Afrikaans version of this first appeared in Rapport newspaper.

Written by Johan Fourie

March 16, 2015 at 06:30

The remarkable Maori experience

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Moari Haka

Human height provide economic historians with a wonderful tool to measure living standards in the past. A society’s average height, it turns out, is to a large extent determined by the environment it inhabits during the early stages of life; the more proteins (e.g. milk and meat) we eat at a young age , the taller we tend to grow. This was especially true in the past, when people were poorer and nutrition varied more in different parts of the world.

The past week I attended a conference on Heights and Human Development, organised by Tim Hatton and Martine Mariotti of the Centre for Economic History at ANU in Canberra, Australia. The invited authors used historical heights to measure the diverse impacts of slavery (Rick Steckel), migration (Zach Ward), colonisation (Joerg Baten), social transfers (Diana Contreras Suarez), Chinese industrialisation (Stephen Morgan) and technological change (my own, with Mariotti and Kris Inwood, which will hopefully soon be available as a working paper).

But I particularly enjoyed a paper by Kris Inwood (with two colleagues) that investigated the heights of New Zealand’s Maori over the last two centuries. When the Pakeha (the whites from Europe and their descendants) arrived in New Zealand early in the nineteenth century, they described the native peoples as tall and strong. Yet, as Maori lands were taken up by Pakeha farmers, their stature declined: by the beginning of the twentieth century, Moari people had lost their reputation as a tall and strong people, and Inwood et al’s evidence shows that they were significantly shorter than their white countrymen.

This gap in the heights of the two groups persisted for more than fifty years, but, and this is the surprising result, by the 1970s the gap had narrowed and by the 1980s had closed completely. Children born to Maori parents in the 1980s are today as tall as their Pakeha compatriots. The exact reasons for this convergence in heights are unclear: Inwood suggested that it was due to government social transfers during the Golden Age, but clear causal evidence is lacking. Yet, I would argue, this is an incredibly important event to understand, because it has implications elsewhere, most notably in South Africa.

Whites in South Africa today are about 8cm taller than their black compatriots. There is no reason to expect that this has always been the case; the gap was almost certainly smaller at the beginning of the twentieth century and, although we have limited data, probably much smaller (and possibly even negligible) at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Two centuries of land dispossession and prejudiced policies saw a divergence in the living standards of South Africa’s different race groups. When exactly this happened, and by how much, is the question of ongoing work by myself, students and collaborators. (I will hopefully have more to report later this year.)

Yet Maori convergence suggests that the current discrepancy in height between black and white South Africans is not fatalistic, that aggregate differences in height are not set in stone as most people would tend to think. And more, Inwood et al’s evidence show that this could happen relatively quickly: Maori heights increased by 8cm over a 25 year period (from 170cm to 178cm between 1955 to 1980). If black South Africans experienced the same after the end of apartheid, we would have seen the large divergence in height disappearing within this decade.

By all accounts, though, despite many improvements in the living standards of black South Africans, the height discrepancies remain. We therefore need to learn whether it was better nutrition, female education, a stronger economy, luck, or maybe even a strengthening of Maori identity and pride (as was suggested at the workshop) that led to the remarkable Maori experience of the mid-twentieth century. This is the challenge for us as economic historians. As the Maori would say: Ma tini ma mano ka rapa te whai. By many, the work will be accomplished.

Written by Johan Fourie

March 9, 2015 at 06:05

The incredible AB

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SwingLikeAB

It is difficult to find appropriate adjectives to explain Abraham Benjamin de Villiers’s World Cup performance yesterday. I was there, at the Sydney Cricket Ground, when AB demolished the West Indian bowling: swishing, sloshing and smashing their bowling to all parts of the ground. There was one reverse-sweep off the fast bowling of the West Indian captain which defied belief. AB scored 162 off 66 balls, the fastest 150 ever scored, a record he should have had earlier this year, when he demolished the same West Indian team in Johannesburg, scoring 149 off 44 balls. (I remember critics saying that Johannesburg is a small ground and high above sea level. Well, I can tell you, the SCG is none of those things.)

It started relatively slow. Helanya and I had made a poster specifically for the game – Float like a butterfly, stwing like AB – and after AB walked in, we had to wait several overs before he scored his first boundary and we could lift it high. (While we didn’t make it onto TV, Shaun Pollock did tweet – Float like a butterfly, sting like AB – either through incredible coincidence or because he saw our poster at the ground. Did I just fly halfway across the globe to have my poster plagiarised by Polly?*)

I don’t think the current generation of South African kids really appreciate just how special a cricketer AB is. I know the game has evolved, that it’s ‘a batsman’s game’, but to play the shots AB did yesterday against a bowling attack that, at least initially, showed determination to be accurate and consistent, requires something special. Where South Africa’s other batsmen struggled to force the scoring rate, AB had the ability to seamlessly leap to a higher level, creating boundaries from balls that should be no more than singles down the ground. The way he scooped the fast bowlers, for example, adjusting to the speed and bounce of the pitch, was extraordinary. He seems to bat with a sixth sense.

It was an incredible night and great to see so many South African supporters. We were still a bit jet-lagged (having arrived the day before), but AB’s innings quickly extinguished any yawns we might have had. He seems to have smashed South Africa’s confidence right back, and that can only be good for us in the rest of the tournament. We’ll be in Canberra for the next game. And Polly, we’ll have another poster for you too.

*After my post, Shaun Pollock sent me the following tweet: “My friend sent it to me after AB got his 100 at the Wanderers, enjoy your trip!” Thus: apologies for crying plagiarism. It seems like great minds do indeed think alike!

Written by Johan Fourie

February 28, 2015 at 01:01

This is how to transform cricket in South Africa

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Rabada

What South Africa’s first match against Zimbabwe in this year’s Cricket World Cup made abundantly clear, is that Zimbabwe’s national cricket team is much more representative of their country’s demography. Not one ethnically black (or ‘African black’) player was in South Africa’s starting eleven; our country’s demography (roughly: 80% ethnically black, 9% Coloured, 9% white and 2% Asian/other) is nearly the exact opposite of our national team demography (in the last Test match: 9% black, 18% Coloured, 64% white and 9% Asian/other). That is disappointing after two decades of democracy.

But it’s not as if there’s many black players clamoring for selection: Aaron Phangiso is the only ethnically black player in the group, and he will find it difficult to replace our incumbent spinner, Imran Tahir, who has become an ODI wonderkid. The pipeline is also pretty empty: I don’t know whether Kagiso Rabada, a right-arm fast bowler that destroyed Australia in the semi-final of the u/19 World Cup last year and ended the tournament as the highest South African wicket taker, will be a star Protea bowler one day. All I know is that he has the potential to be a star, which is why the national selectors thought it wise to select him for the national T20 side, only to be smashed by Australia. Let’s hope he learns, hopefully with his self-belief and confidence intact, and that he isn’t pushed too hard too fast.

Unfortunately, Kagiso is the exception rather than the rule. Since the democratic transition in 1994, very few ethnically black players have played in the Test side; Makhaya Ntini being the only one that could keep his place for an extended period of time. Of course, this is not a problem unique to cricket; the current Springbok side is as white as what it was in 1995 when it won the World Cup for the first time. But cricket’s failure to grow ethnically black talent seems to be particularly acute.

No one is disputing the fact that we need more black players to be selected for the Proteas. I think it is fair to say that Makhaya Ntini was a favourite not only among black fans; he was a favourite to all because he was entertaining and hard-working and brilliant. Yet no more Ntini’s have come through the system. I’ve written before on why that is. To summarize: cricket is expensive, in terms of time and resources. It is incredibly difficult for a young kid from an impoverished background to have access to good coaching, facilities and family support that will allow him to compete on a level playing field against richer kids. In South Africa, the poorest 80% of the population is almost entirely black. And because cricket skills are developed from a young age, black kids in poor schools simply cannot compete against their wealthier white compatriots. It is also why, if you really want to change the system, you have to start in school.

Which is exactly the opposite approach Cricket South Africa has taken. Last year, the University Sport South Africa (USSA) Cricket Week enforced quotas for different race groups. Each team had to field 3 ‘players of colour’, one of which had to be ethnically black. Teams struggled to fill the quota, some having to field only 9 players because they could not meet the quota requirements. In 2015, the quotas will increase to 4 players of colour, 2 ethnically black. In 2016, it will be 6 players of colour, three ethnically black. It is impossible to see, given current trends, how most universities will be able to adhere to these requirements without 1) putting players without the required ability at risk of injury and 2) without discouraging good players from playing cricket.

Quotas are useful when there is evidence of racism: if there are enough black players that can be selected but coaches or managers choose to ignore them. Such racism is irrational because coaches are supposed to pick the best players to win the tournament, and if they discriminate against black players then they hurt their own chances of success. In such an environment, quotas would force racist coaches to pick the black players instead of the inferior white players.

I doubt that this is what is happening at universities, though. In my discussions with university managers and players, they spend an inordinate amount of time scouting for black talent. The few black players that are available are headhunted by all universities, with promises of bursaries and free tuition. And in some cases, the really good ones, like my Masters student and former Stellenbosch captain, Omphile Ramela, are drafted to the provincial side, where quotas also mean that those coaches are frantically looking for even more promising black players.

Let me phrase this in terms of economics. Racial quotas shift the demand curve for black players, but does nothing about the supply side. The only way you shift the supply side, as any first year Economics student should know, is by improving technology and thus productivity. So the standard response to ‘how do we get more black kids in sport’ is not ‘force teams to play them’ but ‘build better facilities in schools’.

Yet we are clearly not building better facilities in schools, or providing better coaching, or, at least, we are not doing it fast enough. And yet, politicians and, in most cases, fans (myself included) want to see faster progress. A different answer is clearly needed.

So, Cricket South Africa, here is my suggestion: allow the private market to develop black talent. Economists know that the best way to ensure a steady supply of any good is to get the incentives right. And to get the incentives right, in this case, would require some financial support. Instead of a quota at the USSA Cricket Week, allow teams to pick any player they want to. But for every ethnically black player they field, pay them R500 000 (or R100 000 per match). For every Coloured player, pay them R250 000 (or R50 000 per match). If all teams pick only black players, Cricket South Africa would need a maximum budget of R50 million to stage the tournament. Do this every year for at least 10 years. (To ensure that universities play to win, give an additional R5 million in prize money.)

What is likely to happen? University coaches will react to these incentives swiftly. They will realise that it can be incredibly lucrative to field a team with several black players. They can therefore plan to invest their future earnings today; spend the next two years finding black players, nurturing and developing them (an expensive exercise), offer them bursaries (even more expensive), and fielding them in three years’ time. Intermediaries – good development coaches with an eye for talent – will realise that if they invest in black young kids with potential, universities will be willing and able to buy these players from them: expect the creation of numerous (profitable) cricket academies around the country that will improve access for black kids to better facilities and better coaching.  The result is that a much larger pool of black talent will emerge, allowing provinces to pick and choose and the national team to prosper.

R500 million over a ten year period is a lot of money. But I suspect not more than R200 million will be needed, as good white players will still be selected (especially if there is a financial reward for winning). If the government (perhaps with the help of sponsors) are serious about transformation in sport, they need to put their money where their mouth is. And because much of the money will go into bursaries, this type of spending has large positive externalities too.

Quotas, although easy to enforce, won’t solve the shortage of professional black cricketers. If we want to produce a Makhaya Ntini or Kagiso Rabada every year, a well-funded system that gets the incentives right is the only viable alternative.

Written by Johan Fourie

February 20, 2015 at 08:01

Forget the SONA embarrassment. This is how we change our future.

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lighttunnelWhat South Africans learned last night – if we did not already know it – is that if we are to make progress as a country, it will happen despite and not because of our politicians. Everyone lost in last night’s State of the Nation embarrassment: the EFF who, after chasing around one of their own MPs in the streets of Cape Town, interrupted the president repeatedly during his State of the Nation Address; the Speaker, who ordered armed police to forcibly remove the boisterous EFF members; and ANC MPs, for cheering on while EFF members were assaulted. And I haven’t even mentioned the jamming device used to scramble all cellular networks (shut down only after journalists and opposition MPs insisted that it be turned off). Or the fact that DA members marching outside were hosed down by riot police, and some arrested. The solemn figures of Thabo Mbeki and FW de Klerk in the parliamentary gallery depicted perfectly how far our country’s leadership has fallen.

But perhaps, in search of our dark cloud’s silver lining, what happened in parliament yesterday, although a reflection of the state of the nation, is not a reflection of the future of the nation. Another South African made news yesterday, news that will affect countless more lives (even South African ones) than what our president did or could say in a State of the Nation address. Instead of focusing on the sorry figure of Zuma, perhaps we should pay more attention to the ideas and plans of our greatest export in recent years: Elon Musk, founder and owner of Tesla and SpaceX, who is, incredibly, still only 41 years old. Musk announced on Wednesday that Tesla is planning to unveil a new lithium-ion battery pack that homeowners could buy to store and supply their own energy. Here’s Time Magazine:

Details on the batteries were sparse, but an obvious use would be placing them in homes equipped with solar panels to store excess energy. Solar energy company SolarCity already offers Tesla battery packs in some markets that customers can use to store energy and use as a kind of emergency generator. Musk is the chairman of SolarCity and its largest shareholder.

In addition to selling to residential customers, Tesla could also sell batteries to utilities trying to increase energy efficiency.

A shortage of electricity is arguably South Africa’s most immediate constraint: South Africa is producing less electricity than it did twenty years ago, owing to a lack of investment in new power plants and maintenance on existing ones. It is embarrassing to explain to my international visitors that, yes, we have a schedule about when power cuts will occur. Load shedding is killing investment, growth and jobs. Zuma acknowledged as much: “The country is currently experiencing serious energy constraints which are an impediment to economic growth and is a major inconvenience to everyone in the country”. He outlined short, medium and long-term responses, none new. According to most experts, we can expect load shedding for most of 2015 and well into 2016.

That is, if we trust government to deliver on its promises. We shouldn’t. Last night showed us that the best we can hope for is a government that does little harm. Don’t expect that any time soon, though. Instead, we should trust those people who have an incentive to get things right: if they do, and we begin to use batteries in our homes like we use toasters, they win fame and fortune. Musk will become an even richer genius. Politicians, in contrast, have none of those incentives. The way they make money is to skim the cream off a big tender. Delays mean larger contracts and more to skim off. There is nothing in politics that incentivize leaders to be efficient.

Entrepreneurs are different. They must innovate, improve, and deliver to satisfy the demands of millions of consumers. The better they do this, the more money they make. And this innovation improves the planet, too. Battery-powered homes (and cars and offices) will allow us to make better use of renewable energies, especially in a sunny and windy South Africa. It will allow us to connect the 3.5 million people that still don’t have access to electricity. (Consider the impact cell phone technology on African living standards.) And it will allow us to escape the inefficiencies of badly-run state monopolies. #powertothepeople #inmuskwetrust

Better politicians are not the answer to South Africa’s woes. Better entrepreneurs are. For South Africans, the light at the end of Eskom’s dark tunnel is a fast-approaching train. For Musk, it’s an entirely new world.

Written by Johan Fourie

February 13, 2015 at 10:28

How Zuma’s words disempower black South Africans

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Who wears South Africa's diamonds? Source: BBC

Diamonds (and colonialism) are forever. Source: BBC

Black South Africans have suffered a lot over the last two centuries. I am an economic historian and, together with some of my students, have recently begun a project which hopes to quantify the material inequalities between black and white South Africans over the last 200 years. It is not easy, because the colonial records have often ignored the black experience. And yet, there are clues everywhere. From early nineteenth-century government payrolls (where black translators earned one-tenthousandth of what the white governor earned) to mid-twentieth century cadaver heights (where blacks are significantly shorter in height than their white compatriots).

All this evidence points to the incredible material injury of black South Africans. And this is to say nothing of the psychological scars and social strife that has accompanied this material hurt.

This suffering is much longer than the colonial experiences of many other Africans on the continent. Although Van Riebeeck already arrived in 1652 and first contact with the isiXhosa’s at the infamous Fish River was more than a century later, this was still much earlier than the colonial experiences of other African countries, which started around the end of the nineteenth century. True, many countries across Africa suffered the vulgarities of the slave trade, most pronounced during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. But South Africa’s colonisation, I would argue, was worse, with Europeans subjugating complex agricultural societies to material inferiority by taking their lands, stealing their cattle and, above all, exploiting the minerals that they had claim to. (Is it not ironic that the Queen of England still wears Africa’s most prized diamond?)

When and where black societies adjusted to the new reality of colonialism – proverbially pulling themselves up by their shoelaces – they were punished, either through higher head and hut taxes to ensure that they remain docile labourers, or through more sinister (but also more effective) policies, like building a railroad circumventing the black areas, excluding blacks from the vote despite their immense contribution (to both sides) during the Second South Africa War, or, most infamously, by providing rubbish education (with the 1953 Bantu Education Act). For two centuries, at least until 1994, whites did their best to discourage, disrupt and, when those two did not work, destroy, African innovation and entrepreneurship.

All this changed in the new South Africa, for although blacks were (and many remain) at a serious disadvantage, there was no one to now stand in their way. And so, we witness the rise of the black middle class and the black diamonds. Sandton today is perhaps the epitome of this black entrepreneurial class; confident, successful, prosperous. South Africa has moved from a nation of between-group inequality (i.e. white vs black inequality) to a nation of within-group inequality. As an example, if all of South Africa’s whites were to leave the country tomorrow, the Gini coefficient (the measure social scientists use to quantify the inequalities of a country) would remain exactly the same. Over the last two decades, millions of black South Africans have escaped poverty and moved into the middle class; some studies estimate that this group is now close to 5 million people, larger than the total white population. And yes, whites have prospered too, despite their complaining and moaning about everything from BEE to racial quotas in the Springbok team. None of this hurt them (on aggregate), and the only things that do hurt – violent crime, corruption, blackouts – hurt black South Africans even more.

But the post-1994 South Africa is not a narrative about a minority group that represents less than 10% of South Africans. Instead, it is a story of a people rising up from the depths of economic and social deprivation. It is a remarkable story of courage, determination, and perseverance and triumph-against-all-odds. Black South Africans have claimed their birth right and begun to overturn centuries of injustice. They have had to skill up, build up collateral, educate the next generation, all with relatively little support from a government that first had to steer a sinking ship through shallow waters. And more: they have had to reconcile with racists, so magnanimous a step that we forget it is called a miracle.

And yet, when Jacob Zuma blamed apartheid for Eskom’s blackouts and when he branded Jan van Riebeeck the scapegoat for the country’s high levels of inequality, he changed the narrative again. Suddenly, South Africa was not a country where black South Africans had the agency to affect their own destiny, but one where whites had (again) the starring role. This tiny minority, Zuma implied, was the lead actor in the South African story; his statements suggest that black South Africans are, at best, supporting characters, much like in the days before 1994. While whites are up in arms at being blamed for everything, they are happy to be part of the conversation again, happy to be listened to, happy to have their say. (For, really, why should South Africans otherwise care about the opinions of a former presidential secretary?)

Zuma does this, I would argue, because it gives him legitimacy (much like Bob Mugabe gets legitimacy by blaming the whites in Zimbabwe, now less than 1% of the population). But Zuma is wrong. While this may still be a country home to millions of whites, it is certainly not a country about them. By blaming whites, Zuma is denying black South Africans the right to take ownership of their own future.

Written by Johan Fourie

February 3, 2015 at 10:43

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