We cannot afford another five years like the last


April fool jokes in the press this year were more successful than usual. Large numbers of people really believed that Parliament had been sold off to Michael Jackson and that Durban City Hall was about to be painted in garish Afro stripes with a giant statue of Shaka placed on top. Such jokes tapped into the almost nightmarish fears of what an out of control African nationalism might get up to and, among whites especially, revealed that there was a propensity to believe that there was almost no limit to what might happen.

This is further proof of the low morale among many whites, Indians and Coloureds — reflected, too, in the very large numbers intending not to vote in the coming election. There is no doubt that apart from the many who have gone abroad, many who have stayed have moved into a mental state of internal exile, despairing of the society they live in and wanting minimal involvement with public affairs.

This mood finds only occasional expression in the press — usually in bitterly angry letters to the Citizen. A great deal of the English-speaking press seems to be in a state of denial, continuing the tradition of sunshine journalism that has flourished since 1994. Mandela’s impending departure has produced reams of enraptured prose and Mbeki’s arrival is already being saluted as if things could only go from strength to strength. Some of the eulogies are quite embarrassing. Take Drew Forrest in Business Day, for example:

“It is time to pay full tribute to the ANC government’s remarkable achievements in blunting centrifugal forces in South Africa and maintaining its macro-stability . . . Even more striking is the use of Marxist jargon in ANC strategy documents to mask what, in the end, are restrained policy positions . . . One of the talents of ANC leaders has been for deferred political gratification . . . Another strength is the ANC’s tactical flexibility . . . nobody who remembers the apocalyptic mood before the last election can doubt that South Africa has become a significantly more stable country.”

It seems strange to praise the ANC for deferred political gratification when it is openly pursuing the takeover of all “independent” public institutions and somewhat odd to welcome its use of Marxist jargon which undoubtedly sends all the wrong signals to the markets. It is also doubtful that these “remarkable achievements” have brought much cheer to people in places such as Dordrecht in the Eastern Cape that Peter Dickson writes about in this issue and other impoverished rural areas. But these are minor matters compared to the issue of economic growth and stability.

Five years of ANC rule have seen the loss of 500,000 jobs, a huge escalation in unemployment, an average growth rate of 1 per cent with a consequent fall in per capita real incomes, the implosion of large areas of public administration, declining services in many areas, a worsening of the absolute levels of poverty of the poorest people, a halving of the currency’s value and an acceleration of the braindrain with a loss of skills that presents a serious threat to future economic growth.

It is certainly true that President Mandela and Deputy President Mbeki faced an extremely tough task when they took over in 1994 and it is also true that things could easily be a lot worse than they are. But in most other democratic states a government that had a record such as this would be judged a failure, would be savaged by the press and voted out by the electorate.
If the new government produces the same sort of results over the next five years as it has in the past five the country’s relatively liberal civil order could well be a casualty — either because it ceases to be liberal or because it ceases to maintain order. Among the many consequences of such a trend would be the strengthening of the centrifugal forces in the country. So while the recent period has had its achievements, the truth is that we cannot afford another five years like them. Although such an admission is not to be expected in mid-campaign, the crisis affects the government as much as it affects liberals. Once the election is over, it would be best if we can eschew party rhetoric and sunshine journalism alike and face these harsh facts together.