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Is South Africa destined to blow it after all?

South Africa’s plummeting image internationally must surely be a cause of concern today. This year things have significantly worsened with such new crises as the xenophobia outbreak, power cuts and continuing leadership vacuum in the ruling party being added to the usual concerns about out-of-control crime, HIV/Aids denialism and failures to confront the Zimbabwe fiasco. What makes things worse is that, with the downturn in the world economy, the most sustained period of economic growth in this country’s history would seem to be coming to an end.

I now regularly receive emails depicting South Africa as a society in chaos, well on the way to becoming yet another African basket case. Many of these originate with unreconciled whites who take some kind of perverse comfort in what they take as further evidence of black incompetence. However, as the neutral media monitoring organisation Media Tenor has recently shown, negative international perceptions of the country today are evident right across the spectrum of informed opinion.

The Zimbabwe issue has been particularly disastrous from a public relations point of view. The international community is not especially interested what the South African government has to say, for example, about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, notwithstanding the latter’s pretensions of playing some kind of role in resolving this perennially vexed issue. It is definitely interested, however, in its policy regarding what is happening in its own back yard. Here, South Africa’s record has been one of abject failure, and indeed worse than that. Far from merely failing to put due pressure on the Mugabe regime, this country’s leadership has in fact supported it, diplomatically and for all we know economically as well. Struggle-era loyalties have evidently trumped their ostensible commitment to the values of democracy, freedom and human rights.

The implications of a Zimbabwe-style melt-down in this country are dire, not just for the 50 million or so people who live here, but for the entire Southern African region. There’s no doubt about it – if we go down, Botswana, Namibia, Mozambique, Lesotho and Swaziland will surely follow. Economically, they are inextricably linked with the fortunes of the South African regional giant. And in our case, unlike those of the countless foreign nationals who have made their way to this country, there’ll be nowhere to run to. It’s a scary prospect, especially when you’ve got young children.

South Africa is still a young nation finding its feet, and the jury remains out regarding its long-term prospects. Yes, we defied the pessimists to broker a lasting political settlement ten years ago, but do we really deserve credit for that? If someone messes up his own house, there doesn’t seem to be much sense in complimenting him when he finally gets it together to clean it up. Anyway, all that is ancient history. South Africans face a whole new set of challenges, and on the evidence of the first half of this year, we seem to be in danger of blowing it.

For a few years, roughly from 2003-2007, emigration levels from the Jewish community dropped dramatically, allowing its numbers to at least remain static for the first time in a quarter of a century. There was even the encouraging evidence of former émigrés wanting to return, and some actually doing so. This nascent optimism, so vital if the self-fulfilling threat of Afro-pessimism is to be overcome, has taken a severe body blow this year. From my perspective in Jewish communal affairs, although no hard data is yet available, there is likely to be a significant upsurge in people leaving when the final numbers are tallied. What Jews are doing will obviously be reflective of developments in the wider society. Over a fifth of qualified, monied whites, as well as many others of other races, have left in the past decade.

I remember a University friend who was a member of a student band. Hardly anyone ever came to their gigs, but he insisted it wasn’t because of their music. Rather, people would arrive, see that there was hardly anyone there and go away. A few minutes later, the same thing would happen. If people had only stayed put for a little while, he lamented, a good crowd would have built up and created its own positive dynamic.

The truth of the matter was that their music was pretty terrible, but he had a good point all the same. Similarly, if only a few gifted South Africans could stick it out and actually prove their worth on home soil, maybe other South Africans would start believing in themselves and begin competing on equal terms with the successful nations of the world. Just because we look good compared with our immediate neighbours doesn’t mean we should be satisfied with second best. What is worse, unless leaders can be found to effectively address the decline, even second best will end up being all but unattainable.


  • David Saks has worked for the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) since April 1997, and is currently its associate director. Over the years, he has written extensively on aspects of South African history, Judaism and the Middle East for local and international newspapers and journals. David has an MA in history from Rhodes University. Prior to joining the SAJBD, he was curator -- history at MuseumAfrica in Johannesburg. He is editor of the journal Jewish Affairs, appears regularly on local radio discussing Jewish and Middle East subjects and is a contributor to various Jewish publications.