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The Economist gets it wrong — again

It’s easy to satirise the kind of journalism that led to the now famous October 20 “Cry, the beloved country” cover story of the Economist magazine.

There are two stories in the edition, a short “leader” article and the main story. This is the intro of the main story in the magazine:

“It has made progress since becoming a full democracy in 1994. But a failure of leadership means that in many ways, South Africa is now going backwards.”

The magazine then lists a hodgepodge of new and old problems and economic indicators, including unemployment, inequality and education.

It’s an easy kind of journalism: make up your mind about the story and then find the facts to fit.

Apply this approach to the UK:

“It has made progress since it stopped being an imperialist exploiter in the 1960s. But a failure of leadership means that in many ways, Britain is now going backwards. Unemployment, economy at zero growth or worse, increasing xenophobia, youth riots, a troubled coalition government running an unpopular austerity programme, house prices that make home ownership impossible for new entrants, an ageing population that puts a strain on the fiscus etc, spell bad news for the green and pleasant isle.”

This is not to diminish our problems. They are real and need fixing.

One that the Economist devotes some space to is the failure of education to give many ordinary people hope of breaking out of poverty. This is more than sad, it is enraging.

Yet many of the problems the Economist cites, such as inequality, will take more than “leadership”, whatever that implies, to solve. At least some of those who chortled with glee in South Africa at the renowned international magazine having a go at the ANC are unlikely to want to make the sacrifices that greater equality demands.

Solving inequality through massive, quick redistribution of wealth would arguably level down rather than up, so that those who could not flee would be left equally poor. It is a problem faced by other countries, such as Brazil. The Economist should know this, so why it harps on inequality is a puzzle.

It is the central tenet of the Economist’s leader article that is most specious: South Africa is fated to fall behind the fast-growing African countries to its north because it is becoming a one-party state of the kind that used to be popular in Africa. Indeed, the Economist says Nigeria’s economy could eclipse South Africa’s.

There is a farrago of fallacies here; they start with the notion that South Africa is in danger of becoming a one-party system. There is no evidence of this. The ANC is in power because the majority of people voted for it in the last election.

The rest of Africa is growing fast, but even the Economist admits that this is often off a low base. Nearby Mozambique is a case in point. This used to be the poorest country in the world, and it is massively aid dependent. It will be some time before Mozambique can become a developed country.

True, both Nigeria and Angola have shown rapid, if erratic growth. Both have oil, which in an era of high oil prices is the explanation for that surge in growth. But Nigeria, though nothing like as grim as under the dictatorship of Sani Abacha, has its own troubles, namely religious violence and corruption, while Angola’s enclave economy has yet to see real democracy and its inequality could outdo South Africa’s.

And the oil price may not stay high forever, just as it did not stay low forever when the Economist famously ran a cover many years ago saying the price was too low. The Economist, which once ran a cover describing Africa as “The hopeless continent”, now appears to believe the opposite.

Most importantly, economic growth is not a race. If Nigeria and other African states see huge rates of growth, that is more likely to benefit South Africa than not. It seems to have escaped the magazine that the rest of Africa is our backyard. Our home-grown multinational MTN has its biggest investment in Nigeria. South African companies are present all over Africa. If they do well, so are we likely to do well.

Angola is a promising trade and investment destination. True democracy in any of our neighbours is to be celebrated, because it makes the region more attractive for investment, as well as preventing the kind of abuses ordinary Africans have suffered for so long at the hands of colonial governments and then their own people. Let’s not forget who left the mess of underpopulated, illogically carved out, underdeveloped countries that Africa is.

And incidentally, can we can that now haggard cliché of crying the beloved country?

Author

  • Reg Rumney

    A journalist for more than two decades, Reg Rumney has just returned from Grahamstown to Johannesburg after spending more than seven years at Rhodes University, teaching economics journalism. He is keenly interested in the role of business in society, and he founded the Mail & Guardian Investing in the Future Awards in 1990 to celebrate excellence in South African corporate social responsibility. Most recently, as executive director of BusinessMap, he was responsible for producing reports on foreign investment, black economic empowerment and privatisation, and carried out research work in Africa on issues related to the investment climate. He writes on, amon other things, foreign investment and BEE, focusing on equity transactions.