South Africa Revisited

About ten years ago I wrote an article, for this prestigious publication, on the transition of South Africa. Ten years on, in celebration of visits to South Africa, simultaneously, by an Aldro Cricket Tour, by the new Headmaster and by one of Aldro’s most dedicated Old Aldronians, Mr James Geffen, I have been asked by the latter to do so again.

So what happened to Post-apartheid Reconciliation, to the Rainbow Nation, to Nelson Mandela and to the Rand? What has happened with Africanisation, Tribalism and the Pan-African Dream – the African Renaissance. How are we doing down here at the bottom of the Dark Continent?

In a word, well. In two words, very well.

Aldro’s cricketers, and their supporters, will receive a welcome here – a welcome which resounds from one end of the country to the other. South Africans love tourists, they love visitors, they love anyone who loves their country. South Africans, themselves, love their country almost as much as they hate Messrs Duckworth and Lewis…

The country has a sound economy. It is one of only a handful of countries in the world with a negligible trade deficit. Mortgage rates are at their lowest in 30 years, we have single-digit inflation (compare this with 138% in Zimbabwe) and our banking sector is consistently rated in the top ten in the world. Not bad for a third world country. The Rand has gained 20% in 2 months.

Our electricity is the cheapest and our tap water is the third best quality in the world. But then who drinks water when South African Breweries is the 3rd largest beer producer in the world and our wines continue to win endless international awards?

And all of this has to be seen in perspective. Only 18 years ago, in 1986, a state of emergency was declared, white men did two years compulsory military service, 641,840 black people were removed from “white areas”, 3,989 people were detained without trial, our economic growth rate was 0.7% (now it is nearly 5%) and 64 countries had sports boycotts against South Africa.

So what happened? Tourism, Sport and Nelson Mandela. The rugby world cup and more recently its cricket counterpart, despite our tragic exit (as tragic as England’s but without the whingeing of the English captain), allowed the peaceful transition of which we all dreamed, we thought, in vain. Obviously there have been many other influencing factors, but sport and tourism are key, along with the wealth creation, which goes hand in hand with economic growth.

We had 8 British Asian cricket-supporters staying with us the other day. Some failed the Tebbit Test, others passed. All were born in East Africa, so when all else failed (England and India) they would support Kenya. They, however, interestingly said, that, after the welcome they had received in South Africa, they would go home to London with a more positive view of themselves. They had braaied (barbecued) with Afrikaners, toyi-toyied (danced) with Zulus – and everywhere they had gone they had been welcomed, not with the confusion one might expect, but with the genuine enthusiasm South Africans have for the opportunity to mix with people of different cultures. I think that says it all.

But obviously the greatest nation-builder has been Mandela’s charismatic approach. Mandela is an icon. I was told recently by one of the British Royal Family’s motorcycle escorts that they had been advised by South African Police, when Mandela came to London, to multiply by ten the number of people expected to line the streets. They did, and they still could not cope with the numbers. I have not met him, but I have been at a rally addressed by him. He radiates forgiveness, tolerance and humility. He is a quite extraordinary presence.

Sadly his successor is not so dynamic, but we are lucky enough still to have Mandela in the background. Thabo Mbeki, the current president, is a dreamer, far from pragmatic; obsessed with his role on the international stage, ahead of his responsibilities at home. Luckily, he is backed by a capable cabinet and a very sound Minister of Finance. Sounds a bit like Britain, under Blair, on the road to war with Iraq, does it not?

Mbeki dreams and preaches the African Renaissance. Africa born again as a powerhouse, with South Africa as a driving force. Sadly, this is hardly likely to become a reality with tyrants such as Robert Mugabe and Sam Nujoma at the helm of their teetering economies on South Africa’s borders and carrying on uncountered by their powerful neighbour. The other side of the coin, however, is that Mozambique and Angola, embraced by South African business, are going from strength to strength.

So what are our problems? AIDS is a huge problem. Corruption, on a small scale, is a problem, but is checked by countless NGO’s. Tribalism is political but no longer violent. As in all post-colonial societies the more intellectual people, such as the Xhosa, the Venda and the Indians, dominate the more aggressive, such as the Zulus and the Afrikaners. The gravest problem is that we still can’t get Jaffa Cakes.

But the rest of the news is good. Unemployment is reducing. Crime is reducing. (The recent furore over a couple of attacks on tourists has to be seen in perspective – 29 tourists were killed last year in Australia). Crime (principally theft) in the small town of Hazyview, on the border of the Kruger National Park, where I have my hotel, is down 30% over the last year. We have fewer incidents than a Cotswold town of the same size. We have some of the most spectacular scenery in the world. The world’s largest green canyon is only 20 miles away. I can see the edge of it as I type. And Table Mountain speaks for itself and for Cape Town, one of the ten places that the BBC says you MUST see before you die.

Tourism is up 40% this year. We are thousands of miles from the War on Terror, Jerusalem and Baghdad. Aldro has chosen a great time to be here. Welcome to South Africa. Siyakwamukela!