The Magazine

Against All Odds

A flourishing democracy takes root in South Africa.

Mar 22, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 27 • By MAX BOOT
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Cape Town, South Africa

HAPPILY, I do not recall writing anything about South Africa in 1994 when the country adopted majority rule. If I had, I would no doubt have parroted the prevailing wisdom of sophisticated circles: There goes another one. Another African country descending into the heart of darkness. Another place where the economy will get trashed, ethnic violence will break out, and the middle class will flee.

There was every reason to believe this would be the case. The African National Congress was stacked with card-carrying Communists, many of them trained in the Soviet Union. Like so many other "liberation" fighters, once they grabbed power, they would surely be as oppressive as their colonial predecessors. The press coverage of the 1994 handover called to mind the cliché, "one man, one vote, one time."

Well, that was 10 years and two general elections ago, with a third due on April 14. It's time to acknowledge how wrong the naysayers were. A flourishing democracy has taken root in South Africa's rocky soil. A government of former Communists and trade unionists is pursuing fiscal and monetary policies that could have been designed by Goldman Sachs. Whites haven't been hounded out of the country; instead, some who emigrated in the past decade are trickling back.

In a local newspaper, Rian Malan, a prominent Afrikaner writer, recently issued a giant mea culpa: "On this day, 10 years ago, I was hiding gold coins under floorboards and trying to get my hands on a gun before the balloon went up. As a white South African, I was fully expecting war as right-wing Boers and Bantustan chiefs conspired to annihilate Nelson Mandela's people. . . . In my view, peace would never come. There was too much history, too much pain and anger. . . .

"What's it like now? . . . This is a question I've been dreading, but if you must know, it's amazing: peaceful, stable, one of the fastest-growing tourist destinations on the planet. In season, buses park on the road above our house, disgorging foreigners who gape at the view, dumbfounded, then turn their binoculars on us, clearly wondering what it's like to live in this paradise."

That is pretty much my impression, too, having just spent a week in South Africa, along with some other American policy wonks, as a guest of its government. Cape Town, the country's second-largest city and one of two capitals (Pretoria is the other), is a bit like San Francisco: full of trendy cafes, secondhand clothing stores, young people with pierced eyebrows, and world-class restaurants. Nearby are green vineyards, brown hills, and beaches with sand as white as the old ruling establishment.

The placidity of Cape Town comes as a bit of a surprise to anyone who has followed the country only through the news media. Whenever you read about South Africa, the news tends to be negative--mainly AIDS and crime. Those problems are very real, but so is South Africa's progress. The "South African miracle," as some are calling it, upsets the smug assumption that democracy is fit only for a small club of mainly Western countries. This prejudice, once limited to the political right, is increasingly prevalent on the left. "Progressive" reactionaries screech that Iraqis, for one, aren't ready for self-government. Granted, South Africa was much better prepared for the transition than Iraq, but it's sobering to recall how many people were equally pessimistic about its prospects a mere decade ago.

When apartheid fell in 1994, there was a widespread expectation that the ANC would turn the country upside down--punish the whites, take their wealth, and redistribute it to the oppressed masses. Nothing of the kind happened. ANC leaders who had spent decades in exile across Africa had learned much from the mistakes of other postcolonial governments. They decided to chart a different path, and in Nelson Mandela they had a leader with sufficient stature--the kind that comes from spending 27 years in prison--to ignore the demands of the militants.

Instead of Nuremberg-style tribunals, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission was set up whose goal was to document the crimes of apartheid, not to punish the guilty. Only a handful of the worst apartheid thugs have been jailed.