I have been in South Africa for the last 3 months. I blogged earlier, quite optimistically, on the slow progress that the country is making towards a more equal and race blind country. Since then I have tried to soak up the important trends and to learn more about what is really happening here.
Two very different data points struck me as relevant:
The first relates to an entrepreneur trading informally in the Eastern Cape. He refused financial help offered by a government agency charged with promoting the cause of micro and small businesses; arguing that he would then become like a child of the agency and less able, rather than more, to stand on his own feet. This self reliance is a characteristic of people here, evolved from pioneering ancestors of all races and surely a reason to be hopeful.
The second relates to the recently updated corruption perception index. This places South Africa in 64th place of a 176 countries. The country scores slightly above the global average. This is probably better than most South Africans would predict. A real positive is that almost no one thinks this is anywhere near good enough.
There is a vibrant media here that is outspoken in its fight against government waste, corruption and big business collusion. Radio talk shows (Shado Twala on SA FM for example) provide a platform for equally vociferous members of the public. This same vibrancy also perhaps feeds the pessimism of people here.
The progress of South Africa (a member of G20 remember) towards a fairer society is undoubtedly hindered by her small tax base. Extreme income inequality means that less than 10% of the population contribute 99% of the income tax. Unemployment at about 25% and a thriving black economy are major factors and tax payers are unlikely to be encouraged if they think their tax contributions are finding their way into the pockets of corrupt officials.
SA is proud of her constitution and she has worked hard to establish functional government at national, provincial and local level. In doing so, I think the mark has been overshot. The straight forward language of the generation of ANC freedom fighters, many educated in the old eastern bloc, has been replaced by something else. When interviewed, civil servants and politicians tend to get mired in fashionable phrases and gobbledegook; currently every initiative is labeled as part of the hoped for radical socio-economic transformation. It is not enough to claim to encourage just entrepreneurship. It must be social entrepreneurship. There is a strong sense that there is a lot of multi-sylabic talk and little action. This seems to me, to point to a need for government to be stripped down to the essentials in order to deliver more rapid and sustainable change.
So am I more or less optimistic about South Africa after 3 months of privileged existence here? Is this country another Zimbabwe waiting to happen as many here would have you believe? I do not think so. South Africans are protective of their right to dissent. They see through the talk. There is too much that is good here and a healthy set of checks and balances upon which citizens now insist.