This weekend’s Guardian feature on South Africa
shows how little our media truly understand about
the dark continent.
I often wonder why, most of the time, media elites simply talk to other elites. You can understand why the FT talks to business mostly, although even this means they miss the point some of the time. I can grasp why Campaign tends to talk to admen. But there’s no excuse for a mainstream ‘serious’ newspaper being so picky.
In the end I usually remember why they do it: other elites are the only thing they can deal with. It’s the same reason politicians prefer to deal with them, and when faced with real people, Prime Ministers look shocked and call them bigots. ‘Bigot’ today has taken over (from ‘fascist’ when I was young) as the catch-all description on the Left for ‘opponent’.
Once having decided to do a feature on the situation in contemporary South Africa, therefore, the Guardian’s staff faced a serious problem: as there’s a new elite they don’t know very well running the place (and they don’t really approve of them, but they don’t like to say so) who on earth would they talk to – and what would the feature be about?
Well, the predictable answer I’m afraid is that they decided to talk to the old anti-apartheid media elite. Many of these are bright and good people, but they have very little relevance or power in the post-Mandela South Africa. These included white journalist and writer Rian Malan, white retired legal activist Albie Sachs, mixed-race Zambian novelist Zukiswa Wanner, crime writer Margie Orford, activist writer Gillian Slovo, and black writer and poet Mpuelelo Paul Grootboom.
This is a (I think fairly) strung-together summary of what they said:
“[Zuma’s] fat cat delegation whose conspicuous consumption sits awkwardly among the poverty of South Africa….I worry that when visitors come to Johannesburg, the evidence of poverty will be so enormous, real and inescapable that they will ask how successful this democracy is…. As admirable as our bloodless transition to democracy was, clearly all the problems that were not dealt with will come back, some day, to haunt us…. Fifa has made a monkey out of South Africa, encouraging us to spend billions we don’t have on football stadiums we don’t need in the absurd belief that we could recoup our losses… No amount of poverty or unemployment could excuse people laughing as a man was necklaced with a tyre and burnt just because he was not South African. Nor could it explain the looting and pillaging… I wrote of my rage on my blog and was shocked to receive a threatening call from someone close to power. “You are being counter-revolutionary,” the voice on the other end of the line told me.”
It’s pretty chilling stuff, but in truth these are the words of relatively mild idealists who gave up so much to bring freedom to the Rainbow Nation. Fine and brave people all, but they don’t reflect what the considerably more angry poor blacks think, and similarly, are not remotely representative of ordinary Afrikaners – or many English whites. The liberal press in Britain hasn’t a clue which way to hold real people up – and especially not Africans. So they talk to the elites most similar to them.
During my first visit to SA, I stayed up the road from one of the hundreds of shanty-shack communities that surround the country’s major towns. The conditions in these are indescribable to people in the West. Right next to this, the Government was building a golf complex for super-rich tourists. “It’ll bring in much-needed foreign exchange” I was told.
Further down the coast, we were taken to the treetops village where the Mbeki regime liked to ‘relax’ at weekends. I thought we were staying in pretty Ritzy places, but this venue was something else. Girls, they told us, were laid on to help with the governmental relaxation process.
Economic stimulation seemed to consist almost entirely of giving everyone a job which was a non-job: second-assistant parking valet’s boy, and so forth. When I went back two years later, the begging that went with such jobs had become more aggressive. Because of the lawlessness in Johannesburg, tens of thousands of whites had left. Friends of ours had been ram-rodded and held at gunpoint twice in six months: enough, they decided, was enough.
Corruption and incompetence had multiplied. The Minister of Health – a hopeless drunk – had jumped the queue for a liver transplant. She was busy at the time converting cutting-edge hospitals to African medicine. This is the medicine that insists washing the penis after intercourse will ensure safety from AIDS. In the Eastern Province, Ecoli had appeared in the water; the necessary supplies of chemical simply hadn’t been ordered. There was no money left in the budget. Nobody knew where the money had gone. We were warned not to speed: if they see you’ve got money, we were told, the speed cops would extract a tidy sum to let you off.
These weren’t nutters telling us such stuff. They were hoteliers, guides, ordinary workers, local officials and shopkeepers. I’m told that since Zuma’s assumption of power, things have got much worse, and the corruption is more brazen. Huge sums have been set aside for building projects. Big signs are put up next to the sites, but the plant and men required to build them never turn up.
The ordinary African (it’s a generalisation given the number of tribes, but true on the whole) is astonishingly placid and pragmatic. But this can’t last forever. The ANC – now effectively running a One-Party State – has lurched under both Zuma and Winnie Mandela to the fascist Left. Its fiscal and economic policies are an incoherent mixture of hard-Left Communism and far-Right liberal economics: the first drives internal policies, the second is the basis for accepting foreign capital.
Almost everyone is on the take: the money that’s been creamed off from the World Cup alone is a disgrace – and the only people likely to profit from staging it are those who are already rich. Ticket sales have been under half of what was expected. Locals describe some of the organisation for the event as ‘chaotic’. A huge variety of services will not be ready on time – whatever balm FIFA puts out to the contrary.
When the truth about the rapid decline of South African infrastructure comes out – and to roost – it will, naturally, all be Bwana’s fault. Everything in Africa is Bwana’s fault: it seems we interfere and plot to keep Black Africa down. The delusional nature of quite respectable black magazines about this drivel over there makes Gordon Brown’s economic vision for Britain a model of accurate analysis by comparison.
When the collapse takes hold and the fighting starts, hands will be wrung in the West. But nothing will be done – and the Guardian/Independent/Hain axis will be on hand to call it a tragedy for which the white man must shoulder most of the blame. As the Chinese move in more overtly with a view to ‘developing’ the country, those of us who’ve been pointing this out for three years will once again be tarred as madmen and racists. And one day – at some point over the next two decades – South Africa will become not another Zimbabwe, but a protectorate of Beijing.
The western liberal media and Establishment could watch this process repeating ad infinitum, and still not get it. They have been watching it over and over now for forty years. It is simply another example (outlined perhaps to excess of late by The Slog) of how the liberal-Left prefers dogmatic belief to empirical data. And then – when the data becomes irrefutable – an interpretation of it so bizarre, so contrived, that we’re back in the area of Chilcot last year, and Nixon in 1973: “Well, my secretary accidentally erased eight million feet of tape with her elbow”.
Our great mistake in the West – especially in the US Establishment – is to wish our values and social structures onto the politics of other places which have been less fortunate than us. Be it Arabism, Chinese repressive economics or African tribalism, we always think we know best. Not only do we almost never know what’s best, we compound the crime by performing this mad lah-lah-lah-lah-can’t-hear-you routine year in, year out – insisting that we are the ignoble ones, and the ordinary folk of other continents are innocent. What they really mean by ‘innocent’ is ‘less advanced than us’. Sooner or later, the liberal perspective always lets something hugely Freudian slip.
We plan to go back to South Africa again next year, because my wife and I think it the most beautiful country in the world. As a nation, it’s had an appalling time more or less non-stop since 1947. Like Gorbachev before him, Mandela has given an oppressed People the chance of freedom. In neither case does freedom look as if it’s going to be around for long.