“South Africa is a land of wonders, but its political, economic and social tensions are echoed here”

By John Boothman

WHAT does retirement mean to you? The answer for many people is more time for the things we want to do, but less money for it.

Some of us are lucky enough to be able to travel to distant lands, especially in January, when the weather here is generally bad and friends are suffering from the post-Christmas blues. Last month we visited South Africa, a beautiful but troubled country.

It is an auspicious country with the hallmarks of a civilized, prosperous society. There are impressive cities with imperial and post-imperial public buildings and monuments as well as modern skyscrapers, parks and gardens. There are long sandy beaches. The landscape is impressive, often breathtaking. The wildlife is world class. Everywhere we went we were warmly welcomed. South Africans are very proud of their nation and their achievements. But there are also signs of dissatisfaction and foreboding.

The end of apartheid and the presidency of Nelson Mandela ushered in a spirit of optimism bordering on euphoria: the “rainbow nation” would set an example to the world of how diverse ethnic communities could live and work together on an equal footing to build a better future for all. It was probably inevitable that reality would fall short. For over 20 years, the political landscape has been dominated by the African National Congress, which now has all the hallmarks of a complacent, compliant incumbent, too self-absorbed to respond effectively to the challenges ahead.

Granted, these are daunting. South Africa has an immigration crisis that makes Jersey, Britain and other European countries seem modest. Today nearly 600,000 refugees live, most in desperate poverty and in many cases in squalor. The government, fearing that any leniency would attract an even greater influx, refuses to provide financial support, leaving the prosperous cities surrounded by shanty towns whose desperate residents are forced to do even the smallest amount of work to keep the to avert complete distress. No wonder many resort to theft.

Unemployment is sky high and jobs are highly valued. Street crime and robbery are rampant (although we didn’t see any). Corruption is an endemic problem, exemplified by the largest electric utility, Eskom, which is said to be steeped in bribery and infiltrated by organized crime. The failing infrastructure leads to frequent and longer power outages. While we were there, CEO Andre de Ruyter, who was brought here three years ago in a vain attempt to eradicate crime, was recovering from an attempt to poison him by dousing a cup of coffee with cyanide. Apparently, the would-be killer was unaware that Mr de Ruyter had offered his resignation from the thankless role a few days earlier.

Aside from the ever-present signs of crushing poverty and power outages, visitors see little of the turmoil simmering beneath a layer of civilization. Everyone we met, of all ethnicities, was friendly, cheerful and hospitable. The hotels we stayed in were comfortable and the restaurants excellent. The prices are surprisingly low. For a meal of comparable quality in Jersey you would expect to pay twice or triple that. The roads are well developed and signposted.

The highlight of our stay was a three day visit to Shamwari, one of Africa’s most famous game reserves. The dimensions of Shamwari are indescribable: it covers an area twice the size of Jersey and is home to elephant, lion, rhino, giraffe, cheetah and many other species. Observing these large animals from a distance of sometimes just 20 meters is an experience we will never forget. There we were treated like royalty and no doubt every other visitor has the same welcome.

Observing other cultures up close challenges prejudices, and after the cozy intimacy of our small island, the wide open landscapes are inevitably fascinating. So is there anything we can learn from such a huge country on the other side of the world, with very different traditions than ours? I think there is.

Corruption – the practice of buying and selling power and other favors – is like a cancer. If caught early enough, there is a good chance of a full recovery; but allowed to fester and spread, the prospects are far more ominous. There are many people here who will probably tell you, without much evidence, that this and that decision is inexplicable “unless the money changed hands”. It is to be hoped that this is gossip rather than observation, for once the disease is embedded it is difficult to eradicate. South Africans know this all too well.

In the wake of a global pandemic, European war and economic upheaval, resilience is a hot topic around the world, and rightly so. In South Africa, it’s not just the power supply that’s failing – chronic underinvestment in the railways has pushed freight onto the roads, increasing congestion and multiplying the cost of repairs. The healthcare system is collapsing as highly skilled medical professionals move abroad in search of better pay and lower crime rates. Housing is inadequate for both indigenous citizens and immigrants. The slums are a constant indictment of the ANC’s immigration policy, which has certainly failed among the most vulnerable.

We too must treat our infrastructure more carefully, future-proof electrical and digital cabling as much as possible, modernize our schools and colleges, transform our healthcare system, strengthen our air and sea connections for freight and passenger transport. Despite the dark talk of a “Jersey Mafia” or “junta,” there’s little evidence we’re turning into a one-party state, so we probably don’t need to worry about that. But when it comes to political commitment and open communication between governors and the governed, we can and should do better.

Leaving aside zealots on both sides of the debate, immigration is perhaps the most intractable challenge facing wealthy countries today. On the one hand, an influx of young people can help offset the adverse demographics of aging Western societies while providing sanctuary to the threatened and dispossessed in their own countries; On the other hand, huge migrations drain national resources and challenge established cultural norms. But whatever the solution, pretending the problem will just sort itself out if ignored seems shockingly inappropriate.

I’ve never really believed in social equality – eradicating poverty should be a higher priority. (I daresay Switzerland is a more unequal country than Senegal, but I’d rather sweep the streets of Zurich than Dakar.) But there are limits. Societies with enormous extremes of wealth and poverty are morally unjustifiable and often very fragile. There are lessons for St. Helier and Pretoria.

South Africa is a land of wonders, but its political, economic and social tensions resonate on our small island. We must remain vigilant. I highly recommend a visit – there are many good reasons to go and you won’t be disappointed. But maybe when you return you will feel like we do that there is a lot to be thankful for here too.

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