Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

South Africa at 100

Johannes Wessels


June 4, 2010

On May 31st South Africa commenced its second century as a unitary state. A hundred years earlier four British colonies—the Cape Colony, Natal, and the colonies of the erstwhile Boer Republics—amalgamated into the Union of South Africa. This Union was the result of white political decision-making: a series of conventions deliberated upon the merits of uniting into nationhood, as well as the prerequisites for such a union. Part of the eventual deal was that Cape Colony’s franchise arrangements—some non-white people who met basic education and asset requirements were voters on a common voters’ roll—remained limited to the Cape.

These 100 years were characterized by three distinguishable, but overlapping, phases:

Initially the cultural conflict between English and Afrikaans speakers dominated politics: a phase that fizzled out a few years after the end of World War II.

The 2nd phase commenced in the early 30s and was characterized by efforts at segregation of the different racial groups. After 1948 an intensified effort known as apartheid was pursued in an attempt to achieve both the removal of non-white voters from the common voters roll and territorial segregation, both in distinct urban suburbs and in pre-dominantly rural reserves that were supposedly to become independent states.

In the 3rd phase (starting in the mid-80s) attempts began to create conditions for a multi-racial or non-racial society. Whilst the governing party grudgingly acknowledged that the racial goals of apartheid were not achievable, they still tried to promote a solution based on ethnic groups. The internal opposition—both the liberal Democratic Party and the broad church United Democratic Front (encompassing Christians like Desmond Tutu as well as Stalinists within the trade union movement)—argued for a dispensation based on the equality under law of all individuals regardless of race. Only the Afrikaner far-right still punted for the ideals of apartheid.

South Africa’s history as a unitary state is fraught with irony. The effort during its first phase to balancing the interests of Britain with those of the local white population instead nurtured Afrikaner nationalism. The apartheid effort to promote white supremacy instead undermined white security. Will the glue of the post-apartheid Rainbow Nation dream, combined with Mandela nostalgia, suffice to hold South Africa together as a functioning unitary state?

R.W. Johnson (South Africa’s Brave New World: the beloved country since the End of Apartheid) and Mark Gevisser (A Legacy of Liberation: Thabo Mbeki & the Future of the South African Dream) have documented the fragility of the South African dream.

The ANC in practice is almost as concerned about race as the apartheid government was. This has a devastating impact on service delivery with hospitals and schools failing, raw sewage being spilled into rivers, violent crime and corruption rampant, and with the Zimbabwean options on land reform and nationalization praised by some in government. An elite of black millionaires has been established not on merit and effort, but thanks to statist smoke and mirrors, while the majority of the population is being placeboed with pensions and social security grants. Skilled South Africans are relocating to London, Sydney, Auckland and Arizona.

There are some encouraging signs: progress at the local level of multi-party politics, as well as the open society stance by black journalists (e.g. Mondli Makhanya).

What is lacking is a biblically-informed critique and alternative vision: one that will explore the pursuit of public justice in a fragmented and culturally diverse society whilst avoiding statist oversight and intervention in non-statal spheres. 

—Johannes Wessels, Partner
    Rural-Urban Integration Consultants, South Africa and Mozambique

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”