To what extent can we blame South Africa’s current situation on the historical legacies of the past, and in particular the 46 years of apartheid rule? This is a debate that has been reignited in South Africa in recent weeks following comments made by Trevor Manuel who served as Finance Minister from 1996 to 2008. A recent speech made to civil servants by Manuel led to headlines in the South African media such as ‘Manuel says government can’t blame apartheid anymore’. The last President under white-minority rule, FW de Klerk also entered the debate and rather unsurprisingly suggested that South Africa’s current difficulties cannot be explained by reference to its apartheid past. De Klerk concluded that looking back will only ‘stir up racial animosities that we simply cannot afford’. President Zuma then responded with a clear rebuttal of such claims, by arguing that ‘to suggest we cannot blame apartheid for what is happening in our country now, I think is a mistake to say the least’.
They way this ‘debate’ has been portrayed in the media leads to a false dichotomy where we either take the view that apartheid is to blame, or that the ANC government is at fault, for all of South Africa’s current ills. To put it simply, it is difficult to sustain the argument that the continuing failure of the ANC government to effectively deliver services and a better life for the population is simply a product of apartheid and the centuries of colonial rule that predated the election of the National Party in 1948. However, if we are to adequately understand the challenges faced by the current government then an appreciation of the past remains relevant.
The legacies of apartheid and the longer history of colonial rule are clear. The appropriation of land is just one aspect that continues to shape contemporary South Africa. This year marks 100 years since a key piece of legislation, the Natives Land Act (1913), was passed by the British colonial rulers. This reserved the vast majority of South Africa’s land for the white minority. The National Party government then extended this segregation through the Group Areas Act (1950), which resulted in the forced relocation of many South Africans. This geographical and social separation of racial groups during apartheid also resulted in psychological legacies that will continue to shape people’s attitudes for years to come. Since the ANC came to power in 1994 attempts have been made to implement land reform but these have been slow, to say the least, and based on a ‘willing-buyer willing-seller’ model that has proven incapable of rectifying years of unequal land ownership.
The education system under apartheid also saw systematic discrimination of the black majority with significantly lower spending per student than that spent on the white minority. Older generations within South Africa today continue to suffer the consequences of an education system that was designed to serve an economic system where skilled jobs were reserved for whites. As a result their children also suffer as a direct consequence of the denial of educational opportunities afforded to their parents.
However, to suggest that South Africa’s history is important, and to advocate for the incorporation of the legacies of apartheid into our analysis, should not excuse the ANC from a critical assessment of their performance as they approach two decades in power. After South Africa’s first multi-racial elections in 1994 the incoming government were faced with numerous challenges including high levels of inequality, unemployment and poverty. The ANC government has had choices to make in how it has responded to the situation it has faced over the last 19 years. The compromises it made during the negotiated transition to democracy, together with the adoption of a macroeconomic strategy that has prioritised creating a business-friendly economy conducive to attracting foreign investment, has meant that many of these legacies have proved more enduring than they might have otherwise been. Whilst the extension of government grants has prevented the growth in levels of absolute poverty, an OECD report published in 2010 suggested that income inequality (already very high at the end of the apartheid era) has risen during the post-apartheid era. Similarly, levels of unemployment remain persistently high among those sections of the population who suffered most under apartheid rule.
So President Zuma is right to suggest that the legacies of the past cannot be ignored, but by focusing on them we should not exonerate the current ANC government from taking some responsibility for the increasing socio-economic crisis which is engulfing South Africa.