Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Development with growing inequalities: Johannesburg

“The murder rate is down to some 15,000 per year—and they’re proud of it.” This was Indran speaking as we were driving on the highway from Sandton in northern Johannesburg towards Pretoria past some areas that were not quite as nice as the sunny suburb. At each junction there were men selling anything between bath toys to paper towels to the passing cars. All of the men were black. Indran clarified: “Of course it’s progress. The murder rate used to be 30,000 a year just in the 1990s. But it’s still pretty high for a nation of only some 50 million people!” According to him, class had replaced race as the new distinguishing factor in South Africa, a country with one of the highest rates of inequalities in the world. And there was a lot of alcohol abuse, which led to aggression and many other problems. Having consumed adequate quantities of good South African wine with him over the past three nights, I knew Indran was no prude. His judgement was a factual assessment of what was happening. As Deputy Director-General of the country’s Public Service Commission, a serious watchdog, he knew what he talked about.

We had just spent some days in an international conference that our respective offices co-organized around the topic of national evaluation capacity and how evaluation can be used to enhance accountability in public administration. We organized the conference in Sandton at the oddly named sprawling hotel complex Balalaika. Sandton is a nice place, perfectly safe to walk around along its clean streets. Even the stalls selling African trinkets around Maude Street, across from Deutsche Bank and HSBC head offices, are neat and orderly. Like in many other places where the original city centre has become too dangerous and unruly, a new centre has evolved on the outskirts where things are kept more under control (Gigiri with its Village Market outside of Nairobi comes readily to mind).

On Sunday, I walked over to the Nelson Mandela Square, a huge complex of shops and restaurants that would put any American or European mall at shame with its style and sophistication. At the centre of the large square surrounded by tempting terraces serving food and drinks stands a six-meter tall statue of Nelson Mandela. On this Sunday, a live band was playing smooth jazz and bossa nova on the balcony of a Thai restaurant just behind the great leader’s bronze head. Talk about globalization!

South Africa’s divided history is equally well-known as it is brutal. The conservative Dutch settlers moved into the Cape of Good Hope already in the mid-1600s creating a society where time had stopped for three centuries. They started spreading across the southern cone of the continent through their Great Trek of 1836 getting into conflict with pastoral tribes herding their cattle in the areas the Boers wanted to settle in. Then there was the gold rush of the late-19th century and the ensuing Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902. South Africa was contested land between the blacks and the whites, between the Boers and the British (and before that the fight included the Portuguese, the French and the Dutch, while the alliances constantly changed), and between different African population groups (who also were occasionally recruited to support one side or the other).

The Union of South Africa was finally formed in 1910 uniting Boer and British controlled areas, soon restricting black people to specific reservations. The official policy of racial discrimination, apartheid, was finally formalized legally following the electoral wins (of course, only the whites had the vote) by the National Party in 1948. What followed was a decades-long period of systematic discrimination and racial hatred that only ended when Nelson Mandela, the leader of the banned African National Congress (ANC), was released from jail where he had spent 27 years by 1990, and then democratically elected as the first black President of the Republic of South Africa in 1994. Mandela, now 93, became an iconic figure, perhaps the most admired leader in the world, by his visionary leadership, clear thinking and braveness. With associates, such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, he made the case for reconciliation, and against all odds was able to avoid major civil unrest or bloodshed in post-apartheid South Africa.

Mandela stepped down from the presidency in 1999 after just one term and nobody can blame him for giving up official duties too early. He clearly had done more than anyone could reasonably expect from one individual. Furthermore, he had seen so many African liberation leaders become ‘Big Men’ and never voluntarily leave office. In all fairness, there are a few exceptions amongst the first generation of post-colonial leaders, such as Tanzania’s Mwalimu (‘Teacher’) Julius Nyerere and Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda. Regretfully, both had largely run down the economies of their countries, not through self-aggrandisement but through misguided economic policies; both nevertheless achieved ‘elder statesman’ status by gracefully withdrawing when the time came.

The worst remaining offender is the leader of Zimbabwe, South Africa’s neighbour, Robert Mugabe. When he led his country, then Northern Rhodesia, to independence in 1980 after a prolonged civil war with the privileged white settlers, Mugabe was seen as a freedom fighter with serious ideals and credentials. Alas, history has proven otherwise and the ruthless old man has not hesitated to use extreme violence to kill and intimidate his own people who have dared to protest the economic ruin and starvation that his policies have caused. Recent reports indicate that the now 87-year-old dictator has been diagnosed with prostate cancer and has about 1.5 years to live. His departure will solve a problem that has been an embarrassment to South Africa, as the bigger neighbour has not been able to influence Mugabe to step down or at least change his policies (the mediation efforts of Mandela’s successor Thabo Mbeki were widely regarded as half-hearted).

Unfortunately, ANC leadership after Mandela has not been equally wise as Mandela was. The political leaders of the party that dominates South Africa have assumed features that Mandela wanted expressly to avoid. To him, it was important to ensure the independence of the judiciary and freedom of press. His heirs have increasingly succumbed to the temptation to control these sometimes inconvenient institutions.

At the time of the shift from the first majority president to the next, the Republic of South Africa was developing surprisingly harmoniously, given the extent of hatred, violence and discrimination of past decades, and experienced a steady economic growth of 5-6% annually year after year. The past racial injustices were being acknowledged and addressed to the extent possible and a democratic society was being built (although in all honesty, Mandela and Tutu’s ‘reconciliation’ were a compromise and seen by many as not dealing adequately with past injustices, as explained by Alec Russell in his superb new book, After Mandela: The Battle for the Soul of South Africa).

The fundamentals of the economy are still quite strong, thanks largely to the rich mineral resources (including diamonds, gold and many other minerals that are in high demand) that have protected the country against the global economic crisis. Mandela also succeeded in avoiding an exodus of skilled professionals, most of whom were white or Asian, experienced by other countries, such as Zimbabwe. Nevertheless, poverty is rampant amongst people, while a minority is getting richer by the day The UN ranks South Africa as a middle-income country with a medium level of human development based on health, education and income statistics. In 2010 South Africa ranked 110th in human development amongst the 169 countries ranked. What brings down South Africa’s ratings are a low life expectancy of just 52 years (largely due to the HIV/AIDS epidemic) and inequality in opportunities to education, health and economic development. The mostly black underclass still suffers from powerlessness, with unemployment rates of some 30%. Russell quotes a 2008 employment report by the United Association of South Africa, a trade union, that found that at that time, 14 years after the democratic shift, whites’ incomes on average were 450 times higher than those of the blacks—and economic inequalities had actually been rising, despite the increasing number of blacks entering the middle class. It is not saying that the different groups would not have equal access under the law. It’s more like in the USA: opportunities for liberty and the pursuit of happiness are limited for a large number of people by structural constraints.

Of course, affirmative action was necessary after decades of legislated and harshly enforced racial oppression. The whites and the Asians are still doing fine, largely thanks to Mandela’s insistence on national reconciliation. I certainly have no intention to imply that all black leaders would be corrupt or incompetent. There is a highly professional black middle class, steadily growing, with a strong role in both the private sector as well as public administration. One good example is Mashwale Diphofa, the Director-General of the Public Service Commission (and Indran’s boss). With a strong ethical backbone, high professional skills and political savvy, Mash is a model that many officials from the so called ‘developed’ countries could emulate. What’s more to emulate is that the stylish and smooth man knows his music. I was amazed how we could discuss jazz together after we had witnessed an exciting dance and music performance at Balalaika (no Russian triangular string instruments included).

One of the greatest challenges to South Africa is the high prevalence of HIV infection and consequently AIDS. The disease affects very much the middle class and professionals in their prime who would be so badly needed to contribute to the economy and to enhance the performance of the civil service. One evening over some excellent local Pinotage, Indran told me how he had recently lost an assistant, a young and highly capable woman in the Office of the Public Service Commission. Initially, one does not notice anything and for a long while the only visible change is that the person starts losing weight (not necessarily a bad sign in this country of many large people). But at some point of time, after months, it starts to become evident that something is seriously wrong. The victim becomes lethargic and loses energy. Then the cheeks sink in and a special look appears on the person’s face. It’s like her eyes had gotten bigger and they just stare out of the increasingly skull-like visage. After that, the end often comes quickly.

The topic of AIDS has been a political hot potato in South Africa, to a large extent for political reasons. Initially Mandela attempted to address it, but faced so much resistance from his audiences that even he had to make a calculation of the trade-offs between pushing the issue and political survival. The societal forces were just dead against him. Regular people would accuse him of encouraging promiscuity as he advocated for condom use, while the truly promiscuous politicians and power-brokers certainly did not want to hear about the topic. Mandela’s successor as President, Thabo Mbeki, notoriously questioned the causal linkage between HIV and AIDS. The current President Jacob Zuma was accused of (and acquitted from ) raping a daughter of a political ally—more than 30 years his junior—she herself an HIV positive AIDS activist. Zuma has some twenty children from five wives. In the meantime, this conspiracy of silence continues to kill people and take a toll on the very development of the society.

After somewhat complicated shortcuts Indran had followed upon instructions from the GPS, we were approaching Lanseria International Airport constructed only years ago in the middle of the rolling hills between Johannesburg and the capital Pretoria. Indran turned the BMW to an apparent entrance to the airport and we suddenly hit a checkpoint with two uniformed guards. One of the guards, a friendly black woman, approached us and explained that this was a special entrance and one needed a permit to pass through here. The alternative was to continue on the main road and go through the main gate, but that would be another 19 km. We opted for getting the permit, which was free but only obtainable by driving to a trailer parked some way at the side. There we found two more uniformed officers, one resting his head on his arms apparently asleep in the afternoon heat pounding on the container they called office. Paperwork was filled for both of us by the more alert officer, while the sleepy one took my passport and studied it at length, holding each page against the light wondering at the perforations and watermarks that were supposed to make it counterfeit-proof, before handing it back to me. The alert one asked me whether I was carrying any fire arms. “Not today,” I responded, but wondered whether this was a relevant concern upon entering an airport (“Oh yeah, they’re obsessed with firearms,” responded Indran casually).

Off we sped and after several twists and turns around airline offices, hangars and cargo areas we reached the spanking new terminal building. From there on, everything was smooth as silk. While I sat on the observation deck waiting for the departure of my Kulula jet towards Cape Town, I considered the balance between the benefits of keeping four uniformed personnel filling in forms for non-fee entry permit to the premises vs. the need for expediency to attract more passengers to use this new airport instead of the established O.R. Tambo International Airport serving the twin cities. Clearly, this was an employment scheme and, as such, it had much merit. At least these guards were proudly wearing their uniforms and receiving salaries, thus not entering the ranks of the unemployed, desperate and potentially violent. To me, there is great value in that for human dignity and contributions to society.

I also pondered what the word ‘international’ actually referred to in the case of the Lanseria airfield where tiny Cessna and Piper aircraft kept landing and taking off while I sipped my cool drink.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents, by Ian Buruma

In this short and reasoned treatise, Ian Buruma addresses a central issue of democracy, namely the separation of church and state, from a historical, social and political perspective.

The book is divided into three main parts. In the first, Full Tents and Empty Cathedrals, Buruma juxtaposes the experiences in Europe and in America, providing an insightful analysis of what separates—and unites—the old and the new continent, including the role of born-again evangelical Christians in American politics. His conclusion, perhaps surprisingly, is that the gulf between ‘secular’ Europe and more traditionally religious America is not as large as it often is made to be. Buruma writes: “Our histories are not the same and we have different notions of who we are. But everywhere people are trying to cope with the confusions of a fast-changing world by reaching for fixed—and quite often newly made up—identities based on race, religion, or national culture” (p. 46). This summarizes one of the main theses in the book: that religious fervor must be understood not in theological, but in social and political terms.

The second part of the book, Oriental Wisdom, turns attention to China and Japan. He draws parallels and explains differences in history that led to different outcomes. Buruma is particularly well versed in Japan’s history since the Meiji Restoration through the pre-war years until today, and this knowledge translates into a clear analysis in this book, as well as several others by him. He provides an interesting analysis of Maoism in China and Emperor worship in Japan as examples where state and spiritual authority coincided. While religion today plays a smaller role in these East Asian countries, Buruma traces the rise of a variety of cults and other religious groups, such as the Falun Gong, to the spiritual vacuum left by the collapse of Maoism in China and the prohibition of political participation by the Chinese people. Similarly in Japan the focus on chasing economic prosperity has left such a vacuum.

The final part, Enlightenment Values, focuses on how Western liberal societies should deal with the rising multiculturalism in our societies. This is a particularly balanced and coherent section of the book. Buruma draws from well-known cases that have led to the Kulturkampf in Europe, over issues such as the cultural rights (to discriminate against women or for women to wear a veil) of immigrant groups in Europe against the demands for them to integrate into the host societies and their norms. It all boils down to a confrontation between those who defend anyone’s right to stick to his or her culture of origin (with no consideration of its respect for host country values) vs. those (probably in the majority in Europe now) who want immigrants to integrate into the society. It is very interesting to follow Buruma’s argumentation around the very difficult question between people’s right to their own culture vs. respecting ‘universal’ – or at least those of the majority of people in the country – values of Enlightenment. This is a dilemma many liberals in the West face, torn between the values of freedom that we so cherish and the knee-jerk desire to respect others’ cultural values, how much at cross-purposes they might be with ours. Buruma points out how it is often the same people (many of them left leaning intellectuals) who in the 1960s and 1970s defended Third World rights against Western (cultural) imperialism that now are most worried about the spread of illiberal values into Europe through immigration from poor countries. The comparisons between the different approaches towards immigrant groups taken by the UK, Holland and France is quite illuminating.

He discusses at some length problems related, especially, to the integration of Muslims (both immigrant and those born there) into the European society. One interesting example is the case of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who by now is a talk show star in the US, who having overcome her challenges in the home country of Somalia and the morally relativist Holland now fights for the rights of Muslim women to break away from the oppression of their original culture. Another case that Buruma discusses at some length is that of Salman Rushdie who earned himself a fatwa for his book The Satanic Verses and had to go into hiding as a result.

Buruma draws a clear line against terrorists and religious fundamentalists who resort to violence. “The use of violence in a democracy, for whatever reason, can only be met with force,” he states (p. 115). He recognizes that while religious orthodoxy and political extremism can be linked, they are not the same thing nor does one necessarily lead to the other. However, discussing the cases of Mohammed Bouyeri, the Dutch born son of Moroccan immigrants who killed the film maker Theo van Gogh in Amsterdam, and Mohammad Sidique Khan, leader of the 7/7 terrorists who bombed the London underground, Buruma traces their violent terrorism and ‘religious awakening’ to the isolation and cultural rootlessness they experienced in the European countries they were born into.

Buruma concludes convincingly that the separation of state and religion is quite essential in a democracy. A well functioning democratic society does not have to share the same social or religious values as long as everybody abides by the society’s rules and laws. He also makes a valuable distinction between respecting other people, while not necessarily respecting their beliefs. “Liberal democracies are not well served by laws that limit free speech, such as laws against blasphemy or denying the Holocaust or the Armenian genocide,” he writes, and continues “(T)here are ways, however, to respect the dignity of fellow citizens without recourse to the law” (p. 123).

Ian Buruma’s book is fabulously erudite. The writing is stellar and lucid, anchored firmly in the writings of Enlightenment philosophers, such as Spinoza and Hume, as well as Tocqueville, Confucius and others. He gets to the heart of the matter without getting bogged down in unnecessary detail. Born in Holland from Dutch and British parents, Buruma spent a significant portion of his career in Japan and China. He now teaches at Bard College in New York. He is thus extraordinarily well placed to understand the historical and social situations in these countries located on three continents. He ends with paraphrasing Confucius: Let us leave the spirits aside, until we know how best to serve men.