'South Africa is a land of wonders, but its political, economic and social tensions find echoes here'

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By John Boothman

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

Some of us are nonetheless fortunate to be able to travel to faraway places, especially in January when the weather here is generally poor and friends are suffering from post-Christmas blues. Last month we visited South Africa, a beautiful yet troubled country.

It is a land of promise with the hallmarks of a civilised, 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 countryside is striking, often breathtaking. The wildlife is world-class. Everywhere we went we had the warmest of welcomes. South Africans have tremendous pride in their nation and its achievements. Yet there are also signs of discontent and foreboding.

The end of apartheid and the presidency of Nelson Mandela ushered in a mood of optimism verging on euphoria: the ‘rainbow nation’ would set an example to the world of how different ethnic communities could live and work together on equal terms, building a better future for all. Probably it was inevitable that the 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, supine incumbent too deeply ensconced to respond effectively to the challenges ahead.

Admittedly these are daunting. South Africa has an immigration crisis beside which those of Jersey, the UK and other European countries seem modest. There are now nearly 600,000 refugees living mostly in conditions of desperate poverty and, in many cases, squalor. The government, anxious that any leniency would attract an even greater influx, refuses to provide financial support, so the prosperous cities are ringed with shanty towns whose desperate occupants are forced to undertake any work, however menial, to stave off complete destitution. No wonder many resort to theft.

Unemployment is sky-high, and jobs are highly valued. Street crime and robbery are common (though we saw none). Corruption is an endemic problem, exemplified by the main electricity supply company Eskom, which is said to be riddled with graft and infiltrated by organised crime. The failing infrastructure means frequent, and increasingly lengthy, blackouts. While we were there the chief executive, Andre de Ruyter, brought in three years ago in a vain effort to root out criminality, was recovering from an attempt to poison him by lacing a cup of coffee with cyanide. Evidently the would-be murderer was unaware that Mr de Ruyter had tendered his resignation from the thankless role a few days before.

Aside from the ever-present signs of grinding poverty, and the power cuts, visitors see little of the turbulence seething beneath a veneer of civilisation. Everyone we met, from all ethnicities, was friendly, cheerful and hospitable. The hotels we stayed in were comfortable and the restaurants superb. Prices are astonishingly low. For a meal of comparable quality in Jersey, you would expect to pay two or three times as much. The roads are well-maintained and signposted.

The highlight of our stay was a three-day visit to Shamwari, among the most famous game reserves in Africa. The scale of Shamwari defies description: it covers an area twice the size of Jersey, playing host to elephants, lions, rhinos, giraffes, cheetahs and many other species. Watching these great beasts at a distance sometimes of only 20 metres is an experience we will never forget. While there we were treated like royalty, and doubtless every other visitor has the same reception.

Observing other cultures at close quarters does make one challenge preconceptions, and inevitably the vast open landscapes are enthralling after the cosy intimacy of our small Island. So, is there anything we can learn from such a vast country, with traditions quite different from ours, on the far side of the globe? I think there is.

Corruption – the practice of buying and selling power and other favours – is like a cancer. Caught soon enough, there is a good chance of complete recovery; but allowed to fester and spread, the outlook is far more ominous. There are plenty of people here who will tell you, probably without much evidence, that such-and-such a decision is inexplicable ‘unless money has changed hands’. One must hope that this is tittle-tattle rather than observation, for once embedded the disease becomes hard to eliminate. South Africans know that only too well.

In the wake of a global pandemic, a European war and economic upheaval, resilience is a topic that is much discussed worldwide, and rightly so. In South Africa it is not just the electricity supply that is failing – chronic underinvestment in the railways has forced freight traffic onto the roads, increasing congestion and multiplying repair costs. Healthcare is breaking down as highly-qualified medics move abroad, in search of better pay and lower crime-rates. Housing is inadequate for indigenous citizens as well as incomers. The shanty towns are a standing indictment of ANC immigration policies that have surely failed the most vulnerable.

We too need to treat our infrastructure with more care, future-proofing so far as possible electrical and digital cabling, upgrading our schools and colleges, turning around our healthcare system, reinforcing our air and sea links for freight as well as passenger traffic. Despite dark talk of a ‘Jersey mafia’ or ‘junta’ there are few signs that we are turning into a one-party state, so that is one thing we probably don’t need to worry about. But on political engagement, and open communication between governors and governed, we can and should do better.

Excluding zealots on both sides of the debate, immigration is perhaps the single most intractable challenge facing prosperous countries today. On the one hand an influx of young people can help redress the adverse demographics of ageing Western societies, while offering sanctuary to those threatened and dispossessed in their own countries; on the other, huge migrations strain national resources and challenge established cultural norms. But whatever the solution, pretending that if the problem is ignored it will simply solve itself seems woefully inadequate.

I’ve never been a big believer in social equality per se – eliminating poverty should be a higher priority. (I dare say Switzerland is a more unequal country than Senegal, but I’d rather sweep the streets of Zurich than those of Dakar.) But there are limits. Societies with huge extremes of wealth and poverty are morally indefensible, and often highly brittle. There are lessons here for both St Helier and Pretoria.

South Africa is a land of wonders, but its political, economic and social tensions find echoes in our small Island. We need to stay vigilant. I strongly recommend a visit – there are many good reasons to go, and you won’t be disappointed. But perhaps on your return you will feel, as we did, that there is much to be thankful for here as well.

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