South Africa is a miracle: Political power passed 13
years ago from a small white minority to a black majority without a
It didn't become Zimbabwe or Yugoslavia. "We went from
being one of the ugliest societies in the world to the most hopeful,"
says Bobby Godsell, chief executive of gold producer AngloGold Ashanti. South Africa, he says with a touch of patriotic hyperbole, is becoming "a normal society with normal problems."South Africa long will be regarded as a triumph of leadership. But it is also an economic
experiment: Can a free-market, developing-country democracy -- blessed
with gold, platinum, English speakers and an inspirational story, but
plagued by AIDS, violent crime, poverty and an inconvenient location --
deliver a better life for the bulk of its people in an era of
During apartheid, sanctions created "an unsustainable
economy that could only compete against itself," says Philip
Hourquebie, chief executive of Ernst & Young in South Africa.
African National Congress took over in 1994, the failures of Soviet
communism and African socialism were evident, but today's backlash
against globalization hadn't yet arrived.
ANC leaders chucked decades of rhetoric and opened the
South African economy to the rest of the world. They balanced the
government budget, didn't expropriate mines and lowered tariffs. Joel
Netshitenzhe, head of policy coordination in the president's office,
calls it "a self-imposed structural-adjustment program," an insider's
boast that South Africa didn't wait for the International Monetary Fund
to force it to sober up.
South Africa is playing by the rules of the new global
economy. If it fails to improve living standards for most of its
citizens, the lesson would be ominous.
Early returns are promising. The economy has been
growing at 5% annually for three years -- not Asian-style growth, but
far faster than in the past. Private economists think the economy can
sustain close to a 5% growth rate despite obvious capacity constraints,
such as a recent shortage of carbon dioxide to put the fizz in soda and
beer. With a population growing at 1% a year, that's enough to deliver
a better life for the typical South African -- if prosperity is widely
The government is meeting its goal of 500,000 new jobs
a year and is hopeful it can halve poverty from today's 26% by 2014.
South Africa has First World shopping malls, but 30% of South Africans
don't even have pit latrines; they use buckets.
Is globalization -- the integration of South Africa
into an increasingly integrated world economy -- a help or hindrance to
the country's aspirations? The answer is: Yes. Globalization is a
China's and India's thirst for commodities has sharply
raised the prices South Africa gets for its minerals (plus), but also
has raised the prices it pays for imported corn and oil (minus). Global
financial markets are helping to finance an investment boom (plus) and
stoke a big home-grown banking and money-management industry (plus).
But foreign money is flowing into the stock markets and lending, not
factories, and that poses a risk the money will flee when interest
rates rise elsewhere (potential minus) and contribute to volatility in
the country's currency (potential minus).
The growing mobility of people is drawing skilled
workers, even luring back some expats (plus). But it also draws
unskilled African immigrants to add to the existing surfeit of low-wage
labor (minus) and creates a brain drain of disgruntled South African
nurses, teachers and engineers to Europe and Australia (minus.)
Lowering barriers to trade brings the usual pluses --
imports for consumers, export markets for producers, a spur to the
efficiency of flabby businesses. But here, too, globalization brings
At first glance, the BMW plant outside
Johannesburg is a paean to globalization. The robots are as modern as
in BMW's German plants. Assembly-line workers, nearly all black, are
unionized and well-paid by South African standards. Computer printouts
clipped to each of the Series-3 sedans tells where the car is headed:
Japan, Australia, the U.S. Last year, South Africa exported 14,000 BMWs
to the U.S. In all, 80% of cars coming off this assembly line are
But the plant produces one car every four minutes;
BMW's bigger German plants produce one a minute. Labor costs are only
30% of the cost of the car so the savings from wages one-fifth German
levels go only so far. A chart on the shop wall reveals that only half
the South African-made BMWs come off the line without flaws that need
to be fixed; in the best German factory making the same car it's 80%.
Employment at the plant is falling as robots replace
workers (good for workers getting trained to keep ahead of the
machines; bad for those who will never get hired.) And the enterprise
is viable only because of a government subsidy: a complex formula
allows BMW to avoid tariffs on importing other models in exchange for
every car it exports. The government sees this as temporary expedient
until productivity climbs to world levels; the plant's German technical
director sees it as vital for the foreseeable future.
Here's the rub. South Africa occupies a middle ground
in the global economy. The haves are doing well -- both whites and the
new black working class and upper crust. But the same global economic
forces that make them winners pose a challenge to widening the winner's
South Africa can't create enough low-skilled jobs to
employ its population. Its wages are too high to compete with China or
India as a magnet for low-wage, low-skilled manufacturing, but South
African workers see how well their best-off countrymen are doing and
are pushing for higher wages.
The country's world-class companies can compete -- in
finance, engineering, construction, synthetic fuels -- but they demand
an increasingly educated and skilled work force. Yet, the country's
education system is dysfunctional, and changing too slowly for the
swift currents of the global economy.
And, as Mr. Netshitenzhe cautions: "The 13% [who are
still poor] in 2014 will be angrier than today's 26%. They will be more
This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of environmental, political, human rights, economic, democracy, scientific, and social justice issues, etc. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information go to: http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.shtml. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.