SA – What economic powerhouse?

By Eric Miyeni

South Africa is reputably the economic powerhouse of Africa. There isn’t a single economy on this continent that comes even close in size and sophistication to holding a candle to the South African economy. I recently saw a television advertisement for Liberty, a leading South African financial services company, which said that a square mile in Sandton, which, some would argue, is Johannesburg’s real central business district, is the richest square mile in the whole of Africa.

All this is highly admirable on the surface, but it does not tell the whole story of the South African economy. When I scratch a little deeper, I am reminded of an anecdote a friend of mine told me some time back. He had been on his first visit to Nigeria and upon entering some rich Lagos suburb by taxi, he exclaimed “Wow! I didn’t know you guys had houses as big as the ones we have in Sandton back home”. To which, the taxi driver answered: “Yes. But here, all the houses belong to black people”.

To understand the South African economy, you have to look a little further than Sandton; the poster suburb of South Africa’s economic might, and check out the more hidden indicators. Take Siba’s Table, a cooking television show hosted by Siba Mtongana, a typical, South African, Xhosa beauty who is vivacious and knowledgeable about food. Everything that you see on the show is black African; the commendable host herself, her family, the guests at her table and the places she goes to. That is, everything that the show does not pay for, with the exception of the host. Now watch the credit roll at the end of the show and there you will find not a single African, not even an intern! This means almost every pay-cheque written to create Siba’s Table goes to white South Africans.

Couple this with the fact that the country has a government that generally won’t give a contract to a black African firm unless the black owner is in partnership with a white person who generally has to have a majority shareholding in the entity in question (This is called Black Economic Empowerment when in reality it is White Economic Empowerment by a black government, nineteen years after the fall of apartheid). Now listen to Cyril Ramaphosa, the vice-President of the ruling party, the African National Congress, who says that there is something wrong with black South Africans who do not want to do menial jobs and would much rather have jobs with higher profiles. So now you have a black government blaming black people for not being employed, saying that they are too choosy. What you do not have is a government that says, okay, if that’s what the people want, how do we make it happen?

The end result is an economy that has more than 90% of its make-up in the hands of less than 10% of its population. To add insult to injury, that 10% is largely made up of white South Africans, the very people who benefited the most from the very apartheid that impoverished black South Africans to begin with. Now you have to wonder, is this not a house of cards? Is Marikana, an event where miners on strike were shot and killed by the South African police, an occurrence that many believe proves how far the black South African government is willing to go to protect white monetary interests, not a harbinger of trouble on the way?

What South Africa has is a façade of economic power because what the world sees of the country’s economic strength is actually not sustainable. As most African countries will attest, territories that use their political power to prop up a minority at the expense of the majority, no matter what colour that minority is, inevitably end up in flames and coups and, in some cases, genocidal civil wars.

South Africa has done an incredible job over the past nineteen years with regards to reconciliation and being the architects of the world’s first bloodless transition from an oppressive state to one that purports to want the best for all its citizens. To sustain this going forward however, the country needs its economy to reflect its demographics. And therein lies the lesson for any country on the continent that believes that South Africa has it all economically figured out.

Simply put, the rest of the countries on the African continent need to know that they can do better. And maybe in doing so, they will teach South Africa something that could help the country transform into a largely middle class economy that benefits the majority of its people as opposed to a dual economy – one-tenths astronomically rich, nine-tenths terribly poor – that can easily teeter the country into the very civil war it avoided when apartheid finally fell, back in the early 90’s.

– First published in Afropolitan.