Interpreting South Africa: Dr Denis Worrall (below), Chairman of Omega Investment Research and a Former Diplomat, Is Regarded as One of the Country's Leading Intellectuals. He Gives His Views on How to Correctly Judge Developments in South Africa

African Business, December 2009 | Go to article overview

Interpreting South Africa: Dr Denis Worrall (below), Chairman of Omega Investment Research and a Former Diplomat, Is Regarded as One of the Country's Leading Intellectuals. He Gives His Views on How to Correctly Judge Developments in South Africa


There are two ways of interpreting developments in South Africa. The one is to see South Africa as part of Africa, just another African country--but a successful country. The other is to see South Africa as distinctive, as a special case in Africa. This, ironically, is a legacy of apartheid.

With decolonisation some 50 years ago, when the world, its journalists and its scholars started taking an interest in Africa, South Africa, because of its apartheid policies, was put on one side. It was a pariah. Decent people wanted nothing to do with it.

At the most, like Gwendolen Carter with her monumental The Politics of Inequality, they analysed South Africa from a strictly racial point of view. The universal categories which were developed for understanding and interpreting Africa, and its specific problems as it grew into independence, did not apply to South Africa. It was a special case.

Fifty years on, in 1994 when the new South Africa was born, that approach or mindset still applies to South Africa. It is seen as different and apart from the rest of sub-Saharan Africa and, most importantly, it is judged by different standards. There is no meaningful backdrop to comment on South Africa.

It is judged in terms of specific ephemeral events. Thus, the distinguished South African writer Rian Malan's article in 2007 in The Spectator is typical. He said that South Africa was doomed on the basis of a number of singular events, not even trends. Democracy in South Africa, so-called knowledgeable commentators propounded, was suddenly at risk because of the specific instances Malan referred to.

South Africa is no doubt unique in sub-Saharan Africa from a social and economic point of view. It is an engine of growth in this part of the world. They country scores fairly well on social, economic and human development indices. But South Africa's real achievements become evident when it is seen as inescapably part of Africa.

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When Ghana became independent in 1957, Nigeria in 1959 and most of the other countries in the early 1960s, the problems they faced were, firstly, nation building; secondly, economic development; and thirdly, generating the necessary technical and bureaucratic expertise to run a modern nation-state.

These were the challenges Africa faced and everyone acknowledged them. When the new South Africa was born in 1994, these were precisely the problems which we faced. And how South Africa has responded to these challenges should be the way to measure the country's achievements.

Take nation building as a case in point. Unlike most other African countries, which became enveloped by ethnic and cultural conflict, and saw the collapse of their shiny-new political systems, South Africa has developed an essentially consensus type of politics.

The ANC and its broad-based alliance has ensured a certain stability; and potential linguistic and cultural rivalries, which have destroyed other diverse societies in Africa, have been reasonably well-managed in South Africa. …

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Interpreting South Africa: Dr Denis Worrall (below), Chairman of Omega Investment Research and a Former Diplomat, Is Regarded as One of the Country's Leading Intellectuals. He Gives His Views on How to Correctly Judge Developments in South Africa
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