Downward Mobility

TRB

February 08, 1991|By TRB

JOHANNESBURG — Johannesburg. In his recent memoir, ''My Traitor's Heart,'' South African journalist Rian Malan writes: ''Anywhere else in the world, save perhaps the United States, a blue-collar worker would consider himself terribly lucky to be floating face up in cool water under a hot blue sky in a country garden. In South Africa, however, such an experience was a white man's virtual birthright.'' Even in the ,, U.S., though, it's a rare blue-collar worker who has a country house and swimming pool.

High-minded white South Africans love to tell you, no doubt correctly, what a failure apartheid has been as an economic system. But apartheid enabled many, many whites to enjoy a bigger piece of that smaller pie. The exclusion of the black majority from the best jobs and lands, the assured pool of servants and cheap labor, have given middle-class whites a life that free-market forces, wonderful as they are, could not duplicate.

TC Politically, there are reasons for optimism. Last Friday President F.W. de Klerk announced that his government would repeal the last pillars of legal apartheid. The government and the African National Congress have agreed to a multi-party conference as the next stage in devising a new constitution. The ANC's Nelson Mandela and his rival Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi have kissed and made up.

But the real trauma is going to be economic. Everyone recognizes that any political solution will create powerful economic expectations among blacks. What good is freedom without electricity and plumbing? Where is the payoff for their decades of struggle?

Two questions get muddled in discussing new economic arrangements for South Africa. One is how to create growth; the other is how to share the goodies.

In fact, the growth question is largely settled. Those who believe that blacks will bungle any economic system are beyond consolation, but there's little need to fear that South Africa's future leaders will choose the wrong system. It's a cliche in South Africa that the country is lucky the death of apartheid coincided with the collapse of communism.

But that doesn't settle the issue. Even the most devoted believer in free-market capitalism as a creator of wealth would have a hard time looking at South Africa and saying: ''Fine, let's start tomorrow with a free market and forget about who's got what at the moment.'' Nowhere else in the world do so much Western-style affluence and Third-World poverty exist side-by-side.

And this disparity was a deliberate creation of the government. The about-to-be-repealed Group Areas Act, to take just one example, forcibly ''removed 3.5 million black people from white'' areas and dumped them in ''arid homelands.'' Should these people be satisfied that from now on it's a level playing field?

Growth alone won't provide enough resources to do justice to the black majority without impinging on the prosperity of the white minority. True enough, any serious exercise in redistribution will itself discourage economic growth. But to concede that point doesn't put redistribution beyond bounds.

How much white prosperity will be impinged upon is the biggest unresolved political question. Hard economics -- who gets what -- lies behind much of the theoretical debate about the shape of the new constitution.

Over a drink at a fancy hotel in a Johannesburg suburb called Sandton, I asked Saki Macozoma of the ANC whether Harry Oppenheimer, head of the giant Anglo-American conglomerate, ought to fear majority rule. He said, ''People at the level of Harry Oppenheimer needn't be concerned in any event. The more important question is: Will a person with a middle-class job and a maid and a pool lose that? Yes, they will have to lose some of that because we don't have the resources. . . .

''People say, 'Moderate the expectations of your people.' I say we will moderate our expectations pari passu [in step] with Sandton. I can't say to people in Soweto, 'Forget about running ** water while people in Sandton have two German cars.' '' A pretty good answer, I thought.

TRB is a column of The New Republic, written by Michael Kinsley.

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