South Africa's Future

January 21, 1994|By JONATHAN POWER

London -- With ''the last white Christmas'' now receding into the distance, South Africa faces a future in which Santa Claus is unlikely to give presents to anyone, black or white.

Its first all-race general election on April 27 is only weeks away. Unless assassination or ill health intervenes, we will probably live to see what only a short time ago was considered impossible -- President Nelson Mandela.

But will South Africa live to see its immense wealth (44 percent of the world's diamonds, 82 percent of its manganese, 64 percent of its platinum) and potential for economic progress at last fully realized? Or will it end up in a demeaning struggle to take the spoils reserved until now to the white minority and split them among the black majority? Sound development could take decades to produce material results, but asset-stripping could be completed in a handful of years.

It will take political leadership to persuade the black electorate that after all the indignities and inequities it suffered under apartheid, it must now wait, perhaps another generation, to taste the fruit of the promised land.

But there is no choice; the African landscape is littered with examples of profligacy. All the anti-white and anti-colonial rhetoric in the world cannot disguise the blatant truth that, with rare exceptions, the new African leaderships grossly misled and abused their own people.

Mr. Mandela is on his own, and if he wants inspiration he will have to look to Asia. Countries as diverse as Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, which were much poorer than his at independence, are now racing ahead and raising their one-time impoverished classes.

For all its wealth, South Africa, thanks to two generations of apartheid, has inherited more than a fair share of economic constraints:

* Sanctions and political uncertainty have taken their toll. In the 1980s economic growth plummeted while population growth rates stayed high. The 1970s progress toward a better distribution of income was stopped in its tracks.

Only a return to high economic growth can save South Africa from worsening poverty and give it a chance of generating the resources necessary to meet the aspirations of the black population.

* An International Monetary Fund analysis of recent trends in budget spending reveals a shift in spending priorities toward social ends.

To move further, without economic growth, could only be at the cost of a punishing decline in benefits for the white population. But Mr. Mandela needs to keep whites secure if they are to make their contribution to economic growth.

* The overall South African tax burden and marginal tax rates for its white population are relatively high by industrial-country standards. Again the room for maneuver in raising new revenues for social expenditure is tight.

South Africa does have a disproportionately high defense expenditure. With no enemies and no further excuses, it must cut, cut, cut.

Also, it can save money by dismantling all the duplicating and triplicating tiers of government that were necessary to administer apartheid and its multiple homelands policy.

If this money is spent in the manner Jim Grant, executive director of UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund, has been advocating, dramatic change may show up not in wealth, incomes and consumer spending, the visible manifestations of success, but in infant mortality, life expectancy and health, the invisible but fundamental matters of existence.

South Africa does less well in these than its poorer neighbors, Botswana and Zimbabwe.

Within a short five years, with the resources it has available, South Africa could do much better. This means being prepared to pump these diverted funds into projects like pure drinking water, mass inoculations, oral rehydration salts, education for girls and propaganda in favor of breast-feeding and contraception. Unglamorous maybe, but the results would be astonishingly fast and very dramatic.

Industrial and commercial development are also necessary, for economic growth is the only way to produce better incomes.

But while that proceeds, there is a short cut to a better society, without playing Robin Hood or Santa Claus. It is there for the taking if Mr. Mandela has the guts to buck African fashion.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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