Archive | February 23, 2011

Discover Johannesburg

Welcome to Soweto

I had a layover day in Johannesburg so I arranged for a tour through Jimmy’s Face2Face, as recommend to me by a faculty member at school. Jimmy, in the 6 hours that I spent with him conversed fluently in no less than 9 languages (including Japanese?) and claims to speak 18. He started taking white people through Soweto during the Apartheid era to show them the true black South Africa. At the time, it was illegal for black and white people to associate outside of the workplace and forbidden for white people to go to African residential areas. Today, he runs a for-profit company doing pretty much the same thing, but now Soweto has transformed like the rest of South Africa, and everyone is pretty much free to go where they like. I must admit, my impression of Johannesburg, and of all of South Africa has been forever changed.

Soweto, or South Western Townships, was once a poor black ghetto of Johannesburg, and was ground zero of the anti-Apartheid movement and the events that made it a reality. Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Steve Biko and Walter Sisulu were all from the area, and there homes are preserved for prosperity and tourist dollars. In fact, the heavyweights of the movement and the center of most of the formative events occurred within the same half a kilometer radius.

In contrast to Soweto of the Apartheid era, the Soweto of today is fantastically dynamic. While shanty towns and ultra-poor areas do visibly exist, a rising black middle class has changed neighborhoods from densely packed corrugated tin shacks to well-built luxury houses with BMWs parked out front. While not nearly as wealthy as rich whites in the north of Johannesburg, one can see the fuits of economic progress in an 18 hole golf course, expensive cars and signs of the rise of chronic diseases related to obesity and hypertension. Weight loss clinics are a common sight in today’s Soweto. The incredibly surprising thing is, despite all the incredibly bad press that Jo-burg gets, Soweto is surprisingly safe. Years of community solidarity and a rising economy have made Soweto into a tightly knit area where the roots of the residents runs deep, and commitment high. I felt no less safe in Soweto than I ever do in just about any area in the US.

Soweto shanty town, a rare sight

Violence certainly pervades in Johannesburg and in all of South Africa, but, like America, is restricted to the poorest, the most neglected and the areas of highest racial discord. In the case of South Africa, the greatest threats are from unemployed young men that roam downtown, poor immigrant areas, where unemployment and xenophobia run rampant and in agricultural regions, where resentment of Afrikaner farmers runs deep. In fact, a recent bus driver and trucker strike has led to numerous incidents of violence and looting, suggesting that while South Africa has made incredible strides, it still has long to go before all of its social problems are solved.

South Africa has certainly seen vast progress, however. It has risen to be an upper-middle income country, and has the highest GDP on the African continent, fueled in large part by an educated and dynamic black middle class. While large interests such as mining and commodities are exploited by foreign companies (Brits), the internal workings of the country are being dictated by ethnic Africans. I would venture to say that Africans are some of the most resourceful people on the planet and South Africans are no exception. Used to living with nothing and having little to lose, they are willing to take business risks that Americans in 2011 would laugh at. However, despite the resourcefulness of its populace, South Africa is experiencing one of the largest brain-drains of any developed country as educated whites move on to take advantage of opportunities in wealthy countries such as the US, the UK and Australia.

Ground zero of the anti-apartheid movement

Many make the claim that African countries cannot manage their own affairs. This view has been long visible in the bigoted discourse of the Western media and through the condescending policies of the World Bank and the IMF (which South Africa was largely immune to)**. If the new South Africa, still under the weight of massive problems, is any indication, this is not true. South Africa’s economic growth rate stands at and impressive 6%, far higher than the United States, and almost on par with China. The United States rose from being a troubled nation, suffering economically from bad fiscal policies and societally from slavery and it’s aftershocks but still came to be the largest economic power in human history. If the U.S.’s challenges and later success are any indication, the next twenty or thirty years will see South Africa rise as an economic force to be reckoned with.

** International economics lesson 1: From the 1980’s the World Bank and the IMF have followed policies under the Structural Adjustment framework. Basically, for developing countries to receive loans from these institutions, conditions had to be met which included liberalizing markets which allowed products from wealthy countries (such as the US and Britain) to enter the country, free domestic markets and the privatization of many government provided services. The venture, of course, was entirely hypocritical on the part of the United States and Europe. While they demanded that developing countries open their borders to foreign products and end government subsidies, they continued to protect domestic industries and heavily subsidize their own agricultural sectors. The end result of this “free” market experiment was that developing countries cannot compete in international trade, are forced to import goods at high prices and have dismantled many government programs essential to the development of domestic infrastructure and industries. The Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) were devastating to the developing world and specifically led to many of the disastrous outcomes of famine, poverty and warfare in Sub-Saharan Africa during the 1980’s up to the present. It was telling that the countries which resisted the SAPs (southeast Asian countries and Botswana, for example) performed vastly better than those who caved to the West’s demands.

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