Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

The End of Unity

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, June 8, 2010 --  

South Africans are unified by their pride in hosting the World Cup. But what will happen after the tournament is over?

"They're just behaving until the World Cup," said the young thuggish Brit driving us to the Johannesburg airport three years ago. His seemingly irrational comment was made in response to government's traffic management on the N1 freeway taking us from an Afrikaner-dominated suburb of nearby Pretoria. Once the World Cup ends, he predicted, the whole country was going to "go to hell" just like Zimbabwe.

While it would be easy to dismiss this a racist rant, the reality is that the driver's general fears are widely held by white South Africans. The preparations for the 2010 World Cup have been a massive undertaking for the small, soccer-crazy country. About $5 billion has been spent building and upgrading stadiums, the airport, the subway, and freeways for the tournament.1 This is a huge amount for such a small and largely impoverished country, and preparations have been a national obsession for years. Like China's hosting of the Olympics last year, South Africans view this as their nation's coming out party. The question is, which way will the nation go after it comes out?

If the World Cup looms large over South Africans of all races, for whites the events in neighboring Zimbabwe loom larger. The violent seizure of white-owed farms in Zimbabwe by a black liberation fighters with the sanction of President Robert Mugabe, and the subsequent collapse of the Zimbabwean economy have terrified white South Africans. They see Zimbabwe as their potential future -- what happens if things go wrong.

Like South Africa, Zimbabwe ended the colonial era as a white-ruled republic, but was eventually forced to turn over the reigns of power to the black majority. And like South Africa, Zimbabwe's economy was long dominated by a white elite and the government dominated by one political party ruling continuously since liberation.

South Africa was blessed by the presidency of Nelson Mandela, whose inclusive government helped ease fears about the transition to majority rule and stemmed the flight of the white elite (many of whom hold dual citizenship in Britain). But since his retirement, the country has experienced less spectacular leadership. His lackluster successor Thabo Mbeki last May handed over power to Jacob Zuma, whose personal history does nothing to reassure white South Africans.

As a politician, Zuma's personal story is colorful by anybody's standards. He is a polygamist with has several wives and fiancées and who never graduated from high school. His career has been dogged by both corruption and sex scandals. He was acquitted of rape in a trial where he and his supporters invoked the apartheid struggle by singing the libration anthem "Give Me My Machine Gun." More recently, he has been infuriated by allegations of an affair by one of his wives with a man who subsequently committed suicide.2

To many white South Africans, such a flamboyant background exacerbates their fears. While Zuma has enjoyed a strong boost in popularity as South Africans' pride has swelled with the approach of the games, white South Africans rated him an average of 2.3 out of 10 (with zero being totally against and 10 being totally for) in polls right before he took office.3

It has not helped matters, with respect to comparisons with Zimbabwe, that South Africa's government has been relatively mute about repression by its neighbor. Both South Africa's ruling African National Congress and Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union were allies in the struggle against white minority rule, and they are loath to criticize each other. Human rights advocates saw Mbeki's "quiet diplomacy" approach to Zimbabwe as coddling a dictator. And while Zuma himself made brief criticisms Mbeki's blind eye, since coming to power he has been mute on Zimbabwe.

While there may some vengeful justice in the thought of white South Africans being afraid for their future, this is not productive for the country. If the black South African masses are to have a shot of joining the middle class in coming decades, then it will largely be by working with existing and new white-owned businesses that continue to dominate the economy.

Now that the long-anticipated World Cup Games are here, and will soon be over, South Africa will soon be without this obsessive but unifying national goal. Which path it takes next may prove decisive. Is there reason for white South Africans to fear for their future? Once the party of the World Cup is over, let us hope that the country's unsolved problems do not prove too daunting.


1. Global Post, Who's the Better Host: Johannesburg or Beijing? May 28, 2010

2. The Telegraph, Second Wife of Jacob Zuma "Had Affair With Bodyguard", June 2, 2010

3. South Africa The Good News, Zuma Gains Popularity: Pol, January 11, 2010