I’m about to do something that I do quite rarely: I’m posting twice today.
The reason for this: yesterday, I watched the #ZumaMustFall protests live on twitter. And from where the photos were being taken, it looks as though White South Africa is pulling itself out of its armchair.
From what I’ve seen on social media, I’ll be strongly in the minority for feeling this way: but I find this all deeply concerning.
So let me start with more familiar ground. With all that has been happening recently, people have been asking me about whether they should externalise their South African savings.
And my answer to that is usually something along the lines of:
Well, let me draw you some parallels to where Zimbabwe stood in 1999/2000.
In 1999, Zimbabwe was two decades down the road from the Lancaster House Agreement. After almost twenty years of independence, there was a rising wave of discontent from war veterans and their children around the lack of progress with transformation. The earlier attempts at land reform had not changed the existing wealth structure, which was still split along those same pre-1980 racial lines.
At the same time, after two decades of fiscal mismanagement and delayed maintenance programs, the state-owned public utilities were starting to fail. Power and water and telecom failures had become increasingly frequent.
There were waves of public protests in 1998 and 1999, spearheaded by the Zimbabwean Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) and the war veterans. The main rhetoric was a strong opposition to the neoliberal economic policies adopted by the Mugabe government (at the behest of the World Bank, in exchange for loans in the 1980s), as well as government corruption and authoritarianism. Riding on that wave of discontent, a new political party was formed, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), headed up by the former General Secretary of the ZCTU.
The government response was to approve higher social welfare-type grants for war veterans – spending that could not be financed out of the existing budget. Government debt servicing was already taking up 37% of export earnings, so the Zimbabwean dollar depreciated rapidly.
To further address the complaints of the protestors, the Zimbabwean government drafted a new Constitution in 1999. Under that new Constitution, the assets of white farmers (their land) could be redistributed without compensation. The Constitution went out to referendum, and voting took place on 12-13 February 2000.
To quote a BBC news article from that time, in the lead up to this referendum, “many white Zimbabweans [ended] years of political apathy and actively [supported] the opposition.” Together with the MDC, white Zimbabweans actively campaigned for a “No” vote.
Against all expectations, the “No” vote won. And the swing vote was the 600,000 voters on white-owned commercial farms.
Within days of that result (not weeks – days), the land invasions began.
Followed swiftly by fast track land reform, hyperinflation, and economic devastation.
So to go back to your question, should you externalise your savings?
Well, let me reframe that for you: “If you had savings, would you bring them back here? If the answer is no, then you have your answer.”
Putting the savings question aside, there is almost no doubt that the outcome of the Constitutional Referendum in Zimbabwe – and in particular, the swing vote from the voters on the white-owned commercial farms – was the trigger for what followed.
It would probably have happened anyway – but it may have been less damaging had there not been this sudden win for the “white colonialists”. That’s conjecture, of course. But the outcome could hardly have been worse than what it was.
So now, here South Africa sits, twenty years down the line from independence, facing:
- A fiscal crisis and a depreciating Rand
- Growing social unrest at the lack of progress with transformation
- New opposition from rogue trade unions and ultra-left-wing political parties
- And a sudden political resurgence from White South Africa.
I’m not saying that Zimbabwe and South Africa are the same country – but they are still remarkably similar: geographically, politically, socially, demographically, historically.
So yes, I’m concerned.
The thing is: I think that we can acknowledge a few truths about being white in Africa. One of them is that history has made us a privileged minority. Another is that our skin colour precludes us from having an untainted political voice. There is simply too much history attached to it.
Yes, perhaps it is annoying to be tarred with this unfair brush because of the colour of our skin and to have that impact our civil liberties and rights. But really, that is no more than what every other race group has had to deal with (and continues to deal with). And based on that, it just seems rash to assume that it does not matter because we live in a rainbow nation, and therefore, let’s start political movements.
We all know that there are times in our daily lives when you can’t say or do certain things because of who you’re with, or because of how the message will be received. And I’m not sure that this time is so different.
From where I sit, the protest against government authoritarianism should not come from anyone that is associated with a former authoritarian regime, however unjustified that might feel. Otherwise, I come back to those parallels. And if we could have a do-over, I suspect that most white Zimbabweans would back right out of that political drama – because it was just too soon.
It’s just a thought.
Rolling Alpha posts about finance, economics, and sometimes stuff that is only quite loosely related. Follow me on Twitter @RollingAlpha, or like my page on Facebook at www.facebook.com/rollingalpha. Or both.