Delivered by Dave Steward, FW de Klerk Foundation Chairman on 07/06/2023

I sometimes think of people in Berlin, Paris or Brussels in 1911 or 1937 going about their daily lives, sipping drinks in sidewalk cafes, watching their children playing, making plans for their next holidays – thinking, perhaps, of changing jobs – or moving into new apartments.

And then BAM – along came the First and Second World Wars. 

Their lives changed radically.  Their cities were bombed; some of the people who had laughed and sipped drinks were killed; the children were packed off to safer places in the countryside or in other countries. The survivors had to reconstruct their lives amidst the rubble of their destroyed cities.

Our generation – those of us who were born in Western societies – including South Africa – after the Second World War, have for the most part been spared such traumatic experiences. 

We have lived in what may well be identified by future generations as the best time in human history.

  • In 1950 life expectancy throughout the world was only 46.  Today it is over 73.
  • Between 1950 and 2020 the percentage of the world’s population living in extreme poverty declined from 58% to only 8%;
  • Since 2000 we experienced the most peaceful period in human history – with war deaths below 3/100 000;
  • Medical care, infant mortality, literacy have all improved dramatically;
  • The portion of the world’s population living in free or partly free societies is greater than ever.

All this was made possible by the fact that after the Korean War there were no wars between the world’s most powerful nations. Strangely enough, nuclear weapons and the threat of mutually assured destruction maintained a frigid peace between the West and the Soviet Union during the Cold War and limited conflict between them to surrogate wars in Africa, Latin America and Asia.

In the meantime, international peace and the financial system that emerged from the postwar Bretton Woods agreements created an environment in which globalisation and rapid economic growth could take place.  The world became richer, and the lives of ordinary people improved in many third world countries. The process reached its apogee with the collapse of global communism in the early 1990’s. Liberal democracy and free markets – embodied in the Washington consensus – had achieved such spectacular success that Francis Fukuyama proclaimed, precipitately as it turned out, that “the end of history” had arrived.

Of course, it was sheer hubris: as any historian worth his salt should have known, history never ends – it simply evolves from one set of shifting power relationships and conflicting interests to another.

Within less than two decades the unipolar domination of the United States has gone. China is rapidly emerging as a new superpower. Russia, under Putin, is striving to rebuild its ancient empire and to reassert itself after the humiliation of the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Regional powers – India, Indonesia, Brazil, Turkey, and Iran – are flexing their muscles and are demanding a place at the table.

As always happens when the tectonic plates of global power begin to shift, fissures open and earthquakes threaten to shake continents. The world has entered a new and dangerously volatile period. 

The United States has never looked so weak or so divided. Its elite institutions, its great universities, its mainstream media and many of its large tech companies and corporations appear to have lost faith in the values on which the country was founded. Statues of Washington, Jefferson and even Lincoln are being torn down. There have been calls to recalculate the date of the founding of the American nation from the Declaration of Independence in 1776 to the arrival of the first slaves in 1619.

The leader of the free world is viscerally divided on issues of race, gender, and fundamental beliefs. The first thing Republicans and Democrats try to do after gaining control of Congress, is to impeach the sitting president of the other party. After the 2020 election perplexed admirers of the United States asked how it was possible that the only presidential candidates that their great and talented nation could produce were Donald Trump and Joe Biden. Now there is a possibility, incredibly enough, that the same candidates may face off against one another again next year.

General Milly, the Chief of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently proclaimed that the United States has just appointed its first openly transexual admiral. Can one imagine the reaction of the Russians, the Chinese, and the Iranians! The precipitate withdrawal of United States forces from Afghanistan in August 2021 – without even notifying the British, their closest allies – was a catastrophic blow to the country’s credibility.

Cold-eyed observers in Moscow, Beijing and Teheran began to draw their own conclusions about the US’s ability or will to continue to play its traditional role of international policeman. Middle powers throughout the world – that had previously regarded the United States as their primary protector – are beginning to hedge their bets. The beneficiary has been China – which is flexing its muscles in Africa and in Middle East peace initiatives.

Perceptions of American weakness, division, and lack of will almost certainly played a role in President Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine in February last year.

Such perceptions have also contributed to rising tensions in the Middle East, the Taiwan straits, and the South China Sea.

  • Iran is reportedly close to being able to produce its own nuclear weapons. Israel has made it known that one way or another, it will not permit this.
  • Xi—Jinping has irrevocably nailed the reputation of his presidency to the reincorporation of Taiwan into China. Experts say that there is a strong likelihood of a Chinese invasion of the island within the next four to five years.
  • China’s irrational claim to almost the entire area of the South China Sea poses a direct threat to freedom of navigation in one of the world’s busiest waterways and threatens the security of all the countries that border the sea – including Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines, and Indonesia.
  • In the meantime, the war in Ukraine shows no sign of any kind of early resolution. Zelensky has surprised everyone – including the Russians – with his courageous resistance. But where will it all end? Will NATO and the United States continue to support the war to the last drop of Ukrainian blood? There appear to be no moves toward ending the conflict.

Looming over all this is the threat that at some time or other, intentionally, or unintentionally, tactical, or strategic nuclear weapons might be used. Just consider this:  the Russians have ten nuclear submarines each of which is armed with 16 Bulova missiles. Each of the missiles carries ten independently targeted warheads. Each warhead is 15 – 20 times as powerful as the Hiroshima bomb. So, one submarine could destroy 160 cities. And this does not include more than 3000 of Russia’s land and air-based nuclear weapons. 

And, of course, the United States has an even more formidable nuclear arsenal.

Nuclear weapons experts warn that if only 400 of these weapons are detonated the result would be a cloud of dust and nuclear debris that would block out sunlight and create a nuclear winter that would last for more than eight years. It would create a terminal catastrophe for humanity. 

Even if the likelihood of nuclear war is less than one percent – it would still constitute a far greater threat to humanity than even climate change. Who would board an aircraft that had a one percent chance of crashing?

A depressing reality in all this is that our wisdom as a species has not kept pace with the geometric growth of our technology. Indeed, the leaders of Athens and Sparta were in many ways more sophisticated in how they tried to avoid war and then ultimately in the way they led their respective alliances.

The way in which the West has managed recent crises raises serious doubts about its ability to deal with the challenges that will inevitably arise in the future in our increasingly volatile world. Just consider:

  • the stupidity of the United States decision to launch the Second Gulf War and the untold calamities that the war created in Iraq and Syria and for the United States own interests;
  • the idiocy of the United States invasion of Afghanistan. Since the time of Alexander, the Great the first rule of politics in southern Asia has been:  Do not invade Afghanistan.
  • The US’s utterly fruitless adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost the United States more than 5 trillion dollars. With the same amount, the United States could have replaced all its aging infrastructure.

One suspects that future generations will also be astounded by how most countries mismanaged the COVID pandemic and by how it is approaching climate change.

How will the world deal with the coming demographic crisis of populations in the West and East Asia that have fallen far below replacement levels – and populations in Africa that are set to double by 2050?  

How will it be able to deal with the unprecedented threats and opportunities that will arise from AI?

So, the world might once again be approaching a 1911 or 1937 moment.

The reason I began with this dismal analysis of the problems confronting our increasingly volatile world is that I wanted to set the stage for the consideration of the problems with which we are wrestling in our own volatile country. 

Also, most of the major developments that have affected South Africa during the past five hundred years have had their origins in developments on the world stage. Just consider:

  • the Portuguese and Dutch voyages of discovery;
  • mercantilism in the 17th and 18th centuries;
  • the Napoleonic Wars;
  • the arrival of the British Empire and the conquest during the 19th century of the three most powerful peoples of southern Africa – the Xhosa, the Zulus and the Boers;
  • the First World War;
  • the Great Depression;
  • the Second World War;
  • the decolonisation of Africa;
  • the Cold War; and
  • the Collapse of the Soviet Union.

All these world developments had a profound impact on the history of South Africa, and this will continue to be the case in the future. We will be intimately affected by the great dramas that will play out on the world stage during the coming decades.

What then of South Africa?

During the 1980s the South African government confronted a truly existential crisis of escalating internal protest, economic decline, international isolation, and the growing threat of Soviet-supported military intervention in southern Africa. By 1986 the National Party had concluded that it was neither possible – nor morally acceptable – for a diminishing white minority to continue to rule over an increasingly restive black population forever. 

In 1993 the negotiating parties reached agreement on the interim constitution – and, finally, in 1996, on the present constitution.  It is by no means perfect – but it does stack up pretty well against most of the world’s constitutions.  It is based on the foundational values in section 1 that include “human dignity, the achievement of equality and the advancement of human rights and freedoms; non-racialism and non-sexism; the supremacy of the constitution and the rule of law and a multiparty system of democratic governance to ensure accountability, responsiveness and openness.”

For the first 13 years the Constitution did go some way to fulfilling its promise. South Africa was able to rejoin the world. We were able to trade, travel where we wanted and play international sport. Even the most skeptical critic of the new constitution must have experienced a twinge of euphoria when Nelson Mandela donned the Springbok jersey after our Rugby World Cup victory in 1995.

More importantly, in 1996, the SACP (South African Communist Party) and COSATU (Congress of South African Trade Unions) were effectively sidelined by the ANC’s GEAR policies. The economy grew at over 5% between 2005-2007 and Trevor Manuel succeeded in cutting national debt by half to just 26% of GDP (Gross Domestic Product). Unemployment went down and living standards – for all South Africans – went up.

Then, in December 2007, everything changed. 

A “coalition of the disaffected,” led by the SACP, COSATU and the Zumaites, won power at the ANC’s Polokwane conference. The left wing began to implement radical economic transformation – the next phase of the National Democratic Revolution – while President Zuma set to work capturing key state institutions. The floodgates of corruption opened, and the President and his Gupta allies began to strip-mine the public sector and SOEs (state owned enterprises) of their resources.

President Zumba would never have been defeated without the institutions and freedoms created by the Constitution. It was the Public Protector, Thuli Madonsela, investigative journalists, intrepid NGOs and the Constitutional Court that finally forced him from office.

Unfortunately, the “New Dawn” heralded by President Ramaphosa has been a great disappointment. It did not signal a serious recommitment to constitutional principles. The President has failed to stop corruption and has continued to support the economically suicidal racial goals of radical economic transformation.

We are beset by crises of which we are all too painfully aware:

  • the failure of ESKOM’s ability to generate the electricity upon which we and the economy depend;
  • the collapse of our municipalities and their ability to provide basic services to people – to maintain roads and sewage systems;
  • the utter failure of our education system – which despite enormous expenditure – produces some of the worst outcomes in the world;
  • the disintegration of our railways, harbours and post offices; and our
  • dangerous tilt toward Russia and totalitarian states in the emerging global confrontation.

It is at this point that the government has decided to unloose the four horsemen of the legislative apocalypse:

  • the new Expropriation Bill;
  • the Employment Equity Amendment Bill;
  • the Hate Speech Bill; and
  • the proposed National Health Insurance scheme.

What lies behind these suicidal initiatives?

The problem is that the ANC has not honoured the contract included in the 1996 constitution. It has intentionally ignored the parts that it never wanted – particularly non-racialism, property rights and language and cultural rights. It has failed to honour its other constitutional obligations because of entrenched corruption, incompetence, and its adherence to utterly discredited racial and socialist ideologies.

The ultimate goal of the ANC’s racial policies is the establishment of a ‘National Democratic Society’ in which virtually everything – jobs, land, and wealth – will be allocated to people according to the percentage their race group represents in the national population. Demographic representativity has already been implemented rigorously in the public sector with results that are evident to all. The ANC now wants it to be applied with the same fervour in the private sector, at our universities and in our sports teams.

Already, demographic representivity is limiting the economic space in which minorities can operate to their diminishing shares of the population. 

This has profoundly serious implications.

37% of South Africans in the over-80 age group are whites – compared with only 4% below the age of five.  There are more whites in the 70-74 age group than there are in the 0-4 group. At the same time there are more than eight times as many black children in 0 – 4 group as there are elderly black South Africans in the 70-74 group. 

In a society where everything is distributed according to racial percentages, prospects are very bleak for those who belong to diminishing minorities. Those who exceed their racial quota will be consigned to a twilight world of self-employment or emigration – thus ratcheting down their racial share of the population even more rapidly. 

All this is contributing to a serious and unaffordable erosion of the country’s skills and tax base.

It is a mathematical certainty that, on this basis, demographic representivity will within a few generations lead to the reduction of our white and Indian communities to an insignificant percentage of the total population. Wittingly or unwittingly the government’s racial policies – together with rampant crime and the threat to health services posed by the NHI (National Health Insurance) – are posing an existential threat to our minority communities.

So, what should we do?

A few years ago, I asked Flip Buys, the head of Solidarity, the same question: how should we deal with the crises that threatened us on all fronts?

His reply was that we cannot determine how strongly the tempest may blow – or how rough the sea might be – but we can determine how strong our boat will be. 

There seems to be a lot of sense in this approach.

Despite the parlous situation in which we find ourselves, South Africa remains a free society. We still have independent courts that frequently hand down judgements that displease the government. To its credit, the government generally obeys the courts. We still have freedom of expression. We still have free elections and the prospect of unseating the government. 

We must use all the freedoms and rights that the Constitution grants us to safeguard our rights and the rights of all the people of South Africa:

  • use your right to political activity to support the political party of your choice. Become actively engaged. Donate your money, resources, and time.
  • above all – do everything you can to ensure that the outcome of next year’s election in the Western Cape will preserve the integrity and competence of government;
  • use your right to freedom of expression to demand compliance with the constitution and to call those guilty of corruption to account;
  • support NGOs that are fighting for your rights and for the defence of the constitution; and
  • make sure that your personal boats are strong enough to weather the rough seas that might lie ahead.

All South Africans of goodwill irrespective of their race should redouble their efforts to defend our embattled constitution. They should take their stand on the values in section 1 of the Constitution and vociferously demand that the government fulfill its obligations to all South Africans, irrespective of race, in accordance with the great national contract that we concluded in 1996.

There is no doubt that we are entering an uncertain period in global and national politics. But if it is any consolation, we are doing so in what I believe is the most beautiful and vibrant place in the world. If this is, indeed, a 1911 or 1937 moment, I would prefer to be sipping my wine and laughing with my friends in sidewalk cafes or restaurants of Stellenbosch or Cape Town than anywhere else in the world.