The lights are going off in South Africa

Helen Andrews writes:

* “We blacks saw businesses we thought had no challenges,” a failing farmer tells her. “But we were lying to ourselves.” There you have it in a nutshell. Black South Africans thought their white neighbors were rich because of the things they had. As it turned out, nice things didn’t stay nice for very long without the codes of behavior that kept them nice. Being a white South African looked very easy from the outside, but it turned out to depend on lots of little habits that, even with the best will in the world, would have been hard to explain in advance. (Why is getting up early to mow your lawn a better quality in a neighbor than staying up late at a party?)

Nowhere is this gulf more evident than in South Africa’s political leadership. Whatever you want to say about the old National Party, they were not personally corrupt. Prime Minister J.G. Strijdom used to refund to the government every month the stamps he had used in personal correspondence. The ANC, on the other hand, has presided over a frenzy of personal enrichment. The current president, Cyril Ramaphosa, has a stated net worth in the hundreds of millions of dollars, and this is likely an underestimate, considering that some lucky burglars who happened to strike his personal farm in 2020 made off with $4 million cash in foreign currency. Punishment for corruption is rare. Former president Jacob Zuma is unusual in having been prosecuted for, and convicted of, money laundering. During his trial, he protested that corruption is only a crime “in a Western paradigm.”

* Would better leaders have saved South Africa? This is a standard argument: Mandela was a great man, then Thabo Mbeki and his successors screwed it up. The assumption is that if we could find another leader as good as Mandela, everything would be fine. This is unlikely. Consider Eskom, the embattled utility unable to provide reliable power. What could a new Mandela do about rampant theft from the company’s warehouses, where valuable replacement parts are often found stripped of their copper and left useless? Or about the refusal of many customers (including the vast majority of Sowetans) to pay their bills? In 1984, when the apartheid government tried to make one neighborhood of delinquent customers pay higher electricity bills, the resulting riot led to three local officials being hacked to death and their bodies burned in the street.

* Imagine if one day the international community decided that Latin Americans should be able to vote in U.S. elections, since our economy depends on their labor and their fates are affected by U.S. policies. The counterargument would have nothing to do with whether Latin Americans are good people or possess human rights. It would be that they outnumber us more than two to one and would, by sheer numbers, render native voters null overnight. That was Verwoerd’s case for apartheid: strictly mathematical. As long as blacks were 80% of the population and voting as a solid racial bloc, it would be folly to put the two communities into one democracy.

The argument that borders are the moral equivalent of apartheid is not just theoretical; it is being made today. The quality of life we enjoy in America is the result of exclusion. Otherwise, entire favelas would pack up and move here. On what moral basis do we keep them out? Do the people of Latin America not deserve nice things? One might ask why they can’t have nice things in their own country, but the answer would probably be that it is somehow our fault. Certainly it is not anything the Latin Americans are doing. That would imply that they are incapable of sustaining nice things, and that would be racist. Eventually the only reply to these liberal gotchas is to say that foreigners can’t have our country because it’s ours. That is precisely the kind of basic moral claim that the current Left would like to deprive Americans of the authority to make.

* When people say America is becoming more like South Africa, they usually mean that California can’t keep the lights on and private security is a booming business for middle-class neighborhoods in Baltimore and Portland. That is all part of it, but the most South African thing about our politics is the current effort to push white Americans into that same position as permanently powerless scapegoats.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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