Opinion of Kyle Smith
When the president of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa announced his plan for a R500 billion rescue package, I must say that I was impressed by his incredibly bold decision to combat a crisis with an amount the equivalent of 10% of the country’s GDP in relief efforts. In my opinion, this is exactly what the people of this country and its economy need in this crisis – but one must ask, “at what cost?”
Throughout history, some of the most incredible nations and civilisations were born out of terrible hardships. The golden age of European colonisation followed the black plague, the United States’ emergence as a global superpower followed the Great Depression and World War 2, and Japan became the modern, industrialised economy that it is today after it was devastated by not one but two nuclear warheads. Even South Africa experienced one of its most potent economic booms in the decade following the end of apartheid. Coupling a crisis with economic expansion and investment in key areas like infrastructure is a recipe for success. It involves all kinds of complexities, of course, but smart planning, strong leadership and a bit of luck can go a long way towards ushering in a new era of prosperity and success.
It can also go very, very wrong. One only has to look at Joseph Stalin’s five-year plans for the national economy of the Soviet Union and how that expansion accompanied some of the darkest days of Russia’s already torrid history, littered with feudalism, despotism, starvation and warfare. However, this isn’t a story about one of history’s most evil men, ideological conflicts or economic restructuring. A look at world history simply illustrates the point that “a compact for radical economic transformation”, as President Ramaphosa puts it, can have two starkly different results. Yet, there is a historical precedent, with which South Africa is far too familiar, that will play a role in the narrative of what is to come out of the R500 billion rescue package – the history of colonisation.
Now, to be fair to the president, we still haven’t been privy to the details of his investment plan, so there’s no telling what parts of the economy he’ll be allocating the funds to, but I’d like to assume it will go to the right places, aid our efforts to combat the spread of the coronavirus and allow South Africans to return to their normal lives as far as possible. Rather, I’d like to focus on a key point in his speech that stood out to me from the moment he delivered it.
“To date, the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, BRICS New Development Bank and the African Development Bank have been approached and are working with the National Treasury on various funding transactions. Some of these institutions have created financing packages that are aimed at assisting countries that are having to address the coronavirus crisis like us.”President Cyril Ramaphosa, 21 April 2020
While I appreciate that South Africa will require outside investment to fund our COVID-19 relief efforts, I’d also like to note that it would be irresponsible for people who’ve just lost their jobs to run to commercial banks and take out loans to keep them afloat. Why? The banking industry is ruthless. And the higher your risk of defaulting on a bond or loan, the higher the interest rate will be. Unemployed people are at higher risk… and so is an economy that has a junk-status credit rating by every major agency in the world. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that any of these banks will have any sympathy for South Africa and compromise on their own best interests in order to prop up our economy.
Titus Alexander famously called the IMF a pillar of global apartheid due to the dominant role that developed economies have over the policy decisions and how it disproportionately affects developing nations, particularly the poverty stricken countries in Africa. In fact, there’s an excruciatingly long history of African nation states and the entrenchment of poverty and famine through financial leveraging – a method often referred to as neocolonialism or post-colonialism.
The system of Apartheid that still defines most of the socio-economic issues in South Africa today was unquestionably born out of our history of colonialism. The reasons behind the racial divisions and inequitable distribution of wealth in this country do not fall squarely on the shoulders of the National Party. The English royal family still has a lot to answer for in that regard. And our history of racial inequality did not last for 50 years, it stretched back over three centuries from the moment Jan Van Riebeeck of the Dutch East India Company landed in Cape Town. And let’s not mistake ourselves, South Africa in 1652 was a land that was completely undeveloped. No infrastructure existed and the Cape was practically untouched, playing host only to nomadic tribes, the San people. Further inland, pockets of agrarian societies, such as the Khoikhoi, Nguni, Basotho, Bapedi, Venda, Tswana and Tsonga people held land, but hadn’t even come close to extracting the vast expanse of natural resources both above and below ground that South Africa is blessed with. So, in a way, you could say that the gold, diamond and platinum mines that built the vast infrastructure that exists in South Africa today and has made us the biggest economy on the continent were a result of the investment in our country on behalf of the British, Dutch, Portuguese, French Huguenots and other European nations that were engaged in a process of remarkable expansion which spread across the globe. Not just South Africa, but Egypt, Ghana, Senegal, India, Australia, America… they were all up for grabs. Their GDPs skyrocketed from practically nothing to remarkable levels of output that may never reach the same echelons again.
And yet, it came at a great cost, a great human cost. Native Americans, Incas, Aztecs and First People (Aboriginals) were all but completely decimated in the Americas and Australia – coincidentally several million lost their lives to smallpox and other outbreaks. And in Africa, the human costs in terms of famine, maiming, death, disease and war are perpetuated to this day. And this is all a consequence of the colonial and neocolonial “investments” in the continent where the colonisers fancied themselves liberators for a savage, uncivilised race of people, building a more prosperous society. For the longest time, Europeans justified their colonisation of Africa by claiming to civilise “the dark continent”. Almost 400 years later, South Africa and our kindred nations still bear the scars of our liberation.
Today, our saviours are not here to civilise us, but to protect us from a devastating disease. A disease that happens to have originated within their borders, a disease that happens to have uprooted the economy of their biggest competitors (the US), a disease that has dealt the biggest blow to the oil industry in history – an industry within which they play no major role. And is it any coincidence that the New Development Bank is headquartered in Shanghai?
When South Africa entered the regional cooperative organisation BRICS in 2010 under the presidency of Jacob Zuma, more than a few eyebrows were raised, and 10 years later, for this agreement to play a major role in easing the pain of this global crisis on our economy seems to have no downsides… but you always have to read the fine print when it comes to deals like this. When a R500 billion investment from various international financial institutions seems too good to be true, it probably is. If you had to pick a group of leaders that would be only too happy to usher in a new era of colonial expansion, could you find a more potent combination of despotism than Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Jair Bolsonaro and Narendra Modi? And where would you find a country more susceptible to a 21st century form of colonisation than South Africa?
The ANC, under the leadership of Jacob Zuma and Cyril Ramaphosa, seems to have forgotten the history of foreign meddling in our lands and, as attractive as the R500 billion COVID rescue fund sounds, we should all be weary of the costs it may come to bear.