We need to confront our failures so that we can achieve success.

“Look what’s happening north!” 

While I was a young man in South Africa in the 1960s and early 1970s, this was the refrain I heard over and over again from supporters of apartheid. At the time I was canvassing for Helen Suzman’s Progressive Party or generally arguing for inclusive democracy against the white minority rule favoured by supporters of both the ruling National Party and the opposition United Party. (The UP liked apartheid but it didn’t like Afrikaners, and so English speaking whites voted for it.)

The northward finger pointed to economic collapse and bloodshed in the newly independent countries of Sub-Saharan Africa. As the European colonialists ceded power to African governments, one country after another tumbled into ruin and sometimes civil war. With a few exceptions, notably Botswana, the lot of ordinary black people became worse than it had been under colonialism.

Two things about this horrified me. The first was the utter disregard the world had for black suffering in black Africa. The international organisations and media, the Anti-Apartheid Movement, the United Nations, the Organisation of African Unity, the BBC, the New York Times and the Guardian, which had been screaming and shouting about black subjugation under apartheid or Ian Smith’s Rhodesia, were utterly silent about the massacres, impoverishment and torment of blacks by other blacks in independent Africa. They revealed a racism of the most profound kind. They showed that black lives didn’t matter to them. Only white sin mattered.

In 1960, panicking white policemen killed 69 black people at Sharpeville (by shooting some of them in the back while they were running away). The world was outraged, and still is. In 1972, the minority Tutsi, who ruled Burundi but consisted only of 14% of her population, set about the systematic, cold-blooded slaughter of about 200,000 Hutu, the majority people. The world was silent, and forgot the atrocity soon after. This evil silence changed forever my political outlook. 

The second thing was the refusal by anybody to discuss why black Africa was failing so dreadfully, and failing always in the same pattern. The infrastructure left by the colonials rapidly crumbled. Colonial government was replaced by pageantry and paperwork. On the one hand the black ruling class acquired fleets of shiny black cars, glittering palaces and expensive decorations; on the other there was a massive civil service with armies of bureaucrats devising restrictive regulations and complicated forms, and there were lengthening queues for almost everything. Private enterprise and trade was throttled, formal employment shrank and black poverty grew. Meanwhile the ruling black families appointed their sons, daughters, cousins and chums to all the high political offices in the land and sent their own children to expensive private schools in Europe.

Nobody dared to explain why this was happening.

From about 1960, black Africa stagnated while countries in the Far East, such as Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea developed and prospered.

Why the difference? Again nobody would dare to say.

I can tell you exactly why nobody would explain. It is a base and cowardly reason. They were scared of the white racists, who would immediately explain the failure of black Africa on black Africans. “The blacks will mess everything up!” they used to say aloud. (They didn’t use the words “blacks” or “mess”; their actual words are not suitable for this family newsletter.) The racists believe black people are inherently inferior and incompetent. They say this explains the backwardness of black Africa. In the new South Africa, the white racists are too scared to say this in public for fear of losing their jobs or being prosecuted for hate speech, and so the racial debate has been driven underground, fomenting ignorance and malevolence. But this is what they still think and both black people and white liberals know this is what they think. It makes the blacks angry, resentful and unsure of themselves, and it makes the liberal whites squirm awkwardly. So the white liberals are too scared even to admit, let alone explain African failure.

African failure has now come to South African in a similar if more gradual way. Again the state owned enterprises are crumbling. Eskom, which once provided the world’s cheapest electricity now provides blackouts and corruption. State education is in ruins and the state health system is a shambles. The economy is stagnating and unemployment is catastrophic. Meanwhile there is a massive army of government ministers and civil servants earning huge salaries, and ruling families control high positions.

Why has Africa failed and why are we now failing? I shall explain why in Part 2 of this article next week. The reason has nothing to do with any inherent black incompetence – there is no evidence showing any innate difference in white and black competence. The reason lies with bad policies, and the bad policies come from geography and history. It has nothing to do with race.