A Finland Swede in Bavaria

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

South Africa: There's hope!

Not everything is going the wrong way on our planet. There are things that are changing for the better! And one of them is South Africa. I see a lot of well-founded hope around me. The hope is related to less crime, less racial tension, and more economic growth. I share the positive vibes and think they're founded in reality.

I'm in South Africa for the yearly Sun partner event in "Sub-Saharan Africa" or SSA for short. SSA is one of the fastest-growing regions within what is known as "Emerging Markets", which in itself grows faster than Europe, North America or Asia Pacific. And partners are extremely important, as Sun uses solely indirect sales in the region.

My role was to share some thoughts on Open Source in general and MySQL in particular, with an audience of about 150 Sun partners and employees in Sub-Saharan Africa. That area is economically dominated by South Africa itself, but other countries, such as Nigeria, has even higher growth.

For a European like myself, it was an exotic event. The partner award ceremony featured nominees and winners from countries like Botswana, Kenya and Côte d'Ivoire. And I spoke to partners with activities in Mauritius, Ghana, and Namibia.

Those countries sound exotic and exciting to me, but not all of them are totally unfamiliar to me. I came to South Africa over New Year 1992-93, visiting Joburg, Durban, Umhlanga Rocks, Cape Town, the Krüger National Park, Pilanesberg, Sun City and Pretoria. My wife and I got so inspired that we decided to spend our honeymoon 1993 in Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia.

And that's why I didn't have all that high expectations for my visit now, fifteen years later. Already in 1993, Zimbabwe was a "has-been" country. Everybody we met talked about things having been "so much better" under Ian Smith, including -- most surprisingly -- our black taxi driver in Harare.

And now, like the rest of us, I had read stories in the press about South Africa risking to become the next Zimbabwe. Which is why I've asked several people here whether they expect similar things to happen in South Africa as in Zimbabwe, but with a time delay of 15-20 years.

Usually, the answer started with an acknowledgement of the horribleness of such a scenario. But then the people I spoke with went on giving me reasons why it won't happen, and it doesn't sound like mere wishful thinking ("oh, the stock market won't collapse").

Encouraged by the openness of everyone I talked to ("oh yes, please go ahead, I'd love to read your non-MySQL related blog on South Africa!"), I wrote a short summary of what I see as

The Top Ten Reasons Why South Africa isn't the next Zimbabwe

1. There was a long tradition of democracy prior to the end of apartheid. The National Party (you remember names like F.W. de Klerk and P.W. Botha) was the biggest party under apartheid, but it wasn't the only one. And while elections were racially limited, in other respects they were true elections. There was real democracy in the white subset of South Africa. And that is much closer to full democracy than the imperial rule in Rhodesia ever was.

2. The racial situation is not black and white. There are plenty of Indians and coloureds. There are moslems and hindus. Halal food (food permissible according to Islamic law) is being served without a blink, when needed. When I was there, the Hindu holiday of Diwali impacted our business appointments, which seemed a natural thing for the non-Hindus. And having a more diverse racial mix most certainly discourages an oversimplified polarisation.

3. An allegedly "phenomenal" constitution. "It's much better than yours, no matter whether Finland, Sweden, the US, you name it". People seemed very proud of what the ANC and the National Party wrote up, during the negotiations that ended apartheid. They allegedly got their Montesquieu right (separation of executive, legislative and judicial administrative powers)

4. Nobody even attempting at changing the constitution. With over 2/3 majority, a change could have been possible for the ANC. Wisely, they haven't gone down that path.

5. Politics becoming less aligned with race and tribes. There is a green party with a green agenda, unrelated to race. The ANC has white supporters. There are no significant parties appealing to one tribe only.

6. Silly politicians being fired. AIDS is now, even according to the new South African minister of health, caused by HIV and not cured by garlic but prevented by proactively using condoms.

7. Security improving. On a customer visit today, we walked through central Johannesburg. That was in an area where my local host wouldn't have walked 3-4 years ago.

8. The 2010 FIFA World Cup. The eyes of the world will be on South Africa from 11 June to 11 July 2010, and not just those of football enthusiasts. There was a huge positive impact in Germany 2006, both on the national identity and on the external perception of it. I think we'll see something similar in 2010.

9. The large economic footprint of South Africa. It's huge. MySQL downloads in South Africa outnumber those of downloads elsewhere in Sub-Saharan Africa by a factor of three.

10. Innovative public policy, at least in Open Source. Read Aslam Raffee's blog. Open Source is being mandated by the government. That means South Africa is at the forefront in innovating public policy.

Personally, I could sense a mere fraction of the racial tension of my previous visit in 1993. On the dance floor at the Sun partner venue of Kievits Kroon, everyone mixed with everyone. I could see mutual respect.

Hey, why not invest in Africa? It'll be the next boom market (and likely, one of the only ones in the current climate).


  1. [...] It’s some interesting topic! Observations on life by a native speaker of Bad English and Finland Swedish « South Africa: There’s hope! [...]