She’s been here for 18 months, and in that time local correspondent for The Economist Diana Geddes has developed a view on South Africa that’s unapologetically bleak. Do we need to hear it? We think, for our own good, that we do.
Diana Geddes, South African correspondent for The Economist, didn’t entirely please her bosses with her in-depth special report on South Africa published in the June 6 issue of the magazine. The editors in London were concerned that the report focused too heavily on what was wrong with the country, and that in a time of a celebration there should have been more in the pieces to be hopeful about. But Geddes, who worked for the influential publication as Paris correspondent, Berlin correspondent and legal affairs editor before moving to South Africa 18 months ago, makes no apologies for her conclusions. She has measured the success of 16 years of democracy against the legal, commercial, and social standards set by countries in the northern hemisphere, she says, because the government and its citizens do so themselves.
It’s an attitude that’s hard to fault – historically, South Africa has looked first to the major powers as a yardstick, even if the last three ANC governments have bypassed the African continent with way more tact and diplomacy than their predecessors. Problem is, as Geddes knows all too well, in categories like education, healthcare and crime (especially government and corporate corruption), the country has for the last while been talking one way and acting another.
The full report can be accessed online or purchased on the newsstands, so it’s not The Daily Maverick’s intention to summarise the findings. Instead, we have interviewed Geddes for her personal thoughts on matters that have a bearing on the state of the nation as it gears up for the World Cup.
We wanted to know, firstly, what Geddes feels the tournament represents for the country: might there be any lasting benefit to a rise in our “happiness index”, for instance? Here she was as forthright and unapologetic in her answers as she was in her report.
“Journalists are supposed to be sceptics,” she said. “Since the time I arrived here, I’ve said it’s the biggest marketing con in the world. And I still think it is. Fifa is behaving abominably. No compensation is being given to the communities in the radius of the stadiums, it’s criminal. And I’m finding that the radio stations are telling their listeners what a fantastic thing the World Cup is. Hey guys, are you part of the marketing propaganda? If you’re a journalist, your job is to be objective. Two percent of the ticket sales so far have gone to Africans. This is such an indictment of an event that was sold as Africa’s World Cup. And why is that percentage so low? Because Fifa decided tickets would go on sale on the Internet, and people could only purchase with a credit card.
“Having said that, I think in the next month we’re going to have a party. We’ve got a common topic of conversation that is interesting everybody, and that’s fantastic. The country is now on a level playing field, because the black working class knows more about football than the white professional.”
Geddes is enthused, too, by the evidence of countrywide affiliation with the national flag. Not even in Limpopo has she recently seen the old apartheid flag, she said. But to return to the question: once the World Cup is done, then what?
“That is really the purpose of the piece I was writing. I don’t know ‘then what’. I hope more of you are then more determined to make something of this country.”
What she would say, though, is that if there is not a double-dip in the world economy, the happiness factor would continue for a bit longer.
“The danger is in your levels of unemployment. Also, corruption in the public sector is absolutely awful. These aren’t gangsters, these are ministers. You just can’t trust anybody; God knows how you get rid of that. And education is a huge disaster for the vast majority of blacks.”
Looking back, Geddes made a point that has been made many times before: in 1994, she said, instead of getting rid of them wholesale, the incoming ANC government needed to milk the white apartheid officials for their skills and their ability to train. She echoed another idea that was mooted and rejected at the time. “I was thinking, ‘what could’ve been done?’ If I was De Klerk, I would’ve asked all white privileged people to contribute, let’s say, R50,000 into a pot to be distributed to the poor black population.”
Geddes admitted to The Daily Maverick the obvious shortfalls in such a plan, not least of which might have been massive and immediate “white flight” and an attendant economic nosedive. Moving on naturally from that discussion, she spoke about the difference, for her, between living in Europe and living in South Africa (she has a house in Melville, Johannesburg).
“I was having a conversation recently with a foreign journalist who’s just arrived in the country. I said that I feel constantly, constantly guilty here. For me it doesn’t have anything to do with apartheid, but I am British and we are culpable. The injustice is just always in your face here.”
Near the end of the interview, Geddes quoted “the normally unflappable” UCT vice-chancellor Max Price, who she spoke to for her article in the report about crime. Another of Price’s colleagues at the university had just been murdered, and he said, “We no longer trust strangers and we hate what we have become.”
Said Geddes to The Daily Maverick: “I’m not willing to hate myself to that degree.” She doesn’t have to, of course, because after her posting is over she can return to Europe. But that doesn’t make her observations on the country any less meaningful. The Economist’s report on South Africa isn’t British tabloid journalism; Geddes spent months compiling her research and interviewing South Africans from all walks of life, her deep frustration at the intractability of our problems is palpable. Surely, for those of us who’ve become numb to the contents of our own media, there’s value in a foreigner’s startled, no-holds-barred assessment of the situation.
By Kevin Bloom
Read more: The Economist’s special report on South Africa
"A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason." ~ Thomas Paine