South Africa’s Unfinished Story

Former anti-apartheid activist Colin Coleman, who is currently head of Goldman Sachs Sub-Saharan Africa, delivered a public lecture titled “South Africa: How It Won Its Freedom and What It’s Doing with It Now” on March 4 in Luce Auditorium. In it he emphasized the role of civil society and strong leadership in South Africa’s transition from apartheid.

“Some people think that it was a miracle that took place,” Coleman said, referring to the April 1994 election that marked the end of apartheid. “But in fact, when you look at the details and unpack them, you realize that it was no miracle from above. We lived it. We made it happen. The leaders made it happen; the civil society made it happen; and we had in place the processes that could make it happen.”

Coleman, who became a student leader at 18 when his brother was placed in solitary confinement, and later led the Consultative Business Movement, split his talk equally between a behind-the-scenes account of the multi-party talks preceding the 1994 election and the state of Africa today. His talk was fittingly titled “South Africa: How It Won Its Freedom and What It’s Doing with It Now,” and was sponsored by the MacMillan Center.

In the first half of the talk, Coleman explained three factors that contributed heavily to South Africa’s freedom from apartheid: mass mobilization and popular revolt by the African National Congress; civil societies led by churches, businesses, and trade and labor unions; and leadership provided by Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk. He recalled being on the front lines and witnessing the political leadership by Mandela and de Klerk in convincing Chief Buthelezi to participate in the 1994 election—a move that managed to save South Africa from a violent “catastrophe” that Coleman said could have turned into another Rwanda-type tragedy.

“In three days, we persuaded [Buthelezi] that it was better to be in the government than outside the process, and through that, found out what his demands were and how we could get them incorporated,” Coleman said. The demands were that he could participate in the election, that there would be post-election international mediation on critical constitutional issues, and that the sovereignty of the Zulu kingdom would be enshrined in the constitution. According to Coleman, this example shows “how leaders can make a difference between victory and defeat for an entire country.”

He added that it also shows the importance of trust and effective communication between leaders, along with civil society, at such critical points.

In the second half of the talk, dedicated to South Africa’s current situation, Coleman drew from the other “arrow in his quiver”—a phrase coined by Sterling Professor Ian Shapiro in his introduction to describe Coleman’s financial expertise—to outline the economic challenges that plague South Africa today.

“The nature of our current challenges are fundamentally different [from those of the 1990s],” Coleman said. He identified unemployment as a big problem, even though the GDP growth rate, inflation, and income mobility of South Africa has improved.

“On the face of it, the development of the fiscal and monetary framework has been very, very impressive in this period, notwithstanding the global financial crisis,” Coleman said. “The one area that has not improved is unemployment statistics—that has effectively gone from 22% in 1994 to the current 25%.”

The other challenges include corruption, poverty, crime, and social violence, along with the state’s unproductivity. An example of such unproductivity is the education and health sectors, Coleman said, where the South African government has pitched in one of the greatest investments but received one of poorest outputs of any nation.

Coleman, however, is confident in South Africa’s ability to meet these challenges. “The opportunity side of the balance sheet is just as compelling and interesting,” he said. He mentioned growing confidence in Africa, increasing China-Africa relations, and the strength and sophistication of the South African economy—along with a strong civil society dedicated to exposing corruption, emerging leadership, and robust political institutions—as cause for hope for South Africa.