Hermann Giliomee: South African historian says his country is in crisis (interview)

Historians in the News

MONEYWEB: You're with the Moneyweb Power Hour and it's a warm welcome now to the former professor from UCT and from Stellenbosch University, Hermann Giliomee, one of our great historians in South Africa. Hermann, you wrote a piece last week for Die Burger and Die Beeld newspapers, and it's elicited a whole lot of interesting reaction. Let's just go back to it a little bit. As a historian you've been looking at South Africa and saying that we're now in the third major crisis of modern times, the first being the 1929 depression, and the other one between '85 and '90, which we all remember so well. I don't know how many people would understand, being right in the middle of it, that it's quite as serious as it is at the moment. How are you making this distinction?

HERMANN GILIOMEE: Well, I suppose one looks at some indicators. One looks at public confidence, one looks at the way in which the world assesses South Africa, and I think there's quite a lot in common between these three crises. The only thing is that at this particular time people still try and see the various crises like electricity, water supply, crime, corruption, as distinct crises - they don't see it as one general structural crisis.

MONEYWEB: So overall, and the big question that's elicited so much debate is, you believe South Africa can get out of it?

HERMANN GILIOMEE: Well, I said "can", ja. Usually when people discuss the article with me, they say to me, "you said to me we will". I said, no, we can. And if I look at the previous crises, the 1929-33 and '85-'90, people were actually more gloomy than now. They were feeling to a much greater extent, you know, that things are out of control, that they don't control their own destiny any more. And everyone was sort of - we used to joke in the '80s about South Africa, that the problem with the South African crisis is that there's no solution, you know. And then suddenly, you get really wise statesmanship, Hertzog and Smuts coming together in '33, and taking some crucial economic measures. And then within a year, the whole climate changes, and then again in '85, '86, how many people said, look, there is no hope whatsoever for South Africa. I remember one night at a cocktail party I made a joke. They said, "Oh, what leader in the National Party is able of making this major move?" - and I said De Klerk, and everyone burst out laughing.

MONEYWEB: Well, he certainly did it with the help of Mandela, and we turned that around. But why has it happened so quickly? Hermann, I left South Africa to go and do some business in Canada in early January, everything looked fine. I came back three weeks later and it was depth of depression.

HERMANN GILIOMEE: Ja, South Africa is like that. It is really a roller-coaster, and I think that 10 years of a fair degree of stability and economic growth has simply made us forget that we live in South Africa, and that South Africa does almost with a certain degree of regularity hit these major crises because of the strange nature of our economy, the strange nature of our population composition, and so on. And the worst things happen when things go so well. In the late '90s, we should have been much more alert to the power accumulation in the centre, but because it went so well we didn't worry about it. But in fact it was at that stage when we should have kicked up a major row and said, look, all the institutions of democracy are being eroded.

MONEYWEB: So it's partly our own fault?

HERMANN GILIOMEE: I think the whites in South Africa - it's almost as if they feel that they are entitled not to be confronted with such a major crisis. But also this one, particular one, the biggest mistake would be to deal with it in a piecemeal way. What we have is really the major loss of capacity on the part of the state. Now, to some extent it forces us to try and exist outside the state, but the major thing is that this is one single interconnected crisis, and it doesn't help if the CEO of Anglo American, what's it, Carroll....
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