Blue State Blues: South Africa, a Cautionary Tale About America’s ‘Woke’ Future

Table Mountain Cape Town (Charlie Shoemaker/Volvo Ocean Race via Getty Images)
Charlie Shoemaker/Volvo Ocean Race via Getty Images

South Africans head to the polls on November 1st for nationwide municipal elections that will determine who controls the level of government closest to the voters. As with every election since 1994, it will be a celebration of South Africa’s multi-racial democracy — and voting will be in person, on one day, with official photo ID required, and no same-day registration. But the vote is also a chance to reflect on the challenges facing South Africa after nearly three decades of “woke” politics.

“Wokeness” presents itself as the answer to “systemic racism” — and South Africa really did have a racist system, brutally enforced.

The end of racial discrimination, and the ratification of a new constitution with checks and balances, created a “rainbow nation” with every chance to achieve prosperity for all its people. But the new ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), was not satisfied with mere legal equality; it wanted to transform the unequal society apartheid left behind.

Free and prosperous societies tend to transform themselves, largely because individuals are able to make meaningful changes in their own lives.

Johannesburg, for example, which is South Africa’s economic hub, was far quicker to integrate racially than Cape Town was, because there were simply more opportunities for its residents to interact. Cape Town, historically the more diverse of the two cities, took longer to shake off apartheid habits; its economy was smaller, the pace of life slower.

If South Africans had simply been left to enjoy the opportunities that freedom provided, and if the government had focused on threats to that freedom, such as crime, the country would be wealthier and more united than it is today.

But the ANC, and the new South African elite more generally, were steeped in socialist ideology. They wanted the government to redistribute wealth and opportunity along racial lines. As it did so, the ANC created opportunities for corruption and self-enrichment.

When I arrived in Cape Town as Rotary scholar in 2000, the country enjoyed the cheapest electricity in the world, and the state power company, Eskom, was about to be privatized to attract foreign investment.

Today, Eskom is still state-owned. Electricity has become scarce, and expensive, with regular blackouts. The company has failed to build new power capacity; skilled engineers, pushed out by aggressive affirmative action policies, have left; key jobs are often filled by ANC cronies.

For all of the government’s focus on redistribution, the poor are worse off today in South Africa than they were twenty years ago. Billions of rands have been siphoned off from government departments and state-owned enterprises by the ruling party.

And while the end of apartheid was supposed to bring an end to state censorship of opposing views, a climate of political correctness constrains public debate. It was South Africa that invented the idea of toppling old statues as a form of protest.

Fifteen years ago, in 2006, I was part of the campaign team that helped South Africa’s leading opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, unseat the ruling ANC in municipal elections in Cape Town. The electorate had rejected the ANC’s obsessive focus on race, its corruption, and its socialism.

Instead, the new mayor emphasized equal opportunity over racial quotas, growth over redistribution, transparency over corruption, and fiscal responsibility over profligate social spending.

The result:15 years later, Cape Town is the best-run of South Africa‘s major cities. The city managed to avoid the riots that swept the country earlier this year, after former President Jacob Zuma was convicted in a corruption case. The Democratic Alliance has also made gains in other cities, and at the national level.

Moreover, while the Democratic Alliance leaders were once predominantly white, they have gradually become more representative of South Africa’s majority black population.

The problem is that Cape Town‘s progress has been swamped by South Africa’s national problems.

The ANC has resisted Zimbabwe-style upheaval, but has endorsed a statist model inspired by China, in which the central government attempts to tell the market economy what to produce and whom to enrich.

South Africa does not have the market size, education system, or culture of entrepreneurship to make the Chinese model work —  and it remains to be seen if it will even last in China.

The “developmental state,” as the ANC calls it, also places utopian goals of socioeconomic equality above the immediate priorities of government.

That is why crime is out of control; why the country cannot stop illegal immigration across its northern border from the rest of Africa; and why the national government failed to develop new reservoirs for water storage, even as Cape Town‘s population grew, meaning that the city nearly ran out of water during a drought a few years ago.

South Africa therefore presents a cautionary tale: when race and redistribution become the primary objectives of politics, it may be impossible to reverse the resulting decline.

In a growing, vibrant economy, even the poor do better, and people find more reasons to associate with those different from them. In a shrinking, stagnant economy, people band together in groups to compete for scarce resources. The rich may continue to prosper, but the poor suffer the worst effects of any downturn.

The United States is burdened today by similar “woke” ideologies. The election of Donald Trump in 2016 stopped many of Barack Obama‘s worst left-wing policies, and allowed the United States to return to the values that have made it prosperous, tolerant, and strong.

But with Joe Biden, the left has returned to power. It has learned nothing from its defeat in 2016, nor from the success of the Trump administration, which it is attempting to erase because it regards Trump as illegitimate.

Moreover, the U.S. is following South Africa into the darkness of political correctness and censorship, both formal and informal. Every day, more people are banned from social media platforms, and more opinions are declared off limits.

It began with the most objectionable and offensive views, but the campaign of repression now includes angry soccer moms showing up at school board meetings among its targets. Without free speech, there is no capacity for self-correction.

As Congress debates spending trillions of dollars we do not have, and the White House urges America to adopt a standard of “equity” that treats people from some racial backgrounds differently than others, it is worth asking whether “wokeness” is setting us up for failure.

Already, in left-wing states like California, the middle class is emigrating, driven out by the high cost of living, crime, homelessness, and a state government that is too obsessed with its own ideological utopias to govern.

California, like South Africa, is also short of water, and running out of electricity. The state has not built a new reservoir in four decades. It is mothballing nuclear power plants and clean burning natural gas plants, for the sake of climate change. But solar and wind energy cannot make up the difference, and the state has tripled its oil imports over the last 20 years, almost 60% of which come from foreign sources. Political conformity prevents the state from reckoning with its ongoing failures.

We are not quite South Africa yet, not even in California, and South Africa is not beyond redemption. But we could follow South Africa down a path of decline if we repeat its three major mistakes: one, an obsession with race, which insists that reverse discrimination is the only answer; two, an obsession with redistribution over growth; and three, a refusal to prioritize the fundamental responsibilities of government – such as security and basic services — over utopian ideological goals.

That is why parents are showing up at school board meetings across the country to protest against Critical Race Theory and unscientific mask mandates. They see in these doctrines the undoing of the nation’s future.

That is also why the “apolitical” Department of Justice has identified these well-meaning parents as would-be domestic terrorists: our elite does not want the republic to be saved. They insist that “racist” America can only be redeemed through fundamental transformational change.

Both the South African government and the Biden administration like to use that word — “transformation”: they are both governing a society that they do not like, one that they wish were different.

The November 1 municipal elections present an opportunity for South Africans to shore up the successful experiment in Cape Town and other opposition-led municipalities. But it may be too late for South Africa, and on our present path, we will soon reach a point of no return in America as well.

Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News and the host of Breitbart News Sunday on Sirius XM Patriot on Sunday evenings from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. ET (4 p.m. to 7 p.m. PT). He is the author of the recent e-book is How Not to Be a Sh!thole Country: Lessons from South Africa. His recent book, RED NOVEMBER, tells the story of the 2020 Democratic presidential primary from a conservative perspective. He is a winner of the 2018 Robert Novak Journalism Alumni Fellowship. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.

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