For me the world’s beacon of hope over the last 20 years has not been the United States, which has dissipated its leadership role in a series of wars and sought to impose its agenda in the name of freedom, but South Africa, which came out of the long ugly era of apartheid intent on facing both its past and its future with candor. South Africans have tried to grapple with their divisions of race and economic inequality through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (despite it Orwellian name), while we have spent much of the last 40 years sweeping those issues under the rug. Because of the amazing figure of Nelson Mandela, who emerged from years of solitary confinement with a smile and an embrace, rather than a grimace and a gun, South Africa held out hope that people could move beyond their awful history and live together peacefully.
So I was saddened to read of the crisis that grips South Africa, as much as anything because it is a crisis that grips so much of the world. Launched with a combination of hope and pragmatism from a past of oppression and violence, South Africa raised expectations – among its own people and a watching world – which it could not satisfy. It is a nation of great natural wealth and enormous human poverty, and in an era of global recession and environmental limits, the response of the political and corporate leaders has not been to share the pie more equitably but to take bigger pieces for themselves.