The downfall of Jacob Zuma as president of South Africa suggests that there might be a limit to tolerable corruption even in the most corrupt of polities; or perhaps it is merely the indiscretion of the corruption that makes it intolerable. The rule should be “steal what you like, but do not flaunt it.”

I’m not surprised by the extremity of Zuma’s corruption: it is, rather, what I had expected more than 20 years ago. It was a pair of shoes that gave me a clue to the future.         

I had gone to South Africa in 1990, shortly after the unbanning of the African National Congress and the release of Nelson Mandela, to interview Joe Slovo, one of the ANC leaders and a hard-line, pro-Soviet Communist. He had spent much of his life in various states of exile, surveillance, and imprisonment, but he was now free, and I interviewed him in his office in the Shell Building (than which nothing could have been more emblematically capitalist) in Johannesburg.

He was an amiable man, and I could not but feel sympathy for someone whose wife had been murdered by the South African Secret Service by means of parcel bomb sent to Mozambique, where she had taken refuge. He was a true believer in the Soviet route to heaven, but on his many visits to Moscow, he had failed to notice the lack of freedom and of consumer goods there (he admitted this). Either he wasn’t very clever, or he found the absence of freedom and consumer goods attractive. There is nothing like a shortage of sugar or lavatory paper, after all, for increasing the powers of political patronage—which he assumed, not totally erroneously, would shortly be his. It was his reward: he had been in the wilderness long enough.

I was briefly optimistic about South Africa’s future. Until the Soviet Union’s downfall, an event much underestimated in the peaceful evolution of South Africa, I had assumed that political violence there was inevitable; but a few experiences changed my view.

The first occurred as I was leaving Johannesburg’s main art gallery (I have a liking for colonial art). I was with a friend, and as we approached the entrance, the black doorman said to us, “Where do you think you’re going?”

“We’re looking for a taxi,” I said.

“Don’t you know it’s the killing fields out there? I’ll call you one.”

This small act of human solidarity, transcending race and economic condition (I am sure he was not well paid), buoyed me, no doubt excessively. The doorman’s kindness and decency temporarily outweighed in my mind the fact that it was, indeed, the killing fields out there.

The next day, I visited a school in what had once been a bohemian district of the city (because South Africa was two or three decades behind the times, culturally speaking, real bohemianism was still possible there). The school was fee-paying but multiracial; its (white) headmistress was formidable in the best sense of the word. The black pupils came mainly from Soweto, more than an hour away and, wearing the school’s uniform, they had to run a gauntlet every day to attend. They were mocked, insulted, and sometimes even attacked en route. Some of the girls had been raped.

Nevertheless, the headmistress (and the rest of the teaching staff) made no allowances for the extreme difficulty of their students’ lives. This indicated considerable toughness of mind on the part of the headmistress, for it would have been far easier, and quite understandable, for her to have demanded lower standards from her black pupils on account of the hardships they encountered.

As far as I could tell, the black pupils were pleased with this toughness. It implied a respect for them and their abilities, for which no concession to their difficulties could have substituted. Of course, they were a very small number, and therefore an even tinier elite: but it was an elite of quality. When I spoke to them, I found them respectful and polite, extremely intelligent, lively, curious, and above all, enthusiastic. They wanted to be engineers, businessmen, doctors, journalists: the whole gamut of things that intelligent young people want to be in a healthy and free society. Moreover (and this surprised and encouraged me most), they did not foresee any obstacles to achieving what they wished. Considering the history of South Africa, this was remarkable.

What became of them, of course, I do not know. They would now be nearly 50, and no doubt their paths have been more difficult and crooked than they then would have envisaged. Perhaps, in order to succeed, they had been forced to wallow in the even greater swamp of corruption that followed the political and economic corruption of apartheid. But while I spoke to them, so generously eager, at the school, my heart swelled with hope.

Then I caught a glimpse of the coming corruption in a pair of shoes. I had been invited to dinner at a wealthy industrialist’s house, in the kind of property that on its periphery resembled an armed camp. Among my fellow invitees were important figures in the newly legal ANC. The industrialist was positioning himself for life under the new, though not yet arrived, dispensation.

I spoke to one leader, a Communist in a sharp and expensive Italian suit of the type not worn by gentlemen. He stuck to the party line, but I guessed that his thoughts and feelings were more aligned with crony capitalism than with the dictatorship of the proletariat. It was his shoes than clinched it for me.

They were of fine lizard skin, with gilded trimming. They were more for ornament than use, their soles paper-thin. They were beautifully made but flashy. They could be worn only in the most luxurious of environments; even a gravel driveway would ruin them. They were the kinds of shoes that Russian oligarchs buy at a cost of thousands in the most expensive shopping street in Zurich.

“It has begun already,” I thought to myself, meaning the typical post-colonial looting of Africa—the looting that followed the outdated, colonial kind.

Photo by Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images


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