On July 8, 1853, Japanese people stood and watched in shock as four strange black steel ships steamed into the harbor of Tokyo with billowing clouds of smoke. Feudal Japan did not know self-propelled steel ships. Moreover, the Japanese had to watch in horror as the ships disdainfully broke through the Japanese flotilla they had to stop.
The arrogant American commander, Commodore Matthew Perry, in defiance of his president’s order, turned his ship’s guns on them and threatened to raze the city if Japanese ports were not opened to American trade.
This powerful display of gunboat diplomacy made the humiliated Japanese realize that they would urgently need to modernize if they did not want to become the victim of Western aggression like the Chinese during the Opium Wars. The first step was to abolish military rule and restore the emperor’s authority in what became known as the “Meiji Restoration” of 1868. “Meiji” means “enlightened reign”, and the aim was to combine the latest Western developments with Japanese values to speed up the country’s modernization.
The Japanese motto was: “Western science, Japanese culture”. They adopted Western science and technology, but kept their own language and culture. The Japanese’s recipe for success was not to ask: “Who did this to us and what should we do to them now?” not, but rather: “What did we do wrong and what should we do right now?”.
The biggest symbolic difference between the Russian Revolution and the Japanese Restoration was that where the Tsar and his family were executed, the Japanese Emperor was restored in honor. The Japanese did not want to destroy everything that existed. They built on the best from the West to catch up, and then further improved it, surpassing the West in many areas.
A market economy and a national school system were introduced, Western expertise was employed, modern infrastructure was built, while Japanese were sent to Western states to learn and study there. The erstwhile Western enemies have become indispensable partners for rapid development.
The Japanese drew on their culture and tradition, but creatively innovated it with Western knowledge and expertise, rather than being anti-Western for understandable reasons. Revolution was deliberately decided against, and the rise of Japan was much smoother and more peaceful than the French and Russian Revolutions, and the outcome was better.
The strategy was to build on the old order and systematically renew it instead of destroying it and letting the country deteriorate further. Production was increased and the economy was rapidly expanded instead of simply being redistributed into smaller parts. The private sector was the driving force of development, although the state played an important supporting role.
The building blocks of Japan’s success were efficient government, a strong work ethic, self-discipline, healthy families, good education and a deep sense of responsibility. The Japanese restoration was a miracle – from a feudal system to a modern industrial country within 30 years!
It was the first non-Western country to modernize successfully. The baptism of fire for its level of development were two successful blitzkriegs – against China in 1894 and against the Russians in 1904. At the outbreak of the First World War, Japan was one of the Great Powers, and with the peace negotiations of Versailles, Japan was one of the great five powers along with the USA, Britain, France and Italy.
The Japanese Restoration was more successful than the Russian Revolution and other revolutions, and led to a standard of living that was much higher than that of communist Russia and one that was close to that of the USA.
It is not only the Japanese who have been successful. In recent decades, China has lifted some 750 million people out of extreme poverty through economic growth that was based much more on restoration than revolution.
Lessons for South Africa
The question is whether and what South Africa can learn from the successful Japanese Restoration. The ANC’s legitimate pursuit after 1994 was to uplift black people after years of apartheid and colonialism. The question is which strategy should they have followed – Japan’s restoration or the Russian Revolution?
Revolution means the overthrow of the old order and its replacement with a new dispensation. The Russian Revolution was in most respects the opposite of the Japanese Restoration. In the revolution, the old order was overthrown, the Tsar and his family were executed, the economy was nationalized and a dictatorship was established. After all, radical goals require radical methods.
Lenin’s nation-building process wanted, in the words of the famous physiologist Ivan Pavlov, to “standardize humanity”. Lenin wanted to equalize everything: “The whole society will become a single office and a single factory with equality in the workplace and equal pay.”
However, the great revolutionary experiment failed. After 70 years, the system crumbled under the weight of poverty and oppression. The first post-communist president of Russia, Boris Yeltsin, made a politically incorrect statement when he said: “Our country was unhappy. It was decided to carry out this Marxist experiment on us (…) instead of in a country somewhere in Africa. In the end we proved that there is no place for this idea. It only forced us off the path followed by the world’s civilized countries.”
It took the Russians a long time to recover from the effects of communism and get their country working again. Despite all the historical evidence that revolutions fail, parties that want to bring about rapid and radical transformation sometimes still feel homesick for the Red Revolution.
For example, the ANC declared on 8 January 2017: “We commemorate 100 years since the great socialist revolution of October 1917, when Russian workers freed themselves from autocratic, tsarist rule and established the first socialist workers’ state.”
South Africa’s history, the ANC’s ideological roots, and the great poverty, unemployment and inequality in the country worked together for the government to adopt a policy of radical transformation as an answer to the challenges after 1994.
Despite certain successes achieved by the government, the outcome of the transformation project after 30 years is not favorable. The most painful signs of the looming crisis include:
- South Africa has the highest unemployment rate in the world according to IMF data;
- About 50% of the population is dependent on welfare;
- Surveys show that more than 50% of graduates want to emigrate;
- The country’s business people see state decay as the biggest risk, according to WEF data; and
- The decay of the state that occurs over a wide front.
Although there can be disagreement about the nature, scope, causes and solutions for the national crisis, one thing is clear: We cannot continue as usual. More of the same is not a solution, and it will only deepen the crisis. New thinking, new answers and new solutions are required. A policy is measured by its outcomes, not by its intentions. The harsh reality shows that the state ideology of radical transformation has failed to bring about radical positive change. It has become part of the problem rather than the solution.
The question is whether the time has not come for “radical” restoration. The nature of a new model for restoration will still have to be worked out, but it will have to meet the following requirements to succeed practically and politically:
- It will have to be aimed at building up instead of tearing down;
- It will have to be inclusive, regardless of race;
- It must tackle the crises of state decay, poverty and unemployment;
- The state will have to be more “housekeeper” than “breadwinner”;
- The private sector will have to play a leading role;
- Economic growth must be pursued as the greatest equalizer;
- The civil sector must be involved; and
- It must provide for a social contract (“social compact”) that includes everyone and that turns “enemies” into partners.
A key requirement for successful restoration that can bring about a truly radical upheaval is that race will have to be phased out as a central policy determinant. If the Institute for Race Relations’ Index of Race Law (RaceLaw.co.za) is anything but correct, the government has already made 116 race laws after 1994. These laws failed to correct the effects of the previous racial dispensation.
A racial dispensation, whatever its intentions may be, is not compatible with a constitutional democracy, a working state and a growing economy. According to Statistics South Africa, only 4.6% of all people under the age of 18 are white. The almost 96% of young black people will not benefit if this small group has to be disadvantaged.
The important question in relation to “affirmative” discrimination is not: “Is it justified?”, but “Does it work?”. The poor now lose in two ways. First, they receive public services that are worse than they would otherwise get. Second, race laws slow down economic growth and thus make it more difficult for the unemployed to find work.”
It does not help to blame a certain group for what happened before they were born, while the ANC does not accept responsibility for what they are doing today. South Africa needs all its human resources to achieve successful restoration.