The reason is Thabo Mbeki.
When I began The Chinese Century, then The American Diaspora, I was trying to distance myself from the reality around me, and building (in my mind) a different kind of utopia on a foreign shore. I recognized that from the start, but it didn't stop me. When I picked up The Duke of Oil it was with the intention of finishing that story out, embracing the idea of a different energy future and tracking the fall of the Bush Administration characters who had brought us to this end.
But as I wrote the idea of a South African utopia, as opposed to the dystopian reality, became less and less possible to me.
The reason was Thabo Mbeki.
I first saw Mr. Mbeki as a sort of John Adams figure in South Africa. He wasn't the great hero. He was the principled follower, perhaps the principal behind many of those principals. He might make some mistakes, but he would be a good shepherd.
He wasn't. He has proven in office to be an arrogant fool. And the biggest mistake he has made is to lock his policies away in his own country, and seek to ignore the wider world.
Even America is having trouble with that policy. No matter how high the fence you build, no matter how harshly you may treat immigrants, the poverty and desperation which drove them here will continue to drive them here if it is not addressed. There is great violence on our border, there is great injustice on our border, and our only answer from here seems to be to tighten the lid while it continues to boil. We have immense ability to do that, although at immense cost to people on both sides of that border, and the explosion will be put off into the next decade.
This was never true for South Africa. Failures of leadership elsewhere in Africa could always be expected to spill into it. Even a decade ago South Africa was bringing in Sudanese and Nigerian and Congolese immigrants, to replace the black South Africans in its own shantytowns, or rub shoulders with them.
With Zimbabwe it has proven to be too much.
I'm not talking about Robert Mugabe's oppression here, or the impact of the destruction of his country on the people inside Zimbabwe. I'm talking about the natural result of that oppression, the movement of vast numbers of refugees into adjacent countries, and the destruction this has caused.
What it has done in South Africa is transform a people whose heritage is liberty and the fight against oppression into oppressors. The attacks on Zimbabweans, and other immigrants, now taking place in South Africa are scarring the South Africans who participate in them, even before most of them can achieve the kind of lifestyle that would help them rationalize it.
The result is that the majority of South Africans have lost their rationality, have lost their compassion, have lost the emotional and intellectual magnanimity which are at the real heart of a democratic and capitalistic culture. The last proof of this will likely happen next year when the 2010 World Cup is hurriedly removed from that country, for the safety of participants and fans, moved perhaps to England. Or the proof could be the fiasco that World Cup becomes if it remains in South Africa, where the people are no longer in any emotional, financial or physical position to host it.
All this is Thabo Mbeki's doing. He has stood by passively while the world around him burned. He has imagined that a grassfire might start in a neighboring yard and not touch him. So many in the American West will understand the analogy.
I wrote of Johannesburg as a shining city on the hill, compete with replicas of the World Trade Center, and hosting global-scale trading markets through the efforts of a few hundred thousand westerners and some entrepreneurial dreamers. I know now that was an impossible dream, and that running away from my own country, even if just in my mind, was stupid.
I may pick it up again, someday. I will start, then, from a clear outline, filling in the blanks with action and dialogue, with description and humor. I won't do what I did before, sit before a blank page and see what comes out. All that did was getting me from the frying pan into the fire.
I do find it interesting, however, that the predictions of energy crisis and financial hurt which I foresaw happening suddenly in The Chinese Century are nevertheless taking place, albeit more slowly, in 2008. I take no satisfaction from that.