Foreign Affairs

The Travails of the New South Africa

The air was thick with hope and dread as April 27 loomed in South Africa in 1994. On this day, for the first time in the nation’s history, all people, black and white, were going to vote in a general election for a new government to succeed the apartheid government. That the new government would be black was not in doubt. Black people were by far the majority of the population and South Africans, like most people, vote by race first and by policies second—a distant second. What was in question was our prospects under a black government. All predictions lay between two extremes.

The first extreme was that a golden age would immediately dawn. Since all misfortune in Africa had been caused by white colonialism and all evil in South Africa by apartheid, you had only to end white minority rule to be guaranteed prosperity, freedom and happiness. The moment the black majority came to power, the economy would boom, there would be jobs, brick houses, good schools, clean hospitals and safe neighbourhoods for everyone. Blacks would enjoy the same living standards as whites had enjoyed before.

The other extreme was that there would be an immediate collapse into civil war and economic breakdown. Since the blacks were unfit to rule and had brought ruin to the rest of Africa, they would bring ruin to South Africa. (When I was canvassing for the liberal Progressive Party during apartheid, the eternal refrain from apartheid supporters was, “Look at the rest of Africa!”) The ANC, who were bound to win, were all Marxists and so you would have the double disaster of black rule and communism. Massive bloodshed and disintegration would follow the election.

Well, what did happen? How did reality match expectation? Fifteen years later, thisquestion remains surprisingly difficult to answer. We are usually too immersed in our place in the moment to comprehend the changes happening all around us; it is unlikely that an Englishman in 1820 could have told you that he was living in the middle of the Industrial Revolution. In South Africa race dominates everything, and race is a notorious solvent of truth. Most South Africans who have tried to give an account of our history since 1994 have been too prejudiced or apologetic to be credible; one side was disappointed that Armageddon didn’t happen; the other was so anxious to avoid blaming a black government for anything that it turned a blind eye to its failures and has tried to maintain the fiction of “the South African miracle”.

In sharp contrast to these blurred views, a clear eye has been turned onto the South African scene. This is the eye of R.W. “Bill” Johnson. His book, South Africa’s Brave New World, is by far the best account you will read of South Africa’s progress since 1990 when President de Klerk effectively announced the end of apartheid. The book is something of a paradox. On the one hand it is grim, detailed and relentless. Johnson tells you bluntly that life expectancy after fifteen years of ANC rule is lower than it was under apartheid. But on the other hand his book is easy to read and unfailingly interesting, thanks to Johnson’s clear, vivid writing and skilful narrative. Moreover, his obvious love for South Africa and hope for her people never allow you to sink into depression. I suppose his book is an example of “tough love”, telling a cruel truth to try to help a dear one, the dear country of South Africa.

Bill Johnson is well qualified to write it. His historical and political knowledge of South Africa’s recent times is probably unrivalled. He was a supporter of the ANC in Durban in the 1960s and saw friends lose their lives in the fight against apartheid. He describes how in 1960 he saw “a historical monster right up close” when Hendrik Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid, pushed past him in the Durban City Hall on his way to the stage where “as Afrikanerdom’s supreme intellectual, he spoke confident nonsense for hours”. Soon afterwards, also in Durban, Johnson was one of three whites, “one of whom turned out to be a police spy”, in a crowd who heard Nelson Mandela speak. “I cheered Mandela on, but he too spoke not of realities but in lofty abstractions”.

Johnson lectured at Oxford University in the 1980s and returned to South Africa in 1995 to head the liberal Helen Suzman Foundation. He has written several books, including the 1977 best-seller, How Long Will South Africa Survive? and innumerable articles on historical and political topics for publications at home and abroad. He is also an expert on opinion polls and has conducted polls in South Africa and Zimbabwe, where he learnt that what people actually feel is different from what the newspapers and politicians believe they should feel.

In February 1990, the ANC was unbanned and Mandela released, and negotiations began among all parties for a democratic South Africa. Between then and April 1994, there was “a frantic competition for power and wealth”. Political murders averaged 3000 a year (overwhelmingly black against black), far higher than ever before.

In April 1993, a key figure, Chris Hani, Communist Party leader, very popular and tipped to succeed Mandela, was shot dead in the driveway of his Johannesburg home. This changed the power game and opened the way for Thabo Mbeki, who eventually succeeded Mandela. The man who pulled the trigger was Janus Walus, a Polish immigrant, fanatically anticommunist; his accomplice was Clive Derby-Lewis, a somewhat comical figure with a tweed jacket and a big moustache. But the circumstances of the murder were most suspicious and Johnson, like many others, believes these two were unwitting front men for a wider conspiracy. A criticism of Johnson’s book is that he speculates too much, although it certainly makes for exciting reading. And here he speculates, fairly convincingly, that the real mind behind the murder was Joe Modise, head of the ANC’s armed wing and Minister of Defence in Mandela’s cabinet. Johnson paints a startling picture of the murky and dangerous world in which ANC factions jostled for power before the coming of President Mandela.

The saddest part of the book deals with Mandela’s presidency. Mandela, who had spent twenty-seven years in an apartheid prison, had become a national and international icon. Expectations were impossibly high when he became President of South Africa. He did one thing wonderfully well and Johnson does not give him enough credit for this: he made peace. His natural grace and magnanimity disarmed his white opponents; and his charm and generosity were like a soothing balm over an inflamed and anxious land. Beyond that, though, his presidency was characterised by missed opportunity and failure.

Johnson explains that the ANC, which had been endlessly theorising about “the seizure of power”, was unprepared for it when it came. He speaks about a sense of drift under Mandela, who had no economic ideas. Mandela, great and gracious, was not a good manager of South Africa. Economic growth remained low; crime, corruption and unemployment high. Mandela’s important gestures, such as meeting Verwoerd’s widow, at the end degenerated into silly gestures, such as meeting the Spice Girls.

Johnson says, no doubt correctly, that the real power in Mandela’s presidency lay with Thabo Mbeki, the Deputy President. Near the end of his reign, in Mafikeng in 1997, Mandela made an infamous speech full of racial bile, revolutionary rhetoric and African resentment against “sinister outside forces”. It was contrary to all of his previous spirit of reconciliation. It had obviously been written by Mbeki and “it saw the President treated like a ventriloquist’s doll”. Johnson writes: “It was a sad end for Mandela. It is difficult to blame a man who had suffered so much and was already old and frail. But he had made poor use of his immense authority.”

Then came the official age of Thabo Mbeki, which lasted from 1999 until he was ousted by his own party in 2008. Mandela, like Churchill, was a simple man. Mbeki was not. Short, suspicious, quick to resent, racially obsessed, calculating, haughty and remote, he wore conservative suits, smoked a pipe, affected the air of a gentleman intellectual and garnished his speeches with literary quotations. Paranoia was never far below the surface of his calm, well-tailored demeanour and during his presidency it erupted with disastrous consequences.

But South Africa owes him one supreme debt. The ideology of the ANC had been Marxist in “the struggle years”. It had been supported and influenced by the communist countries, and the South African Communist Party dominated its economic thinking. South Africa braced itself for full-on nationalisation and socialism when the ANC came to power, but it never happened, thanks largely to Thabo Mbeki.

Mbeki was never much liked within the ANC. Yet he managed to take it over, change its economic policy and rule South Africa for over a decade. How he took power is masterfully described by Bill Johnson. It is a complicated tale, full of intrigue, clever shifts and skilful persuasion. But what he did with the power and why he acted in the strange, sometimes demented, ways he did is even more interesting.

Johnson pauses every now and then in his flowing account of events and themes for a digression, an acute observation or a compact analysis. His explanations of Mbeki’s psychology and politics are convincing, the best I have read. He draws on Franz Fanon’s analysis of “the colonial personality”, where “However much they resist colonialism, the colonized are swamped by it, accepting its values and judgements, including a negative valuation of themselves.”

Mbeki had a lonely childhood in a political family in the Transkei, apartheid’s model “homeland”. He became a political activist as a teenager, left South Africa in 1962 to study economics at Sussex University, and then had military training in the USSR. He returned to South Africa when apartheid ended. Johnson describes him as part of a generation who had derived “the principal meaning of their lives” from the struggle against apartheid. When it ended, “they had lost their psychological moorings”, even when they took over the government of South Africa:

Many ANC leaders and activists found security in a defensive rage, clinging to their victimhood, no matter that some of them now were rich and powerful. The white capitalist world would always be the enemy. The struggle against it was the struggle of the just and they should now inherit the Earth. The furious assertion of the superiority of African ways merely reflected feelings of inferiority and status anxiety.

 Mbeki combined these characteristics with a mania to control. This fitted well with the Leninism of his youth but he was intelligent enough to realise that communist control would wreck the South Africa economy. The fall of European communism in 1989 gave stark emphasis to this realisation. So he adopted an ideology of black African nationalism and the “National Democratic Revolution”. Central control remained over the state but the big corporations and much of the economy were allowed to stay in private hands. (The ANC government and the big corporations conspired to draw up restrictive labour laws and “Black Economic Empowerment”, where powerful black ANC politicians were given part-ownership of big private companies and senior positions in them.) Mbeki, through his finance ministers, especially Trevor Manuel, brought sound fiscal management to South Africa, checking spending, curbing inflation and reducing debt.

These measures ensured that the South African economy did not collapse as many other African economies had done and as the doomsters had predicted. But it never did particularly well either. In 1994 South Africa enjoyed wonderful advantages: immense mineral resources, a good industrial base, an agriculture that not only fed the country but exported to others, a good pool of skilled people and a generally sound infrastructure (the apartheid government had delivered good roads, schools, universities, hospitals and one of the best electricity supplies in the world). The new nation also enjoyed unparalleled goodwill from the rest of the world. The ANC government never made good use of these advantages and indeed wasted many of them. Economic growth remained low, never reaching the promised 6 per cent, which was easily exceeded by other developing countries with fewer advantages. Even during the commodities boom of a few years ago, where South Africa has the world’s greatest reserves of many commodities, growth never went above 5 per cent. Most of the time it was much lower. Johnson explains this failure in a single sentence: “Whenever the ANC faced a choice between higher economic growth and strengthening control, it unhesitatingly chose the latter.”

There were various peculiar episodes in Mbeki’s presidency, including the “Presidential plot” in 2001 when his Minister of Justice announced he was investigating a possible conspiracy by three very senior ANC figures to oust the President and put him in “physical danger”. He had grand schemes for the African continent that never came to anything. But his two most terrible and tragic moments, for which history is most likely to remember him, were over Zimbabwe and AIDS.

Johnson, who knows Zimbabwe well, gives a detailed account of its descent into hunger, tyranny and despair under Robert Mugabe, and of the continuous support of Mugabe by President Mbeki. Mbeki backed Mugabe’s fraudulent elections, was utterly silent on his atrocities, and argued in his favour at every international forum. His own racial resentment against the ruling white world chimed with Mugabe’s condemnation of white imperialism at the very time Mugabe was persecuting and humiliating his own black people. Mbeki and Mugabe both wanted to look and sound like English gentlemen while posing as African champions. Mbeki’s unquestioning support of Mugabe cost South Africa dear. Johnson makes this observation:

It is extremely rare for governments to thus ignore their national interests. This was indeed a dividing line between Mandela and Mbeki. Instinctively, Mandela adopted the national interest as his. He did not want skilled whites to emigrate; he sided with the Commonwealth against Abacha and with the civilized world against Mugabe. Mbeki took the opposite view because he was, at heart, still devising policy not for a government but for an exiled party which knew no national interest.

The story of Mbeki and AIDS is a fevered nightmare. AIDS touched all of his African sensitivities. Here was a deadly disease caused by the HIV virus, which had originated in apes in central Africa (and spread to humans simply because they butchered apes for meat and the blood spilled onto them). It spreads among humans mainly by sexual intercourse. In heterosexual populations, AIDS is overwhelmingly found in black Africans. It sent Mbeki mad. He accused those who said HIV causes AIDS of being racists who believe all blacks are sex-crazed beasts. He unequivocally denied that HIV causes AIDS. He opposed the use of anti-retroviral drugs against HIV. He intimidated his whole government into resisting proper medical treatment of AIDS, which sent hundreds of thousands of people, almost all black, to early graves. (The AIDS dissidents who advised him and cheered him on were almost all white.) Johnson says correctly that Mbeki’s ideas on AIDS were shared by many African leaders, some of whom claimed that anti-retroviral drugs were toxins designed by evil white drug companies to bring about African genocide. But other African leaders, notably President Museveni in Uganda, took bold and successful measures to inform their people about the true nature of AIDS and how to act against it.

Meanwhile, the South African state was failing on most fronts. In a bleak chapter, “Things Fall Apart”, Johnson lists one government failure after another. Violent crime remains among the highest in the world; unemployment is disastrously high, probably at about 40 per cent if you include those who have given up looking for work; the public education system has seen South African students sink to the world’s lowest rankings in maths and science; public hospitals have degenerated into squalor; the state electricity utility, Eskom, once one of the best in the world, plunged much of the nation into darkness in 2008 and shut down the goldmines for a week; roads and railways have deteriorated. Municipalities have seen a collapse in services, such as water supply, sanitation and houses; this has prompted violent “service delivery protests”. There has been a mass exodus of skilled people. Doctors, nurses, engineers, teachers, accountants, project managers, pilots and artisans have fled the country. In the midst of this wreckage, the ANC’s political elite, the revolutionary “cadres”, drive gleaming new Mercedes, live in mansions and send their children to expensive private schools.

Johnson describes the difference between the public and private sectors since 1994. The public sector has been most subject to “affirmative action” or “demographic representivity”, where appointments must be made according to race. “Whites” are only 9 per cent of the population, therefore only 9 per cent of managers and engineers should be white. So black people are given appointments in public office regardless of their qualifications or experience. The inevitable result has been institutional decline—not because blacks are inferior to whites but because they don’t happen to have the qualifications or experience. Black people so appointed are at once acutely aware that they owe their appointments to their skin colour but are still full of a sense of “entitlement” and antagonism to any criticism. The result, says Johnson, is “large, incapable, sullen and de-skilled bureaucracies”.

The private sector, to some extent, has been able to resist this ruinous policy, and has therefore been relatively successful, which is why ANC politicians choose to use private hospitals and private schools. So, another familiar South African contradiction: the ANC politicians themselves always choose the private sector over the public for their own needs but ceaselessly berate it for its lack of affirmative action.

On apartheid Bill Johnson says:

What affronted the civilized world about apartheid was simply its antique nature. It projected into the 1980s the doctrines of segregation and white supremacy which had been standard fare in the Western world in the early 1900s. Its very archaism held up an embarrassing mirror to a shameful but common Western past.

Then, unlike any other author I know, Bill Johnson speaks aloud what is unspeakable in South Africa. He quotes Ms Dayo Oluyemi-Kusa, from Nigeria’s presidency, explaining why South Africa should not get an African seat on the UN’s Security Council: “South Africa might seem to be the favourite because it is technologically more advanced, but the foundation was actually laid by whites under apartheid.” Johnson says:

“Other Africans migrated happily into apartheid South Africa just as they do today … for the country the colonialists had built was seen throughout the continent as uniquely successful … Today the bluntest comments on ANC rule often come from black immigrants. Frequently they express exasperation that local blacks do not appreciate their good fortune in inheriting a modern economy and infrastructure unique in the continent … “My real fear is that South Africa will go like Zimbabwe,” a Zimbabwe refugee told me. “There will be nowhere for us to run then. The whites will all leave but the blacks will all die.””

In 2007, Mbeki fell. His fall shows a certain redeeming innocence unknown to the real villains of history. He did not realise that his hold on power was uncertain. To some extent because of his economic policies but to a greater extent because of his personal arrogance, aloofness and intolerance, he became alienated from the ANC rank and file. Mainly by accident they began to coalesce around a completely different figure.

Jacob Zuma was everything Mbeki was not. Zuma was an uneducated Zulu peasant. Unlike Mbeki, he had been imprisoned by the apartheid regime. Unlike Mbeki, he was easy and sure of his African being, happy with his many wives, only too pleased to dance in public in leopard skins with his generous belly bouncing up and down. Unlike Mbeki, he was humble and open and willing to listen to anyone. Everyone who meets Zuma likes him, including his political opponents. The ANC’s allies, the trade unions and the Communist Party, began to campaign for Zuma. A popular rising mounted behind him. The battle for his succession was fought against allegations of rape and corruption. Johnson’s sympathies are for Zuma, although of course he is cautious in his support. In December 2007, Zuma was voted in as new leader of the ANC and Mbeki was kicked out. After innumerable political and legal intrigues, after perversions of the institutions of state, Mbeki was dismissed as President of South Africa in 2008. President Zuma is our leader now.

In the last fifteen years South Africa has not collapsed but in most ways it has failed the hopes of 1994. We are falling further behind the nations of the world outside Africa on every count. Many young whites, and others, simply do not see a future here. The reason for our failure has nothing to do with race. As Johnson says:

it is difficult to conceive of any modern man believing in inherent racial weaknesses or strengths. We belong to an age which has seen the Communist Chinese emerge as our most successful capitalists, in which the world record for sustained economic growth is held by Botswana and in which South Korean children have the best maths scores. The whole notion of race as something denoted by skin colour or other physical attributes has anyway been exploded by modern genetic research. So the lamentable performance of the ANC government had nothing to do with racial inherent abilities or the lack of them. The damage was almost entirely done by ideology and the narrow nature of the ANC elite.

The evil structures of apartheid have been swept away and South Africa is a full democracy. But the thinking of apartheid has not been swept away. To a distressing and debilitating extent, the leaders of the ANC retain all the deeper prejudices of apartheid: the desire for state and party control, the narrow outlook, the suspicion and lack of understanding of the outside world and, above all, the stifling obsession with race. Compulsory racial classification remains. When the ANC claims that its racial policies of affirmative action and “demographic representivity” are addressing the legacy of apartheid, all they are doing in practice is perpetuating it.

“The Beloved Country” remains beloved but has yet to reach the state of happy, easy, prosperous and inventive well-being that its vast natural wealth promises and its teeming, varied people offer. To understand why, you must read this truthful, lucid and entertaining book.

Andrew Kenny is an engineer who lives in Cape Town. He has been a contributor to the Spectator over many years.

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