South Africa's Fading Promise

1st Feb 2010

South Africa’s Brave New World. 
By R.W. Johnson; Allen Lane; 646 pages; £25.
“I miss the times that we chanted slogans in the street. It’s much easier than building a country.” 
— Jay Naidoo, former South African minister for reconstruction and development and African National Congress member of parliament

In April of 2008, as Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe was torturing and murdering his political opponents in the wake of yet another stolen election, then-South African President Thabo Mbeki sent a four-page handwritten letter to George W. Bush. Since taking over the reins from Nelson Mandela in 1999, Mbeki had been Mugabe’s most important protector, shielding the regime in Harare from international scrutiny and defending it on the world stage. Mbeki was viewed as an obstacle by Western governments, not least the United States, which have criticized and sanctioned the Mugabe regime for the ongoing violence, forced starvation, and general oppression it was inflicting upon the country’s long-suffering people. Mbeki was having none of it. “In a text packed with exclamation points,” according to Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson, Mbeki assailed the United States for poking its nose in what the South African leader considered to be an African affair. In the words of one American official, Mbeki “said it was not our business” and that the U.S. ought “to butt out, that Africa belongs to him.”

The image of the South African president mailing a handwritten missive to his American counterpart might initially strike us as anachronistic, a throwback to an era before vast administrative bureaucracies and political handlers carefully crafted diplomatic communications between states. But angry, paranoid epistles were a hallmark of Thabo Mbeki’s disastrous decade as president of Africa’s economic powerhouse, and were eerily emblematic of his mercurial governing style. Mbeki, who styles himself an intellectual and had acquired the requisite credentials (the University of London, the University of Sussex) in political exile so as to claim such a pedigree, was known for spending long nights awake at his computer screen devouring pseudo-scientific reports disputing the link between the Human Immunodeficiency Virus ( hiv) and aids. Invigorated by this “research,” he would fire off angry, rambling letters and emails to world leaders, ranging from Tony Blair to Bill Clinton, denouncing the scientific consensus on the most catastrophic plague since the Black Death.

The aids denialism of a few nutty activists in San Francisco is one thing. In the mind of the leader of a nation in which 11 percent of the population has hiv, it is dangerous, if not criminal. aids is a prism through which to explore the governing style of Mbeki, who was forced out of office by his own party in 2008 partly due to his stubbornness in combating the disease. In 2000, Mbeki told the South African parliament that, “a virus cannot cause a syndrome.” That same year he hosted an aids conference at which half of the invited “medical experts” disputed the link between hiv and aids. As late as 2006, the South African health minister was instructing her hiv-positive countrymen to opt for beets, garlic, lemons, and potatoes as a form of treatment over antiretroviral drugs (which she and others in the Mbeki government deemed prohibitively toxic), earning her the moniker “Dr. Beetroot.” Under Mbeki, the South African government allowed over 300,000 “traditional healers” (more accurately, witch doctors) to register as medical professionals. The cost of all this was, to put it simply, murderous. A 2008 Harvard study alleged that over350,000 people, including 35,000 babies, died needlessly due to the Mbeki administration’s refusal to disburse antiretrovirals, which has led some to argue that Mbeki should be tried for genocide.

Reading South Africa’s Brave New World, R.W. Johnson’s magisterial, sober, and horrifying assessment of South Africa 15 years since its first fully democratic election, it is difficult not to agree with his controversial conclusion that Mbeki was the worst leader this benighted country has endured, a startling assessment given its four-decade subjection to racist authoritarians. In both Zimbabwe and South Africa, hundreds of thousands perished while the leader of the continent’s anchor state dithered, railed against “neo-colonialism” and surrounded himself with sycophants. Responsible policies — pressuring Mugabe to leave, enacting a comprehensive plan to combat the spread of hiv — were ignored at the expense of anti-Western posturing. Efforts to unseat Mugabe, an erstwhile hero from the heydey of anti-colonialism who liberated the country from white rule, were derided as imperialist meddling. Likewise, attempts to attenuate hiv transmission by encouraging behavioral change and the disbursement of pharmaceuticals were portrayed as both colonialist sensationalizing of allegedly libidinous African male sexuality and a racist, avaricious campaign predicated on the promotion of poisonous, Western medicine.

It is tempting to lay these manifold failures at the feet of Mbeki himself, but they are endemic in the South African political dispensation, particularly the weltanschauung of the African National Congress, which has governed the country uninterruptedly since 1994. There were uncomfortable questions raised about the party’s ideology and governing style back then, yet they were ignored by nearly everyone but the right-wing fringe in the immediate euphoria of apartheid’s fall. “The truth about the new South Africa was monstrously politically incorrect,” Johnson writes about those halcyon days, and this book is a monument to political incorrectness. Far from being a faultless, earnest liberation movement, as so many sympathetic historians and Western politicians have portrayed it, theanc is here depicted as a prototypical African revolutionary group, and a particularly corrupt one at that.

In Johnson’s telling, there seems to be no limit to the party’s willingness to engage in hijinks and dirty dealings — from spying on the country’s beleaguered opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, to ordering political assassinations against internal troublemakers, a tactic that the anc routinely employed during its days in exile and which it has assiduously tried to whitewash — to complete its hegemonic political goal of merging party and state. Johnson writes about this disturbing vale of intrigue and corruption with a world-weary mien, rarely resorting to hyperbole. The truth is ugly enough. What’s so disturbing about his analysis are the similarities between the apartheid-era rule of the National Party, which controlled the country’s institutions through the secretive fraternity known as the Afrikaner Broederbond (Brotherhood) to which nearly all of the nation’s political, industrial, cultural, and media leaders swore allegiance, and that of the anc, which has yet to shake off its Communist Party organizational structure and Leninist tactics (the anc remains at the head of a formal, “Tripartite Alliance” with the South African Communist Party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions). In essence, with the fall of apartheid, a new system of privilege and hierarchy was established, in which those who did not possess the right skin color or political ideology were passed over in favor of apparatchiks.

When the anc came to power in 1994, instituting the one-party democracy that has defined South Africa ever since, it brought with it the illiberal notions common to African liberation movements. Foremost among them was the inability to distinguish between the political party and the state. “Its own continued tenancy of power,” Johnson writes, is “something it equates with liberation and even with democracy.” The anc’s authoritarian tendencies were exacerbated by its decades in exile, an experience that imbued its leadership with a pervasive sense of extreme paranoia. Early in his presidency, Mandela attacked opposition parties as “agents of the counter-revolution.” When asked why her country was spending so much money on weaponry (a spate of dodgy purchases later led to a major scandal) rather than antiretroviral medication for hiv-sufferers, the anc health minister replied, “Look at what Bush is doing. He could invade.” In 2000, Mbeki alleged that his anc government was the target of acia plot.

Johnson quotes Alexis de Tocqueville on the effect that political exile has on individuals and movements. “It imprisons them forever within the circle of ideas which they had conceived or which were current when their exile began.” Banned by the apartheid regime in 1960 and forced into the welcoming arms of the Soviet Union, the anc is still beholden to the anachronistic ideologies that encumbered it for 30 years of banishment. It was with this ideological baggage that “South Africa became a society of ubiquitous pretence,” in Johnson’s typically cutting words, where important questions were deemed off limits. Ripping the veil from the Rainbow Nation mythology, Johnson gets to the heart of the South African tragedy. “There was something about living here amidst Africa’s extremities — and Africa’s extremity — which engendered these willful denials of reality, the somehow safer realm of self-cultivated fantasy.”

This outdated, anti-colonialist mindset has been most apparent in the new South Africa’s foreign policy, which even saw Nelson Mandela paying visits to the likes of Muammar Qadaffi and Fidel Castro, all because they had taken theanc’s side in the fight against apartheid. The coldly parochial, see-no-evil, hear-no-evil attitude to world affairs was adopted early on by the anc, a consequence of its difficult years in political exile and its dependence upon the Soviet Union as a financial and military backer. (It should be noted that this client-patron relationship was not one merely borne from existential necessity, but fully welcomed and cultivated by the anc leadership, most of whose leaders, Mandela included, were also members of the South African Communist Party. Of all the world’s Communist parties, South Africa’s was perhaps the most rigidly Stalinist and pro-Moscow; it fully endorsed the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 and even its crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968). After the anc’s criticism of political repression in Zambia and Tanzania led to its eviction from those two countries, then-anc President Oliver Tambo ordered that, “nobody speaks about what they see in Africa.” This dictum persists, with its most tragic consequences on display in Zimbabwe.

With delusions of international grandeur, Mbeki inherited the mantle, both ideationally and literally, of the Cold War-era Non-Aligned Movement, which despite its lofty, neutralist pretensions was little more than a fellow traveling ally of the Soviet Union. Appropriately, South Africa under the reign of the anc has seen its role as the representative of third-worldist aspirations on the global stage. It has lent its moral authority to a variety of third world authoritarians, from the military junta in Burma to the kleptocracy in Zimbabwe, much to the consternation of anti-apartheid luminaries like Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu. It has sided with Iran on the question of nuclear proliferation, ignoring its own unique history as a nation that voluntarily gave up a nuclear arsenal. And viewing the Israeli-Arab conflict through the blinkered lenses of a Cold War-era liberation movement, it has lent credence to the equation of Zionism with apartheid, with a variety of senior anc officials using their public platforms to disparage the Jewish State as a racist occupier no different from the white minority regime that elicited such global outrage in the last century.

The one bright spot in this declinist narrative is the South African economy, which has grown at a rapid rate over the past decade and a half. The least that can be said of Mbeki is that he was better than the communist wing of theanc, whom he angered early on by adopting pro-growth policies that shunted aside the country’s mighty unions. Yet the presence of so many fervent radicals in the upper reaches of the country’s dominant political movement served Mbeki’s ulterior purposes; he could always dangle the possibility of their taking control of the party as a threat to those in the white establishment who criticized his controversial stands. “White capitalists concluded that it was better to endure a crazy policy of affirmative action if that was the price of keeping Mbeki in power and the Reds out,” Johnson writes.

South Africa continues to boast unemployment rates, however, that make its rapid economic growth illusory. The highest estimates put that figure at 40 percent, although a more realistic number may hover around 25 percent. Either way, anyone traveling through South Africa can attest to the massive numbers of idle, working age individuals, which helps explain the country’s outrageously high levels of violent crime. A greater long-term threat is the country’s ethos of “Black Economic Empowerment,” which, Johnson argues, has served the functions of enriching a small black elite and downgrading the quality of the civil service and private sector via the establishment of racial quotas, thus leading to a mass exodus of highly-skilled whites. “It is an awesome sight to see what African nationalism can do to a developed economy; at times it feels like watching the Titanic go down,” Johnson writes dryly.

There is no good reason for this sad state of affairs. When South Africa transitioned to full democracy, the economy was growing, the state had little debt and boasted annual budget surpluses and there was a wealth of technical expertise unavailable in most developing countries. The government could have saved a great deal of money by cutting a drastically bloated defense apparatus that, given the country’s overnight transition from global pariah to recipient of effusive international goodwill and generosity, was no longer necessary. Instead, it got embroiled in a massive defense contracting scandal that ultimately led to Mbeki’s sacking his deputy president, Jacob Zuma, over his acceptance of bribes. As a result of anc affirmative action policies and crime, some 2 million whites have left the country since 1994. In 2007, the nation was downgraded from 38th to 50th place on an annual scale of economic competitiveness, the greatest decline of any single country. In 1990, South Africa ranked 85th on the United Nations Human Development Index; in 2004 it fell to 120th. There are serious doubts about South Africa’s ability to host the World Cup this summer.

None of the heroes of South Africa’s liberation struggle are immune from Johnson’s scalpel, not even Nelson Mandela himself. The grand old man of the anti-apartheid movement is here depicted as, at best, a doddering, absentee overseer on whose watch the aids crisis metastasized into a humanitarian catastrophe, government institutions began their steady deterioration under the “cadre deployment” patronage policy of the anc, and crime, a problem perhaps inherent in a society where violence was an instrument of both the state and the liberation movement seeking its overthrow, ratcheted up to levels unseen and a viciousness unimaginable. Traveling “around the country and indeed the world in a bubble of adulation,” busy soliciting campaign donations for the anc from the governments of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Mandela was either unaware of, or not inclined to grapple with, how difficult the task of repairing South Africa would be. His message of reconciliation must not be underestimated; by preaching a gospel of forgiveness and cooperation, he undoubtedly saved the country from what many predicted would be a bloodbath. In light of this history, it’s not difficult to see how Johnson claims that the “real miracle” of the “Rainbow Nation” was not the anc’s ascent to power, but F.W. de Klerk’s peaceful abdication of it. Mandela ‘s post-conflict magnanimity, however, overshadowed brewing problems that burst into the fore only after he left office, where they were left to be exacerbated by the spiteful and paranoid Mbeki.

South Africa’s Brave New World> will no doubt be attacked — and has already been assailed — as a racist screed, evincing a nostalgic mood for apartheid. And though Johnson does make the argument that the day-to-day living standard of South African blacks was better under white minority rule (and nearly all the statistics, from mortality rates to the delivery of basic services like electricity, bear out this conclusion), he is by no means a defender of the old order and never was. A former head of the liberal Helen Suzman Foundation (named after the crusading legislator who led a decades-long, often solitary struggle against apartheid in the country’s parliament), he has long been an advocate for non-racialism. What makes classical liberals like Johnson so controversial in today’s South Africa is that their support for colorblind solutions is no less fervent today than it was when whites ruled the country. But it is not racist to write, as Johnson does, that the nation’s “fiscus, black employment and virtually all modern institutions would collapse,” without its already severely diminished white population.

In may of last year, South Africans once again voted overwhelmingly for the anc, though they gave the party less than two-thirds of their votes, a majority the party had enjoyed since the previous election of 2004. This ensured that the anc could not unilaterally amend the country’s constitution, an action that senior party officials have vaguely pledged not to undertake in spite of their unambiguously hegemonic agenda. The new president, Jacob Zuma, is a man who has thus far defied the expectations of many South Africans and South Africa-watchers who feared that he was little more than a demagogue and potential African Big Man who would drive the country into the ground, reminiscent of neighboring Zimbabwe. A proud Zulu polygamist, Zuma was acquitted on rape charges in 2006, though he did claim at trial that he was safe from acquiring hiv from the woman in question (whom he knew to be infected) due to his showering after intercourse. Zuma was supported fervently by the sacp and the trade unions and came to represent the hopes of the anc’s left.

But to the surprise of many, Zuma seems to have earned the trust of the country’s jittery business community, and his more open approach to governing — taking the time to meet with South Africa’s many minority communities and sincerely taking note of their grievances, acknowledging the government’s failure to combat crime, granting interviews to foreign journalists (things which Mbeki rarely if ever did) — have left many of his critics, this writer included, cautiously pleased. Zuma is surely cognizant, however, of the fact that his party’s hard left views him as their redeemer, and sooner or later he will have to decide whether to promote their socialization programs or betray the forces which elevated him to power. With abundant economic realities arrayed against their foundational ideas, it is difficult to see how much longer the anc can continue this delicate balancing act.

And therein lies what could be a silver lining. “How can a party representing the least educated really achieve intellectual and cultural hegemony over groups which are better educated, more sophisticated, are backed up by a vast cultural inheritance and whose assumptions receive continuous implicit support from developed world opinion more generally?” Johnson asks. The promise of South Africa — a land abundantly rich in natural resources, possessed of an educated technological class along with a liberal constitution, free press, independent judiciary and century-long parliamentary tradition — is what makes its slow-burning turmoil all the more distressing. Echoing the country’s greatest novelists, for whom the tragic themes of wasted opportunity and compulsive race-consciousness have provided recurring templates, Johnson observes the following about his native land: “The saddest words are always ‘it might have been.’” After reading this gloomy tome, one desperately hopes it can still be.

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