R.W. Johnson in South Africa
The four-hundred-mile highway from Johannesburg to Durban – drivers of big Mercs (and they abound in South Africa) boast of doing it in three and a half hours – leads one through the Dali-esque environs of Harrismith. Here, on the featureless plains of the Orange Free State, one suddenly sees huge rock formations soaring up to great heights with an effortless geometry. The six-lane highway curls around them but even at 150 kph they take half an hour to fade from your rear mirror. Last week as I tore past these rocks, I saw, lying on the margin of the motorway, a large brown horse, its hoofs sticking straight out and skywards, a fine glossy beast with flowing mane and large muscles. As I whipped past it I saw what was wrong. Its head had been torn off. Its neck ended half-way up in a jagged red mess; no clean execution there. A second and I was gone but the image lingered, Guernica-like, a symbol of spoilt promise and of the senseless killing amidst which one lives. For the violence here is not a simple tale of good versus evil (if violence ever is that simple); as with that headless horse there is a mystery as well as a horror to it. Such are the images of the state of nature in which we live.
Some of the killing is political: currently the largest set of victims are Inkatha officials killed by the ANC, though the most publicised recent killing was that of Chris Hani, the SACP (Communist) leader, by the white Right. The Azanian People’s Liberation Army, the armed wing of the Pan Africanist Congress, carries out anti-white atrocities from time to time and, of course, Inkatha takes its vengeance on the ANC with fair regularity. But political murders are down somewhat this year and anyway such killings are overshadowed, at least in terms of numbers, by killings that are harder to describe so neatly. Twenty-one people were gunned down in a single massacre in Sebokeng not long ago but none of the parties is blaming the other for it: these things, people seem to be saying, just happen. The police try hard to work up public indignation about the fact that 104 policemen were shot dead last year – two a week. South Africans tut-tut about it, but that’s all. The news that 210 people died in police custody in the same period (up from 153 in 1991) similarly fails to trigger much of a response. Part of the reason is that the overall level of violence is so high: the South African murder rate is now ten times as high as America’s and 95 times as high as Britain’s. Mainly, however, this lack of concern has to do with the fact that the way policemen behave, and the way they die, no longer bears on the question of political power, and that is a question on which South Africa is now entirely fixated.
In theory, the matter is being thrashed out in multi-party talks; but an air of unreality hovers over the discussions. There is a widespread assumption that a backstairs deal has already been struck between the Government and the ANC, and that the real function of the talks is just to corral the lesser parties into going along with it. But there is also a pervasive sense that the country is drifting, with power ebbing away from anyone and everyone. Some time back it became clear that the Government was morally and politically too exhausted to maintain order. This is a country where convicted murderers, even multiple murderers like Barend Strydom and Robert McBride, are released within a year or two to walk the streets and give TV interviews justifying their savagery. Strydom, who gunned down 11 hapless black passers-by because he didn’t like blacks, advises us that he dislikes English-speakers just as much and that he might decide to thin their ranks ‘next time’. McBride, who placed a bomb in a bar killing three women and mutilating several more, has become a guest of honour at ANC functions and is introduced to visiting foreign dignitaries as a hero of the struggle. At his trial he made a dramatic speech claiming that it was all his own fault – he had disobeyed an ANC ban on hitting soft targets. Now it is cheerfully admitted that this was untrue, that he was doing precisely what he had been told to do.
The effect of this sort of thing is to make people buy guns to protect themselves – and wonder why on earth they should pay speeding fines or household debts or rates. More and more simply don’t. After all, the Government’s incapacity is plain to see. In numerous cities during the ANC mass actions that followed Hani’s death the forces of law and order stood by and watched as mobs smashed shop windows and looted the goods within – the Government knows it can’t afford any more TV massacres in which white police shoot black protesters. By the same token, the ANC looks wholly incapable of picking up the baton of authority the Government has dropped – the Hani funeral itself erupted into spasms of unplanned violence, and the movement seems quite unable to discipline its followers. The left wing continues quite openly to flout the authority of the leadership and to get away with it; Dawood Khan, the head of a Cape Town ANC branch and ANC regional executive member, has been reprimanded for making a speech in front of the Israeli Embassy in which he declared that ‘Hitler should have killed all the Jews,’ but his punishment is merely three months’ suspension; and while Mandela has threatened ANC militants who commit political murders with expulsion from the movement, as yet there has not been a single instance where he has done so. It seems unlikely that a movement unable to exercise proper authority over its own followers could successfully exercise authority over this extremely plural society. Indeed, having threatened a further campaign of mass action if it was not granted joint control over the security forces, the ANC hurriedly jettisoned this demand when it became clear that the Government was on the point of granting it – the ANC has no wish to share the responsibility for the tough action required to keep order in the townships in the run-up to the election.
A friend who teaches a political theory course here tells me that he used to have the greatest trouble getting students to take any thing other than Marxism seriously: thinkers like Hobbes and Locke were seen as incomprehensible oddities. Now, he says, he has only to start by describing Hobbes’s state of nature for students to start nodding in understanding.
The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 15 No. 18 · 23 September 1993
We are all familiar with the ubiquitous pub character who has no good word to say for anybody or anything, who sees nothing but the worst in the present and future, whose views are peppered with anti-foreign, racist remarks. He is generally dyspeptic, sour and gloomy. He also bears a striking resemblance to R.W. Johnson (LRB, 8 July, LRB, 22 July and LRB, 5 August) whose survey of the prospects for South Africa’s future repeats (in rather more sophisticated language) every gloomy prognostication, rumour, exaggeration and distortion I am used to encountering in every pub frequented by whites, from Lusaka to Cape Town.
While a good deal of what Johnson reports is factually correct, the sum of his conclusions is a gross distortion of the actual situation in South Africa. Consider briefly only a few of the more damaging generalisations he makes. ‘Every top ANC politician now has business patron(s) who pay for his house, car, children’s education and much else besides.’ Every top politician? I challenge him to name more than, at most, six who qualify for this description. Nor, surely, is it a heinous offence that these few exceptions should accept favours from sympathisers (which doesn’t make them ‘patrons’) in view of their total lack of personal resources and the arduous daily responsibilities they face.
Afrikaners, he says, are ‘upping sticks en masse’ and heading for safer homes in the Cape. En masse? How many of the two million-plus Afrikaners have in fact engaged in this new trek for safety? A few thousand at most. I recently looked into this situation in the Western Cape and found that, with few exceptions, all those who had moved were either pensioned civil servants, senior retired army officers, or rich farmers who have established second homes.
Johnson’s special animus is reserved for white liberals and African nationalists. The former, he says – failing to distinguish between the different strands of liberals – refuse to stand up to the ANC. What of the Democratic Party, van Zyl Slabbert’s IDASA, the Institute of Race Relations, enlightened businessmen and others? Such an undifferentiated judgment is sloppy.
He doesn’t hesitate to quote rumours as if they were facts. For example, he says it is ‘rumoured’ that ex-president Kenneth Kaunda has three homes in South Africa and spends most of his time there. Neither statement is true. Kaunda owns no property in South Africa (in fact, he doesn’t even own houses in Zambia except for his home in his own place of origin). In his antipathy, Johnson smears Kaunda as a villain. Kaunda has admittedly made serious political mistakes, but knowing him as intimately as I do, a fair judgment on him is that he has always been a humane, decent, honest and committed Christian.
To Johnson, as is true of many others, ‘African nationalism’ has produced a ‘state of anarchy, corruption and disaster’ throughout the continent. As one with a fairly wide knowledge of just about every African country, I fail to recognise his generalisation as being typical of Africa. No more than six of the continent’s 52 states qualify for his inaccurate description. A number of countries (such as Nigeria, Kenya, Togo and Zaire) are in turmoil, not because of ‘tribalism’ and ‘separatism’, but because they are involved in a healthy demoralisation process. To describe Zimbabwe as ‘a socialist’ country is about as accurate as saying that Britain is socialist.
Johnson’s second article is shot through with internal contradictions. Two examples. Having spent a lot of effort in showing up the ANC as a single-minded monopolistic party, he ends up by acknowledging in a single sentence that the ANC is not ‘a tiger’, but ‘a broad church’. A more careful analysis of the ANC as a broad church would avoid many of the errors he makes. A second contradiction is that, having said that the SA Communist Party (SACP) intelligentsia act as the ANC’s strategic brain, he goes on to criticise the ANC’s shadow finance minister, Trevor Manuel, for having been ‘effectively taken over by the World Bank’s economists’ – another bunch of Communist intellectuals?
In his third article, which is devoted to examining the SACP, he presents them as a government-in-waiting; but after devoting thousands of words to this frightening prospect, he concludes, mirabile dictu, that ‘there is no prospect of the SACP being able to build an East-Germany-in-Africa, strive as it might, and it is doubtful whether it will even be able to prevent the embourgeoisement of its own cadres’ (emphasis added). He then lamely poses the question ‘whether it will put up a fight before it accepts that the nationalist revolution is real, but the socialist revolution is not.’
Finally, Johnson concludes that South Africa is in a state of ‘incipient anarchy’. Such a pessimistic conclusion is perhaps inevitable if what Johnson reports even remotely approximates the realities of the present situation. South Africa is indeed in a stage of cruel political violence, a situation not unknown in other countries undergoing a radical reordering of political power. It is predictable – and indeed has been predicted – that the closer the political centre (the Government and the ANC) come to agreement on the basis of a federal democratic constitution, the worse the violence will become, as the white ultras (as in the case of Algeria) and dissident black leaders attempt a last-ditch stand to prevent the majority from establishing an interim coalition government and arranging for the holding of the country’s first ever democratic elections. There are still hard times ahead, but I believe that after another bloody chapter, we will see the end of apartheid South Africa and the birth of a new society which will be faced with the immense difficulties inherited from centuries of inequitable rule.
Plaw Hatch, West Sussex
Your correspondent R.W. Johnson writes disparagingly of a ‘Chaucerian variety of pilgrims’ to South Africa, including some ‘old anti-apartheid lobbyists out for a holiday in the sun’. What a pity that he could do no more than gather together the rag-bag of anecdote, gossip and misinformation. There is no evidence that he met or tried to meet any of those South Africans of all races who are attempting, despite all the difficulties and dangers in a time of escalating violence, to create something of value in housing, health, education, social welfare or politics from the wreckage of the apartheid era. There is no evidence that he went anywhere except in (white) middle-class suburbia; or that he met or listened to any blacks at all, except perhaps the flunkey whose memorable exchange was: ‘Have a nice safe evening at La Bonne Cuisine, sir.’ Apparently he moved among ‘society hostesses and their millionaire husbands who happily trill about their friendship with Comrade This and Comrade That’; ‘Anglophone professional or businessmen’ who, ‘especially’ if they were also Jewish, kept their heads down; and ‘greying and affluent whites’ fleeing with their property to ‘the part of the country which, having the fewest blacks, is safest’. He manages small sneers for all of them.
Not so long ago in your columns Johnson was propounding the thesis that Buthelezi and his Inkatha Freedom Party represented the real new dawn on the South African horizon. But that was yesterday’s thesis. Now he excoriates the ANC and the state for the fearsome corruption which flourishes on all sides’, without need even to mention the fully documented corruption of Inkatha, which received state funds in secret to destabilise the ANC, and which brought into the Kwa-Zulu police recruits who had been secretly trained by the South African death squad. Johnson now also remains totally silent on the record of Inkatha ‘impis’, and of Inkatha-inspired hostel mobs which turned Alexandra and other townships into killing fields. He does make one – and only one – substantial mention of Inkatha, to assert that ‘the largest set of victims [of the current violence] are Inkatha officials killed by the ANC. Rich even by Johnson standards: two allegations in one sentence, both unproven and both almost certainly false.
Johnson does not like the ANC and its allies. This explains the main thesis of his second article: that the ANC is creating the ground for a venal one-party dictatorship. In order to prevent the facts getting in the way of a plausible-sounding theory, Johnson ignores the evidence from decades of ANC ‘multipartyism’ both before and during the current constitutional negotiations. He reduces all that to the mealy-mouthed admission that ‘officially at least the movement is committed to multi-party democracy. But the statements to this effect look more and more like the pro forma utterances of a leadership keen to maintain contact with an international gallery of public opinion.’ How does he know? Because ‘the ANC talks of itself as the “nation”; its guerrilla wing is “the spear of the nation”; and its newspaper the New Nation.’ (Its newspaper? Since when?) And even more sinisterly: ‘ANC speakers extol human rights and pluralism at meetings carefully orchestrated to allow only one voice and one party line.’ By which criterion Tory, Liberal and Labour Parties are all concealed one-party conspiracies.
The ANC, we learn, ‘has appointed a board of trustees to act as the “guardians” of cultural life’. Whose? ‘The Congress of SA Writers shows ominous (?) signs of de facto ANC alignment.’ ‘Local enthusiasts who want to start a literary journal … complain of difficulties … because the journal is not ANC approved.’ Is this gossip to be taken seriously as the underpinning of his great one-party theory? We learn that there is an Indian dominance in the administration ‘of rugby, cricket, soccer and the national Olympics, even though Indians play little of any of these sports’. Little! Cricket! Cricket is as much an obsession amongst Indians as rugby is amongst whites.
R.W. Johnson writes: Messrs Legum and Bernstein both reproach me, in effect, for being too gloomy about South Africa. In a sense I sympathise with them. They both belong to a South African generation which, having followed the country’s evolution form abroad for thirty years, has now, like the rest of us, to face the possibility that the ending of apartheid may not usher in the liberal, Communist or social democratic dream which we have, respectively, espoused (I am the social democrat of the three). Such an awakening can be painful.
Mr Legum’s judgment seems dodgy to me. He has failed to understand that my reference to ‘socialist Zimbabwe’ was a joke, and has contrived a confusion all his own between World Bank economists and Communists. And surely he knows perfectly well the legal reasons which make it sadly unwise to print a list of corrupt politicians? More seriously, I am simply dumbstruck that he believes that only six African states are on the casualty list, a list that doesn’t include Liberia, Angola, Mozambique, Algeria, the Sudan or Somalia. Similarly, if someone tells me that the complete social, political and economic breakdown currently visible in Zaire is part of ‘a healthy democratisation process’, I frankly begin to wonder whether he is playing around with hallucinogenic drugs.
Most remarkable of all is his description of Kaunda. For nearly a whole generation Kaunda prevented free elections or a free press, detained people without trial, promoted his own personality cult, presided over wholesale corruption and brought about the economic ruin of Zambia. If the inadequacy of Legum’s judgment on this record is not apparent to him, further comment seems superfluous.
Lionel Bernstein is right that many Indians like cricket, and also right that many fine people are working with great energy and imagination for a better future here, but wrong to suggest that I am or ever have been a supporter of Buthelezi and the IFP. He is right that Inkatha scandalously received secret state subsidies for some of its rallies; but wrong to suggest that it bears sole responsibility for the carnage on the East Rand. The IFP and ANC are simply rival African nationalisms, rather like Zapu and Zanu in Zimbabwe or Kanu and Kadu in Kenya. If it is foolish to treat the ANC or IFP as morally worse or better than one another, it is the purest folly to demonise either, but since the IFP is the more frequently demonised in the media, an attempt at balance will often have the appearance of being pro-Inkatha. At the time I wrote there had indeed been a particularly egregious campaign of assassination against IFP officials in Natal and on the Reef, but the smoke of battle moves on: this week we mourn different victims, such as the (pro-ANC) American student Amy Biehl, murdered by a township gang, the bus passengers wounded by AK-47 fire from unknown assailants in Beaufort West, and the steady toll of dead in Bhambayi squatter camp.
Mr Bernstein’s indignation over the question of one-party dictatorship is welcome – but surprising. For almost half a century now Mr Bernstein has been a leading member of the SACP which, throughout that time, has been an enthusiastic supporter of one-party dictatorship. Indeed, up till 1988 the SACP espoused the one-party dictatorship of the GDR as the model for South Africa, since when it has switched its loyalties to one-party Cuba. I am glad to hear that Mr Bernstein now favours multi-partyism – no sinner repents too late – but the idea that there existed a long historical period in which he or his party were encouraging the ANC to think this way is, to put it kindly, revisionism on the grand scale. I am not encouraged by the fact that he apparently still does not understand why the idea of a party-aligned writers union is ominous.
On the hillsides behind me as I write, a squatter invasion is under way – the number of shanties there has exploded from three hundred to nearly two thousand in a month. The local white residents are in a state of hysteria as their properties become worthless; the possibility looms of violent clashes between black squatters and nearby Indians who claim the land; and there is dire talk of an IFP-ANC squatting race, it being assumed that each side will want, if it can, to turn those hillsides into a political no-go area for the other. Nobody – neither the local authorities, the ANC or the IFP – seems to have the will or nerve to grasp the situation, though all agree it is a disaster and will stand in the way of the low-cost housing scheme planned for that area. So the situation drifts and gets worse as more squatters, displaced by the murderous fighting in Bhambayi, pour in. Already there’s fighting down there too: you can hear the gunfire from where I sit – indeed, I think I heard some more tonight as I booted up my computer to write this. To Colin Legum, I suppose, that gunfire would be part of a healthy democratisation process. To Lionel Bernstein, I guess, it would be the sound of IFP murderers at work. That way they can both feel that it will stop once certain political changes are made. To me it represents just trouble and ungovernability and I have no confidence that it will stop. But I very deeply hope that they are right and that I am wrong.
Vol. 15 No. 21 · 4 November 1993
In everyday conversation R.W. Johnson (LRB, 8 July) is a considerably more humane and complex person than he is when he becomes the victim of the bright and punchy prose style which he seems to think appropriate for his kind of intellectual journalism. Colin Legum (Letters, 23 September) compares him to ‘the ubiquitous pub character who has no good word to say for anybody or anything’: but surely what is most disturbing about his articles is not their gloom but a certain air of scarcely suppressed farce. Johnson – who was born in South Africa and knows the place quite well, but is above all the travelling Oxford don – is struck again and again by how silly almost everyone seems to be: political leaders are corrupt or incompetent, parties make the most elementary and predictable errors, everything is drifting into chaos in a fundamentally absurd way. If only someone on the political scene in South Africa had a bit of the wisdom of …
South Africa is indeed beset by grave and complicated problems, but there are many hopeful signs along with the many worrying ones, and in any case a great, varied and wounded society attempting with difficulty to transform itself is to be seen in its agony and uncertainty as tragic rather than as a subject for a commentator’s confident ebullience. The worst thing about Johnson’s cheerful gloom, however, is that it perpetuates one of the central myths of the colonial narrative: people at the centre are, to use E.M. Forster’s terms, rounded characters; people at the periphery are flat – stereotypes or, in Johnson’s vision (or at least his vision as a journalist), caricatures.
University of Natal