R.W. Johnson in South Africa
According to the New Nation (the nearest thing there is to an ANC newspaper until Tiny Rowland sets up an official one), what really drove Janusz Waluz and Clive and Gaye Derby-Lewis to plot the assassination of the South African Communist Party leader Chris Hani was the belief that Hani was the most likely successor to Nelson Mandela as head of the ANC – and thus the next-President-but-one of South Africa. It’s an interesting thought partly because its airing in an ANC paper signals both that the matter of the succession is in the air and that it is now publicly thinkable that a Communist could succeed Mandela.
The SACP élite, which honeycombs the top levels of the ANC, must have hoped for just such a succession – and Hani would have been almost impossible to stop. After all, he headed the poll in the elections to the ANC national executive, had a useful base of support in the guerrilla wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), an even more important one in the Xhosa heartland of the Transkei, and for the numerous and fractious young he was a spell-binding figure – something which neither of his leadership rivals, Thabo Mbeki or Cyril Ramaphosa, could claim. Hani’s succession to the ANC leadership would have finally disposed of the ‘problem’ of the ANC-SACP relationship by fusing the two parties under him – to the advantage of the SACP. In ideological terms, it would have meant the vanguard party assuming full revolutionary leadership once the simpler battle against white supremacy was won.
If this sounds like a scenario drawn up in the age before the Berlin Wall came down, the reason is that for many of the SACP’s leading lights, the Wall has not come down. The latest issue of the African Communist, the SACP’s ‘forum for Marxist-Leninist thought’, carries a piece by the Party’s long-time eminence grise, Brian Bunting, regretting the fall of the GDR and praising Erich Honecker. The shooting down of the two hundred refugees who tried to cross the Wall is accepted without demur; and Honecker’s assertion that a dictatorship of the proletariat will rise again is seen as ‘a shining contrast to the shuffling compromise and capitulation of the Yeltsins, Schervadnadzes, and their ilk’. Another article enthuses about the presentation in Zimbabwe of the classic Socialist Realist play, The Kremlin Chimes (‘Love across the class line ... Bolshevik sailor Rybakov proposes marriage to electrical engineer Zabilin’s daughter, Masha’), with Lenin depicted as an all-comprehending, all-wise black man. The play’s furious denunciation of ‘counter-revolutionary Whites’ was interpreted in socialist Zimbabwe as an early reference to Ian Smith and the work as a whole commended for showing ‘the importance of the Great October Revolution and the leadership and ideas of Lenin to ordinary Zimbabweans’.
The SACP often sounds like a cruel parody of itself, but it is in fact one of the most successful Communist Parties in the world. It has applied classic Leninist tactics with almost unparallelled success, exercising decisive influence within the ANC (at least two-thirds of the ANC national executive are SACP members) and acting as its ideological and strategic vanguard. Beyond that, it has control over a wide range of Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and support organisations, referred to in Party-speak as the Mass Democratic Movement (MDM), while outside South Africa it has often held sway over the various anti-apartheid movements as well as the International Defence and Aid Fund. The President, Vice-President and Assistant General Secretary of Cosatu are all open party members, as are the leaders of many of the individual unions.
The reference to ‘open’ party members has an unpleasantly McCarthyite ring, but it is hard to avoid given the Party’s long history of clandestinity and its continuing habit of allowing only some of its members to emerge publicly – on the grounds that it is more useful to the Party if others operate in secret. Naturally, the Party denies that this is the way it works, but it is rightly and universally disbelieved, to the point where the ANC Secretary-General, Cyril Ramaphosa, tired of evading journalists’ questions about whether or not he is a Communist, has instructed all ANC members to refuse to answer such questions: in itself, a clear admission that there are secret SACP members. If, as the SACP claims, everyone was out in the open about his party membership, there would be no objection to the question being asked – or answered. The situation is further complicated by the fact that a number of SACP cadres – Thabo Mbeki is a leading example – have allowed their party membership to lapse, while others, notably the party chairman, Joe Slovo, have given priority to non-party work within the ANC or Cosatu.
Slovo stands at the very heart of the ANC-SACP relationship. He is the ANC’s chief strategist and the architect of all its major policy shifts: indeed, if one had to pick the single most influential figure within the ANC, it would have to be Joe Slovo, not Mandela. It is, for example, quite impossible to imagine Slovo being publicly disavowed in the way that Mandela has several times been – most recently, over his advocacy of the extension of the franchise to 14-year-olds. It may have suited both Brian Bunting and Slovo himself to push blacks into the symbolic front seat, but no one doubts that Slovo is still the real SACP boss. Take the case of the late Moses Mabhida: he may have been the official Secretary General of the Party, but when pressed for a decision he used to say that he had first to refer the matter to Bunting or Slovo.
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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