Rubbing along in the neo-liberal way

R.W. Johnson

There were plenty of stories, during the Queen’s visit to South Africa, about black radio commentators who talked of ‘Queen Elizabeth Eleven’ and her husband, the ‘Duke of Ellington’. The people who told you the stories were always white and they had never heard the commentator themselves; either ‘a friend’ had, or they’d ‘heard’ that it had happened, thus confirming that one, and possibly two, comfortable old South African realities were still in place. In any case such stories were rather put in the shade by the bristling denunciation of the visit by Robert van Tonder, leader of the tiny right-wing Boerestaat (Boer State) Party. Mrs Elizabeth Windsor, he said, was not welcome in the Boerestaat of the Orange Free State and the Transvaal: she was, after all, the great granddaughter of ‘a cruel queen who was guilty of the holocaust of the Afrikaner people’. But the worst thing about the royal visit, van Tonder continued, was that ‘the local British’ (i.e. English-speaking white South Africans) were making far more fuss about it than they would with any normal head of state, thus betraying a deeply colonial mentality; a mentality, he added, which was shared by ‘the new black English regime’. This was, in its way, a very reassuring sign, for it was clear that for those van Tonder represents the Boer War is still going on, just as it always has, and that even the arrival in power of Nelson Mandela has not disturbed their way of thinking. A little later, van Tonder applauded the Government’s decision to remove the names of Afrikaner Nationalist premiers from all the country’s airports. Johannesburg and Durban airports should never, he said, have been named after Jan Smuts and Louis Botha, both lackeys of British imperialism. All this had a distinctly comforting feel, especially since no one, months later, had actually got round to removing the offending names from the airport buildings.

The first anniversary of liberation came and went in a mixed mood. Officially, everything is not only good but miraculous. The American Marxist sociologist, C. Wright Mills, used to speak of ‘the American celebration’, by which he meant the way that public speakers, at everything from the opening of a new Congress to a Kiwani Club dinner, would launch into perorations of self-praise about what made America and Americans God’s chosen country and people. These, he thought, were self-comfort sessions, the expression of a deep underlying in security. Mills would find the new South Africa a familiar place, for few public speakers now begin without a ‘South African celebration’ in which they quickly touch base with the ‘miracle’ of the election and the (relatively) peaceful transition, Desmond Tutu’s ‘rainbow people of God’, the saintliness of Nelson Mandela and the wonderful fact – basically true, so it is wonderful – that most people now rub along sufficiently nicely with one another to make apartheid seem like a bad dream.

For many the larger fact is that one year on from liberation little but the rhetoric has changed. But amid this relatively changeless calm two groups are very angry. One consists of well-off middle-aged whites who sit around talking apocalyptically about declining standards of everything. Sit in on such sessions and you are struck by the fact that many of the participants are earning nice money and are going to stay right where they are. (The whites who do leave generally say little and slip away quietly.) The other group consists of radical black activists who are outraged that ANC election promises have not been kept, who sympathise with Winnie Mandela, and who vow that there’s no way Nelson Mandela will get their vote in the November local elections. The second group undeniably represents more people than the first. Opinion polls show plummeting levels of African satisfaction with the Government. Already by January polls showed that over half of all rural Africans were disappointed with the Government – and the number has quite certainly grown since then. The newspapers have learnt to be sensitive to what radical activists think, are prone to conclude that the low voter registration for the local elections shows their strength, and that black support is in danger of haemorrhaging away from the ANC to the PAC.

This, too, is misleading, as any serious analysis of the poll data will show. For a start, the ANC’s electorate is so large and so loyal that it seems likely that for a decade or more South Africa will have what is termed in the literature a ‘one-party-dominant’ system. It’s not just that the ANC got over 62 per cent of the vote last year: if you discard those who say they identify with the ANC to a weak or medium degree, you are still left with the fact that 35 percent of the electorate are ‘deeply committed’ to the ANC. All the other parties put together can hardly command that much support; and since the supporters of the ANC know what they want they will tend to get their way.

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