On the Way to First Base

R.W. Johnson reports from Southern Africa

South Africa’s first democratic government is midway through its first term, an obvious moment at which to take stock of the transition. The rhetoric of ‘nation-building’ which predominated in 1994, and which is now more or less dampened, except among the political élite, projected three key policies: first, there was to be a huge push towards national development; second, there was to be much increased welfare for the disadvantaged majority, fully incorporating them within the nation for the first time; finally, there was to be a multi-faceted drive for racial reconciliation (which the President himself took as his main task), to be effected by the transformation of institutions (schools, the media, universities, the Army etc) with the aim of moulding a single, common South Africanism.

It has been impossible to fault Mandela’s efforts at reconciliation unless one were to argue that these have occasionally gone too far. The sight of the President sitting down to tea with Betsy Verwoerd made it clear that he wanted to lead a country in which no one felt excluded, not even the self-exclusionists of Orania. At this symbolic level nation-building has known its greatest success. The transformation of institutions has made a more qualified start: it has gone well in the Army, has resulted in the loss of almost all the SAAF’s pilots, and is creating great difficulties in schools, universities and the media, triggering a flight of the haves towards private alternatives – and towards other countries altogether, with the emigration rate rising 27 per cent on a year-on-year basis in the first quarter of 1996

A coherent South African identity may be a mirage, visible in the post-match celebrations of the rugby World Cup and other moments of transcendental euphoria, but not really a part of the fabric of everyday life. If there are still significant differences between black Americans, Italian Americans, American Jews and so on, after generations in the melting pot, how much more will the differences between South Africa’s myriad religious, racial and language groups continue to matter. So will the chastening numbers of South Africans excluded by poverty from the promised benefits of ‘nation-building’. The ANC’s Reconstruction and Development Programme was supposed to deliver on the nitty-gritty of welfare and strategic investment, but with the abolition of the RDP Office, it looks as if the programme has slipped from the agenda. While it is a sign of the ANC’s realism that the grandiose targets of the RDP have been shelved, the unabated rise in unemployment – by 280,000 last year alone – and in homelessness means that the number of the socially excluded has continued to mount.

On the other hand, the new Constitution has passed through the Constitutional assembly, if not yet through the Constitutional court. With the successful integration of the two main liberation armies – those of the ANC and the Pan-Africanist Congress – into the South African National Defence Force, the era when shopping centres needed to explain a range of bombs and grenades to their customers in case of urban guerrilla attack has gone. Gone, too, is the (always remote) possibility of a right-wing coup: the new order is now guaranteed by a new model Army. Political normalisation is also apparent. The first fine flush is gone: it is now quite ordinary for MPs to resign and ministers to be reshuffled or sacked. Many who believed at first that they were in government but not truly in power now realise that they are indeed in charge. The Presidential succession has effectively been settled and in the power struggle between exiles and stayers-on the latter have been decisively worsted. Political violence has fallen to levels not atypical in Third World democracies. With the National Party’s departure from Government not only is this now, more logically, composed solely of those who resisted apartheid, but the Opposition has swollen from a minuscule 3 per cent to a more normal 25 per cent of Parliament.

Local elections have been held throughout the country in reasonable order and this time, even in KwaZulu-Natal, nobody refuses to accept the results. In general they confirmed the 1994 result. The two biggest parties, the ANC and NP, both lost 2-3 per cent nationally on their 1994 figures and the third largest party, the Inkatha Freedom Party, lost ground, too – but none of these losses was sufficient to change the balance of power, with the NP dominant in the Western Cape, the IFP ahead in KwaZulu-Natal and the ANC overwhelmingly in the lead everywhere else. The slack was taken up by Independents, the Liberal Democratic Party and the Minority Front, representing conservative Indian Hindus. With several election-free years ahead there is a prospect of calmer and more settled political weather.

Mandela himself continues to float above the political landscape in a cloud of adulation. In effect, he has become an old, charming, teflon President of the Left, quickly forgiven when he makes verbal blunders, under whose authority government ministers can escape from full accountability. It is in the high politics of national reconciliation that Mandela excels and where the electorate wants him. Unfortunately, his authority is too useful to others in low politics for matters to rest there.

The ANC has changed enormously in just two and a half years. Mandela himself, without apparent embarrassment, has gone from trying to convince Swiss bankers of the merits of nationalisation to announcing flatly that ‘privatisation is the policy of the ANC.’ It is already becoming hard to credit the heady days of 1990-94, when men who are now besuited ministers marched in demonstrations declaring their faith in socialism, ‘people’s power’ and such maxims as ‘VAT kills.’ Nowadays, the Mercedes is the preferred form of travel for these men; they never mention socialism, deplore manifestations of ‘people’s power’ and wonder whether they shouldn’t increase VAT. Sam Shilowa, the president of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, is surely right when he says that it is ‘inconceivable’ that the pre-1994 ANC could have come up with its present macro-economic strategy – reduction of the budget deficit from 6 to 3 percent of GDP, greater labour flexibility and a significant privatisation programme.

Perhaps there should be a touch more embarrassment, an acknowledgment of past errors, or some sort of explanation. Take Alec Erwin, now Minister of Trade. In the African Communist in mid-1992, Erwin argued that the key task was to ‘lay the basis for a future socialist society ... I will argue that only the South African Communist Party has the political capacity to act as the catalyst to meet this challenge.’ Setting his face against the IMF and World Bank, Erwin argued that the SACP, ‘representing class interests on the basis of socialist theory’, should struggle for a Reconstruction Accord, enshrining a radical process of redistribution which ‘must go beyond’ such timid ideas as wealth taxes, progressive taxation and sweeping land reform to more metaphysical notions such as ‘a redistribution of the access to economic power’. And so on.

Today Erwin breathes no word of a Reconstruction Accord. On Mandela’s British visit he was one of the leading spokesmen for privatisation. On his return he took up the cause of the National Lottery Bill, which restores many of the casino and leisure magnate Sol Kerzner’s lost privileges (including a special clause giving Kerzner a three-year indemnity from the provisions under which more than three thousand competing casinos are to be closed). Erwin not only stressed that he would continue the policies of his NP predecessor, Chris Fismer, but praised the way Kerzner’s group had ‘invested money and employed people’. He then acted as prosecutor against Bantu Holomisa, who had accused Kerzner of bribing the ANC with a political donation of two million rand in order to safeguard his business interests. Erwin, who has gone from Communism to casino capitalism in just four years, deserves praise for his flexibility. In effect he seems to have made a complete U-turn, while Holomisa has somewhat surprisingly made the transition from Bantustan leader to populist scourge of corruption – and has a substantial following.

The real point, however, is the magnitude of the turn the ANC has made – and how the Left has lost. It has been a curious, even a contradictory process, for as the NP left power so the SACP, at both national and provincial levels, moved in. In terms of the old ‘two-stage’ theory of revolution, this ought to have been the moment for SACP ministers – never so strongly represented in government as now – to talk of ‘socialist transformation’ or the need to ‘radicalise the revolution’. But there has been no such talk. It is, indeed, quite difficult to know what the SACP now stands for.

The key document before its recent Central Committee meeting, Build a Broad Movement for Transformation, speaks of the Party having to ‘share trenches with the patriotic bourgeoisie’. There is only vague talk of ‘the socialisation of the predominant part of our economy’ and most of the economic section is a series of questions ‘which must be addressed’ – but aren’t. The document is only firm about two things: the Party must give priority to youth and ‘guide and intervene ... particularly in the struggle for transformation of academic institutions’ and it must ‘strive for greater hegemony’ over civil society by ‘locking into processes of transformation’ those forces ‘that have the capacity to undermine our objectives’. This should be taken in conjunction with the Party’s condemnation of the DP and NP because ‘they attempt to create the impression that a strong opposition is needed to secure democracy.’ No such thing is necessary, it turns out: ‘propping up a weak opposition can never be our objective.’ Far more important is ‘a strong and vibrant civil society’. What this means in effect is single-partyism and monopoly political control – no change there. In terms of its drive for power, the Party is much the same, but it is in a state of complete intellectual confusion as to what it should use its power for. Not surprisingly, this is leading to a visible shrinkage, even an implosion, of the real influence of the Left.

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[*] picador, 432pp., £16.99, 23 March, 0 330 33983 4.