Could it have been different?

Roger Southall

  • South Africa’s Brave New World: The Beloved Country since the End of Apartheid by R.W. Johnson
    Allen Lane, 701 pp, £25.00, April 2009, ISBN 978 0 7139 9538 1

Anyone in South Africa, white or black, rich or poor, who reads R.W. Johnson’s new book could be forgiven for rushing to the airport. It’s a familiar tale of African hopelessness, with one disaster following another. If South Africa fails, then the continent fails, and will be plunged into the depths of yet greater darkness. Apartheid was morally repellent and in the end unworkable, yet the successor governments of the African National Congress have proved unable to live up to their promise of making a ‘better life for all’. The dominant exile faction, schooled in Moscow, East Germany and Lusaka, was economically illiterate and has proved to be irredeemably venal. To be sure, they inherited a bankrupt, rundown economy, and despite a series of calamitous errors, restored it to reasonable financial health. Yet ultimately, in Johnson’s view, the ANC lacks the technical knowhow to oversee the most advanced economy on the continent, has no serious appreciation of the risks undertaken by business, has ignored the need to manage and develop the country’s infrastructure, and has allowed the standard of basic services, notably health and education, to decline catastrophically; the provision of electricity and clean water is not far behind (Nigeria here we come). Houses are built, but they are substandard; new schools are put up, but there are few competent teachers to staff them; and land reform gives good land to untried black farmers, who are set up to fail while white farmers, if they aren’t slaughtered by armed gangs, face an uphill battle to prevent South Africa becoming a net importer of food. Economic growth has turned positive since 1994, but this is overwhelmingly a result of the recent commodity boom: the high returns for a country rich in minerals have restored average individual incomes to 1980s levels.

Johnson blames this disaster on a combination of nationalist politics and flawed leadership. The ANC had origins similar to those of other nationalist movements in colonial Africa. Mission education and liberal aspirations to constitutional equality gave rise to a dynamic and militant political elite, prepared to challenge their colonial rulers. In the west and east of the continent they achieved their ambitions in the 1950s and 1960s, but in southern Africa they faced more determined enemies. The ANC was driven into exile; the influence of the South African Communist Party within the national liberation movement grew, and Leninist politics, in turn, stressed centralisation, hierarchy, secrecy and rigid adherence to a mix of African nationalist myth and worn-out doctrine. No wonder that when it came to power in 1994, the ANC had scarcely evolved beyond the old liberation movement ideology of the 1960s, and was set to repeat the mistakes made by governments elsewhere in post-colonial Africa. The rise of Thabo Mbeki was a further, fatal element.

Mbeki’s biographer, Mark Gevisser, presented a more complicated – and more plausible – character than Johnson’s crazed czar. Johnson sees Mbeki as race-obsessed, ruthless and mad. Nelson Mandela, who shuffles in and out of this account as an amiable old buffer only occasionally able to rise above a myopic loyalty to his noble notion of a non-racial, rainbow ANC, was outwitted by Mbeki, while the ANC itself, on its return to South Africa in 1990, quickly asserted its authority over the United Democratic Front, the internal movement which had mounted the popular challenge to apartheid in the 1980s. As deputy president, Mbeki became the real power in the land three years before succeeding to the presidency. Drawing on Fanon, Johnson depicts Mbeki for all his sophistication and charm as deeply paranoid: resistant to colonialism yet thoroughly colonised, wracked by a terrible fear of revealing his ‘inferiority’ to whites, prone to self-hatred and always ready to imagine a slight. Worse still, Mbeki was only an extreme example of a general tendency: the incoming African political elite may have espoused universal values and human rights, but the racial prejudice of this aspirant national bourgeoisie was deeply ingrained: they were geared up to confront a white world which they quietly believed was not only superior but infinitely cunning. For South Africa, this was to have alarming consequences.

Mbeki took his strain of racial nationalism to extraordinary lengths. His obsession with race led to his Aids denial, fed by tortured imaginings that the idea of a virus causing black deaths was nothing but a white plot founded on racist notions of black sexuality. His posturings as a philosopher king and his ruthless centralisation of power smothered what protest there was within the ANC, until international ridicule and the sheer number of deaths forced him to reverse his policy and make antiretrovirals available (although Johnson provides disturbing evidence of how, even then, rhetoric outmatched reality). Johnson believes that the ANC presided over many more deaths than the apartheid apparatus ever did. The other consequence of Mbeki’s racial inferiority complex was his support for Mugabe, dressed up as ‘quiet diplomacy’ in the pursuit of democracy. Johnson links the Zimbabwe policy to the ANC’s tradition of flawed African nationalism.

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