The massacre at Boipatong and the subsequent breakdown of talks between the ANC and the Government have set the seal on a mood of almost panicky pessimism in South Africa. The high hopes of two years ago seem impossibly distant now. To be sure, there was always bound to be a period like this in the middle of the negotiation process, but there is certainly nothing finite or controlled about the gloom that grips the country. White morale and confidence have never been lower, and since they and their media still set the tone for the whole society, and since blacks and Coloureds have less in general to feel happy about anyway, this means that the gloom is general. It does also happen to be winter, a beautiful but drought-stricken winter.

There seems little hope that the murk surrounding the Boipatong tragedy will lift. The Police have appealed in vain for witnesses to come forward with evidence. A body calling itself the Independent Investigation Board claims to have already gathered over thirty statements from witnesses, but refuses to let the Police see any of these. Like so many bodies claiming to have access to the facts, the board is not really independent at all. It investigates only allegations made against the security forces and ‘works with the ANC’. All we really know is that 39 people died horribly in what looks to have been a classic Zulu warraid in reprisal for the murder of an Inkatha activist the week before; that significant question marks hang over the role of the Police; and that Boipatong was just one more massacre. On average this year four people have died in political violence every day. Often – as with the massacre of 23 Inkatha activists six months ago – such deaths raise only passing interest. Boipatong was special not just because of the size of the massacre but because it came at a delicate political juncture following the breakdown of the constitutional negotiations at Codesa (the Convention for a Democratic South Africa) – which had occurred even before Boipatong.

Although debate continues over the exact details of the breakdown and although back-channel talks between the Government and the ANC dribble on, the crunch is that the Government wants power-sharing and federalism, while the ANC wants simple majority rule and a centralised state. This difference is complicated by the fact that the National Party’s own rule has been a model of centralised authoritarianism and that the ANC fixed on the slogan of ‘non-racial democracy in a unitary state’ more than thirty years ago and has repeated it as a sort of mantra ever since. To the discomfort of the ANC even the Nigerians have made it plain that they see federalism as the only realistic option, while every opinion poll here shows huge majorities of all races preferring power-sharing to majority rule. The polls also make it clear that large majorities of both the Coloureds and the Indians are frightened by the thought of majority rule and will form a bloc with de Klerk against it. For the moment deadlock is complete.

Much of the gloom is economic, however. The growth rate, which averaged only 1.4 per cent p.a. over the whole decade of the Eighties, has been in recession and negative growth for three years now: in 1990 it was -0.5 per cent, 1991 -0.6 per cent and 1992 is forecast at -0.5 per cent. True, these things are notoriously hard to measure in an economy with a vast ‘informal sector’ well beyond the reach of the taxman or any statistician, but there’s no doubt that unemployment is mountainous and still climbing steeply as further and further swathes of young blacks get tipped onto the unreceptive job market. And, for that matter, young whites – jobs are scarce across the board and you see the odd white beggar here and there in the street. In general, the lot of the poor whites, the class that originally propelled Afrikaner nationalism to power, has not been so bad since the Thirties.

On top of that, inflation is 16 per cent and, because of the drought and some profiteering, food price inflation is around 30 per cent, though for meat, vegetables, fruit and nuts it is 41.5 per cent. Potatoes have at least doubled in price. Bankruptcies, closures, redundancies, mortgage defaults and repossessions continue at a steady clip, while young and affluent whites continue equally steadily to emigrate. There are few white middle-class families left, especially Jewish ones; and among those who remain some, most, or all the kids are in the UK, US, Australia, Canada, while the parents agonise about whether to join them. The great barrier here is that the housing market has frozen solid, especially at the upper end, so it may be all but impossible to sell up. (This, note, despite 16 per cent inflation.) And if you do sell up, you can’t get your money out, except by currency fraud and at a punitive exchange rate. For all that, many do it: white people leak abroad and so does their money in a host of ways.

To the north, Zimbabwe provides a dire example of what African nationalism can do in just 12 years from a standing start. Growth there this year is reckoned at -7 per cent, which means that per capita incomes are back to where they were at the end of the post sanctions import substitution boom in 1974. The drought has been and is terrible – in the Wankie game reserve this summer there were many reports of birds, bats and insects falling dead out of the air. Temperatures reached 47 degrees Celsius and animals have been dying in enormous numbers. The Government is trying to pretend that the famine is all a result of the drought but people know better – there was a terrible maize shortage long before the drought. Last year, with inflation at 30 per cent, the Government froze the maize price to buy popularity. Farmers’ protests that this would force them to diversify out of maize into export crops were blithely ignored, as was the need to do something about the huge impending shortage – for that would have meant doing a deal with South Africa, which Mugabe didn’t want to hear anyone even mention. Only when he’d left the country for a holiday in Ireland did the Vice-President, Joshua Nkomo, step speedily in and do the necessary deal – by which time starvation was already widespread.

The Mugabe Government, now wildly unpopular with black and white Zimbabweans alike, still fitfully attempts to dress itself in socialist garb, but the truth is drearily the same as everywhere else in Africa: at root, African nationalism has boiled down to a concerted grab for the country’s resources by a small educated urban élite. The number of civil servants bequeathed by Smith was 40,000; now there are 160,000 and despite all Zimbabwe’s promises to the World Bank that they will cut these numbers, no cuts have yet been made. Similarly, in the last Smith Government there were 12 ministers with Cabinet-level salaries, status and perks: now there are 33 full Cabinet Ministers and a large number of others who enjoy ministerial privileges. Mugabe, Nkomo and the ex-guerrilla leader, Rex Nhongo, are reckoned to be the three richest men in the country. Mugabe has just shut down Harare University and expelled all 11,000 students for anti-government activities. They will then be re-admitted, with the trouble-makers screened out – but this has all been done before without noticeable effect. There are shortages of everything, the currency has become worthless, currency fraud is endemic, pensions have become valueless. The notion that a government which debauches the currency always goes on to debauch the country may have been coined in America but it has a direly familiar ring in Africa.

All of which has led to a rather speedy historical revisionism. Put crudely, even the appalling Ian Smith, who still strolls the streets of Harare, looks better and better. One Zimbabwean magazine is apparently planning to come out with a front cover on which a midget Mugabe stands next to a towering Smith – it will be interesting to see whether the Government bans it. The really striking fact about the Smith regime is that it was barred from international capital markets. It simply couldn’t borrow and even its long war against Zanla and Zipra guerrillas had to be fought on current account. So Zimbabwe started life in 1980 with zero debt. (So much for the argument that all African countries were inevitably plunged into debt by the 1973 oil crisis.) Twelve years on, Zimbabwe’s debt is such as to place the economy under World Bank control.

Not long ago I was at a lunch meeting addressed by Nelson Mandela where Rian Malan asked Mandela how white fears of what African nationalism would do in South Africa could be assuaged in the light of the record of African nationalism in the rest of the continent. Mandela’s reply was that African nationalist regimes had done quite well under difficult circumstances and that, to the extent that their record was disappointing, this was entirely due to the heritage of colonialism. Mandela spoke in his usual tones of calm, benign humanity and seemed wholly unaware that to white ears such a reply seemed either naive or question-begging, but in either case, terrifying.

Somehow Mandela gets away with this sort of thing on the basis of sheer charm and charisma. Speaking about ANC economic policy to anxious white businessmen last week in Durban, he confessed that he knew absolutely nothing about economics, and proceeded to talk of other things. This to roars of laughter and applause. Watching him operate at close quarters in Johannesburg, I realised that he has the authentic royal touch: that is, people are thrilled to meet him, to shake his hand and to imagine telling the tale to their grandchildren. He is cheered in the street much as Charles or Di are (or used to be) and with almost as little justification. Soon after he stops speaking people turn to one another and trash his speech, but by then he has wafted on to his next appointment and thus he never really sees how superficial is his margin of support. He has, moreover, picked up a reputation for saying wild and irresponsible things to foreign audiences, so much so that it’s pretty well impossible to take him seriously unless one knows the gallery to which he is playing and can decode accordingly.

Even when he’s talking nonsense, you can never dismiss the man. There is about him a genuine humanity which somehow means that nothing touches him. He will stop in mid-speech on recognising an old friend in the audience and humbly beg his pardon: ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t see you, otherwise I would have greeted you directly.’ How many other politicians would stop a speech to make a genuine personal apology? He also likes telling stories against himself. After he gave his ringing speech from the dock in the Rivonia trial he found himself awaiting the verdict in the company of a friendly policeman. ‘He was a really nice chap. He said: “Mr Mandela, that was a fine speech but what do you think will happen to you and to Mr Sisulu and the rest?” I, trying to prepare myself for the worst, said I thought we’d all hang. Then, a little anxiously, I asked the policeman what he thought. He puzzled over it a moment and then said: “Ja, Mr Mandela, I think you’re right. You’ll probably all hang.” And let me tell you, I really spent a sleepless night after that.

‘Well, that prediction didn’t come off. But you know, when we’d been sentenced and we were on the boat out to Robben Island there was a really nice warder with us who tried to cheer us up. He kept saying: “Don’t worry, you’ll never serve your sentence. Within a year you’ll be out, you’ll probably even be acclaimed as a national hero. And you know something else, Mr Mandela, when that happens and you get out, the women just won’t be able to get enough of you.” Well, that was one more prediction that didn’t come off.’

It’s difficult, in the face of this sort of performance, to remember that behind Mandela’s charm and principle stands a black élite every bit as acquisitive as those who have laid waste the rest of Africa, with the added twist here that the SACP, a Communist Party with behavioural habits frozen in the Fifties, still seems to have little trouble calling most of the shots within the ANC. When the Codesa negotiations reached break-point, the ANC’s two key negotiators were Albie Sachs and Mohammed Valli Moosa (both SACP) and when a Negotiations Commission was then set up to conduct ‘mass action’ against the Government, it was placed under the chairmanship of Ronnie Kasrils (SACP), who presides over a committee membership with a clear SACP majority.

The mass action begun on Soweto Day is scheduled to build to a climax in August when we reach the so-called ‘exit-gate’. That is when the Government, unless it has in the meantime conceded its entire bargaining position at Codesa, is scheduled by Kasrils et al. to be toppled by popular pressure and general strikes. It goes without saying that this is the purest fantasy – even on Soweto Day the demonstrations and rallies were small. In Cape Town only five thousand people turned out for the ANC rally and in Johannesburg only two thousand joined in the street demonstration led by Mandela. To be sure, the day’s work stay away was largely effective and the Police, who provide estimates of crowd size, have sought to minimise them. Even so, it seemed clear – until Boipatong changed the atmosphere quite radically – that the mass-action campaign would be a flop. It has been very noticeable that the ANC’s chief spokesmen on the mass action, Kasrils and the ANC Youth leader, Peter Mokoba, not only represent the movement’s most radical, adventurist wing but are both 2nd XI players.

Indeed, if this was supposed to be the great trial of strength with the Government which the Hard Left has been thirsting for, it is difficult to see how it could have been worse conceived. The mass action was preceded by a long propaganda build-up from Government and business on the folly of political strikes in the midst of a deep recession. Not only does Inkatha roundly condemn the campaign but so do the PAC, AZAPO and their trade union federation, NACTU. The Indian newspaper, the Leader, as well as condemning the mass action, claimed that many affiliates of COSATU (the pro-ANC union federation) were unhappy about the strike call – and I found even pro-ANC Indians fairly dismissive of the campaign. Mandela, who has the awkward job of publicly defending the campaign, stoutly averred that he couldn’t see why business shouldn’t support it, but then added: ‘We have collective leadership in the ANC; indeed, there are times when I feel that I was freer when I was in jail’ Other leading ANC figures have, in private, thrown up their hands in frustration over the mass action and said, in effect, that every dog has his day, and that having failed to bring back a deal from Codesa, the ANC pragmatists now have to let the radicals have theirs.

Boipatong has, however, breathed new life into the campaign and caused the ANC to rally strongly and more unitedly behind the radicals – giving them the greatest chance they have ever had. The Government appears undecided as to how to respond. Some ministers talk boldly about ‘going it alone’, which would mean imposing a new constitution on the country, perhaps ratifying it by referendum, and then calling universal suffrage elections which the ANC would find it embarrassing to boycott. This would be possible in principle, but such an option would trigger even greater violence and would snuff out the spirit of reconciliation which the country desperately needs if it is to pull itself together.

The alternative for the Government is just to sit out the mass-action campaign, hoping it will flop and hoping, too, that the ANC will run out of money. This seems a foolish bet: the ANC is still receiving large sums from foreign well-wishers and from not a few local white businessmen anxious to take out insurance on the future. Indeed, the rapidly accumulating wealth of the top ANC leadership is a major talking point: they have acquired nice houses, BMWs, Lancias, expensive clothes, and several of them are rumoured to have open chequebooks on the various charities and foundations of which they have become trustees. It is an odd fact of South African political life that no one has asked where all this money is coming from, even though it is quite impossible to account for this sort of conspicuous consumption out of the meagre salaries the ANC pays its cadres. Even the SACP does not ask such questions – for its own top cadres have also become richer with conspicuous suddenness.

Old Africa hands can only smile at the naivety of the white business élite which believes that the showering of largesse upon these new men of power can deradicalise their rhetoric or their demands: after all, it was precisely their radical rhetoric which gained them their following and which thus made businessmen feel it would be worth while befriending them – so why discard a winning suit? In any case, Africa provides many examples of political radicalism going hand in hand with large and unexplained accumulations of wealth. The (Johannesburg) Sunday Times recently published a photo taken at the 50th birthday party of the ANC crown prince, Thabo Mbeki. There, glass in hand, stand the Communist leader, Joe Slovo, the billionaire hotel king, Sol Kerzner, and sundry other captains of finance and industry. The most interesting thing about the photo is that, quite clearly, none of those in it feels embarrassed by the company he now keeps.

More than ever one sees the wisdom of Deep Throat’s advice to Woodward and Bernstein: if they wanted to untangle Watergate, he said, they must always ‘follow the money’. In the bad old days, for example, before Nelson Mandela was out of jail or the ANC unbanned, very large funds flowed to Winnie Mandela: she was a courageous woman, a symbol of the struggle, and giving to her might win you influence with the most famous man in the country. Winnie grew rich, bought houses and shops, flew first-class, travelled with a large retinue and stayed only in the top hotels. Then Nelson came out and the money all flowed directly to him and the ANC, bypassing Winnie. Winnie, however, was used to living in style: when she wanted to visit the US with her latest lover – her assistant in the ANC Social Affairs Department – they naturally lived lavishly, flew on Concorde and so on. Simultaneously R450,000 went missing from the Social Affairs Department, causing the ANC to set up a committee of enquiry, whose report has never been released.

These processes of élite integration seem certain to continue quite regardless of what violence goes on at grass-roots level – and many see it as a hopeful sign that they do. And, of course, there is no doubt at all that constitutional negotiations will start up again, the élites will get together and share out the cake between themselves, one way or another. What is worryingly less certain now is whether such élite-level deals can have much impact on the tensions and antagonisms that exist within the wider society. Politicians of all stripes find it harder and harder to control their followers and to ‘deliver’ them for any sort of deal. Currently all politicians talk as if, when the country reaches democracy (rather like reaching Go in Monopoly), violence will cease and peace will reign. Increasingly, one doubts that. America, after all, is a democratic and very violent society: South Africa is unlikely to be different. Indeed, one is bound to note that the process of liberalisation of the last two and a half years has produced as many political deaths among blacks as the whole previous forty years of apartheid. The coming of full democracy may trigger violence on an even greater scale, as power struggles within the black community reach a climax.

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Vol. 14 No. 14 · 23 July 1992

Due to the scrambling of faxed proofs and the consequent need to dictate copy down the line, there were two errors in my article ‘Cheered in the street, much as Charles or Di’ (LRB, 9 July). 1. A sentence got garbled: ‘The growth rate, which averaged only 1.4 per cent p.a. over the whole decade of the Eighties, has been negative for three years now.’ 2. It would be quite untrue to say that ‘there are few white middle-class families left’ in South Africa. That sentence should have read: ‘There are few white middle-class families left, especially Jewish ones, in which some, most or all the kids are not in the UK, US, Australia or Canada, while the parents agonise about whether to join them.’

R.W. Johnson
University of Natal

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