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Beloved CountryR.W. Johnson
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Vol. 15 No. 13 · 8 July 1993

Beloved Country

R.W. Johnson in South Africa

4503 words

The four-hundred-mile highway from Johannesburg to Durban – drivers of big Mercs (and they abound in South Africa) boast of doing it in three and a half hours – leads one through the Dali-esque environs of Harrismith. Here, on the featureless plains of the Orange Free State, one suddenly sees huge rock formations soaring up to great heights with an effortless geometry. The six-lane highway curls around them but even at 150 kph they take half an hour to fade from your rear mirror. Last week as I tore past these rocks, I saw, lying on the margin of the motorway, a large brown horse, its hoofs sticking straight out and skywards, a fine glossy beast with flowing mane and large muscles. As I whipped past it I saw what was wrong. Its head had been torn off. Its neck ended half-way up in a jagged red mess; no clean execution there. A second and I was gone but the image lingered, Guernica-like, a symbol of spoilt promise and of the senseless killing amidst which one lives. For the violence here is not a simple tale of good versus evil (if violence ever is that simple); as with that headless horse there is a mystery as well as a horror to it. Such are the images of the state of nature in which we live.

Some of the killing is political: currently the largest set of victims are Inkatha officials killed by the ANC, though the most publicised recent killing was that of Chris Hani, the SACP (Communist) leader, by the white Right. The Azanian People’s Liberation Army, the armed wing of the Pan Africanist Congress, carries out anti-white atrocities from time to time and, of course, Inkatha takes its vengeance on the ANC with fair regularity. But political murders are down somewhat this year and anyway such killings are overshadowed, at least in terms of numbers, by killings that are harder to describe so neatly. Twenty-one people were gunned down in a single massacre in Sebokeng not long ago but none of the parties is blaming the other for it: these things, people seem to be saying, just happen. The police try hard to work up public indignation about the fact that 104 policemen were shot dead last year – two a week. South Africans tut-tut about it, but that’s all. The news that 210 people died in police custody in the same period (up from 153 in 1991) similarly fails to trigger much of a response. Part of the reason is that the overall level of violence is so high: the South African murder rate is now ten times as high as America’s and 95 times as high as Britain’s. Mainly, however, this lack of concern has to do with the fact that the way policemen behave, and the way they die, no longer bears on the question of political power, and that is a question on which South Africa is now entirely fixated.

In theory, the matter is being thrashed out in multi-party talks; but an air of unreality hovers over the discussions. There is a widespread assumption that a backstairs deal has already been struck between the Government and the ANC, and that the real function of the talks is just to corral the lesser parties into going along with it. But there is also a pervasive sense that the country is drifting, with power ebbing away from anyone and everyone. Some time back it became clear that the Government was morally and politically too exhausted to maintain order. This is a country where convicted murderers, even multiple murderers like Barend Strydom and Robert McBride, are released within a year or two to walk the streets and give TV interviews justifying their savagery. Strydom, who gunned down 11 hapless black passers-by because he didn’t like blacks, advises us that he dislikes English-speakers just as much and that he might decide to thin their ranks ‘next time’. McBride, who placed a bomb in a bar killing three women and mutilating several more, has become a guest of honour at ANC functions and is introduced to visiting foreign dignitaries as a hero of the struggle. At his trial he made a dramatic speech claiming that it was all his own fault – he had disobeyed an ANC ban on hitting soft targets. Now it is cheerfully admitted that this was untrue, that he was doing precisely what he had been told to do.

The effect of this sort of thing is to make people buy guns to protect themselves – and wonder why on earth they should pay speeding fines or household debts or rates. More and more simply don’t. After all, the Government’s incapacity is plain to see. In numerous cities during the ANC mass actions that followed Hani’s death the forces of law and order stood by and watched as mobs smashed shop windows and looted the goods within – the Government knows it can’t afford any more TV massacres in which white police shoot black protesters. By the same token, the ANC looks wholly incapable of picking up the baton of authority the Government has dropped – the Hani funeral itself erupted into spasms of unplanned violence, and the movement seems quite unable to discipline its followers. The left wing continues quite openly to flout the authority of the leadership and to get away with it; Dawood Khan, the head of a Cape Town ANC branch and ANC regional executive member, has been reprimanded for making a speech in front of the Israeli Embassy in which he declared that ‘Hitler should have killed all the Jews,’ but his punishment is merely three months’ suspension; and while Mandela has threatened ANC militants who commit political murders with expulsion from the movement, as yet there has not been a single instance where he has done so. It seems unlikely that a movement unable to exercise proper authority over its own followers could successfully exercise authority over this extremely plural society. Indeed, having threatened a further campaign of mass action if it was not granted joint control over the security forces, the ANC hurriedly jettisoned this demand when it became clear that the Government was on the point of granting it – the ANC has no wish to share the responsibility for the tough action required to keep order in the townships in the run-up to the election.

A friend who teaches a political theory course here tells me that he used to have the greatest trouble getting students to take any thing other than Marxism seriously: thinkers like Hobbes and Locke were seen as incomprehensible oddities. Now, he says, he has only to start by describing Hobbes’s state of nature for students to start nodding in understanding.

Johannesburg is a particularly good place to view the state of nature. People who work in the big mining and bank headquarters in the centre of town try to arrange their lives so that they never actually set foot in the hostile streets. They drive from home into garages under their office blocks, alighting from their cars only in the presence of an armed company guard, and then stay in their building through the lunch hour. Everyone has endless horror stories. People attempt to avoid driving through the city at all at night and the police suggest that it is better not to stop at red lights if you can see that your way is clear. Single white women returning from an evening engagement will quite routinely ask a security firm to provide them with a car and an armed guard to escort them home. Similarly, after the recent spate of shootings of whites in pubs and clubs, it is becoming common for Jo’burg restaurants to provide armed guards to escort you to and from your car and to bar the way to possible grenade or AK-47 attack while you eat. (‘We’re here to ensure you have a nice safe evening at La Bonne Cuisine. Enjoy your meal, sir.’) On Sunday mornings you can see armed guards outside white churches, while the girls’ school a few hundred yards from where I sit has a soldier with a rifle guarding its entrance.

Some of this can be put down to while hysteria, but not enough to be reassuring: the crime rate is real enough, as are the APLA attacks on whites and the state of armed siege in which many farmers live. A woman I know is going to live at Donnybrook in the Natal Midlands. Is that wise of her, I ask? Not really, friends say, it’s the sort of place where most of the women wear guns, but she’s resigned to doing some target practice. Someone else tells you about the ghost town of President’s Park, between Johannesburg and Pretoria, built too close to Ivory Park squatter camp. Every house has been robbed over and over again, so the people have just fled, abandoning their houses. What were once £100,000 houses now sell, notionally, for £7500, except that estate agents won’t handle the business. The only people willing to move in are those who are prepared to shoot it out with burglars on a regular basis. We’ve known for a while that it’s unwise for whites to drive through the Ciskei and Transkei – too many attacks on cars – but now someone tells you that there is a virtual peasants’ revolt going on in the Eastern Transvaal and while-driven cars are at risk there too. Oh damn, you say, and pull out your road-map to work out a different route. It would help a lot if the AA would mark ‘unrest areas’ on those maps. Perhaps they soon will.

These are extreme, not typical, experiences, but they are also sufficiently common to be just part of life. There is no denying the vengeful and destructive temper of the ‘lost generation’ of black youth who followed the fateful slogan ‘Liberation now, education later’. In effect, these children have been the cannon-fodder of the revolution. Unemployed, indeed largely unemployable, given to all manner of anti-social and self-destructive behaviour, and filled with an incoherent rage and bitterness, they provide a potential constituency for the radical populists of the PAC and the ANC Left. The most publicised members of this latter group are Harry Gwala, the Natal ANC-SACP leader, Winnie Mandela and the ANC Youth League leader, Peter Mokaba, whose chanting of the old ANC slogan ‘Kill the Boer, kill the farmer’ has triggered predictable reactions on all sides, including some public hand-wringing from the ANC’s agricultural spokesman, already concerned at the number of competent Afrikaner farmers being enticed to resettle by the sadder and wiser Governments of Zambia and Mozambique. Such rational considerations carry no weight with the radicals with, for example, the ANC’s student wing, COSAS, which demanded that Hani’s assassin be handed over so that he could be stoned to death, and whose Cape section has openly called on its members to burn down their schools and drive Education Department officials out of the townships. Moreover, no sooner had Mokaba and Winnie been reprimanded for their ‘Kill the farmer’ antics by Cyril Ramaphosa, the ANC Secretary General, than the same chant was repeated live on TV by the ANC’s Western Cape secretary, Tony Yengeni.

Part of the trouble is the complete failure on both sides to decode the political smoke signals emanating from the opposite camp. Peter Mokaba, for example, has long been dogged by reports that he had a previous career as a police spy. He is understandably jumpy about such allegations and when they recently resurfaced yet again he implicitly threatened the ANC leadership with a major exposé if those feeding the rumours did not desist. Had he not had his comrades’ confidence, he declared pointedly, he would have been executed by the ANC and his death made to look ‘as it had been done by the system, as has been done many times before’. Meanwhile he needs to live down these slurs by being super-radical.

Tony Yengeni’s utterances also have to be seen in context. The large majority of the Western Cape electorate is Coloured and a year ago, alarmed by polls showing Coloureds plumping massively for de Klerk and against the ANC, Mandela strong-armed Yengeni (an African and an SACP member) into standing aside to allow the Coloured ex-clergyman, Allan Boesak, to assume the ANC chairmanship of the region. This was hotly resented by local Coloured Communists such as Cheryl Carolus and Trevor Manuel – for Boesak is a high liver, much given to expensive houses, cars and restaurants. However, despite the fact that his sex life was seldom out of the news, Boesak’s theological credentials were assumed to be a big draw for a Coloured electorate which is at heart conservative and religious. Carolus was compensated by promotion to rising-star status – Mandela jocularly referred to her as his possible successor – while Manuel got the more solid promotion to ANC finance spokesman, i.e. shadow finance minister. Yengeni got nothing – a rare case of one of the SACP vanguard being forced out to the benefit of a non-Communist.

Yengeni’s resentment grew as it became increasingly clear that Boesak’s ‘election’ had been a flop – for the Coloureds remain as hostile to the ANC as before. Boesak has appealed desperately for ANC speakers to eschew the Marxist line when operating in the Cape, but to no avail: it seems certain that the Mother City and its hinterland will, with thunderous symbolism, return a large anti-ANC majority. What ANC support there is will come overwhelmingly from the million or more blacks who throng the miserable squatter camps around Cape Town. Yengeni is trying to position himself as the leader of this group, confident that the person who can deliver the squatter vote will be the real ANC boss in the Cape – and in time will probably push Boesak aside. Meanwhile, his radical rhetoric serves a double purpose: its negative impact among conservative Coloureds gives Boesak even worse headaches than before, and it goes down well with squatters who are among the most alienated and distressed urban dwellers in the country. For such people Boesak has no appeal at all: Yengeni’s real competition comes from the squatter warlords and chieftains who dominate the ever-growing shanties.

With the first democratic elections less than a year away, this sort of party infighting is becoming increasingly pronounced, particularly within the ANC, both because it is such a wide and amorphous coalition and because, as the assumed election winner, it is the presumed vehicle to power and riches. It already seems clear that we in South Africa shall have a form of PR even more extreme and prone to manipulation and corruption than the one Italy is currently discarding: that is, one where half the seats are allocated to party lists for the ten regions, and half to a national list for which no one will vote directly at all, but from which candidates will glide into Parliament according to a proportional allocation of the total votes cast in the regions for quite other candidates. This will effectively insulate MPs from all constituency pressures, hand all power to the party bosses who draw up the lists, and make list position a bankable asset for which large sums of money will undoubtedly change hands. Having spent money to get a good list position and with constituency responsibility an irrelevance, MPs thus elected are more or less bound to dip their hands in the till. Given that the fight against corruption is always a titanic struggle in Africa, it is odd that South Africa is settling for an electoral system which will more or less guarantee it. The reason lies, remarkably, in a tacit alliance between de Klerk’s National Party and the SACP – an alliance against African nationalism.

The NP’s deathbed conversion to a strict form of PR is a relatively straightforward matter. If, as polls suggest, the ANC trounces the NP by between 30 and 50 per cent, a first-past-the-post system would just about wipe out the NP, while PR will allow it to survive with (almost) a blocking third of the seats. In addition, with so many NP MPs due to lose their seats, and correspondingly restive, de Klerk urgently needs to keep the NP caucus under control – so an electoral system which transfers power to the party bosses is a godsend. The SACP, on the other hand, faces the problem that many of its leading cadres are whites or Indians. In any system based on single-member constituencies such folk are almost all unelectable, for white and Indian seats would never return Communists and it would be tempting fate to put up such candidates in township seats against the PAC challenge. Here, too, the answer is to plump for a PR list system which gives power to the Party behind the scenes and enables it to place its key militants some way down a list led by Mandela – or even on a national list, where they can get elected without anyone having to vote directly for them. The present Westminster-style electoral system would inevitably produce a vast majority for the non-Communist African nationalist wing of the ANC: under the system likely to be adopted this group will probably end up with no more than a third of the seats.

Given that political correctness here begins with the notion of non-racialism, there is a powerful (though ludicrous) taboo against admitting the obvious truth that ethnic politics of one kind or another will continue to play a dominant role. In the present situation, with everything up for grabs, an ethnic deconstruction of politics shows some remarkable results. Of the 19 parties present at the 1991-92 Codesa talks, three were exclusively Indian and Indians also featured prominently in the Democratic Party, ANC and SACP delegations. Further investigation of the working groups confirmed the general impression of an Indian representation of up to 30 per cent. Whites, for their part, had three party delegations entirely to themselves, plus extensive representation on the DP, SACP, ANC and homeland delegations, with even greater numbers on the various working parties. The net result was that whites and Indians together accounted for over half the delegates. In other words, it’s possible to see the politics of the new electoral system as an attempt to preserve in the new constituent assembly the somewhat unlikely ethnic balance seen at Codesa.

The ending of the supremacy of the 5.5 million whites is accompanied by the meteoric rise of the fewer than one million Indians or at any rate of their representatives – an irony not lost on the African majority, nor even upon the three million Coloureds. ‘The way the Indians do it’, one Coloured said to me with undisguised bitterness, ‘is that they take advantage of the fact that apartheid classified them as non-white and then put themselves at the head of the queue among non-whites because they are far better educated, better qualified, better off and better intriguers than us.’ He might have added that Indians all speak English, like the ANC leadership (and the white business class), and that Coloureds have the terrible disadvantage of being mainly Afrikaans-speakers in what is certain to become an Anglophone country. We are a people whose day will never come,’ Coloureds tell you with a mixture of sadness and anger. For the (sports-mad) man in the street what is more evident is that the unification of the official sports bodies and their anti-apartheid analogues has somehow put Indians in charge of rugby, cricket, soccer and the national Olympic committee, even though Indians play little of any of these sports.

The other group trying to seize the moment is that section of the corporate rich who are attempting – and in some cases, succeeding – to buy influence with the ANC. The Johannesburg business world being what it is, quite a few of these new power-brokers are Jewish. Had South Africa been ruled as a pure meritocracy there is little doubt that for decades past the Cabinet would have been heavily biased towards the Johannesburg and Cape Town business class – by far the best educated, most able, best connected and economically most successful section of society. Afrikaner nationalism excluded this élite from power, not only because Afrikaner nationalism relied on the utterly different social world of the farmer-labour coalition but because its list of enemies began with English-speakers, capitalists and Jews. Politically, at least, if you were a successful Anglophone professional or businessman, and especially if you were also Jewish, you kept your head down. All that has changed, and the homes of Johannesburg’s affluent suburbs, so long used to entertaining only gallant losers like Helen Suzman, are now thickly peopled with the ANC é1ite. In scenes which would have defeated Orwell’s ironic gifts, society hostesses and their millionaire husbands happily trill about their friendship with Comrade This and Comrade That.

Every top ANC politician now has business patron(s) who pay for his house, car, children’s education and much else besides. Those who are doing the paying include many who were excluded from political influence until recently, but who believe they have identified a fast track to the very top. It remains to be seen how true this is. At the moment such patrons are rewarded mainly by the presence of ANC: high-ups at their dinner tables and family rituals – though a few have received more tangible benefits such as the exemption of their enterprises from mass action, the stamp of approval for international entertainers they wish to play in their hotels, and so on.

In the end such phenomena are merely a reflection of a general crisis of authority. Many other trends derive from this same central cause but go mainly unremarked (and certainly unanalysed) in the local media, which find it easier to chug out the same old mixture of mechanical reportage, bathing beauties and racing results. A case in point is the vast demographic upheaval to which the country is now subject, and which the media, in Orwellian fashion, never mention.

In a reversal of the Great Trek, Whites terrified by the urban insecurities of Johannesburg, and worried lest the rural insecurities of Natal should spread to the cities, are moving back southwards to the Cape. It is as if Texans and Californians were upping sticks en masse and heading back to Boston. Property prices in Johannesburg (which produces most of the country’s wealth) are already far lower than in Cape Town, which has been in a state of steady industrial decline for years. The mechanism is simple: as Johannesburg’s greying and affluent whites reach retirement they transfer their resources to the part of the country which, having the fewest blacks, is safest. So great is this transfer that it is creating employment opportunities for younger whites. The oddity, however, is that while political debate rages about the possibility, or impossibility, of creating a white Boerestaat somewhere in the Western Transvaal, a white state is being silently born well to the south whence, after all, the whites started out.

While this large movement of people within the country has passed almost wholly unobserved by the media, the movement in and out of the country has attracted some of the most starkly misleading coverage imaginable, for the newspapers have long been wont to gauge the country’s health by drawing up worried little tables of the official in and out-migration figures which, typically, show annual gains or losses of ten or twenty thousand. The real drama lies elsewhere, in the huge mass of Africans pressing into South Africa to escape the devastated, drought-stricken and sometimes war-torn lands to the north. As many as two million Mozambiquans have poured illegally across the border, many of them braving death from wild animals by trekking through the Kruger National Park. All told, there may be as many as four million displaced persons in South Africa, including many resourceful and educated Africans coming from all corners of the continent, drawn by the bright lights of the South. The notion that the country is up for grabs and open to the four winds brings a Chaucerian variety of pilgrims: the old anti-apartheid lobbyists who now come out for a holiday in the sun and an ANC-only tour; political entrepreneurs like Jesse Jackson, looking for angles and photo opportunities; clapped-out pop groups like Duran Duran, claiming that only the pressure of their mega-stardom has kept them away till now; Nigerian conmen trying to work scams on local businessmen; hustlers selling foreign passports; and an unstoppable tide of drugs and those who deal in them.

The official figures know nothing of this. They disclose a large demand for entry from East Europeans, Taiwanese and Hong Kong Chinese – significant numbers of all of these groups are now showing up all over southern Africa. With up to 750,000 British passport-holders here, Britain inevitably remains the predominant destination of those leaving – but such people are able to drift out at will, so nobody really knows how many are going. There is talk that the Jewish community, routinely estimated at 120,000, is now down to 75,000.

This white flight is merely one example of the spirit of sauve qui peut which the general crisis of authority engenders. Another is the fearsome corruption which flourishes on all sides: since no one is sure that the shop will be open tomorrow, best rob the till today. One government minister after another resigns, dogged by an immense financial scandal in his department, while virtually all the homelands are great sinks of corruption. Well-known estate agents flee the country with their clients’ funds, as do quite established and conservative members of the banking community. The ANC, too, is plagued by almost continuous financial scandals: the money to resettle political exiles has been stolen; the inquiry into how much money disappeared from the movement’s social welfare department when Winnie Mandela was running it has never reported; Winnie’s former lover has been charged with forging ANC cheques; the ANC’s purchasing and stores officer has been in court on fraud and false invoicing charges; and the money donated to the ANC to launch its own paper has reportedly gone missing – hence, presumably, Tiny Rowland’s announcement that he will be launching and half-owning an ANC newspaper, with Donald Trelford as editor. With huge amounts of foreign money pouring into the ANC’s coffers for its election campaign, no one really expects the ‘leakages’ to do anything but increase.

For all that, the country works – indeed, the transport and communications infrastructure is most impressive. The question is, for how much longer? We are in a classically Leninist situation, where the ruling class cannot go on ruling in the old way. The result here is not revolution but incipient anarchy. The answers to Lenin’s famous question, ‘What is to be done?’ I shall attempt in a second article.

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Letters

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.

Colin Legum
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.

L. Bernstein
Oxford

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.

Colin Gardner
University of Natal

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