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Rubbing along in the neo-liberal wayR.W. Johnson

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Vol. 17 No. 12 · 22 June 1995

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.

Secondly, the polls have consistently shown that, at the outside, 20-25 percent of ANC voters are drawn towards the radical options to their left. That is, to be sure, a lot of people – 12-15 percent of the entire electorate. But the greater truth is that 75-80 percent of ANC voters lean in a more moderate, even conservative direction. Many within this group will stay loyal to the ANC in almost any circumstances, and those who peel off are likely either to support de Klerk or to become apathetic. The same polls show that the vast majority of blacks are delighted to have peace and reconciliation, don’t want a redistribution of wealth if it means confrontation, and are profoundly uninterested in radical populist talk of ‘continuing the struggle’. Such people feel, altogether reasonably, that they have had enough struggle to last a lifetime. The resulting mood is unmistakable. At the biggest May Day meeting on the Reef, held at the Rand Stadium in Johannesburg, the regional premier, Tokyo Sexwale, the ANC party boss, Cyril Ramaphosa, and the Secretary General of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), Sam Shilowa, launched bitter attacks on business, the IMF and the other usual suspects, but the real drama was that these high-profile figures in the ANC/SACP/Cosatu leadership attracted a crowd of fewer than a thousand.

The reality, then, is a growing political apathy and a secure ANC hegemony. The Government has been greatly disturbed by the low voter registration for the November local elections, particularly since its own voters have been the least inclined to register. But a great deal of the explanation can be found in the old ANC demand for a ‘seizure of power’. For most black voters last year’s election was mainly about a transfer of power and the sight of a black President is proof that this was achieved. Few of them are now much interested in the debate over a new constitution, in local elections, in Inkatha’s demand for international mediation or more power for the provinces, or even in ANC ‘excuses’ (as they see them) for the fact that the Party’s power is constrained by coalition government. Most black voters feel that they played their part in that transfer of power, that there isn’t much else they can be expected to do, and that it is simply up to the Government to deliver on its promises.

At this point the populists of the Left and the affluent white pessimists converge, both pointing to the all too evident fact that while the Government has fallen way behind on its Reconstruction and Development Plan (RDP), which aims to achieve a dramatic improvement in black living standards, no such delay has been observed in the emergence of a black middle class who are clearly the real heroes and beneficiaries of the ANC revolution. The result is, of course, that within what is rather wishfully called ‘the black community’, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer at a tremendous rate.

This is the context which has lent such enormous symbolic significance to the corruption case against the former ANC leader and excleric, Allan Boesak. Boesak looms large not only because, alongside Desmond Tutu, he dominated the protest politics of the Eighties, but because of the parallel disgrace of Winnie Mandela – which includes revelations of her dealings with diamond smugglers. The exposure of Boesak and Winnie as moral frauds, one after another, confirms white cynics in their view that the anti-apartheid cause was simply one more vehicle for political rogues – a view which naturally fills veterans of the struggle with indignation. This in turn helps to explain why both President Mandela and Vice-President Mbeki have been making energetic attempts to pre-empt the police enquiry into Boesak’s affairs: what they hope is that he will be exonerated and without further ado be appointed ambassador, with the usual large salary and expense account. Bitterly aware of the white assumption that black government is synonymous with corruption, Mandela and Mbeki are desperately seeking to defend the indefensible, just as they once insisted, in the teeth of all evidence, that Winnie was innocent of the multiple charges against her. They now have reason to regret their support for Winnie and it is a safe bet that they will one day be sorry that they supported the incorrigible Boesak.

There is no real question but that large sums intended for Boesak’s church, for the anti-apartheid cause and, worst of all, for child victims of poverty and injustice, were diverted into providing him with a luxurious house, cat, holidays, huge insurance policies and much else beside. Boesak does not contest that this was so; nor can he, for the bank statements are plain enough and the fact that he has had to sell his house in order to make partial restitution is bluntly eloquent. Nor does he contest that he was raising money by promising donors one thing and then doing the opposite. His defence is simply that he never understood the figures, that his book-keeper made the actual transfers and that his book-keeper was thus crookedly enriching him. We are, in other words, asked to believe that Boesak found amounts many times greater than his salary flowing into his account over the years and just thought it was an unaccountable lucky break. I remember meeting him in 1978. I was surprised to find that this partygoing playboy had ambitions to be a cleric, although ambition of every other kind beamed out of him. He was out for the girls, for praise, for the big time. He seemed to me not just smart but sussed, secular, street-wise. It never occurred to me that he would have difficulty understanding figures or the value of money. It doesn’t occur to me much today either.

All of which is more than a pity, because so far the white cynics are wrong: corruption is far less typical of ANC-ruled South Africa than it was of the country under Afrikaner Nationalist rule. That defending a would be fat-cat like Boesak is more important to Mandela and Mbeki than the fact that the money for poor black children went missing is all too easily taken to mean that they endorse the rich-get-richer, poor-get-poorer syndrome. Of Mandela this is certainly untrue: but he is also an emotional as well as an old man, who wants to stand by his allies, defend the old times and feel comfortable with his friends. It’s difficult to criticise anyone for that, but these instincts are sometimes too easily played on, leading the President down some unfortunate cul-de-sacs. Mbeki is something else again. Mandela’s presumed – and now designated – successor, he has cultivated Winnie and Boesak and spoken out against the liberal press; he has charmed the business community and generally squared the circle in a way which commands respect and distrust in equal amounts. Those who want Mbeki to succeed Mandela speak of his sophistication and urbanity; those who wish to block him speak of his unbridled opportunism and lack of a popular touch. The greater problem is that nobody knows what Mbeki really believes in, including Mbeki himself.

It is easy to infer from these facts a revolutionary pessimism of the right or left, but it would be wide of the mark. Things are going better than many people anticipated; indeed, they are going pretty well even in absolute terms. True, the Winnie and Boesak affairs have preoccupied the press, but they are a sideshow: one unhappy woman and one defrocked priest – who, in the greater scheme of things, really cares? More important is that the press has been vigorous and unafraid in its coverage and criticisms and that the Government, much as it hates being criticised, has not given in to its more illiberal supporters who would like to constrain the press. The state-controlled TV is another matter. It fawns on the present government just as it fawned on its predecessors. Even this is not enough for some ANC politicians, who lodge complaints if their activities don’t get enough airtime or, in one remarkable case, because a rival within the ANC was being given what the complainant thought was too much. Getting away with this sort of banana republic behaviour will be harder than it was in, say, Zambia, if only because of the contrasting standards visible on M-Net (a private channel), CNN, SkyNews and, soon, BBC World TV.

Even the relative failure of the RDP to date – the Government only managed to spend 45 per cent of the Plan’s allocation in its first year and has already slashed its five-year housing target by 30 per cent – doesn’t really matter all that much in purely economic terms. The RDP accounts for under 5 per cent of the total budget and has been quite ludicrously oversold. The problem is that the Government has fashioned a rod for its own back by trumpeting the RDP as the all-purpose answer to African poverty. To admit that the RDP is a Hop is to put a question-mark against the central thrust of ANC policy. Yet, outside a small circle of believers, who puts any trust in five-year plans these days?

The underlying trends are good. After five years of zero growth the economy picked up to 2.4 per cent growth in 1994, seems likely to achieve 3 per cent in 1995 and more in 1996. This upturn has been achieved by the private sector alone – the RDP has nothing to do with it – and investment, both domestic and foreign, is sharply up. Tourists are flocking in and hotels are full everywhere. Moreover, the Government has taken three measures of fundamental economic importance. It has signed the new Gatt; it has abolished the old financial rand and thus abandoned the two-nettier currency system which was such a barrier to investment; and it has adopted a budget strategy of sharp cuts in real wages in the public sector, thereby reducing the budget deficit.

Compliance with Gatt will send a wave of anti-protectionism and deregulation rippling through one industry after another and will necessitate some very difficult measures indeed, for in international terms South African real wages are uncompetitively high, management mediocre and productivity abysmal. As Gatt compliance exposes more and more of South African life to the blast of foreign competition this situation will have to change. Similarly, the unification of the currency will leave the rand far more exposed to fluctuation than before. Previously, if politicians were irresponsible in their public utterances, or allowed either violence or spending to get out of control, the financial rand took much of the strain. Now the unified rand will have to take the strain instead, which means that if politicians don’t observe the new discipline, the currency will fall and prices will shoot up. This is another reason why the Government has decided that it cannot afford to give the unions the bonus they were hoping to get from an ANC victory. In fact, its stated aim is to cut this year’s public sector wage bill by a draconian 7 per cent in real terms.

It is the combination of these three policies which provides the new South Africa with its central economic strategy. They mark a brave attempt to manage the country’s re-insertion into a liberal international economic order. There is, in truth, no other place to go, but after years of isolation and protection there will be many painful consequences. It is, for example, far more expensive to make cars in South Africa than it is in the US. South African unit costs are far higher than they are in all the competing economies of the Indian Ocean rim. These things cannot possibly last much longer. But as this state of affairs is reversed, some factories will close, some farmers will go bust, and many workers will lose out, either in employment or in real wage terms. The gamble has to be that the gains will outweigh the losses – that these policies will deliver the growth which alone will make it possible for the Government to withstand the large-scale social resistance the strategy is bound to provoke. Thus far the gamble is working but the real test lies ahead.

There are two great oddities about the strategy. The first is that it is completely unacknowledged. The Finance Minister, Chris Liebenberg, is a non-party white banker who makes no pronouncements about economic strategy, let alone about politics. His deputy minister, Alec Krwin, is a white Communist who is careful to make no mention at all of the strategy the Government is following: the whole area of economic policy is treated essentially as a technocratic matter best left in expert white hands. (In much the same spirit, mining engineers, hospital surgeons and South African Airways pilots are still all white.) The second oddity is the attitude of the trade unions, who seem likely to make the biggest sacrifices under this policy. As each phase of the strategy has unfolded the Cosatu leadership (now openly and almost uniformly members of the Communist Party) has issued tight-lipped statements condemning what it rightly labels a neo-liberal economic strategy – and then done nothing. The fact that the ANC-SACP-Cosatu alliance is at once the chief originator of this policy and its chief potential victim has inevitably produced tensions within the movement, but as yet their expression is muted, in part because of the cohesion and discipline born of years of struggle. Moreover, the approaching local elections have put a premium on that discipline. But there is also an element of sheer ideological confusion in the leadership’s quandary.

For the moment Cosatu leaders content themselves with denunciations of the IMF for ‘offering South Africa unwanted advice’ – all that they can say, given that neither the Fund nor the World Bank is formally involved in the country. Such denunciations should be read as coded criticism of those within the movement who advocate ‘neo-liberal’ (= IMF) policies. But for the moment the discipline of the ANC and SACP has brought the unions into line behind those who are indeed carrying out pretty much the policies that the Fund and the Bank advocate – and they in turn are canny enough to keep the Fund and the Bank at arm’s length and to say as little as possible about the rationale and implications of the policy they have adopted.

It is all, one might say, very South African and the reality is altogether better than anyone might reasonably have hoped for even a year ago. Everyday politics still revolves around the largely bogus rhetoric of the RDP and the regular confrontations between Inkatha and the ANC which have seen the number of people getting killed in clashes between the two parties in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) return towards their horrific pre-election levels. Both sides are prone to jacking up the rhetoric in ways which seem quite mad to those of us who belong in neither camp. The ANC depicts Buthelezi as an apartheid creation who disguised his lack of support by rigging the last election in KZN. He alone, they claim, is responsible for the current violence and is planning the secession of KZN from South Africa. Buthelezi, for his part, talks of an insurrection against the Government by the Zulu nation, which the ANC is intent on subjugating. The facts are that Buthelezi has a real and large following. Although there was cheating by both sides in the election, lnkatha won because it has far more genuine support in KZN than the ANC. This constituency will continue to exist whatever happens to Buthelezi. Both sides are guilty of fomenting the violence – which usually occurs at a grass-roots level beyond the control of either party leadership. Buthelezi certainly wants the maximum degree of autonomy for KZN that he can get but he has never yet demanded secession and would be in some trouble if he did – if only because KZN’s white business comunity, whose support would be quite indispensable to any initiative Buthelezi might take, is fully aware that Pretoria is now putting more cash into KZN than it is taking out. Similarly, there is no real possibility of a Zulu insurrection against the Government, which, while it is certainly tempted to suppress Buthelezi and his immediate supporters, has no wish to ‘subjugate the Zulu nation’. The problem is that Buthelezi’s forces are so successfully integrated into the old chiefly structures of Zulu society that there is no way of getting at him without risking the appearance of this broader aim.

It is, in fact, a stalemate. Buthelezi has inherited a century-old tradition of Natal separatism but Natal, like Quebec, never quite secedes. He won’t go away nor will he behave the way the ANC wants him to, and if they ever send the Army in against him they will create a sore which will never heal. Milton Obote of Uganda sent the Army in against the Kabaka of Buganda and for a time it seemed that African nationalism had vanquished the forces of traditionalism – but today the Kabaka rules Buganda and it is Obote who lives in exile. If such extreme outcomes are to be avoided, the ANC and IFP will have to make further compromises. This is what has always happened, though each deal is prefaced by a great roaring and stamping of bulls in the kraal and anxious predictions by outsiders that Armageddon is nigh. To be fair, such predictions often seem reasonable enough: it is the metaphors and gestures of African politics that are unreal.

But South Africa is often less susceptible to frontal logic than it is to a sort of magic realism. There is confusion, there is tumult and everyone from the President down does six silly things a week. The walk-on parts performed by Winnie Mandela and Allan Boesak would strain credulity in a children’s Christmas pantomime. The country’s left intelligentsia is in an uproar over – of all things – the fact that South Africa has at last signed the nuclear test ban treaty; they appear to think that it should be developing nuclear weapons simply as a matter of principle. The media give the impression that the only thing anyone cares about is beer and the rugby World Cup. But underneath it all there is a steady progression: political violence outside KZN is down, growth is up, populist rhetoric wins fewer hearts and, best of all, something closer to normal politics has at last begun.

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Vol. 17 No. 13 · 6 July 1995

R.W. Johnson wonderingly cites magic realism as a force in South African politics (LRB, 22 June). However, in ‘Enrichissez-Vous!’ (LRB, 20 October 1994) he found the ‘determining force’ to be ‘the grab for power and jobs on the part of a small black élite’. In this earlier piece he was seriously exercised about incompetence and corruption in the new ANC Government: ‘Quite visibly, the Cabinet doesn’t work … The sense of drift is quite palpable.’ Now, however, a new romantic glow suffuses his perception of the situation, for presumably he must include himself as one of the ‘white cynics’ who were ‘wrong’: ‘corruption is far less typical of ANC-ruled South Africa than it was of the country under Afrikaner Nationalist rule.’ Is it too much to expect that, rather man attributing the fact that ‘something much closer to normal politics has at last begun’ to ‘a sort of magic realism’, he might now question the motives and reasoning which led him to condemn the new government so hastily in the first place?

Min Wild
Crediton, Devon

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