South Africa is midway through a political revolution attended by many uncertainties, but it is already clear that the African National Congress, which has ruled the country since 1994, will never again enjoy the moral authority it had in the early Mandela years. Corruption, factionalism and rank incompetence have seen to that, but it’s important not to overlook the lingering force of its former moral and political authority. Not many South Africans have felt brave enough to stand up to the ANC in the years since 1994 and every sort of evasive tactic has been employed to ensure that the hard questions don’t get asked. They aren’t always asked in these three books.
Anthony Butler’s Cyril Ramaphosa is a campaign biography of the man most South Africans wanted to succeed Thabo Mbeki, but not only did he refuse to run, he also refused to co-operate with his biographer. Ramaphosa, an immensely private person, began as a workaholic young lawyer who, after a period of religious and student activism, worked for the National Union of Mineworkers, one of the country’s largest unions, eventually becoming its leader and thus one of the most significant figures in the internal resistance to apartheid. With the unbanning of the ANC, he became its secretary-general and conducted the negotiations that led to the country’s first democratic election and its impressive constitution. Outranked only by Mandela on the ANC’s election list in 1994, he had every reason to expect high office, but Mbeki worked ceaselessly to undermine him, in the end manufacturing a ‘presidential plot’ in which Ramaphosa was, absurdly, accused of conspiring with foreign intelligence services to overthrow him. Ramaphosa left politics and became a businessman. Two months ago, at the ANC executive meeting that finally removed Mbeki from office, he gave a decisive 90-minute speech in which he made it plain that Mbeki had deployed the same Machiavellian tactics against every imaginable peer and rival over the past thirty years. The result was to put the followers of Jacob Zuma in power, initially with Kgalema Motlanthe as president. Ramaphosa remains not quite on the sidelines, an enigmatic and independent figure of considerable stature.
The key moment in his biography was the great NUM strike of 1987. He had previously done his best to avoid strikes but this time, carried away by the rising excitement of the anti-apartheid struggle, he ‘unambiguously committed the union to the wider liberation struggle’, as Butler puts it. ‘Clearly aching for a fight’, he made a series of impossible demands – among them, a 40-55 per cent wage increase. The miners, sharing the excitement, followed his lead. With the mining companies standing firm, he won a strike ballot and soon 340,000 men were out. It was a disaster. Ramaphosa had grievously misjudged the situation and rashly assumed the strike would be quickly won. By the third week fifty thousand workers had been dismissed, and many more dismissals were being planned. The workers and their families had no food and the strike started to collapse. Ramaphosa had to admit defeat. The dispiriting consequence was that the mine-owners decided that they could manage with a much smaller workforce and over the next 13 years mining employment fell from more than half a million to 169,000.
Butler doesn’t ask the main question: why did Ramaphosa do it ? The answer is to be found in the growing hegemony of the exiled ANC and the Communist Party. Originally, the Federation of South African Trade Unions (Fosatu) had held out against the politicisation of the unions, but the workers, like all other black South Africans, were increasingly swept up in the movement of popular resistance to apartheid. In December 1985 both Ramaphosa’s NUM and Fosatu threw in their lot with the new Congress of South African Trade Unions. It was immediately apparent that Cosatu was ANC-aligned and that the SACP was making a determined effort to place Communists in leadership positions in all the unions, which were now to be used as a battering ram in the struggle to ‘make South Africa ungovernable’. The ANC determined that 1987 was to be ‘The Year of Advance to People’s Power’: the NUM fell into step with the slogan ‘The Year Mineworkers Take Control’.
It seems likely, in other words, that Ramaphosa called the 1987 strike because it had been decreed by the ANC and SACP exiles in Lusaka. He was by now very close to a number of leading Communists; indeed was probably a member of the Party. The strike saw enormous union violence against blacklegs: by the time it was over, nine workers were dead, 500 had been injured and 400 arrested. When Ramaphosa decided to end the strike, the exiles – or some of them – were not in agreement: from the safety of distance they favoured a struggle to the death. After the Communist leaders Govan Mbeki (Thabo Mbeki’s father) and Harry Gwala were released from jail, in 1987 and 1988 respectively, Ramaphosa became an intimate of theirs, and when Kgalema Motlanthe too was released he gave him a union sinecure. He even provided Gwala, a self-described Stalinist and one of the most frightening men I’ve ever met, with a car and money. (Gwala, who would quite happily kill not only opponents but anyone on his own side who got in the way, had a paralysed arm but would gesture fiercely with his one good arm, often as a prelude to having someone executed, a mannerism that led to his being called the ‘One-Arm Bandit’.)
The period was hectic and confused: in the early 1980s Black Consciousness and workerism (i.e. non-political unionism) ruled the roost but by the mid-1980s they had been supplanted by the ANC, the SACP and a highly political unionism. Ramaphosa had gone with the flow – and ended up losing a catastrophic strike. In the early 1990s another union leader told me that in the wake of the strike Ramaphosa seemed to lose his grip on the NUM, which led to an eruption of factionalism. Certainly, nothing was the same after 1987. In time, Motlanthe succeeded Ramaphosa at the head of the union, though neither had ever worked down a mine. President Motlanthe, now seen as a relative moderate, once declared that the country’s youth ‘must be taught to hate capitalism and struggle against it’.
Ramaphosa was known to loathe the idea of running for office unless he was all but certain to win, so it was a bold stroke when he decided to oppose the sitting ANC secretary-general, Alfred Nzo – and won. He was a good organiser, presided over the ANC’s triumph in the first democratic elections in 1994, and had every reason to expect an important cabinet post. In the end he stayed on (unhappily) in his party job while negotiating the country’s final constitution. Had Mandela chosen him as his successor rather than Mbeki the odds are that we wouldn’t have seen the ANC government adopt Aids denialism or support Mugabe, but the fact that no one was ever quite sure what Ramaphosa stood for and that, unlike Zuma, he was unwilling to challenge Mbeki head-on counted against him. Instead, he became one of the country’s richest and most secretive businessmen; but an air of unfulfilled promise, of unused capacity, still surrounds him.
Andrew Feinstein’s book has been a great success in South Africa because the country’s notorious $5 billion arms deal (a package involving British Aerospace and several other European suppliers) and its attendant corruption, which are at the centre of the book, have hung for years like a dark cloud over the political system. The 1999 deal saw South Africa re-equip itself with jet fighters and training aircraft, submarines and corvettes, bought mainly from British and German suppliers, but there was never a clear rationale for the deal: South Africa had no enemies; with the exception of the corvettes, its old equipment was adequate; and it now turns out that the country lacks the specialist skills to use either the fighters or the submarines. Without doubt the large commissions the arms companies were willing to pay were a major incentive for various ANC politicians to push the deal through; but the stink of corruption was unmistakeable even as they did so.
The fact that Mbeki was willing to subvert the independence of the institutions that wanted to look at the deal – the parliamentary committee on which Feinstein served, parliament itself and its speaker, the auditor-general and so on – merely convinced the public at large that there was no smoke without fire. Feinstein fought bravely (and unavailingly) to find the truth in the face of his party’s ferocious hostility – an episode that ended his political career and saw him relocate quickly to London.
Like many who joined the anti-apartheid movement in the 1980s, Feinstein was largely ignorant about the ANC, which he idolised from afar. For those who had known it in exile, with its heroic militancy always offset by a mixture of Stalinism, corruption and thuggishness, there were few surprises in its behaviour over the arms deal. There is a sad moment in the book when Feinstein meets up with an ANC spy, who tries to warn him that the party is ‘full of murderers, drug dealers and common criminals’, but he thinks that’s crazy. Had he known more of the history of the party he was joining, he might have been less disconcerted by what followed. Once Mbeki had launched his attack on the parliamentary committee trying to investigate the deal, Feinstein lasted only three months: the story itself took 18 months to unfold – inevitably, the account he gives is incomplete.
The moment of truth for Feinstein should have come earlier, over Aids. He recounts with horror the scene in the ANC parliamentary caucus when Mbeki gave his lecture on Big Pharma and how, in league with the CIA, it had become involved in a campaign against him because he had challenged its insistence that HIV leads to Aids. Worse, he was cheered to the echo by ANC MPs, applauding ‘a web of conspiracy theory and fabrication’, as Feinstein now puts it, ‘that was an insult to his intellect’. Feinstein risked a great deal by leaking the notes he’d been taking during the speech, but it wasn’t until he was safely in London that he dared say anything. He had raised the spectre of the Holocaust ‘to make clear the dangers of remaining silent and then inexplicably couldn’t find my own voice on the greatest shame of the post-apartheid era’. But it’s not inexplicable. Anyone who knows the ANC knows that for him to have spoken out against Mbeki would have led not merely to extreme party sanctions but to all manner of personal victimisation.
Feinstein wants us to know how much he ‘reveres’ the ANC, with its rich tradition of internal debate and ‘the non-racial philosophy at its core’, but this is an ANC which he (and many others) have created in their own minds to make themselves more comfortable in the face of a very different reality, much as an oyster spins a pearl to protect it against irritation. The truth is that the ANC was 73 years old before it agreed that people of all races could serve on its executive. It went from 1969 to 1985 without a conference; dissidents who demanded one were victimised and punished: many were ultimately tortured and killed. One hero of the struggle after another was brought in to bully, threaten and lie to Feinstein’s committee to force it to desist from investigating the arms deal. As for the Aids issue, he was right to be frightened. Scared to speak on either his land-line or his mobile, he was warned that even his car would be bugged and, by the speaker’s office no less, that his continued nuisance value to the ANC leadership meant he should check underneath it for limpet mines. MPs in parties with a tradition of free speech don’t have to leave their country in a rush when they disagree with their leaders.
Feinstein wants to believe that it was under Mbeki that the ANC’s ‘humility, accountability and integrity began to be replaced by arrogance, aloofness and a gradual diminution of its values’. This is wishful. Mandela was much nicer than Mbeki, was indeed quite saintly in some respects, but Mandela, not Mbeki, was president when the arms deal went through – a fact Feinstein never mentions. It was Mandela who gave the most outrageously undemocratic speech ever made by an ANC leader, at Mafikeng in 1997, equating the opposition with organised crime, and it was Mandela who insisted that the only way to stop the violence between Inkatha and the ANC was for ‘everyone to join the ANC’. Like many others blown away by the euphoria of the Mandela years, Feinstein seems almost to imagine the history he wants.
He talks of the 1992 Boipatong massacre, in which 45 ANC supporters died, as having been carried out by Inkatha militants ‘abetted by the state security forces’. It’s true that the ANC and SACP alleged that the attackers had been ferried to the battle by armoured police vehicles provided by De Klerk, but De Klerk always denied this and it’s quite clear that he had every reason to avoid a conflagration of that kind. Commissions of inquiry have found no evidence of police or army involvement. The Inkatha culprits too denied that they’d had any help: a fact ultimately accepted by the Amnesty Committee of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Despite that, the ANC myth lives on (as in Feinstein’s book). Similarly, Feinstein would like to equate apartheid and the Holocaust (although the African population and its life expectancy increased sharply under apartheid) and announces that ‘all of South Africa’s apartheid prime ministers, with the exception of F.W. de Klerk, were jailed during World War Two as Nazi sympathisers.’ In fact, John Vorster was the only one of the six apartheid PMs who suffered this fate. Feinstein has had a bruising collision with reality and come through it bravely but there is a lot more reality out there with which he has yet to deal.
It is, however, Mark Gevisser’s vast biography of Mbeki (reduced, apparently, from a manuscript twice the size) that bears the heaviest teeth-marks of ANC piety. The book undoubtedly contains an enormous amount of useful information about the modern history of the ANC, but it was begun when Mbeki was the prince of power, the golden boy who could do no wrong. As Gevisser toiled on, Mbeki became ever more powerful and more feared, and public criticism of him became an increasingly dangerous sport. Yet at the same time his re-racialisation of South African life, his support for Mugabe, his Aids-denialism and his perfidious behaviour inside the ANC made him more and more hated and despised or, if you wanted to stay on the right side of safe, ‘controversial’. Gevisser’s way of dealing with this is to devote more than 80 per cent of his huge book to Mbeki’s life before 1994 and less than 15 per cent to his time as president.
Gevisser’s basic theme is that Mbeki’s childhood shaped his peculiarly closed and complex personality: he was uprooted from his family at an early age – his activist parents contributing him to the struggle, as it were – and the ANC became his surrogate family. This lack of rootedness gave a heightened importance to the two institutions which, Gevisser believes, formed him: Sussex University and the Institute of Social Sciences in Moscow. This seems true enough as far as it goes, but there is an uncomfortable amount of psychologising in the book and of trying to read Mbeki’s mind, always in a manner maximally sympathetic to him. Such sympathy may be seen as a biographer’s duty but it is striking how much less willing Gevisser is than most to describe Mbeki as paranoid, and he never mentions the grandiosity that goes with it.
Gevisser’s major claims for Mbeki are that he steered the ANC towards negotiating with the apartheid regime and then towards acceptance of a market economy. This is somewhat exaggerated. There were many different points of contact between the two sides and negotiation became increasingly likely. Indeed, once the Cold War ended there was no alternative, since the armed struggle had depended entirely on Soviet Bloc aid. In the event, when the ANC took the decision to negotiate it also decided to step up the armed struggle in order to improve its bargaining position; Alfred Nzo, the ANC’s hapless secretary-general, then read out at an open press conference a speech intended for a secret inner-party session, in which he admitted that the ANC lacked the capacity to step up the struggle inside the country.
Once the movement was unbanned the ANC as a whole – and Mandela in particular – came under overwhelming pressure to give up their initial demands for nationalisation. At the same time, many of the returning radicals made their own individual rapprochements with the forces of capitalism, acquiring business ‘sponsors’ and looking eagerly ahead to greater gains: as one of them put it, he ‘hadn’t joined the struggle to stay poor’. Where Mbeki does deserve credit is for the sharp turn towards fiscal responsibility in 1996, after the ANC government had drifted for two years without an economic policy. He was greatly vilified for this turnaround and the fact that it was carried out without wide consultation, but it was the only way to save a debt-laden state lacking credibility in the markets. Regrettably, he wasn’t willing to lead from the front and really take his critics on, for he was stymied by a larger problem: the momentum of a revolutionary rhetoric built up over thirty years of exile. In truth, there had been no revolution. The ANC had proved incapable of overthrowing the apartheid state and instead there had been a peaceful compromise. Embarrassingly, the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act passed in Reagan’s America had far more impact than any number of guerrilla actions. No one wanted to stand up and admit that all those years of revolutionary theory and rhetoric had been mere sound and fury. So Mbeki and everyone else declared that there had been a revolution, and that it had to be defended, advanced and deepened against (virtually non-existent) counter-revolutionaries. In the end this played into the hands of the far left, which used this very rhetoric to depose Mbeki.
Where Gevisser’s determined sympathy with Mbeki really grates is over his Aids denialism (a term Gevisser doesn’t use, preferring ‘Aids dissidence’). Through every twist and turn of Mbeki’s deranged reasoning Gevisser’s only concern is to understand and explain his hero’s mind, although he himself, a prominent gay activist, is no Aids denialist. Mbeki’s refusal to provide drugs to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV cost many scores and probably many thousands of lives. To his various claims on the subject – that Aids scientists are the equivalent of Nazi doctors experimenting on helpless prisoners, that Africans who go along with Aids treatment are selling their souls, that the CIA and Big Pharma were using the epidemic as a ‘racist weapon’ against Africa, that Aids dissidents are the modern equivalent of medieval heretics burned at the stake for their views, that anyone who demands proper drug treatment is in the pay of Big Pharma, and that the only reason for him to stop talking about Aids was for fear Big Pharma would arrange his assassination – you can add his many rantings about African sexual health and see that something was badly wrong. Gevisser’s silence was all the more peculiar during the struggle between Mbeki and Zuma, when he made many appearances in the South African media, simultaneously citing Mbeki’s statements on Aids and arguing that he was our best bet as president. Not even Nixon (whom Mbeki much resembles) had such apologists acting for him in his last frantic struggles to stay in office before, like Mbeki, he was forced to resign so as not to be impeached.
Today in the press all sorts of ‘experts’ who once showed endless deference to Mbeki are writing rakingly critical articles, while the SABC sways and dithers in its coverage, depending on how the ANC activists who run it see the future. The general assumption is that the spring 2009 elections will see Zuma installed as president, a prospect regarded with horror by those who think of Zuma as uneducated and sleazy and worry that the Communists are using him as a means to swing the country sharply leftward. This has already led to a significant split in the ANC, which, if it is going to gain traction, will have to take tribal form, with discontented Xhosas spearheading opposition to Zuma’s Zulu-led bloc.
The choices aren’t as simple as they seem. Like Jacob Zuma I was in the Congress movement in Durban in the early 1960s. He was far braver than I was, did ten years on Robben Island and frequently risked his life by slipping back into South Africa from exile. When we meet we talk about old comrades long dead, many of them tortured. The last time we did this he called one of his sons to witness it, for there is a sort of bonding in such reminiscence. He is a warm and genial soul and I can see why he is loved and admired by so many. He is no more sleazy than the average ANC politician. When, within a year of his election as president, Mbeki decided to destroy Zuma, his deputy-president, Zuma resolved to stand his ground and fight. This was unprecedented: every other rival whom Mbeki picked on took the view, as Ramaphosa did, that discretion was the better part of valour. For six years Zuma stood up to everything Mbeki could throw at him, and as the split widened, the press and civil society, hitherto scared and deferential, reawoke. Zuma not only saw off Mbeki’s attempt to turn himself into a life-president: he was also the crucial catalyst in maintaining our freedom of speech. We all owe him a tremendous debt.
On the other hand, he is a populist who seems to tell every audience what it wants to hear. He is an uxorious Zulu traditionalist and classic ‘big man’ but his core beliefs are unclear. The Communists will undoubtedly try to use his presidency to push through their own programme but it won’t work: the result would be an economic catastrophe from which the country would take a long time to recover. Not only that, it would probably mark the end of the revolutionary tradition. It is easy to see why the ANC breakaways led by Mosinoa ‘Terror’ Lekota want to avoid anything like it. When I talked to Terror (so-named because he was a centre forward who terrorised defences), I found him an immensely genial man too. When I told him how I could not but warm to Zuma; he scowled and said: ‘We must have seen different sides of him.’ I shall vote for the liberal opposition, the Democratic Alliance, which is honourable, honest and rather tame. No one in South Africa wants any more of Mbeki – even his closest henchmen are creeping around seeking jobs under different colours – so you can vote Zuma for his past or Terror for the future. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the unofficial leader of the Mandela wing of the ANC, says he won’t vote at all, but it’s only when the priests jump ship that you know the country’s growing up at last.