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South Africa’s Brave New World: The Beloved Country since the End of Apartheid 
by R.W. Johnson.
Allen Lane, 701 pp., £25, April 2009, 978 0 7139 9538 1
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Anyone in South Africa, white or black, rich or poor, who reads R.W. Johnson’s new book could be forgiven for rushing to the airport. It’s a familiar tale of African hopelessness, with one disaster following another. If South Africa fails, then the continent fails, and will be plunged into the depths of yet greater darkness. Apartheid was morally repellent and in the end unworkable, yet the successor governments of the African National Congress have proved unable to live up to their promise of making a ‘better life for all’. The dominant exile faction, schooled in Moscow, East Germany and Lusaka, was economically illiterate and has proved to be irredeemably venal. To be sure, they inherited a bankrupt, rundown economy, and despite a series of calamitous errors, restored it to reasonable financial health. Yet ultimately, in Johnson’s view, the ANC lacks the technical knowhow to oversee the most advanced economy on the continent, has no serious appreciation of the risks undertaken by business, has ignored the need to manage and develop the country’s infrastructure, and has allowed the standard of basic services, notably health and education, to decline catastrophically; the provision of electricity and clean water is not far behind (Nigeria here we come). Houses are built, but they are substandard; new schools are put up, but there are few competent teachers to staff them; and land reform gives good land to untried black farmers, who are set up to fail while white farmers, if they aren’t slaughtered by armed gangs, face an uphill battle to prevent South Africa becoming a net importer of food. Economic growth has turned positive since 1994, but this is overwhelmingly a result of the recent commodity boom: the high returns for a country rich in minerals have restored average individual incomes to 1980s levels.

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

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

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

Yet the greatest disaster to befall the new South Africa, as Johnson sees it, is the ANC’s policy of affirmative action, applied in the name of ‘transformation’ and ‘demographic representivity’ in every part of the public sector and demanded of the private sphere as well. White Africans have been ejected from office, and because of the deliberate stunting of black education under apartheid and the failure of post-1994 schooling, the result has been the staffing of vast reaches of the state by underqualified or grossly incompetent black Africans. The machinery of state has been crippled and the parastatal companies (which still account for roughly 40 per cent of economic activity) are in deep decline. Meanwhile, the incoming political elite has embarked on a massive project of primitive accumulation, pioneered by senior figures in the ANC – some are less involved than others – who identified cabinet posts as lucrative routes to personal wealth. The defence portfolio, probably the most striking example, was central to the web of corruption surrounding the notorious 1999 arms deal. Affirmative action and its close companion, Black Economic Empowerment (which demands that white capital buy off black politicians by offering co-ownership and shares at a discount), have led not only to corruption and excess but to long-term economic and social decline.

This is a rollicking story, and with luck the doom and gloom will free up a few more tickets for next year’s World Cup, even if South Africans have to pay for them in devalued rands. It is also undeniably a recognisable picture of a country in which absurdities and injustices abound. On 11 August, to take one recent average day, the Johannesburg Star reported that 300 senior civil servants had failed to disclose their business interests (as required by law); the president of the Black Management Forum was said to have demanded an African appointment to the vacant chairmanship of a major bank, a post requiring ‘only’ the ability to run a meeting; the ANC parliamentary caucus had called for an investigation into whether an opposition Democratic Alliance member of parliament had broken the law by disclosing the details of arms sales to countries with dubious human rights records; the electricity supplier, Eskom, had been forced to suspend a 24 billion rand agreement to receive power from Botswana because it had run out of money; and a new cabinet member had praised the efficacy of indigenous herbs compared to antiretrovirals.

Concern about the country’s trajectory is not a white monopoly: an Indian South African journalist, returning after a year’s absence, likened downtown Johannesburg to Nairobi. Johnson himself has fallen victim to what he calls the hopeless mismanagement of water resources, having lost a leg and barely survived a flesh-eating disease after an accident in a lagoon whose waters were almost certainly polluted by raw sewage. To his immense credit, his recent pronouncements on his personal disaster display both fortitude and ironic humour – and a continued love of South Africa.

Even so, his portrait of South Africa is sadly unnuanced, with a weakness for prejudicial hearsay. The clearest example is his repetition of the old Communist/economist fable. When Mandela asked who was a good economist, Trevor Manuel spoke up, thinking that the old man had asked who was a good Communist, and was promptly made minister of finance. Funnily enough the same story did the rounds in the wake of the Cuban Revolution, only it was Castro who asked the question and Che Guevara who was put in charge of the economy. More worrying than his lapses into right-wing legend is his overwhelming dependence for much of his material on the English-language press, especially Business Day and the weekly Mail and Guardian. To point this out is not to disparage the papers in question: they are sources of valuable information, debate and criticism. Yet, as any journalist knows, good news doesn’t sell and the press in South Africa (once you get past the rugby) is largely preoccupied with ANC arrogance, incompetence at every level of government, criminal violence, cronyism and corruption. Our newspapers also have their limitations when it comes to the historical record: the information they provide is not always complete or accurate, and when inaccurate, not always corrected. A review of the media coverage of April’s election suggests that the content of the papers reflects the values and interests of a relatively small, literate class. In polls, some 60 per cent of the population say unemployment is their primary concern, yet it occupied a mere 0.7 per cent of press coverage during the campaign.

Johnson has little regard for competing scholarship, particularly in the fields of contemporary history and social science. The exception is the work of his long-time collaborator Lawrence Schlemmer (whom he describes as the country’s leading sociologist); the rest of us are dismissed as a pusillanimous lot, politically correct and unable to open our mouths for fear of offending the ANC or being accused of racism. Yet if Johnson had looked a little further, he would have found a wealth of material both to support and to test his arguments. A serious look at established histories of the ANC might have saved him from such egregious errors as his assertion that Joe Slovo and Ruth First, leading members of the then underground SACP, catapulted their ‘protégé’ Nelson Mandela to the leadership of the ANC, thereby ensuring that the armed struggle and the Communists would dominate the party for the next three decades. The implication here is that blacks were incapable of pursuing the liberation struggle without white puppet-masters. This is a gross simplification of the complicated mélange of Africanist, non-racial and Christian as well as Communist currents behind the scenes. Johnson’s familiar, much-disputed view that Mandela was a member of the SACP inevitably resurfaces here.

Johnson’s antipathy to the ANC nonetheless allows him to explore territory where others have been wary of treading; especially when he examines the dark days of the political transition. He makes a convincing argument that Joe Modise is one of the key players in the ruin of the country and sees him as the malevolent godfather of the ‘broken-backed state’ that South Africa has become. He also argues that the upper echelons of the ANC masterminded the assassination of Chris Hani, a popular senior figure both in Umkhonto we Sizwe and the SACP: Hani was regarded by the apartheid security services as their most dangerous opponent, and by Mbeki as his most dangerous rival after Mandela for the leadership of the ANC. The assassination was carried out by a Polish émigré, Janus Walus, and Clive Derby-Lewis, an extremely unpleasant white extremist MP, but Johnson believes they were set up by elements within the ANC while the apartheid security apparatus looked quietly on; it suited both interested parties to allow the murder to pass as a right-wing conspiracy.

To this day, Walus and Derby-Lewis remain in jail, denied amnesty by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the grounds that they failed to make a full confession. In particular, it was felt that they had not provided enough information regarding the involvement of Derby-Lewis’s wife in Hani’s murder; there was also some doubt as to whether or not they knew about plans for other assassinations. Johnson argues that they had ‘clearly’ made full disclosure and bluntly ascribes their continued incarceration to the TRC’s reluctance to offend the SACP, which in turn confirms his thesis that the commission was basically staffed by ANC hacks. Whether or not this is the case, he is surely right in saying that the main beneficiaries of Hani’s death were Modise, a hugely compromised figure who had had covert links to the apartheid war machine and sought to profit from the 1999 arms deal, and, of course, Mbeki. Johnson goes on to provide chapter and verse for a series of further killings, some of them of ANC figures, which have been inadequately investigated and which seem to be related to dodgy business deals and outright political corruption. His findings point up the links between the ANC and a murky underworld of criminality and corrupt policing.

Yet Johnson tends to overdo it. His treatment of the TRC, widely celebrated beyond South Africa, is almost entirely negative. The TRC, which sat from 1996, completed its five-volume report in 1998 and concluded outstanding business in 2003, was established as a key element of the post-apartheid political process. It was responsible for investigating human rights abuses committed by all parties during the apartheid era, and empowered to make reparations to the victims. The central point was the agreement that amnesty from prosecution would be provided for politically motivated crimes, so long as the commission was satisfied that applicants had made a full confession: a concession granted to satisfy the apartheid security forces and the political right, who were concerned that the TRC could become the instrument of an ANC-driven witch hunt. When sitting, the TRC was the focus of international attention, not least because of the moving scenes in which both victims and perpetrators told their stories.

At the same time, the achievements and performance of the TRC are recognised even among its most ardent admirers as severely compromised, not least by the ANC’s (unsuccessful) efforts in 1998 to prevent the handover of the final report to the government on the grounds that abuses committed in the name of the struggle for freedom could not be morally and legally equated with those committed in the name of apartheid. The results of the whole experiment have been highly ambiguous. The emotional impact of the TRC for many black people was enormous; it opened the eyes of myopic whites to the crimes that had been committed in the cause of ‘security’ and ‘civilisation’; it recovered the bodies of victims, unburdened the consciences of killers and, in some cases, even facilitated their reconciliation with the families of their victims. Nonetheless, the proceedings and the outcome of the TRC were imperfect, and just as the right complain that individuals like Walus and Derby-Lewis have been unfairly treated, other organisations, notably the Pan-Africanist Congress and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), argue that their own partisans have been unfairly left to rot in jail (in South African jails you do rot) and that the amnesty process has been unequally applied. All these strengths and weaknesses have been explored backwards and forwards, for and against, partially and impartially.

Probably the most hostile critique of the TRC has come from Anthea Jeffery, who in The Truth about the Truth Commission (1999) argued that the commission was biased in favour of the ANC and that the bulk of its findings were erroneous or lacking a basis in law. Johnson and Jeffery are in the same camp and he relies almost entirely on her conclusions: in essence that the model was wrong (although he fails to suggest an alternative). The TRC, she believes, was overloaded with pro-ANC commissioners and staffed by researchers with inadequate legal training; it went beyond its mandate (in calling for collective actors such as the churches, business and judges to appear before it) and delivered a report full of contradiction and error. Above all, it did not submit witnesses to proper cross-examination; the result was a systematic bias in favour of the ANC and the UDF, allowing the commission to distort the results of earlier or ongoing legal inquiries or even to reverse court judgments. It failed, for instance, to pin adequate blame on the ANC and the UDF for their involvement in acts of ‘barbarism’ – township necklacings, for example – during the brutal final years of the political transition. It passed unfair judgment on the IFP in determining responsibility for the violence that tore Natal apart in the early 1990s (Johnson apportions more blame to the ANC for mounting a hit campaign against IFP office-holders). It overturned the judgment of the Goldstone Commission that the police and a shadowy ‘third force’ had not been involved in the Boipatong massacre of 1992, in which some 45 people, most of them ANC supporters, were killed (and which had been used by the ANC at the time to break off negotiations with the National Party). It laid the blame squarely on IFP supporters for launching attacks on Shell House, the ANC headquarters, in 1994, when a judicial inquiry had already established that there was no justification for ANC guards to open fire on the demonstrators, ten of whom were killed.

Johnson has a case and so did Jeffery, but her criticisms of the TRC were almost wholly legalistic, ignoring the wider processes of national healing in which the TRC was engaged; she placed too much faith in apartheid judicial processes and gave insufficient weight to evidence that was in many cases not presented to the courts, or which they suppressed, but was later uncovered by the TRC. Whatever her intention, the political thrust of her book was to rehabilitate the IFP, with whom the South African Institute of Race Relations, of which she was a high-profile member, had worked closely during the 1980s. According to many scholars, the Inkatha movement (as the IFP was then) was deeply implicated in state-driven attempts to contain, suppress and replace the ANC; and the policies and speeches of its leader, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, were often threatening to his black opponents, either openly or by implication.

It would be wrong to leave the impression that Johnson’s ‘angry’ book – I quote from the blurb – is entirely negative. He ends with an account of the political battle within the ANC that saw Jacob Zuma replace Thabo Mbeki as president of the party at its Polokwane congress in December 2007, and succeed to the state presidency following the ANC’s election victory in April this year. Zuma’s rise has been controversial. As Mbeki’s deputy president, he was deeply embroiled in the arms deal scandal. This led to his marginalisation within the government and, following the conviction for malfeasance of one of his close associates, Schabir Shaik, in 2005, to Mbeki’s removing him from the deputy presidency. As everyone in South Africa knows, the legal and political process was suborned by Mbeki, who opted to run for a third term as ANC president and isolate Zuma, his principal rival; Zuma responded by mobilising popular support from the Congress of South African Trade Unions as well as groups and individuals whom Mbeki had alienated and was able, in the end, to humiliate his superior and seize the crown. Various subplots included Zuma’s trial on a charge of rape, which, despite his acquittal, threw doubt on his credentials as a future president. Going against the grain – the intelligentsia and the media rounded on Zuma – Johnson describes a determined conspiracy against him, driven by Mbeki, even down to the mise-en-scène for the alleged rape, which will gladden the hearts of the new president’s supporters. In Zuma, Johnson sees an open-minded politician, who, while having a far from spotless past, promises a new era for South Africa, even though the cause of democracy, in Johnson’s opinion, will be best served by the eclipse of the ANC, which he foresees in a not-so-distant future.

Johnson’s South Africa is a country of bitter disappointment, of dashed hopes and dreams, brought about by the botched utopias of Mbeki and the ANC. His tale is compelling, yet in its simplicity and excess, it displays an alarming ahistoricism. What other ruling party would have been able to stop South Africa falling apart in the wake of the democratic transition? How much more dangerous and violent might South Africa be today if it had not experienced the cathartic effects of the TRC? To what extent would white business have sought to incorporate blacks if it had not been put under pressure, and would South Africa be as politically stable today if there had not been a deliberate blackening, as we say, of the corporate elite? Why, if forces within the ANC have succeeded in throwing off a tyrant, can it not reform itself to become a less ambiguous vehicle for democracy? I don’t have the answers to such urgent questions, but I have greater faith in South Africa’s rough and tumble democracy than some of its more strident critics.

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Vol. 31 No. 20 · 22 October 2009

No South African academic has been more shunned in his own country than R.W. Johnson. Very few have a comparable pedigree. Despite his having taught for a quarter-century at Magdalen College, Oxford, having written a number of substantial and respected books, having been director of the Helen Suzman Foundation in Johannesburg and South Africa correspondent for the Sunday Times, he has not once been invited to speak on any university campus in South Africa. That suggests a climate of animus, which Roger Southall’s review of Johnson’s South Africa’s Brave New World (LRB, 8 October) unfortunately shares.

The problem isn’t that Southall disagrees with Johnson over matters such as the murder of the South African Communist Party leader Chris Hani or the integrity of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Differences of this kind are in the nature of normal debate. The issue is Southall’s impugning of Johnson’s scholarship. A good deal of the review is taken up reciting factual points made by Johnson in his book, none of them flattering to the governing African National Congress, and none of them challenged by the reviewer. Southall nevertheless accuses Johnson of ‘egregious errors’ and ‘gross simplification’. One such imputation is critical to Southall’s argument. He writes that ‘Johnson’s familiar, much disputed view that Mandela was a member of the SACP inevitably resurfaces here.’

Johnson’s well-grounded conjecture was confirmed in print two years ago by the late Hilda Bernstein, a former member of the Central Committee of the SACP. Bernstein, who was married to one of Mandela’s coaccused in the Rivonia trial, was ‘insistent’ on this point when interviewed by Padraig O’Malley. In Shades of Difference (2007), O’Malley quotes Bernstein: ‘Well, Mandela denies that he was ever a member of the Party, but I can tell you that he was a member of the Party for a period.’ As a member of the SACP underground at the time, I worked closely with Bernstein in Johannesburg in 1963-64, producing underground journalism for the military wing of the ANC and the SACP, Umkhonto we Sizwe. Bernstein was at that time an essential link between the Central Committee of the SACP and the high command of Umkhonto. Her confirmation of Mandela’s membership of the SACP is conclusive.

Paul Trewhela

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