R.W. Johnson is a long-standing contributor to the LRB. His first appearance was on the letters page in 1981, where he took ‘mild issue’ with a review of his most celebrated book, The Long March of the French Left. In 1984 he wrote a memorable piece about national intelligence agencies, and the following year, a homage to Pierre Mendès France, one of the best pieces the paper has published on postwar politics in France. He has gone on to write more than a hundred pieces for the LRB, as an Oxford scholar whose politics were to the left of the editor’s (Karl Miller favoured the SDP, while Johnson favoured Labour). Nowadays I think he’d still say he was on the left but it isn’t obvious what that would mean, in his case especially. Like many people, he prides himself on describing things as they really are.
As the Cold War drew to a close, his patience with politicians and writers of the left had begun to wear thin. The LRB, which appeared to be moving leftward (in reality, Britain had moved to the right), stayed with him, and tossed him some meaty bones, which he gnawed loudly, often controversially. In 1989 he disparaged Hugo Young’s biography of Thatcher, in a piece of rhetorical brilliance about the profligacy of Thatcherism. In 1990 he sneered at Raymond Williams as a kindly old fellow from the valleys. In 1999, he savaged an authorised biography of Mandela, creating a stir on the letters page by identifying him – correctly – as a former communist. He rarely lets a response to a piece he has written go unanswered. His letters can be as fierce as his reviews. Not long ago, he seemed to have found a second home in Daniel Johnson’s post-9/11 journal Standpoint, somewhere to the right of the ‘new’ British centre.
But to read back through his pieces for the paper, and the reviews of his books, among them a glowing piece by Paul Foot in 1986, is to know that he isn’t easily pinned down. Yet if there were laws against inciting party political hatred, Johnson would have been fined and marginalised as a red-baiter on many occasions in many countries: he is a reliable, aggressive anti-communist. Red is the colour that troubles him in Africa; skin colour, he would argue, is beside the point. Yet his feud with South African communism gets him tangled in a tricky racial condescension, as we’ll see later.
He has two recent books to his name. Look Back in Laughter is the story of his time in Oxford from the 1960s to the 1990s. It is good on the in-house politics of the university, where he arrived as a Rhodes scholar from South Africa in 1964, and went on to become a PPE don at Magdalen with a keen interest in French and British politics, as well as a passion for southern Africa, on which he kept a vigilant eye. Karl Miller, who edited many of Johnson’s LRB pieces, called him ‘a beast from the pampas … rushing around and butting everybody’. (The remark is quoted on the back of the book.) Miller was thinking of Johnson the journalist. Here we get much more of the academic, yet the two are not so different: there’s something in this memoir of the fulminating don, gown rippling and ermine bristling, as he charges past the porter’s lodge to have a go at someone.
As he explains in his preface to Look Back in Laughter, Johnson returned home to South Africa in the 1990s (the book ends with some reflections on the post-apartheid state). Having made the decision to go back – and there’s much to commend it – he found a new lease of life as a think tank director. Then, in 2009, he lost a leg to necrotising fasciitis, after swimming in a lagoon in KwaZulu-Natal. It might as well have been taken off by a crocodile in one decisive snap, but life is seldom so simple, or so kind, in southern Africa: his leg was amputated in three stages, the last time above the knee, in a race against the disease, brilliantly described in a Diary for the LRB. He has it all not to give up at that point – courage, stoicism, bloody-mindedness – and he remains a noisy presence on the South African scene, just as he was at Magdalen.
Johnson’s Oxford, he tells us, was ‘a magical world’, and it can even be uncanny, with a touch of Hogwarts about it. Where else could the art historian E.H. Gombrich be transformed by a feat of necromancy into his son Richard, and suddenly appear as ‘a distinguished Orientalist’? What other magical city could induct a wizard of Johnson’s calibre and pack him off to France to discover Jean-Marie Le Pen’s followers celebrating their Welsh origins (‘nos ancêtres les Gallois’)? True, this is Muggle carping but Johnson is never slow to write to the LRB, castigating the editors – and contributors – for errors great and small. The book is a trove of tall stories and good ones, digs at the bien-pensant, whom he dislikes – and isn’t afraid to say so – and strong opinions about colleagues or acquaintances he doesn’t think are up to much. His dismissals tend to be cursory; people make him impatient, but his impatience is rarely tempered by an exercise of fellow-feeling. Men of action can dispense with imagination: Captain MacWhirr can only take the Nan-Shan through the eye of a tropical cyclone because he won’t give it too much thought. But Johnson, like most of us, isn’t in charge of a steamer in a typhoon; he’s a fellow of an Oxford college.
There is a touch of romance – the kind that makes it possible to write a memoir in the first place – in the way Johnson sees himself. Long before his terrible illness, he often felt that he was a priority target for the forces of evil. Apartheid security in South Africa (would he have withstood torture? he wonders, but he was never detained). Burly French communists in ‘blue overalls’ in a café in Mayenne (they seemed to want to pick a fight, but they didn’t). The US State Department (they really did hound him for his conspiracy theory about the downing of a Korean airliner over the Soviet Union in 1983, but not for long). MI5 (they really did snoop on him, apparently at the behest of Washington, but stood him down in a mild-mannered interview). Johnson’s journey through life without detentions by Verwoerd’s interrogators or beatings by the Communist Party does nothing to discredit him. Yet here we find his imagination hard at work: he tends to dramatise what might have happened. Under Captain Bill Johnson, the adventurer distracted by the imminence of danger, the Nan-Shan might well have broken up in the water.
Given Johnson’s rough and ready way with people, a complicated figure like A.J.P. Taylor detains him for longer than you’d expect. At Oxford Johnson knew and admired him; he envied his prolific output; he liked him – not the same as admiration – and also definitely didn’t. In the end, Taylor emerges as a flawed character, ‘wanting always to have his cake and eat it’, or to put it another way, as Johnson invariably does, needing ‘to have his cake as well as eat it’. Taylor is an establishment figure with anti-establishment airs, which ‘undermined all Alan’s pretensions to political radicalism’. Johnson likes to unmask a phony. Taylor, we’re told, also stole Johnson’s idea that the decisive moment for the Axis powers was Hitler’s decision to declare war on the US: Johnson had confided it to Taylor over supper in hall. Over another supper six months later, he served it up to Johnson as though it was a novel notion; and then he stuck it in a book without acknowledgment. Taylor was ‘a spoiled child’, Johnson tells us, with an immense ego.
Johnson fingers Mary Warnock more unequivocally as an English hypocrite. Opposed to co-ed colleges for years, she changed her mind when her husband became principal of Hertford College, which was about to vote to admit women. At that point the ‘First Lady’ of Hertford fell silent on the subject, but when Johnson met her at the side of a cricket field and needled her, she told him that ‘no one could be against co-education when you see what lovely young girls we’ve got at Hertford.’ Warnock was also against euthanasia until her husband contracted a fatal lung disease, whereupon ‘she did a 180-degree turn and ended up sponsoring an Assisted Suicides Bill in the House of Lords.’ This is how confused liberals work; they don’t know their own minds until reality hits them with a misfortune or a piece of good luck, and then they go scurrying for the ship’s supplies like a horde of disabused rats. A strain of British sentimentality sees them as ‘the great and the good’. Warnock is typical: far from being ‘a clear-headed moral philosopher’ she is a ‘classically muddled (and opinionated) British mandarin’.
It’s not that one wants to disagree at every turn with Johnson, but the approach is starved of nuance. The reason, perhaps, is that there is little room for contradiction in his model of decency and upstandingness. Even if he doesn’t mind a Marxist scholar such as Thomas Hodgkin (in fact, he loved Hodgkin and supplies a strong, sympathetic portrait), contradiction is by and large a failing, hard to distinguish from dishonesty, or moral blindness. What drives this failing? Mostly high-mindedness; a wish for the world to be better; and, crucially, the foolishness of good intentions, which invariably misfire.
Early on Johnson offers a curious illustration. It takes the form of a story, related by an Irish friend at Magdalen whose father served in the army during the Second World War. Old man Deeny was a doctor, instructed by his commanding officer to warn Irish recruits about the ills of venereal disease, up ‘by 40 per cent’ in the regiment since they’d been billeted near Dublin. Deeny thundered and inveighed through a loudhailer at the assembled rank and file, threatening them with madness, blindness, all the rest. But the effect – wait for it – was ‘to draw the attention of the disease-free 60 per cent to the ready accessibility of houses of ill repute with low women in them’. Three months later 80 per cent of the men had an STD. When fools and well-wishers try to do the right thing they end up exacerbating the problem they meant to solve. ‘Governments,’ Johnson explains, ‘have kept down university-fee levels’ in Britain. (Really?) Trying to hold fees at affordable levels, were it true, would have been another case of mushy good intentions: it could only have ‘immiserated the tertiary sector’. Wherever you look in Johnson’s world, the venereal disease fallacy is rampant. Johnson tells the same story about communism; and about post-colonial governance in Africa; but not on the whole about capitalism, even in its imperial phase. Whatever their pretensions, capitalism and empire are frank and to the point, with a commendably narrow margin between professions of purpose and actual outcomes.
Johnson’s memoir is loyal to creatures from the pampas with whom he forged lasting friendships. He is generous, also, to those Marxists he thinks have a purchase on his own version of reality: Hodgkin, of course – ‘tumbling hair and unkempt looks’, ‘every inch a mandarin’ – and the political scientist Colin Leys. Qualified praise goes to Christopher Hill; there are fond memories of Tariq Ali (who contests one or two details in the memoir). Johnson remembers Hodgkin, a dogged adversary of Pretoria, refusing to sign a petition in favour of anti-apartheid activists who’d torn up the cricket ground in the Parks before the South African team was due to play in Oxford in 1969. The university wanted to send the offenders down. So why not sign? someone asked Hodgkin. ‘“I’m not sure,” said Thomas, looking sad and inward. “Something to do with grass.”’
Johnson is pleased with his students. Here are a few top PPE men – women weren’t admitted to Magdalen until 1979 – who came good under his supervision: William Hague, found guilty of ‘electoral malpractice’ during his time in the university’s Conservative Association; an advocate, at the Oxford Union, of the birch and stocks; Chris Huhne, later energy secretary in David Cameron’s cabinet; Jeremy Hunt, the current health secretary. Johnson liked teaching and had a taste for the rough and tumble. His great day was not as a young man who worried about apartheid, or a feisty libertarian outnumbered by big French Stalinists in bleus de travail, but as a rock-solid Oxford don, who took issue with the university’s proposal to award Margaret Thatcher an honorary degree in 1984. At that point, he became an active dissident, organising behind the scenes to block Thatcher’s award, keeping a low profile while chivvying the most respectable opponents into the foreground; drafting and redrafting texts for the opposition; laying tactical plans to counter a ferocious response from the Oxford Thatcherites. This – to his surprise and relief – never materialised. On the day of the vote, in January 1985, ‘we had won by 733 to 319 … Most of the key organisers came to a celebration held that night in our house.’
Back home in South Africa as a sixty-something, Johnson was no longer inveighing against African politicians from the comfortable distance of Magdalen. On his arrival, not long after Mandela had been swept to office, he was touched by the clunkiness of the fumbling democracy. ‘All manner of wry contrasts and delightful ironies’ struck him at first. A few days later he was still basking in ‘all manner of delightful ironies’. With the honeymoon over, it was time to get the gloves off. In How Long Will South Africa Survive?, he argues that one force now predominates in South Africa’s destiny: the markets. Regime crises in South Africa, he insists, only occur when direct foreign investment dips, as it did during a wage revolt in the mines in the 1920s (investors were reassured by troops, government artillery and lower labour costs), and again in the apartheid era, following the Sharpeville massacre of 1960 and the Soweto uprising of 1976, which ‘failed completely’ but caused ‘a collapse of investor confidence in South Africa’. The last straw was the National Party’s failed promise of reform in the mid-1980s, which produced a ‘complete collapse in international investor confidence’: the ANC, and the dim-witted anti-apartheid movement in Europe, had failed to grasp that ‘financial sanctions were far more important than trade sanctions.’ An iron law determines South Africa’s character, past and future, Johnson tells us: its articulation, since the development of deep-seam mining in the 1880s, with the world capitalist economy.
The change, since Johnson’s earlier book of the same title, published in 1977, is that this articulation, already clear to him then, now takes precedence over all South Africa’s other distinguishing features. The ‘struggle’, with its wasteful incompetence, is over; Mandela – a bumbling yet pernicious figure in his eyes, both a terrorist and a communist in his day – is long gone; the Eastern bloc has crumbled; above all, globalisation and liberalisation have lengthened the odds against any regime that wants a crack at redistributive policies or sanctions wage hikes in a cocooned, protectionist economy. In this sense, the condition he identifies is non-specific: he’s right that we’ve all learned to skulk behind the markets with our tails between our legs. And just as well, Johnson implies: with full globalisation, there is nowhere to hide, and national economies will be punished wherever governments believe they can preside over ‘socialism in one country’. ‘Soaring wage increases,’ he reports, ‘saw South African unit labour costs rise by 60 per cent between 2007 and 2013’ as productivity declined. Even the ANC’s great success – a state-subsidised car manufacturing programme, which has doubled automobile production since 1994 and accounts for 12 per cent of exports – has been undermined by industrial action, with BMW reviewing its plans for expansion in 2013 and Nissan, Johnson tells us, deciding in 2014 against building a new Datsun in South Africa. For every labour strike, another investment strike is in the making, and like its predecessors in the 19th and 20th centuries, it brings the regime nearer the rocks.
The point, more generally, is that the ANC’s policies are depressing economic activity. South Africa’s agricultural exports have dwindled, agribusiness has failed to expand, and many farmers have sold up, driven by the threat of ‘Mugabe-style land seizures’ (i.e. the vexed, drastically underfunded land redistribution programme). Johnson believes energy production is on the verge of collapse since the ANC opted for ‘deliberate banning’ of new power stations. ‘Beneficiation’ – any process that separates mineral ore from worthless matter in the extractive industries – has failed to boost the value of South Africa’s mining exports, as the World Bank warned it would, but the government still imposes punitive taxes on companies that fail to comply with its edict that beneficiation is the way forward. Manufacturing overall – despite the policy-driven boom in the automotive sector – has declined from as much as 25 per cent of GDP in 1994 to 11 per cent. Johnson sees the trade unions as fractious and greedy, and responsible for a ruinous disparity between labour costs in South Africa and the rest of the world.
In these circumstances, it hardly matters whether or not a government is corrupt, but the ruling party, which has now run South Africa for more than twenty years, under four presidents – Kgalema Motlanthe was head of state for seven months between Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma – is hosting a feast of self-enrichment, ‘tenderpreneurship’ and peculation. Johnson is thoroughly uncontroversial when he points out that the result is a hard-core elite cordoned off from reality in gated fiefdoms where they dispense patronage and create jobs for a retinue of lawyers, accountants, security staff and other high-maintenance menials, hustle local elections, acquire majority shareholdings in companies via Black Economic Empowerment – a process underwritten by law – and consume at their leisure as a rentier class, while the country founders. This is how societies become impoverished, and their social capital washes away. ‘Was Mandela a false prophet, was he the father of this huge failure?’ Johnson loves to ask these bar-room brawl questions, but scoffs at people on the left, especially South African communists, who frame them differently, even if they share much of his analysis.
He is a dependable guide to the ANC’s internal power struggles, the fight for the presidency, and Jacob Zuma’s repudiation of ANC tradition: a dyed-in-the-wool anti-intellectual, Zuma is roundly castigated by Johnson. Here is a change of heart. Seven years ago, when Johnson published South Africa’s Brave New World, Zuma impressed him. Today he no longer thinks of Zuma – who recently survived a third no-confidence vote in the Cape Town parliament and a bid by the ANC’s National Executive Committee to have him removed – as a strong, upstanding Zulu or a plausible president. (In April, Zuma sent the South African rand into freefall and brought out mass protests for his removal from office.) Every other plank in Johnson’s anti-ANC platform remains in place. He has a masterful grip on the economy, although it’s not clear that his market-realism recipe for salvation will have much to offer South Africa if it is, as he says, on the verge of becoming part of the continent again, after an interlude of 350 years: a destiny he dreads. Modern African societies are a disaster in his eyes, especially if they’ve come down the road of armed struggle on the way to independence. ‘South Africa has become the world’s most unequal society,’ he writes. (He is thinking of inequality of income; Russia and the US are worse than South Africa in terms of wealth inequality.) ‘This is not some form of aberration from the liberation struggle,’ he goes on: ‘A glance around Africa shows that this is liberation.’
Yet by Johnson’s account, the ‘new’ South Africa is not precisely the outcome of a liberation struggle, since the ANC, the United Democratic Front, Black Consciousness and the Pan-Africanist Congress had very little bearing on events: the real forces in play were inevitable shifts in world markets, ill-judged responses in Pretoria, and finally the collapse of the Soviet Union. There’s only a narrow margin here for social movements to influence political outcomes. In Johnson’s reading, apartheid would have fallen anyway, or been negotiated away, without the unnecessary sacrifice, and people might well have been wiser to keep their heads down, as they did by and large in the Eastern bloc with a couple of costly exceptions, until the advent of Solidarność. ‘Armed struggle’ seems to him the most wasteful of the many fantasies that detained the opposition in South Africa during the apartheid years, and he has never hidden his impatience with it.
He blames the South African Communist Party for the decision to take to the gun. Lurking at the back of his argument is the difficult suggestion that this was not just a political, but a racial coup: the turn to armed struggle was a ‘yes baas’ process, in which senior black members of the ANC and the Communist Party caved in – or were marginalised (mainly by white and Asian militants, whom they regarded as their cultural superiors: ‘mainly’ because the forceful Mandela was a member of both at the time). The ANC’s staunch affiliation with communism was Johnson’s core grudge against the ANC, and produces the flaw in his race sensibility: he could only account for the turn from non-racial politics to a politics of class struggle – with a lot of criminal activity under the rubric – by implying that the masses in urban South Africa were led astray by clever cosmopolitans with a scheming, internationalist agenda. During the 1950s and 1960s, race reactionaries in the US denounced white activism in the Civil Rights movement on similar grounds. Johnson didn’t like the way the struggle in South Africa played out. He sneers at the legacy myths. He’s entitled to his brutal demystification, but the harshness of tone makes his an uncompromising, maverick voice. That may well be a point of honour, like going back to South Africa and turning up his nose at the exiles, but it doesn’t guarantee him a more sympathetic hearing. Time and again the tone stands in the way of the arguments, even the ones you know to be right.
Can any group or class change the shape of things in Johnson’s grand determinist view of national destinies? The best we can hope for is that governments – the captain and crew – navigate astutely, as the ship of state creaks under the pressure of huge forces. Johnson has a low opinion of P.W. Botha but his contempt for Mandela and his successors is greater: the ANC set the wrong course and by now there’s no one on the bridge. More and more South Africans agree on that last point and disgust at the leadership is now quite openly expressed on the streets. In local elections last year the ANC’s standing was dramatically reduced. Support for the party peaked in 2004, ten years after Mandela’s victory, with 70 per cent of the vote in the general election. Last year’s municipal results cut that down to 54 per cent, the lowest since 1994 in a national or local ballot. The party failed to secure an outright majority in Johannesburg, which now has a Democratic Alliance mayor, a breezy, self-styled ‘capitalist crusader’. The DA also took two large metropolitan areas, one that includes Port Elizabeth, the other Pretoria. Johnson saw this coming, but he doesn’t think much of the DA. He makes the astonishing assertion that the party regards appointments on merit as ‘racist’ (he must mean that the DA was in the process of rolling out a comprehensive quota system) and warns that ‘one simply cannot run a modern market economy on that basis.’
This difficulty – how to run a modern market economy – underpins the new book. Many of the answers will be familiar to UK readers: don’t embark on grandiose redistribution programmes; keep policy interventions in favour of equality to a few marginal experiments; accept that local wages are under pressure from cheap labour elsewhere; rein in the trade unions; thin out the public sector, privatise ‘at least a few state industries’. Some of this is spelled out in a section that weighs up the likelihood of an IMF bailout in the not too distant future. If you give business the incentives it says it needs, in order to do what it claims to do for the benefit of society, the opportunity may well arise somewhere down the line to build schools, hospitals, houses, roads; to train scientists, nurses, doctors and teachers, get people to work, and put a chicken in every pot. IMF conditionality, Johnson thinks, would leave South Africa ‘far better equipped to take its place within a competitive international market economy’.
This is the approach favoured by the Magdalen PPE luminaries who have governed Britain: not just the ones Johnson groomed, but other Magdalen men, including George Osborne and the former attorney general Dominic Grieve. So it comes as a relief to find that the UK is not Johnson’s model for a better South Africa. Instead he opts for Portugal after the officers’ coup of 1974, when the country went from rule by a revolutionary left to an election – and a social democratic presidency – within two years. Portugal is a struggling post-crash economy. Its budget deficits are around the same as South Africa’s; its national debt is almost three times as high; it is losing a lot of unskilled labour abroad (as it always has) and increasingly skilled labour too, nurses especially: more than 20 per cent of the Portuguese now live outside the country. Until it emerged from the IMF bailout in 2013, Portugal had seen three years of negative growth, far worse than South Africa in 2008-9; average net salary is low; there are a lot of workers on the government payroll. Unemployment as a whole is falling (to around 12 per cent), but not for younger people (more like 30 per cent). Johnson hasn’t picked Portugal out of a hat.
It’s getting harder to know whether any liberal democracy in the shadow of globalisation will ever re-create the levels of wealth and income equality that prevailed in developed societies until the 1970s, or why it should be a model for African countries.One way to look at it – Thomas Piketty’s – is to say that depression, war, disruption and massive redistribution programmes created a 20th-century aberration. Southern Africa has had its share of war and disruption, but most of the redistribution in Johnson’s country was to Afrikaners under apartheid – socialism in one tribe – and then, as he’s at pains to explain, to new elites in a conspiracy of graft, involving big business, senior trade union figures and the government. Speaking in Soweto in 2015, Piketty pointed up the levels of wealth inequality in South Africa (just as Johnson points up income inequality), but he also claimed that the top 10 per cent of wealth owners are still predominantly white, which would mean that race and advantage remain firmly aligned. If a liberal democratic regime in South Africa, tossed this way and that by commodity prices and global labour costs, failed to bring on a long surge of income equality, it would do no better than the ANC has. In the UK, where post-Cold War liberal market doctrines have had a good run, inequality of income is among the worst in the OECD countries, and wealth inequality – while less acute than in France, say – means that 10 per cent of British households own 45 per cent of the wealth.
In other ways there’s no comparison: the UK is still a good place to find work and, if you can lay your hands on a property, to know you’re richer than you were yesterday when you poured boiling water over a teabag. It has nothing like the levels of violence – common murder, assault and battery, rape, armed robbery, armed struggle, state repression, political assassination – that have blighted South Africa for generations. The recent beatings and murders of migrants in Britain are rare crimes, committed in the ecstatic wake of the Leave victory: in South Africa they’re commonplace. South Africa’s township populations still resemble the poor in Mayhew’s London. The West’s universalising models of political economy are foundering under the pressures of globalisation even as we advocate them in BRICs and developing countries. Johnson doesn’t seem to mind. He anticipates ‘great social convulsions’ in his wishful transition to Portuguese-style liberal democracy, and appears to relish the prospect.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.