Pretoria gets ready

Heribert Adam

  • Black and Gold: Tycoons, Revolutionaries and Apartheid by Anthony Sampson
    Hodder, 280 pp, £12.95, January 1987, ISBN 0 340 39524 9
  • The Crisis in South Africa by John Saul and Stephen Gelb
    Zed, 245 pp, £6.95, December 1986, ISBN 0 86232 692 3

It is a depressing fact that minority rule in a modern developed economy can last a long time provided it is sufficiently ruthless. An unjust regime is not necessarily a faltering one. Lacking legitimacy merely increases costs. Contrary to conventional social science wisdom, even such closed states as Syria, Burundi or Poland demonstrate how hated cliques can cling to power despite the manifest disaffection of the majority. How much more does this apply to South Africa, where the loyalty both of the military and of an ethnic bureaucracy remains unquestioned. Pretoria cannot therefore be equated with Teheran or Manila. As a legally sovereign state, South Africa is neither subject to foreign administrative control nor crucially dependent on outside support. Israel, for example, despite her greater legitimacy, is far more vulnerable to external pressure than the Apartheid order. In the present violent stalemate, the South African state can be undermined – but not overthrown.

There are, however, definite limits to Pretoria’s ruthlessness, and in this lies South Africa’s prime vulnerability. First, Apartheid minority rule cannot apply terror indiscriminately against all members of out-groups. If the regime were to live up fully to its fascist label, it would have to jettison its vital distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ blacks, so-called manipulated revolutionaries and decent moderates on whom the economy depends. Afrikaner nationalist domination cannot muster the manpower to run a developed urban sector without at the very least the tacit compliance of the victims.

Secondly, any stepping-up of the terror would increase the ideological cleavages within the ruling group. English liberalism has always been more of a silent beneficiary than a ready ally of racial capitalism. Within Afrikanerdom itself, the moral legacy of Calvinism constrains technocratic ruthlessness. The holders of power also want to feel good about their rule. Their ideology serves as much to provide the jailers with a credible rationale as it does to encourage the jailed to blame themselves. The former cohesion of Afrikaner nationalism is already breaking apart. Where previously there was ideological solidarity and ethnic mobilisation there is now sectarian patronage, causing envy and dissent within the ranks. Morally bankrupt and ideologically exhausted, the Nationalist Party practises ad hoc crisis management without an eschatology. Complaints about ‘lack of vision’ abound. Any further mistakes will lead to further defections and feed the legitimacy crisis among the Party’s intellectuals.

Paradoxically, this ideological vacuum has allowed the scope of permissible discourse to expand at the same time as tighter emergency rules were introduced. The University of the Western Cape, for example, has been quietly transformed from a racial bush college to a widely recognised ‘intellectual home of the Left’, in the words of its rector – which shows how unpredictable the consequences of Apartheid can be. In the absence of ideological certainty, the censorship bodies, courts and security officials are themselves confused about which strategies are appropriate and which rules are binding. The wider the discretion, the more its handlers are liable to criticism for abusing it. Therefore, despite its military might, a relatively open South Africa cannot emulate a closed Syria, where in 1982 the minority Alawite regime literally obliterated with bombs and napalm the rebellious city of Hama, killing an estimated thirty to forty thousand people.

These two books, published among dozens of similar studies, illustrate the third reason why Pretoria can only hypothetically bomb Soweto into the ground. As an English-speaking police state, South Africa remains in the spotlight of world public opinion. Despite censorship, South Africa is still one of the most accessible and over-researched societies. The detention, torture and shooting of protesters in the remotest areas would eventually become public knowledge, while the Hama destruction went almost unnoticed. It is the cord that attaches the country to its Western heritage which incenses the South African technocrats. The reason they cannot easily snap it is best illustrated by Anthony Sampson’s story of capitalist wheeling and dealing with the Apartheid regime.

Historically, the system developed as an integral part of the Western global economy. And that is what it is today. Sampson concludes, however, that recently ‘Western capitalists have wished to show that they have finally written off Pretoria.’ But is the grudging disinvestment really ‘the end of that long road of the love-affair between South Africa and Western capitalism’, as Sampson asserts? Disengagement changed a formal marriage into an illicit affair under pressure from foreign consumers and voters. Barclays may have sold its South African offspring at a bargain to Anglo-American, but the new company remains within the extended family. Do the different passports of its members really matter? When General Motors and IBM lend money to their South African management to buy the troubled subsidiaries and continue to supply the necessary technology, they are ‘not cutting us off so much as they are cutting us loose’. The American headquarters rids itself of a nuisance, ‘while still profiting from sales under their agreements’. This is the way the Japanese, who never invested in South Africa, have for years been selling their cars and computers. Ironically, the prime victim of the local buy-outs are the fledgling black unions.

Sampson writes with flair and melodrama, and his book has all the ingredients of a political bestseller. But personalising his narrative has led him to include a lot of trivia: ‘Slovo still sported a blazer, South African style, and a throaty South African accent.’ We learn that ‘Kissinger was bored by South Africa’; that Slabbert has a funny nose; that Mike Rosholt is a ‘civilised chairman’ and Tony Bloom ‘debonair’. However, the idiosyncrasies in Sampson’s account also reveal how often leading capitalists act out of emotion rather than shrewdly-calculated interest. Oppenheimer felt ‘twitchy’ about his successor’s 1985 Lusaka trip, the famous public relations exercise – the revolutionaries ‘wore ties and neat suits’ and the tycoons ‘looked unkempt with open necks’ – which laid the ground for the subsequent legitimisation of the ANC in Western capitals. How far South African business still lags behind a grasp of its crisis is reflected in Gavin Relly’s remark: ‘I don’t think that we have a role to get the government and the ANC together.’ Yet with the resurgence of the most widely-based resistance to Apartheid since 1984, the ANC/UDF coalition has re-emerged almost overnight as the recognised majority voice of the alternative. Its meagre military impact stands in sharp contrast to its wide symbolic appeal.

Where Sampson wants to make the ‘revolution as bloodless and manageable as possible’, John Saul is primarily concerned with its socialist outcome.[*] His account deals with familiar instances of repression and resistance, which he tends to romanticise as only foreign sympathisers can. It smacks of condescension when a tenured Toronto academic lectures the ANC in socialist vigilance and proper revolutionary practice. Although the book is dedicated ‘to all those who are seeking to build a new and egalitarian future’, Saul lashes out against those so-called nationalists of the two-stage theory (including the South African Communist Party) who aim at abolishing Apartheid before advancing towards socialism.

This emphasis on the simultaneity of the national and the class struggle avoids the strategic question of alliances and priorities. If national liberation is accorded priority, then alliances between democratic forces and the anti-Apartheid capitalists become feasible and even promising. If, on the other hand, class liberation is equally stressed, there is no reason to expect capitalists to dig their own grave by helping into power nationalists who are bent on expropriating their allies. A successful all-class alliance of anti-Apartheid forces hinges on minimal pay-offs or guarantees for its most wary component. Shrewdly-calculating capitalists are unlikely to jump from a smouldering Apartheid fire into a socialist frying-pan. But they could be enticed to switch if the heat on the other side were lowered and if the prospect of majority rule seemed promising rather than frightening.

Saul misrepresents the policy of the capital-orientated PFP and its former leader van Zyl Slabbert by accusing them of ‘hawking confederal constitutional models’ and of fearing ‘majority domination’. In fact, the PFP stands unequivocally for universal franchise in a non-racial, federal (not confederal) South Africa and only wants the rights of self-chosen cultural groups recognised. Saul himself reinforces government propaganda when he equates ‘genuine democratisation and transfer of power to the black majority’. Post-Apartheid democracy is supposed to be non-racial, based on colourblind individual rights: it is not intended to replace a white minority with a black majority, as Saul’s formulation states.

While Saul raises relevant questions, the style of his polemic does a great disservice to the muchneeded solidarity of the opposition to Apartheid. He deplores ‘unhelpful venom and personalistic attacks’ against himself, but delivers his own criticisms in an equally ‘personalistic’ way. Not only does he distort the thrust of more liberal analyses, he even invents quotes to ‘prove’ their anti-socialist bias. Saul optimistically believes that ‘the end-game approaches’, but anyone who hopes, as I do, for democratic and egalitarian alternatives to be strengthened in the meantime is denounced as, at best, a ‘bland social democrat’ or, at worst, ‘capital’s most outspoken protagonist’. One cannot both promulgate, in Saul’s words, ‘the widest possible range of forums for ventilating the most embarrassing questions about the precise pace and substance of socialist advance’ and at the same time narrow the parameters to a particular version of socialism.

The growing anti-capitalism of the oppressed in South Africa has itself not yet crystallised into specific economic policies for the post-Apartheid order. At present, ‘socialism’ aims at punishing ‘the bosses’ for supporting Apartheid: what it hopes for is a fairer distribution of wealth and more workers’ control in the factories and communities. For many, the slogans still have to be given content. But even veteran union leaders have in mind Swedish or British social-democratic welfare models, and not Eastern bloc policies, when they reject formal democracy as insufficient. The president of COSATU, Elijah Barayia, asked whether he would describe COSATU as a socialist organisation, replied: ‘Yes, I believe COSATU is a socialist organisation and I would like to see a socialist state in South Africa. I speak of socialism as practised by the Labour Party in England.’ What irks Saul and British fringe groups like ‘Marxist Workers’ Tendency’, a Trotskyist organisation expelled from the ANC, is the explicit ANC self-definition, as formulated by Thabo Mbeki: ‘The ANC is not a socialist party. It has never pretended to be one, has never said it was, and is not trying to be.’ The ANC leaves the affiliated SA Communist Party and the unions in charge of safeguarding working-class interests and wisely aims at an all-class alliance against Apartheid. Is the ANC therefore in danger of being ‘hijacked by the petty bourgeoisie’? Must that ‘baffling mixture of purpose and muddle, radicalism and conservatism, Christianity and communism’, as Sampson characterises the ANC, be rescued from itself, as the Sauls of this world would have it?

In the mind of the Ultra-Left, conspiracy theories always abound. Words like ‘hijacking’, ‘sinister’ or ‘seduction’ reveal a way of thinking which falsely projects its own purposes on a far more heterogeneous opponent. It is typical of Saul that he labels Lawrence Schlemmer, one of the most perceptive South African liberal social scientists, ‘Buthelezi’s sinister house pollster’. Ironically, Stoffel Botha, the Nationalist Party Administrator of Natal, also dismissed the constitutional exercise with which Schlemmer was associated as ‘sinister’. In Saul’s fantasy, innumerable capitalist think-tanks ‘will be working overtime to seduce to “moderation” those within the ANC who can be seduced’. However, as Sampson so aptly documents, it is a rather ‘disorganised capitalism’ that confronts Apartheid. It is hardly in a position to seduce the ANC. Besides, why assume that committed revolutionaries can be so easily seduced? Do they not already accept invitations by multinationals, and are they not on a firstname basis with friendly capitalists? Saul would ask. But sponsorship by American foundations or by Anglo itself of conferences on political alternatives to Apartheid is no guarantee of successful capitalist seduction. On the contrary, these efforts frequently assist progressive forces. Saul would have us believe that only conservative ‘worthies’ participate in programmes such as ‘South Africa Beyond Apartheid’, but UDF-affiliated activists also take part in them. Indeed, business would be short-sighted to rely on conservative yes-men for advice. Saul himself unwillingly recognises the advantage: ‘Capital’s programmatic vacuum regarding the question of political power merely strengthens the Apartheid state.’ Why should progressive academics not try to entice business to use its clout more effectively against a despotic pigmentocracy? Those whose only aim is the ‘true liberation which socialism represents’ may be doing a great disservice to the millions of apartheid victims who long for equality and democracy above all. What kind of socialism or reformed capitalism will entrench itself once universal franchise is achieved is for the voters to decide. Judging by what happens elsewhere, it is the better-off, the professionals and the intellectuals who support socialist parties while large sections of the materially-aggrieved working class tend to vote conservative.

Will a similar tendency assert itself in South Africa once the sting of Apartheid is removed? And how and when will the post-Apartheid order become reality? As Sampson points out, everything ‘will depend crucially on the nature of the transition’. Saul provides an empirically uninformed, second-hand and orthodox account of the transition. Sampson’s narrative portrays the real actors without, however, being theoretically informed. It bodes ill for leftist theorising that his journalistic exercise proves a far more reliable guide. Unfortunately, the discourse of the academic Left on South Africa suffers all too frequently from the participants’ dependence on their own propaganda and wishful thinking. Few of them have been exposed to an obnoxious reality where the exhortations of union leaders don’t accord with their members’ powers and the admirable Weekly Mail can’t be taken as a reliable indicator of progress. This is sceptical caution and should not be seen as ‘sneering’ at the heroic efforts of the resistance. The rage in the townships is evidence of the psychological sanity of people who have not accepted their own degradation; and if their responses sometimes seem barbaric, this largely reflects the brutalising effect of an all-pervasive structural violence.

The efforts of the resistance movement must be balanced by a sober assessment of power relations both in order to minimise the human and other costs and because repeated failures and setbacks will lead to apathy. In this predicament, is it the task of foreign university professors to exhort the ANC to greater militancy – ‘to move past the phase of armed propaganda and to develop greater political and military back-up’, as Saul would have it? Would it not be more useful for a critical ally of the ANC to stress the obstacles that have still to be overcome, as well as the costs of escalation on both sides?

Neither book deals with the scope for ruthlessness inherent in the present situation. The military option is neglected, particularly the increasing use of semi-official black vigilantes, riding on a conservative backlash against township anarchy. On the other hand, images of military rule on a Latin American model fail to come to grips with a polity where civilian and military authority see eye to eye. The soldiers have neither taken over the political decision-making nor assumed a power of veto over controversial policies. Much more imaginatively and insidiously, the generals have inspired a parallel military-controlled bureaucracy in the form of joint management committees at central, regional and local levels. Having put themselves in a position to redefine any administrative problem from garbage removal to rent control as a security issue, the management committees are able to bypass the regular channels. They can, for instance, given directives to local authorities without reference to the councils’ normal committee or debating procedures. Fed by an intricate network of informers, the weekly multiracial meetings of a few selected civil servants, local traders, managers and police identify in advance potential areas of unrest and likely grievances. Key townships are identified as ‘security’ risks and harsh restrictions are introduced aimed at lowering expectations. A pre-emptive response, implemented and co-ordinated by a hierarchical command structure, is the essence of this ‘total strategy’ against a ‘total onslaught’. In this view of how to win ‘hearts and minds’, there is almost nothing which doesn’t have security implications. Thus the military have taken upon themselves to make the counter-revolutionary strategy succeed where the cumbersome state bureaucracy has failed. General Malan, for example, announced that he had identified certain townships and ‘taken responsibility’ for them: ‘I want to see to what extent I can better the living conditions of the people,’ he said in the Cape Times, ‘to what extent I can get the people to accept the Government so that they don’t break with the authorities and drift into the hands of terrorists.’ A total psychological war is being waged, based on material improvements. In this sense, to focus exclusively on military repression is misleading. Several PFP councillors are participating in these improvement programmes and feel good about doing something ‘constructive’.

The success of this ‘total onslaught’, which now involves the US as well, accords with a twofold shift in the white electorate. Over the past five years white voters have moved to the left on Apartheid laws but to the right on security issues. The more the psychological crutches of the Apartheid order have fallen by the wayside (de iure and de facto), the more law and order concerns have taken over. The security establishment has exploited these anxieties. In the absence of a crumbling, unravelling state ready to be ‘taken over’, the resistance would be better advised to prepare for ‘the long march’, and not harbour illusions of a white panic.

Despite a simmering civil war, the often diagnosed crisis has not yet arrived in the perception of the majority of whites. Sanctions remain symbolic and have not really hurt. The 50 per cent decline in the value of the currency in 1985 has benefited the export sector. The Johannesburg stock market is booming as never before. Cash-saturated local conglomerates are happy to buy out absconding foreign companies at bargain prices. Few politicians and privileged voters think about the long-term costs of a delegitimated state with a siege economy: they are relying on the short-term boom of import substitution and inflation. Growing unemployment and a soaring crime rate haven’t exactly made life intolerable in the affluent white enclaves – at least not so far. Only when there is a shared perception of stalemate will both sides negotiate in good faith: as long as each feels that it is in the ascendancy, violence without the prospect of victory will continue.

[*] Crisis in South Africa includes an expanded version of a 1981 issue of Monthly Review. The new introduction and conclusion are written by Saul alone; as is ‘South Africa: The Question of Strategy’ (New Left Review, November/December 1986), which in turn expands material contained in the book. I deal here only with the new parts and the NLR article.