With or without the ANC

Heribert Adam

  • The Unbreakable Thread: Non-Racialism in South Africa by Julie Frederikse
    Indiana, 304 pp, $39.95, November 1990, ISBN 0 253 32473 4
  • A Democratic South Africa?: Constitutional Engineering in a Divided Society by David Horowitz
    California, 293 pp, $24.95, March 1991, ISBN 0 520 07342 8
  • Koexistenz im Krieg: Staatszerfall und Entstehung einer Nation im Libanon by Theodor Hanf
    Nomos Verlag, 806 pp, September 1990, ISBN 3 7890 1972 0

South Africa still holds a morbid fascination for outside observers, despite the competition from more old-fashioned Arab autocracies. An astonishingly smooth experiment in social engineering intrigues neo-conservatives. Left-leaning scepties hold their breath lest Mandela and the ANC allow themselves to be co-opted by the white establishment. A stream of earnest political tourists land at Jan Smuts to make the traditional tour from Cape Town to Durban, to arrange appointments with willing but isolated academic pundits and newspaper editors. Now they can even visit the disorganised ANC headquarters legally or absorb atmosphere on an afternoon bus-tour through Khayelitsha or Alexandra.

Neither Julie Frederikse nor Donald Horowitz is a South African. The former has obviously become a friend of the ANC and the Mass Democratic Movement; the latter, on short visits to South Africa, has met some astute Stellenbosch and Natal academics but does not thank one African informant by name. They come to opposite conclusions. Frederikse considers non-racialism a living reality; Horowitz sees the non-racial project as a naive hoax, a dangerous illusion.

Activists in the Congress tradition may argue about whether non-racialism is merely ‘a form that the struggle takes’ (Max Sisulu) or its essential content and objective. Julie Frederikse, a former Harare-based American journalist, firmly declares it an ‘unbreakable thread’. However, the thread has not yet been tested to breaking-point. Although the relative harmony of black-white private relations over the forty years of apartheid remains astonishing, some anti-Indian outbursts in Natal and the revival of tribal antagonisms among a differentially frustrated urban proletariat counsel caution about the future. The rhetoric of political leaders and the sentiments of their followers often diverge. The genuinely non-racial perspective of Marxist inter-nationalists is not necessarily shared by the more volatile masses. Why should harsh racial oppression not produce an equally intense counter-racism?

It is in the complex answers to this crucial question that the key to understanding South Africa lies. The selection of speeches and interviews that constitutes 90 per cent of Frederikse’s book is one-sided and biased towards the ANC. One searches in vain for an exposition of the non-racial position of South African business, for example, or of the Progressive (later Democratic) Party. Did Anglo-American advocate a racial division of labour? Certainly not. Are Van Zyl Slabbert or Alex Boraine and their fellow Liberal MPs not worth listening to? Frederikse finds a glib answer in her simplistic dichotomy between a ‘popular democratic tradition rooted in an alliance of all the oppressed’ and a liberal tradition of 19th century British missionary culture.

Jo-Anne Collinge, a journalist on the Johannesburg Weekly Mail, has criticised the book for ‘the blandness which results from faithfulness to the idea of letting participants tell the story’. This is a polite way of saying that the author has failed to provide a critical analysis of her interview material. As if the pure truth were revealed when the leaders and activists speak, everything they say is to be digested without being questioned. Stalinist traditions will never disappear if notions of what it is to be ‘progressive’ aren’t constantly probed and redefined. This uncritical approach is surprising coming from the author of South Africa. A Different Kind of War (1986), a revealing account of government propaganda.

Donald Horowitz, the Charles Murphy Professor of Law and Political Science at Duke University, and Theo Hanf, the director of the Freiburg Bergstraesser Institut, are among the world’s leading comparative analysts of ethnic conflict. Horowitz in particular skilfully integrates a vast literature on Asia and Nigeria into his South African survey, one of the most sophisticated accounts of the current debate despite a somewhat dubious beginning.

Horowitz overemphasises the cleavages in South African society, perhaps because he doesn’t realise the extent to which they are increasingly being bypassed by an emerging consensus. In reality there are only three irreconcilable positions on the present conflict. First, the extreme right-wing position of secession in a racial white homeland. While the disruptive power of armed ideologues must not be underestimated, the secessionist project has little chance of gaining support, because it runs counter to business interests in an integrated economy. Since South African business, including Afrikaner capital, needs, on the one hand, to be part of the global economy and, on the other, is dependent on the willing co-operation of black labour, it would also be hostile to a military takeover. This is something which distinguishes South Africa from Latin American regimes or the ideological intransigence of Israel. Second, the Africanist/socialist position of no negotiation until the regime is defeated and ready to transfer power. This would be a threat only if current negotiations were to fail. Third, the emerging National Party-ANC alliance, which is much more solid than Horowitz realises. The ANC leadership, including its South African Communist Party members, have moved closer to a social-democratic economic compromise, and in constitutional matters, they have accepted proportional representation. The ANC is no longer ‘hostile to federalism’ and the hegemonic temptation of a first-past-the-post stance has given way to a democratic model of power-sharing. Horowitz is mired in past debates when he emphasises ‘the National Party’s advocacy of group rights’ or ‘reserved white seats’. The ruling party no longer bases its hopes on racial minority protection but on alliances with like-minded conservative forces across the racial divide –alliances which may well prove surprisingly successful once the stigma of apartheid is removed.

Horowitz detects in South Africa a unique feature: not only a conflict between divided segments as in other plural societies, but a ‘conflict over the nature of the conflict’ – what he calls a ‘metaconflict’. He illustrates ‘the fundamental dissension’ with the controversy over group labels (Black, African, Coloured, non-white) and the different political aspirations they reflect. He assails the ‘silence on ethnicity in South African scholarly and political discourse’ and blames the non-racial vision for a denial of ‘the very existence of politically significant ethnic groups’. Horowitz is fully aware of the Government’s manipulative use of ethnicity to divide and rule. ‘The whole policy of separate development assumes that there is something separate to develop.’ But he considers non-racialism in a plural society analogous to the Marxist dream of a classless society and therefore believes that a constitution built on such an illusion will not work. At best, Horowitz envisages ‘a multiracial state with non-racial institutions’.

Where there are ethnic ‘minorities by will’, as in Lebanon and most other divided societies, an arrangement of political powersharing between the groups (‘consociationalism’) adequately reflects the sentiments of the population. The arguments are only about respective shares power. Where there are mainly ‘minorities by force’ and group affiliation is imposed, as in South Africa, a political system of direct individual participation appears far more appropriate than enshrining contested racial or ethnic groups in the constitution. In the unlikely event of South Africa after apartheid reverting to a society of voluntary ethnic groups with strong hegemonic and therefore exclusivist tendencies, a consociational constitution would of course be necessary.

Horowitz is undoubtedly correct in assuming that ethnicity won’t disappear in post-apartheid South Africa. Freed from the stigma of apartheid, ethnic politics could experience a revival as it has around the world. Horowitz quite rightly emphasises both the instrumental and symbolic functions of ethnicity. As in his earlier magisterial Ethnic Groups in Conflict, he is well aware of the significance of ‘collective worth’ for the humiliated masses who seek self-esteem in denigrating others.

In extreme cases, such as Germany after Versailles or much of the Arab world today living in the shadow of Western dominance and the weaponry, of proxies, a paranoid nationalism sees the entire outside world as a gigantic conspiracy. Death becomes salvation. Black South Africans, however, have never entertained such pathological visions, because their self-esteem was little affected by the open, collective discrimination. Once the system of legal subordination is abolished, group relations can work themselves out as they do in other plural societies such as India or the US. That does not mean that race will disappear in private interaction. It will remain a stigma or an asset, but it will not be reinforced by a Race Classification Act with its concomitant ascription of differential privilege and life-chances. As the liberation movement turns into a political party, the aggrieved will be able to use the equality provisions of the law or affirmative action programmes to improve their lot.

If political parties are formed on ideological and interest grounds they are able to court support across racial and ethnic boundaries in order to gain majorities. A losing party will reexamine its policies in order to attract voters from the other side in the next round. Nothing remains frozen as it does in ethnic voting, where the size of the group normally determines the outcome. That is the crucial insight which the National Party, with its demographically dwindling white support base, has finally understood. By freeing itself from the racial albatross it can either expand into hitherto closed constituencies or and in the immediate future this is more likely– form alliances with ideologically like-minded black parties. It is this prospect that Horowitz doubts on the basis of ethnic politics elsewhere. At most, he concedes that the Nationalist Party and the ANC have a common interest in holding the middle ground. Horowitz rightly does not rely on good will and non-racialist preaching. He bases his hopes for a democratic South Africa on an astute voting system that will force ethnic adversaries to compromise.

Horowitz makes much of the ‘ethnically differentiated support base of Buthelezi and Mandela’ to support his case for the continuing salience of ethnic politics. As many surveys show, Inkatha has no support among Xhosa-speakers in the Cape while Zulu-speakers in Natal and Transvaal have divided loyalties: about half support Mandela and the ANC and the other half Buthelezi and Inkatha. From these well-known attitudes, Horowitz concludes that ‘the exclusivity of Xhosa identification with the ANC has grown dramatically in a decade’ while ‘Inkatha support has fallen off completely in the Cape.’ But a much more convincing – and obvious – interpretation leads to the opposite conclusion: namely, that Xhosa-speakers reject Buthelezi precisely because Inkatha both sees itself and is seen as a Zulu organisation, while the ANC’s non-tribal and radical policies find a remarkable resonance among Zulus, despite the over-representation of Xhosa-speakers in the ANC leadership. Here we have the clearest evidence so far of political non-ethnicity.

Theo Hanf’s comprehensive survey of the disintegration of the Lebanon in its 15-year-long civil war focuses on the perceptions of the actors while also providing an analysis of these perceptions. For South Africans, an understanding of the Lebanese example is both encouraging and frightening. Lebanon was primarily destroyed by outside forces: the Palestinians, the Israelis, the Syrians, the Iraqis and even the Americans, all tried to impose their solution at one time or another on a weak central state. Unlike Lebanon, South Africa is relatively free from direct outside interference and sponsorship of competing factions. What has kept the Lebanon together, on the other hand, is the persistence, throughout the war, of a surprising popular consensus on the unity of the nation, despite the progressive disintegration of the institutions of the state. ‘It is not fanatical masses that prevent a new consensus,’ Theo Hanf concludes, ‘but shortsighted and power-hungry élites.’ In South Africa, the opposite holds true. Compromising leaders on all sides are constrained by militant and alienated constituencies.

Hanf demonstrates perceptively that Lebanese society disintegrated at the top while life below continued with remarkable normality. Children continued to go to school, water and electricity supplies were not cut off, the courts and the police, hospitals and fire brigades, banks and garbage trucks all as far as possible provided their usual services under the most unusual conditions. Within their groups even the political gangsters were relatively safe from attacks by opponents. The militia on the payroll of fending warlords behaved like private armies everywhere: ruthless against enemies from other communities, keen to enrich themselves through extortion, theft and drug-smuggling but also protective of the communities they came from. The civilian population on all sides of the barricades suffered from the intermittent shellings and devastating car bombs, but they were not the prime victims. People across the communal divisions hated and feared the disruptions of routine – as they demonstrated in several mass protests – but kept up a remarkable pretence of normality. Despair expressed itself mainly through emigration.

Everyday life on the ground in South Africa’s black townships is qualitatively different. Although far more and more substantial weapons are available in Beirut than in Soweto or Khayelitsha, lives are much more at risk in South Africa than in Lebanon. Not only do crime and simmering political feuds make physical danger more pervasive, but the psychological impoverishment, the hopelessness and atomisation seem almost worse. If the well-worn sociological concept of anomie can be applied anywhere, it is in Sebokeng or Edendale. With people dreading to sleep in their own homes for fear of unprovoked attacks, with 39 mourners blown apart at a funeral by a revenge-seeking gang, with passengers in commuter trains scrambling out of the windows at the cry ‘the Zulus are coming,’ with groups of girls abducted from a Salvation Army home and raped, and with the annual murder rate in Cape Town climbing to 65 per 100,000 as compared to four in Toronto, South Africa would seem to represent the epitome of normlessness. Random violence is almost less bearable than more brutal but predictable atrocities.

The 1990 annual Institute of Race Relations Survey points out that the common murder rate is four times higher per capita in South Africa than it is in the US, that 8000 people were killed in political violence between September 1984 and 1990 and about 850 of those were ‘necklaced’. Despite the ANC disavowal of necklacing after long condoning it under the rubric of ‘people’s resistance’, this barbaric method of dealing with political opponents continues to be practised, though at a slightly lower rate. In the meantime, the incidence of political violence attributable to extremist right-wing organisations has also increased, to about 7 per cent of all cases, complementing the legalised police brutality referred to in township jargon as ‘system terror’. The Minister of Law and Order has called his country ‘a nation of gangsters’. He does not mention that it was chiefly his Party’s apartheid policies which brutalised the impoverished young.

In the matter of social decay and the life-chances of the majority, South Africa resembles the Soviet Union more than the Lebanon. The powerful Afrikaner institutions of the centre still hold the society together, but conceal the rot at the bottom. As in the Soviet Union, the South African state thinks that it can best combat crime through more police deterrence without addressing seriously the underlying causes of alienation. The most telling indicators of decay are the schools. Black schools hold classes but often no teaching goes on there. Either pupils or teachers are engaged with other priorities. In the rigid and outdated centrally-administered matriculation tests in 1990, only 37 per cent of black candidates passed, as opposed to approximately 95 per cent in the other communities. The low pass rate does not primarily result from differential expenditures, facilities or teacher qualifications. Several equally poor black homeland and mission schools achieved or exceeded the rate of the more privileged minorities. As the ANC-aligned National Education Crisis Committee self-critically stated, ‘schools have been allowed to become battlefields and students were compelled to find themselves in the forefront of this political violence.’ In addition, rents are boycotted, electricity is cut, taxes remain uncollected, emergency calls go unheeded. Because apartheid laws and regulations were primarily designed to suppress and control, they have lost all legitimacy even where they potentially benefit the people. In a state of anomie, paralysed by the daily struggle to survive, the majority of the population waits to be saved.

Even the acclaimed ANC leadership is increasingly viewed with suspicion and scepticism. The more it presses on with negotiations and confidential understandings, the louder the whispers about sell-outs and the shouts about autocratic behaviour. At best, the activists see negotiations as war by other means, designed to culminate in a ‘transfer of power’. The ANC leadership and returning exiles make heroic efforts to coax the grassroots into line, but even the credibility of the SACP is strained by its advocacy of ‘guarantees for the bourgeoisie’ When Mandela courageously met with Buthelezi in January 1991, he did so at great risk and will have to pay the price in the months to come. Every encounter with de Klerk reinforces Mandela’s image as the saviour of the whites but diminishes his standing within his own radical ranks.

The three-decade-long (1960-90) ban on liberation movements reduced ‘the struggle’ to ill-understood slogans. Opposition to collaboration was interpreted as ‘making the country ungovernable’. Resistance to the Government’s ‘Bantu Education’ was intended as ‘Education for Liberation’, but became the counterproductive ‘Liberation before Education’, and ended in the slogan ‘Pass one, pass all,’ although efforts are now underway to restore proper schooling. Where the resistance created counter-institutions to the discredited apartheid authorities, it often merely compounded the anomie. The unelected ‘people’s courts’ and street committees’ of the ‘young lions’ often exceeded the terror of the apartheid courts. Detention in Pretoria is preferable to being necklaced in Soweto.

Petty criminals continue to terrorise, traditionalist warlords attempt to extend their turf and brutalised comrades retaliate. The political leadership preaches discipline and unity but few heed the calls for reconciliation. South Africa needs to build legitimacy at the top by means of a constitutional accord, but is in danger of resting a settlement by élites on a hollow base. Unlike Lebanon, South Africa needs a ‘recovery movement’, a collective therapy and moral revival that cannot be decreed from above. In Lebanon, an accord by the feuding élites was sufficient to end the strife. In South Africa, an agreement of this kind is crucial, but it won’t remedy the underlying social decay. And even if more houses are built and jobs created in an expanding post-apartheid economy, that won’t be enough without some sort of moral renewal.

In the absence of strong religious communities, this renewal can best be built around the notion of a non-racial democracy. Rather than stressing the need for unity or allowing the ‘will of the people’ – as if the people had only one will – the opposition movements should speak up more loudly for the idea of respect for political opponents. Intimidation of antagonists and worse has a long history on a continent where the practice of ‘loyal opposition’ hardly exists. Were the ANC to fragment into warring factions, there would be little hope for such fledgling notions as individual autonomy, freedom of choice and pluralistic empowerment. In negotiating the new order, the current cohesion of the ruling party, together with its control over the state bureaucracy, gives it a decisive advantage over the heterogeneous and less professional opposition. John Carlin of theIndependent has judged that ‘the ANC’s arrogance, as much as its naivety, blinded it to the fact that the scales were tipped heavily against it.’ The myth that a cunning adversary had finally been bludgeoned by sanctions, armed struggle and mass action to negotiate a deal for the transfer of power lies at the heart of the false triumphalism. The ANC has failed to realise that the release of political prisoners, the return of exiles, the normalisation of politics and even the end of formal apartheid were not the real issues at stake. Apartheid had to go anyway, with or without the ANC.

The dominant enlightened Afrikaner establishment had long since realised that political incorporation of disenfranchised subordinates was the only way of retaining power and regaining international legitimacy. Contrary to the ANC belief that ‘we initiated negotiations’ (Chris Hani), the Afrikaner liberals and corporate planners had long before prepared themselves for this historical inevitability. The ANC was deceived into overrating its own power by its failure to see this, attributing the change to its own efforts, assisted by ‘de Klerk’s integrity’.

A strategy that is built on such crucial flaws naturally fails to recognise that the skewed economic apartheid order will remain essentially intact long after apartheid is gone. In this respect the militants’ slogan ‘Victory is certain!’ more accurately characterises the other side’s position and policy. But la lutta continua does not offer a suitable guide either, unless the ANC ‘in power’ wants to turn the struggle on itself while constrained by the duties and responsibilities of office. This Maoist dream of permanent revolution does not recognise that office-holders necessarily turn into bureaucratic functionaries, whatever their past. At present, the ANC is undergoing the painful process of simultaneously re-adapting its exiles to South African realities, changing the socio-political environment, and changing itself, the strident rhetoric of past legacies notwithstanding. Liberal democrats can only hold their breath and hope that it will not itself become ungovernable during the volatile transition.

A functioning democracy requires autonomous citizens, civic organisations and a host of disciplining grass-roots institutions, from apolitical sports clubs to dedicated parents and committed teachers. The democratic state cannot create the foundations of its survival: it can only facilitate their emergence. The greater the variety of the civil society, the better the chances for democracy. Dozens of earnest Afrikaner and ANC think-tanks must watch that they do not build their sophisticated accords on shifting sands. Neither side has sufficiently prepared its constituency for the remarkable speed of the accommodations which its leadership has been prepared to make. The militant rhetoric is meant to camouflage all this moderation, but raises expectations which may prove counterproductive when it comes to selling the inevitably disappointing compromise.