Beloved Country

R.W. Johnson in South Africa

The four-hundred-mile highway from Johannesburg to Durban – drivers of big Mercs (and they abound in South Africa) boast of doing it in three and a half hours – leads one through the Dali-esque environs of Harrismith. Here, on the featureless plains of the Orange Free State, one suddenly sees huge rock formations soaring up to great heights with an effortless geometry. The six-lane highway curls around them but even at 150 kph they take half an hour to fade from your rear mirror. Last week as I tore past these rocks, I saw, lying on the margin of the motorway, a large brown horse, its hoofs sticking straight out and skywards, a fine glossy beast with flowing mane and large muscles. As I whipped past it I saw what was wrong. Its head had been torn off. Its neck ended half-way up in a jagged red mess; no clean execution there. A second and I was gone but the image lingered, Guernica-like, a symbol of spoilt promise and of the senseless killing amidst which one lives. For the violence here is not a simple tale of good versus evil (if violence ever is that simple); as with that headless horse there is a mystery as well as a horror to it. Such are the images of the state of nature in which we live.

Some of the killing is political: currently the largest set of victims are Inkatha officials killed by the ANC, though the most publicised recent killing was that of Chris Hani, the SACP (Communist) leader, by the white Right. The Azanian People’s Liberation Army, the armed wing of the Pan Africanist Congress, carries out anti-white atrocities from time to time and, of course, Inkatha takes its vengeance on the ANC with fair regularity. But political murders are down somewhat this year and anyway such killings are overshadowed, at least in terms of numbers, by killings that are harder to describe so neatly. Twenty-one people were gunned down in a single massacre in Sebokeng not long ago but none of the parties is blaming the other for it: these things, people seem to be saying, just happen. The police try hard to work up public indignation about the fact that 104 policemen were shot dead last year – two a week. South Africans tut-tut about it, but that’s all. The news that 210 people died in police custody in the same period (up from 153 in 1991) similarly fails to trigger much of a response. Part of the reason is that the overall level of violence is so high: the South African murder rate is now ten times as high as America’s and 95 times as high as Britain’s. Mainly, however, this lack of concern has to do with the fact that the way policemen behave, and the way they die, no longer bears on the question of political power, and that is a question on which South Africa is now entirely fixated.

In theory, the matter is being thrashed out in multi-party talks; but an air of unreality hovers over the discussions. There is a widespread assumption that a backstairs deal has already been struck between the Government and the ANC, and that the real function of the talks is just to corral the lesser parties into going along with it. But there is also a pervasive sense that the country is drifting, with power ebbing away from anyone and everyone. Some time back it became clear that the Government was morally and politically too exhausted to maintain order. This is a country where convicted murderers, even multiple murderers like Barend Strydom and Robert McBride, are released within a year or two to walk the streets and give TV interviews justifying their savagery. Strydom, who gunned down 11 hapless black passers-by because he didn’t like blacks, advises us that he dislikes English-speakers just as much and that he might decide to thin their ranks ‘next time’. McBride, who placed a bomb in a bar killing three women and mutilating several more, has become a guest of honour at ANC functions and is introduced to visiting foreign dignitaries as a hero of the struggle. At his trial he made a dramatic speech claiming that it was all his own fault – he had disobeyed an ANC ban on hitting soft targets. Now it is cheerfully admitted that this was untrue, that he was doing precisely what he had been told to do.

The effect of this sort of thing is to make people buy guns to protect themselves – and wonder why on earth they should pay speeding fines or household debts or rates. More and more simply don’t. After all, the Government’s incapacity is plain to see. In numerous cities during the ANC mass actions that followed Hani’s death the forces of law and order stood by and watched as mobs smashed shop windows and looted the goods within – the Government knows it can’t afford any more TV massacres in which white police shoot black protesters. By the same token, the ANC looks wholly incapable of picking up the baton of authority the Government has dropped – the Hani funeral itself erupted into spasms of unplanned violence, and the movement seems quite unable to discipline its followers. The left wing continues quite openly to flout the authority of the leadership and to get away with it; Dawood Khan, the head of a Cape Town ANC branch and ANC regional executive member, has been reprimanded for making a speech in front of the Israeli Embassy in which he declared that ‘Hitler should have killed all the Jews,’ but his punishment is merely three months’ suspension; and while Mandela has threatened ANC militants who commit political murders with expulsion from the movement, as yet there has not been a single instance where he has done so. It seems unlikely that a movement unable to exercise proper authority over its own followers could successfully exercise authority over this extremely plural society. Indeed, having threatened a further campaign of mass action if it was not granted joint control over the security forces, the ANC hurriedly jettisoned this demand when it became clear that the Government was on the point of granting it – the ANC has no wish to share the responsibility for the tough action required to keep order in the townships in the run-up to the election.

A friend who teaches a political theory course here tells me that he used to have the greatest trouble getting students to take any thing other than Marxism seriously: thinkers like Hobbes and Locke were seen as incomprehensible oddities. Now, he says, he has only to start by describing Hobbes’s state of nature for students to start nodding in understanding.

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