When that great day comes

R.W. Johnson in South Africa

‘The saddest thing about the death of Comrade O.R. Tambo,’ wrote one of the black students in my local university newspaper, ‘is that he will not now be able to stand shoulder to shoulder with Comrade Mandela on that great day when freedom comes.’ Other, more radical students are less respectful of the ANC luminaries and their chosen strategy of negotiation. ‘The only thing to negotiate,’ they are given to saying, ‘is the transfer of power’ – or sometimes, ‘the seizure of power’. Only then – and here all concur – can we get ahead with the great task in hand, that of ‘building the new nation’.

Such sentiments attest to the pervasive strength of a nationalist paradigm long since exhausted and discredited in the rest of Africa, but proposed with a burning zeal for South Africa, as if the disasters to the north had never occurred. For ‘that great day when freedom comes’ is, of course, based on a fond folk memory of uhuru. A member of the royal family lowers the flag, the band plays, the plume on the prince’s solar topee flaps in the breeze, and then a new flag ascends to the tune of a new anthem. The prince hands the keys to the governor’s residence (‘the transfer of power’) to the nationalist tribune, the once and future Leader of the Oppressed. The latter heads a party which is co-extensive with the nation and thus not only is there no need for any opposition: it would actually be harmful for such a thing to exist. Tribal, regional and language divisions have largely been created by the forces of colonialism: they will now disappear in the general catharsis of nationalist transformation. It is a point of view which has led large parts of Africa towards single-party rule, bitter tribal division and civil war.

It is also quite peculiarly inappropriate to South Africa, for it has already been agreed that there will, in effect, be no ‘great day’ on which power is ‘transferred’. Instead, there will be a period of power-sharing in which the ANC will sit in a cabinet alongside the party responsible for apartheid. More broadly, it is inconceivable that any government, no matter what its political stripe, will be able to run South Africa without sharing power with white civil servants, policemen, generals and businessmen. The rhetoric about the welding of disparate groups into a new nation is, at best, harmless window-dressing; taken seriously, it would be extremely dangerous, for it would mean the enforcement of a national unity where none exists. In Africa, only Nigeria, Sudan and Zaire share anything like South Africa’s diversity of ethnic and social cleavages. All three have had civil wars, none has known democracy for long, and sub-division into separate states still seems their only alternative to a long-term future of disorder, corruption and tyranny.

Theoretically, South Africa’s African nationalists know all this. On its return from exile, the ANC leadership was eloquent in its determination to prevent the chaos it had experienced in Angola and Zambia; and officially, at least, the movement is committed to multiparty democracy. But statements to this effect look more and more like the pro forma utterances of a leadership keen to maintain contact with an international gallery of liberal opinion. On the ground it’s very different. The monopolistic style which seems almost intrinsic to African nationalism is strongly reinforced here by the dominance within the ANC of an old-style Communist Party (the SACP) for whom the Berlin Wall has never really come down. (SACP delegations travel to and from Cuba, reporting enthusiastically on the way Comrade Fidel organises his one-party elections.) Putting these two traditions together produces an unmistakable push towards single-partyism, theorised by (usually white) Marxists as the ANC’s need to ‘develop multiple hegemonies within the new society’, an argument buttressed by quotes from Gramsci taken from ancient copies of New Left Review.

Theological justification of this kind bolsters the natural language of African nationalism. The ANC talks of itself as ‘the nation’, its guerrilla wing is ‘the spear of the nation’, its newspaper the New Nation. Similarly, Mandela talks of the ANC as ‘the Parliament of the African People’ – not one party among others but an expression of the people as a whole. The ANC pays lip-service to the need for a ‘civil society’ beyond the world of parties – but then insists that the only legitimate voices of civil society are those that are heard through the ANC associations for women, culture, labour, youth and so on. The South African Council of Churches is the odd man out – but it parrots the ANC line on every issue anyway.

ANC speakers extol human rights and pluralism at meetings carefully orchestrated to allow only one voice and one party line. On all but the Afrikaans university campuses, the ANC is the only party permitted to speak – on the grounds that the universities must right the bias against ‘the oppressed’. Kenneth Kaunda, the heavily disavowed ex-President of Zambia, who seems to have taken up permanent residence in South Africa (he apparently owns three houses here), is an honoured guest at all ANC functions. The ANC is blithely unembarrassed by the fact that once a free election was allowed more than three-quarters of all Zambians voted to get rid of Kaunda and that he remains a frank advocate of single-party rule. It turns out, by the by, that the whole election was an imperialist plot against the people of Zambia and that the only reasonable outcome would have been for President Kaunda to continue his rule for ever: we have this on the great man’s own insistent authority. For all that, Kaunda is routinely billed as ‘a great democrat’ and a ‘campaigner for human rights’.

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