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’.

There is a lot to be learnt from this description. For Kaunda ruled Zambia without free elections, operated a strict press censorship, detained people without trial, abolished academic freedom and filled the country with his own boastful personality cult for 27 years: Objectively, he was an enemy of human rights and an anti-democrat. Over the years, however, ‘campaigner for human rights’ became shorthand for someone who opposed apartheid, and a ‘democrat’ was someone who favoured one person, one vote in South Africa. Gradually these meanings were elided to mean simply that such people wanted the ANC to win and since Kaunda certainly wants that, he qualifies for the sobriquets above. In the same way, anti-apartheid movements around the world are controlled by the ANC or SACP, and assume a complete identity between the anti-apartheid cause and support for the ANC, entirely neglecting the fact that an array of other black, Indian and white parties have also opposed apartheid and campaigned for universal suffrage. The ANC’s appropriation of the anti-apartheid cause has been sanctified by generations of clerics, by those who, like Canon Collins, Trevor Huddleston, Desmond Tutu or Frank Chikane, have regularly officiated at ANC congresses or funerals, but never at those of other anti-apartheid parties. This is one reason the ANC has no policies, only ‘policy guidelines’, statements of the vaguest general principle: it is felt to be enough that it is the ANC.

Liberal whites are crucially assisting the trend to single-partyism. If, for instance, you go to a history or sociology conference at an English-speaking university you are very likely to find that a paper on youth has a rapporteur from the ANC Youth League, one on women a rapporteur from the ANC Women’s League, one on labour a rapporteur from Cosatu, the ANC-aligned union confederation and so on. It’s odd enough that an academic conference should have a party-political input: even odder to find that it is always the same party. The same sort of trend is apparent even at quite a low level. Thus, the annual Durban Film Festival has been reorganised by a committee composed entirely of ANC/SACP members – a change encouraged by the liberal whites who used to run it.

At national level the ANC Department of Arts and Culture (DAC) has appointed a board of trustees to act as the ‘guardians’ of cultural life, but insists that this is not a party body, even though all its members (who include Nadine Gordimer) are ANC members or sympathisers, and it was set up without any pretence of discussion. At the same time, DAC has launched blistering attacks on the National Arts Initiative, a lobby of artists and administrators who had the temerity to declare themselves non-aligned. Those who are active in the NAI are already so frightened of DAC that they will only speak to the press on an anonymous basis. The Congress of SA Writers (COSAW), of which Nadine Gordimer is again the doyenne, shows ominous signs of de facto ANC-alignment. Local enthusiasts who want to start a literary journal, for example, complain of difficulties with COSAW because the journal is not ANC-approved. And so on and on. White liberals are almost invariably unwilling to stand up to such pressures, though they showed great courage and tenacity when the pressure came from the other end of the political spectrum.

Not surprisingly, the ANC and SACP have successfully colonised all manner of voluntary associations and non-governmental organisations, thus allowing their side’s supporters to be counted more than once. For example, the National Forum on Education has representation from COSAS (the ANC-aligned school union), SASCO (ditto for university students), SADTU (ditto for teachers), UDUSA (ditto for university teachers), the ANC-aligned National Education Co-ordinating Committee and the ANC’s own Education Department. Other ANC bodies – the Youth League, Women’s League etc – offer an almost unlimited list of potential further representatives. We are well within sight of the time when all such forums, whether on education, culture or anything else, will be either single-party affairs or consistently dominated by one party.

Take the Independent Electoral Forum of NGOs active in voter education, research and organisation for the coming elections. Only three of the NGOs participating in the IEF are truly non-partisan, the rest are all ANC-aligned. The oldest and most distinguished body active in the field, the SA Institute of Race Relations, has been excluded from the IEF essentially because its director is suspected of anti-ANC views. When I pointed out the unfairness of this, given, for example, the participation in the IEF of the (ANC-founded and funded) Matla Trust, I was told that Matla was non-partisan. How so, I asked: after all, its director was an ANC militant and all but one of its trustees were ANC members. Ah yes, came the rejoinder, but its director was under direct orders from Nelson Mandela himself to be non-partisan.

So the leviathan grows: those well-meaning people in Western countries who feel that their anti-apartheid commitment should lead them to treat the ANC as South Africa’s ‘sole legitimate representative’ are feeding the tiger. Not that the ANC itself is a tiger – it is a broad church that includes Communist militants and Christian moderates, the genuinely tolerant and the rabidly anti-white (and anti-Indian) racists. Without doubt the rival African nationalists of the PAC would display the same single-party instincts if only their party were bigger, and within Zululand, Inkatha has long ruled as a single-party regime. The tiger is the single-partyism endemic to all these variants of African nationalism, the notion of a party which sees itself or is seen as the ‘sole legitimate representative’ of the national interest.

In any case, a single-party straitjacket simply will not fit over the burly shoulders of South Africa’s diverse black population, let alone the whites, Coloureds and Indians. There is considerable danger of single-party monopolism, but the greater danger lies in the certain and furious resistance it will meet. In a Ghana or a Zambia, African nationalism could bully and subdue and imprison those who opposed the single party, and thus bring about an apparent (though bogus) 95 per cent consensus in favour of the regime. Even in Zimbabwe this has been achieved, with the whites keeping their heads down or, in two cases out of three, emigrating. But nowhere on the continent has this single-party push had to confront ten million non-Africans – the large majority of whom cannot emigrate. In order for a colossal clash to be averted – if not now, then in a few years’ time – it will not be enough for African nationalism here to find a new form or rhetoric, or to try to gladhand everyone into a single nation: it will have to become as genuinely pluralist as if it were an American political party. It will, in a word, have to change its spots. This is not quite as impossible as it sounds: the ANC has already jettisoned many of the central principles for which it had stood for forty years. Should this evolution continue, then South Africa might indeed evolve into an African Brazil – a great big, violent, corrupt but open and dynamic country, full of problems but full of promise.

The alternative will be war and, probably, attempted separation. As one surveys the possible separatisms of Bophuthatswana, the Western Cape and KwaNatal, let alone the various potential new Boer Republics, one is tempted to see Ian Smith’s Rhodesian UDI as setting a pattern for all southern Africa. After all, Angola and Mozambique already have their effective Renamo and Unita sub-states and the de facto fragmentation of Zaire is underway. In the end all these quasi-independent states may fail, as Ian Smith’s did, but equally, the map of southern Africa may look very different twenty years from now.

The politics of liberation will certainly not be much like the ANC’s dreams in exile. Let us assume, somewhat wishfully, that a federal deal can be worked out which placates the various potential separatists, and that the ANC and NP see their power-sharing pact through to fruition, with the ANC the senior partner under President Mandela. On entering office, the movement will face the immediate problem of what to do about the growing lawlessness. For many, the whole point of the forthcoming Government of National Unity (GNU) is that the ANC’s legitimacy will reinforce the brute efficacy of the NP, thereby allowing the GNU to crack down extremely hard on crime and the extremisms of Left and Right.

This idea, beloved of foreign embassies, could well be too simple: the ANC is likely to baulk at the thought of taking responsibility for the deployment of white-officered forces against other sections of the ‘liberation movement’ or, indeed, against blacks of any description. But it is impossible to imagine, let us say, education being restored to order without the adoption of an extremely tough line against rioting pupils and the sometimes appalling behaviour of township teachers. Already three black universities have been shut down in the face of student riots, and a fourth teeters on the brink. In the townships Mandela’s call for children to return to school has been blithely ignored. An ANC minister, faced with a tidal wave of disruption in schools and universities, may well find himself having to put down his own version of the Soweto uprising. Similarly, it is difficult to see how the ANC in government will be able to do anything other than support tough action against the gangs who roam the countryside, seeking to murder white farmers – although this, too, will put the ANC uncomfortably on the side of the right-wing Afrikaners against penniless blacks. It will have the effect not only of empowering and emboldening its rivals to the left but of threatening the stability of the GNU itself. Moreover, once in power, the ANC will understand in a wholly new way the need to create a favourable investment climate – and how crucial to this is an improvement in law and order.

Again, it is difficult to see how the future government will be able to avoid a clash with the trade unions, for all that Cosatu forms the third leg of the ANC-SACP alliance. In the days when the ANC was banned Cosatu was by far the most important legal black organisation in South Africa, which obviously gave it considerable power – a power it was able to turn into large real wage increases. This process has been put into sharp reverse since the ANC was unbanned and the unions have not only lost strikes but have also lost members, funds and political clout. Inevitably they have now placed their faith in an ANC victory, hoping that it will secure for them what they were unable to gain by industrial action. Some of these hopes are bound to be disappointed.

At the beginning, however, there is likely to be at least a brief economic honeymoon. In part this will be due to the release of frozen domestic funds – most notably, the billions of rands waiting to be used on low-cost housing for blacks. The ANC has been using its leverage in the Housing Forum and similar bodies to block any expenditure of these and related funds until it is itself in power and in a position to profit from the considerable political credit (and patronage) accruing from the programme. Beyond that, of course, the installation of Mandela as president will be a cathartic moment not only for many South Africans but for black and Coloured people around the world. Some of this euphoria and good will ought to translate into money. President Clinton has promised to help, and the World Bank and other international agencies will be keen to provide the rest of Africa with one outstanding example of successful capitalist development on the continent.

The international moratorium on bank lending to South Africa has left the country a long way under-borrowed and once Pretoria gets the nod for IMF credits, there is likely to be a rush to lend to the new government on the part of the commercial banks. Some voices within the ANC caution against a rapid debt build-up which ultimately results in the economy being placed under the administration of bureaucrats in Washington, as has happened to most of the rest of Africa. But there is almost no power on earth which will prevent politicians (and certainly not ANC politicians) from taking delivery of large bags of money if their constituency is frantic for houses and jobs and the money is on offer. There will, in other words, be almost inexorable pressure for a debt-led boom, with money being poured into black housing, education and welfare, into an increased public sector and, of course, into politicians’ bank accounts.

Such a boom would be extremely inflationary and – given that it would add little to the Country’s productive capacities – quickly run into balance-of-payments constraints. All of which would doubtless result in a fairly sizeable devaluation of the rand. The World Bank, which has seen numerous African countries ruin their economies with similar boom-and-bust ‘strategies’, has pointedly stated that as yet it sees no role for itself, for no one has submitted any projects or outlined any development strategy to it – this despite the fact that it has been trying to get the ANC to elucidate such matters for over a year now. In part this is just a comment on the policy-less state of the ANC, but it is also a reflection of the keenness of the Bank and other international agencies to guide the ANC away from what one might term the classic downward path of African nationalism. The Bank would, in a word, like South Africa to avoid having to undergo the rigours of an ESAP (Economic Structural Adjustment Programme) by observing in advance the ESAP logic – an acceptance of liberal market economics, a realistic exchange rate, a tough limitation on public spending and full integration into the international economy.

A great struggle for the soul of the ANC is silently in progress on this ground, for all the instincts of the ANC-SACP-Cosatu alliance lie in the opposite direction. The awkward truth is that Cosatu, representing a labour aristocracy of one and a half million in a country of nearly forty million, has pushed up wages fast while productivity has lagged, with a resulting deterioration in unit cost competitiveness. What makes this possible at the moment is sweeping protectionism in one industry after another – so Cosatu has much to fear from freer trade. The politicians of the ANC, on the other hand, would like to make free with public spending and an enlarged public sector so as to be able to reward their supporters with increased welfare and jobs in an enlarged bureaucracy. The SACP, for its part, feels that the whole aid and development establishment is, in a general way, the enemy – it is forever pointing out the superiority of the Cuban model, apparently oblivious of the fact that Cuba is on the point of collapse, (As recently as 1988 it was pointing to East Germany as the best model for South Africa’s development.) Equally significant is the fact that the SACP has always acted as the ANC’s in-house intelligentsia, as its strategic brain, and in this capacity finds itself threatened by the aid and development agencies who are now moving in to provide an alternative – high-status – source of advice, as well as very different intellectual perspectives.

The most striking sign of this process is the fact that Trevor Manuel, the ANC’s shadow finance minister, has come out in favour of abolishing the two-tier currency system, collapsing the financial rand (available only to foreign investors) into the commercial (ordinary) rand (which currently trades at a 50 per cent discount to the finrand). The delight felt by the white middle classes (who will then be free to send capital abroad, their dearest dream) is matched only by their sheer amazement. Rumour runs that Mr Manuel, who had no previous background in economics, has been effectively taken over by the World Bank’s economists who, in some reports, are actually credited with writing his speeches. It has not escaped Cosatu that the abolition of the two-tier currency system would amount to a devaluation of perhaps 25 per cent, and that the whole point of devaluation would be lost if real wages were not subsequently held down.

Such a prospect brings clearly into view the likelihood that the ANC will come to power as representatives of the black middle class, one of whose key objectives will be to reduce the institutional strength and real wages of the black working class. Certainly, as one casts an eye over the economic wish list favoured by Cosatu – minimum wage, right to work, the unionisation of every group and Cuban, if not Swedish levels of welfare – and compares what is available in competitor nations elsewhere, one cannot but suspect that the key mission of the ANC in the Nineties will be to lower the levels of popular expectation it encouraged in the insurrectionary Eighties. Clearly, such a development would fit snugly into the logic of what is required for South Africa’s full integration into an international economy based on free flows of trade and investment. This notion may be taboo, but some of the radical intellectuals advising Cosatu have sniffed the wind and done their sums. Their reaction is to take refuge in further protectionism and even in defiant notions of building socialism in one country. The more thoughtful of them have begun to realise that this will not be enough, however, simply because no set of merely theoretical objections is going to stop ANC politicians in power from taking money on offer. In other words, there will have to be a political showdown within the ANC-SACP-Cosatu alliance not too long after the ANC has entered government: some of the SACP’s slogans about the need to ‘continue building people’s power’ and to ‘retain the capacity for armed struggle’ even after the elections already point to it.

A further key element in a showdown of this kind is likely to be the growing wealth gap between the ANC élite and their followers. This has already become very noticeable. Even in opposition the ANC leadership has been enriching itself at a remarkable rate. In fact, we have recently had another interesting glimpse of the way this process works in the negotiations between the big banks and building societies and the (ANC-aligned) SA National Civics Organisation (Sanco) led by Moses Mayekiso.

Sanco is an interesting body. During the heyday of the UDF in 1983-86, civic associations sprang up all round the country, purporting to represent local black communities. Most of these consisted of self-appointed élites who imposed their will on their communities by fairly robust means, but they generally represented the temper of the times far better than the Uncle Tom municipal councillors they displaced. The Civics have continued into the new era as local ANC 2nd XIs, as it were, unwilling to give up their power bases but with a somewhat uncertain role now that the era of community revolt is over. Last year Mayekiso announced the creation of Sanco, a body which peculiarly negates the whole idea of local community representation, especially since the Sanco committee is entirely self-chosen – the civic associations have no say in the matter. The ambitious Mayekiso, miffed by his failure to get elected to the ANC’s national executive, seems to have the notion of making Sanco into a national ANC 2nd XI and has openly thumbed his nose at Mandela by calling for blacks to refuse to pay their mortgages as a protest gesture. Mandela, who quite self-consciously identifies himself with property-owning blacks, had strongly warned against this kind of tactic, for nothing would more thoroughly sabotage the cause of black home-ownership than the spectre of blacks deciding to bilk on building societies as a matter of principle.

Mayekiso, like all the Sanco leadership, is an SACP man, keen to outbid everyone in his radicalism – immediately after the recent court verdict against Winnie Mandela, he appointed her to a senior position in Sanco. Sanco leaders have declared that they will attempt to prevent even liberal white parties campaigning in the townships (‘it would serve only to confuse and destabilise the masses’), but their main target is the banks. They have not only called for mortgage boycotts but have also, somewhat contradictorily, attacked the financial institutions for not extending easier credit to blacks. Thoroughly rattled, the financial community recently met Mr Mayekiso and hurriedly cobbled together an agreement, the first item of which was that – for whatever high-minded reason – it would henceforth pay salaries and expenses to Sanco’s officials. One sometimes finds ANC officials or organisation negotiating multiple agreements of this kind, collecting half a dozen retainers – the surprise was simply that this deal leaked into the press.

If all of this is happening when the ANC is still in opposition, the results are likely to be spectacular when it acquires majority control of government patronage. It would probably be sensible, at the least, to assume that most of the top ANC leadership will be millionaires before long and that major patronage baronies will develop throughout the state, parastatal, NGO and party bureaucracies. At the same time, the relentless decline in per capita income seems certain to continue, at least for a time: the population is expanding rapidly, economic growth is barely positive – and the ANC’s perverse decision to maintain trade and investment sanctions right down to the wire guarantees that there is no new investment in the pipeline. That is, poverty will continue to increase at least until the mini-boom gets going once the ANC is in power, and will probably go on increasing when the boom fades.

While these inequalities increase the PAC and AZAPO will make handsome use of a political concatenation which could have been made for them. As the masses get poorer and more desperate, the ANC leadership, by then locked in cosy collegial relationships with former apartheid politicians, police and bureaucrats, will be getting ostentatiously rich: the cry of ‘sell-out’ will be overpowering. The SACP and Cosatu will be badly squeezed and will either join in the attack against the new bourgeoisie or lose their constituency. This brings us to the most frequently asked question in South African politics: when will the alliance between the ANC and the SACP break up? In fact this is a bad formulation of a much more important question, which is already being debated sotto voce within the liberation movement: are we on the verge of a two-stage revolution in which the African bourgeoisie, triumphant at the first stage, will be over-thrown at a socialist second stage? I shall attempt to answer this question in a concluding article.