Here for the crunch

R.W. Johnson in South Africa

‘The good news’, said the man from the US Embassy, ‘is that there’s lots of money for voter education. The bad news is that we hear Richard Gere and Kim Basinger are coming out to spend it.’ ‘It’s getting like the late Sixties in Vietnam,’ said his colleague. ‘Last time I saw so many people working such frantic hours on politics. Didn’t make a damn bit of difference there in the end. Probably won’t do here, either. We had Bob Hope there, of course. We were lucky, we didn’t have Jesse Jackson like we’re gonna have here.’ I asked how the funding worked. ‘Well, Washington has this idea that democracy is something you can sorta buy. They say: will it be free and fair? If we say no, not really, they say: well how much more do we have to allocate to get it free and fair?’ I was called to the phone. It was my friend, Jim, who’s been election-watching down on the Natal south coast. He’d just come back from seeing the bodies of a family of nine killed at Folweni. ‘They were butchered, I mean almost literally,’ he said. ‘Of course, neither the local Inkatha guys nor the ANC will say who did it but they obviously know. You can be sure the revenge mission has already begun. It’s getting kind of heavy. Come on down for the weekend. I’ll introduce you to the local killers and we can do some surfing and have a barbecue.’ In Lesotho last year, I talked to an American who’d been an election-observer in Kenya, Namibia, Zambia, Angola and Pakistan. What preparations, I asked, was he making to monitor the South African election? ‘Oh boy,’ he groaned, ‘that one. That’s the eight-hundred-pound gorilla.’

At times it seems as if the election is like a vast, and violent, three-ringed circus, like one of those Rollerball-type movies in which part of the entertainment is that people get spectacularly killed. The country is awash with celebrities: film-stars like Danny Glover, come to do ‘voter education’ and pretending to a momentary neutrality prior to their photo-opportunity with Mandela. There are politicians whose ability to be neutral is even more suspect – Neil Kinnock heads a Labour Party team, for example; rock stars come to clean up on the South African circuit so long off-limits to them; endless self-appointed ‘monitoring’ teams from black American universities; old South African exiles like the actor Anthony Sher, the ex-clergyman Cosmas Desmond – now the only white man on the PAC list – and Ronald Segal, once editor of the Penguin Africa Library, now bitterly inveighing against the Coloureds for their refusal to vote for the ANC.

Such people – I’m one myself – feel they want to be here for the crunch. We all know that this showdown has been coming all our lives, that it gives meaning to much of our past to be here now. We’re all too wrought up, of course, as is the whole country as it moves self-consciously towards its own apotheosis. Sometimes the serious and the circus aspects collide. When we had ANC mass action in Durban, the whole city shut down – rolls of barbed wire blocking off the shopping malls, people stocking up on tinned goods as a tidal wave of ANC demonstrators poured through the city – and you then turn on the TV at home to watch the Australia v. South Africa Test Match going on just a mile away from all the mayhem and hear Allan Border, the Australian skipper, sadly reflecting that the low gate that day ‘may have been caused by events elsewhere in the city’.

Meanwhile, people – everywhere but especially in Natal – have been getting killed by the hundred. I’m involved in commissioning opinion surveys and find myself having to worry about our interviewers getting killed. Just to go into the East Rand townships and ask people about politics is a very risky business. Four of our vehicles have been burnt out and eight of our interviewers have ended up in intensive care units as a result of stonings and stabbings. Meanwhile the country lives through strikes, mini-revolutions in the homelands, demonstrations, and deliberately taunting speeches as politicians draw lines in the sand and dare other groups or parties to cross them.

The worst single event has been the shooting dead of Zulu royalists in the streets of Johannesburg which, together with the accompanying strife in the townships, cost 56 dead in a single day, with several hundred more wounded. It seems clear that ANC security guards and activists did much of the shooting. At any rate, Shell House, the ANC headquarters, has now admitted that its men shot into the demonstrating crowd at two separate points. Mystery still surrounds the identity of sharpshooters who shot at the marchers from other buildings, but there is a widespread suspicion that they, too, were ANC activists taking a potshot at the hated Inkatha masses come, Inkatha said, to demonstrate in favour of their king; in order to attack Shell House, say the ANC. What no one disputes is that the marchers had applied for and obtained police permission for the march; that they carried spears and sticks but few guns; that they did not fire first; and that their assailants, firing from protected positions inside buildings, suffered no casualties. Mandela has intervened to prevent the police from searching Shell House for weapons or apprehending those who used them – he already has the power to do this sort of thing, a fact with ominous implications for the future rule of law. Meanwhile, Chief Buthelezi has compared the event, inevitably, with the 1960 Sharpeville massacre when demonstrators were shot down in a hail of police fire.

Given the centrality of Sharpeville to the mythology of the anti-apartheid struggle, the ANC’s foreign and domestic supporters have found the comparison almost unbearably anguishing: the sort of political and emotional acrobatics necessary to reject it are best seen in the comments on the massacre published in the Weekly Mail and Guardian, the main mouthpiece of white pro-ANC liberalism (and now effectively part of the English Guardian stable). Editorially, the WM & G condemned the Zulus shot dead outside Shell House (‘Lambs they were not ... they had come looking for trouble’) but their only word of criticism for the ANC guards who shot them was that they might have done that most heinous of things – given Buthelezi a PR victory. The WM & G’s strongest criticism was reserved for the police for not keeping better order, which is odd given that no police force in the world can do much faced with well-armed and hidden snipers firing into a dense street crowd, and a little steep when one remembers that two policemen died in the carnage.

Rather embarrassingly for this point of view, the two peace monitors in charge declared the Zulu march to have been perfectly orderly, which naturally drew bitter criticism from the WM & G – who suggested that the mystery snipers may have been ‘Inkatha members using the old French World War One tactic of firing on their own lines to get the troops’ blood up’. The main WM & G report on the massacre went even further, comparing the behaviour of the leader of the Zulu march with that of the Nazis on Kristallnacht.

The reason for this kind of madness is that many liberal whites have an enormous emotional investment in the ANC and cannot now bear to believe that the next government is likely to be just as authoritarian and corrupt as the old one. It is a very frightening thing to know that you have to live with the ANC in power if you also believe it capable of carrying out its own little Sharpeville: hence the paroxysms of denial. The same reasoning leads to the demonisation of Inkatha. It is scary to stand on the verge of ANC rule if you accept that the ANC-lnkatha battle is a struggle between two equally ruthless brands of African nationalism, but very much less scary if you can convince yourself that Inkatha is as evil as Nazism.

In fact madness takes many shapes in the current revolutionary atmosphere. This, I now realise, is what has been missing from my understanding of the French. Russian and other revolutions: a sense of the process, and even more the prospect, of revolutionary change producing such extremes of euphoria, despair, greed, fear, hope and anxiety, that in terms of the everyday life one is used to in, say England, not just individuals but whole social movements and groups simply go off the rails. At last one begins to understand a little of what life in the overheated cockpits of Paris and St Petersburg must have been like, with absolutely everything up for grabs, with no limit to what one could lose; when obscure radical curés preaching the gospel of the Goddess of Reason or the need for the ten-hour clock, could gain a large audience and previously obscure street politicians suddenly had the power to decide who should keep their lands and who should live. South Africa has no shortage of figures like this at the moment, no shortage of politicians who promise to redistribute the land or nationalise the mines one day and say another thing the next, of big-tent revivalists (‘Did you know God was a divorced man?’ reads one come-on), of people who have been born again as gun freaks or Christians or telephone-sex addicts.

It’s hard to know what would count as normality in a society where scores of Africans can be shot down in the street by other Africans and no one even dreams of apprehending their killers. Where Eugene Terreblanche can appear on TV and boast that the AWB’s raid into Bophuthatswana was a ‘victory’ because his men killed a hundred innocent Africans, and no one even suggests that in that cast he should be arrested for murder. Where taxi wars rage, leaving scores dead. Where men with Kalashnikovs board commuter trains shouting ‘Bulala aba thakathi’ (‘Kill the wit ches’) and then proceed to hurl any ‘witches’ they find of the moving train. Where a disturbed woman with a criminal record can be elected head of her party’s women’s section an MP and, perhaps, to the Cabinet. Where Afrikaner conservatives insist, under threat of war, on a volkstaat but cannot for the life of them tell you where they want it to be.

More than that, people insist on their own highly ideologised version of what is going on and will comprehensively denounce anyone who fails to affirm it. Quite often this means having to deny things that are happening right under one’s nose. There are, for example some self-styled ‘peace monitors’ who, faced with the incontrovertible fact that Inkatha and ANC forces are equally guilty of killing one another, single-mindedly find that one side is guilty, not only of all the violence against the other, but also (via factional feuding) of all the violence against itself as well. Similarly, the African intelligentsia is extremely sensitive to the persistence of white racist stereotypes; of settler warnings about African tribalism, delivered, now as they always have been, gin and tonic in hand, from a thousand verandah chairs. They know that these people are still saying, ‘Give the Africans the vote and within no time they’ll be killing one another by the hundred’; and faced with the uncomfortable fact that this is exactly what is now happening, many African intellectuals (and white radicals) have what can only be described as a compulsive need to believe in a hidden white hand behind the killings and will perform all manner of ideological contortions when asked to confront the fact that, overwhelmingly, Africans are being killed by other Africans. A ‘third force’ may exist, but the most it has been charged with is gun-running or training those who kill.

At the end of all this comes the election and its foregone conclusion. ‘But will it,’ I am asked all the time, ‘be really free and fair?’ The answer is no, not really, but this is pretty well inevitable and it doesn’t matter as much as one might have expected. The various polls differ only in whether or not they show the ANC getting a two-thirds majority; nobody puts it at under 60 per cent. The polls also show that among Africans 28 per cent believe their community will know how they voted; 49 per cent live in one-party areas; 28 per cent agree that people in their areas not supporting that dominant party are frightened; 24 per cent believe ‘the community will be hard on a person who disagrees politically with it’; 20 per cent report pressure on them to vote for a party they don’t support; and 18 percent say that one particular political group physically controls the areas they live in and is trying to ensure that people vote the way it wants. When asked which groups were doing this, Africans mentioned the ANC in eight out of the nine regions, the AWB in four, the National Party in three and Inkatha in two. More than half of all Africans intending to vote for the ANC live in one-party areas and 58 per cent named the ANC (against 14 per cent who cited Inkatha) as the party using its local control to ‘make sure people vote for them whether they want to or not’. This does not mean that the ANC is worse than Inkatha in this respect, merely that it controls more territory. Such pressures appear to have been particularly strong in the great Xhosa heartland of the Eastern Cape and Transkei, where so many of the ANC leaders come from: the ANC is relying on this ‘home base’ to deliver a vast bloc vote. In this region no less than 81 per cent of Africans said the ANC was using its local control to get the vote it wants, though pollsters found similarly high figures reporting pressure of this kind in the Eastern Transvaal (75 per cent), the Northern Transvaal (64 per cent) and the sparsely populated Northern Cape (83 per cent). In Natal 39 per cent of Africans accused Inkatha (and 38 per cent the ANC) of exercising similar pressures.

Such figures suggest that many Africans will be casting their votes in a manner which is some way short of free and fair. They also tell one that the vast numbers of international election monitors and observers will make no dent in the problem at all by patrolling the polling booths on election day, for the damage has been done over the preceding months and in some cases years. Suppose some township ‘comrades’ are telling you in no uncertain terms how they want you to vote. Back in 1988 they necklaced one of your neighbours. Since then you have been through more ‘mass action’ stayaways, enforced by teenage petrol-bombers at the bus stops, than you can easily remember. It’s impossible to put a face or a date on such intimidation; it has long ago become an integral part of the way you live.

We have, I realise, an inadequate way of thinking about intimidation. Either there is John Stuart Mill Man making up his private mind or someone with a gun at his head being told to ‘vote my way or else.’ But the dominant Third World alternative is that of the ‘mobilised community’. Living in crowded townships or squatter camps, Africans also inhabit an environment which is far more densely furnished with community institutions, influences and pressures. There is little or no private space, physical, emotional or political. To go against what ‘the community’ feels is neither wise nor safe – indeed, it is often unthinkable. In principle, the polls tell us, African voters dislike this situation but they cannot change it and the same polls show horrifying levels of political intolerance. Competing political parties should not be allowed in, many say, for they know that such intrusions into an already overpacked environment are bound to provoke trouble. In the end what you get is great legions of ANC voters who are simultaneously enthusiastic about their party, disapproving of the way it allows them no freedom of choice, and terrified of the street and area committees which enforce its rule. (Inkatha voters are similar, but the enforcing structures are different.) The best Western analogy is the soldier who enthusiastically detests Hitler, but simultaneously dislikes the British Army and fears the sergeant-major who will have him if he flinches. He is, in every sense, mobilised. How free and fair is his choice to fight Fascism?

The reason even this doesn’t matter as much as one might think is that it is politically unthinkable for the election not to be declared free and fair, so free and fair it will be announced to have been. And in a way that will be right. The ANC, undoubtedly the most popular party, will win; the National Party, the second most popular party, will come second, and so on. In a rough and ready way the results will correspond to the crude realities on the ground. The only real disaster will be if the combination of the Inkatha boycott and the ANC’s territorial pressure on voters produces a two-thirds majority for the ANC, enabling it to write its own constitution and govern without power-sharing. That in turn would bring all the most radical elements within the ANC to the fore, which would panic the non-African minorities and set a whole series of dominoes falling in several directions at once. So what on the face of it might seem the result that would create the most stability would have quite the opposite effect.

The ANC will sweep inexorably to victory in seven of the nine provinces. If the election goes ahead in Natal, it will also, given Inkatha’s boycott, win easily there, but it is harder to say exactly what such a victory would mean. From the outset of ‘free’ politics in 1990 the ANC has – with some success – sought to marginalise Buthelezi and his party. For over a year after Mandela’s emergence from captivity the two men failed to meet, essentially because Mandela (who was keen to meet) felt unable at that stage to ignore the ferocious pressures from his own hardliners. By mid-1990 the ANC had begun mass action intended to ‘crush KwaZulu’ and, as a direct result, IFP-ANC fighting erupted on the Reef. Then the Zulu King’s demand for a seat at the constitutional talks was turned down and Buthelezi refused to grace the talks with his presence. Buthelezi, always sensitive even to imagined slights, clearly decided at a very early stage that the constitution was being drafted without him and against him. In effect, by boycotting the election, he is making it clear that he will deny the legitimacy of both the new central government and the new provincial government of Natal. Most ANC activists are committed to the view that Buthelezi is a paper tiger and that once he is deprived of state patronage in his little KwaZulu fiefdom, his house of cards will collapse.

It is possible that this will happen: anyone who knows their way round KwaZulu knows that it is a rickety structure all right. But if this happens it will only be at the cost of an ethnic slow burn. Nothing can prevent the next government from being a fairly large disappointment – expectations are so high, competence is so low – nor can anything prevent the Zulus, the largest language-group, from being under-represented in that government. A Zulu nationalist reaction may not be immediate but it is inevitable, for the fact is that there is a historical nexus of authority in and around the Zulu monarchy. Thirty years ago in Uganda Milton Obote made the moderniser’s mistake of thinking such things counted for nothing, and to be sure, his troops dispatched the Kabaka of Buganda from his kingdom without real difficulty. But today a disgraced Obote languishes in exile and the Kabaka again rules Buganda. There is no need for the modernising nationalists of the ANC to repeat this mistake but both their hegemonic ambition and their sectarian style suggest that they will do exactly that.

The one province the ANC seems certain to lose is the Western Cape, where the last opinion polls put de Klerk’s National Party ahead by 52 to 35, thanks to a large NP advantage among the Coloureds, who make up 55 per cent of the province’s population. This alone will demonstrate with uncomfortable clarity how racially polarised the election is and how signally unsuccessful black and white multi-racialism has been in the election. Early on in the campaign a secret ANC poll led their American advisers to warn the Party that their only hope of winning the Western Cape lay in ditching their local leader, the ex-Rev. Allan Boesak, whose ‘morally ambiguous lifestyle’ was a major drawback among conservative and religious Coloured voters. Boesak now claims that he did offer his resignation to Mandela and that he longs only to ‘get back into the pulpit’. Asked whether, instead of denying reports of his various extra-marital peccadilloes and then having to admit they were true, he might have done better to make a clean breast of things right away, he replied: ‘Naturally, that was a course of action I considered. But that would have been the easy way out. I needed to know the loneliness of guilt.’ He already sounds close to conceding defeat, but the ANC is not and has been drafting in high-profile Coloureds and Mrs Desmond Tutu in a frantic effort to close the gap. Everything suggests this will fail, for the fears and insecurities of the Coloureds are very like those of the whites and no amount of razzmatazz will make those fears and insecurities go away.

One of the most important moments in the campaign came when Alec Erwin, one of the white Communists on the ANC list, announced that there ‘was nothing sacrosanct’ about the budget deficit limit of 6 per cent of GDP to which the ANC had committed itself in agreeing the recent IMF loan, and that accordingly mention of the 6 per cent limit was being deleted from the ANC programme. More or less simultaneously, Trevor Manuel, the ANC’s probable finance minister, announced that the IMF and World Bank ‘are begging to lend us money, but we’re saying, wait a minute, not yet.’ This coincided with the appointment to the top ANC economics job of Ben Turok, another white Communist, best known for his denunciation of the Bank and the Fund for ‘attempting to install bourgeois democracy and so-called free markets in the Third World’. In Third World terms, South Africa is a prudent and under-borrowed country. It has been widely assumed that the ANC’s ambitious spending plans – millions of houses to be built, ten years of universal free education, affordable health care for all, even affordable telephones for all – would require largescale finance from the Fund and the Bank, for no one takes seriously the Party’s claim that it can finance all its plans out of savings derived from greater efficiency achieved by the abolition of apartheid structures. With domestic savings only just enough to finance depreciation of capital plant, either the new government will have to borrow more or it has to print more money.

The problem is that both the Communists and many non-Communist ANC radicals see the Bank and Fund as part of an international capitalist conspiracy and thus don’t want to borrow. But in that case the commercial banks will feel decidedly jittery too. The few ANC economists who have examined the trends in capital flight and private domestic investment are horrified by what they see, and realise that the scope for extra taxation is extremely limited. And with nine new provincial governments to be set up and Mandela promising all the old Bantustan civil servants that they will keep their jobs and pensions, it seems certain that the end of apartheid will cost money, not save it. And nobody believes that large-scale private foreign investment is likely while present levels of public violence are maintained. So, barring the simple cancellation of ANC spending plans once the Party is in office, something, somewhere has to give. The governor of the Reserve Bank, Chris Stals, then emerged to make the somewhat unusual public statement that he didn’t trust any politicians and that he fears, above all, that he will be ordered simply to print extra money. Meanwhile Mandela has rushed to assure business that loans from the Bank and the Fund have already been negotiated by the ANC. This is almost certainly a misunderstanding. The future President knows nothing of economics: no doubt he’s had amicable conversations with Fund and Bank emissaries but what will matter is the fine print of the letters of intent the new government will have to sign to secure those loans.

The closer the ANC gets to power the more inchoate its economic policy seems to become, with senior figures in its economics department now insisting that no firm decisions have yet been taken on anything and that everything will be worked out after the election in consultation with the private sector. Other voices still demand the nationalisation of the mines, a forced reallocation of land and a sweeping redistribution of wealth. The stage seems set for a fierce battle between the conflicting wings of the ANC on this central question, though of course it is possible that the ANC’s victory at the polls will be followed by ‘spontaneous’ occupations of land, houses or enterprises by groups attempting to force the new government’s hand. Everything’s a mess, nothing’s anything like ready, there’s bound to be much more killing. Not surprisingly, many whites are stockpiling dry goods or even arranging to be abroad for election week. Nobody really knows what to expect but there is, in all of us, I think, a great longing to move through and beyond the election into the new era. Those of us who grew up here have known all our lives that majority rule must come and in that sense all our lives have been converging on this point since birth. Now at last we are at the end of that beginning and about to start history anew. This is the final reason why the election, however imperfect, must take place. The whole country is already in labour with the new future it must deliver: there can be no drawing back now.