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.
The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 16 No. 9 · 12 May 1994
It is disturbing indeed to read R.W. Johnson’s cynical and world-weary account of the runup to the first elections in South African history where the vast majority of the population is entitled to vote (LRB, 28 April). He appears to have no grasp of the reality that the fighting between supporters of Inkatha and the ANC is due primarily to the violent political landscape which arose under apartheid. No grasp either that Inkatha and the ANC are not equal forces, because the former only represents some Zulus, while the latter represents the majority of all voters.
There will of course be time for criticism aplenty. The black nationalism and refined Stalinism which passes for ANC politics in many cases will not bring liberation to the ordinary black woman and man – although it will still seem, and will actually be, far better than the far-rightist white regime which was in power under apartheid. A lot now depends on how far the ordinary black voters are prepared to organise to make sure the ANC keeps its promises. Not all the signs are good. But at least there is a chance. In this sense the election of Nelson Mandela is worth celebrating with an understanding that it is not the end of the struggle but the end of the beginning of the struggle.
Vol. 16 No. 13 · 7 July 1994
R.W. Johnson is too eager by half to question the neutrality of others (LRB, 28 April): why, for instance, does the long-time opposition to apartheid on the part of Neil Kinnock and the Labour Party make them less than neutral observers of the election process? In his attribution of pro-ANC bias to other observers, he exposes the mote in his own eye. In so doing, he falls prey to that particularly British distortion, exemplified by Baroness Thatcher and the Times, which sought so often to denigrate the African National Congress by an uncritical acceptance of the judgments and the domestic standing of other players.
As chairman of the Commonwealth Observer Mission, I was based in Johannesburg from January until the end of May. I was in my Carlton Centre office in downtown Johannesburg on 28 March, the day when over fifty Zulu supporters of King Goodwill Zwelethini were killed in the course of a march and rally. Johnson’s account of this event is both flawed and distorted. 1. There was no ‘widespread suspicion’ that the sharpshooters surrounding the Library Gardens, who were responsible for most of the deaths, were ANC activists. There was, however, a suspicion, which apparently did not reach some parts of Natal, that those responsible were members of the South African security ‘Third Force’. 2. Johnson conveniently ignores the issue of how marchers ended up outside the ANC headquarters in Plein Street, some blocks away from the route to and from the Library Gardens. While the action of ANC guards cannot be defended, the provocative nature of the detour has to be acknowledged as a contributing factor in their behaviour. 3. While IFP marches and rallies had normally been well-organised and disciplined, this was not the case on 28 March. 4. In the aftermath of the tragedy, many questions were asked concerning the wisdom of the march being allowed, and the apparent lack of preparation on the part of the police. These questions were not confined to the Weekly Mail and Guardian. 5. While it is true that police permission was given for the march, the permission was sought by and given, not to ‘Zulu loyalists’ but to the IFP leadership in PWV, though there was some ducking for cover on that issue afterwards.
The Goldstone Commission charges concerning ‘Third Force’ promotion of black/black violence cannot be simply brushed aside in one passing sentence. That there was a long-standing and (at least until recently) continuing practice of intimidation and murder on the part of elements in the South African security forces is now widely believed. What was not yet clear by the time I left was whether the rest of the iceberg will ever be fully revealed, and whether any of Goldstone’s serious charges will ever result in anything more than a series of early retirements.
The description of peace monitors as ‘self-styled’ is gratuitous. The four international observer groups (UN, EU, OAU and Commonwealth) went to South Africa late in 1992, in response to UN Security Council resolution 772. A major factor in the decision to send observers was that they should endeavour to assist in bringing an end to the violence which had escalated since the dramatic developments of early 1990. In the exercise of their role, the four missions worked closely from the outset with the peace structures. These structures had been established after the signing of the National Peace Accord by 26 parties and interested groups in September 1991. Of recent times largely unsung because of the greater newsworthiness of other events, the peace structures often played an outstanding and courageous role in peacemaking and in defusing tension, especially in local communities. Peace monitors, clearly identifiable in their distinctive orange jackets, were a trained, official and respected part of those structures.
The incoming Government of National Unity needs all the help and encouragement it can get, in the enormous tasks of reconstruction and development ahead. Britain’s official attitude in the long years before South African independence too often gave comfort to the oppressors and the troublemakers (a charge which could also be made against my own country until the end of the Muldoon era).
Porirua, New Zealand
Vol. 16 No. 17 · 8 September 1994
Russell Marshall takes me to task (Letters, 7 July) for alleged bias in my reportage of the massacre of some fifty people during the royalist Zulu march through Johannesburg just before the South African election. Marshall says that my report that there was ‘widespread suspicion’ that ANC activists had been responsible for the massacre on the library steps was quite wrong. Instead, while apparently agreeing that the shooting of Zulu marchers outside ANC headquarters at Shell House was the work of ANC guards, he suggests the shootings earlier in the march were the work of a South African security ‘third force’.
I would agree with Marshall that the behaviour of the police, the Inkatha Freedom Party and the Zulu marchers themselves was open to criticism, but it is a strange thing to object to a suspicion (which undoubtedly exists) while accepting in the same breath the reasons for that suspicion. In the period since Marshall wrote his letter, the matter has been aired in the South African Parliament, thanks to the persistence of the liberal Democratic Party. The ANC Minister for Police, Mr Sidney Mufamadi, has, to his credit, publicly accepted the responsibility of the ANC in the matter and has made no suggestion that any sort of ‘third force’ was involved – and indeed, there is no evidence for such a contention. Mr Mufamadi has also admitted that ANC guards twice prevented the police from searching Shell House for weapons. As a result of the Democratic Party’s questioning, however, a number of weapons held in Shell House have ultimately been handed over to the police. It is worth remarking that these included a number of AK-47s: the use of army assault rifles by ANC security guards itself raises many questions. These rifles have now been matched by ballistics experts with the cartridges found in the street among the massacred marchers and there is no doubt that the bullets were fired by those guns. At the time of writing there seems little chance that those responsible for the massacre will be brought to book.