R.W. Johnson in South Africa

Stung by press comment that South Africa’s new government had achieved little in its first hundred days, Deputy President Thabo Mbeki, addressing the Cape Town Press Club, suggested that the problem lay with the press. It had, he said, been ‘perfectly correct for the press to criticise the previous government’ – the word ‘correct’ is worth lingering over – but such behaviour was now inappropriate. Instead of looking for crises, he said, the press ‘should ask what its role is in building a democracy’. Mr Mbeki, it turned out, had been particularly incensed by an article in the Financial Mail accusing him of laziness and unexplained absences from important meetings.

A week later he was outdone by the most powerful regional premier, Tokyo Sexwale, who had come under fire for having hired 65 of his cronies at double the normal rates, for jobs that were not advertised, and – it seems to happen all the time – for not turning up to meetings he was scheduled to address. Mr Sexwale heads the government of the PWV (Pretoria-Witwatersrand-Vereeniging) area, which includes a quarter of the population and generates 60 pet cent of the country’s wealth – and makes him a leading contender for the succession to President Mandela, along with Mr Mbeki and the ANC party boss Cyril Ramaphosa. (The French seem already to have decided Sexwale is the man most likely to: President Mitterrand, on his recent visit, bestowed the Legion of Honour on him.) Mr Sexwale, like quite a few of the new ANC men of power, has a somewhat chiefly manner – one newspaper editor referred to him as His Regional Highness. Mr Sexwale told the PWV legislature that ‘counter-revolutionaries’ were abusing the freedom of the press in order to try to prevent the country’s reconstruction. It would not be allowed and language of the kind found in the offending article would not be permitted in the legislature.

Thabo Mbeki capped all this with a paper to the ANC National Executive in which he spoke of the ANC’s enemies as including ‘bourgeois reformism’ and ‘sections of the liberal establishment’. In particular, he warned that the ‘counter-insurgency forces’ had never been dismantled and that they had a huge network of informers and agents in the media, the universities and elsewhere, thus echoing almost exactly P.W. Botha’s diatribes of a few years ago about the ‘total onslaught’. Once again, it seems, criticism from the press or intelligentsia risks being labelled as treasonable. This hyper-sensitivity stems in part from the fact that the ANC, used to being regarded as a protected species, has found being treated like ordinary politicians deeply disagreeable. But Mr Mbeki is also engaged in a succession struggle and needs to keep his supporters convinced of his radicalism.

Such outbursts are interesting partly because since the election the ANC élite has been basking in President Mandela’s overwhelming popularity. In mid-August Mandela was given a 60 per cent approval rating by whites (up from 38 per cent last November), 69 per cent by Indians, 70 per cent by Coloureds and 92 per cent by Africans. Mandela’s complete lack of bitterness, his generosity, his grave, dignified bearing have made him a national totem, an icon quite beyond criticism. Even the conservative Citizen solemnly warns that he is being over-burdened, that the man is too precious to the country for any risks to be taken. In other words, it has now dawned on many whites that Mandela is pretty well indispensable. Although the radicals in the ANC caucus are frustrated by his willingness to strike coalition compromises with the National Party and the Inkatha Freedom Party, Mandela is so loved and admired among the ANC faithful that within the ANC open criticism is simply not possible. At the same time, he enjoys the warm regard of both Chief Buthelezi and F.W. de Klerk although they, too, complain about the thrust of ANC policy and talk of a possible future in opposition. But President Mandela is so genuinely impossible to dislike that they would have a difficult job explaining why they couldn’t get on with him. Besides, they must have realised that no successor to Mandela is likely to be as conciliatory. Even Constand Viljoen, the leader of the white Right, gets on famously with the ANC these days and has warm words for Mandela. After all the struggles the country has been through, it longs for peace and reconciliation and Mr Mandela can deliver them like no one else.

The trouble is that no country can really be governed – let alone guided through a process of transformation – simply by having a dear old man with a shining moral character as President. There is, quite unmistakeably, a lack of grip in the way the Government is being run. The fact is that Mandela has no experience of administration and really can’t be expected to learn how to run a cabinet now.

Quite visibly, the Cabinet doesn’t work. Thus Omar Dullah, the Minister of Justice, made repeated speeches about the Truth Commission he was setting up to judge abuses of human rights under the previous regime – until Deputy President de Klerk pointed out that the matter could not become government policy unless it went through the Cabinet, where he would oppose it. The squabble continues. Dullah also attacked the US over its hostility to Cuba, but the Foreign Ministry, conscious of Clinton’s support for the Mandela Government, maintained a glacial silence until eventually Dullah declared that he had never actually made the offending speech. Similarly, Joe Modise, the Minister of Defence, denounced Israel, announced the purchase of corvettes for the Navy, and tried to censor a newspaper, all without Cabinet consent. The Ministry of Administration ceded control of the country’s water resources to the provinces without consulting the Ministry of Water Affairs, which then had to put up a furious fight to snatch back control. On issue after issue the Cabinet seems unwilling to reach decisions, especially tough decisions. Partly this is a reflection of the difficulties of coalition government, but it is also the case that ANC ministers are running scared of the ANC caucus in Parliament; and – more significant perhaps – the ANC is simply so opposition-minded that many of its ministers seem almost incapable of taking responsibility for clear-cut executive decisions.

The Cabinet originally announced that it was thinking of saving money by moving Parliament to Pretoria. Immediately the ANC caucus grabbed control of the issue – which then vanished. No one can say whether the question of where the country’s capital is to be has been resolved, whether it’s been dropped or even if it’s being discussed at all. Similarly, the Government proudly declared that in future all decisions would be taken far more democratically than in the past. In economic affairs this would mean that the National Economic Forum would acquire considerable importance. It would, crucially, be involved in the centrepiece of government policy, the Reconstruction and Development Plan (the RDP). But months have gone by with no mention of the Forum and no one knows whether it will even continue to exist. Meanwhile the Minister with responsibility for the RDP, Jay Naidoo, has taken six months to bring out an almost wholly vacuous White Paper. Pious principles are still preferred to any indication of how the Government intends to produce the economic growth without which the RDP will founder. It looks very much as if the economy is going to be allowed to drift into the arms of the IMF, who can then shoulder the blame for the difficult decisions being skirted now. Again, despite the huge jobs-for-the-boys pressure, almost no new South African ambassadors or consuls have been named, so that Mandela everywhere relies on old apartheid-era diplomats. More remarkably still, the former bantustans, though legally abolished, still exist – their civil services continue to occupy offices, levy taxes and spend money. Even the farcical bantustan ambassadors and consuls to South Africa continue in post, carrying out their non-existent functions on behalf of non-existent states.

The sense of drift is quite palpable. Apart from the provision of jobs, housing and education are undoubtedly the two areas dearest to the hearts of the ANC and its electorate, yet there is little sign of movement at either. Joe Slovo, the Minister of Housing, is suffering from bone marrow cancer and has been in hospital three times this month so far. As yet his Ministry has produced no housing plan nor, indeed, built any houses. Tokyo Sexwale, the PWV Premier, has repeatedly insisted that he would build 150,000 houses this year in his region alone. Thus far he has exactly one house to show. Most significant is the failure to produce any scheme for housing finance. At present it is often impossible to collect township rents and building societies are afraid to lend: if a township purchaser defaults on payments it is not uncommon for the repossessed house to be burnt down and its new occupants attacked. Unless Mr Slovo can come up with a scheme which gets round this obstacle there will be no housing policy and probably very few houses. Meanwhile squatter invasions of housing land continue – Mr Slovo’s courageous stand against such invasions is merely words in the wind – compromising possible future developments.

Education is in an even worse mess. The Minister, Sibusiso Bengu, was no sooner in office than he found himself locked in mortal struggle with the ANC Education Desk. Mr Bengu then had a stroke and has only just returned to the fray. Already Bengu has had to accept that even by 1996 there will still not be a single, integrated education system. The universities continue to be racked by student troubles and in Soweto 40 principals have been driven out of their schools by their pupils. There is a great deal of hand-wringing and some threatening noises about what will happen to the former whites-only schools, but no sense of direction and no action at all. Recently Mr Bengu announced a month-long campaign to ‘change the culture of education’: the people, he says, must decide what they want – change is up to them. This populist excuse for executive inaction is paralleled by ministers involved with the RDP who harangue mystified audiences, telling them that the Government has done its bit and it is now up to the people to make the RDP a reality. Yet, in the case of education, at least, it is impossible to imagine that things can be improved much without a tough executive crackdown on truant teachers, riotous pupils and corrupt administrators, but such a crackdown would gravely offend the ANC’s own populist instincts. Mr Bengu sits squarely in the middle of that contradiction. Chris Hani, the assassinated Communist leader, once said that he wanted to get control of the police, the army and the media but that there was only pain and sorrow to be had out of running a department such as Education. It is clear now how right he was.

One of the reasons Mr Bengu’s job is such a bed of nails is that under apartheid each homeland and each racial group had its own education department. In addition, white education was split between several departments. The result is that Bengu has the difficult, longwinded and expensive job of amalgamating 19 different education departments into one. In only slightly lesser versions the same problem is met in most other ministries. The more one gazes at the bureaucratic mess the more one wonders if this government will ever find its way out of it.

For a start, the ANC rather unthinkingly promised all homeland civil servants that they would keep their jobs. Realising that the South African state was about to take over responsibility for their wage bills, the homeland administrations celebrated with an orgy of recruitment in their last year of life, thus further swelling the enormous and inefficient bureaucracy. Second, the ANC is under great pressure to find jobs for its clients in the civil service but it also promised de Klerk that existing white civil servants would keep their jobs. To square the circle the ANC announced an additional 11,000 ‘affirmative’ civil service posts – which drew no less than 1.4 million black applicants. There is, of course, nothing for these recruits to do – the problem is a surplus, not a shortage of civil servants. On top of this, the country has been newly divided up into nine regions and each of these regions also has to amalgamate a whole series of homeland and racial bureaucracies. But the central government is nowhere near ready to start handing power over to the new regional governments, who accordingly sit doing very little on handsome salaries. Yet the Government can only carry out its reforms if the regional governments translate them into action on the ground. At the moment this is impossible and the logjam will get worse next year when a whole new set of metropolitan authorities is created in the cities and the first ever democratic elections take place there. Inevitably, there will be a further round of jobs for the boys and, probably, bureaucratic chaos as a completely untried new élite takes power in the cities. The first team have been sent to Parliament, the second team to the regional assemblies, and the third team have been recruited as placemen: management of the great urban areas, which will make or break the reform programme, is being handed over to the fourth team.

In some sense this is a fine thing: we will have democracy at every level and large numbers of blacks will acquire jobs previously confined to a narrow Afrikaner élite. But it is also clear that the ANC’s ambition to transform and democratise all the structures of the state will dramatically impede its ambition to transform and democratise the structures of society. There is no doubt at all which of these objectives has priority: the determining force is the grab for power and jobs on the part of a small black élite. Ministers repeatedly make speeches saying how much they dislike having white civil servants and that their aim is to change this as quickly as possible. In many cases they have already suspended their top white civil servants (at the cost of enormous redundancy payments or, more often, paying them to do no work) in order to give jobs to clients and cronies who, all too often, are far less able to carry out the work of their department than the men they have displaced.

The most vociferous denunciations come from Winnie Mandela, now a deputy minister (arts, culture, science and technology) and, as always, an unguided missile, making speeches and even appointments she doesn’t consult her minister about. (Her arrival in Cape Town has, by the by, plunged the local couturiers into panic, for she has expensive tastes in clothes, a well-publicised record as a poor bill-payer and a reputation which instils real fear.)

In her attacks on her white staff Mrs Mandela is, however, speaking for a larger constituency. Not surprisingly, the morale of white civil servants has plummeted and the Public Servants’ Association has warned that most departments are in a state of chaos, with a total breakdown in communications between the political and administrative hierarchies: only two departments, they say, seem to be working properly. The ability of the bureaucracy to implement social change is thus being sacrificed to the career ambitions of a mere handful. White conservatives are horrified by all this, and you could say that that only goes to show how stupid most of them are: if they examined their own interests a little more thoughtfully they would surely be delighted at this self-inflicted paralysis on the part of the Government. But one of the most heartening sides of the new South Africa is the lack of such cynicism: people of all races and persuasions, even the most reactionary, want the new government to work.

Yet the fact is that power in South Africa is merely being transferred to the same bureaucratic bourgeoisie that took power elsewhere in Africa. To anyone who has read René Dumont’s famous False Start in Africa, the tell-tale sign is the large salaries of the new élite in what is, after all, merely a medium-income developing country. President Mandela is paid the same as Bill Clinton, both his Vice-Presidents are paid more than Al Gore, and all cabinet ministers are paid considerably more than a British prime minister. The remuneration of MPs is similarly lavish: indeed, some of their privileges are quite startling – for example, a ration of 48 free air-tickets a year, which has not prevented ANC MPs demanding an 80 per cent reduction on air tickets beyond that, free airport parking etc. Thabo Mbeki’s irritation with the press may have something to do with the coverage the refurbishment of his two vice-presidential mansions has elicited: rather than use the stairs to go up to his first floor, as ordinary mortals do, he has decided that he must, at vast public expense, install elevators. There is a great deal more of this sort of thing. One of the choicest examples is the Public Service Commission, the body that has the job of supervising civil service recruitment – which, at the moment, just means ignoring all the obvious meritocratic rules. Asked what their salaries were, the members of the Commission tried hard not to divulge them but in the end admitted that they were each taking home more than a British prime minister does.

In opposition the ANC had (rightly) been loud in criticism of the government ‘gravy train’ operated by the Nationalists, so the sight of ANC MPs and ministers helping themselves to more gravy than the Nationalists ever dared to, has naturally provoked a strong reaction, not just in the press but among the ANC’s own rank and file, led in this instance by Archbishop Tutu, who declared himself shocked by the greed of the new élite. The result was pure comic opera. The ANC National Executive, which had not met for four months, was summoned to urgent conclave at this threat to its membership of the acquisitive society. The Executive issued a communiqué sternly declaring that ‘the ANC is committed to eradicating the gravy train arising from the apartheid era,’ but went on to caution against ‘hasty and uninformed judgments’ about high government salaries. The next week ANC MPs rammed through another increase in their salaries and voices were raised suggesting that the press be barred in future from meetings of the Rules Committee (which controls such changes), something not even the Nationalists had thought of. Criticism of their salaries was, they said, ‘racist’. This point was put to Archbishop Tutu. ‘Have you noticed my complexion?’ he asked.

NP and IFP Ministers and MPs are, of course, enjoying the same perks as their ANC colleagues, but since neither party has ever been famous for its egalitarian aims, this has passed with much less comment. The NP, still traumatised by its loss of power, has little to say in any case – the tiny Liberal Democratic Party has been ten times more effective as an opposition. The IFP has been getting on far better with the ANC than most would have anticipated. Chief Buthelezi, the IFP leader, had won good reviews for his stand, at Home Affairs, against illegal immigration and the old censorship legislation, when he ruined everything by blundering into a TV studio and preventing one of his opponents within the Zulu royal family from finishing an interview he was giving. Although Buthelezi later apologised, the sight of the minister in charge of liberalising the censorship laws intervening to stop an opponent speaking against him on air has done him great damage, and a large question mark now hangs over his suitability for high office of any kind. Certainly his tirades against the dangers to liberty posed by the strength of Communist Party representation in government aren‘t going to carry much weight after this.

This is true despite the fact that Hani’s dream has been largely realised – we have Communists in charge of Defence, the police and the SABC. All told, 12 ministers are Communists – or ‘close to the SACP’, as the saying goes. So are Jakes Gerwel, who runs Mandela’s office, and Kathy Kathrada, Mandela’s special assistant. The Party seems able to place its people pretty much as it wishes and its instinct for slipping its cadres into key posts is in no way dulled. But, as any Marxist would know, political labels are of slight importance next to the sociological fact of class creation. It is doubtful if any set of laws, let alone moral strictures, can halt this process. Among the new élite there is, indeed, a decided casualness about observing the law. There seems to be little hope, for instance, that the ANC security guards who shot down scores of royalist Zulus in the streets of Johannesburg shortly before the election will be brought to book, the police having been several times prevented by main force from conducting their enquiries. This massacre – almost on the scale of Sharpeville – is simply an embarrassment to the new class and is being swept under the carpet. Another example: the Communist Party has suspended its Natal leader, Harry Gwala, in connection with allegations that he was attempting to murder a number of ANC leaders, but even this is treated as a purely party matter and the police have not been brought in. Similarly, Tokyo Sexwale’s office keeps regaling us with stories about drug barons who are threatening his life. Apparently negotiations with various groups of gangsters have taken place – but there is no thought of involving the police. Merchants of all sorts around the country are filing suit against the ANC over its huge chain of bad debts, but they are having little joy. In Durban the local sheriff, ordered by the court to distrain upon the ANC offices for their non-payment of rent, has been forcibly prevented from doing so by armed ANC guards. Exactly how far the writ of law runs often seems quite uncertain.

The prevailing lack of direction does not mean that nothing has been happening. Since the election we have seen three nation-wide strikes, many lesser ones, a deliberate blockading of motorways, the eruption of rioting in Coloured areas of the Reef, marches, littering campaigns, and hostage-taking by students demanding the resignation of their vice-chancellors, and a major regional hospital crisis. Several of the weaker universities are on the point of collapse, wracked by endless student populism (‘Pass one, pass all,’ ‘One student, one degree’ etc) and financial crisis. So, too, are many hospitals: Mandela’s promise in his inaugural speech of free medical care for all children and nursing mothers was given without any provision being made for extra staff or spending. The result has been that many hospitals are simply overwhelmed by a tide of patients, with doctors and nurses fleeing towards the private sector. Social change of every kind is rapid, ubiquitous and uncontrolled. Even a workaholic, ultra-competent government would find it hard to stay on its feet with the ground shifting beneath them, and this is not that kind of government.

The Government’s irresolution and the enrichment of the new class go hand in hand, shielded by President Mandela’s charisma. The political truce with Inkatha remains in place and while it does, levels of political violence remain lower than before. Foreign visitors and trade delegations come and go, the country’s sportsmen tour abroad, South Africa is back in the world. It all feels better, is, indeed, better. The post-election honeymoon continues, despite repeated attempts by journalists to declare it dead. For the moment the public is prepared to overlook a bit of inefficiency here, a bit of corruption there. President Mandela is himself quite incorruptible – he gives away a large chunk of his salary, would never dream of wasting money on elevators for his house, and has the old prison habit of making his own bed when he gets up at dawn. When Archbishop Tutu remarked on the greed of those in power, Mandela said that the excessive salaries of his MPs and ministers should be cut, but the ANC caucus simply brushed this aside and, in fact, demanded more. He then reversed his position, saying first that much of the criticism had been ignorant, and then that Tutu was guilty of ‘irresponsibility’ in speaking about the matter at all. At which people simply shrug and blame Mandela’s speechwriters. Similarly when, responding to the furore over press criticism of the Government, the President called for a ‘partnership’ between press and government – a truly hair-raising idea, if taken seriously – nobody got upset because everybody knows he means well.

One is tempted to say that things can’t go on like this, except that they probably will. These are early days, of course, and some of the new ministers, at least, will gradually learn how to do their jobs. But the markets haven’t failed to notice the Government’s tendency to throw money at problems without really dealing with them. Accordingly, long bond rates have drifted up from 12 per cent in January to over 17 per cent now, an effective vote of no confidence, costing the country dear in extra debt interest. Unless the Government can reverse the impression it has made on the markets it could find its reform plans crippled by the higher cost of capital.

Equally, the tension between the enrichissez-vous ethics of the new élite and the still worsening poverty of the masses is bound to produce criticism which the new élite will absolutely hate. How secure press freedom will then be is a good question. The three parties making up the Government – the ANC, Inkatha and the Nationalists – have three things in common: a long history of resistance to liberal democracy, an intolerance of criticism, and a willingness to use violence in pursuit of their own political ends. Paradoxically, the collision between them has produced a liberal democratic constitution, but the cause of liberal democracy is still under considerable threat. One safeguard is the Government’s dependence on international aid, trade, investment and diffuse institutional support, a dependence which will require at least formal compliance with certain liberal norms. Despite his uncertain grip on affairs, Mr Mandela is the other guarantee: his is a genuinely democratic spirit and while he is at the helm the more hegemonic and authoritarian impulses within his party will be held in check. The really unfortunate thing about Mr Mandela is that he is now in his 77th year. The tragedy of his wasted 28 years in jail grows, rather than diminishes, with time.