On the Way to First Base

R.W. Johnson reports from Southern Africa

South Africa’s first democratic government is midway through its first term, an obvious moment at which to take stock of the transition. The rhetoric of ‘nation-building’ which predominated in 1994, and which is now more or less dampened, except among the political élite, projected three key policies: first, there was to be a huge push towards national development; second, there was to be much increased welfare for the disadvantaged majority, fully incorporating them within the nation for the first time; finally, there was to be a multi-faceted drive for racial reconciliation (which the President himself took as his main task), to be effected by the transformation of institutions (schools, the media, universities, the Army etc) with the aim of moulding a single, common South Africanism.

It has been impossible to fault Mandela’s efforts at reconciliation unless one were to argue that these have occasionally gone too far. The sight of the President sitting down to tea with Betsy Verwoerd made it clear that he wanted to lead a country in which no one felt excluded, not even the self-exclusionists of Orania. At this symbolic level nation-building has known its greatest success. The transformation of institutions has made a more qualified start: it has gone well in the Army, has resulted in the loss of almost all the SAAF’s pilots, and is creating great difficulties in schools, universities and the media, triggering a flight of the haves towards private alternatives – and towards other countries altogether, with the emigration rate rising 27 per cent on a year-on-year basis in the first quarter of 1996

A coherent South African identity may be a mirage, visible in the post-match celebrations of the rugby World Cup and other moments of transcendental euphoria, but not really a part of the fabric of everyday life. If there are still significant differences between black Americans, Italian Americans, American Jews and so on, after generations in the melting pot, how much more will the differences between South Africa’s myriad religious, racial and language groups continue to matter. So will the chastening numbers of South Africans excluded by poverty from the promised benefits of ‘nation-building’. The ANC’s Reconstruction and Development Programme was supposed to deliver on the nitty-gritty of welfare and strategic investment, but with the abolition of the RDP Office, it looks as if the programme has slipped from the agenda. While it is a sign of the ANC’s realism that the grandiose targets of the RDP have been shelved, the unabated rise in unemployment – by 280,000 last year alone – and in homelessness means that the number of the socially excluded has continued to mount.

On the other hand, the new Constitution has passed through the Constitutional assembly, if not yet through the Constitutional court. With the successful integration of the two main liberation armies – those of the ANC and the Pan-Africanist Congress – into the South African National Defence Force, the era when shopping centres needed to explain a range of bombs and grenades to their customers in case of urban guerrilla attack has gone. Gone, too, is the (always remote) possibility of a right-wing coup: the new order is now guaranteed by a new model Army. Political normalisation is also apparent. The first fine flush is gone: it is now quite ordinary for MPs to resign and ministers to be reshuffled or sacked. Many who believed at first that they were in government but not truly in power now realise that they are indeed in charge. The Presidential succession has effectively been settled and in the power struggle between exiles and stayers-on the latter have been decisively worsted. Political violence has fallen to levels not atypical in Third World democracies. With the National Party’s departure from Government not only is this now, more logically, composed solely of those who resisted apartheid, but the Opposition has swollen from a minuscule 3 per cent to a more normal 25 per cent of Parliament.

Local elections have been held throughout the country in reasonable order and this time, even in KwaZulu-Natal, nobody refuses to accept the results. In general they confirmed the 1994 result. The two biggest parties, the ANC and NP, both lost 2-3 per cent nationally on their 1994 figures and the third largest party, the Inkatha Freedom Party, lost ground, too – but none of these losses was sufficient to change the balance of power, with the NP dominant in the Western Cape, the IFP ahead in KwaZulu-Natal and the ANC overwhelmingly in the lead everywhere else. The slack was taken up by Independents, the Liberal Democratic Party and the Minority Front, representing conservative Indian Hindus. With several election-free years ahead there is a prospect of calmer and more settled political weather.

Mandela himself continues to float above the political landscape in a cloud of adulation. In effect, he has become an old, charming, teflon President of the Left, quickly forgiven when he makes verbal blunders, under whose authority government ministers can escape from full accountability. It is in the high politics of national reconciliation that Mandela excels and where the electorate wants him. Unfortunately, his authority is too useful to others in low politics for matters to rest there.

The ANC has changed enormously in just two and a half years. Mandela himself, without apparent embarrassment, has gone from trying to convince Swiss bankers of the merits of nationalisation to announcing flatly that ‘privatisation is the policy of the ANC.’ It is already becoming hard to credit the heady days of 1990-94, when men who are now besuited ministers marched in demonstrations declaring their faith in socialism, ‘people’s power’ and such maxims as ‘VAT kills.’ Nowadays, the Mercedes is the preferred form of travel for these men; they never mention socialism, deplore manifestations of ‘people’s power’ and wonder whether they shouldn’t increase VAT. Sam Shilowa, the president of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, is surely right when he says that it is ‘inconceivable’ that the pre-1994 ANC could have come up with its present macro-economic strategy – reduction of the budget deficit from 6 to 3 percent of GDP, greater labour flexibility and a significant privatisation programme.

Perhaps there should be a touch more embarrassment, an acknowledgment of past errors, or some sort of explanation. Take Alec Erwin, now Minister of Trade. In the African Communist in mid-1992, Erwin argued that the key task was to ‘lay the basis for a future socialist society ... I will argue that only the South African Communist Party has the political capacity to act as the catalyst to meet this challenge.’ Setting his face against the IMF and World Bank, Erwin argued that the SACP, ‘representing class interests on the basis of socialist theory’, should struggle for a Reconstruction Accord, enshrining a radical process of redistribution which ‘must go beyond’ such timid ideas as wealth taxes, progressive taxation and sweeping land reform to more metaphysical notions such as ‘a redistribution of the access to economic power’. And so on.

Today Erwin breathes no word of a Reconstruction Accord. On Mandela’s British visit he was one of the leading spokesmen for privatisation. On his return he took up the cause of the National Lottery Bill, which restores many of the casino and leisure magnate Sol Kerzner’s lost privileges (including a special clause giving Kerzner a three-year indemnity from the provisions under which more than three thousand competing casinos are to be closed). Erwin not only stressed that he would continue the policies of his NP predecessor, Chris Fismer, but praised the way Kerzner’s group had ‘invested money and employed people’. He then acted as prosecutor against Bantu Holomisa, who had accused Kerzner of bribing the ANC with a political donation of two million rand in order to safeguard his business interests. Erwin, who has gone from Communism to casino capitalism in just four years, deserves praise for his flexibility. In effect he seems to have made a complete U-turn, while Holomisa has somewhat surprisingly made the transition from Bantustan leader to populist scourge of corruption – and has a substantial following.

The real point, however, is the magnitude of the turn the ANC has made – and how the Left has lost. It has been a curious, even a contradictory process, for as the NP left power so the SACP, at both national and provincial levels, moved in. In terms of the old ‘two-stage’ theory of revolution, this ought to have been the moment for SACP ministers – never so strongly represented in government as now – to talk of ‘socialist transformation’ or the need to ‘radicalise the revolution’. But there has been no such talk. It is, indeed, quite difficult to know what the SACP now stands for.

The key document before its recent Central Committee meeting, Build a Broad Movement for Transformation, speaks of the Party having to ‘share trenches with the patriotic bourgeoisie’. There is only vague talk of ‘the socialisation of the predominant part of our economy’ and most of the economic section is a series of questions ‘which must be addressed’ – but aren’t. The document is only firm about two things: the Party must give priority to youth and ‘guide and intervene ... particularly in the struggle for transformation of academic institutions’ and it must ‘strive for greater hegemony’ over civil society by ‘locking into processes of transformation’ those forces ‘that have the capacity to undermine our objectives’. This should be taken in conjunction with the Party’s condemnation of the DP and NP because ‘they attempt to create the impression that a strong opposition is needed to secure democracy.’ No such thing is necessary, it turns out: ‘propping up a weak opposition can never be our objective.’ Far more important is ‘a strong and vibrant civil society’. What this means in effect is single-partyism and monopoly political control – no change there. In terms of its drive for power, the Party is much the same, but it is in a state of complete intellectual confusion as to what it should use its power for. Not surprisingly, this is leading to a visible shrinkage, even an implosion, of the real influence of the Left.

The signs abound: Joe Slovo and Chris Hani have disappeared and no one of their stature has emerged to replace them. The ANC Women’s League, a possible focus of dissent, has had its funds stopped and the Youth League has had its leadership changed and now heads the charge against Bantu Holomisa. Mandela has repeatedly criticised the student radicals who are the only vocal populists left. In the local elections all the small parties gain – except the PAC, whose support falls by over half. An old Communist like Mac Maharaj, Minister of Transport, pushes through privatisation in the face of a transport strike while the former trade-union leader Jay Naidoo’s old cronies stand appalled at his talk, as Minister of Telecommunications, of privatisation. Ronnie Kasrils, the Deputy Minister of Defence, speaks of the urgent need for rearmament – which means spending billions on corvettes, submarines and jet fighters – at the same time as health and education are starved of resources. Sam Shilowa, having campaigned for the ANC on a ticket of ‘Jobs, jobs, jobs’ and promised homeland civil servants that they would all keep theirs, confronts a government which talks of how it may need to lay off huge numbers of employees in order to achieve its target of 100,000 job cuts in the public service.

The number of public servants has actually risen this year, but there is no doubt of the change of mind and mood. Even more remarkable is the Left’s failure to come up with any strategy at all until business gave it a jolt by producing its ‘Growth for All’ plan. The document it then hastily cobbled together was completely ignored by the Government, which had itself been drifting along with no real policy except for an increasingly unbelievable RDP (a million houses by 1999, 30 per cent of all land to be redistributed by the same date etc). More than any other single factor, it was this sense of policy drift which lay behind the sharp drop in the rand.

At the same time there are dangers in the rhetoric of transformation coming from official quarters. Tough talk from Nkosazana Zuma, the Minister of Health, about forcing doctors to work in rural areas has simply encouraged more emigration by the medical profession and damaged health care. Similarly tough talk about agriculture has scared farmers into evicting farmworkers and tenants on a grand scale: the ANC Government has probably presided over more such evictions in two years than its predecessors did in the previous decade. The saddest part of this is that (thanks to last year’s good rains) agriculture has been the most buoyant sector of the economy and might have been expected to bring gains in employment. Instead, farmers, alarmed by ill-judged signals from the Government, have striven to shed labour not only by mechanisation but in many cases at the cost of lower standards of maintenance. Jobless farmworkers and their families have few options save to join the ever-growing throngs of squatters camping round the cities. Again, progressive-sounding talk and legislation won’t make up for the disastrous exodus of experienced teachers and the flight towards private schools, just as the call for ‘transformation’ cannot disguise the reality of campuses under pressure from student and professional radicals, on the one hand and, on the other, from the Government, which wants to see ever larger numbers of students and of affirmative action appointments under conditions of continuing financial stringency. The results are disorder, demoralisation and the undermining of institutions critical to the country’s future.

The heart of the matter now, and for the rest of the Government’s term, remains whether or not it is going to implement its macro-economic strategy. The continuing fall of the rand since the policy was announced in May underlines its shaky credibility. In effect, the imposition of the strategy represents a sort of coup within the ANC-Cosatu-SACP alliance. With Mandela’s backing, Deputy President Thabo Mbeki and the Finance Minster, Trevor Manuel, simply cut their partners out of the policy loop, declaring the strategy ‘non-negotiable’ once it had been announced. Not surprisingly, Cosatu and the SACP have rejected it.

In itself, the strategy is a huge gamble. It is economically far more conservative than anything the NP was willing to try: P.W. Botha and de Klerk opted for much softer policies on budgetary deficits, wage increases and privatisation. Thus the ANC, many of whose members thought they were coming to power to bring about the socialist revolution, is now being used to carry through a capitalist counter-revolution. The unions, whose members have suffered a large cut in real wages thanks to the fall of the rand, are being told they must not only swallow that, together with declining union membership, but in addition must submit to large public-sector job cuts. No self-respecting trade-union movement in the world would accept that.

Anyone who lived through the Thatcher period in Britain – as Mbeki did – knows that to cut a budget deficit in half means savage reductions in jobs and welfare and a climate of job insecurity and social demoralisation. France, Germany and the rest of the EU nations are, after all, straining mightily to reach the Maastricht target of a 3 per cent budget deficit. If that is difficult for G7 states it is going to be tough indeed for South Africa, where there is less fat to cut. The EU states typically have large welfare budgets and no foreign debt. They can trim welfare and devalue their currency without inflating the value of their debt. South Africa can do neither.

Politically, the macro-economic strategy is gravity-defying. A glance at the 1994 election results shows that the ANC is, above all, the party of the African rural poor. This section of the electorate was only a second-order priority for the RDP – drawn up very much in the interests of the ANC’s trade-union and urban activists – but in terms of the new strategy it comes nowhere at all. It is a moot point whether an African political party with its base in the poorest of the poor can carry out an economic policy to the right of anything the National Party dared to try. However one looks at it, to promise that the strategy will yield 6 per cent growth rates and 400,000 new jobs a year is extraordinarily risky. It is a very long time indeed since the South African economy has performed such miracles – and when it did, it was usually the result of a lucky rise in the gold price. To bet on this is to bet on reversing a great deal of history.

Cosatu and the SACP may seem like losers now but they could well be long-term winners. Over the next few years, the openings for black anti-government populists will be considerable. If the SACP refuses to fill that gap, Bantu Holomisa may. At the same time one has to admire the Government’s courage in embarking on a policy certain to be so massively unpopular; no other African nationalist regime has begun life this way. There are of course those who doubt whether the Government understands what it has opted for, and others who doubt whether it will stick to its guns as the political price becomes clear. On the other hand, if the Government does falter and is seen to dilute its policy, the rand will tumble, business confidence will waver again, white emigration will increase and the shortage of critical skills will grow. The great danger is that the country may thus be robbed of the skills necessary for it to respond positively to the huge export and entrepreneurial opportunities posed by a falling rand.

The National Institute for Economic Policy (NIEP) argues that the macro-economic strategy is too conservative, pointing out, quite correctly, that not only has it killed off the RDP but that, in effect, the Government has accepted the IMF’s structural adjustment programme without the formal involvement of the IMF. But the contradiction goes deeper. The savings rate is so low that it cannot possibly provide the investment necessary to prevent unemployment from climbing uncontrollably. So foreign investment is essential and on a scale that will not be forthcoming unless much of the public sector is privatised – and even then there may be difficulties. For as long as exchange controls remain, foreign investors will hold off, believing that they will be able to invest more cheaply later, when controls go and the rand is weakened. But given the low level of foreign reserves – currently less than $2.5 billion – the Government cannot afford to abolish exchange control: emigrating South Africans can take only a tiny amount of capital with them; their other rands remain ‘blocked’ inside the country. These hang over the market like a dead weight because everyone knows they will leave at the first opportunity. If controls were abolished, the holders of blocked rands would decide en masse to cash them into other currencies, and there are not enough reserves to pay them off: the rand would fall like a stone. The only way out is a deal with the IMF that puts some of its massive reserves behind South Africa to tide it over the crucial first months after exchange control abolition. There is no escape from the Fund. Indeed, such a deal may already have been made, with the documents all signed and merely waiting to be dated.

Whether South Africa can even get to first base with all this will depend on the Government’s privatisation policy. Here the signs are not promising: the Government is instinctively dirigiste and loath to trust the markets. Privatisation was first announced by Mbeki in December 1995; 1996 has been spent back-pedalling and gradually coaxing Cosatu on board, the price apparently being an agreement that the state will maintain a large majority share of any ‘restructured’ enterprise. Thus in the case of Telkom, the first major candidate for privatisation, the way to maximise the proceeds and ensure that the enterprise ends up with the operator most determined to enhance its value is to organise a flotation of shares and let them go to the highest bidder, while the best way of giving consumers value for money is to encourage keen competition in the telecommunications marketplace. The Government is trying to do the opposite: Jay Naidoo will decide who the buyers should be and will try to insist that there is no single buyer but a consortium (which can only be done by forbidding share-holders to sell their shares to one another). There will be no flotation, merely a government allocation of shares, and the Government will guarantee that no competition is allowed in the telecom market for at least five to seven years.

Most striking of all, the Government intends to retain complete management control – which, doubtless, will be used to insist on strong affirmative action policies and to prevent the sort of shedding of labour which has tended to follow telecom privatisations elsewhere in the world. Whether it will be possible to get foreign companies to invest large amounts of capital and new technology under such conditions remains to be seen. The scheme is uncomfortably reminiscent of P.W. Botha’s plan to privatise the railways while retaining government management control: nobody was willing to invest on such terms and the plan was stillborn. Already this sort of heavy-handedness has led to the expensive collapse of the attempt to privatise Mossgas, the colossal synthetic-fuels plant bequeathed by P.W. Botha: the Government not only sought to set the price of the sale but stipulated that the buyer continue to run it as a synthetic fuels operation while also providing guarantees against job losses. Given that Mossgas, with its present labour complement and synfuel operation, runs at a large loss, this amounted to a demand that bidders pay large quantities of money for the privilege of running an unprofitable concern. So ludicrous were these conditions that many concluded the real objective had been to put bidders off and keep this white elephant in the public sector.

As Government learns the market facts of life it is possible that some of this foolishness will be dropped; but there is, in the meantime, a danger that the new management installed in many of the parastatals will run them into deficit so fast that they become unsellable, or sellable only at a far lower price than they would previously have commanded. This tendency is already visible: the National Harbours Board, Portnet’s instruction to allow a 12.5 per cent bid margin to black contractors is bound to increase its costs significantly; Spoornet (the railways) are in steady deficit; the SABC has lurched into deficit – and so has South African Airways, regarded as second only to Telkom as a privatisation candidate.

Two questions stand out at the end of the first term: what lies behind the ANC’s turn away from the Left? And will the policy drift, so evident until now, continue? They are related, for both have to do with the rapid rise and consolidation of a new black middle class, spearheaded by the new black political élite. Seldom has South Africa seen class politics in so straightforward a form as in the last two and a half years. The new élite immediately voted itself perks and salaries on a scale that led to public outcry and a Presidential order to reduce all such salaries by 10 per cent. Unabashed, the new élite worked energetically to multiply, installing its kith (and sometimes its kin) as ambassadors, civil servants, judges; as members of a vast new array of commissions; as board-members and governors of parastatals, regulatory bodies, technical colleges and universities: nothing like it had been seen since 1948-50. The new class, moreover, insisted that institutions which did not follow this example lacked ‘legitimacy’, thus triggering a similar thrust within the private sector as enterprises of every kind scrambled to reposition themselves within the new order.

Affirmative action was the professional ideology of the new class but it was soon noticeable that not a few of the political élite – even those of outstandingly socialist views – were quietly migrating from politics to the (better paid) business class. Sociologically, the result was that inequalities between black and white continued to decline, while inequalities within the black community soared. Given the large rise in the numbers of the black unemployed and homeless, moreover, this was an absolute, not a relative increase of inequality. (And the NIEP may well be right to argue that the Government’s macro-economic strategy will further increase systemic inequalities.) Oddly, the causes of egalitarianism and socialism have been most strongly espoused by the black political élite – all comfortably within the top 1 per cent by income. This lop – sidedness defies political reason and is a potent factor in policy drift. It is entirely obvious that, rhetoric apart, the new ministers care less about building more houses, heading off the Aids crisis or creating more jobs than they do about making sure that affirmative action policies are applied within their own sections of the bureaucracy. In practice this is the only real priority and it is pursued with much energy and great flourish.

Yet the same process also helps to explain why it is that the ANC has been able to move so swiftly and smoothly towards the centre: a middle-class revolution is in full progress and provided that the new class is allowed to enrich and enlarge itself as it wishes, it has less and less quarrel with the old social structure and a greater appetite to become part of it. It is, however, a richly nuanced process, not least because the political legitimacy of the wealthy new élite depends on its continuing claim to represent the poor.

The results can be comic, as when the premier of Gauteng, Tokyo Sexwale, took up the cause of black squatters at Thembelihle, whose wish for resettlement at Naturena was opposed by the somewhat better-off blacks of that suburb on the grounds that such a move would bring higher crime and a drop in the value of their hard-won property. The Naturena residents marched to Sexwale’s own mansion in the posh white suburb of Houghton and built a shack in front of it as a protest. Sexwale sped to the squatter camp, where he furiously denounced the Naturena residents as ‘middle-class upstarts’: ‘These people are like promoted slaves. The most vicious person against a slave is a promoted slave, who can be more vicious than a slave-owner.’ He might live in Houghton himself, he said, but he had come from a shack in Soweto and was known as someone who still ‘goes about with poor people’. Besides, the squatters were pleased that he lived in Houghton because he provided a positive role model of black achievement. The black paper, City Press, encapsulated Sexwale’s balancing act with a photograph of him stripped to the waist in a roadside lay-by, his bodyguards mounted around his large BMW. Sexwale’s day had begun with the squatters and he had donned a track-suit in which to address them, but for his next appointment, he was making a quick roadside change to his normal, well-tailored business suit.

At its northernmost border, South Africa confronts a dire example of what can happen when an arrogant political élite ignores its promises and a rising middle class ignores the national interest, ruining the currency in pursuit of its own ends. The comparison was very much in my mind as I travelled through Zimbabwe.

At the time of Zimbabwean independence in 1980 it was widely, and correctly, pointed out that the educational level of Mugabe’s Government was far higher than that of the Smith Government which preceded it. Nowadays another statistic seems more relevant. Smith’s Government bequeathed its successor a zero debt: today Zimbabwe has debts totalling 130 per cent of GDP. Average real wages are back down to 1965 levels, the progress of a whole generation has been wiped out. Unemployment, which stood at under 7 per cent in 1980, is now widely estimated to be as high as 40 per cent. Social services of every kind are deteriorating, often to the point of collapse. What has the national debt – the product of ten years of socialism and six years of half-hearted economic reforms – bought? Not growth: at Independence, Zimbabwe was classified as a middle-income developing country alongside, say, Bolivia; it now ranks among the world’s poorer nations. For a while the debt-led expansion appeared to be buying better education and health but it didn’t last and both budgets have been repeatedly slashed. Some 30 per cent of the population – roughly ten million – is now reckoned to be HIV-positive. Millions of children will soon be Aids orphans and there isn’t enough money to feed them properly, let alone educate them.

Did the debt buy equality? Mugabe still likes to describe himself as a Marxist-Leninist, but his recent acquisition of a helicopter for 20 million dollars has to be set against the fact that over a thousand Zimbabweans have died of malaria this year because the requisite quinine tablets (costing $2 a time) were unaffordable, and the fact that polio victims are multiplying because of the state’s inability to buy vaccine. The point of the helicopter was to enable Mugabe to tour the country in style during this year’s Presidential election, in which he was the single, unopposed candidate. (The hangers-on who accompanied him on these trips needed a further three helicopters.) Even though the state budget allocates over three million dollars a year to Mugabe’s Zanu-PF for such purposes, the Government has now been forced to admit that it illegally dipped into trut accounts held by the country’s magistracy in order to finance extra election spending.

In the early years, some of the Government’s borrowings went on the requisites of Afro-populism – the compulsory purchase of white-owned land, for example – but chiefly on the quadrupling of state payrolls, theoretically justified by welfarist policies but in fact required in order to give jobs, contracts, patronage and power to the brothers, cousins and daughters of the new élite. And while this development was cloaked in the rhetoric of Marxism the one thing the Government did not wish to encourage was a class analysis of the situation. For, undeniably, the central thrust of the new Zimbabwean state was the self-enrichment of a new bureaucratic bourgeoisie, happy to call itself socialist until about 1990, thereafter willing to use the rhetoric of bourgeois democracy but, one sees only too clearly, with the same underlying purpose of primary accumulation and class formation.

The ruthlessness of this new class is not to be doubted; nor is its cynicism. There were three things on which Mugabe insisted in his election campaign: indigenisation of the economy, expropriation of white-owned land and increased public spending on rural infrastructure, schools, clinics – even a new university. All economically literate Zimbabweans, a category which presumably includes the President, know this to have been nonsense. Vast tracts of long since expropriated land have been handed to political cronies, and the rest lies idle and uredistributed. Indeed, the terrible neglect of this rich land threatens to turn Zimbabwe, for long the bread-basket of its region, into a net food importer. Indigenisation of the economy is a frankly racist slogan: what was meant was a transfer of resources from white to black Zimbabweans, both of them indigenous. But the truth is that a prime lending rate of 22 per cent and inflation of 27 per cent are throttling black entrepreneurs. The promise of extra public expenditure and an extra university is simply a joke. With interest payment on the debt running at 30 per cent of the budget, all other spending has to be axed, with Harare University in the front line for cuts.

It is common to blame Zimbabwe’s problems on the World Bank’s structural adjustment programme – privatisation, deregulation, devaluation – under which the economy now labours. It is a complaint one hears throughout Africa. What no one seems to ask are the obvious questions: who exactly did the borrowing? What did they actually do with the money? Presumably the loan was taken out on the assumption that it could be repaid, so what went wrong? Here the World Bank must take much of the blame. In 1989-90 the Bank revised its lending terms and (it now emerges), against the advice of its officials stationed in Harare, its head office in Washington decided Zimbabwe merited more huge loans. The Harare Government took all the cash on offer and, since then, has had to do what the Bank wants. The Bank crucially fails to recognise that its policies don’t work unless the recipient government believes in such policies – and Zimbabwe’s didn’t.

The $7.6 billion debt – $4.6 billion owed abroad and $3 billion at home – is clearly unpayable: the budget deficit is running at around 11 per cent, and now that foreign lending has dried up, domestic borrowing is racing ahead at a rate of hundreds of millions of dollars a month. There are only four possible ways out of this very tight spot. The first would be roughly what is being attempted now: a reduction in the budget deficit in the hope of eventually repaying the loans out of a surplus. Since two-thirds of the budget goes on debt interest and salaries, and since it is politically difficult to cut jobs, the only way to save is by cutting the capital budget, which is why every aspect of the Zimbabwean infrastructure, from the university to the road network, is being run into the ground. The second would be through debt relief or forgiveness. The donors see no reason to do this for a country whose policies are so often perverse, which has so profligately spent itself into a trap, and which is still far better off than such neighbours as Malawi or Mozambique. A third way would be to privatise state industries, but they are now so run down that the net value to be realised would not be sufficient. A fourth solution would be to increase the current 25 per cent rate of inflation to old-style Brazilian levels of hyper-inflation. This would get rid of the domestic debt but it would do nothing for the foreign debt and would damage the economy in a host of other ways.

Politically, Zimbabwe is clearly in the later stages of decomposition, its only remaining asset being the prestige which Mugabe himself retains for having led the country to independence and peace. There is no one else. While I was in Harare, Vice-President Nkomo, speaking at his son’s funeral, bitterly attacked whites for having brought the Aids virus to Africa. Aids, it transpired, was a white plot to steal African wealth by killing off its holders. Worse, whites had discovered a cure for Aids but were refusing to divulge it to Africans. White Zimbabweans I met were inclined to praise Nkomo for his frankness in admitting his son had had Aids. I would then remind them of the rest of his speech. ‘Oh well, he’s been a tremendous racist for some time,’ ran the typical response. ‘That’s not new. And the rest of his speech was crazy, of course: you’d expect that, too. But it’s good that he was open about the Aids factor.’ This relaxed acceptance of things that are crazy, macabre or wildly alarming is very African. There are not a few stories of that kind in Peter Godwin’s Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa, a passionate memoir of what it was to grow up in the magic, war-torn and now vanished land of Rhodcsia.[*] There is a largeness about being a child in Africa: you have to confront all manner of things which would be difficult to imagine elsewhere. Godwin’s book starts with the six-year-old boy having to deal with a neighbour’s murder and goes on through everyday worries about crocodiles, poisonous snakes and so forth – but, of course, with incongruous admixtures of white, English, bourgeois manners. Any of us who have lived even in South Africa can tell stories like this – and Rhodesia was a lot wilder

Godwin was inducted into the police and found that the colonial idyll was becoming more and more of a nightmare. His book is the more effective because it avoids preachiness of any kind – if the police are showing him how to use his boot to break a black man’s instep, he’ll tell you about it matter-of-factly. At the end, as he ventures into Matabeleland, where Mugabe’s Fifth Brigade are torturing, murdering and impaling their imagined opponents by the thousand, one is strongly reminded of Rian Malan’s My Traitor’s Heart – this is a savage land which will stubbornly resist easy moralising. Godwin’s reporting of the Matabeleland massacres was a feat of outstanding journalistic courage, but for years the ‘right’ thing to do was to play down the massacre, because to accept it meant accepting that the liberation struggle was so fatally flawed that even the word ‘liberation’ might be wrong. Today the wheel has turned and even inside Zimbabwe energetic attempts are being made by human rights groups to document the atrocity and help its surviving victims. The Matabele, not surprisingly, remain disaffected with the Mugabe regime.

The ruling party, Zanu-PF, is wracked by ethnic politicking between the various Shona clans and threatened by the possible defection of the Karangas to the side of the Matabele. When Mugabe’s most likely rival, Edison Zvogbo – now marooned as Minister without Portfolio – had a car accident recently, the main question was whether or not this was ‘a black dog’. The phrase originated with the accident that killed Zimbabwe’s most outspoken MP, Sidney Mulunga, whose driver, it was said, swerved to miss a black dog. Ever since then ‘a black dog’ has been common parlance for a politically convenient death. There is no reason to believe that either the Mulunga or Zvogbo cases were deliberately contrived but the phrase indicates an extreme degree of public cynicism.

According to official figures, 31 per cent of the electorate turned out to vote in the Presidential election but not many people believe even that figure. At some polling stations, of 3000 registered voters, only a hundred presented themselves over the course of two days; in one central Harare polling station, Zimrights, the Zimbabwe human rights organisation, counted just 14. The right to vote, for which so many Zimbabweans died, is now treated at best with indifference but often more bitterly. Few believe that Mugabe will present himself at another election: there are persistent rumours of a retirement in 1997. But no successor has been groomed and when or if Mugabe goes it is quite unlikely that Zanu-PF will hold together. Nobody thinks it would be possible to build such a broad alliance in today’s conditions: if Humpty-Dumpty falls that will be it.

In 1980 Mugabe took over a debt-less country with a developed infrastructure, an enormous international fund of goodwill and a promising prospect of inward foreign investment: in the first year of independence economic growth hit 8 per cent. He will, however, leave a disastrous inheritance; indeed, the startling thing about the Mugabe period is the speed and thoroughness with which the country’s economy has been ruined, with most of the essential damage done in the first ten years. ‘Our beloved Zimbabwe is today sick to its soul, directionless, exhausted and, for many reasons, physical and spiritual, in a state of deep sorrow,’ the former Liberal Prime Minister, Garfield Todd said recently.

One returns to South Africa from a trip like this with a better understanding of the pervasive fear that the country might slither down the same path, and uncomfortably aware that that is exactly what many citizens in Zimbabwe – or Zambia, or Malawi – expect. At some point in every conversation Zimbabweans would allude to the new South Africa having to go through some of the problems with which they had grown wearily familiar. There was universal pleasure at South Africa’s liberation but a suspicion that first-generation African nationalists have a more or less built-in inclination towards the one-party state and undemocratic hegemony in every sphere. Ten or twenty years on, the rhetoric of liberation, indeed the whole language of African nationalism, cuts very little ice. It is seen as the language of the preceding generation, the generation which failed them, oppressed them and robbed them. What is most striking is that African nationalism has failed to defend national independence: less than one generation after power was devolved from London to Lilongwe, Lusaka and Harare, it has been largely handed back to Washington, London and Brussels – for this is what donor dependence means.

The standard ANC response to all this used to be that they had endured the horrors of independent Africa in exile and had absolutely no wish to repeat those mistakes in power. This has to be taken seriously. Thabo Mbeki is known to be obsessed by the thought that South Africa might, under his Presidency, decay into a gigantic version of one of the debilitated states to the north, like Zambia. And quite a lot of things clearly are different here: not just the incomparably higher level of industrial, infrastructural and technological development, but the degree of integration with an international political economy. There will, sadly, be another dominant-party state here, just as there was under the Nationalists, but there will probably not be a one-party state. Liberal institutions such as the universities and the press are under enormous pressure. The intelligence service is now three times larger than it was at the height of the apartheid regime and many people will not speak freely on the phone. They are scared but, since it’s out of order to admit that there might be some reason for this, they are scared to say they are scared. On the other hand, there is little chance of the adventures in ‘African socialism’ which laid waste the economies to the north. Nor is detention without trial, for example, likely to reappear. It has to be borne in mind that, whatever else it may be, this is a society with a very strong dissident tradition.

The real question is not whether South Africa will follow the bad example set elsewhere in Africa – of course it will, for the sociology of the process is much the same – but how far this process will be allowed to go, given that South Africa, unlike its northern neighbours, has had a multi-party system from the start; that it is highly dependent on markets which will give a thunderous thumbs down to any society which seems bent on making itself less competitive; and that the current pursuit of affirmative action is producing a visibly damaging emigration of white professionals. The hope has to be that these factors will exercise a braking effect long before things get out of hand, as they did further to the north, and that here, at least, it will not take a whole generation for the ruling élite to wake up to a sense of South Africa’s national interest.

[*] picador, 432pp., £16.99, 23 March, 0 330 33983 4.