I can’t decide whether I’ve made a good or a bad decision to finally attempt reading RW Johnson’s 700-page doorstop “South Africa’s Brave New World: The Beloved Country Since The End of Apartheid” (2009). I’ve owned it since it came out, and I began reading it once, but I got caught up in something else, and for the last 8 years it’s just glowered accusingly at me from the bookshelf.
A month ago, in an effort to make sense of the shambolic circus our country has become, I resolved to read it, and I’m almost finished. In more ways than one.
A disclaimer: RW Johnson is an Oxford-educated journalist, historian and political scientist, and I greatly admire him. The former director of the Helen Suzman Foundation, he’s the author of umpteen books, some of which I’ve read, and his contrarian reportage has got him in buckets of trouble with the ANC over the years, which means he’s pretty much a national hero. Oh, and he’s an elderly white male.
“South Africa’s Brave New World” has made me very, very angry.
Not because it’s poor. On the contrary, it’s brilliant. The depth of research in astounding, and as detailed as he is, Johnson remains at the height of his readable journalistic prowess.
No, the book has angered me because of the story it tells.
Johnson’s book is about the demise and inevitable death of Mandela’s fabled ‘Rainbow Nation’, from Madiba’s 1990 release till the astounding events of Thabo Mbeki’s 2008 ousting and beyond. All South Africans who have lived through these years are painfully aware of the utter failure of the ANC on every level, and yet it’s breathtaking to read about it in such detail.
For example, Johnson describes the decline of South Africa’s state institutions, including the police services. He cites an October 2006 newspaper report which revealed that “…R100 million worth of modern machinery for the fast testing of DNA samples was sitting unused.” (Johnson: 449).
He mentions the ongoing employment of Robert McBride, an MK guerilla who bombed a Durban beachfront bar in 1985 (a blast that almost killed my grandparents, and which injured 71 and killed 3). After years on death row, he was made police boss of the Ekurhuleni (East Rand) region. Caught drunk-driving, gun-running in Mozambique and hanging with a top Cape Town gangster (among other things), he remained head of the region for years.
Details like these make me itchy. After a page or two of these kinds of revelations, I want to fling the book at the wall and stomp around my house, fuming. Why?
Another example: the ANC government made it so difficult for doctors and other medical practitioners to prosper and fulfill their crucial roles in society that doctors eventually began emigrating in droves. We all know this one. I met quite a few Afrikaner GP’s in Canada. Previously, the government had instituted an obligatory year of rural community service for young doctors, which Johnson explains drily:
The Ministry [of Health] clearly saw doctors as overprivileged whites and enjoyed the notion of making them spend a year on very low pay in some remote rural clinic. (Johnson: 463)
Doctors and other health professionals naturally started leaving South Africa, and the flood became so bad that by 2005 over 27% of all public health system posts were vacant. A national emergency in itself, you would think. Johnson reports that instead of dealing with this properly, the Health Minister (the legendary kleptomaniac alcoholic AIDS-denialist Manto “Dr. Beetroot” Tshabalala-Msimang) “doubled the period of obligatory community service to two years and simultaneously cut the salaries paid to such interns” (Johnson:463).
It beggars belief.
A national emergency that literally endangered the lives of millions of the poorest of the poor was answered by the only kind of decision-making that could have made it worse. These are the kinds of facts that infuriate me. I’m reminded of my helplessness. I can’t do anything to change these facts or make sure they aren’t repeated. I love my country and I have to sit back and watch with my hands tied as it is systematically plundered and ransacked by a small collection of some of the worst specimens in South Africa’s long history.
Pick an institution: education? Health? The armed forces? The Department of Trade and Industry? Eskom? The SABC? Agriculture? The police services? Home Affairs? What if you, as a citizen, need a passport, or a matric certificate, or an operation? What if you want a respectable career in the army or the police? What if your business relies on the government cultivating international trade agreements carefully and skillfully? What if you expect electricity and water to kind of just be there when you need them?
These are reasonable things to expect in any modern country. South Africa used to be able to provide all these services fluidly and with great expertise. Granted, they were only available to the minority of whites under Apartheid. Granted, the National Party regime was indefensibly guilty of human rights violations. When it came to the basic mechanics of running a country, however, it was far from inept. That’s what so many older-generation black South Africans mean today when they ruefully mumble, “things were better under Apartheid.”
Johnson goes to great lengths to describe the gradual, spectacular ruination of the South African utopia. The big culprits? Thabo Mbeki, certainly: that strange, strange Fanon-ical man did more to imperil post-Apartheid South Africa than any other ANC politician. He effectively ran the country while Mandela posed for photographs. Within four short years of democracy, South Africa was already a quagmire of corruption, inefficiency and what Johnson calls ‘systemic institutional failure’. Four years.
Who (or what) else gets the blame? The government’s disastrous affirmative action and BEE policies, certainly. Inept kleptocrats like Msimang and Joe Modise (mercifully both dead), Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Jackie Selebi, and of course, the disaster to end all disasters, Jacob Zuma. What’s fascinating is that all these people were once young, idealistic, passionate freedom fighters. They gave their lives to see Apartheid defeated. As members of the once-noble ANC, they were eventually victorious. And as soon as they achieved their aims, they began the reverse process of oppressing and robbing their own people. In the name of ‘freedom’. It defies logic.
Johnson’s book is full of villains. The narrative arc is one of the consequences of handing over a first world state to a Leninist rag-tag army of uneducated, economically illiterate third world novices. It could have been so different. It might still be able to be. Who knows. Even RW himself, after 700 pages and decades of acute analysis, retains some hope for a ‘better’ South Africa. The book makes it clear, however, that Public Enemy #1 is the ANC itself. Johnson has been lambasted by elements of the ANC ‘intelligentsia’ for his ‘negative views’ of the ANC in power, but he himself has said he’s too old to play nice: things must be reported as they are. Sugar-coating literally kills people.
Am I happy I’ve read “South Africa’s Brave New World”?
Yes, obviously. It’s required reading. The book should maybe come with a warning on its cover: “This Book Will Make Patriotic South Africans Teeth-Gnashingly Furious.” That’s the truth, as far as many South Africans are concerned: the facts reported in Johnson’s survey of South Africa since Apartheid reveal a government of liars. People who masqueraded as freedom fighters and turned out to be common or garden thieves. People who were partly responsible for the end of a massive human tragedy and who celebrated it by enriching themselves at the expense of those on whose behalf they had purportedly been acting. Liars and pillagers, looters and crooks, selfish human beings that took a miracle of God and pissed all over it.
Damn it, I’m angry.
We didn’t deserve this. Black, white, Indian, Coloured, South African: we didn’t deserve this. Johnson’s book concludes with the events of 2009. Things have got worse in the last 8 years. Much, much worse. By 1998, a South African would have been forgiven for thinking “it can’t get worse than this.” Well, it is now, and it’s going to take a monumental effort to fix the country our so-called “liberation heroes” so callously broke.
Unfortunately, it takes the writing and then reading of books like this, and the skills of experienced, thoughtful academics like RW Johnson, to give us ordinary South Africans the information we need to begin rebuilding. So, read it and weep, as they say. Fling it against the wall, pick it up and finish it, and then go outside and demand your future back. South Africa is currently in the hands of traitors, but as we saw with Apartheid, that can’t last forever.
Read South African Roger Southall’s excellent October 2009 review of “South Africa’s Brave New World” for the London Review of Books here: https://www.lrb.co.uk/v31/n19/roger-southall/could-it-have-been-different