I spent the month of May ploughing through RW Johnson’s 2009 magnum opus, “South Africa’s Brave New World: The Beloved Country Since The End of Apartheid”. It was an excruciating journey; often I had to put the book down and walk seething up and down the driveway. Other times, I threw the book at the bedroom wall in a fit of apoplexy and swallowed a week’s worth of Rescue tablets. I read the book to be informed, but I was also incensed, angered, and outraged. I had committed myself to reading it on purpose, and it did everything it said it would on the box. I was aware of what the book would cover, but I hadn’t realized the extent to which my beloved country had been taken to the proverbial cleaners, and Johnson’s survey enraged me.
I’ve blogged about my progress through it, and now at the end of that particular journey, I need for my own sake to observe some of the issues the book raised. So, without further ado:
1.Who’s Running The Show?
Johnson’s book details the not-so-slow inexorable decline of the post-Apartheid South African state. Almost from minute one, following Nelson Mandela’s historic 1994 inauguration speech, things started to go wrong. Fair enough; an efficient first-world state had been handed over to poorly educated third-world Marxist-Leninists with no experience of government. What was anyone thinking would happen? No-one anticipated the extent of the decline, though. Johnson’s book ends at the beginning of 2008, with the author summarizing the events of the previous 14 years himself:
…liberation was endlessly celebrated as if it meant that all the problems were over. But instead liberation meant simply that new problems began. (Johnson:646)
Johnson’s book provides excruciating detail of the collapse of the South African state up until 2008. South Africans’ collective experience over the last 9 years has been one of further witness to steeper decline. Johnson’s details about the ANC’s outrageous mismanagement of the country, not to mention the disasterous effects of BEE and affirmative action, had me wondering, “how have we managed to survive this far?”
There are obvious answers any political commentator could point to, but it just seems almost miraculous that a country this poorly governed still works. Well, kind of. Water and electricity outages, a dysfunctional police force, an almost non-existent defence force, education and health sectors in free-fall… somehow or other, we’re still here, still plugging away. How? How has the ANC’s ineptitude not destroyed us by now?
South Africa still, well, works. I still see Durban municipal workers mowing freeway grass and fixing street lights. Criminals are still convicted and jailed. People are still having world-class operations in hospitals like Groote Schuur. South Africans are still at the forefront of spectacular advances in science and technology. The lights are still on.
Despite the indisputably appalling inability of the ANC to govern, the wheels are still turning. It’s a testament to South Africa’s resilience, for one thing: it’s almost as if the average South African gets on with the day-to-day business of survival while the drama swirls around them. We’ve been doing that for centuries, actually.
2. Thabo Mbeki, The Genocidal Despot
One of the firm impressions Johnson’s writing left me with is the complicity of Thabo Mbeki in the failure of the modern South African state. We are all so focused on the minute-by-minute slow-motion car crash of the Zuma administration that we seem to have forgotten about poor disgraced old Thabo.
And yet, this man almost single-handedly created the conditions of post-Apartheid South Africa. Jacob Zuma is by no means innocent, but as Johnson points out, our current president undoubtedly inherited the disasters of Mbeki’s two terms in office.
Ten minutes is a long time in politics, let alone ten years, and during his tenure Thabo did an immense amount of damage to every possible institution he oversaw. And as Johnson shows, he demanded to oversee it all. A hallmark of Mbeki’s style of governance was his centralization of power; everything, literally everything, had to be sucked into his orbit.
The president was king, and, dare I say it, chief. And, while we’re at it, a Xhosa chief. Mbeki’s two greatest own goals were his insistence of support for Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, and his denialism regarding Aids. These follies eventually broke both his presidency and the back of the state.
There’s no space here to discuss Mbeki and Aids. Johnson’s book more than does this wretched subject justice. Suffice it to say, it’s doubtless whether South Africa could possibly have had a worse leader at the very moment the Aids epidemic exploded. And here’s the next inexplicable thing Johnson’s book raises for me: how has Thabo Mbeki managed to avoid an international trial for crimes against humanity?
A study by the Harvard School of Health concluded that Mbeki’s decision to declare available anti-Aids drugs to be toxic and dangerous had cost 365,000 unnecessary extra deaths between 1999 and 2005, including 35,000 babies, a judgment which led some argue that he should be put on trial. (Johnson:637)
Mbeki’s psychotic Google-based decisions killed more South Africans in a few years than the Apartheid regime did from 1948 until it surrendered power in 1994. How is Mbeki not accountable, nor even willing to acknowledge his complicity? These are atrocities on a national scale, and yet no-one seems interested in bringing Thabo to justice. Sure, there are obvious reasons why that would be an unpleasant and arguably thankless task, but still…
3. Waiting For The Exiles To Die
South Africa has been ruled by the ANC since 1994, and yet not really. It seems more accurate to say, based on the research of Johnson and others, that the country has been ruled by a small cabal of ‘exiles’, men who spent the Struggle years abroad, heroically shouting the odds while the UDF and others spilled all the blood at home. They’re getting old now, these heroes: soon nature will take its course, and the country will be in the hands of a younger generation of South Africans.
The exiles (Thabo Mbeki et al) still dominate the ANC. A new black elite has formed over time, but it’s the hidebound exile mentality that is largely responsible for the demise of the South African state. Johnson points out the exiled leaders of the ANC are manifestly unfit to govern in a democracy:
Not only did [the exiles] take [their] lead from the Soviet Union, East Germany and Cuba but the very condition of exile was disabling: the clinging together in tightly knit groups in foreign environments, the paranoid fear of spies and informers, living in a small bubble of one’s own, isolated both from the currents of South African society and the societies around them… All discussion took place within narrow and ideologically determined parameters. Everything about Mbeki’s political behavior…bespoke a complete unease with democratic norms. (Johnson:596-7)
The exiled struggle heroes ultimately lost touch with ‘the realities of black South African life’:
The assumption of both Mandela and Mbeki was that after liberation the ANC could remain detached from those realities, floating above the masses in a detached way, providing vanguard leadership. The party would thus retain the moral high ground and be the source of a remoralized society… Zuma’s oft-repeated statement that no-one could ever be ‘above the ANC’ expressed the same notion: the ANC was the supreme moral and political authority in society, above the law, the constitution and mere humanity. (Johnson:644)
This dominance of the ‘elders’ over the ANC will end eventually. Unfortunately, their students are the next generation; the exiles have modeled corruption, incompetence, absentee landlord-ism, criminal negligence and a less-than-comfortable relationship with democracy, and yet remain in power. What guarantee do we South Africans have that the next generation of ANC leaders won’t have extrapolated norms from these attitudes?
Then again, of course, what guarantee does the ANC have that after 23 years of failure to govern, their God-given right to rule is still assured?
4. The ANC Is South Africa
Another firm impression Johnson’s book has left me with: as far as the ANC is concerned at least, “South Africa” has become synonymous with “the ANC”. The ruling party labour under the firm conviction that they wrested liberation from the clutches of the evil Apartheid regime, and that this glorious revolutionary victory assures the dominance of the ANC for all time.
Johnson shows, however, that there was no real ‘revolution’ to speak of, and that the Apartheid regime, already semi-dismantled by its own proponents by 1994, was peacefully handed to the ANC through the years-long process of structured negotiation. The ANC was taken by surprise by this; after decades of righteous indignation, they were spared a glorious final battle when the enemy simply agreed to a ceasefire.
Nevertheless, the ANC moved quickly to establish itself as the rightful heir to the kingdom. Its leadership immediately compromised by the proliferation of exiles, its elite dominated by Xhosas, its alliance partners sidelined by cronyism, the party of Mandela nevertheless settled down to rule South Africa ‘until Jesus returns’.
In those heady early years, during which Nelson Mandela stood at the helm while Mbeki secretly piloted the ship, it was unthinkable that the ANC would ever split into factions, or alienate its alliance partners, much less misrepresent the People who voted them into power.
And yet, 23 years later, that’s where it stands: the once-mighty ANC is a miserable, controversy-wracked shadow of its former self. To say the ANC has shed every ounce of its hard-won credibility is a tragic understatement; possibly the only other ruling political party in the world currently more ashamed of itself is the USA’s Republican Party.
For a long while, though, the ANC was South Africa. You could only get certain jobs or appointments or government posts if you were either a party member or you at least had a strong connection with one. The party and the state fused into one entity. Disloyalty to the party was a form of treason. I would suggest that the seismic events of the last few years have rendered that ‘indestructiblity’ of the ANC obsolete, but as long as they’re in power, the ANC, and not the People, call the shots. “The People Shall Govern”? The people, as it has turned out, shall sit and watch while the elite pillages the state, promising everything and delivering nothing.
So what have I gained from reading Johnson? Has it been worth my while? If nothing else, that big thick doorstop of a book (in its hardcover first edition state) cost me R324 in 2009 money (which is what? R78 675 now?), and I’m glad I finally got my money’s worth.
Johnson is an historian and a political commentator, among other things. He’s also old and unapologetic. There are no niceties here. Which reminds me to mention Steve Hofmeyer. I ran into him in an airport business lounge a few months after this book was released, and he had the book with him. There several bookmarks sticking out of various sections of it, and the pages he showed me as we talked politics were are all hilighted and underlined. Johnson’s book had driven Steve into a frenzy. Why? Because at the end of it all, South Africans care deeply about their country. As Johnson himself concedes, South Africa is a ‘tough country to govern’, because we all feel like we belong to it, and we all feel fiercely protective of our hard-won freedom. We all want it to work, and we’re all tired of it being compromised by yet another narrow self-interest.
Johnson himself can have the last word:
South Africa…has for centuries been the meeting place of different peoples and cultures. They have oppressed and discriminated against one another, they have fought, they have interbred and they have finally learnt to work and even play together. It is, in its best aspect, a fine example for the whole of mankind. It is precisely because the world saw this and recognized this spirit in Mandela that it wished endlessly to celebrate him on his consecutive birthdays. This is a precious inheritance. It must not be squandered and it must not be ruined by another narrow nationalism which seeks to obliterate the nation’s history and nature. (Johnson:626)
A luta continua.