South Africa’s Brave New World: The Beloved Country Since the End of Apartheid, by R. W. Johnson (Overlook, 701 pp., $40)
Sixteen years after the end of apartheid and just months after successfully hosting Africa’s first-ever World Cup, how is the “Rainbow Nation” really faring? As South African historian and journalist R. W. Johnson reports, not at all well. The ruling African National Congress (ANC), which continues to use the slogan “a better life for all,” has run the country into a state of near-collapse with its misguided policy decisions, internal power struggles, and blatant corruption.
Johnson’s 700-page book is an unforgiving takedown of the ANC. If his contempt sometimes seems personal, it might well be: As the author takes pains to point out, he was an outspoken liberal and critic of the apartheid regime. In South Africa, these “struggle credentials” lend him the minimum credibility needed to be able to write such a harsh critique of the government.
And yet, struggle credentials can provide only entry-level participation in South African political life, because the ANC has created a well-oiled patronage system around a cabal of party cronies. Despite its democratic legitimacy, the system leaves little room for dissent. Johnson details increasing paranoia and gangsterism within the ANC, from Thabo Mbeki’s rise as Mandela’s successor to his resignation in 2008. The outlook he paints for South Africa is bleak.
In the broad range of topics Johnson covers, from Mbeki’s denying that HIV causes AIDS to the botched arms deal that led to his forced resignation, a clear pattern emerges: Political elites squander resources in fighting for power among themselves and enjoying the spoils of unjust enrichment. It’s a story that has been repeated across Africa — but wasn’t South Africa supposed to be different? In the years immediately following apartheid, the international community was quick to embrace South Africa as a new bastion of economic and social freedom on the continent; Mandela, the father of the nation, could do no wrong. But Johnson points out that all the attention paid to Mandela served only to distract the rest of the world while party hardliners rose to power behind the scenes and silenced anyone who opposed them.
The return of the ANC’s exiled leaders, including Mbeki and current president Jacob Zuma, from abroad brought the political will for social programs aimed at “nationalization” and the correction of apartheid-era inequalities by providing jobs to those who had been locked out by racial restrictions and a lack of access to education and practical training. A quota-based hiring program known as BEE — Black Economic Empowerment — is the subject of one of Johnson’s most stinging chapters, “Black Economic Empowerment, or How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.” Johnson decries the replacement of the race-neutral policies originally espoused by anti-apartheid activists with quotas that mimic those of the apartheid government. The chief beneficiaries of BEE have been those who were already of a certain class and level of education.
The biggest problem, says Johnson, is the abuse of BEE by political elites who use their new connections at companies to demand kickbacks and to gain monopolistic control of media, transportation, and other major industries. Meanwhile, there have been few visible improvements in education; schools are still largely segregated by language and ethnic group.
Foreign policy under Mbeki was defined almost exclusively by South Africa’s dealings with neighboring Zimbabwe. When Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe, unleashed his thugs on the domestic opposition, including presidential candidate Morgan Tsvangirai, the ANC refused to publicly criticize the Mugabe government. Johnson writes that Mbeki suggested to the Zimbabwean politburo that they “adjust” the election results to keep Tsvangirai under 50 percent of the vote and force a runoff: “Mbeki, like Mugabe, regarded the election figures as entirely manipulable.” Mbeki’s people denied that he suggested manipulating results; yet Mbeki later held hands with Mugabe and denied that there was any crisis in Zimbabwe, despite the mass of well-publicized evidence of beatings and torture by Mugabe’s goons.
This callous attitude of ruling-class indifference to suffering manifested itself equally on the domestic scene. Johnson writes that the “virtual collapse of much of the public-health system suggests that even had HIV/AIDS not existed there would still have been a major deterioration in the health of the poor.”
The ANC benefits from its control of the South African Broadcasting Corporation and from the fact that its leaders have stakes in some private media as well. Investigative journalist Mzilikazi wa Afrika was recently arrested on dubious charges (which were subsequently dropped), and the government has proposed setting up a Media Appeals Tribunal to check that media outlets are in line with “transformation,” that is, promoting the government agenda. An official ANC discussion paper calling for changes in media regulation notes that “some fractions of the media continue to adopt an anti-transformation, anti-development and anti-ANC stance.” The ANC simultaneously denies that its intentions are anything other than to promote press freedom, and cites struggle credentials as evidence. According to a report by the government-run South African Press Association, ANC national spokesman Jackson Mthembu told a press conference in early August that “[the ANC] are the people who fought for the freedom you enjoy today. . . . Some of us died for it.” But the ANC’s own statements all but guarantee that the proposed tribunal would be used to stifle speech the ANC does not like.
The ruling party’s desperate desire for better press reflects a growing uneasiness within its ranks. Shortly after Mbeki’s resignation, a new party, the Congress of the People, led by former ANC activist Mosiuoa “Terror” Lekota, split off from the ANC and managed to get 7.4 percent of the vote in the general elections. The party’s emergence — and its vote tally, substantial for such a new group — demonstrated increasing dissatisfaction with the ANC.
The ANC, meanwhile, is increasingly in the grip of its most radical members. Julius Malema, the ANC Youth League president, has gained notoriety for his outlandish and embarrassing statements. Despite a brief censure from within the party, Malema has resumed his pattern of occasionally ranting against internal and external “enemies” of the ANC. Zuma has been unable or unwilling to rein him in or fire him — which suggests, at best, that Zuma is controlled by his need to appear sympathetic to and representative of the most radical elements within the party.
From the moment Zuma announced his candidacy for president, his detractors prophesied doom: He was, they said, a radical populist set to destroy the economic gains of recent years. Johnson, whose book was written too early to include much information about Zuma’s presidency, seems sympathetic to a more nuanced view of Zuma as an opportunist, using populism and ethnic politics to consolidate political power away from Mbeki’s supporters. South Africa is not — yet — a failed state. Its hosting of the 2010 World Cup went off with few glitches, and the economy is hanging on. The rand, South Africa’s currency, is up 30 percent against the dollar since 2009. Still, the stronger rand is hurting exports, and manufacturers have been considering layoffs, according to a September 8 news report by Bloomberg.
Johnson’s book is laden with the bitterness of one who has witnessed a lost chance at reform, after the end of apartheid. It exposes the dark underbelly of the ANC’s government with a view toward pushing leaders to act beyond the sloganeering of 1994. It is, to this extent, an act of hope.
– Kathleen Gabel, a law student, worked as a news editor and reporter for AllAfrica.com in South Africa, Kenya, Liberia, and Washington, D.C.