The ANC and the Afrikaners

Stanley Uys on Hermann Giliomee's overview of the NP's surrender of power

More than 20 years after a group of Afrikaners under Frederik van Zyl Slabbert met the African National Congress in Dakar, Senegal, the issue of "group rights"or "minority rights" continues to simmer. The ANC is increasingly adamant: as ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe repeated last week that "the word ‘minorities do not exist in our vocabulary"(Sunday Times, 16 August 20090.

Earlier, ANC Youth League president Julius Malema had referred to Trevor Manuel, Ebrahim Patel and Pravin Gordhan (now cabinet ministers) as "minorities". Among the Dakarites evidently there were some dewy-eyed participants who felt it unnecessary at the time to press for assurances on minority rights, because the ANC could be trusted to guarantee them, and the subject smacked anyway of apartheid. Pres. P.W. Botha after all was fond to talk of South Africa as "a nation of minorities" who somehow had to find a way of co-existing.

For the ANC government it is convenient to dismiss the issue of minorities. but it runs in the face of the experience of those deeply divided societies that manage internal conflicts successfully . Oxford University's Vernon Bogdanor, a leading authority on comparative politics, recently stated: "I am not aware of any divided society that has been able to achieve stability without power-sharing." The precise arrangements in successful societies differ, but in all of them there is some set of arrangement whereby no segment feel permanently left out in the cold. Bogdanor adds that the secret lies less in constitutional provisions than in institutional arrangements that assist in the sharing of power. (Vernon Bogdanor, "Forms of Autonomy and the Protection of Minorities", Daedalus: Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences , Spring 1997).   .

In a new chapter of his definitive book, The Afrikaners: Biography of a People (Tafelberg, 2003), updating events to the April 2009 elections and due for publication on October 23, the historian Hermann Giliomee asks where Afrikaners find themselves today on the future of minorities. In the 20 years since Dakar, he says, suspicions have been rekindled as the ANC continues to go back on its assurances, interpreting some of the clauses of the constitution in ways that "shocked and dismayed its negotiating partners."

In 1994, National Party leaders had told their constituents the constitution was the best deal whites could have obtained, but "In 2005 F.W. de Klerk and R.F. (Pik) Botha told Thabo Mbeki that the NP would not have signed the constitution in 1996 if they had known that the ANC would enact legislation applying the principle of demographic representivity to employment in the private as well as the public sector" - that is, jobs in proportion to race group numbers, namely, 37.6m Africans, 4.3m whites, 4.2m coloureds, 1.1m Indians.

The impact of the 1994/1996 constitutional settlements, and their impact, was churned over in Afrikaner circles (some admittedly dispirited), and accusations and theories advanced: that President FW de Klerk had "betrayed" his people, that he could have struck a more favourable deal, that the NP fared worse in the 2004 elections than many expected, or that NP politicians, reassured by their grip on an Afrikanerised public service, army and police, would have stronger leverage over an incoming ANC government than in fact was the case.

In an introduction to his new chapter, Giliomee offers a more cogent interpretation: that the participants at Dakar and in other pre-1990 gatherings "were too ignorant of the key ANC policy documents, especially the one on the National Democratic Revolution (NDR), to engage the ANC in a proper debate." Giliomee's new chapter analyses the documents. "The NP government and the white electorate were totally unprepared for negotiating and dealing with the ANC.  They did not study its policy documents or Thabo Mbeki's article of faith, "The Historic Injustice" (a 1977 lecture). Consequently, it did not know how to deal with it". [Giliomee, a participant at Dakar, concluded then that "The ANC was neither a liberal nor non-racial organisation, but a populist movement determined to impose what it called an ‘African hegemony.' "]

Giliomee's observation that Afrikaner participants in the pre-1990 debates were "ignorant of the key ANC policy documents" can be applied equally to post-1990 (and present-day) debates - to whites, blacks, coloureds and Indians. Usually, the documents are as long and turgid as they were pre-1990 and are read mainly by the more fervent comrades. However, when important decision-making conferences are held, the documents are dusted down - and they prevail, or their authority prevails in-waiting, until the time arrives for their application.

As Giliomee proceeds through the "key policy documents", their radical reach becomes ever more evident. He notes: "...the ANC's conception of democracy needed to be deconstructed. Until the end of the 1950s the ANC model for democracy was what Nelson Mandela in the late 1980s still called ‘an ordinary democracy.' By this he meant the Westminster system based on parliamentary sovereignty and the winner-takes-all rule. Since the 1960s, the SACP began pushing the party ever further towards the democratic centralism of Eastern European dictatorships. A tight and unaccountable party elite allowed free discussion within the party until a decision was taken, which the party leadership rigidly enforced. The legislature was largely reduced to a rubber stamp. A fusion of the ruling party and the state occurred that left little room for an opposition party. Centralism was the dominant feature and the democratic aspect largely cosmetic."

It is little wonder that outside the ANC, the minority groups, especially the whites, were caught unawares. Suddenly, it was surprise, surprise. In the black townships, where comrades talk the talk, no doubt there was a better sense of what was happening in the inner circles, which may be why the number of black analysts is increasing and the quality of their analysis improving. Since its formation in 1912, the ANC has lived in a kind of black box, hence the doctrine that the ANC is a "people," not a political party. Now some of the inhabitants of that box are pushing to get out.  Until this happens there can never be democracy in South Africa.

So meanwhile what is happening to divided Afrikanerdom today is a microcosm of what may happen to the whole of South Africa tomorrow. Here an explanation is needed of what Giliomee more precisely means by group or community or minority rights. It means, he says, "meaningful participation on all levels of government, language rights and a proper balance between the imperatives of transformation and ensuring equal opportunities for all in the labour market. In proposing minority rights as a form of checking the ANC's preponderance of power, the NP government received no or very little help from the Democratic Party, the press or business leaders. The ANC representatives did not go beyond giving bland, non-binding assurances."

Accordingly, Afrikaners seeking "to live satisfying lives as members of communities" were rebuffed by the ANC government and by "elements in the Afrikaner intelligentsia," who refused to recognise that "a narrow, individual-based liberalism" paved the way for white domination to be replaced simply by black domination. Nor could they bring themselves to recognise that "ethnic groups based on voluntary association constitute legitimate identities whose demands in the sphere of language and culture are commonplace in Europe and elsewhere".

Of South Africa's 47 million population, some 4.6 million are Afrikaans-speakers (whites, coloureds, etc.), making them the third largest linguistic group (16%) next to the Zulu (25%) and Xhosa (17%). Giliomee puts the figure of white Afrikaners at three million (57% of the white population), of whom between 10 and 15 percent emigrated between the early 1990s and 2009. A further seven million people read or understood Afrikaans. Emigration, says Giliomee, "acted as a safety valve. Estimates differ, but the most authoritative one was probably that of the SA Institute of Race Relations, which put the figure of emigrants at 850,000, the greater majority of whom were whites.  Half the emigrants were Afrikaners".

In a major move, the ANC downgraded Afrikaners in the public service. Giliomee writes in his new chapter: "Implementing the policies proposed in (the ANC's) "Strategy and Tactics" meant first of all the rapid Africanisation of the civil service with ‘loyal cadres' being deployed to strategic positions. Some 117,000 white civil servants left their posts between 1998 and 2002 after receiving compensation for leaving early. The great majority were Afrikaners. A massive loss of skills occurred, seriously affecting the capacity of government to deliver services." By group rights, therefore, Giliomee clearly means not a volkstaat or geographical area, and not only language rights, but also protection from "reverse discrimination" in the job market (the ANC's "affirmative action").

By 2009, Afrikaans as a medium of instruction had gone into rapid decline: down 60 % at Stellenbosch University, 40% at the University of Pretoria, 35% at the University of the Free State. At the Rand Afrikaans University, now the University of Johannesburg, the proportion of Afrikaans students dropped to well below 20 percent as a result of a merger dictated by the government. Another survey showed that 64% of South Africans prefer English as the country's "main" official language and the language of business.

Reference might be made here to the latest Newsletter 198 of the Afrikaner-based parliamentary party, Freedom Front Plus, which quotes an executive councillor of North West province: Afrikaans single-medium schools (a typical example among nine provinces) declined from 257 in 2004 to 78 in 2007. However, the Freedom Front Plus's own survey showed that 7 of the 78 schools are independent, and that only 71 state schools offer Afrikaans single-medium education. Of these, only 50 actually practise Afrikaans single-medium education. Some schools responded to the survey only by telephone, because they "feared intimidation."

Giliomee:  "During the past 15 years there have been some massive social shifts in the Afrikaner and larger white community, including one from employment to entrepreneurship in the higher income categories.  In 1994, 75 per cent of whites earning over R500,000, were salaried employees in the public or private sector.  By 2009, 75% of whites in this income category were self-employed, either in their own enterprises or as agents or consultants. In contrast to the early 1990s, when white poverty was insignificant, there are today in and around Pretoria alone 77 white squatter camps".

Constitutional talks, which began secretively in the 1980s between whites and a warring but willing ANC to sound each other out on a political settlement, produced widely publicised debates and formal conferences in the early 1990s, and finally the 1994 elections, which the ANC won with a 66% majority, bringing an end to white rule in South Africa. Nelson Mandela's five-year presidency (1994-99) calmed the country, the transition being widely hailed as remarkable. But it also paved the way for a decade under Mbeki, who continued with the prevailing orthodox economics, but in other policy areas introduced a different agenda. In due course no doubt, Mandelaism itself will be analysed more critically, and possibly pronounced less of a "miracle."

"To preserve its image as a national movement" (to quote further from Giliomee's new chapter), "the ANC, as distinct from the South African Communist Party (SACP), did not commit itself to a socialist state. Instead, nationalists and communists alike propounded the theory of a National Democratic Revolution (NDR). In the first stage of this revolution the goal was to take charge of the political and economic system and from this basis create the conditions for the transfer to socialism, which was to be the second stage." However, wanting to put all his efforts into the NDR's first phase, Mbeki "postponed the introduction of socialism indefinitely".

This brings Giliomee directly into the politics of minority rights. "In the 1994 election less than 1 per cent of Afrikaners supported the Democratic Party; in the 2009 election 82 per cent of the Afrikaners who voted endorsed the Democratic Alliance, its successor. The residue of the once mighty National Party was ignominiously absorbed by the ANC...Minority rights and reverse racial discrimination were the two issues uppermost in Afrikaner minds, apart from violent crime and corruption. The ANC never showed much interest in responding effectively to these demands. Increasingly, the minorities felt alienated. In 2005, De Klerk pointedly told President Mbeki that the black majority was dictating the agenda for the white, Indian and coloured minorities in ways that negatively affected their core interests".

The "deconstruction" of democracy, which Mbeki started and which President Jacob Zuma is continuing with even more vigour, will have unknown consequences. If successful, it could ethnically cleanse South Africa of minorities; if it fails, it is impossible even to guess who will be able to pick up the pieces. Zuma certainly has a mass following, won two-thirds of the vote in the April 22 elections, and has a hand-picked leadership.

But there are obverses to these coins. First, the masses may still experience some excitement over the "liberation" struggle (although the whites no longer have fight-back power), but as the restive black townships show, it is "delivery" they want today. Second, whereas the National Assembly has been an insignificant, nominal institution, now 136 of its 400 members belong to opposition parties; the Democratic Alliance (67 seats) under Helen Zille is surging warily, but determinedly, towards a political realignment; and the Congress of the People (Cope - 30 seats), which recruited its members at first mainly from the collapsed Mbeki camp, is an unknown factor that is unsettling the ANC. Third, Zuma has enemies in his own camp; and there are just too many different interest groups represented in the upper leadership for anyone to "monitor" efficiently. The whole apparatus is just too huge.

It reminds one of General Charles de Gaulle's famous observation about the French: "How can anyone govern a nation that has 246 different kinds of cheese"?

Click here to sign up to receive our free daily headline email newsletter