Can South Africa be "decolonized"?

RW Johnson says that, while doomed to fail, such an effort would have hugely destructive consequences

The Chimera of “Decolonization”

In recent time we have begun to hear the refrain that South Africa must “decolonize”. In part this derives from the Rhodes Must Fall and related campus activism in which colonial era statues and names were the initial target before the movement rolled on towards broader concerns with “transformation”. Indeed, Adam Habib, the Vice Chancellor of Wits uses the words “transformation” and “decolonisation” interchangeably and, like any politically correct Vice Chancellor, he is, of course, in favour of them.

In this, of course, he is typical of modern VCs who have abandoned the old style of apartheid era leadership. In those days VCs stood for principles like university autonomy, academic freedom, opposition to the Separate Universities Act, ever higher academic standards and so on. Not so today. Instead VCs have adopted the motto of the 19th century French politician, Alexandre Ledru-Rollin: “There go the people. I am their leader and therefore I must follow them”.

The other source for the rhetoric of “decolonization” is, of course, the SACP's theory of “colonialism of a special type”. Ironically, the real progenitor of this theory was the Liberal, Leo Marquard, who first put forward the idea that one way to think of South African society was that it was a colonial society in which the colonisers were not a metropolitan power but a group residing in the society itself. The kernel of the idea was, of course, that the relationships between white and black here were pretty similar to those you could find in indubitably colonial societies like Kenya or Cote d'Ivoire.

This was not really a very profound insight for, of course, it was far more important that the whites in South Africa had built the basis for an autonomous national state with its own banks, its own capital investment, its own industries and self-sufficiency in food – something which other African states signally lacked.

The turn to racial nationalism

However, in Communist and ANC hands the theory of “colonialism of a special type” became a key driver of a narrow racial nationalism. If the colonialists were actually the local whites then decolonization would imply the expulsion of these “settlers”, just as happened in Algeria and, very largely, in Kenya, Zimbabwe, Angola and Mozambique. Thus the theory became the rationale for ethnic cleansing and, short of that, for a rabid racialism in all spheres of public life, for all that it masquerades as somehow democratic and even non-racial. This is, of course, fraudulent.

In practice today we have job reservation on racial lines in the public service and many other parts of the economy. We have all manner of blacks-only associations in every profession and open discrimination in favour of black companies, bosses and shareholders. All of this is quite flagrant. One only has to imagine what reception an association of (for example) White or Indian or Coloured Lawyers or Businessmen would meet to see how far racial nationalism has, once again, achieved a complete legitimacy in South Africa, just as it did under apartheid.

It goes without saying that this interpretation of “colonialism of a special type” is entirely opposed to the real non-racialism of the Freedom Charter: “South Africa belongs to all who live in it”. Indeed, the current ascendancy of the SACP within the ANC is well measured by the way in which “colonialism of a special type” thinking has eclipsed the spirit of the Freedom Charter. En route, the SACP has ceased to be a Communist party and has become the Racial Nationalist Party, a rare case of the leopard changing its spots.

De-linking: stop the world, I want to get off

Naturally, this commitment to “decolonization” links to the SACP's intention that South Africa must “de-link” itself from international capitalism and thus detach itself from its present place in the international political economy. Hence we have a Minister for Trade who tears up investment protection treaties with Western countries, while keeping those with Russia and China – even though this is bad for trade and investment.

Placing entire trust on its relationship with BRICS and particularly with the Shanghai Co-operation Organization powers[1], Russia and China, the  ANC takes great comfort from the fact that China is now South Africa's biggest trading partner.

South Africa's foreign policy has been re-orientated so that all the orange revolutions of Eastern Europe, the Ukraine crisis and even the Tiananmen Square massacre are, fantastically, seen as the result of CIA provocations. The same is true domestically: anything which goes wrong is assumed to be the work of whites or capitalism (seen as coterminous) so that even if the Treasury tries to rein in the budget deficit or hold back on yet further salary increases for the public service, it is immediately accused of having been taken over by the Third Force.

Thus the SACP and ANC believe that South African can and should detach itself from its current position in the international political economy and by purely voluntaristic action re-position itself so that it rests itself on the relationship with BRICS and China. In the ensuing Nirvana South Africa will move ahead thanks to a “developmental state” strategy.

Yet the premise behind “decolonization” is fundamentally mistaken. SA was decolonized in 1910. It has been fully independent for 105 years. And later, from 1948 on, it underwent a determined and sweeping process of further cultural decolonization. What can be said with some certainty is that this present wave of yet further decolonization will fail but that the attempt to achieve it will do much damage. This is true whether one looks at the concept in its international dimension or its domestic cultural dimension.

Only organic change lasts

A country's position in the international order is normally the product of history, economics, demography and other long run and impersonal factors. It is extremely difficult to make large changes to its position in that order simply by political fiat and on the rare occasions when this does happen the result is an extremely painful disjuncture. Examples would be Russia in 1917, Cuba in 1959, Iran in 1979 and so on.

All these changes took place only after major revolutions, something which South Africa has not had. Invariably, the result is that the new regime cuts itself off from the world and, in the case of the USSR and Cuba actually holds its citizens prisoner, refusing to allow them to leave even on holiday. In all three of the above cases the attempted cultural revolution has to be imposed by a police state with the suppression of an Opposition, free speech and freedom of the press.

Moreover, in the end all such attempted re-orientations fail. After a gap of over fifty years Cuba is finding its way back into a more familiar relationship with the USA and the same seems to be true of Iran. In Russia today the Orthodox Church is so strong and rich that it's difficult to remember that things were ever different. And the figure commemorated by a many-times-life-size statue astride the Moskva River in Moscow is Peter the Great. He, rather than Lenin, now personifies Russia. For Russia, like Cuba and Iran, is rejoining its own past. So are all the countries of Eastern Europe. Hungary is somehow rediscovering that Admiral Horthy was not so bad at all (!) and Poland is making a similar discovery about Pilsudski. This process seems ineluctable.

It is clear that when the SACP/ANC talk of decolonization they mean the cultural transformation of attitudes, symbols and institutions. Logically, of course, it would also mean getting rid of all the white settlers, as in Algeria. But even that does not last. Portuguese immigration to Mozambique and Angola has started up again and there are more whites in Cote d'Ivoire than there were at independence.

There is even a sense in which “decolonization” is impossible. South Africa was a Dutch or British colony for over 250 years and that colonial relationship is reflected not only in South Africa's architecture but in the names of its roads and buildings in every suburb, in its languages, its institutions and still in all manner of customs and attitudes.

Thus that colonial experience is part of the integument of SA life as are the English language, cricket, rugby, soccer, golf, Parliament, trade unions, socialism and Christianity. Young black demonstrators at Stellenbosch chant “One country, one language” - and they mean English, not isiXhosa. And nobody has even suggested any move away from Roman-Dutch law.

A broader dependency – and soft power

Since 1910 South Africa's original dependence on Britain has broadened out gradually into a wider dependency on the West. This has happened quite organically and naturally, not by any particular political decision. South Africa has even fought three major wars on the Western side. These relationships are reflected in the dominance of the English language in the country, in the way the TV, radio, press, music and advertising industries all reflect and embody the West's soft power.

We drive on the left, as in Britain. All manner of measurements, standards, certification of skills and professions and so on all derive from the same contacts. Our supermarkets and other shops, our banks and other financial institutions are all based on Anglo-American models. Many SA companies have branches – and now even HQs - in Britain. Many of our top lawyers have practices in both countries. And historically our top companies have hired in top skills from Britain or the Anglosphere.

Culturally, South Africa is not just part of the Anglo-American world but under ANC rule the use of English has hugely strengthened to the point where it seems certain that the country will become mainly English-speaking, which will actually embed it even deeper in Anglo-American culture. As it is, it is quite normal for South African students to go on to Britain or America for further education or just for a few years' experience.

South African expatriates are concentrated in the UK, US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Israel with a further sprinkling in the UAE. These are all part of the Anglosphere. Young South Africans often grow up reading English books and there is still an unspoken half-feeling about Britain being the mother country. Whether you grew up reading Jane Austen, Agatha Christie or JK Rowlings, there is still the feeling that you would like to go and see where these wonderful stories were set – and were written.

The arrival in power of the ANC has not changed this. The most important centres for ANC exiles were London and Lusaka – both English-speaking, both within the Commonwealth. ANC-ruled Durban is thrilled to have been awarded the Commonwealth Games for 2022, just as it was pleased to host the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in 1999. When the Queen visited SA in 1995 ANC and SACP cabinet ministers were thrilled to flock aboard the royal yacht Britannia and Ronnie Kasrils spoke of it with schoolboy excitement as “something to tell one's grandchildren about”. (I may say that I declined my own invitation because I had previously agreed to give a presentation to the PAC on that day and didn't feel I should cancel that.)

Equally, I would note that Verwoerd celebrated the breaking of the old colonial tie with Britain when he termed South Africa's exit from the Commonwealth as “a miracle”, whereas the ANC led the country back into the Commonwealth in 1994. This seems unlikely to change. After all, South Africa is entirely surrounded by other Commonwealth countries – Namibia, Swaziland, Lesotho, Botswana, Mauritius, Zambia, Malawi etc – and despite Mugabe's bluster it is a safe bet that Zimbabwe will end up back in the Commonwealth.

When last doing a story involving the ANC in Durban I found that no ANC officials could remember or use the new names of roads and streets commemorating ANC/SACP heroes: they all used the old names, Smith Street, West Street, Stanger Street and so on.

Thus any attempt at de-linking and presumably re-centering on BRICS or China will run flat into these large facts of SA's position within the Anglosphere – socially, politically, culturally and economically. When I heard that, flat against the furious opposition of SADTU, the government wanted to introduce Mandarin to SA schools my own feeling was “Well, good luck with that”. The chances are that you will be better able to learn Mandarin at Michaelhouse or Bishops than in Soweto or Thembisa.

In other words, any real attempt at de-linking, at “decolonization” and re-centering us on BRICS/China is probably impossible. It could only be done by very heavy-handed and authoritarian means alongside which the attempt to impose Afrikaans on Soweto would seem very tame. It would tear the country apart. In our current rather fragile state this is something which can simply not be afforded – and which would anyhow fail.

The limits of the Sino-Russian rel;ationship

Currently, the ANC government evinces great enthusiasm for its relationship with China and Russia. Yet thus far in the SA-China relationship, South Africa is the supplicant. We tolerate China destroying our textile and steel industries, we allow China to run a vast trade surplus with SA (in 2014, China's imports from SA were $8.76bn, its exports to SA $15.46bn), we allow large scale illegal Chinese immigration (already 22 Joburg shopping malls are Chinese-owned) and, fantastically, we still give some Chinese BEE privileges.

In return, China gives the SA govt advice, trains some of its managers, helped Iqbal Surve to buy Independent Newspapers, will provide 100 Mandarin teachers and may help the ANC build a Party school. China is allegedly helping SA with advice on State OEs but since China's own SOEs are its least competitive companies this may not change much, any more than Cuban doctors changed the South African health system.

It is hardly likely that Chinese advisers will tell SA that its SOEs need to lay off much of their bloated work forces or demand much higher productivity from its workers etc. One may confidently assume that Chinese advice will be diplomatically phrased and that the most that can be expected is that some of the ANC cadres deployed to these industries may actually learn a few skills from the Chinese, provided the language barrier can be overcome.

The situation with Russia is even more unpromising. There have been endless talks about increased trade but total trade (imports and exports) has yet to surpass $1bn. This after 20 years of friendly bilateral relations. Under apartheid there were four university departments of Russian studies in SA. Today there are none. The situation in Russia is the same: the intense interest in SA during the 1980s has evaporated. Again, SA is the supplicant: Putin has made one trip to SA and Zuma has made endless trips to Moscow. When he was worried that one of his wives might be trying to poison him, he immediately went to Moscow for medical treatment. And there is continuous talk of a R1 trillion nuclear contract with Russia.

In other words, the relationship with China and Russia is highly asymmetrical. In effect SA gives both these countries “most favoured nation” status, but SA can never be that important to either of them. Both of them are bound to place far greater weight on their relations with the US, Germany, Japan, Britain, France, South Korea and the other BRICS countries.

The hard facts of economics

This asymmetrical situation is further heightened by two crucial factors:

(I) SA's mining, manufacturing and agriculture are all in retreat. The only really big economic success story since 1994 has been the tourist industry. Moreover, it is a highly desirable kind of industry – it is highly labour intensive, producing lots of new jobs for people of all races. It is far less oligopolistic than other industries – lots of successful small enterprises. And its future potential growth is enormous.

Analysis of this industry is difficult because of the huge number of visitors from SADC (over 5.5m in 2010) who usually come to shop or work rather than holiday. Only 177,000 came from Other Africa. But 1.33m came from Europe (with Britain top, Germany 3rd, France 5th, Italy 7th), 338,000 from North America, 120,000 from Central and South America and 128,000 from Australasia. These arrivals by relatively wealthy Western visitors provided the vast bulk of tourist income. Russia and China accounted for very little.

(2) SA depends on a steady inflow of FDI. It needs 10-12% of GDP a year in FDI just to pay for the trade and fiscal deficits. Whether one is talking of greenfield investment or hot money flows, the money comes almost exclusively from Western countries. Very little comes from Russia or China. Russia's biggest investment in post-1994 SA was Norilsk Nickel's purchase of 20% of Goldfields for $1.16bn in 2004 – but in 2006 it sold this for $2bn. It was just a clever trade. China has $7.5bn of investments in SA but that figure has been flat for several years now. South African companies, by contrast, have invested $46bn in China.

Attempting the impossible can do a lot of harm

What all this points to is that the attempted re-orientation of SA away from the West and towards BRICS is likely to fail. Analogies drawn from the USSR, Eastern Europe and Cuba are all misleading: even to make the (temporary) changes they did, they needed to retreat from the world and erect police states. South Africa is still a democracy, open to the world. And if instead you look at Canada, Australia or the USA, they too were all colonies which have re-oriented themselves but only gradually and organically. In the long run that is the only sort of change there is.

So, to sum up, this attempted re-orientation and decolonization will inevitably fail. However, the mere attempt at “decolonization” could do great damage and the institutions on the front line are the universities. South Africa has the top four universities in Africa, all built on the British model. We have already seen what has happened to one university (UKZN) which was forced down the road of “decolonization”. The result was the flight of students and faculty, administrative chaos and the drying up of benefactions from donors. At the end of that process UKZN has been effectively ruined and is bankrupt. This is the fate that awaits our four top universities if they give way to the likes of RMF and the transformation lobby.

This is a battle of huge significance. Africa is littered with the wrecks of once good universities – the University College of Rhodesia, Makerere, Ibadan, Algiers and Kinshasa among others. The lesson has been that they are easy to wreck, very hard to revive and that the loss of such institutions is a crippling blow to their host societies for it robs them of the possibility of renewal. The era of “decolonization” will assuredly pass but the question is what will be left standing when it is over?

R.W. Johnson


[1]  The SCO, signed in 2001, actually grouped the big two with four ex-Soviet Muslim republics – Kazakhstan, Tadjikistan, Kyrgyzistan and Uzbhekistan. In 2015 India and Pakistan both joined.