The denialism of the NDR

RW Johnson on why ANC alliance members remain so attached to an outmoded Soviet concept

In the mid-1990s the SACP, with Joe Slovo much to the fore, became enamoured of the Human Development Index (HDI) pioneered by the UN Development Programme because instead of ranking countries by GDP per capita the UNDP was interested in a broader measure of welfare which would include the quality of life in that country, life expectancy, child and maternal mortality rates, social equality, achievements in education and health, gender equality and so on.

The UNDP measure had two immensely appealing features for the SACP. First, it promised to rank countries like Cuba a lot higher than usual because they enjoyed equal poverty, a goodish health system and more gender equality. So this would be a better measure for what the SACP was planning to achieve in South Africa. Accordingly, the SACP paid enormous and positive attention to each successive Human Development Report (HDR) of the UNDP and emphasized that what the government was most keenly interested in was human development.

Thus in 1997 Jay Naidoo, then heading the RDP secretariat, declared that "The challenge is to meet the basic needs of our people and at the same time strengthen economic growth. These challenges are vital but the real issue that needs attention most is human development." (Emphasis added.)

Secondly, the UNDP was a very weak agency, highly dependent on local buy-in from the client's end - which meant, in practise, that it would be easy for the SACP to take over the local operation in South Africa. This duly occurred. I remember attending one UNDP report presentation in Pretoria where those thanked included a long list of SACP figures and where the speech given was a standard Party rant. It was somewhat weird to imagine that these fiery declarations denouncing Gear and "the 1996 class project" were somehow meant to emanate from the UNDP.

The intention was clearly that the SACP, leading the Alliance, would be able to show the effect of the RDP in gradually transforming South Africa for the better with a rising HDI number which would reward all the ideological initiatives of greater empowerment, gender equality, better preventative health care and so on. Helpfully, the UNDP had calculated its indices retrospectively and these showed South Africa improving from a score of 0.66 in1975 to a score of 0.741 in 1995. If improvement like that could be achieved in the last twenty years of National Party rule, surely the figure would race ahead under ANC rule?

Well, no actually. The 2001 UNDP Report showed that South Africa had slumped to 0.604 due its high Aids rate and lower per capita income due to the (then) weak Rand. The fact that South Africa under ANC rule had slumped even behind its 1975 figure was so much the opposite of what the SACP (and ANC) wanted to hear that they promptly lost all interest in the HDR. After 2001 each successive new HDR was largely ignored.

In fact they were objective measurements all right and by 2010 the HDR showed that South Africa's score had fallen again to 0.597, placing the country 110th out of 172 countries surveyed. (Zimbabwe was in 172nd place.) Had South Africa maintained its 1995 score it would have been 59th. That is, under ANC rule South Africa has fallen 51 places, a fair measure of the catastrophic failures this period has seen.

And this is not just due to Aids. Poverty, inequality, unemployment the health services and education have all got worse and even the Aids figures would have been a lot better but for Mbeki's Aids denialism which the ANC did not in any way counter or contradict. The straightforward fact is that ANC rule has been an awful failure not just in terms of this measure, the HDI index, which the ANC previously embraced, but when judged on any objective terms at all.

Yet this is not acknowledged by the ANC. Instead the standard line is that the ANC has achieved an enormous amount but that much remains to be done. To the extent that things are not as they should be, this is due to the inheritance of apartheid. Yet the HDI figures mock this view for they show beyond dispute that South Africa's HDI figure was far higher in 1995, after nearly 50 years of apartheid, than it was in 2010 after 16 years of ANC rule. Moreover, the trend continues to be downward. Yet few members of the black ANC elite are willing to face this fact.

A little while ago I watched a BBC "Debate" about the state of South Africa. The cast involved all the obvious suspects and included Bridgette Radebe, the multi-millionaire mining tycoon married to Jeff Radebe. The BBC compère introduced the subject with some of the same sorts of data I have used above and said, right, so it's not working. What exactly has gone wrong?

Ms Radebe jumped in, speaking with great anger and conviction. It was she said, wholly impermissible to frame the question that way. That discussion simply could not be had. The fact was that all that was wrong was the inheritance not only of apartheid but of hundreds of years of colonialism. The ANC was struggling against this terrible inheritance and it was far, far too soon for anyone to judge it.

So vehement was she that not only the compère but everyone else was clearly shaken and so instead the "debate" was abandoned by tacit agreement. Instead the participants had the usual vacuous sort of discussion about what needs to be done and how it was "urgent" to do something about the usual long list of subjects.

A tougher-minded compère might have asked Ms Radebe whether her keenness to prevent debate was related to her position as one of Africa's richest women or her being the wife of a minister who has served continuously since 1994. Liberation has certainly worked very well for her, after all, if not for most.

This sort of social denialism is just as pernicious as Thabo Mbeki's Aids denialism. But the real point, of course, is that what is true of Bridgette Radebe is true of much of the state-sponsored black elite - of everyone who has got a civil service job since 1994, or got rich through their political connections or through BEE.

For all these happy folk it's a case of never having had it so good. Unfortunately, their good luck is the other side of the immiseration of the majority and the worsening inequality figures are in large measure due to the determination of this new elite not just to be prosperous but, if at all possible, to accumulate what the French call la richesse insultante - extravagant wealth ostentatiously displayed.

If you want to see people driving Ferraris and Lamborghinis, it's no good looking at the old white monied class. These are almost exclusively the toys of the new black super-rich. They behave like playboys, dress like gangsters. In purely economic terms it's tragic for they don't invest their wealth, they just waste it.

Now, such characters have their own stern critics within the Alliance and none sterner than Zwelinzima Vavi, the head of Cosatu. However, Mr Vavi has his own form of denialism, the National Democratic Revolution. Virtually all sections of the Alliance pay lip-service, at least, to the NDR, a Soviet-era concept whose own inventors within the Soviet Communist Party have long since disowned, saying the whole concept was a lot of rubbish. But within the ANC and particularly within the SACP and Cosatu, people continue to believe in the NDR.

Functionally, it appears to be a substitute for socialism. When the NDR arrives the government will enact sweeping land reform and return the land to those who work it (without compensation) and something similar will happen with the mines, banks and "monopoly capital" of any kind. The result will be a massive redistribution towards the People and with it there will be a wondrous banishing of inequality, poverty and unemployment. We are not, you will understand, quite at the NDR yet but we have to work towards it, to build it - and lo! - it will occur.

Now, anyone who is seriously interested in doing something about poverty, inequality and unemployment will quickly understand that the prescriptions of the NDR would quickly result in the Zimbabwe-ization of South Africa. And do just remember that Zimbabwe was plumb bottom of the entire UNDP list, making even places like North Korea seem desirable. That is, it would result in mass starvation, industrial decline, debt default and enormous immiseration as well as torrential social unrest.

It would be a short cut to the country's complete destruction, nothing less. And this is what is so odd about Blade Nzimande, Jeremy Cronin, Zwelinzima Vavi and those others who continue to assert their belief in the NDR. They are not fools. They do not, one assumes, believe in Father Christmas or that there are fairies at the bottom of the garden. Yet there is something indubitably magical about their theory.

The land is given to the masses who do not know how to do commercial farming. The mines, banks and various other industries are taken over by government which has proved quite incapable of running public corporations of any kind. And yet - hey presto! - there is a magical moment of transformation and we all come out happy, equal and employed. The mechanisms by which these happy results are achieved remain unexplained, nay unexplored. They are just magic and no one should enquire further into that unless they want to be turned into a frog. Personally, I would find it a whole lot easier to believe there are fairies at the bottom of my garden.

It may be objected that this is an unfair and unduly satirical description of NDR, but listen to Mr Vavi. Last week he spoke of the significance of 2014:

"This will be 20 years after freedom and at that time people will no longer care about history. There will be a new generation of voters who know nothing about Chris Hani's blood flowing in the streets. By that time we should have dramatically narrowed the gap of inequality in the country, created jobs and removed poverty."Vavi adds "There will be no better life for all unless we change the economic structure of our country."

There you have it. If the political leadership is simply determined enough to install the NDR - and there's no doubt this is what Mr Vavi is thinking of - they can magically cut inequality, create jobs and, yes, "remove poverty". Mr Vavi's belief that this can be achieved within three years can only be ascribed to a belief in magic, for it can be ascribed to nothing else.

Belief in the magical formula of the NDR is a critical form of denialism, for it means the Left can simply ignore the merely sensible. For example, any number of educationists have emphasized that progress in education cannot be achieved unless the power of the teachers' union, Sadtu, is broken in much the same way that Mrs Thatcher crushed the miners'. This can be gaily ignored by Vavi and others because Sadtu is a highly "progressive" union (it votes the Left ticket) and is thus a key building block of NDR which will, by the way, solve educational problems as well as others.

The key point is this: if you give up the millenarian dream of the NDR, what are you left with? You are left with a middle income country which is achieving results worse in many spheres than those of many of the least developed countries. It is doing this largely because its governance is so exceptionally bad. What is shows, in a nutshell, is that African nationalism is incapable of governing a country as complex as South Africa and that it requires help from the other racial minorities to do so.

This is quite unwelcome enough but one could go much further. One could, for example read a study by J.P. Landman, Haroon Bhorat, Carl Van Aardt and Servaas van der Berg, Breaking the Grip of Poverty and Inequality in South Africa (2003) in which they typify South African society at that time as a 55/45 one - 55% being well enough off and 45% in poverty. The full extent of their not inconsiderable ambition was to make that into a 70/30 society by 2014.

They point out that to achieve that there will have to be 3 million extra jobs and that to generate those there will have to be a sharp and continuous improvement in labour productivity, without which the economy will not be internationally competitive, and that that will also require steady 4% growth for ten years and thus an economy which is 48% bigger by 2014.

As an empirical study this is as favourable as Mr Vavi can possibly hope for (Landman et al. also welcome a degree of redistribution) but it will immediately seen how entirely unacceptable this is. This prescription would insist that South Africa has to be internationally competitive (Cosatu's hackles rise) and, worse, that it must sharply increase productivity (major Cosatu heart attack), and all this to achieve a situation where 30% of the population still live in poverty (Vavi expires).

This, it must be emphasized, is the very gentlest and most politically correct of studies available of the real economy. Yet even this is unacceptable if you have bought into NDR. Another way of putting it is that the best reason to buy into NDR is so that you don't have to face the facts. Once you buy into the NDR all sorts of magic is possible.

If you want to live without magic you accept that South Africa is appallingly badly governed, that there needs to be a substantial white input into government if the system is to work, that the economy can be made to work to produce greater equity, higher unemployment and less poverty but that to achieve that Cosatu has to accept it or play dead, and that the improvement of health and education requires the emasculation of the teaching and health unions. We will arrive at this point one day but immediately you can understand the appeal of denialism.

This article was published with the assistance of the Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung für die Freiheit (FNF). The views presented in the article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of FNF.

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