Western myths about South Africa

James Myburgh on the occasionally amusing but sometimes dangerous misreading of our recent past

Over the past couple of years the Western media has, once again, begun to take a critical interest in South Africa. The meaning of Julius Malema, for instance, has been the subject of opinion pieces and editorials confidently written, for the most part, by individuals with no real understanding of the salient developments in the country over the past fifteen years. It is striking too how certain illusions continue to shape Western thinking about South Africa. Some of these myths are simple-minded but amusing, while others have more sinister effects.

One of the most famous of the former concerns Margaret Thatcher's supposed "cloud cuckoo land" remarks about the ANC. In his 2010 biography of Nelson Mandela Peter Hain quoted the British Prime Minister as stating in 1987: "The ANC is a typical terrorist organisation... Anyone who thinks it is going to run the government in South Africa is living in cloud cuckoo land."[i] A similar quote can be found in numerous other books and articles about South Africa usually followed by a "kyk hoe lyk sy nou!" comment.

In fact, the first part of this quote is almost never put in context, and the second is apocryphal. In the 1980s the ANC had campaigned for the disinvestment of all Western companies from South Africa, the cutting of all trade links with the country and comprehensive economic sanctions: The stated goal being to reduce the South African economy "to ruins." As a Radio Freedom broadcast put it in September 1986: "Let us make sure that lesser and lesser products come out of the assembly lines....Let there be no economic growth. The apartheid economy must be brought to its knees."

The liberation movement was not particularly concerned about the consequences of these measures. The short term effects of such a blockade, it acknowledged in one broadcast, may "mean hunger and starvation" for black South Africans "but in the same way it will mean hunger and starvation for the children of Botha, Malan, Louis le Grange and many other white racists of our country." As for the long term consequences disinvestment meant little to an ANC/SACP still committed to socialism, as it was planning (once power had been seized) to nationalise the entire economy down to barber shop level in order to end the "super-exploitation" of blacks by whites.

At the Commonwealth Summit in Vancouver in October 1987 Margaret Thatcher opposed efforts to impose the stringent sanctions on South Africa that the ANC was demanding. In reaction the ANC's representative at the conference, Jonnie Makatini, said Britain's refusal to support these measures would result in "the further intensification of the armed struggle" and also in attacks on British corporations in South Africa. (Christian Science Monitor October 19 1987) [In March the previous year MK commissar Chris Hani had warned that the ANC was "going to step up attacks against those factories, transnational corporations and monopolies, which exploit and maltreat the South African working class and in the process it is more than probable that white civilians will lose their lives."]

In a press conference Thatcher was asked by Alan Merrydew of BCTV News what her response was "to a reported ANC statement that they will target British firms in South Africa?" She replied that: "when the ANC says that they will target British companies. This shows what a typical terrorist organisation it is. I fought terrorism all my life and if more people fought it, and we were all more successful, we should not have it and I hope that everyone in this hall will think it is right to go on fighting terrorism. They will if they believe in democracy."

The transcript of the press conference contains no mention of the supposed cloud cuckoo land remarks. In fact this "quote" appears to stem from a comment her spokesman, Bernard Ingham, had made during the conference again in reply to question from the press. According to the Washington Post  (October 18 1987): "When a Canadian reporter suggested that the African National Congress might [forcibly] overthrow the white South African regime, Thatcher's spokesman responded, ‘It is cloud cuckooland for anyone to believe that could be done.'"

It is understandable, in a way, that no-one bothered to check the factual basis of this myth for years. But Hain chose to repeat it despite it already having been thoroughly debunked.

A second myth, which enjoyed considerable play during the Libyan conflict, is that Nelson Mandela's and the ANC government's long running support for Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi was motivated by gratitude for the support he had provided the movement during its lonely period in exile.

For instance, the Guardian's Africa correspondent David Smith wrote that "One unlikely friend is Nelson Mandela, who never forgot Gaddafi's support for the African National Congress in the struggle against apartheid." Erin Conway-Smith noted meanwhile that "Gaddafi remained popular among some members of South Africa's ANC because of his support for the party during the apartheid era. Starting in the 1970s, the ANC used Libya as military training base for its cadres in the fight against apartheid."In the Atlantic James Kirchick wrote that Gaddafi's "connections to the ANC, South Africa's long-dominant ruling party, go back decades, when he supported its struggle against apartheid."

To his great credit, a few weeks ago former ANC President Thabo Mbeki firmly knocked this particular falsehood on the head. In a speech to the Law Society of the Northern Provinces he noted  "The incontrovertible fact is that during this whole [struggle] period, Libya did not give the ANC even one cent, did not train even one of our military combatants and did not supply us with even one bullet. This is because Gaddafi's Libya made the determination that the ANC was little more than an instrument of Zionist Israel, because we had among our leaders such outstanding patriots as the late Joe Slovo. Libya came to extend assistance to the ANC after 1990, when it realised that the ANC was a genuine representative of the overwhelming majority of our people."

During the apartheid period Gadaffi had actually supported the ANC's bitter rivals, the Pan Africanist Congress. When Nelson Mandela first visited Libya in May 1990 he thanked Gaddafi for giving "military training to South Africans who wanted to obtain their liberation through armed struggle," but this was a polite reference to the support Libya had provided to the PAC's armed wing, APLA.

From that time on Gadaffi become one of the ANC's most generous financial backers. He provided substantial funding to the ANC for its 1994, 1999 and 2009 election campaigns. In 2009 the Mail & Guardian quoted a source as saying that "when former president Nelson Mandela visited Gadaffi in 1994 he returned with $40-million in briefcases to fund the ANC's election effort." As with other new but generous donors to the ANC - such as Nigeria's Sani Abacha and the Taiwanese government - Mandela justified his diplomatic efforts on Gadaffi's behalf by disingenuously claiming Libya had supported the ANC during the struggle against apartheid.

Mandela's efforts to solicit donations for the ANC from foreign states (usually dictatorial ones), and to then tailor South Africa's foreign policy accordingly, is one of the great blots against his presidency. The ANC's dependence on such funding has completely compromised the integrity of post-apartheid South Africa's foreign policy and heavily tilted the balance towards one-party dominance inside the country. Instead of weighing Mandela's moral failures in this regard against his great achievements Western commentators have tended to erase certain basic historical facts in an effort to recast a policy of pure venality as one of stubborn loyalty to old friends.

The dangers of myth making

There are other more serious myths. One of these is the myth of "reconciliation", another the myth of ANC "non-racialism". There was a policy of "reconciliation" designed to smooth the entry of the ANC into power, post-1994, and Mandela was tasked with delivering assurances to the white minority. But this was neither unique nor particularly long lasting. Robert Mugabe pursued a similar approach on ascending to power in Zimbabwe in 1980, as did numerous other African nationalist leaders.

The ANC ditched this policy in 1996 as soon as it realised its grip on state power was secure, as was always the intention. Similarly, the ANC did play up its non-racial credentials in the mid-1990s for a brief while, but again this did not last for very long. The historic ideology of the liberation movement is properly described as one of revolutionary African nationalism. From 1996 onwards the ANC of Thabo Mbeki pursued aggressive Africanisation policies within the state, and it was in the process of extending these to the broader economy when such plans were thrown into disarray by the Polokwane revolution.

Writing meaningfully about South African politics requires, as Max Weber noted of the German politics of his time, a "trained relentlessness in viewing the realities of life, and the ability to face such realities and to measure up to them inwardly." The simple reality that one racial nationalism ended up replacing another in South Africa - nail knocking out nail - is a morally discomforting one for outsiders. As a result much Western analysis of South Africa clings on to myths which have no factual basis (or only a fleeting one); while turning a blind eye to the most significant political development of the past fifteen years, namely the implementation of the ANC's historic racial nationalist agenda.

South Africa today is having to wrestle with the consequences of that agenda: mass immigration from Zimbabwe, high unemployment, a corrupt and dysfunctional state, decaying infrastructure, appalling education for the poor, the strangling of investment in the mining industry, and so on. One wholly unintended consequence has been to push up the incomes of many white South Africans as the country has been starved of critical skills.

One of the great tensions in South African politics today is between those, such as Malema, who seek to finally give effect to the ANC's historic mission through a festive orgy of looting and destruction; and those who recognise the damage it has done thus far and see the need to pull back from it and find a different path.

Curiously, the sympathies of many Western observers are with the ANCYL President, even as his archaic demands for nationalisation are piously condemned. The Guardian's David Smith commented on Twitter in September "Anyone with a leftwing bone in their body may have to admit Malema tells some painful truths." In an editorial on the ANCYL leader's suspension the Financial Times offloaded responsibility for the ruling party's failures onto the white minority stating: "the legacy of centuries of oppression cannot be erased in two decades."

Underlying such claims is a nasty and enduring strain of Western racialism. But what gives them intellectual purchase is the myth-making of the past two decades. If all that's been reported on for the past fifteen years are imaginary ANC attributes of "forgiveness", "reconciliation" and "non-racialism" it makes sense to argue that the country is currently suffering not from a surfeit of racial nationalism, but from too little. Thus, in a view ascribed to Malema but which seem to reflect his own, David Smith writes "Mandela's miracle of forgiveness and reconciliation is all very well, and it saved white people from ‘being driven into the sea', but it also let them off the hook."

[i][i] Peter Hain, Mandela, (London: Spruce, 2010)

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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