Africa post-independence: Lessons for SA (II)

RW Johnson says the ANC promised to learn from the mistakes made by others, but didn't

In the previous article I argued that the leaders of Africa’s independence generation have left us little to celebrate. In effect virtually all the new states were governed by a bureaucratic bourgeoisie.

The key characteristic of this new bourgeoisie was its dependency on the state. Not only were most of the salaried class employed by the state but when they stole – public sector theft was the great distinguishing characteristic of such regimes - it was usually from the state or by manipulating powers and opportunities afforded them by the state which they then used for rent-seeking. There was almost no limit to the varieties of activity to which this gave rise.

Some while ago I toured some flower farms in Kenya, profitable and efficient enterprises, air-freighting their product to Europe. Because they were profitable they attracted a constant stream of state officials of every kind, all attempting to make difficulties for the farms so that they could then be bribed to go away. Most of the farmers employed African staff whose full-time duty it was to deal with these rent-seekers and get them off the farm for nothing or as cheaply as possible. Thus, these anti-rent-seekers also owed their jobs to the existence of this parasitic activity.

Similarly, the business class tended to be parasitic either upon the state or upon successful large enterprises run by whites or foreigners – or, indeed, by managing to exact rents from both. (To be fair, this was a feature of many pre-independence colonial situations.) Most residents of Nairobi depend for all their dairy goods upon the produce from the Kenyatta family farms. The Kenyatta family is thus very rich but entirely due to the way Jomo Kenyatta exploited the Presidency to acquire multiple rich farms and, doubtless, assisted by the fact that his son, Uhuru, is now President in his turn. So even the richest businessmen often owe their fortunes to their dependency on the state.

All of these processes saw a great flow of resources descend upon the small African middle class. In most cases this meant that there had to be redistribution away from the have-nots (workers and peasants) towards the haves. Thus in most cases the independence era has seen the sharp growth of social inequalities. Since the appetites of the elite far outran what could be squeezed out of the poor, most of these states ran up large debts – something not allowed under colonial rule – and have had major debt problems on a permanent basis.

Which is to say that the socialism preached by the leaders of independence was basically fraudulent. How to reconcile socialist beliefs with presiding over ever-widening inequalities? Morgan Tsvangirai once said to me, “Mugabe once preached Marxism-Leninism and socialism but all that stopped the minute the workers began to stage strikes. The fact is he wanted to reduce us all to peasants, terrified of Zanu-PF and dependent upon it.” Certainly, Mugabe spent the last seventeen years of his presidency defending the entrenched and wealthy Zanu-PF elite against the democratic majority. From then until his death the word “socialism” never passed his lips.

The relevance of all this for South Africa is clear. Despite all the ANC avowals that they had seen the mistakes made in the rest of independent Africa and thus knew what to avoid, in fact all the same patterns now exist in South Africa too. Sociology has turned out to be a lot more powerful than any amount of promises or, indeed, words of any kind. It is striking that while South Africa is home to many successful and independent Indian entrepreneurs, the Gupta family realised that where the real riches lay was in exploiting the interface with the state.

The arrival of the Guptas and the Zuma presidency inaugurated an almost manic period of self-enrichment at every level of society. Cabinet ministers, the President himself, and leading civil servants all helped themselves to spoils galore. So did the administrators of the SOEs, the public service workers, the municipal workers, the teachers, the police, the trade unions in general, the provincial premiers, the mayors and councillors, politically connected businessmen and many more.

It was a colossal party in which everyone could eat and drink as much as they could hold and it was possible because it was fuelled by a huge run-up of the nation’s debt. Social inequalities multiplied as resources were diverted towards the partygoers and away from everyone else.

The drama now is that some, at least, of the national elite have grasped that the national debt cannot continue to rise without handing the keys to the country over to the IMF and thus the complete collapse of the whole ANC adventure. Thus they now need to throttle back on the revenue streams which have been feeding all these interest groups.

But at every point of the national life these parasitic groups have inserted themselves in rent-seeking positions and they demand nothing less than that the great party must continue, with more tenders for BEE folk, more large salary increases for public service, SOE and municipal workers, more resources for the corrupt municipal and provincial elites and so on. All these groups know only too well that cabinet ministers, deputy ministers and top civil servants – the national elite – continue to benefit handsomely, with large salaries, perks and continuing corrupt deals of one sort and another.

Thus there is a great deal of finger-pointing: national level politicians talk about “rooting out corruption” lower down while public service trade unions indignantly demand large salary increases, saying there is no reason why their members should have to economize because of the corruption of others. None of these groups care that the growth in unemployment to all-time record levels means that social inequalities are worse than ever.

Politically the drama is that all these interest groups together constitute the ANC and telling any of these rent-seeking groups that they now have to pull their belts in is bound to have major political consequences. Usually these take factional form.

Since it is clear that not all these groups can be satisfied, the ANC now has to prioritise. This is very uncomfortable since it means that a hierarchy has to be arranged among all the constituent groups of the ANC coalition. It is clear that the Cabinet ministers and their deputies come right at the top – they have not yet been asked to make any sacrifices at all. Ramaphosa has also called for public sympathy for MPs, even though their incomes put them in the top 1%. Black businessmen also seem to be sacrosanct: the government continues to tighten BEE rules in their favour, even at the cost of creating further unemployment.

Below that a line has been drawn. Public service, municipal and SOE workers have all been asked to accept sub-inflation wage increases and thus far, at least, a number of SOEs (Denel, the Land Bank, the Post Office etc) seem to have been abandoned to their own devices. In fact, despite earlier assertions to the contrary, public service workers haver again been shown an extraordinary degree of favouritism. Despite the fact that they are the best paid workers in the country, the government has now made them an adjusted pay offer worth an extra R18 billion. This deliberate increase in social inequality – to be funded by budget cuts affecting less favoured groups – against the background of a raging epidemic and mass unemployment, is an extraordinary admission of where the ANC’s loyalties lie.

Meanwhile, ordinary taxpayers and ratepayers have been told to pay much higher rates in return for getting fewer and worse services. This will allow the corrupt municipal elites to continue to live in the style to which they are accustomed. Right at the bottom come private sector workers, many of whom have suffered job losses and pay cuts, and the poor and the unemployed, whose numbers continue to grow mountainously.

From all this data a certain number of theorems may be deduced:

1. Pan-Africanism is a delusion. Thus far Eritrea has split from Ethiopia, South Sudan from Sudan, Cape Verde from Guinea-Bissau, and Somaliland and Puntland from Somalia. The French have also got away with Djibouti becoming a separate country and Mayotte seceding from the Comores to become a department of France. Secessionist forces are alive again in Nigeria and the Tuaregs in Northern Mali will no doubt revive their plan for a separate Islamic state of Azawad once French troops leave. Further splits loom elsewhere, including, possibly, South Africa. There will be no unity.

2. All the features of the South African situation have been seen elsewhere: an African nationalist movement which destroys its own country, the build-up of debt, the bankrupt SOEs etc. But South Africa has two original features: a large middle class which can be soaked with taxes to provide an extra source of loot and a strong populist left which has kept the government focused on socialist alternatives. Both these factors have slowed the ANC’s accommodation with market forces.

3. The biggest question mark hangs over the heads of the poor and unemployed. The ANC bewails poverty and inequality but these are mainly crocodile tears: in practice such unfortunates have the lowest priority of all. South Africa’s High Commissioner in London, Nomatemba Tambo, was recently asked by BBC TV about South Africa being the most unequal country in the world. She said it took time to undo the heritage of apartheid – a classic ANC response. In fact poverty and inequality have got far, far worse under ANC rule. To be fair, Ms Tambo, who grew up in London and still lives there, and also has an English accent and a British passport, may be genuinely ignorant of that.

4. In the end, of course, South Africa will make the same rapprochement with market forces as the rest of the continent but the resistance to this has been protracted. This process began with the privatisation of Telkom and now of SAA and the invitation to the private sector to participate in the running of the ports and railways. The decision to allow companies and cities to generate their own power is the beginning of the privatization of electricity. In some cases SOEs have simply gone bust – SA Express and PetroSA, for example – and the private sector will simply take over the vacated spaces.

5. Occasionally one hears declarations that there will be a state bank, a state pharmaceutical industry and other large new state enterprises such as NHI. Most, probably all, of these things will not happen. Such proposals belong with bullet trains and new, smart cities.

6. As with many African countries, the speedy Africanization of the civil service meant that the state rapidly became broken-backed. This, together with the low calibre of most ministers, corruption and policy errors, have meant that the government has struggled to administer the country. Mainly – and this is true at provincial and municipal level too – there is simply an absence of governance. The state has not yet failed as completely as has happened in some African countries but the trend in that direction is unmistakeable.

7. A glance at other African countries shows that elected and effective town councils are a great rarity. Typically, if they exist at all it is only in the capital. From that perspective we should expect the collapse of at least 200 of South Africa’s 257 councils. The key question is how quickly they will be wound up since they are all running up unpayable debts so the longer it is left, the worse the bad debt problem. Since a great deal of the debt is owed to water boards and Eskom, the state will have to bale out these institutions, causing a further squeeze on state resources. Other creditors are unlikely to be so lucky.

8. The closing down or collapse of municipalities will face the government with a dilemma. It can’t easily place them all under administration and that wouldn’t provide an answer anyway. And this would also mean the cutting off of resources to municipal elites, a large chunk of the ANC’s patronage network.

9. Once that shake-out has taken place we will be left with functioning municipalities in the Western Cape, in the other metropoles and a few other isolated cases. This will usher in an era of city states for there will be a large and continuing move to the metropoles and other towns that work. In practice each metropole will be surrounded by vast squatter camps – even bigger than now – and virtually all non-farm activity will be centred there. Cape Town’s comparative advantage will be a mixed blessing. As other towns fail more companies and people will flock to the Cape, increasing the pressure on resources (and probably the crime rate) there.

10. The next stage after that will probably see the collapse of several of the metropoles and remaining larger towns. This will further accentuate the comparative advantage of the Western Cape but – as above – that is likely to bring a population stampede which will have considerable disadvantages too.

11. A truthful reading of Africa’s history since independence reveals a very different picture than that presented to us by the spinners of its mythology. Very few of the leaders of independence were democrats and almost all of them became enormously rich. Have a glance at Paul Kenyon’s Dictatorland. The Men Who Stole Africa. Those early “heroes” also presided over ever-increasing inequalities. We shouldn’t be surprised if South Africa follows suit. The answers are all in history. And Africa’s history is not a fairy story in which the Great Men of Independence vanquish colonialism. It’s a whole lot more complicated and serious than that.

12. Finally, one should note an extraordinary confusion about South Africa’s independence. One not uncommonly hears references to “when we got our independence in 1994” – I have even heard a South African ambassador say this. But the confusion is not restricted to the ANC. For example, in a comment on my previous article a Mr Jack Klok, who does not appear to be an ANC supporter, wrote that “South Africa did not become independent in 1910. It received self-rule. Its foreign policy was controlled by Great Britain and its judicial system was subservient to that of Britain. South Africans had no say in the matter when instructed by Britain to declare war on Germany in 1914 and 1939.”

This is quite wrong. In practice self-rule inevitably meant that South Africa had to be treated as virtually independent even in the First World War. Botha and Smuts – two Boer generals who had recently fought the British - both served in the Imperial War Cabinet which meant that they helped determine war policy for the entire British Empire. And as one can see, they largely limited South Africa to actions elsewhere in Africa – in German South West Africa, Tanganyika, and as part of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (in Palestine). Only the 1st South African Brigade saw service in France.

In fact the First World War saw the growing independence of all the Dominions, a fact recognised at the Imperial Conference of 1926 by the Balfour Declaration, guaranteeing the complete independence and equality of the Dominions (proposed by General Barry Hertzog and Mackenzie King of Canada). This in turn became part of the Statute of Westminster in 1931 which gave full legal form to that independence.

Thus there was no question of Britain or anyone else “instructing” South Africa to go to war in 1939. South Africa made all its own decisions. Smuts again served in the Imperial War Cabinet and South Africa again largely confined itself to military actions in Africa (Ethiopia, North Africa and Madagascar) with its sole contribution elsewhere being in Italy.

Finally, South Africa gained complete judicial independence in 1910 with the establishment of the Appellate Division as the supreme court of appeal. In theory appeal could still be made to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London but in all the years 1910-1950 (when that system was abolished) permission was given for such appeals in only seven South African cases.

So, in practice South Africa has been independent for 111 years. If you want to be strictly legalistic you could say 90 years.

Perhaps the most important contemporary point, though, is that, while the ANC government may still focus on socialist-inspired schemes, its socialism is just as fraudulent as transpired to be the case in most other African countries. In practice the ANC government has presided over the steady and steep increase in social inequalities, and has implemented policies which have the effect of increasing unemployment and thus the total sum of poverty in the country. As can be seen from the hierarchy of groups that the government now seeks to protect, it is really concerned with the welfare of only a narrow, upper stratum of black society.

There is a tendency among critics of the ANC government to inveigh against their “Marxism” and to take their professions of socialism seriously. This is a mistake. In most African countries African nationalist regimes have ended up as the defenders of a relatively narrow elite and South Africa has followed that model. This is obvious not only by looking at who are the winners and losers after 27 years of ANC government but from merely glancing at the government’s behaviour.

If the ANC was really concerned with the working class and the poor, would it really tolerate policies which produce such gigantic unemployment ? Of course not. Nor would it allow the constant devaluation of public education. Nor would there still be pit latrines or schools without proper facilities. This is not the way social democratic governments behave, let alone Communist ones.

The situation is complicated by the fact that the ANC itself is confused about its own trajectory. It has not studied or understood the recent history of Africa. It still lives in a dream world in which, for example, the Zanu-PF elite represent “revolutionary forces” when in fact they are corrupt, anti-democratic and more truly reactionary than the Smith regime was.

Similarly, ANC delegates to its national conferences will dress up in red T-shirts, sing revolutionary songs and indulge in much rhetoric about the poor, the working class and the revolution. Yet they know perfectly well that votes at such conferences are bought and sold, that many of their leaders have well-established reputations for wealth and corruption, that the car park at such conferences is full of extremely expensive cars – and that out there in society are over eleven million unemployed.

The red T-shirts, the songs and the rhetoric are empty rituals, in fact a sort of pantomime.

In practice we are ruled by a tight little racial oligarchy, just as we were under apartheid. The President is the second richest black man in the country and his brother-in-law is the richest. Jacob Zuma, whatever he may say, is also enormously rich. Ace Magashule, David Mabuza, Blade Nzimande – these are all wealthy men. No wonder there is so little sign of renewal in the ANC leadership: each position is worth its weight in gold.  

We should not be surprised by this. If you read and study the history of apartheid and the history of Africa since independence properly the answers are all there. This is harder than it sounds: there is such a determined mythology surrounding these histories and some of the greatest beneficiaries of the current dispensation actually believe some or even all of that mythology.

R.W. Johnson