After the insurrection: some reflections

RW Johnson writes on the dangers of completely giving up on state protection, and other matters

Our recent national convulsion, the first great insurrection against the ANC government, in many ways similar to the inchoate rebellions of the apartheid period, though this time costing far more dead (330) and with far greater damage (at least R20 billion), seems to be over. There is though, a pervasive feeling that it could come again: the vast numbers of the unemployed, poor and hungry alone seem to guarantee that.

For the moment we are preoccupied with post-mortems and working out what exactly was the meaning of this convulsion. William Saunderson-Meyer, noting the complete absence, inefficacy and incompetence of the police, draws the moral; that we are all “on our own “. He congratulates the impromptu militias and community forces which helped contain the damage.

He is indubitably right about this but the moral would seem to be that we had all better acquire guns as quickly as possible since we may need to defend our families and communities in future. The state has made gun ownership hard and is trying to make it harder but clearly the moral is to “make a plan” in true South African fashion and get around that. Heaven knows, there are enough illegal weapons in circulation.

The people who came best out of the riots, after all, were the Indian communities of KwaZulu-Natal who saw trouble coming and armed themselves. In the weeks leading up to the explosion there was a great deal of light plane traffic in and out of Virginia Airport in Durban North, bringing in ammunition and guns from all over.

The Indian community had suffered badly in the 1949 riots and was determined not to allow that again. There is now a lot of worthy platitudes being emitted about this and especially the “Phoenix massacre”. Inevitably, Ramaphosa is offering all manner of bromides about how the violence was exacerbated by the residential segregation imposed by apartheid and how all good men should now stand together etc.

This is all very worthy but just doesn’t cut it. People in Phoenix protected their families and livelihoods as best they could. Anyone who knows that area knows that Indian shops there are barricaded with more gates, grills and defences than anywhere else in South Africa – but they are still relentlessly burgled and looted.

The truth is that the surrounding African population in Inanda and Bhambayi presses hard upon that Indian settlement and that its survival is a continuous struggle. As for blaming apartheid segregation, that is nonsense. The truth is that that segregation was the best defence the Indian community had.

The middle- and upper-class Indian settlements in Reservoir Hills and Westville were untouched. It was the lower-class settlements like Phoenix and the North Coast towns like Verulam, which live side-by-side with large African communities, which were most at risk. In true ANC style, Ramaphosa is trying to displace some of the blame onto apartheid but this is merely diversionary.

A consequence of the Saunderson-Meyer conclusion, entirely valid as it is, is that if we all rush out and, by hook or by crook, acquire powerful weapons, we then have to look around for a well-organised local militia to join. In this regard the most potent groups are those with the greatest social cohesion.

On the Durban Berea and a few other places this meant Indian Muslims: they set up and manned the barricades, with the ironic result that there were many white residents grateful to men chanting “Allahu Akbar” whom they would otherwise have seen as very threatening.

If it comes down to this, then of course the other cohesive and effective group will be Afriforum and English-speakers will find themselves joining up behind Afrikaner leadership, as has happened before.

On the Durban Bluff the community militia successfully beat off successive waves of would-be looters. This is an area which includes a tough Afrikaner population, willing to take no nonsense, and all other residents had cause to be glad of that.

The problem is that if we all look at the failing state and the hopeless police and decide that we are on our own, then we end up with a Lebanese situation of armed ethnic or religious enclaves and, ultimately, warlords.

Without doubt the rest of society will produce similar warlords, based on traditional chieftaincies, taxi associations or control of particular townships or squatter camps. Everything then comes down to negotiation between these various warlords, punctuated by intermittent wars between them.

Such warlords can, for a while, guarantee peace in a particular area but they can’t do anything to guarantee, for example, a reliable supply of water or electricity, let alone provide a stable currency, passports etc. So the longer such a situation goes on, the more that South Africa will resemble a Mad Max post-apocalyptic wasteland.

So while the resort to gun-ownership, militias and vigilantism may provide an immediate short-term answer, it is really just a stage in the disintegration of the national state. (Ramaphosa, of course, is already denouncing vigilantism but no one is listening to him.)

Moreover, while the Indians who acquired guns and ammunition ahead of time may have come out of this convulsion relatively well, nothing is more certain than that their opponents will learn the same lesson, which means that next time the Indian community will face much better armed assailants. Which, since the Indians are a savvy bunch, means that they will acquire more formidable armament: the logic of an arms race.

Other voices make other points. Helen Zille thinks it’s all about a change in the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the times. Between 2007 and 2015, she says, the DA could rely on “a strong supportive swell” because the Zeitgeiet was pushing towards the moderate non-racial political centre. But now it’s all changed, there is a vicious backwash pushing towards racial and identity polarization.

This, she believes, is part of an international change of mood instanced by Brexit in the UK and the culture wars in the US. As a result Mandela’s founding vision of the New South Africa, a nation based on a common non-racial brotherhood – lies in ruins, “the first casualty of the changing Zeitgeist”. She ends by reassuring her flock that Jannie Steytler’s dictum still applies, that South Africa would one day be governed by his Progressive Party’s principles because that was the only way it could be governed.

This is a strangely idealist (in the philosophical sense) explanation. Helen recently charged into action against wokeness, clearly believing that we were all part of a single cultural wave emanating from US university campuses. But it’s not really true. There is not much of a constituency for wokeness in South Africa.

The ANC looks elsewhere for inspiration and neither the EFF, the DA or the business community is keen on being woke. The only folk who might pick up on that sort of nonsense are a thin fringe of academic intellectuals but such bizarre things routinely happen on South African campuses these days that that just adds a little further spice to the passing show.

In any case explanations in terms of a Zeitgeist are, to put it gently, pretty dodgy. As the old saw has it, all politics are local politics. The American culture wars are rooted in the ever-growing chasm between metropolitan big city America and rural and small-town America, the consolidation of most of the highly educated behind the Democrats and most of the white working class behind the Republicans. There are some comparisons with Britain but none with South Africa.

In Britain if you look at the opinion survey data from the early 1960s on you will see a large and almost permanent majority against entry to the EEC/EU. Briefly, in the mid-1970s, a huge spending blitz by those favouring entry (who outspent the No side by 10-1) helped massage a brief Yes majority in the 1975 referendum. Thereafter the No majority reigned for at least three-quarters of the time. In that sense the Brexit vote in 2016 was always on the cards. There wasn’t anything really comparable in America, let alone South Africa.

In South Africa unemployment, poverty and inequality have increased steadily over a decade while per capita real incomes have equally steadily fallen. In any country this would produce an atmosphere of smouldering resentment and division which would, sooner or later, explode. There is, of course, absolutely no comparison with either Britain or America.

As for the difficulties of the DA these are actually mysterious. With the government failing so badly it should have been on a good wicket. Most of its difficulties in this period derive from incidents of self-harm such as the fiasco with Mamphela Ramphele and the further fiascos with Lindiwe Mazibuko, Patricia de Lille and Mmusi Maimane. These crazy ventures into identity politics robbed the party of its momentum and led to many high-profile departures. It has still not recovered.

Thus all these phenomena may be best explained by objective factors. Nobody needs to mention the Zeitgeist – which tends to be a residual explanation when all else fails.

Much more sensible is Ann Bernstein’s account of how we got to here. She denounces Ramaphosa’s “long game”, pointing out that not only has it failed but if it was based on an assumption that there was plenty of time left for reform, that was always a mistake. Moreover, Ramaphosa’s government “is characterised by drift, incoherence, incompetence, inattention and complacency”. Moreover, “the endless talk of compacts should be seen for what it is – a failure to lead”.

One sympathises. Ann’s Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE) has been based on the assumption that there is a space between government and business in which useful pragmatic ideas can be hatched and fed into the debate. CDE has been doing that for a quarter of a century but it is not clear that government has ever really listened. Ann has been quite tireless and she is a creative intelligence: she has every right to be fed up.

Now she rightly points out that the only way ahead is through the adoption of major structural reforms and much faster economic growth. She rightly says that business should stop cheer-leading the President and instead impress on him that it is now or never.

She rightly, in my view, believes that a Rubicon has been reached. She also, again rightly in my view, says that the R18 billion award to the public servants should be withdrawn and the money spent on reconstruction.

R18 billion would put KwaZulu-Natal on its feet again. How on earth can it be more important to hand that money to the best-paid group in the country whose wage increases have run ahead of inflation for over a decade? Why on earth, with over 11.4 million unemployed, is the government deliberately increasing inequality and provoking the anger and cynicism of the unemployed?

However, having quite correctly noted the cabinet’s deficiencies, Ann realises that it is no good urging these policies on the President unless he has is able to call upon much better people to help him work out these reforms and implement them.

“The president requires a vastly more competent, senior team around him.... we require an executive of leaders – competent people with experience in building teams that deliver, committed to market-oriented economic reform, to the constitution and seized with the urgency of achieving results”.

If that’s not clear enough, Ms Bernstein follows up – “SA needs a cabinet, senior officials, heads of state companies and institutions that comprise the very best the country can offer. The president has to look beyond the ANC if he is to deliver”.

Let’s be frank. Ann is not talking here about a coalition government of national unity with the DA. The DA doesn’t have people like that, or possibly just one, Alan Winde. The model is Andre de Ruyter at Eskom. What she’s talking about is several dozen of him, businessmen or women with proven track records of pulling around ailing companies, no nonsense pragmatists who will do whatever it takes. And as Ann makes clear, she’s not just talking about such men and women as ministers. They have to run the SOEs and displace the top civil servants as well.

Ann Bernstein is nobody’s fool. She makes this recommendation because she feels the situation is now so dire that only this will do. In all probability if such people were picked on merit they would be mainly, though not exclusively white. One remembers how a succession of allegedly able black men (they were always men) was put in charge of Eskom. None of them achieved anything. It was only in complete desperation that Ramaphosa turned to de Ruyter.

The trouble is, as Ann herself effectively admits, Ramaphosa simply doesn’t have the nerve to replace his cabinet wholesale like this and even if he did the ANC NEC would not accept it. In practice it would be depicted as a white return to power. For Ramaphosa to accept such a thing the country would have to be coming apart, with armed men not only surrounding his house but already in his bedroom.

In effect the Bernstein plan would be practicable only if something like it had been in operation ever since 1994, from Mandela on. In other words, there needed to be a true power-sharing government – not just one with a few clapped-out NP figures like Pik Botha – one in which the ANC learned the ropes over time.

For all that, the Bernstein proposal is realistic inasmuch as that is probably what is needed if the government is to regain control of a situation characterised by multiple runaway crises. But since that won’t happen we all have to assume that the government will not regain control and that the situation will continue to drift.

This does not, of course, exhaust the number of speakers who will seek to characterise the crisis and offer solutions. At the moment there is a whole raft of Left NGOs trying frantically to persuade us all that we can easily afford huge new amounts of social spending, funded either by printing money, by raising taxes to an impossible height or simply by cheating with the arithmetic.

What is striking about these proposals is that none of them suggest – more realistically – that such measures could be funded by redistributing resources away from the public service workers or by abolishing BEE. In effect these groups and policies are regarded as sacrosanct.

It is in the nature of crises such as the one the South African state now faces that there will be this cacophony of voices and proposals. In practice only a few new measures will be adopted and they will probably be among the simpler ones. Meanwhile it would be sensible to try to work out what would be the consequences for your community of continued drift and state failure, for that is, virtually certainly, what you are going to get.

R.W. Johnson