ANC failure and the crisis of black identity

RW Johnson writes that the collapse of governance in SA is reopening old racial-psychological wounds

The threatened identity

I am a frequent contributor to PoliticsWeb and often my articles spark a large number of contributions by readers. In recent time these have distressed me. I don't at all mind being criticized. That is normal, even if some of those who do have weird ideas about a shark biting off one of my legs and so on.

What is distressing, frankly, is that often respondents settle down quite quickly into a hopeless and frankly racist dialogue, with some white correspondents essentially saying that Africans are all useless and ought to stay in the jungle - and some black respondents often almost incoherent with rage at these insults, offering equally racist imprecations against whites (including me). I am often embarrassed that I am getting support from white racists, when I actually deplore their sentiments. I have disliked racism all my life, white or black, and continue to do so. And of course, blacks are just as capable of racism as whites - all arguments to the contrary are nonsense.

Nonetheless, I would like to intervene on the black side, as it were. What I don't think is sufficiently realised is that what is happening in SA is also a huge crisis for black identity. This was - remember - supposed to be the miracle country. The praise heaped on SA in that period was a small, very small, reinforcement for black self-confidence after several centuries of being told that they were stupid, lazy, useless etc etc - there is no need to go through all those insulting epithets again. Inevitably, a lot of this contempt penetrated the black psyche, creating a huge inferiority complex in many cases, a lack of self-confidence and even self-respect.

In the case of many - perhaps most - black intellectuals the signs of these lacunae are very evident. In many cases they amount to a virtual self-hatred. As Frantz Fanon pointed out, this leads to a complicated set of psychological reactions. One very apparent one among black intellectuals is a sort of febrile egomania, a grandiosity, a striving not just to be acceptable but to be king of the castle. Inevitably this in turn leads to counter-productive behaviour, to failed initiatives, and to more hostility and contempt. And this is not just a problem for black people: by definition a problem affecting black people is a problem for all of us.

I was very conscious of this while writing my new book, How Long Will South Africa Survive? (I decided to re-use my old title of my 1977 volume, though it is a wholly new book.) The reason that the question arises, of course, is that the ANC government is now quite clearly running downhill towards disaster - in the book I suggest that this is likely to lead to a debt crisis and an IMF bail-out. That is to say, the ANC government, ushered in with so much fanfare in 1994, has ended in comprehensive failure. "South Africa can either choose to have an ANC government", as my book argues, "or it can have a modern industrial economy. It cannot have both."

The signs are all around us. The failure to build a single new power station in 21 years. The resultant and crippling power cuts. The complete collapse of many municipalities and the failure of many more to pay their utility bills. The fast developing crisis over water supply. The failure of the Post Office to pay its bills and thus its inability to deliver parcels overseas. The collapse of public health, education and police services. The utterly ragged state of the armed forces. Now we hear that Durban Harbour has been allowed to silt up with its main dredger unaccountably out of order. This last is a true emergency: it is doubtful that the country could carry on for many weeks if its main port is out of action.

It is obvious to one and all that none of these things failed under apartheid - or due to apartheid. They are all failures which have occurred under African rule. Such a crisis is bound to have many casualties but not least among them is the inevitable damage it will do - is already doing - to black self-respect and self-confidence. What the ANC has managed to do, after all, is to apparently prove correct many of the direst prophecies advanced by the racist far right in the run-up to 1990.

The resultant situation is experienced my many black intellectuals as virtually a threat to their identity itself. All the self-doubt, even self-loathing, comes flooding back at these evident signs of failure. Yet it is unbearably undermining just to conclude that Treurnicht and the pioneers of Orania were right. To avoid such a conclusion, to prevent anyone kicking away the last supports propping up black self-respect, the only apparent way is to re-double the frantic attempts to blame everything on whitey and on white racism.

This is a false path in every respect. It offers no solution. No matter what is said or proposed about whitey, the slide will continue. And in any case ANC failure is really not the same thing as the existential failure of the black race.

There is another way, which is to face up honestly to what has happened. The major blame, it should be seen, belongs to Mandela and Mbeki, not Zuma, for it was under them that the affirmative action was launched which has brought down the state and all other public institutions. BEE has hardly helped, either. These things have to be faced squarely, for unless they are reversed it is difficult to see how we can get out of our current mess.

But I do not expect anyone to be rational enough to listen to such notions. That is why I think a further slide towards an IMF bail-out is likely. That will be a moment of truth which no one will really be able to avoid.

RW Johnson