Getting SA out of the hole Mbeki dug for it

Hermann Giliomee reviews South Africa's Brave New World by R.W. Johnson

South Africa's Brave New World: the Beloved Country Since the End of Apartheid, by R.W. Johnson. Publisher: Penguin Books. R320

R.W. Johnson, the celebrated South African correspondent of the London Sunday Times, has for long been reviled by the left-wing for his caustic commentary on and analysis of  the South African political and social structure.

He combines the academic's emphasis on proper research with the high regard the journalist has for lucid communication.

Johnson's latest book, South Africa's Brave New World, is without doubt the most important analysis of the country to emerge since 1994.

The most important point he makes is that the steep decline the country has undergone is not attributable to Thabo Mbeki's neuroses (as Mark Gevisser argues in his biography) or feeble administration and incompetent ministers (as Brian Pottinger asserts in his The Mbeki Legacy.)  It is the thought processes of the ANC leaders and the system they created - with cadre deployment at the centre - is the core of the problem.

The system is a curious amalgam of the nationalist aspirations of African governments, that quickly produced a one-party or dominant-party state, and the democratic centralism of the East European dictatorships. In one of his seminal comments Johnson states that for the ANC leadership democracy is not a process but an event. It rules out the idea that the ruling could be unseated or even commit fundamental errors. All the matters is the retention of power.

In effect there are two books in one. One is the political thriller over mysteries such as the Smit murders in 1977, the Reserve Bank's life belt to Volkskas, Joe Modise's huge corruption and all Thabo Mbeki's attempts to bring  Jacob Zuma down. Johnson does not always offer convincing evidence and these parts, although scandalous and even breath-taking, should be treated with circumspection.

The real book however is a brilliant social-political analysis of the past 15 years. It is so strong that it is going to change the whole political debate over South Africa. I can think of only two in the same class: Heribert Adam's Modernising Racial Domination: South Africa's Political Dynamics (1971) and Donald Horowitz's A Democratic South Africa? (1991).

Brave New World wants nothing to do with ANC propaganda that South Africa must first overcome the devastating and fatal heritage of colonialism and correct decades of maladministration before South Africa can be rated as a success.

Colonialism certainly was cruel and unjust, but it also created the potential for a successful state. Successful states have been born in certain colonies, although there are still inequalities as pronounced as those in South Africa (Brazil), while others become failed states (Algeria and Zimbabwe). Helen Zille has appropriately warned that South Africa could be on the road to a failed state.

Toward 1976 South Africa was well on the road to becoming a successful state. On the world-rating list it had the 18th largest economy and it was the 15th largest trading country. A year or two ago, it fell to 28th and 37th on the list. What went wrong?

The books do not give attention to the pre-1994 period, but clearly the struggle between the government and the extra-parliamentary institutions had a lot to do with the weakening of the state.

To Johnson the core of the problem lies in the ANC leadership's attitude towards the politics, economics and cultural liberation that came from the 1960s and 1970s.

With their Soviet-style of party leadership came as well a romantic vision of Africa trapped in the 1960s. Thabo Mbeki saw the people of Africa as part of a discriminated Third World which should stand up to the First World to release themselves from political, economic and cultural inferiority and thralldom.

Also, the ANC uncritically took over fashionable theories in left-wing circles on matters such as education and land reform. It ended in disaster.

This was and is the world of Thabo Mbeki, the Pahad brothers, Joe Modise, Jacob Zuma and other exiles who returned in 1990. They believed that they understood everything and and could be taught nothing. Like the Bourbon monarchists of early nineteenth century it can be said of them that they had learnt nothing and forgotten nothing. As Paul Trewelha noted, Mbeki's conflation of party faction, party, government and the state is a replica of the situation of the ANC in exile.

Better than anyone before him, Johnson describes how Mbeki's view of the economic system, white racism and black demands led to a series of disasters. The much too rapid transformation of the public service broke the state, the desperate pursuit of black economic empowerment brought about heavy losses in mineral exports and job opportunities in the mining industry; solidarity with other liberation movements caused the disastrous Zimbabwe policy; a bizarre suspicion against the pharmaceutical companies led to the unpardonable Aids policy.

In various areas, South Africa in the past 15 years has declined; among others state institutions such as the national prosecution authority were hollowed out. It was the liberation struggle all over again. Seize control of an institution and make it your own pawn.

How does South Africa get out of the hole in which the Mbeki regime - which in reality lasted 15 years - landed it? Johnson is not an Afro-pessimist.

He argues that in the past three centuries South Africa experienced three waves of nationalism: British, Afrikaans and an African nationalism. Mbeki, more than anyone else, discredited the last one and that wave, too, has passed.

South Africa has two alternatives: a corrupt pseudo-democracy or a liberal state committed to the Constitution as the highest authority. Which one will gain the upper hand is presently not clear, but people have always underestimated the capacity of South Africans to find creative solutions to extricate themselves from a big mess. Johnson's Brave New World tells a somber tale, but in the last resort it is a hopeful book. The ability of South Africans, black and white, to shape a particular, more hopeful future must not be under-estimated.

Hermann Giliomee is an historian and political commentator. This is a translated and adapted version of an article which first appeared in Rapport, April 19 2009

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