How did this come to pass?

RW Johnson measures pre-1994 expectations of ANC rule against the current reality

Why are we surprised?

Although I did not resign my post in Oxford until 1995, from 1978 on during the Oxford Long Vacations I came out to Durban roughly every two years to teach a term at the University of Natal (now the University of KwaZulu-Natal), my alma mater. I grew up in Durban and remain deeply attached to the city and its province. These regular visitations enabled me to witness and experience many of the dramas of the 1978-94 period.

I have just returned from a week in KwaZulu-Natal in the wake of the disturbances which wrought such damage there. This led to the reflections below.

During the 1980s most of the academics at the University of Natal appeared to be United Democratic Front supporters, though this may have been a misleading impression. The UDF was dominant partly because its supporters were so assertive and outspoken. Supporters of the Progressive Federal Party/Democratic Party may actually have been more numerous but they tended to keep quiet and there were incidents in which DP tables at election time would be overturned.

In effect they were bullied by the more militant elements on campus. There was also a smattering of IFP supporters but the prevailing atmosphere was such that they kept their loyalties a close secret. So the prevailing political mood was set by the UDF and, after 1990, by the ANC.

This was also true at student level. Nusas, the National Union of South African Students, which had a long and proud liberal record, had gradually abandoned its political independence and decided to adopt the Freedom Charter and then joined the UDF, bringing it within the gravitational field of the ANC. This culminated in the dissolution of Nusas in May 1991 and its absorption into Sasco.

This was a major loss. Nusas ran a student health scheme, obtained discounts for students on a range of items, ran its own travel bureau, held debates, ran its own higher education programme for black students and generally provided a long list of activities and facilities. Nusas was also a key forcing house of the country’s educated elite. Its leaders became judges, journalists, parliamentarians, and ANC, Black Consciousness and liberal leaders. Sasco has never remotely emulated this. This has left not just student life but national life the poorer.

From 1983 on Natal was gripped by the war between UDF and IFP and, from 1990, between ANC and IFP. Most of the time there were around 50-100 fatalities a week, some of them within a stone’s throw of the campus. Inevitably this was very polarising. Naturally the prevailing view was very anti-Inkatha and anti-Buthelezi, both of whom were accused of fomenting violence. This was a clearly partisan view for it was obvious that both sides were equally guilty of violence. There was also, at that time, incessant talk of a sinister “Third Force” though evidence for its existence was thin, to say the least.

It was also sometimes argued that Inkatha had started the violence but this too made little sense simply because in 1983, when the UDF was launched, Buthelezi and Inkatha had been very much the force in political possession of Natal. All they needed to do was defend their position to stay in control. But if the UDF was going to overcome that dominance it had, inevitably, to be the attacker. Soon such distinctions were lost anyway as both sides settled down to a long, slogging Zulu civil war.

Most interesting now is the way the UDF forces – self-consciously representing democracy, non-racialism and a new South Africa – entirely failed to anticipate how the history they were part of would unfold. It was assumed that the UDF and its allies would ultimately vanquish both Inkatha and the Nationalists, and this, of course, was correct. But that was about all.

The University of Natal had been steadily improving its standards year by year and by the late 1980s it stood third after UCT and Wits in the rankings. This was quite an achievement for UN lacked the endowments of UCT or Wits and everything had to be done on a shoestring. It was generally assumed both by progressives and the apolitical that this upward path would be maintained, though with far more black faculty and students. In fact the late 1980s were to be the peak. Thereafter standards fell.

Throughout the 1945-90 period the English Department played a dominant role in the university – it was large, had many interesting faculty and enormous numbers of students. It was, in a sense, the soul of the campus. Today the department has ceased to exist as an independent unit. History too has virtually vanished. The whole university now has only 700 white students and a somewhat larger number of Indians. It is over 80% black African.

The university was all but wrecked during the authoritarian Vice Chancellorship of William Makgoba and large numbers of its best faculty fled. Many were deeply alarmed by Makgoba’s aggressive campaign of Africanization, including the ludicrous attempt to enforce Zulu as a language of administration and instruction. He also left the university with a R2 billion debt which is, of course, impossible to pay off. Technically it has been bankrupt ever since. Inevitably, teacher:student ratios have deteriorated, causing a further decline in standards. In retrospect the late 1980s looks like a lost golden age. The university has been far overtaken by Stellenbosch and probably by others.

Not only was this decline not foreseen but no one anticipated the aggressive campaign for everything African – Makgoba said he could only accept white academics who danced and sang like Africans – or the vindictive campaign against the many distinguished Indian academics at the medical school. The euphoric non-racialism of the UDF turned out to be a poor predictor.

At a dinner party around 1990 I voiced a worry about corruption in the ANC. I had seen enough in exile and knew enough about other African nationalist regimes to know that this was a very real danger. For this I was roundly denounced by the UDF academics at the table who could not conceive of such a thing and accused me of a foul slur on the liberation movement. That was the only time that I can remember anyone mentioning the subject of corruption. I was similarly denounced when I mentioned that maintaining an electricity supply might be a problem. Power cuts and corruption were alike unthinkable.

With the return from exile of the ANC in 1990 the university was alive with the enthusiastic expectation of ANC rule. A great deal of energy went into economic planning: it was assumed that ANC rule would see dramatic economic development and further industrialisation. On the one hand the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) went through many drafts and social scientists of all kinds slaved away developing wish lists of desirable social, educational, and economic developments to be included in it.

On the other hand there was MERG - the Macro Economic Research Group, another ANC initiative employing large numbers of leftish researchers both in South Africa and internationally. It foresaw a complete reconstruction of the South African economy, with a growth rate rising to 5% p.a. by 2004 and the creation of 300,000 jobs a year. MERG’s assumptions were of the “developmental state” variety and the issue of business confidence was ignored.

As we know, all this came to nought. The RDP was quickly wound up and MERG’s lofty ambitions were never realised. No one foresaw the reality: the turn to Mbeki’s GEAR project in 1996, the continued reliance on extractive industry, continuing de-industrialisation, very slow growth and ever-mounting unemployment.

By the early 1990s there was already alarm in academic circles over the approaching menace of Aids, then seen mainly in Uganda but gradually making its way down the continent towards us. I read all I could about it and several times gave warning lectures to student audiences for it seemed clear that many among those audiences might die of Aids. This met with little response. Mainly the audiences greeted what I had to say with frank disbelief but on each occasion a number of black students showed their disapproval by ostentatiously walking out.

Looking back, this was a warning of the likely prevalence of Aids denialism but, of course, it occurred to no one that the ANC leadership itself might lead the denialist response. Nowadays people associate that mainly with Mbeki but the fact is that Mandela remained silent about Aids for several years, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the ANC’s first Minister of Health, largely ignored it, and Mbeki had many supporters and cheer-leaders within the cabinet and the party.

Back in those UDF days the three leading ANC figures on the campus were Alec Erwin, Ian Phillips and Mike Sutcliffe. By the 1990s Alec was mainly preoccupied with endless re-drafting of the RDP, while Ian was much involved with SACP planning for the “massification” of the universities (which has indeed occurred, with dire results). In effect massification has undermined the hoped-for role of universities in producing new young black elites in every walk of life. Instead, they produce huge numbers of semi-literate “graduates” seldom able to hold their own in any competitive field. This is a key reason for the failure of the ANC elite to renew itself.

Mike Sutcliffe presented himself as an expert on local government and was responsible for drawing up the boundaries of the country’s new 278 municipalities. Much of this has turned out to be disastrous because many of the municipalities that Mike dreamt up have never been remotely viable economically.

Indeed, the new municipal dispensation was to see the ruin of much of small-town South Africa. Even a good-sized city like Pietermaritzburg is now under administration for the second time. Looking back it is obvious that far stricter financial controls were required to prevent abuse but in the era of liberation no one was much interested in that. No one foresaw the catastrophe which was to overtake local government.

The KwaZulu-Natal which I have just revisited is, of course, now deeply scarred by the unrest and looting which occurred in July. No one in the UDF era would have imagined that anything like that might take place, let alone that there would be trouble between the African and Indian communities which has stirred bitter memories of 1949.

Indeed, every element of the disturbances would have been unimaginable in that hopeful era of impending liberation. Who would then have predicted such vicious factionalism within the ANC, the open defiance of the rule of law and the attacks on judges – led by a previous president and ANC leader? Who would have guessed that there would be such open tribal mobilization within the ANC?

Another feature of contemporary life which would have astonished the UDF supporters of the 1980s is the almost complete erosion of deference to the ANC. In that era the ANC leadership was endowed with almost God-like status. We were told all the time that it occupied “the moral high ground” and many of its leaders displayed a striking arrogance. The ANC was, moreover, seen as not just united but as a monolithic force bound by an iron discipline. Journalists were wary of any criticism, even by implication, of these moral and political giants.

All that has gone. Journalists of every stripe pour scorn on ANC ministers, pointing out their stupidity and incompetence. President Ramaphosa is continuously mocked for his weakness and evasions. The idea that the ANC occupies any sort of moral high ground is laughable. Indeed, as soon as a national health fund or a state retirement fund is proposed a chorus goes up that any such pools of capital are bound to get looted, for it is assumed that ANC leaders and their civil servants are quite normally crooks. Moreover, whereas such assumptions would once have met with angry rejoinders from the ANC, today they provoke little protest for examples of ministerial graft are too present to everyone’s mind. Hardly anyone trusts the government and the government knows it. Yet who predicted that?

How to explain that almost nothing that has happened since 1994 was foreseen by that struggle generation of the 1980s? Or, to put it another way, why was the generation of that era so staggeringly naive? In part, of course, people then lived in a bubble of liberation euphoria. The more that people opposed apartheid the more they were willing to regard opponents of apartheid as heroes who could do no wrong, a foolish, indeed childish dichotomy.

Our strugglistas believed they were pointing the way to the future but in fact they got the future completely wrong, which is why the unfolding of history has had so many nasty surprises for them. Even today one can find many who believe they are building the “national democratic revolution” while in fact they are building a no-growth society with mountainous unemployment and steadily falling real incomes.

Secondly, there was a tendency to take ideology for reality. If the Congress movement preached non-racialism it was too easy to assume that it really was non-racial. Even when Mbeki indulged in racist diatribes against whites – a trend followed by all too many others in the ANC – one would hear the preposterous assertion that black people were somehow incapable of racism. This was pure ideological nonsense: black people are as human as the rest of us and just as capable of racism. Similarly, we were told that factionalism and tribalism were merely the result of manipulation by the apartheid regime rather than mundane facts of life.

All of this was greatly compounded by South Africa’s isolation and corresponding parochialism. Most South Africans, black and white, have little knowledge of the Africa beyond our borders, let alone of social movements elsewhere. If you look at most South African social scientists or historians you find that throughout their careers they have only studied and written about South Africa. Moreover, not only are South Africans thus passionately parochial but they are exhorted to become more so. Anyone who strays into showing interest in other societies will be told not to be “Eurocentric” or to “decolonize” their knowledge. This is a prescription for ignorance.

This is crucial for the most important knowledge with which to comprehend our recent history is a comparative knowledge of the history of other countries and movements, both in Africa and elsewhere. As long as we lack that we will continue to be surprised by the way our own society evolves and the more we will believe, naively, in South African exceptionalism. One should pay attention to the fact that those who demand the “decolonization” of knowledge are generally among the most ignorant while the best and brightest make no such demands.

Comparative history and comparative social science require a fair degree of sophistication, however, and the whole trend of university “transformation” is against that. All too often today the tone of campus controversies are set by the populist crudities of the EFF. An enormous amount of energy is wasted on purely symbolic issues such as names and statues. Standards have fallen across the board and ideology continues quite routinely to be mistaken for reality. Academics and administrators alike tend to run scared in front of demands for the “decolonization” of knowledge, although that is precisely the wrong way to go.

The result is thus likely to be that the Academy – and especially “progressive” academics – will continue in a parochial direction. Even today, after 27 years of liberation, there is not a good centre of African studies anywhere in the country so academics and students remain as ignorant as before about their own continent. Comparative history is nowhere taught. All the signs are, then, that the present generation of “progressive” academics will be just as hopeless as their predecessors in understanding the trajectory of their own society – and will be just as surprised, perhaps also unhappily, by the way our history unfolds.

R.W. Johnson