The following is an edited version of the preface to the “Last Jacobins of Africa: The ANC and the making of modern South Africa” Politicsweb Publishing, 2020.
The manuscript you are about to read has been lying in a folder since January 2007 after it was ‘killed’ as a book by the publisher who had commissioned the work. It was the product of a decade-long attempt to make sense of the African National Congress in power. This had begun in earnest in 1997 when I, a 23-year-old graduate of the University of Cape Town, had been recruited by the political strategist Ryan Coetzee to join the Democratic Party’s research staff at Parliament.
At the time, the DP was led by Tony Leon and had seven seats in the National Assembly. Though this would change, the party had seemingly no great electoral prospects going forward. The ANC, by contrast, was at the height of its authority. It was politically, morally, and electorally dominant. To a low-level staffer with a minor opposition party, its leadership seemed to bestride the country’s politics like a colossus. Led by Nelson Mandela, it was, in the eyes of the world, the party embodying liberation, non-racialism and reconciliation. It was the main architect of a constitution hailed as ‘the best in the world’.
Mandela was then in the process of formally handing power over to Thabo Mbeki, having anointed him as his successor, in preference to Cyril Ramaphosa, three years earlier. As this transfer occurred I was able to observe events in South African politics from my base in the DP’s research and media office in the Marks Building in the parliamentary precinct. What was bewildering about the ANC at the time was the jarring disconnect between the party’s sainted reputation and the actions it was now taking.
An early example was the ANC’s position on race. One of my first tasks as a researcher was documenting the ruling party’s changing policies in this regard. In a statement released after voting on April 27, 1994, Mandela declared that South Africa was now entering a new era of ‘hope, reconciliation and nation building’.
His party’s priority, he said, would be to meet the basic needs of the masses — jobs, housing, healthcare, access to electricity, and so on. However, he added, ‘we are also concerned about the minorities in the country — especially the white minority. We are concerned about giving confidence and security to those who are worried that by these changes they are now going to be in a disadvantaged position.’ He then reaffirmed his famous 1964 declaration from the Rivonia trial: ‘I have fought very firmly against white domination. I have fought very firmly against black domination.’
Just three years later, the ANC government released a raft of White Papers and draft legislation declaring that the enforcement of ‘demographic representivity’ across all spheres and levels of endeavour was to henceforth be its central objective. In other words, all institutions, beginning with the public service, would be required to strictly conform to the racial proportions of broader society: at the time 75 per cent black African, 13 per cent White, nine per cent Coloured and three per cent Indian.
A basic grasp of arithmetic is all that’s needed to understand that this was a plan for mechanistically replacing white with black domination, or ‘African hegemony’ as the ANC described it. Enforcing such outcomes would also clearly require unending racial discrimination against the country's racial minorities. Yet this sudden reversal did not appear to cause any ructions in the liberation movement, certainly not of the sort one would expect from a party reneging on revered historic commitments. On the contrary, a 1998 DP document criticising this shift, The Death of the Rainbow Nation, was widely denounced from within the ANC and by their ideological allies in the media.
James Myburgh has self-published his doctoral thesis. Let me tell you, this book is one of - if not the - definitive analysis of the Mbeki presidency. It is brilliant. An absolute must read for anyone interested in politics. Available on Amazon here: https://t.co/km8IZMJ9Y9 pic.twitter.com/XFekILSAOC— Gareth van Onselen (@GvanOnselen) September 1, 2020
It was bewildering, too, to note the rapidity and ease with which the ANC bypassed checks and balances that had supposedly been enshrined in the 1996 Constitution. In 1997 and 1998, the ANC implemented a policy of cadre deployment whereby party loyalists would be ushered into all centres of power in society. The ANC caucus in parliament was also placed under the direction of the party’s National Working Committee. There was very little pushback in the media against any of this.
In late 1999 I put together a timeline documenting the implementation of this policy, which the Mail & Guardian picked up and then published across two pages on November 5, 1999. The other English-language newspapers were far more hostile about this work. In March 2000, the DP released a discussion document, All Power to the Party, which set out this policy more fully and outlined the degree to which ANC cadres now occupied almost all top level positions in the state. In their reaction, Business Day declared in an editorial that the DP was ‘guilty of McCarthyism’ for warning against cadre deployment and the capture by the ANC of all state institutions, including the supposed ‘watchdog’ ones.
It was only in early 2001, with the crushing by the ANC leadership of the parliamentary inquiry into the arms deal (as later described by former ANC MP Andrew Feinstein in his 2007 book, After the Party: A Personal and Political Journey inside the ANC), followed by the police investigation into Mbeki’s rivals, including Ramaphosa, that there was a partial awakening to the dangers of the centralisation of power that had occurred.
What was most inexplicable, though, was Thabo Mbeki’s approach to HIV/Aids. In late 1999, a few months after being elected South African President with a resounding democratic mandate, Mbeki embarked upon a project to question and challenge the scientific consensus around the disease. This was as his government persisted in their refusal to allow the provision of anti-retroviral drugs within the public health system for the prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV and as a post-exposure prophylaxis for rape victims.
Numerous theories circulated at the time as to Mbeki’s motives. While the race and centralisation policies of the ANC could be interpreted as being in alignment with a nationalist project designed to advance the historically deprived majority, here the party appeared to be acting directly against the most critical interests of ‘the people’.
In the 1999 elections, the DP overtook the New National Party as the official parliamentary opposition on the strength of its effective opposition to the ANC. The DP then entered into an alliance with the NNP, as the junior party, to govern the Western Cape. The two parties then merged to contest the 2000 local government elections as the Democratic Alliance. The union appeared to pay off electorally, but within a year the DP leadership found itself engaged in a struggle with the national NNP leadership for control over the new party.
In mid-2001, I was accepted to study for an MSc and then DPhil in Politics at St Antony’s College in Oxford under the supervision of Professor William Beinart. I began my studies in October, shortly before the NNP leadership withdrew from the DA and went into an alliance with the ANC, precipitating a crisis from which the DA would take years to recover.
The ANC’s actions, during the early years in power, had been wrapped in a fog of uncertainty and obfuscation, and the challenge for the opposition was to scent out sufficient truth to be able to oppose them effectively. As a DP researcher, I had done my best to document and contest these policies without fully understanding what lay behind them. The driving purpose of my doctoral dissertation, as it developed, would be to explain what I had witnessed in my four years at Parliament.
How could the pluralistic, non-racial ANC of Mandela be reconciled with the centralist, racially- driven ANC of Mbeki? Why was a civil society once so outspoken before 1994 largely unwilling to mount an effective response to this agenda? What could explain the irrationality of the ANC on HIV/Aids, and the unfolding Zimbabwe crisis, from an organisation that had managed the transition from white rule with such hard-nosed realism, patience and political skill?
My faith in South African exceptionalism was thoroughly shattered at an early stage in my doctoral studies. The ANC, I would learn, was but one of many ‘anti-colonial’ nationalist movements of an era — all sharing a similar ideology. There had also, obviously, been many other shifts from colonial or white rule. Although South Africa’s occurred late — after the collapse of Soviet communism — it was the similarities between these transitions, rather than the differences, that were often the most striking.
It was common, for example, that such movements pursue a temporary policy of ‘reconciliation’ immediately on coming to power. Thabo Mbeki’s signature idea of an African Renaissance, or rebirth, was also intrinsic to African nationalist ideology. While the Mbeki leadership was avoiding certain mistakes, by abandoning nationalisation and keeping a tight grip on public finances for example, it was repeating others. In particular, the ANC had, within a few years of coming to power, largely dismantled the ‘merit-system’ in civil service appointments in favour of a patronage-based one.
What complicated this intellectual project was separating the ANC as it really was from the ANC that its Western sympathisers and apologists wished, or pretended, it to be. I initially thought there may be a hid den internal opposition to the direction Mbeki had taken the ANC on race and centralisation, but it soon became apparent from the interviews I conducted that these had enjoyed consensus support within the movement. Economic and fiscal policy was another matter.
As I went back through the ANC policy and strategy documents from the early 1990s it became evident that, from the outset, the ANC had been working towards certain predetermined objectives through different stages. The assurances and concessions made in each stage were never meant to provide a permanent obstacle to the attainment of those longer-term goals. Although I was familiar with ANC ideology from carefully reading the party’s strategy and policy documents in the late 1990s, I did not fully understand it.
Up until 1990, the literature, pamphlets and leaflets of the ANC and SACP had been banned, and it was illegal to have them in your personal possession in South Africa. There was no such prohibition in the United Kingdom and the St Antony’s College library had a full collection of back issues of the SACP journal, the African Communist. The library itself was a converted chapel and these journals were located on the open shelves, not the stacks, in what had once been the apse. I was working at a nearby desk one day when I started leafing through old copies from the early 1960s in search of information about another topic.
There, in the African Communist of January 1963 was a document titled The Road to South African Freedom: Programme of the South African Communist Party. Adopted at a party conference in Johannesburg in October 1962, it laid out in systematic fashion the two foundational concepts of modern ANC ideology: Colonialism of a Special Type and the National Democratic Revolution.
As I read through this document all sorts of puzzles around the ANC in power started resolving themselves. One could immediately recognise its profound influence on Mbeki’s political thought, including his famous ‘I am an African’ and ‘Two Nations’ speeches. The ‘immediate tasks’ of the National Democratic Revolution, as set out in 1962, clearly informed many of the policies being implemented by the ANC in power more than three decades later. This was even as the planned transition to socialism had been discarded. Once one understood this nationalist ideology, and the means by which the liberation movement sought to realise it following the collapse of communism (through stages), then the ANC’s actions in power became not just explicable, but predictable.
What though of Thabo Mbeki’s stance on HIV/Aids? In late June 2000, Tony Leon had appealed in parliament to President Thabo Mbeki to provide for the provision of AZT to rape victims as a post-exposure prophylaxis, or PEP, against HIV. Leon had then followed this up with two short letters. In a reply of several pages, dated July 1, Mbeki rejected Leon’s public and private appeals that such treatment be made available in the public healthcare setting. Leon was on holiday in Israel at the time, and it was largely left to the party’s health researcher, Julia Frielinghaus, and myself, to come up with a response.
This was no easy task. Mbeki had been immersing himself in the scientific literature around HIV/Aids for several months. He was a formidable ideologue, unchallenged intellectually within the ANC, and he was still unreflectively supported by much of the media, even on this issue. However, a few months before, the ANC of Mbeki had submitted a document on racism in the media to a South African Human Rights Commission inquiry.
This document argued that there existed a kind of eternal, and all-pervasive white racism, which informed the media’s reporting on the ANC government. In support of this contention the document quoted extensively from JM Coetzee’s 1999 novel, Disgrace. It also employed quotes from Afrikaner nationalist politicians from the segregation and early apartheid-eras. I was familiar with these from my South African history studies at UCT and knew that there were parts of these quotes that undermined the thesis, and these had simply been omitted.
In his letter to Leon, Mbeki quoted extensively from a United States Centre for Disease Control report from 1998 on the management of nonoccupational exposure to HIV. Yet again, Mbeki quoted those parts of this document which supported his argument while cutting out those which clearly contradicted it. In Leon’s reply, then we then quoted these, in full, back at Mbeki, writing:
“… the CDC is not referring to rape or consensual sex when it states that PEPs are not "justified for exposures that pose a negligible risk of transmission." Rather, it is referring to contact between infected body fluid and intact skin. This would be clear had you quoted the whole sentence from the CDC report, which reads, ‘Because PEP is potentially toxic, its use is not justified for exposures that pose a negligible risk of transmission (e.g. potentially infected body fluid on intact skin.)’ (My emphasis.) This is just one example of where you have pruned quotes to make them fit your argument. Elsewhere you quote the CDC report as saying ‘Post-exposure antiretroviral therapy should never by administered routinely or solely at the request of a patient. It is a complicated medical therapy, not a form of primary HIV prevention. It is not a “morning-after pill…”’ (your emphasis). Yet you omit to mention that the report continues (from precisely the point where you left off) ‘but, if proven effective, can constitute a last effort to prevent HIV infection in patients for whom primary prevention has failed to protect them from possible exposure.’ (My emphasis) Reading through your letter I had the strong feeling that you have reached your conclusions already. You then selectively choose quotes to support your argument, and ignored others that didn’t. If the quotes do not quite fit your purposes you lop off the awkward parts.”
Leon signed off on the final draft from Tel Aviv. In his letter Mbeki had suggested that the correspondence be made public, and we then handed his letter and Leon’s reply to the Sunday Times which published both, in full, that weekend. In its editorial on the exchange the Mail & Guardian commented the following week: ‘An analysis of the president’s letter by Leon, in response, points to a distortion of fact by way of contextual manipulation which, if used by a second-hand car salesman, would verge on the fraudulent.’
The correspondence continued, and during my research for further responses I began seriously exploring Mbeki and Health Minister Nkosazana Zuma’s earlier involvement in a putative Aids cure called Virodene in 1997 and early 1998. Though this seemed to have fizzled out by late 1998, the contrast between Mbeki’s approach to Virodene and AZT was jarring. A section in Leon’s final letter to Mbeki put it this way:”
“On AZT and Virodene you have taken the following contradictory positions: AZT is a ‘toxic danger to the public health’ but Virodene is a ‘mercy treatment’; Aids sufferers are ‘morally entitled’ to Virodene but doctors should not be allowed to prescribe AZT to rape survivors; Glaxo Wellcome is driven solely by a concern ‘to increase the sales of AZT’ but the owners of Virodene were seeking ‘good for all humanity’; and arguing for off-label use of AZT is a ‘violation of the law’, but the refusal by the MCC to allow Virodene to be tested on Aids sufferers are the ‘cruel games of those who do not care’.”
In October 2000 the full correspondence was tabled in parliament, and at around the same time it was announced that Mbeki was withdrawing from the debate around the disease.
Shortly after arriving in Oxford, I was contacted by Drew Forrest of the Mail & Guardian with a request for assistance on an analysis he was working on. Mbeki’s defenders in the Presidency went to great lengths to stir up confusion around Mbeki’s real views — and were disputing that the president had ever denied a causal connection between HIV and AIDS — and Forrest was seeking material to refute them.
I sent through a document of Mbeki’s most significant prior statements, which Forrest drew on heavily, but not exclusively, for his analysis. I had also recently picked up on a lecture that Mbeki had delivered at the University of Fort Hare on October 12, 2001, and I included this as well. It had been reported in a local newspaper, the Daily Dispatch, but its significance had passed unnoticed in the media otherwise.
Taking aim at the Treatment Action Campaign, who were moving into direct opposition to the ANC government over its continued failure to supply anti-retrovirals through the public healthcare system, Mbeki declared that ‘others who consider themselves to be our leaders take to the streets carrying their placards, to demand that because we are germ carriers, and human beings of a lower order that cannot subject its passions to reason, we must perforce adopt strange opinions, to save a depraved and diseased people from perishing from self-inflicted disease.' He continued, 'Convinced that we are but natural-born, promiscuous carriers of germs, unique in the world, they proclaim that our continent is doomed to an inevitable mortal end because of our unconquerable devotion to the sin of lust.’
The Mail & Guardian reported on this speech on October 26, 2001, in an item buried on page four under the headline, ‘Mbeki in bizarre Aids outburst’. Forrest also included it in his feature article. I then forwarded this to the United States-based journalist, Andrew Sulli van, who then posted an item on it on his Daily Dish weblog. The following week, the New York Times commented in an editorial that Mbeki’s ‘misunderstanding’ of Aids appears ‘to be rooted in a defensiveness about race’:
“In one speech, he said that those advocating Aids treatment viewed black people as ‘germ carriers and human beings of a lower order’. Many politicians in Mr Mbeki's African National Congress disagree with him. But virtually none speak out publicly, a testament to Mr Mbeki's unhealthy level of control. Even Nelson Mandela seems reluctant to challenge him on this issue.”
Perhaps stung by such criticism, Mandela would also move into opposition to Mbeki on this issue in early 2002. He would also give the green light to his powerful network of international sympathisers to allow criticism of Mbeki over this.
Every serious journalistic or academic effort to make sense of Mbeki’s approach to HIV/Aids subsequently would refer back to these Fort Hare remarks. The consensus that developed and hardened was as follows: Mbeki had persistently blocked and then obstructed the provision of anti-retrovirals as he was an Aids dissident or ‘denialist’ — a school of thought which regarded ARVs as toxic as the condition they were supposed to treat — and he was an ‘AIDS denialist’ because he viewed the standard scientific interpretation of HIV/Aids as an expression of Western racial prejudice against black people.
Subsequently, bits and pieces of information emerged pointing to the fact that the Virodene project had not died in 1998 as I had assumed. The Wall Street Journal reported in 2001 that trials of Virodene were being conducted in Tanzania. And in the middle of 2002, Rapport and the Mail & Guardian reported that the ANC seemed to have been involved in funding those trials, and there had been a fallout among the developers of the drug for some reason.
In 2005, towards the end of my doctorate, I set up a weblog called ever-fasternews.com with the legendary South African journalist Stanley Uys. At the time, there had been concerted efforts to salvage Virodene and a website had been set up to promote the drug, which contained extensive material on the Phase 1 and Phase 2 trials that had been conducted. We ran stories on Virodene’s unexpected emergence from the dead, as well as on a rival Virodene clone called Imunoxx that was being sold in Namibia at the time.
In my doctorate, I had initially hoped to come up with some deeply profound and turgid theory of everything. But one discipline I learnt from my supervisor, William Beinart, as well as from my former professor at UCT, Hermann Giliomee, both leading historians, is that theory should not be used as a substitute for piecing together what happened, in the order that it happened. In then laying out one’s thesis one should not ‘disturb the chronology’ by jumping back and forth in time.
It became increasingly clear to me that the ‘standard’ theory of Mbeki’s approach to HIV/Aids, which I had earlier helped promote, got things backwards. As I wrote in a piece on ever-fasternews.com on September 8, 2005:
‘The problem with the idea that Mbeki opposed anti-retrovirals because of denialism is that it does not explain why the ANC took against these drugs in the first place. The chronology simply does not fit. In addition, the arguments first presented for refusing to provide these drugs were shifting and contradictory. While Mbeki did eventually buy into the denialist paradigm, he probably first seized on their arguments for opportunistic reasons.'
Another lesson I learnt at the time was that the greater the handle you have on a given subject — and the more information you have to ‘trade’ — the more willing people will be to share information with you. I was now able to make a number of breakthroughs in my investigations into the secret history of Virodene.
I was ultimately able to piece together how their deep involvement in Virodene had first led Mbeki and Nkosazana Zuma into blocking the provision of AZT, and then, several months later, to Mbeki’s introduction to the writings of the AIDS dissidents. I was able to establish what had led to cabinet’s sudden decision to relax their opposition to such treatment.
By late 2005 I had completed a rough but unsatisfactory draft of my dissertation. I then rewrote it completely in early 2006 to meet a final submission deadline in March, with both Stanley Uys and Hermann Giliomee providing detailed comments, in addition to those I received from Beinart.
Its title was The African National Congress under the Presidency of Thabo Mbeki (1997-2002). The dissertation begins by explaining, in Chapter One, the origins of the ANC’s political thought, and the concepts of Colonialism of a Special Type and National Democratic Revolution. Chapters Two to Four explain how the liberation movement successfully negotiated its way into power, effectively bypassing key constraints of the transition, even as it held fast to the ultimate objectives of this national revolution.
Chapter Five sought to explain inter alia the weakness of civil society’s response to centralisation. Chapter Six explained why the ANC’s agenda was ultimately doomed to failure. Chapters Seven and Eight, meanwhile, documented the ANC government’s response to HIV/Aids between 1997 and 2002 starting with the involvement in Virodene.
Due to various snafus, beginning with a prolonged academic staff strike in the United Kingdom, it took several months for Oxford University to bring the examination process to completion, and for me to be finally and formally admitted to the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy.
In 2004, NB Publishers, a division of Naspers had, somewhat naively, signed me up to turn my dissertation into a book. This was done on the basis of the two initial chapters I had written for my Confirmation of Status at Oxford University, which had impressed the Afrikaans journalist Chris Louw, who had been asked for his comment on them. These formed the basis, in redrafted and improved form, for the Introduction as well as Chapters Two to Four of this book.
My initial draft manuscript of late 2005 was not up to scratch and this met with a much cooler response. I did not object to this, as I myself was not happy with this draft. In August 2006, after I had passed my viva, I met again with NB Publishers and received an enthusiastic response about going ahead with publication. For some reason, the manuscript was however then referred to two other readers for their comments. The question they were asked was whether the manuscript was ‘readable’ enough to appeal to the general public.
To justify publication the book would have to sell all of 3 000 copies over an 18-month period. In December 2007, Thabo Mbeki would be seeking a third term as ANC President, and an analysis of his ideology and his first term as party leader would clearly be of public interest in the run-up to that contest. It was important, I felt at the time, that the public knew the secret history behind Mbeki’s Aids policies.
After a long silence I was sent copies of the two reports in January 2007. Both argued against publication. The readers were not identified – and I do not know their names - so I will refer to them as Reader One and Reader Two.
Reader One's report consisted of four pages of single-spaced writing. He said he would not dispute the factual accuracy of what I had written and would assume that this complied with the highest standard. He acknowledged that the text contained a ‘wealth of information’, and that the ‘attentive reader’ was rewarded with well-structured arguments and a clear logical structure of presentation.
But he then devoted himself to carefully arguing that there would be no public interest in the substance of almost anything that I had written. He proceeded to turn the virtues of the manuscript into vices: it was too factual, too detailed, too exhaustive, he wrote.
It dealt with the historical origins, not the contemporary politics of 2006, and any book with ‘Mbeki’ in the title had to focus on the latter. I had sought to debunk the simple-minded Western view of the ANC (as ‘liberal democrats’) by carefully quoting the ANC’s own internal documents, and this too, Reader One had held against me.
On the substance of what I had written, only the chapter on Mbeki’s Aids ‘denialism’ was worth anything. He pooh-poohed my chapter on Virodene as something already ‘largely forgotten’ and too ‘detailed’. It should, he wrote, be subsumed into the subsequent chapter. Otherwise, he argued, I should write a completely different book, dealing with the political events of the day.
Reader Two took a different tack in his three-page, 1.5 spaced report. The manuscript, he stated, was ‘extremely well written and an insightful piece of work. Academically it seems very sound and politically it is, in its own quiet way, dynamite.’
The insights I had provided, he added, ‘offer the reader a way of looking at the ANC during this period which makes substantially more sense than any political commentary that I have previously had the opportunity of reading’. The chapters dealing with Mbeki’s involvement in Zimbabwe, HIV/Aids and Virodene were ‘fascinating’.
He noted further that, ‘make no mistake, this is not a sympathetic investigation into the machinations of the ANC’:
“The author sets out the ideology, points up the inconsistencies and the flaws and then proceeds to show how this ideology, once implemented on the ground, fails. In addition he then shows how this ideology (embodied by the president himself) is unable to connect with the reality of any given situation due to its overwhelming need to attain certain, unattainable and wrongheaded, goals. So, if a publisher were to consider this manuscript seriously, it would be considered as something of a sensational publication. Certainly I can see that it would raise hackles in the ANC and, certainly, there are many many people who, for whatever reason, would find themselves drawn to read such a book and agree with what they found inside.”
He concluded though by suggesting that my early chapters opened me to a ‘certain amount of criticism’. Were I to revisit these in 2019 — the endpoint by which the ANC planned to implement its national revolution — ‘then I feel the resulting book would be seen as a critical analysis of the ANC in government’. However, Reader Two continued, ‘at present, there is an element of scaremongering bound up in this manuscript which could be seen as a reaction to the removal of privilege from the author’s ethnic group (although, I stress, this is not my view).’
He too then suggested that I just write a book on the here-and-now, and this would allow me to ‘escape some of the criticism’ that would ‘no doubt’ be levelled against me. Reader Two’s final recommendation was that he could not ‘recommend this manuscript as it stands for publication by a trade publisher’.
Reader One and Reader Two’s reports were self-evidently contradictory. Reader Two argued that the book was ‘dynamite’ and its publication would cause a ‘sensation', which ‘many many’ people would want to read. Reader One argued that there was absolutely no interest in almost anything that I had written. Reader Two correctly noted that I would come under severe criticism. I had thus clearly needed to lay out the factual basis for what I was claiming.
Reader One by contrast argued that I shelve the project ‘for a period of time sufficiently long’ in order to forget the ‘nitty-gritty facts’. Reader Two’s argument was, ultimately, that the book was too controversial to publish. Reader One’s that no one would want to read it at all.
NB Publishers endorsed the recommendations of the two that the book be killed. I never received an explanation as to how their arguments could be reconciled, or why there had been a complete turnaround as to the merits of those initial chapters, on which I had received the book contract in the first place. I was left with the lingering impression that the manuscript had, for some reason, turned into a hot (rather than unsellable) potato, which they were more than happy to drop.
In early 2007 I set up Politicsweb, initially in partnership with Alec Hogg’s Moneyweb. Building up this online publication, from nothing, was time-consuming and required unrelenting work. I was motivated in part, by this experience of being blocked from being able to publish important research by anonymous gatekeepers with opaque motives.
I was thus able to lay out my research on Mbeki’s AIDS denialism in a July 2007 article, and knock on the head the Presidency’s last gasp efforts to deny it. I followed this up with a five-part series in September 2007 setting out the findings of my research into the Virodene Affair. In December that year I attended the ANC’s national conference in Polokwane as a journalist where I witnessed Mbeki’s comprehensive defeat at the hands of a ‘coalition of the wounded’ led by Jacob Zuma.
With Mbeki’s departure, the manuscript seemed to become of mere historical interest. Preoccupied with the development of Politicsweb, I passed up on an opportunity to publish it as an academic book. I did not have the time to do the reworking that was needed — particularly to incorporate subsequent research I had done into the arms deal — and was by this point simply exhausted by the project.
Fragments of my research were published however as chapters in other books, and on Politicsweb itself. The unpublished manuscript was influential on those who read it. It informed, for instance, the understanding of the National Democratic Revolution by the FW de Klerk Foundation and Institute of Race Relations.
It was only recently that I thought about resurrecting the manuscript and publishing it. Firstly, because I now could do it through Politicsweb, via Amazon Kindle. Secondly, it seemed to have acquired new relevance. The second reader of the manuscript wrote that I had carefully put in place a critique of Mbeki (and the ANC’s) project setting out why this was ‘bound to end in the way that every other African “revolution” has’. This was an argument that was too inflammatory for Naspers to publish in 2006 or 2007 but, now that that project has indeed largely ended in failure, it seems worth returning to.
It is important for another reason. Most South Africans have, by now, grown up immersed in ANC’s racial ideology, and the Colonialism of a Special Type version of our past. This is what is taught in schools and universities, and what is propounded unthinkingly by much of the English-language media, and even by leading judges from the bench. A closely related racial ideology has, meanwhile, recently swept through British and American academia claiming a whole generation of younger Western intellectuals for its own. The ideology that has led South Africa close to the brink today is thus largely unchallenged from within or without.
Various myths have taken hold to in attempts explain South Africa’s predicament from within the ideological tradition responsible for it. One of these is that Nelson Mandela stabbed the revolution in the back in 1994. If only, the argument goes, he had pushed ahead with the dispossession of the white minority at the time, the ANC would have successfully ushered in the millennium by now. Another is that everything was going perfectly well until Jacob Zuma emerged — apparently from nowhere — to take power and send the revolution veering wildly off track.
Even where there is some critical understanding of the past this is very shallow. This was illustrated by the initial reporting on the ANC government’s hard lockdown in response to the looming Covid-19 epidemic. A popular narrative in the international press was that the ANC had learnt from the mistakes of Mbeki-era, on HIV/Aids, and was now doing things completely differently.
It somehow passed these journalists by that the minister in charge of managing the lockdown, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, was the same person who had so grievously mishandled the ANC government’s initial response to the Aids epidemic. It should also have come as no surprise, either, that an ANC that had once sought to profit from the AIDS pandemic, through Virodene, would also see Covid-19 as a money-making opportunity.
If you wish to understand the origins of South Africa’s current predicament, one needs to study the beginnings of the evils we witness today. This is especially the case as so few noticed them at the time. As Aristotle noted in Politics, ‘the mistake lies in the beginning — as the proverb says, “well begun is half done” — so an error at the beginning, though quite small, has the proportion of a half to the whole matter’.
Actions taken by the ANC, very soon after coming to power, account for a large proportion of the problems that the country is facing today. This relates especially to the dire quality of most government schooling, the dysfunctionality of the state, and the absence of effective checks and balances on government wrongdoing and the abuse of power.
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