The following is an excerpt from RW Johnson’s autobiography “Foreign Native: An African journey”, published by Jonathan Ball.
The New South Africa dawned amid considerable euphoria, with Mandela lionised as a sort of living saint. I felt curiously mixed. I was delighted to see the end of apartheid, and I had spent so much time involved in the political excitements of change that I knew I wanted to return to South Africa and be part of this new era. But I had seen enough of the ANC in exile – an inept and shambolic organisation full of parochial attitudes and authoritarian instincts – to be dubious as to what sort of government it would make.
South Africa was not only a difficult country to govern but it was also far more developed than any other African state. Nowhere else in Africa had African nationalists had to manage such a sophisticated economy. Anyone who had seen how quickly independent African states had developed into kleptocracies had to be worried: there was so much more to steal in South Africa that an enormous feeding frenzy was on the cards.
And while I shared the general admiration for Mandela, his enforced isolation in jail for a whole generation meant that he was quite naive about many issues. He was, for example, publicly surprised and saddened to discover that there was corruption in the ANC, for there had been none among its members in jail.
As for me, by 1995 I had been teaching in Oxford for 26 years. I had loved my time at Magdalen, but teaching is ultimately a repetitive business and I needed a change. In addition, my marriage had broken up and both my children had grown up and left home, which left me free to move.
So when I was offered the directorship of the Helen Suzman Foundation (HSF) in Johannesburg, I decided to take the gamble and accept. I was an odd man out amid the general euphoria of the time. Everything I knew as a political scientist suggested that the ANC would fail to rise to the challenge of governing South Africa well.