Returning home

RW Johnson writes on his decision to move back to South Africa from Oxford in 1994

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.

I decided, however, that apart from doing whatever I could to assist the liberal cause, I would set myself the task of trying to understand, analyse and write about the dramatic new experiment that South Africa was engaged upon. It was a matter of where I could make the most useful contribution. I had spent 29 years of my life studying and working as a political scientist in one of the world’s top universities. People with such skills were relatively rare in South Africa, whereas I knew that the minute I resigned my Oxford job there would be no shortage of top-class applicants to fill it.

I was conscious of swimming against the current. In the early 1990s a British-South African conference had been held in Durban, organised by my old friend Bernard Crick. I found myself in a study group discussing the post-apartheid economy. As always in those days, there was no shortage of politicised clerics full of a political correctness completely untethered to reality. (Later, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission suffered from the same over-supply of such clerics.)

In this case there was much discussion of ‘an ethical investment code’, the general idea being that before any foreign investor was allowed to invest money in South Africa, he would have to subscribe to a set of ethical principles. Thabo Mbeki was sitting only two places away and I hoped (in vain) that he might step in and stop this nonsense.

In the end, I could bear it no more. I pointed out that all round the world countries were touting for investment. Nowhere else was anyone demanding that investors sign up to codes of ethics. South Africa had to join the real world and stop acting as if it was doing investors a favour by taking their money. One had to realise that shortly after independence two things had happened almost everywhere in Africa: their countries had ceased to be self-sufficient in food and had plunged into food deficit, and in many countries the electricity supply had broken down.

What we should discuss was how South Africa could avoid these twin disasters. Almost immediately, Mbeki got up and left the room. I was then roundly criticised for having precipitated his exit by being ‘conservative’, ‘reactionary’ and ‘negative’. Later events often caused me to remember that scene.

The book can be purchased in bookstores or in e-book form on Amazon here.