South Africa contemplates the abyss

RW Johnson says Chris Malikane has done us the favour of frankly describing the choice facing the country

Thinking about the unthinkable

What to make of the pronouncements of our Finance Minister's guru, Chris Malikane? Malikane is at least frank that with radical economic transformation (RET) “It's true that this country will plunge into crisis and become like Venezuela or Zimbabwe. India went through the same pain. If we are real about transformation we need to be real and strengthen our people ideologically and politically...Did you think to transform is going to be nice?” He agreed that a decision as to whether to take up arms would have to be discussed. “It's not for me to decide. It's the progressive forces that must decide...Taking up arms is one thing, but building a country is another.”

The furore resulting from these remarks led to much criticism of Malikane who indignantly protested that “I am being called mad yet I am a professor at Wits. I am called crazy and mad, mentally demented.” Leaving aside what this says about the decline of Wits, the interesting points here are the recognition that RET, if really conducted, would reduce South Africa to starvation and chaos, and that people might then take up arms.

This has to be set alongside Julius Malema's recent declaration that he isn't calling for the slaughter of white people…...yet, and perhaps also Jimmy Manyi's apocalyptic urging that Coloured people be forcibly dispersed around the country, presumably by an apartheid-style series of forced removals. To which one should probably add the intemperate outbursts of a number of black intellectuals such as Andile Mngxitama, Xolela Mangcu, Eusebius McKaiser and others.

A look at the history of other African nationalist regimes elsewhere in Africa suggests that this phenomenon is not unfamiliar. In many countries in the wake of liberation one finds such figures attempting to push the envelope. In Kenya there were a number of such intellectuals surrounding Thomas Kaggia and Oginga Odinga and one even found the same phenomenon in radical regimes like Nkrumah's Ghana and Sekou Toure's Guinea.

In some cases their criticisms embarrassed the ruling party which repressed them – in Kenya these radical critics developed the bad habit of getting killed in car crashes on lonely roads at night, with only the police as witnesses of their demise. Something of the same happened in Zambia: after one particular accident in which a political figure was killed while “swerving to avoid a black dog running across the road”, it became common to describe similar fatalities as “black dogs”.

But, of course, many more such figures sought their fortunes by running with, rather than against, the tide of the ruling party – Jonathan Moyo would be a good example in Zimbabwe, as are all the South African black intellectuals mentioned above.

The key point about all such figures is that they come from the first post-liberation generation. They have seen their counterparts in the previous generation achieve political power, fame and money simply by becoming radical tribunes of the people and, naturally enough, they wish to extend this tradition. They do this partly out of ideological zeal but also partly out of calculated self-promotion – they are political entrepreneurs. Jonathan Moyo has achieved fame, power and wealth by these means, while Jimmy Manyi and now Chris Malikane have gained well-paid positions of authority. Indeed, in some cases it is clear that entrepreneurship has trumped ideology: thus both Manyi and Mngxitama are happy to side with the Guptas - which no self-respecting African nationalist could possibly do.

At the same time we should be aware that matters could be heading for a crunch. This too we have seen before elsewhere. The scenario is familiar: just read V.S. Naipaul's A Bend in the River. In our imaginary state thanks to the government's disastrous mismanagement of the economy unemployment worsens and it becomes harder for the ruling party to keep funneling resources to its cadres, clients and proteges. This is extremely bad for the popularity and authority of the ruling group which accordingly becomes more willing to consider desperate measures. It is in this climate that one hears of such measures as expropriation of the land without compensation, raids on pension or retirement funds, and straightforward attempts by wealth taxes, confiscation of foreign currency and other means to raid the savings and other assets of minorities.

In East Africa, of course, this situation led to an outright assault and/or expulsion of the Asian minorities and the seizure of almost all their assets, while in Zimbabwe it was the assets of the whites that were seized. In Zaire (now the DRC) Mobutu launched a campaign of “Zaireanization” which led to the seizure of almost all assets belonging to whites, Lebanese or Asians.

It is worth pointing out that in no case did these measures improve the situation. Throughout East Africa the flight of the Asians led to economic collapse and a large shrinkage of resources so that later political regimes in these countries have made a point of launching missions to plead with the Asians to come back: very few do. Zaireanization produced a similar economic collapse in Zaire and under later regimes there was a trickle back of Asians and whites. In Zimbabwe the seizure of the white farms led to a large shrinkage of the economy, mass starvation and the emigration of millions of people. Despite what Professor Malikane says the chaos and hardship caused by such measures do not ultimately produce the promised land.

What they produce is failed states struggling to get back on their feet with the assistance of the IMF and World Bank, usually under regimes which have given up on radicalism. (Incidentally, all the black intellectuals preaching radicalism are swept away like so much chaff.)  Look at Ghana or Guinea today: there is no trace of the radical promises of Nkrumah or Toure. The only real alternative to that is what one sees in the DRC, with continuous wars, breakaway regions and ethnic vendettas.

The fact that African nationalism has repeatedly ended in such a cataclysm has a hypnotic effect on the imaginations of many whites, Asians and other minorities: hence the common and desperately worried question as to “whether it can happen here too”. But, as Professor Malikane illustrates yet again, this prospect seems less worrying to at least some Africans: he can happily anticipate South Africa being reduced to the ashes of Venezuela or Zimbabwe. Partly this may be because of a general feeling that if you shake things up enough some nice things will become loose, creating opportunities for, well, the opportunists. But of course the professor is also securely locked in his ideology. It's no good quoting the Congo to him. He will doubtless talk about how the imperialists murdered Patrice Lumumba – as if the death of one man sixty-six years ago can possibly explain over half a century of war, dictatorship, rapine and chaos. There is no point in such discussions.

At which point it is worth introducing a recent report by the British journalist, Andrew Malone, in the Daily Mail Online (4.5.2017). He reports that Zuma is increasingly using MK veterans as his own private army, just as Mugabe did in Zimbabwe. He also claims to know about the military training of African rural youths in the countryside, with the young men promised that their reward for service will be land.

Similarly, he talks of white militias also training on remote farms whom he has interviewed. They wear old army uniforms, call themselves the Kommandokorps and train volunteers aged 14-38 in the use of a variety of weapons. His report includes a photograph of the Kommandokorps training. It is difficult to know how to treat this report. The Daily Mail is not always a reliable source – but it would hardly be the first time that a foreign journalist has discovered things that the locals have missed. It is tempting to put this report alongside Malema's recent statement that “Those are desperate moves by a dying donkey (the ANC). These people, mark my words, are going to start killing. They have become so desperate that they are going to start killing. They have started killing each other internally. They will come for us.”

All one can say for sure is that reports like Malone's are not implausible. His report is headlined “Is South Africa heading for a civil war?” At the very least it is worth paying attention to the fact that the Daily Mail Online – the world's most popular online news site – is carrying such reports, with an effect on foreign investors which may easily be imagined. We have to take into account the fact that unemployment, both black and white, is growing every month and with the economy locked into zero growth, there are bound to be more and more desperate young men available for such adventures.

In this context the talk of expropriation without compensation is particularly dangerous. Imagine a farmer aged, say 45, - let us call him Piet - who bought his farm fifteen years ago and who has been striving might and main ever since to pay the interest on his mortgage. Piet has had to contend with a financial crisis, drought and farm attacks and, god knows, farming itself is hard enough. He lives on his farm with his wife and three children and he owns no other assets in the world. Talk about the whites having stolen the land long ago doesn't touch him: he paid a good price for it in 2002. If you start talking about expropriating his farm without compensation Piet knows the result will be to throw himself and his family onto the street.

All his back-breaking hard work for the past fifteen years will be simply thrown away. His farm is his life. His chances of other employment will be close to zero. To take his farm without compensation is tantamount to taking away his life. In Zimbabwe there were some farmers like Piet who, faced with Mugabe's war vets trying to invade their farm, simply hunkered down with a good supply of guns and ammunition and sold their lives dearly. True, most didn't. But it would be foolish to under-estimate the forces one is playing with once one begins to talk the way Professor Malikane does.

The country's political leaders of every stripe need to reflect on this. There was a great deal of self-congratulation twenty-five years ago that the country's leaders had headed off approaching civil war. The wars that threatened were of two kinds: a racial war between whites and blacks and an intra-African civil war between Inkatha and the UDF/ANC. Today such hostilities as threaten would take very different shapes. Probably they would be far more about territory. One may gauge the changing atmosphere by the fact that Orania, once regarded as merely a joke, is now taken seriously by many Afrikaners.

It is no longer incredible to imagine secessionist movements and if, God forbid, the country came to blows it is no longer certain that the proponents would be neatly sorted into racial groups. Professor Malikane assumes that if his side took up arms it would carry the country through to a utopian socialism but the “progressive” side, as he puts it, would be just as likely to lose. The “forces of liberation” are not what they were – and even when they were what they were, they could never have defeated their opponents militarily.

The beginning of wisdom, in other words, is to realise that no one should talk as blithely as Professor  Malikane does about taking up arms because no group could be sure of victory in such a scenario. It is, of course, a measure of how disastrously ANC governance has failed that it has taken us back to a point where such questions need be raised. One clings hard to Jan Smuts' statement that South Africa is a country in which neither the best, nor the very worst, happens.

RW Johnson