The ANC, Mandela and the myth of the 'moral high ground'

RW Johnson says many of those who condemn the organisation now still delude themselves about its past character

Naiveté and Corruption

This week's Mail and Guardian[1] carries an editorial entitled “Women's Month just proves it: Our leaders are trash”. There follows the usual sort of feminist/PC slant with the final hashtag of #MenAreTrash. This is, of course, jejune, especially since some of the trashiest cabinet members (Bathabile Dlamini, Faith Muthambi, Nomvula Mokonyane) are women, but what is perhaps more notable is the Mail and Guardian's quite casual scorn. This, after all, is the newspaper which long prided itself on its liberation movement political correctness and which, more than any other, revered the ANC leadership which, it never ceased to tell us, occupied “the moral high ground”. Similarly, Mamphela Ramphele refers to our political leaders as “thieves” and no one contradicts her. The press quite openly discusses the date at which the President is likely to flee the country with his loot. And so on. It might appear that all previous naiveté has been dispelled – but this is not so.

The “moral high ground”

Let us go back to the early 1990s when the theory of “the moral high ground” was at its height. This theory depended largely on ignorance as well as the more understandable notion that those demanding universal suffrage must be on the “right” side in everything. In fact, as is now entirely visible, the demand for universal suffrage did not denote any particular concern for the masses – it was merely the mechanism which would guarantee power for the ANC elite. Nonetheless, the notion of “the moral high ground” had wide currency and was further strengthened by the towering figure of Nelson Mandela whose courage, commitment and sacrifice no one could question. Yet to anyone who had known the ANC in exile the idea that it held “the moral high ground” was simply laughable, for the party was already no stranger to corruption, torture, tribalism, the denial of human rights and the abuse of women.

It is no exaggeration to say that this myth of the “moral high ground” was sustained only by sheer denialism, by a studied aversion of the eyes from these well-known faults. This held true even as the first signs of a new corruption became clear as one ANC leader after another quickly developed wealthy white “godfathers”. I asked Anton Harber, then editor of the Mail and Guardian, why his paper was paying so little attention to this alarming new phenomenon. He replied indignantly that having campaigned so strongly for liberation they had no wish to embarrass the new black elite. This sort of attitude was widespread. There was a rush among white opinion-makers to befriend the ANC and anyone who brought up such matters, let alone things like the use of torture in the MK camps, was thought to be churlish, perhaps even pro-apartheid.

The new ANC elite could not have hoped for such luck: a key newspaper deciding that news of budding corruption should be treated as non-news. They were not slow to take advantage. Even before 1994 Joe Modise, the putative defence minister, had made contact with various large arms manufacturers, had established contact with many old apartheid security apparatchiks and was a frequent attender at European air shows and the like: everything was ready to go.[2]

Although there was strenuous resistance to his proposed arms deal from a whole series of Cabinet heavyweights – including Joe Slovo, Trevor Manuel and Jay Naidoo – Modise was able to ram it through thanks to his key alliance with Thabo Mbeki. Thereafter, Mbeki was to play a key role in the arms deal at every point, making the key decision to buy the BAE Hawk trainer although it was 72% more expensive than the Aeromacchi (Italian) plane which the SAAF wanted. It was Mbeki too, who was to play the decisive role in suppressing all attempts to investigate corruption in the arms deal. In this, of course, he was immensely assisted by the notion that he – and even Joe Modise – were still men on pedestals, occupying “the moral high ground”. They were laughing all the way to the bank.

South Africa's Woodstein[3]

A peculiarity of these attempts was that Andrew Feinstein (ANC) and Gavin Woods (IFP), who led the doughty fight in Parliament to investigate the deal only launched their efforts a year after the deal had been finalized in 1999. This was really slamming shut the gate only after the horse had well and truly bolted for, naturally, the guilty parties had by then gone to great lengths not only to hide their loot but to wipe clean any footsteps in the sand. Feinstein and Woods both deserve great admiration for the courage and tenacity they showed under appalling pressure but both men were ultimately forced out of Parliament with their objective unachieved. Feinstein has since written in extenso about his experience of the arms deal investigation[4] and, having emigrated to the UK, is the executive director of Corruption Watch UK.

Yet the fact was that South Africans were extremely slow to smell a rat in the arms deal. For anyone interested in such matters there was already a large literature about arms deal corruption around the world going back for hundreds of years. For the more recent period a handy summary was found in Anthony Sampson’s book The Arms Bazaar, published as long ago as 1977. By the 1960s and 1970s the Third World had become a booming set of markets for the arms companies, often despite official attempts by their own governments to restrain such trade.

The Pentagon was alarmed to discover, for example, that despite an official arms embargo in the 1965 Indo-Pakistani war, Indians in (American) Sherman tanks had fought Pakistanis in (American) Patton tanks and that despite the embargo Pakistan had mysteriously just received 90 North American F-86 Sabre jet fighters[5]. Everywhere, of course, corruption was involved: in Suharto's Indonesia, for example, Lockheed did deals with senior Indonesian Air Force officers. In return for lucrative orders Lockheed paid their bribes into a specially set up account in Singapore called the Widows and Orphans Fund[6].

Third World markets were almost made for the arms companies. Most of the countries were extremely corrupt to start with, including (and often especially) their political leaders. They were also poor, often very poor, which meant that the bribes didn't need to be so extravagant as, for example, those paid to the Italian prime minister, Giulio Andreotti. And they had Trumpian generals and defence ministers keen to buy advanced technology simply for prestige reasons and to secure their bribes. As in South Africa's case, they often had little real need for this hardware except for fly-pasts and parades and as a result it was poorly maintained and soon un-usable[7].

If one looked at a number of these deals one quickly realised that usually a number of people had to be bought off. Some of these bribes could be quite small, for example the discounted Mercedes sold to Tony Yengeni, the chairman of the relevant parliamentary committee. But usually the big bucks had to go to two people: the defence minister, who negotiated with the arms companies, and the president or prime minister, who had either personally to authorise the large expenditure involved or push it through his cabinet. In every Third World arms deal those are the two people one should look at first.

The Mandela problem

Feinstein says that “I describe the arms deal and both the corruption in the deal and the efforts to cover up that corruption as being the point at which the ANC lost its moral compass”[8]. In his more recent Daily Maverick article he elaborates by saying that actually this point was first made in a Mail and Guardian editorial, with which he agreed. That is to say, Feinstein seems to believe that the ANC had been on the right moral path right up to the time that he left them and has been on the wrong moral path ever since. What allows him to feel this, of course, is that 1994-1999 were the Mandela years. When he left Parliament he wrote to (ex-) President Mandela saying that “it has been a privilege and an honour to serve you”. Thus he implicitly exonerates Mandela from any role in the arms deal.

But how realistic is this? The whole deal was carried out and concluded under Mandela's presidency. Even if Mandela was a somewhat detached president, it is surely hard to believe that he was unaware of a R60 billion arms package making its way through his cabinet? And this deal was fiercely disputed by some of his most senior ministers, like Trevor Manuel – who were bound to raise their concerns with him. It is surely impossible to believe that Mandela heard nothing of this dispute or that he was not asked to make a ruling on the matter? Similarly, at one point Feinstein relates how he was told by some of his ANC comrades that it was money from the arms deal that paid for the ANC's (huge) election expenditure in 1999. If that is so, it means the money must have come in well in advance of the election – when Mandela was still president. Again, surely he could not have been ignorant of that?

In other words the question has to be not whether Mandela had any involvement in the deal – for he surely did – but whether he personally benefited from it. We have, of course, no evidence for that. It is perfectly clear that Modise was a major beneficiary. A number of smaller beneficiaries are known but the two big question marks are over the deal's contribution to ANC election funds whether and by how much Thabo Mbeki was a beneficiary? Again, little direct evidence exists – though when newspapers printed stories of Mbeki having taken a large bribe, he made no move to sue or even to deny the story.

But the question about Mandela won't go away. It is probable that instead of a direct gift to him, the arms companies donated to the ANC, knowing this was close to his heart. He had, after all, shown few scruples about raising enormous funds for the ANC from extremely dubious and shady donors. And he had personally benefited from gifts from wealthy donors – including his luxurious house in Houghton. He had also clearly known of and tolerated a good deal of corruption in ANC ranks in the 1994-1999 period.

When Allan Boesak was pursued by the Danish church authorities, Danchurch, Mandela took Boesak's side – although the facts of his peculation were all there in his bank accounts. Indeed, Mandela went on TV to say that Boesak was “one of the most gifted young men in this country, who deserves a very high position”. Since Danchurch had incontrovertible evidence of Boesak's thieving and his payments to a number of lesser lights such as Christmas Tinto and Chris Nissen, they maintained their case. Whereupon Mandela again went on TV to claim that the accusations against Boesak were “baseless” and he had very hard words for those who thought otherwise[9]. There was even talk for a while of Mandela organising an international sanctions campaign against Danchurch.

But Mandela was no fool. He must have known that Boesak was guilty and that within ANC ranks he was hardly alone in his corruption. As far as one can see, Mandela's attitude was that if someone had proved himself a good ANC comrade then a variety of other offences, including corruption, could be overlooked: they were just part of the struggle. In the same way Mandela could appoint a tired old man like Raymond Mhlaba as premier of the Eastern Cape and then ambassador to Uganda even though it was obvious that he was completely unable to do either job. He just needed the money. Or again, Mandela insisted that Jacob Zuma be made ANC Deputy President despite Mbeki's strong resistance (who wanted an acolyte like Netshitenzhe.). It is foolish to imagine that Mandela was unaware that Zuma was corrupt: many people within the ANC knew this[10].

And Mandela was a perfect exemplar of the struggle mentality: what the ANC did was right and it must be defended under any and all conditions. When ANC gunmen shot down IFP marchers from Shell House – straightforward murder in the streets of Johannesburg – Mandela defended the gunmen and refused to allow them or their weapons to be handed over to the police. Doubtless, he felt the honour of the ANC was somehow at stake and that it was unthinkable to own up to the murders and give the IFP a political victory of sorts. Some of the IFP marchers were captured and held for some days in Shell House where they were tortured. Mandela made no apology for this.

It should be obvious that such a mentality opens wide the door to corruption for if there was an unconditional solidarity behind ANC cadres and leaders, some of them were bound to take advantage of the immunity which that practice bestowed. In exile Joe Modise, for example, was well known to be a criminal and to live an extremely luxurious life style – yet no one denounced him for this and he remained the commander of MK. The importance of this is that there was never a golden age when there was no corruption in the ANC. It was always there and the struggle mentality enabled it.

The not-so-crazy Bheki Jacobs

Perhaps the key moment in Feinstein's book is when he relates how Bheki Jacobs – a veteran ANC spy and undercover agent – came to see him and for several hours tried to take him through an ABC of the arms deal and also to enlighten him a little about the organization which he knew so well. He told Feinstein that actually the whole arms deal scam was plotted long before the ANC came to power in 1994. According to Jacobs the arms deal originated when, during the Codesa talks, Pik Botha and various other ancien regime elements “persuaded Joe Modise and Thabo Mbeki that the ANC could access millions of dollars from arms companies if there was sufficient contractual reward for the companies once the ANC was in government. He (Jacobs) then went on, crazily, to allege that the ANC was full of murderers, drug dealers and common criminals.” Feinstein records that this left him “punchdrunk and exhausted”.[11]

It is a pity that Feinstein didn't pay more attention to Bheki Jacobs, a man who knew where all the bodies were buried and whose long acquaintance with the less salubrious side of the ANC had given him sufficient detachment to be frank about it. More generally, it was a pity that he didn't think a bit more about the fact that the great formative growth phase of the ANC occurred in the world of apartheid era townships in 1950-60.

For anyone who grew up or came of age in that world, murders, crime, drug-dealing and a host of other social ills were a familiar part of life. Anyone who had bothered to ask around Baragwanath hospital in Soweto knew that every Monday without fail the doctors would find themselves dealing with hundreds of stabbings which had occurred over the weekend. Casual and domestic violence on that scale was just one indicator of the social conditions under which all urban Africans had to live.

The township world

In the world of the townships, then and now, gangsters form the elite. They are not only the ones able to prevail by force – they have the guns and the numbers – but they are the ones with money, the smart clothes, the cars and, of course, the women. And usually – even in the 1950s – the gangsters also have their own arrangements with the police. If gangsters get killed it is in a shoot-out with other gangs, not with the police. In the 1950s gangs like the Americans and the Spoilers were, indeed, seen as stylish, almost chic. Joe Modise was one of the Spoilers, though he was hardly the only one to graduate from crime into the ANC leadership.

As Eric Hobsbawm showed long ago[12] there has long been a symbiotic relationship between bandits and guerrillas, with bandits often becoming “freedom fighters” but then, if defeated by the reigning regime, with the guerrillas drifting back into banditry. And of course, urban equivalents are common too – think of the way Ali the Pimp becomes an FLN urban guerrilla in The Battle of Algiers or the way that some French ex-Resistance fighters became bank robbers.

Indeed, the 1950s musical King Kong (set in Alexandra township) provides a fair picture of how easily township people lived (and live) amidst criminality as an everyday thing. The boxer King Kong (Ezekiel Dlamini) and his trainer, Jack, naturally repair to the shebeen, a (then) illegal establishment run by the shebeen queen, Joyce. Before long the local gangsters, the Prowlers (clearly based on the Spoilers) come in, led by Lucky. They are far more smartly dressed than the others, their tilted trilby or fedora hats giving a noticeable gangster chic. They are used to getting their way: they threaten anyone who challenges them and Lucky is seen paying off the local policeman who, naturally, comes to relax in the shebeen too, illegal though it may be. Joyce at first becomes King Kong's lover but as his fortunes decline she quickly deserts him for Lucky. When King Kong sees her with Lucky his response is immediately violent and he ends up knifing and killing Joyce. This leads to his conviction and almost immediate suicide.

King Kong was a faithful, albeit somewhat romanticized, representation of 1950s township life - a world in which criminality is commonplace and violence always close to the surface. And this is the world from which the ANC leadership sprang. Boxing had great social significance in that world for it was almost the only way in which a black man might rise right to the top – King Kong dreams of fighting for the heavyweight crown in London. It is perhaps no accident that Mandela was for a time ambitious to be a boxer and is often depicted in his boxing gear and stance. But just as King Kong's day was brief, so was Mandela's. The triumph of the gangsters always seems inevitable, something one should bear in mind when one hears Jeremy Cronin talking of the Zuma/Nkosasana group as the ANC's “gangster leadership”. Mandela had his day but in the end township reality was more important and within fifteen years the gangsters were in charge. This is the new normal and it will be far harder to change.

The exile culture

For the ANC leadership on top of that violent township culture was laid the culture of exile, in many ways a traumatic experience. Almost all the exiles were desperately homesick. They lived in a world of extreme patronage in which all resources, including the basic means of subsistence, came from a very few donors – overwhelmingly from the Communist bloc. These were funnelled to a handful of top leaders to dispense, giving them absolute power over all cadres who thus existed in a state of complete dependence.

Anyone who rebelled could be immediately expelled and cut off from all funds and from access to any of their comrades. This was the basis of the Stalinist discipline which the leadership was able to exert and police. Often, cadres might notice a degree of favouritism in the distribution of patronage – Tambo favouring Xhosa applicants for scholarships over Zulus, for example – but there was absolutely nothing they could do about it for open dissent was very dangerous.

In the extreme case of the MK fighters in the camps who rebelled, they were imprisoned, beaten, tortured and sometimes killed. Naturally, corruption thrived in such an atmosphere, partly because large resources flowed through very few hands and simply because it was so dangerous to criticise the leadership whatever they did. When Chris Hani had the nerve to criticize Modise, one of the most corrupt, Modise attempted to murder him. Hani narrowly escaped while Modise suffered no ill consequence for his behaviour.

In this oppressively closed world there was a powerful spirit of paranoia, with everyone always on the watch for spies, askaris, imperialist agents and the like. There had been nothing like this in the ANC at home in the 1950s. This new paranoia was deliberately cultivated by the SACP and the leadership in general both as a matter of ideology but also because it strengthened their own control. To a degree that many would find almost unimaginable, the party ruled every area of life.

When I had ANC exiles as students in those years they would need ANC permission to marry anyone (and it usually had to be to an ANC cadre). If they split up they might then come under extreme party pressure to get back together with their old partners. If they were students their area of study would have to be approved by some ANC high-up and if they wanted to publish any of their research, this could only be done with ANC permission. And so on and on. Naturally, the exiles who have made up the ANC leadership ever since 1990, brought this exile culture back home with them. It has infused the whole ANC and this exile culture still exists as an overlay on the old township culture.

Anyone who reflects on that world for any length of time would hardly have thought that what Bheki Jacobs was trying to tell him was “crazy”.

Losing the “moral compass”

That Feinstein could use the word “crazy” is, indeed, the key. He clearly came to the ANC, as did many other whites (modify) from a far more liberal, educated, sophisticated and prosperous world. The ANC he wanted to believe in was its idealized version, the public image it sought to project (particularly abroad) – a highly principled organization led by heroic and incorruptible men whose followers were equally righteous and disciplined. That is to say, like not a few other whites who joined the ANC, he had no idea of what sort of organization he was really joining. Even when he was flanked on all sides by criminality (Boesak, Modise, Yengeni etc) and by enforcers (like Essop Pahad and, ultimately, even Frene Ginwala) he continued to believe that he was still living inside his idealized version of the ANC. This is why its huge corruption came as such a nasty surprise to him.

Amazingly, Feinstein (and he is hardly alone in this) continues to cling to that idealized notion. This is how he can claim that the arms deal was the moment when “the ANC lost its moral compass”. What he really means is that this was the moment when he woke up to a little – by no means all - of the reality of the organization he had joined. In practice, as we all know, men do not suddenly “lose their moral compass”. It is just a figure of speech. In practice, as any criminologist will explain, patterns of criminal behaviour are usually rooted deep in the experience and milieu of childhood, and of course it is much the same with organizations.

One might, for example, attempt to explain Stalin's mass purges of the 1930s simply by reference to Stalin's character, but anyone familiar with the history of the CPSU knows perfectly well that Stalin himself had a criminal past and that after coming to power the early Bolsheviks used murder, torture, reprisals against whole families and communities and every other sort of extreme ruthlessness. Extreme violence on a mass scale was a basic trait of the organization long before the 1930s.

It may seem odd to say that Andrew Feinstein, the head of an anti-corruption NGO, is naive about corruption. Perhaps better to say naive about the ANC. He is wholly admirable man whom I have used merely as an example of a much more widespread frame of mind. This is seen much more widely today in the way that commentators and people at large – both inside and outside the ANC – employ a narrative in which the old Mandela ANC is seen as clean, heroic and principled, with a vast moral degeneration setting in only under Zuma.

This is a completely ahistorical vision: today's ANC has grown quite organically from the Mandela ANC which, in turn, was a great deal less pure than now depicted. And Zuma is where he is today precisely because Mandela insisted on making him ANC Deputy President despite, doubtless, knowing of Zuma's proclivities. Yet this dichotomy between the old heroic ANC and the modern corrupt ANC is so strongly established in so many minds that one can find, even now, people who became ANC members without the least notion of what sort of party they were joining.

When at last such people collide with the reality of what the ANC is, they leave, usually claiming that the ANC left them, not vice versa. Frequently, as with Feinstein, they still maintain the mirage of the old heroic and “pure” ANC and continue to profess loyalty to its imagined values. Many of the disillusioned remain within the movement, but usually clinging to another mythological narrative – that the revolution was sold out in the early 1990s when Mandela made a deal with white capital. In fact, of course, this is pure invention: there was no such deal. These are all just coping mechanisms caused by idealism and naiveté´ in the first instance and, later on, the belated recognition of a much sadder truth.   

R.W. Johnson


[1]  Mail and Guardian, August 11-17, 2017.

[2]  For a fuller picture of Modise's activities and his probable involvement in the Hani assassination, see R.W. Johnson...South Africa's Brave New World. The Beloved Country since the End of Apartheid (2009), esp. pp.27-48.

[3] During the Watergate saga the investigative journalists, Carl Berrnstein and Robert Woodward were known as Woodstein. Woods and Feinstein were equally doughty investigators.

[4]  See A. Feinstein...After the Party. A Personal and Political Journey inside the ANC (2007) and “A Matter of Conscience: my refusal to vote with the ANC”, Daily Maverick, 30 July 2017. See also his Inside the Global Arms Trade (2011).

[5]  It emerged that officially the planes had been sold to West Germany who had in time sold them on to Iran who in turn sold them to their Pakistani co-religionists. Arms, like love, will always find a way.

[6]  Sampson, op.cit., p..183.

[7]  If one goes to the SAAF air force base at Ysterplaat, Cape Town, today, the only planes taking off there now are World War II vintage Douglas DC-2 Dakotas.

[8] Corruption Watch...”The Arms Deal: What you Need to Know”, 22 Jan.2014.

[9] See Johnson..South Africa's Brave New World, pp.62-69.

[10] Jeremy Cronin has recently written of how even when he knew Jacob Zuma in Lusaka, he was already aware that he was “morally compromised”. According to the Gevisser biography, Thabo Mbeki was also well aware of this.

[11]   Feinstein..After the Party, p.169.

[12]   E. Hobsbawm...Primitive Rebels (1959).