The end of the apartheid alibi

RW Johnson says the ANC now has no one to blame but itself, and everyone knows it

During the local election campaign Ferial Haffajee wrote about the sad state of her part (and every part) of Johannesburg: litter everywhere, potholes, street lights and traffic lights that don’t work, irregular water, irregular power, uncollected rubbish and all the rest of it. When she recited this lament to the ANC she was angrily accused of “nostalgia for the white city”.

In today’s South Africa it is, of course, politically inadmissible to say that the whites got anything right so instead Ferial recorded sadly how in the years before 1994 there had been lots of bold talk by the UDF about how much better in every respect things would be in the new, liberated South Africa. The developmental state. People’s education. Reconstruction and development. The comrades gave such inspiring speeches about these matters.

Ferial is a nice woman but her perspectives are so encased in a sort of terminal political correctness that she can’t call a spade a spade. But imagine the angry black voters of Soweto or Ekurhuleni who booed Ramaphosa, or the Indian voters of Chatsworth, or the Coloured voters of the Cape Flats: if you accused them of “nostalgia for the white city” you’d be told “Absolutely. You bet. So’s everybody.”

It is indeed a no-brainer. Cheap, plentiful and reliable electricity. Sewage and water systems that work properly. Street lights and traffic lights ditto. Decent roads, litter that gets collected, law and order: what’s not to like?

The point is this. Whenever anyone tries to hold the ANC responsible for anything its first instinct is to find a way of blaming apartheid. But in the local election campaign this was impossible. They’ve been in power for 27 years so if people don’t like the mess they’ve made of their towns and, indeed, of their country, there’s no one else to blame. So the best the ANC can do is try to invalidate their complaint by the accusation of “nostalgia for the white city”. Quite obviously it didn’t work and won’t work.

Moreover, it carries the suggestion that the broken state of the towns and cities is what you ought to expect in an African-run country, that things not working is somehow more authentic. This is a very dangerous notion: “Vote for us! We expect to fail, and we will! We stand for backwardness, for candles not electricity.” This leads nowhere.

The larger fact is this: what is shaping up in most people’s minds – blacks, whites, whatever – is that ANC rule has been a colossal failure in every respect, a catastrophe which has hit the country like a hurricane.

More poverty, more unemployment, more corruption, more inequality, trains and ports that don’t work, no law and order, real incomes falling. Not “a better life for all” but a worse life for all. The recent local elections were a watershed for they showed that this narrative is now being embraced by black voters as well as by the minorities.

Apartheid was brought down by international pressure, by the insistent resistance of the black majority and by a large number of anti-apartheid activists drawn from the minorities. As the fact and scale of the ANC’s failure becomes universally apparent, they will react differently.

Least involved, of course, is international opinion. Mainly, it lost interest in South Africa soon after 1994: the apartheid problem had been solved. As South Africa dwindled in economic and political importance, interest flagged further.

Initially there was a willingness to believe ANC propaganda about any problems being due to white racism but sympathy faded quickly as the level of ANC corruption became clear. Ultimately there was a shrugging acceptance that South Africa had merely become like the rest of Africa, corrupt and misgoverned – and there was nothing to be done about that. So, just move on.

Within South Africa many members of the minorities were caught up initially in the euphoria surrounding Mandela and the rainbow nation. This faded as Mbeki’s support for Mugabe and his Aids denialism became clear and then died completely after Zuma became President. There were still a small number of fellow-travellers wanting desperately to believe in Ramaphosa’s “New Dawn” but the actual experience of Ramaphosa’s regime has thinned their ranks almost to zero.

Sadly, the experience of ANC government has rekindled a primary racism among many, so they attribute the ANC’s failures to what they depict as innate African inferiority. Others loudly proclaim themselves to be disillusioned and vocally regret having voted YES in De Klerk’s referendum.

Despite that, however, there is no nostalgia for apartheid and nobody among the minorities argues for its restoration. There is a general acceptance that democracy is irreversible. Even if the Freedom Front Plus somehow came to power it seems unlikely that they would want to restore any elements of the apartheid system.

This is important because as the ANC declines it relies ever more frantically on the allegation that if whites are allowed back to power they will abolish social grants and restore apartheid. If this is not believed then the door is open for African voters either to choose a white-led administration or, by their abstention, allow one to come to power.

In this election we saw the overwhelmingly Zulu electorate of Umgeni, in KwaZulu-Natal, elect an administration headed by a young white mayor. And, of course, something similar has been happening in the Western Cape for some time. In this election a Cape Town electorate which is overwhelmingly African and Coloured chose a young white man as mayor. For the ANC this is a nightmare come true, with Black and Coloured people electing a white simply because they think he will govern better – and the ANC plummeting to under 19%.

Finally, there is the impact of the ANC’s catastrophic failure on Africans. This is truly sad, for there is no doubt that it has reinforced feelings of impotence and inferiority, the very opposite of what everyone hoped for after 1994.

It was not surprising that the effect of colonial conquest and the easy superiority of whites in white-ruled South Africa should have left many Africans with a diminished self-confidence and a low sense of their own worth. But the hope was that with all legal barriers removed and access to good education, a new sense of egalitarian self-confidence would be born, particularly in the younger generation.

This has not happened for no one has paid a higher price for the failure of ANC governance than young black South Africans. Far from improving, as one would have hoped, the state education on offer to them has declined in standard. If they get through Matric they often then find themselves way out of their depth on overcrowded university campuses, where standards have fallen too. The failure rates are horrendous, encouraging the sense that black students are inferior, always clustered at the bottom of the class.

Finally, young blacks face a horrendous labour market and the probability of long-term unemployment. Many of them get caught in pointless symbolic politics – arguing about statues, for heaven’s sake, or accepting that the only way ahead lies through racial populism. These are really dead-ends.

The ANC has taught young black South Africans that African government doesn’t work, that their politicians are crooks and that it’s not worth voting. The exact opposite of Mandela’s dream.

Moreover, the party was handed on a plate the richest country in Africa with the best infrastructure, the richest mining industry and the most productive agriculture. Within a generation it was an almost bankrupt country in which very little worked. What to say after that?

R.W. Johnson

This article first appeared in Rapport newspaper.