The liberal order is under threat in SA

RW Johnson says we should not take for granted the democratic freedoms we have enjoyed up until now

The FW de Klerk Foundation has been trying to drum up interest in the life of its founder. I doubt that they will find many takers.

De Klerk was never popular amongst blacks (though, at least for a while, he had many Coloured admirers) and many whites blamed him for not securing a better constitutional settlement.

De Klerk himself pointed with pride to the new Constitution but not many shared his enthusiasm. The ANC, after all, ignored the Constitution when it wanted to and was able to manipulate its institutions, including the Constitutional Court, simply by packing them with its activists and fellow travellers.

Yet this is to under-value not just De Klerk’s achievement but the more general settlement achieved by his stunning reversal of all previous National Party policy.

The ANC as a radical Third World movement

It is important to go back to the state of the ANC in the 1975-85 period. At that stage the ANC in exile was very much under the control of the SACP. The USSR was by far its biggest backer, followed by other East European Communist states and their influence was pervasive.

The ANC saw itself entirely as a revolutionary movement and its sole future perspective was that it would achieve the “conquest of state power” through armed struggle. There was no suggestion of negotiations.

The ANC tried to run itself as a highly disciplined and centralised Leninist party. ANC activists in exile in Britain had, for example, to gain ANC permission to get married and the ANC would also scrutinise whether their partner was suitable. ANC students that I supervised in Oxford would have to submit their thesis topics to the ANC and would be fiercely told to change their topic if it didn’t pass muster.

This sort of excessive discipline and intrusion into private lives was possible because the party leadership was the sole source of all funding and patronage. I would tell my ANC students that they could marry who they liked and choose their own thesis topics, but at the end of the day they would be sent off to conferences in Eastern Europe during their vacations on ANC money.

They knew that sort of perk – and indeed, their scholarship funds – would be cut off if they didn’t comply. It would, moreover, mean expulsion from the ANC “family”. Anyone who crossed the party leadership risked being thrown into the outer darkness. In the MK prison camps in Angola such dissidents were tortured and sometimes killed.

At that stage the ANC shared all these features with the MPLA in Angola, Frelimo in Mozambique and Zanu-PF in Zimbabwe. So it seemed likely that if the ANC came to power in South Africa it would behave in much the same way as those parties had once they achieved power.

This was an extremely alarming perspective for all these parties behaved with great ruthlessness.

In Zimbabwe ZANU came to power in 1980 in an election in which its guerrillas controlled much of the rural population and directed them how to vote. ZANU then set up what was in effect a one-party state and soon thereafter carried out the massacre of 15,000-20,000 people in Matabeleland in order to ensure that ZAPU could never again challenge them for power.

All media were state controlled and when the independent Daily News was founded and criticised the Mugabe government the Minister of Information, Jonathan Moyo, warned that “it was just a matter of time” before the government put a stop to the Daily News for its “madness”. Shortly thereafter the Daily News printing press was blown up by saboteurs using a type of explosive otherwise employed only by the Zimbabwean army.

As soon as the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) emerged in 2000 Zanu-PF used extreme violence and intimidation against it, not once but at every successive election. The elections were invariably rigged and today they still are.

Simultaneously, Mugabe’s thugs seized almost all the white farms. Agricultural production and, indeed, the whole economy, collapsed. Zimbabwe’s remaining white population almost all fled. So has one third of the entire population.

The tiny Zanu-PF elite continues to loot the country. Unemployment, poverty and inequality are far worse today than they were under the regime of Ian Smith. ZANU-PF has carefully sabotaged the MDC to prevent it from winning local elections in Harare. Robert Mugabe was prime minister and then President for 37 years before finally being toppled by a military coup.

In Angola the ruling MPLA, on first coming to power, abolished the private sector, nationalising every enterprise into one giant holding company, the Unidades Economicas Estatais (UEE). Inevitably this led to huge corruption and the ruin of many enterprises, for they were run disastrously badly. However, when peace with the opposition UNITA movement finally came in 1991, the MPLA changed its spots, abandoning its previous devotion to Marxism-Leninism and declaring itself social democratic.

The MPLA liberalised the economy to some extent but this did not, however, alter its behaviour. Jose Eduardo dos Santos continued his long presidency (38 years,1979-2017) and he and his family amassed enormous wealth while most Angolans knew only poverty.

The President’s daughter, Isabel, alone was worth over $2 billion.) The 1992 elections were rigged, and war broke out again, leading to the Halloween Massacre in which the MPLA slaughtered thousands of UNITA soldiers. Peace returned only in 2002 after the death of the UNITA leader, Jonas Savimbi.

Despite the return of supposedly free elections, the MPLA regime was anything but democratic. In 2014 the Freedom House report declared Angola “not free” – there were firm restrictions on freedom of the press, association, speech and assembly and the police and security forces routinely tortured victims and carried out unlawful killings.

Elections continued to be rigged. UNITA demanded local elections but the MPLA has refused to allow them in more than twenty years, fearing that UNITA might win Luanda and other cities – for the MPLA, like ZANU-PF and the ANC, has become an increasingly rural party.

Even the fall of the Dos Santos family hasn’t changed things. In the 2022 elections the MPLA just managed to hang on to power with 51% of the vote to UNITA’s 44% but the result was clearly rigged.

Unita’s claim that it actually won the election seems quite plausible. Naturally the MPLA has packed both the National Election Commission and the Constitutional Court so they both loyally ratified the rigged result.

Mozambique’s independence in 1975 began with the flight or expulsion of the country’s 250,000 whites – a law was passed requiring many Portuguese to leave the country in 24 hours with only 20 kg of luggage. They fled, penniless, abandoning their houses and businesses. This had calamitous economic results. Angola’s far larger (800,000) white population fled equally quickly.

The Frelimo regime declared itself to be Marxist-Leninist and cracked down hard on all opposition, triggering a war with Renamo that lasted until 1992. In its attempts to establish control Frelimo executed thousands of people and many more were placed in “re-education camps”, where further thousands died. Over a million people died in the civil war and 1.7 million fled to neighbouring countries. Several million more were internally displaced.

The Frelimo leader, Samora Machel, died in a plane crash in 1986. No one can say how long he might have continued in office but for that.

Frelimo too announced that it was a Marxist-Leninist party. It instituted a one-party state and, like the MPLA, nationalised virtually everything. However, as with the MPLA, the collapse of the USSR and the Warsaw Pact countries had a large influence. Mozambique moved towards a more market-based economy and, like the MPLA, made peace with its internal rival.

But, like the MPLA, Frelimo quite routinely rigs elections. It is noticeable that in general elections Renamo wins the central and northern provinces but when local elections are held Frelimo is always given as the winner in these provinces.

For the fact is that neither Frelimo nor the MPLA can bear the thought of the Opposition controlling any towns or cities. The MPLA solves the problem by not allowing local elections, while Frelimo rigs the local elections. At every national election too Renamo alleges fraud – with good reason. All the major TV and radio stations as also the major newspapers, are state-owned. Corruption is on a vast scale.

There, but for the grace of God….

It is worth pondering these experiences. In both Mozambique and Angola the first fifteen years of independence were frightful. The ruling parties were extreme, brutal and ruthless to a degree that South Africans (and most others) would find it hard even to imagine.

Arriving in Mozambique in 1993 I got some sense of this: local people told me cheerfully that things had improved now that small shops were again in private hands and “we are actually allowed to celebrate Christmas now, after many years when we weren’t”.

This in a country which is 60% Christian. In Zimbabwe the first twenty years after independence were live-able enough (if you weren’t living in Matabeleland) but the period since 2000 has been utterly frightful and continues to be so.

Given that the ANC was, like ZANU-PF, the MPLA and Frelimo, a radical Third World party strongly oriented towards Marxism-Leninism, South Africa’s experience might, under other circumstances, have resembled those of Angola, Zimbabwe and Mozambique.

Had the ANC really achieved “the seizure of state power through armed struggle”, no doubt it too would have instituted a one-party state and South Africa would have suffered the same extreme and repressive policies as its southern African neighbours.

South Africa’s liberal order

Instead, we have enjoyed a liberal order – no bannings, house arrest or detention without trial, but also freedom of speech, association, the press and assembly. We have a multi-party system and lots of independent radio stations and an independent TV station.

Thanks to government support and Chinese money Iqbal Surve was able to take over the largest newspaper group and turn its newspapers into ANC-supporting rags but they have lost almost all their circulation. There are still a number of publications critical of government.

When it comes to elections the ANC’s record is mixed. The IEC and Constitutional Court have always been packed with “politically reliable” folk. When the ANC loses important local elections it usually attempts to reverse the result – by getting the provincial ANC to put the municipality in question under administration, by extending municipal boundaries deep into rural areas, by bribing councillors to change sides or by attempting to absorb the Opposition-ruled municipality into a safe ANC area.

In addition, of course, it has invariably stuffed municipal administrations with ANC activists and they will attempt to sabotage an Opposition administration if they can.

None of these stratagems are legitimate but they do at least stop short of the outright fouls and rigging committed by the other liberation movements. And to date the Opposition has usually been able to overcome these gambits.

The result is that the Opposition have ruled several of the metros and many smaller towns. But the ANC’s behaviour is a warning: it has no real attachment to democratic norms.

Already, as we approach 2024, the ANC is proposing quite grotesque gerrymandering, including the creation of preposterous new Metro councils in both KwaZulu-Natal and North West province.

Why do we have a liberal order?

To what do we owe our liberal order? De Klerk would doubtless have said “the Constitution” and of course most of our freedoms are enshrined in that document. But there were many influences that mattered.

The ANC deserves some of the credit. Once the possibility of negotiations opened up at least some of its leaders were eager to take advantage of it. Of course, the ANC’s international backers all wanted them to negotiate, but it was also true that someone like Joe Slovo had been horrified at the human cost of the long wars in Angola and Mozambique and wanted to avoid conflict if at all possible.

Moreover, ANC leaders, despite their historic enmity for “die Boere” opted for a charm offensive to try to win over the goodwill of whites.

The ANC had set up their own constitutional committee in 1988 and, crucially, the distinguished academic, Jack Simons, was on it. Simons was a man who took non-racialism seriously and he was also a figure of commanding intellectual authority.

He assumed that South Africa would continue to have a large white, Indian and Coloured population, from which it seemed axiomatic that there had to be a tolerant, liberal dispensation if society was to work.

The resulting ANC draft constitution proved to be an influential document. Naturally, there are African nationalists in South Africa who would like to expel the minorities in the same way as has happened elsewhere in Africa but the fact that after nearly thirty years this has not occurred remains crucial to the country’s economy and its future.

Ironically, the ANC’s sheer “oppositionism” also helped. Within the ANC there was widespread scepticism about De Klerk’s offer, which seemed too good to be true. There was a strong suspicion that negotiations were all part of a trick, that the old enemy would still be the oppressor come what may.

This led many within the ANC to argue for safeguards against state power – safeguards to which the National Party was only too happy to agree, for it was sure the ANC would be in power. Even long after the ANC had formed the first democratic government such attitudes continued, with ANC activists claiming that the party was “in government but not in power”.

The importance of De Klerk

However, by far the most important factor was De Klerk’s speech of 2 February 1990. For years under PW Botha’s presidency various National Party interlocuters had tried to bargain with Mandela over his release.

Mandela had refused all conditions, producing a stalemate. Even so he had long discussions with National Party leaders and his preference for negotiations was obvious.

But De Klerk now unconditionally announced that Mandela would be released, that the ANC, PAC, Azapo and SACP were all unbanned and he invited the exiles to come home.

In addition he announced that apartheid would be scrapped completely and that negotiations would begin with the aim of creating a democratic order.

All of this was simply given away without conditions or bargaining. The result was immediately to make the armed struggle redundant, though the ANC took a while to register this fact.

Moreover, De Klerk immediately set about repealing apartheid laws. Those that remained on the statute book were anyway ignored. A peaceful transition – and our liberal order - followed.

Just what a crucial step this was can be envisaged if one thinks about what would have happened if De Klerk had continued for another five or ten years with an all-out confrontation with the ANC and his domestic opposition in the townships - or even just continued to make impossible demands for conditions to be fulfilled before he was willing to move.

Quite apart from the international sanctions and the domestic strife which would have followed such a course of action, such a posture would have strengthened all the most extreme elements within the ANC.

That in turn would have meant that when concessions ultimately had to be made, the settlement which the white regime then achieved would have been much worse and might well have resembled what occurred in Angola or Mozambique.

Can the liberal order be maintained?

The real question now is whether our liberal order can be maintained. That order is now in greater danger than at any time since 1994. As the ANC’s position has weakened more and more ANC voices are heard saying they do not want the current Constitution. They want its “neoliberal” values replaced with African values.

As Lindiwe Sisulu put it, if the Constitution doesn’t work well for the African majority, then what use is it, and why have it? Similarly, Paul Mashatile has made it clear that in his view democracy means that whatever the ANC or the African majority does is right. Even Ramaphosa has begun to sing this song.

If we decode this what it means is that the black elite has been made to feel insecure by the ANC’s decline. Of one thing it feels absolutely certain, which is that that elite must continue to rule ad infinitum. Naturally, it talks of “the African people”, “our people” or “the black majority” but everything about ANC governance shows that there is actually almost no regard for the poor majority.

Such talk really just means that the ANC leadership group must remain forever in power. Anything that gets in the way of that – the Constitution, free elections, a rules-based system – can be jettisoned.

One should remember that Zimbabwean elections were tolerably free while ZANU-PF was winning. Once it began to lose then any and every law could be broken to ensure that ZANU-PF remained in power. Murder, torture, intimidation, blowing up printing presses – everything was fair game.

In the same way the gerrymandering proposals now put forward by the ANC are more extreme than anything it has tried before and its attempt to change the narrative about Eskom so that corruption is not even mentioned suggest a grim determination to hang on in 2024, whatever it takes.

Secondly, it seems only too possible that the EFF will be brought within the governing fold. The EFF’s contempt for the liberal order and law in general has always been obvious. Their presence in government would undoubtedly increase the pressure to revise, abolish or simply ignore the constitution.

Third, it seems certain that Russia will play a much enhanced role in South Africa’s future – and the Russians are experts in rigged elections, the assassination of political opponents, disinformation, cybercrime and much else besides. The ANC is already getting substantial Russian financial assistance and there could be more of that.

In addition, the Russia Today (RT) TV network was shut down in South Africa as part of EU sanctions against Russia. This is about to be remedied: RT’s new African HQ is being set up in South Africa and it will soon be broadcasting from there. Given that defeating the DA and maintaining the ANC in power is an obvious Kremlin objective, one should expect RT to take an active part in the 2024 election campaign.

Moreover, the Russian nuclear company, Rosatom, has now set up offices in both Cape Town and Johannesburg. It has offered to take over the totality of South Africa’s energy sector, running the coal-powered stations, setting up gas-powered stations and, of course, building nuclear power stations.

This will be very attractive to many in the ANC for Rosatom is fabulously rich and there will be many opportunities for our political elite to “eat a little”. (Indeed, if Rosatom really could revive the whole energy sector many outside the ANC would be happy too...)

All of which means that the liberal order is under threat. We should value it, acknowledge De Klerk’s fine role in giving birth to it – and prepare to defend it.

R.W. Johnson