The road not taken

RW Johnson asks whether an "imposed settlement" could have avoided some of the disasters of ANC rule

Irina Filatova, in her book The Hidden Thread: Russia and South Africa in the Soviet Era, shows that the KGB and South Africa’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) began to consult one another in the early 1980s. At first this was purely about exchanges of spies and prisoners of war in Angola and sometimes about third countries – but inevitably this spilt over into discussions about each other’s countries.

In the late 1980s trust had been established to a point where the NIS were asking the Soviets how they should deal with the ANC. Their KGB interlocuters were not enthused. “Too late”, they said. “You can’t do anything now” They had known the ANC for many years and they believed that the ANC would act in its own interests only – not those of the country as a whole. They certainly wouldn’t keep to any agreements they made if it didn’t suit them. And they were experienced negotiators, who had operated in the international arena for decades.

It would have been better, they said, if the South African government had simply imposed a solution. Of course, apartheid had to go and there had to be complete democracy. But if that was a given the world would have been delighted and the ANC would have had no choice but to participate in the resulting system.

The NIS dissented. They had already made contact with Thabo Mbeki, and thought that he was a reasonable man. They were sure that a deal could be hammered out. Irina (she happens to be my wife) sought out the KGB operatives involved and interviewed one of them. He shook his head: “The Afrikaners didn’t know their own Africans”, he said.

There is wisdom in that. Because of apartheid South African politicians didn’t know their own black countrymen. Ideally, National Party politicians should have been rubbing shoulders with their ANC counterparts in Parliament for many years before 1994.

But the intriguing question left hanging is what would an imposed settlement have looked like? The key “mistake” about the 1993 and 1996 Constitutions was the unitary state. South Africa is a country of many different regions and groups – in some cases whole separate nations. This was acknowledged by the recognition of no less than eleven different official languages.

Yet the Constitution provides for a unitary state with only the most minimal concessions made to federalism. That centralised state allowed for the racial dictatorship of the National Party and it now allows for the racial dictatorship of the ANC. This was and is deeply damaging to South Africa.

The racial favouritism of apartheid drove away investment, provoked sanctions and boycotts and led to a large brain drain from South Africa. Similarly, the racial favouritism of BEE drives away investment and is a huge drag on the economy, while affirmative action in the labour market not only puts incapable people in charge of many institutions but it also causes a deeply damaging brain drain as well-educated young South Africans flee the country, seeking opportunity in more open labour markets elsewhere. These two policies alone have crippled the new South Africa, making it impossible for the country to compete internationally.

So, an imposed settlement would have had to avoid this. The key motif would have been to weaken the central state and increase the powers of the provinces and the major cities. Specifically, both the provinces and the cities would have been given their own police forces and wider revenue-raising powers.

The model would have been American federalism and as in the USA, the only police powers left to the centre would have been for domestic and foreign intelligence (in the US, the FBI and CIA). The major cities would have been encouraged to run their local commuter railways, to manage their own water supplies and to generate their own electricity.

This would be done under the general slogan of bringing decision-making much closer to the people and the key principle would have been that of subsidiarity – that is, wherever possible, decisions should be taken by the lowest appropriate level of government.

So while federalism would have been strengthened, the devolution of power would not stop at the provinces but would recognise the fact that South Africa is a country of only six big cities and less than a dozen middle sized cities. As South Africa urbanises, more and more of the population lives in those cities and they have to become the key centres of political power.

This would have to be paralleled in the economic sphere by breaking up both Eskom and Transnet into a number of privatised entities. Each port and airport would be separately (and privately) managed though with city and provincial representatives sitting on their boards.

Inevitably this would mean that ports and airports would compete with one another, keeping port charges and airport landing fees as low as they could. More generally, the cities would also compete with one another. A well-run city with a dynamic mayor and an enterprising administration would inevitably attract citizens and businesses away from elsewhere. A poorly run city with a corrupt administration would rapidly shrink.

Naturally, universal suffrage and the abolition of all racial laws would be central to any settlement, but the electoral system would have to have been along German lines as recommended by the Slabbert Commission.

No racial favouritism would be allowed in either the labour market or the business world. However, there would have to be large-scale public expenditure aimed at remedying the social inequalities bequeathed by apartheid, particularly in the fields of education and housing. Firm control of the borders would be essential to ensure that this expenditure reached only the black South Africans on whom it was targeted.

It would have to be acknowledged that just as disadvantage had been historically accumulated, it would take time to turn the situation around. The aim would be to create a well-educated black middle class which would, gradually at first, take over the running of the country.

The gradual nature of this evolution would be guaranteed in the constitution by various power-sharing measures, but the ultimate guarantee would reside in the fact that each province would have the right to secede from the union if the constitutional contract was broken.

This last point is crucial, as Quebec has shown. Quebeckers threatened secession unless French achieved parity with English throughout Canada. They got what they wanted so Canada remains united. For the threat of secession – breaking up the country – is immensely powerful. There’s no guarantee like a territorial guarantee.

Had such a settlement been imposed the ANC would, of course, have objected but if the settlement was internationally accepted, as it surely would have been, they would have had little choice but to participate in the new system, though under protest. There would have been a huge release of racial tensions and an eager popular embrace of new non-racial opportunities.

With the falling away of sanctions and boycotts, investment would have soared, the economy would have boomed and would thus have paid for the vast new expenditures on education and housing required to alleviate the damage of apartheid. A rising tide would have lifted all boats and although there would have been plenty of protests and the venting of grievances they would ultimately dissolve in the optimism generated by high and sustained economic growth.

However, for such a settlement to have any chance of lasting and not suffer the fate of the Tricameral Parliament it would have been essential for it to be “bedded down” over at least a ten year period.

Which is to say that by 1990 it was far too late for such an imposed settlement. Nor could it have been imposed amidst the tumultuous conditions of the mid-1980s.

Probably the ideal moment for such a settlement would have been the early 1970s and certainly no later than 1983. So either John Vorster or PW Botha would have had to impose such a solution. And they would have had to prepare the ground for it by spelling out the unvarnished truth to their reluctant electorate.

Perhaps that was impossible. Verwoerd had led the National Party (and with it, the country) into the laager. It would have taken an exceptional act of leadership to take the party and country out of that in order to embrace a non-racial future.

Perhaps National Party voters had to become very uncomfortable and frightened inside that laager before they would risk bursting out of it. But why was a truth that was self-evident to De Klerk in 1990 (and to the Soviets some years before that) unthinkable only ten years before? To be sure the position of National Party leaders was stronger in 1980 than it was in 1990 but the way to face inevitable change is to do it from a position of strength.

This article first appeared in Rapport newspaper.