“There is all sorts of out of control nonsense going on”: Lunch with RW Johnson

Dominique Herman discusses the state of SA with the author and commentator over a meal at The Brasserie

Over steak and a white wine spritzer, political scientist R.W. Johnson holds forth on South Africa’s political woes in his inimitably frank style

I’ve known Bill Johnson for a while as he and his wife, Irina Filatova, are friends of my parents. So, apart from being a regular reader of his columns in Politicsweb – despite wanting more often than not to slit my wrists afterwards – I’ve had the pleasure of chatting and listening to Johnson on multiple social occasions. But I’ve never had his undivided attention nor the opportunity to ask him a series of uninterrupted questions, so I ask if he’ll meet me for lunch.

He’s happy for me to choose the venue, replying in an email: “My two key desiderata are that I can park outside and that it’s not on a steep hill or anywhere too tricky for a disabled person; and that it’s quiet enough to allow proper conversation. Noisy restaurants are hell.”

Johnson lives in Constantia so after mulling over 95 Parks (where he’s been), Wild Sprout and Little Stream (where he hasn’t), I land on The Brasserie in nearby Tokai which I discover, once we’re sitting at a table outside in the back, was the weekly venue for a lunch club of which Johnson was a member. The Brasserie is the type of unassuming neighbourhood bistro every neighbourhood should have.

Considering the blitz of interlocking events that most of his columns feature, I wonder whether those references come from memory or require research. “I’m liable to forget an arrangement made with Irina yesterday, but I won’t forget about when the battle of so-and-so was or historical dates or things like that,” he replies. 

Johnson has two children from his first marriage. He met Irina, who is Russian, at a braai in Durban. She was teaching at the then University of Durban-Westville (now part of the University of KwaZulu-Natal) and planned to go back to her job in Moscow. “But then we met and she didn’t.’’ I imagine there’s a lot of current events chat at home considering Irina is an academic too. “It’s very nice,” he confirms. “We are intellectual companions.”

Another hallmark of Johnson’s analytical output in general is how frank it is. “I could be more frank,” he says. “I do feel that one of the problems in South Africa is that people tiptoe around problems and don’t want to say things out loud. So that’s probably why I’m outspoken, or whatever.”

I ask him whether he ever hears from politicians about what he’s written. “I’ve no idea about my audience and I’ve no idea if politicians read me. I suspect that it’s reasonably well read.” I have no doubt it’s well read, I respond. I just hope that some of the people one wants desperately to read it are reading it. “I don’t have that feeling,” he says. “My job is to do the writing, put it out there. That’s me done. I’m not trying to be politically influential. Anyone who wants to can read it; if they don’t want to, they don’t have to.”

Johnson was born in England and came to Durban in South Africa when he was 13. His father worked for an oil company and his mother raised six children (he is number two and the eldest son). “It was really two families. It was three children for many years and then there were another three.” 

Johnson didn’t see his father for a birthday or a Christmas till he was eight. He suspects his father was keen to have more children because he had been on tankers at sea for stints of two years at a time while his first three were growing up. He describes his father as highly intelligent, a very able man in all respects and young, vigorous and full of fun. “He was remarkable, actually.” 

In his teens his father ran away from home from his father who used to beat him with an iron bar, which is why he never went to university. Despite that, “he was exceptional at everything really, I think, intellectually” and played soccer for Liverpool. He was also fantastic at cricket, golf, table tennis (north of England champion) and a swimming champion: “there was no sport that he didn’t absolutely excel at”. His mother never went to university either and actually left school at age 14 and worked as a shopgirl, but he describes her as “immensely well read”.

His parents wound up staying in Durban for eight years, by which time Johnson was doing his postgraduate studies at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar, having done his undergraduate degree at the then University of Natal. “I did enjoy growing up in Durban very much.”

He taught for 26 years at Oxford and then felt the need to do something different. He had enjoyed his trips back to South Africa since he had left as a student and returned to run the Helen Suzman Foundation in Johannesburg in 1995. He was the only one of the six children in his family that returned to South Africa. 

Of his three brothers, one became a policeman in England, another worked in computers, and the third became chief actuary of Lloyd’s of London. Both of his sisters have died, having suffered from alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency. Johnson was diagnosed with the same condition but it didn’t prove fatal for him: the “lottery of life”, as he puts it.

One would never guess it from reading his writing now, but Johnson was an African National Congress (ANC) supporter when he was young. He became disenchanted with the party when he encountered them in exile when they were banned under National Party rule during apartheid in South Africa.

“I’d seen the ANC in exile. I had no illusions about them at all. I assumed it would be a disaster. They were full of arrogance and very ideological. There were very few people of real ability in their midst. I thought this is going to end in tears. There’s no two ways about it.”

“To be up close with those guys: they were very ideological, they’re often racist, not very bright. And you realise that if you’re going to carry on being in that environment, you’re going to have to take orders from people like that because there was very strong party discipline. And I just thought, I can’t do this. I valued individual rights too much for that and I also thought they’re going to be a disaster if they take over the country. I had no confidence whatsoever that they would make a good fist of this.”

The ANC is now famously undisciplined as an organisation which Johnson attributes to it being back in the country. The communist influence and patronage in exile – the communists were the conduit through which the party got funding from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe – imposed iron discipline. To a large extent, that communist policy became ANC policy. “I had ANC students: they had to ask the permission of the party to get married.”

Johnson’s been interviewed a lot already about coalition government possibilities in the general election in 2024 and we speak about this too. One of the big problems of prospective coalition government – should the ANC lose its majority, as is widely predicted – would be overhauling the civil service. “It’ll be an uphill task. Because you’ve got a lot of people who are not used to, frankly, doing their jobs or not being able to do their jobs.” He cites the expression “lack of capacity” having become a standard response for non-service. “Why don’t you appoint people who are more capable in that case?”

“The ANC were just repeating the mistakes of the Nationalists who were trying to run the country as if the blacks weren’t part of it. And now they were trying to run the country as if the whites weren’t part of it. You can’t do either thing. What was proven under apartheid is that you couldn’t run this country for one group only.”

He details scams at the home affairs departments in Gauteng and the Western Cape whereby government employees “deliberately increase the discomfiture of the public and then they offer them a way out for a price”. 

“There is all sorts of out of control nonsense going on. How the hell do you get control of all of that?” He mentions that he is writing a piece about this; the article appears in BizNews four days later.

“I think the ANC are beginning to die basically and this is a process that has already begun and I don’t think it’s reversible. We don’t know exactly what will follow that but what we’ve got now will not last forever, that’s for sure.

“The fact is all the people of this country want electricity, they want ATMs that work, etc., etc., and the ANC is failing to provide that and I don’t think they can survive that.”

The Western Cape is led by the official opposition, the Democratic Alliance (DA), and certain municipalities there, Cape Town among them, are considered the best run in the country by far. Johnson guesses that since 2006, when the ANC lost power in Cape Town, that three quarters of a million migrants at least from the Eastern Cape and Transkei have come to live there. But the ANC vote there in this period has gone from 38% to 18% “despite this huge increase in the African electorate”. 

“I’m very struck by it and I said to (Cape Town mayor) Geordin Hill-Lewis when he took over, you realise you really exist on a sort of benign abstention, and he said, what do you mean? So I gave him those figures and said, look, they’re not voting for you, pretty clearly, but they ain’t voting. They’re just abstaining; they’re not voting ANC. That’s clear. And that’s why you win. 

“I said the only way I can interpret this is that the rate of unemployment is considerably lower in the Cape, the city works better, it does provide services to Khayelitsha. Even libraries are built. That would never happen in Soweto or any black squatter camp in Gauteng or Durban. The ANC would never do that; the local guys would have that in their back pocket in no time.

“So I think that although they may not be your supporters or they may not even like you, that in some possibly grudging way, they know maybe this is about as good as it gets: the city works, they do their best, they even provide us with services, unemployment is lower – you know, it’s a better deal. 

“So he said, you know you may be right. Because the city does a customer satisfaction survey, every month actually, and in the white and coloured areas the level of satisfaction is identical with the DA vote; in black areas, it’s considerably higher than the DA vote.”

What is that about, I ask? These people have come to the Western Cape so they can have a better life there. They grudgingly admit that life there is better, but still they cannot vote for the party providing it? One really needs a proper sociological study of all this, he answers, with people interviewed by people of their own language group. 

He describes the South African Post Office, railways and the electricity system all in a state of collapse. “Not just twentieth century industry like South African Airways (SAA). You’re seeing nineteenth century industries failing.” In small towns across the country, the post office and railway were the two big things that integrated that town with the rest of the country and connected it with the world – “and made all the difference to the town”.

“These are absolutely crucial industries which worked for the good of the whole country and brought the whole country together. The failure to maintain even nineteenth century industries is really very, very striking. Moreover, those are industries without any serious international competition; they’re all local monopolies. Now obviously SAA had serious international competition. 

“That’s where sport is so interesting. South Africa insists on transformation – basically affirmative action – in picking the cricket team. But what guys have got to fight against: Australia and England and India who don’t do that. They just pick the best, ruthlessly, and then these guys come up against that and it’s slam, bam, wallop most of the time.”

Post offices around the world, as an example, have had to adapt and modernise themselves in various ways with the advent of the internet and courier services. “There are other African countries where the post office hasn’t collapsed,” he comments, referring to South Africa where it has.

“They did appoint this chap (Mark) Barnes who was in charge for a while. He saw that and he said, look we’ve got to change; we’ve got to make the Postbank much more important – make it a bank for poor people and so on. Similarly he said they’re going to collect their social grants here. We’ve got to diversify. 

“And he had all sorts of quite good ideas but he didn’t last because as soon as he got the Postbank going, they took it away from him. Somebody in government decided, oh well, we’ll have that. So he resigned: I’m trying to make this a viable organisation and if the minute I get something going you do that, hopeless. Now the fact is you need people like him and I think even the unions there knew that.”

Things need not be so poorly managed and run in general, “but it does mean that you would have to be sensible about acquiring management talent which might not be African. You’ve got to be open-minded about that. You’ve also not got to have lots of people who can’t do their job.”

He’s written about South Africa as being the biggest economy that an African nationalist government has ever taken over. As a party, the ANC is “absolutely out of their depth on that front.” The situation isn’t aided by the fact that South Africa is a difficult country for anyone to run, he adds. It’s very various with different peoples, different languages, different nations even. Zulus are a nation, Afrikaners probably are too, but the regions are so different too. “Natal and the Northwest are chalk and cheese. The Cape is so different. It’s not easy. It’s a complex country; not just a small cash-crop economy, where getting it in and exporting it is all one needs to focus on.”

Then there’s the “runaway corruption and unstoppable crookery of all sorts. That’s what we’ve seen. This ‘gimme, gimme, gimme’ while it does exist in other African countries, has totally run away with the ANC.”

With the combination of rampant affirmative action and employment equity policies, executive boards are now often peopled with passengers. “This is one of the problems. So many of the people who have been rewarded handsomely, including Ramaphosa, they’re not actually contributing anything. What did Ramaphosa do? Did he found any company that is doing something new and interesting? No. Is there any new product? No. He got shares given to him in other people’s companies. It’s totally parasitic.

“There are very able black people in the private sector who do add value, who really do know what they are doing, but they’re not in government,” he adds.

Johnson doesn’t want dessert which seems ill-advised to me when “chocolate nemesis” is on the menu. By this stage our waiter, who has regularly come to our table and, clearly not wanting to interrupt, has disappeared again, is not making appearances anymore. 

“Coffee would be good. Black, filter coffee – Americano, they call it nowadays,” he requests, as I go in to place our order. “Black with no sugar,” he calls after me, “it couldn’t be simpler.”

Johnson has started thinking about doing a book on the current situation in South Africa (he penned How Long Will South Africa Survive? in 1977 and updated it to How Long Will South Africa Survive? The Looming Crisis in 2015) and he’s currently working on an update of The Clash of Civilizations by Samuel P. Huntington. “I thought it would be worthwhile trying to update that so I’ve done quite a lot of work on that but I need to do more. And that’s a very different thing – it’s not a SA thing.”

Going back to a SA thing, I ask him whether he reckons Ramaphosa, now having won again the leadership contest at the recent ANC conference, will finally have the wherewithal to do something about anything. 

“I think he’s a fairly low-ability man. I suspect that being a Venda is a problem. If you look at it under Thabo (Mbeki) and Mandela, Xhosas just swarmed into government. They would overwhelmingly dominate in the civil service as well. And then when it was Zuma, it was Zulus. You had lots of them, especially in key positions. And there’s a certain inevitability about that.”

Ministers, he said, ‘‘almost invariably” appointed directors-general from their own ethnic group. “Thabo pointed that out a long time ago. It was very striking. People wanted that.”

“The Nguni have got it locked up basically. It’s an Nguni show,” he adds, referring to the combination of Xhosa and Zulu representation in the party and government

“Course it’s not possible with Ramaphosa. He’s a Venda and he’s the only one. He’s got no following group which supports him and I think he knows that, and he must also be well aware that the Zulus and Xhosas look down on Vendas. It can’t be very good for his self-esteem. So he knows he’s on his own and he doesn’t have any supporting group and I suspect this is important to his so-called dithering and so on. He just feels very unsure of himself, I think. So I don’t really expect that to change all that much. It ought to, of course; the situation requires it.”

Several dispiriting hours later – content, not company wise – and we ready ourselves to leave. How was the steak, I ask? “It was good,” he says. Not a raging endorsement that, but certainly the best one all afternoon. 

The Brasserie

200g fillet au poivre R264
Salmon vodka pasta R130
Spritzer R48
300ml Cape Pale Ale (included as part of the “Lunch Club” menu)
Americano x 2 R54

Total including tip: R550

This article first appeared on Dominique Herman’s Substack (click here to subscribe).