Transformation is killing South Africa

James Myburgh says the choice facing the country is between national suicide or reform and recovery

Despite its many failures in government the African National Congress has been extraordinarily successful in one respect at least; making its racial goals the goals of society as a whole. In China Communist Party cadres are evaluated according to how successful they are in promoting economic growth in their regions. In SA all institutions and businesses are judged according to scorecards measuring their diligence in progressively attaining pure racial proportionality, and in forcing those below them in the economic food chain to do the same.

Almost all sectors of our society, including the English-language media, pay obeisance to the ‘imperative of transformation’; the basic policy being that whites occupying high positions should be steadily weeded out until the ratio of whites (and other minorities) in prominent posts and occupations about equals their ratio to the total population. Or to be technically accurate, to their share of the economically active population; so 9% White, 9,6% Coloured and 2,6% Indian.

The ANC’s racial agenda has become so hegemonic that, paradoxically, it rarely features at all in ‘mainstream’ local or international academic or journalistic analyses of the country’s current predicament. This was recently illustrated by the response to the latest Commission for Employment Equity (CEE) report on the pursuit of demographic representivity in the workplace. According to the commission 27 485 reports were submitted to them by employers for the 2018 year, covering 7 415 876 individuals. Every person affected had been classified by their employer, by race and gender, and their status and position submitted to government.

The CEE stated that the ANC had successfully reduced the proportion of white South Africans at top management level to 9,2% in national govt, 8,7% in provincial government, 8,9% in local government, and 22,8% in the State Owned Enterprises. The fact that in the private sector whites made up 69,6% of “top management” was (yet again) denounced as a national scandal, and Employment and Labour Minister Thulas Nxesi promised “harsh measures”, and the pushing through of draconian new legislation, to enforce the ‘correct’ racial outcomes.

There was no push back on the proposal. In its report the Daily Maverick snidely commented “That white men rule, still, would not surprise anyone, except perhaps trade union Solidarity and lobbyists AfriForum.” In City Press editor-in-chief Mondli Makhanya complained that among the many failures of the Jacob Zuma presidency – along with state capture and corruption - was a failure to enforce transformation aggressively enough in the private sector. “We have to get this vehicle back on the road. Whatever efforts we put into rebooting the economy must be accompanied by an energised drive to make sure that the workplace is transformed.” If South Africa didn’t, he warned, “we’ll find ourselves reading the same speeches and moaning about the same thing 25 years from now”.

This inability of our leading publications and journalists to face up to the past and possible future consequences of ‘transformation’ is a serious problem. It means that the country has no chance of ever reaching the critical intellectual mass necessary to identify, and then drive, a coherent reform agenda. If South Africa is to avoid the worst it needs leaders and intellectuals with the wisdom to learn both from the ANC’s own past mistakes, as well as the mistakes of other similar nationalist movements in history.


The foundation stone of all anti-colonial nationalism was Lenin’s Theory of Imperialism: the idea that the metropolitan powers had acquired their great wealth and power, and thereby been able to ward off class revolution at home, through the exploitation of the brown and black masses in the colonies. The great attraction of this idea lay in the way it seemingly accounted for the entirety of the material, institutional and technological advantages that the Europeans had enjoyed over all other of the world’s peoples, at the height of the Imperial Age, and on which their “lying and insulting doctrine of race superiority” had rested.

This basic idea would come to be applied not just externally, against the European powers, but internally, against the more favoured and/or successful racial or ethnic minorities in the new nations wrestling free of external rule in Asia, the Middle East and Africa. For instance, the June 1955 report of the East Africa Royal Commission noted that while the capital, skill and expertise of Kenya, Uganda and Tanganyika’s racial minorities were critical to its future modern economic advance (as they had been in the past), nonetheless “the theme that those who possess an advantage have attained it merely because they belong to a more favoured racial community runs like a pathological obsession throughout the daily life and work of the community. This gives rise, in the last resort, to the belief that all would be well if, by a stroke -of the pen or of the sword, the African could be rid of the presence of the non-African, or could obtain complete political domination over him.”

In the 1950s and early 1960s South African Communist Party theoreticians refined and developed inchoate African nationalist ideas into the theory of Colonialism of a Special Type, by applying Lenin’s theory to the local context. The source of all the poverty and deprivation of the black African majority in South Africa, it was stated, lay in the arrival of the Dutch at the Cape of Good Hope in 1652. What followed was three hundred years of colonial oppression in which the whites had made themselves rich, and black people poor, through the robbery, exploitation and plunder of the indigenous peoples and their wealth and land.

The historic mission of the ANC and SACP, once power had been seized, would be to dismantle the “legacy of colonialism” manifested in the “racial imbalances” at all levels, and across all spheres, of South African existence; and to seize the wealth stolen by the local “white colonialists” and return it to “the people”. The material component of this national revolution was to uplift the black African majority economically, its moral component was to finally disprove enduring Western myths of black racial incapacity. The idea that the white minority could have to some extent earned its position, rather than acquired it through wholly nefarious means, could not be countenanced, as this would (it was felt) be an acknowledgment of the superiority of this powerful alien race.

In exile the ANC believed that it could, with Soviet backing, seize power through a combination of racial incitement, propaganda and armed force, and implement its programme through a socialist programme as the stroke of a sword (as Frelimo had done in Mozambique). But the collapse of Soviet Communism forced it into a negotiated settlement with the Afrikaner-dominated state, and to surrender nationalisation as its central instrument of policy. Rather than giving up on the ultimate goals of its national revolution though it now rather sought to implement them, through stages, over a twenty to twenty-five-year period.

The protections apparently provided by the Constitution were carefully engineered by the ANC’s brilliant legal tacticians to “fail” at each appropriate point in the process. ANC cadres meanwhile regarded themselves as an elect, embodying the will of the people, and uniquely able to recognise their true interests. Power over jobs, tenders, the allocation of BEE shareholdings, and so on, needed to be concentrated in their hands so that they could successfully emancipate the black African majority.

After a brief interlude emphasising ‘reconciliation’ the ANC leadership began reasserting its historic agenda and pursued aggressively discriminatory policies against ordinary white South Africans where it could. This was done gradually but purposefully. White administrators, professionals and experts in were now defined as “obstacles to transformation” and prevailed upon to exit state employment. It was made clear that there was no further prospect of advancement within the state for them, and financial incentives were provided to those who agreed to go.

Between May 1996 and September 1997, so in just the first year-and-a-half of the process, 22 249 (mostly white) civil servants took voluntary severance packages from national departments, including 10 052 from defence, and 3 150 from the police. A further 25 805 severance packages were taken at provincial government level. An additional 15 541 teachers, including many highly skilled and experienced Coloured and Indian teachers, were also prevailed upon to leave as part of a “right-sizing” initiative. These packages often proved most attractive to the highly skilled, ambitious and hardworking; those best able to pursue their careers in the private sector or abroad. The immediate effect of this loss of know-how was to progressively degrade the ability of the state to execute functions of medium to high complexity – such as teaching higher grade mathematics to school children, administering state finances, or investigating and prosecuting relatively sophisticated crime.

To give one measurable example of the immediate effects, the number of pupils passing matric with exemption declined through the first five years of ANC rule from 88 497 in 1994 to 63 725 in 1999. Another: In his report on national government accounts for the 1995/1996 financial year, presented to parliament in March 1997, the Auditor-General Henri Kluever listed a series of problems in the management of national accounts which, he said, were “caused by a shortage of staff with the necessary experience and skills. Any further loss of skills from departments and institutions is going to cause very grave problems indeed and positive steps to prevent this should be taken as a matter of urgency. If the powers that be do not accord a higher priority to experience, skills and the consequent ability to do the job the capacity to deliver is going to be severely impaired”.

The concerns that were raised at the time by Kluever and others, at the effects this decapitation of the state was having on its capacity, were sneeringly dismissed by the top ANC leadership. Deputy President Thabo Mbeki suggested that they emanated from a belief that “the Bantus are not yet ready to govern”. Justice Minister Dullah Omar said those white officials in his department who could not come to terms with having their career prospects snuffed out in the name of representivity were “going to find it very difficult to live in the new South Africa”.

In 1997 and 1998 the ANC began openly driving forward “transformation”, embodied in the dual programmes of cadre deployment and demographic representivity. The White Paper on Affirmative Action in the Public Service and the Employment Equity Act, adopted in 1998, both welded historic apartheid-era race categorisations onto the ideal of racial proportionality in outcomes.

Again, the pursuit of “representivity” was not an uncommon one in the new nations that emerged following the retreat of Empire. For instance, in post-colonial Rwanda the Tutsi officially made up 9% of the population. Under the ethnic quota system applied after independence (1962) by the Hutu nationalist regime there could be “no more than 9% Tutsi students in schools, 9% Tutsi clerks in the civil service or even 9% Tutsi in any given sector of employment.” Given their advantages in education, dating from the days of Belgian colonial rule, this principle sometimes had to be honoured in the breach and the Tutsi continued to occupy more than their allotted share up until the early 1970s.

In 1972/3 the Hutu regime launched a punitive action against the Tutsi, following the Burundian genocide, with vigilante committees formed to scrutinise the schools, university, civil service and private businesses “to make sure the ethnic quota policy was being respected”. This was driven by educated people who could expect to “benefit from kicking the Tutsi out of their jobs”. This Employment Equity drive triggered, in turn, a new wave of emigration of the Tutsi from Rwanda.[1]

In terms of the policy of cadre deployment, sanctified at the 1997 ANC national conference in Mafikeng, loyalists would be deployed into all ‘centres of power’ across society with a mandate to transform their institutions, at all levels, to ensure that the goals of the national revolution were pursued with the necessary vigour. This was a process that ran hand-in-hand with the dismantling of many critical institutional checks and balances. In 1996 the ANC smashed the power exercised by an independent Public Service Commission over the career incidents of public servants, transferring this to the political heads of the department; and in 1997 abolished the merit-system in the appointment and promotion of public servants.

In 1998 the National Prosecuting Authority was established in order to ensure centralised ANC control over all prosecutions in the country, and an MP, Bulelani Ngcuka, was appointed to head it. Jackie Selebi was sent to transform the SAPS, where he took a sledgehammer to those specialised units dealing with drugs, gangsterism, public order policing, sexual violence and child abuse, as well as the highly effective internal anti-corruption unit.


The damage done to the state by transformation was not just limited to the mass loss of know-how, which could also no longer be passed onto those coming through the system. It also eroded the work ethic in these institutions. In the late 1990s a senior advocate in the prosecution service described the effect as follows:

"The department is supposed to render a service, and the best service is supposed to be the criterion [for promotion.] What now happens is that promotion does not depend on performance but on race. The result is that whites are too demoralised to perform because there's nothing in it for them-- no incentive. Conversely, there is no incentive for people of colour to perform because promotion is not dependent on performance."

Yet even where race was not an issue, as in huge parts of the schooling system, the merit system was still replaced by a patronage one, with ANC cadres / Cosatu-affiliated union activists on the inside track for promotion regardless of their actual performance. Here too there was a hugely negative effect on morale. As one anonymous teacher, quoted in a government report, complained: "Many educators in my school are not motivated to work. There are no incentives to motivate educators to work. The merit system stopped and salary progression was put on hold and as a result educators are doing the bare minimum that is required of them."

With almost all state institutions now captured, in 2002 the ANC embarked on the next stage of the national revolution by using the state powers it had now accumulated to now set about dismantling the “racial imbalances” in the economy. Government and parastatal control over tenders, policy, legislation, and mining and other licenses, would give it huge leverage over the private sector. By 2010 some R500 billion in shares had been extracted from the private sector, through Black Economic Empowerment requirements; with huge sums not going to the historically deprived black majority, as was the stated intention, but by now already privileged ANC insiders.

By 2007 corruption too was already pervasive across the state, due to the abuse of tenders for the purposes of ANC self-enrichment. Early that year the ANC Secretary General Kgalema Motlanthe told Carol Paton of the Financial Mail that "this rot is across the board. It's not confined to any level or any area of the country. Almost every project is conceived because it offers opportunities for certain people to make money. A great deal of the ANC's problems are occasioned by this. They are people who want to take it over so they can arrange for the appointment of those who will allow them possibilities for future accumulation." A senior Scorpions investigator commented at around the same time that he could not think of a single honestly awarded state contract under the ANC government. This was the period as well in which the contracts for the completely ill-conceived and fiscally disastrous Medupi and Kusile power stations were signed.


Some of the ways in which the Mandela and Mbeki presidencies distinguished themselves from African nationalist predecessor regimes was through adopting free market policies early on, the imposition of fiscal discipline after 1996, and sensible macro-economic policy. Treasury, the South African Reserve Bank and the South African Revenue Service were also all run well, on rational lines, with a relatively high priority still given to expertise, even if the top posts still went to (the most honest and capable) ANC cadres. The Mbeki government also had the good fortune to ride the wave of the commodities boom – which submerged the effects of already pervasive misgovernance. Under Vusi Pikoli the NPA and the Directorate of Special Operations (the Scorpions) also began to assert their political and institutional independence in pursuing the prosecutions both of Jacob Zuma and Jackie Selebi, an Mbeki ally.

The Mbeki camp’s total political defeat at Polokwane in December 2007 had a contradictory effect on South Africa’s post-apartheid trajectory. Politically, it fractured the ruling party, and greatly weakened the ANC’s moral and political dominance over society. On this dimension it saw a shift away from the typical ‘post-colonial’ trajectory, and the liberalisation of politics and society.

Economically however it placed South Africa on a familiar path, with the left-wing ministers who now took control over all aspects of economic policy weakening protections for foreign investors, ratcheting-up BEE requirements, and relaxing fiscal discipline, just at the moment the tax windfall generated by the commodities boom ended.

Institutionally, Vusi Pikoli’s removal as National Directorate of Public Prosecutions was supported by all factions of the ANC, including Cosatu and the SACP, as was the abolition of the Scorpions. By the time Jacob Zuma entered into office then most key institutional and state checks on even the most public and egregious acts of looting had been dismantled, all in the name of transformation. There was also nothing to stop someone like Tom Moyane being appointed commissioner of SARS, or to subsequently protect the cohort of honest and able professionals (of all colours) who had run that institution in such an exemplary fashion from being marginalised, and replaced by the incapable or corrupt. Revenue collection was seriously weakened as a result. Treasury and the SA Reserve Bank narrowly escaped a similar fate.

This all opened the way to the great leap forward towards outright kleptocracy that occurred during the Zuma-era, whereby the unscrupulous Gupta family - operating in cahoots with malevolent Western consulting firms, propagandists and journalists - plundered the state and parastatal sector, and then tried to divert attention from what they were up to with crass anti-white “economic apartheid” propaganda.


One of the foundational ideals of the constitution is supposed to be non-racialism. The initial deviation from this principle in the mid-1990s was justified, at least by the ANC’s more liberal-minded apologists, by the need to provide redress to those who had suffered from acute apartheid-era racial discrimination, hence the designation “historically disadvantaged”.

2019 is the twenty-fifth year the ANC has been in power in South Africa. A working life, from leaving school to reaching the traditional age of retirement, is 47 years at most. As a matter of simple arithmetic then, every adult under the age of sixty-five has now spent at least half of their working life under the rule of the ANC and their ever-more onerous racial laws and requirements. Every adult under the age of 43 has spent their entire working life under this particular variant of racial nationalist rule.

We are nearing the point too at which half of the black African majority in the country was born after 1994. According to StatsSA’s mid-year population estimates for 2019 about 47% of the black African population was born after April 1994, 55% after the unbanning of the liberation movements in 1990, 63% after the abolition of the pass laws in early 1986, and 79% after the start of the Soweto uprising on June 16th 1976, the same cohort that first reached voting age in 1994.

If transformation were succeeding in uplifting the black majority it could be seen as justifying itself, at least from the nationalist point of view. Yet while this project has made many leading ANC politicians and cadres - particularly from the Mandela and Mbeki eras - rich beyond all imagining, it is self-evidently failing the great majority of black South Africans.

There has been no meaningful economic growth for a decade, and per capita GDP is lower than it was in 2007. Low growth combined with over-spending on the salaries of civil servants, and misspending in the parastatals, has also helped bring South Africa to the edge of a fiscal cliff. Close to 9 in 10 pupils in black African language state schools are unable to ‘read for meaning’ in Grade 4, according to the 2017 PIRLS survey. The black African unemployment rate, on the expanded definition, is at 43%. Once functional and self-financing parastatals are all on taxpayer funded life-support, while the state is also no longer able to perform such basic functions as successfully investigating and prosecuting murder, corruption or drug dealing, even when carried out in broad daylight.

The ANC government’s intrusion into the private sector, to enforce transformation, has been a major break on economic growth. Some of the mechanisms are obvious, in that this has contributed to high levels of emigration by disfavoured minorities with portable expertise – something which suppresses growth prospects in the medium to long term - and has also deterred internal and foreign investment, particularly in the mining sector.

The system whereby instant wealth is allocated to favoured individuals, whether through tenders, the allocation of BEE shareholdings extorted from companies, or bank “loans” in the case of VBS, has also been profoundly corrupting of society, and damaging to its longer-term developmental prospects.

As one of the leading architects of the Asian miracle, Goh Keng Swee, noted in 1968, most developing countries are in a tight situation “and the filching of surplus value by corrupt politicians and civil servants would mean the transfer of resources from capital formation either into a Swiss bank or into conspicuous consumption. In either case, the effect on development is bad. But such technical economic effects are minor compared with the demoralization which corruption spreads throughout the whole of society. The formation of new skills, the development of new attitudes of thrift, enterprise, integrity, which are so necessary in running the institutions of a modern state—all these are totally subverted, and their effect is far more damaging than the short-term economic effects of resource diversion.”


Transformation has clearly failed both materially and morally. This is the fundamental source of the seething anger of the country’s racial nationalist elite and their hyper-sensitivity towards even the most trivial and pathetic manifestations of white impertinence; as well as the ‘xenophobic’ resentments and violence of those lower down the class hierarchy.

There is nothing new in this. In a 1967 article for the New York Times Lawrence Fellows noted how the Indians, who were estimated to control some four-fifths of commerce in East Africa at the time, were "becoming more and more the objects of outbursts of envy and smouldering resentment." He described the issue as follows:

"The Africans have won political power in their countries, but economic power eludes them. Programmes of Africanisation, of reserving jobs for Africans, have got them into the civil service, but not into commerce. Programmes of Government help to aspiring African businessmen have not often proved a good substitute for hard work and the good business sense that is acquired through experience. The Africans rarely blame themselves; more often they speak of their plight as a legacy of their colonial past."

Under the ANC South Africa has trodden much the same path as most other ‘post-colonial’ nations, with some deviations, and while lagging far behind the pack. But it has now reached the same fork in the road as so many others have done before in Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

There is growing nationalist frustration that most commercially productive farmland remains in white hands, that the private sector is still ‘dominated’ at the top levels by white men, and that most of the white minority continues to have access to quality private healthcare.

What is needed then is one last great heroic effort by the liberation movement to summon up the power, courage and necessary ruthlessness to confront the forces of colonial evil, seize the ill-gotten wealth of the whites, enforce pure equality of outcomes in all spheres, and thereby usher in a South Africa transformed and redeemed, finally rid of all vestiges of the ‘colonial legacy’.

This is the path that leads ultimately towards exodus (or worse) for minorities and national suicide for the majority. The country will be not just driving out professionals, managers, entrepreneurs and commercial farmers – and losing this precious know-how to other countries in the process - but destroying the very institutions (such as secure property rights) on which the majority’s own future success and prosperity depends.

The other path is the one of reform, that more-and-more Asian countries decided to take from the early 1960s onwards. This requires a complete reorientation of government away from trying to enforce equality of outcomes, from the top down, towards creating the conditions for rapid economic growth. The goal here is to achieve rapid material advancement for the population from the ground up. 

In the South African context this requires allocating state tenders on the basis of cost and competence alone, restoring investor confidence, freeing the private sector of burdensome racial requirements, neutralising certain politicians by locking them up, using all the talents in society to their full, and reinstating the merit-system in all state bodies. There is no cost involved in much of this, but it does require serious short term ideological sacrifice, and abandoning the leaden life-buoy of the ideology of Colonialism of a Special Type.

Yet as the Chinese model has shown there is ultimately no surer way to dispel negative Western stereotypes than to do what is necessary to succeed as a people and a society.


[1] Gerard Prunier, The Rwandan Crisis: History of a Genocide, Hurst & Company, London,2014, pp 60-61