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Review: South Africa’s Brave New World: the beloved country since the end of apartheid

R W Johnson / Alan Lane / 2009 / £25.00 

24 September 2009

Fifteen years after the ANC won a majority in the first post-Apartheid election, it may have done little to transform the lives of the black masses but it has certainly transformed the fortunes of its leading cadre, says Stuart King

This review first appeared on Permanent Revolution

The campaign to defeat the Apartheid state mobilised a generation of young and old in support of the African National Congress (ANC) and its imprisoned leader Nelson Mandela. This makes Johnson’s book, an assessment of ANC governments since 1994, a particularly depressing read. Yet scattered throughout its 650 pages are important lessons for radicals and socialists alike.

Johnson, a one-time ANC member in the 1960s, moved back to South Africa from Magdalen College Oxford in 1995 to become Director of the Helen Suzman Foundation and also South Africa correspondent for the Sunday Times. He is no radical, and his views on black advancement within the country are sometimes hard to stomach as, for example, when he says:

“The decision to press ahead regardless with affirmative action throughout both public and private sectors was the greatest single disaster to overtake the new South Africa.”

This is a constant theme throughout the book: most of the government’s failures lie in the promotion of people not on the basis of merit but on the basis of race. Put crudely, by ousting and alienating the white government bureaucracy and replacing it with a less well-educated and capable black one, Johnson believes the ANC virtually wrecked the country. Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) in the private sector comes in for the same withering criticism.

In going through the history of the South African government’s internal workings and scandals in great detail what Johnson does show is how, for all the talk of “black empowerment”, “gender equality”, “an African Renaissance”, the ANC did exactly the opposite. ANC leaders became corrupt and nepotistic – good at helping themselves and their friends but doing little for the black masses.

Economic empowerment quickly became the open enrichment of a black bourgeoisie, a minority black capitalism grafted onto the existing white economic ruling class.

Johnson is incapable of seeing that it is not black empowerment that is the problem but the lack of it – it was the politics of the ANC that were at fault, when it set its sights on managing capitalism in South Africa rather than overthrowing it.

A national democratic revolution

Johnson’s book is good at detailing how the ANC developed in exile. Heavily financed by the USSR and trained in East Germany and other Stalinist states, the cadre of the ANC and its armed wing Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) had a top-down centralist mentality (what Johnson refers to as Leninist when it is in fact a Stalinist method of organisation).

This contrasted dramatically with the internal opposition to apartheid where the United Democratic Front (UDF) drew in all the opposition forces and had a tradition of discussion, autonomy and struggle.

Yet after the Apartheid regime had decided to throw in the towel in the early 1990s, it was the exiles from the ANC who quickly dominated the “inziles”, the ANC members and supporters who had actually led and forged the struggle.

The ANC dominated the first government from 1994, having won 62% of the popular vote in a 90% turnout (formally it was a coalition government with the apartheid Nationalist Party of De Klerk and the Zulu IFP). But the ANC itself was a “tripartite alliance” made up of the ANC, South African Communist Party (SACP) and the trade union federation COSATU. Politically the SACP dominated this alliance and the majority of the government was made up of SACP members.

According to the Stalinist schema the task of the alliance was to carry out the first stage of the National Democratic Revolution (NDR). This involved dismantling apartheid and developing a capitalism that could deliver real gains for the masses in housing, health, education and land redistribution, as well as industrial and economic development.

Following this stage – at some indeterminate point in the future – socialist policies may be appropriate. In exile there was much talk of establishing “East Germany in Africa”, a project that was rather holed below the waterline when Stalinism collapsed in that country in the late 1980s!

Despite the worldwide collapse of Stalinism the SACP continued to delude the South African masses into believing that their presence in government somehow offered the “hegemony” of the working class within the alliance. Workers only had to remain patient, continue to be “vigilant”, and pressure the government for this outcome to be victorious. The SACP’s dominance in the leadership of COSATU ensured this line was entrenched in the trade unions.

In fact quite the reverse took place. Johnson shows with many examples how the new ANC leaders in government took to capitalism like a duck to water. Within months of taking office leading South African capitalists were wining and dining the leaders of the ANC, many of them supposed “communists”. And it went far beyond a few perks – leading members of the ANC government set about enriching themselves through corrupt deals with both local and international capitalists.

This wasn’t just a few “bad apples” in the ANC; it was virtually the entire leadership both at national and provincial level. And all this took place under the watch of Thabo Mbeki, an SACP politburo member “on sabbatical” to run the government, first as the real power behind the Mandela’s presidency and then as a two-term president himself.

Enriching themselves

Soon after the ANC took power a huge scandal broke out over a massive military purchase, supposedly aimed at modernising the SA Defence Force. Gripen fighter aircraft, corvettes, submarines, helicopters and battle tanks were ordered from the big European arms corporations for a country that faced no foreseeable war threat. The total cost by 1999 was more than $5bn when the country was in desperate need of new housing and schools. Amidst allegations of kickbacks, an attempt by the parliamentary accounts watchdog to investigate the scandal was thwarted by Mbeki.

The firms involved were the British BAE, the German Thyssen Krupp and the French Thompson-CSF (later Thales). Later investigations by the British Fraud Squad and the German equivalent revealed that hundreds of millions of dollars had been paid in bribes – BAE alone accounting for $150m.

While the Defense Minister, Joe Modise was at the centre of the bribery scandal, the largesse was spread around much of the ANC leadership, including Mbeki and Zuma. Wives and family members, charities connected to Mandela and his wife, and the ANC as a party, all benefitted. The arms multi-nationals certainly knew how to buy friends and influence people.

This deal was just a taster. Johnson details deal after deal which enriched the top levels of the ANC and their families. But it wasn’t just bribes-for-business. Donors’ money sent for charities was “appropriated”. Alan Boesak, leader of the Western Cape ANC was pursued by the protestant Danchurch for a R2.8m donation to a children’s trust fund that vanished into his “business enterprises”; much of the profits from Paul Simon’s Graceland tour also disappeared down this hole.

Then there was the scandal at the Land Bank, an institution that was meant to help rural poor farmers. The Land Bank was headed by Helen Dolney, widow of SACP leader Jo Slovo. She was smeared and purged, Johnson suggests, by Mbeki because she was white and not under his control. Like other SACP’ers who were purged, Dolney moved quickly to become a bank executive elsewhere.

The new leadership proceeded to loot the Land Bank. R800m was lent to an investment company in which the ANC Secretary General and a former ANC premier of the Northern Cape were major shareholders. Other loans went to a tycoon for a sugar mill, one to finance a football club and one to build an upmarket equestrian estate in KwaZulu-Natal. Resulting bad debts and “write offs” meant the government had to pour more money into the bank. With the bank on the edge of bankruptcy in 2007, more than R1bn in loans were revealed to have been made for non-agricultural purposes.

Black economic empowerment

Johnson reveals how the last people the ANC thought of empowering economically were the black masses. Under the Apartheid state virtually all skilled, let alone managerial, jobs were reserved for whites. The state services were run by white civil servants while all large business were owned either by multi-nationals or “indigenous” Afrikaner or English-speaking capitalists.

Some concession was made to “Indians” and “coloureds” who played a role in small businesses but Africans were virtually totally excluded. It is no surprise that the ANC demanded that largely white-run businesses should be opened up to blacks, in particular the African majority.

Johnson has virtually nothing positive to say about affirmative action, yet had the ANC not demanded such action they would have been condemned by the masses. The real criticism of the ANC is that it spent its time openly trying to create a black capitalist class.

It didn’t, for example, concentrate on the education and training that could have helped the masses of Africans get better jobs (in fact public education deteriorated under ANC governments, while private education flourished). Its efforts were directed towards parachuting friends and relatives into major management positions in big companies and obtaining large shareholdings at knock down prices, with loans often financed by state banks.

The big companies were quite willing to go along with this policy of sharing a fraction of their profits as long as they could carry on exploiting black workers. BEE meant they had to agree to black-owned equity of 25.1% and “substantial management control” by blacks.

But many of the big multi-nationals like Anglo American had already started taking precautions by moving many of their assets, production and head offices overseas. If BEE ever threatened their profits it was only a small part of their enterprises that were at risk.

One infamous example of how BEE worked involved Andile Ngcaba, former head of the ANC’s IT department and former Communications Ministry Director General. He was also a leading BEE partner in Dimension Data a cell phone company with interests throughout Africa. Using his inside knowledge his consortium bought 15% of the previously semi-privatised state Telkom when it was being sold off by a US-Malaysian company in 2004. The massive conflict of interest caused uproar. Business Day accurately summed up what was going on in an editorial that said it was:

“the least mass empowering and most individually enriching exercise in the redistribution of wealth imaginable in a developing country with a majority of extremely poor people.”

When it was revealed that the ANC’s chief spokesperson and NEC member, Smuts Ngonyyama, was set to make millions on the deal he was roundly condemned. He foolishly but honestly replied that he “hadn’t joined the struggle in order to stay poor”. This much quoted statement was felt by many to sum up the attitudes and actions of the ANC leadership and their hangers-on now they were in power.

By this time the workers were beginning to see through this supposed exercise in “black empowerment”. Gwede Mantashe, leader of the National Union of Mineworkers, declared: “Capital is capital, it has no colour. No black person buys into a company because he wants to do all sorts of good things for blacks. People want to go into business because they want to make money.”

A group of workers discovered this the previous year when their baggage handling company was taken over by a BEE consortium led by ANC MP, Mpho Scott. Within a year they were on strike against longer hours, pay cuts and reductions in sick leave, carrying placards demanding of the MP, “Why are you oppressing black people?” Johnson quotes a survey in 2004 in which 65% of blacks thought that BEE “only enriched a select few”.

The left and the government

How did the SACP and the trade unions respond to the obviously capitalist direction of the government? In much the same way that the trade union leadership in Britain responded to the Blair/Brown neo-liberal government – by making some criticisms while take no action to oppose it.

In 1994 the ANC promised “A better life for all” and “Jobs, jobs, jobs”. The Reconstruction and Development Programme, fought for by COSATU and the SACP, promised to build one million homes in five years, redistribute 30% of the land, and create two to five million jobs over ten years. Within two years of government this pledge was ditched by the ANC with the targets hardly addressed – only 1,000 homes were built by the end of the first year.

The South African Foundation, representing the 50 largest SA companies, came up with an alternative programme in 1996 called “Growth for All”. It summed up the bosses’ demands: smaller government, a privatisation drive, export promotion and a dual labour market; that is, a “flexible labour market” in which millions of unskilled workers could be sacked at will and paid a pittance.

Mbeki denounced the plan, not for its content, but because it was “clumsily composed” and “non-strategically dumped in the public arena”. In other words these things had to be done by stealth and covered in socialist and progressive phraseology to confuse the masses.

Indeed over the next two terms of government the ANC would introduce many of these employer-led policies. In June 1996, Mbeki and the ANC leadership introduced GEAR, the “Growth, Employment and Redistribution” policy. Its key elements were budget deficit reduction, accelerated privatisation, greater labour flexibility and moderate wage demands.

The government predicted 6% economic growth and 1.35 million new jobs by the year 2000. The opposite occurred; growth rates remained low (2-3%), and unemployment rose dramatically. Official unemployment since 1994 has oscillated between 25-27%, while a broader definition, including those not actively looking for work, puts it at 38-40%.

This monetarist strategy did eliminate the budget deficit (it became a surplus after 2004) and inflation with it. Of course, achieving a budget surplus meant there could be no great expenditure programmes for education, health or infrastructure projects – roads and ports deteriorated and there have been widespread power blackouts since 2006.

Whenever criticism surfaced at COSATU conferences Mandela went along and called for “discipline”, while Mbeki spoke darkly of “counter-revolutionary plots” against the government. When the SACP and COSATU criticised the policies behind GEAR, Mandela and Mbeki turned up to the 1998 COSATU conference and threatened not to reserve places for the two organisations on ANC election lists unless their opposition abated. Predictably, the two organisations backed down.

After the ANC victory in the 1999 election (winning 66% of the vote on an 89% turnout) the SACP members still remained central to Mbeki’s government, but they were under Mbeki’s thumb. Cabinet SACP members included Alec Erwin, Geraldine Fraser-Moletketi, Ronnie Kasrils, Sydney Mufamadi and Jeff Radebe. Others in government included Aziz Pahad, deputy foreign minister, and his brother Essop, Mbeki’s chief fixer.

In fact after 1998 the SACP was deeply split between those in government and those outside it, although it carried on pretending to be a united party. The outside faction was led by its Secretary General, Blade Nzimande, and party “theoretician” Jeremy Cronin who had led the attack on GEAR.

Mbeki’s allowed no criticism within government and dealt with perceived threats to his leadership immediately. The party list system gave him a powerful weapon and he constantly tried to prevent provincial power bases developing in opposition to him. He was particularly suspicious of independent SACPers.

Cyril Ramaphosa, Secretary General of the ANC and SACP member, saw which way the wind was blowing and left the government in 1996 to become a millionaire businessman. Cheryl Carolus, another leading SACP member and acting ANC Secretary General, was soon told she would not get the job permanently. After a short stay as minister of SA Tourism she too left to become a multi-millionaire director of DeBeers diamond corporation.

AIDS denial: a crime against the people

Johnson devotes a whole chapter to the grim story of the ANC government’s disastrous policies towards the AIDS epidemic. By the early 1990s it was clear that HIV cases were rising rapidly and by 1992 there was already a plan in place to combat it; in 1994 this became the National AIDS Plan. But it was a plan that the Health Minister Dr Dlamini-Zuma never carried out (despite being involved in its development).

Again at the centre of this policy was Mbeki who decreed there was no connection between being HIV positive and getting AIDS. AIDS, he said, did not really exist; poverty was leading people to die of these illnesses. This AIDS denial position, Johnson argues, was a result of Mbeki’s late night research on the internet combined with paranoia with regard to supposed imperialist attempts to besmirch Africa as a source of “disease”.

As a result of this position the Health Ministry promoted all sorts of quackery, financing Virodene, a toxic industrial solvent pushed by a couple of quack doctors, and advocating a beetroot, garlic and African potato diet as a “genuinely African” means of AIDS prevention.

When drugs appeared that did work, like AZT and later nevirapine, the government refused to allow their use, claiming that they were a fraud perpetrated by the pharmaceutical companies, as well as being toxic. Meanwhile the AIDS pandemic doubled in two years, from a 7.6% HIV positive rate in 1994, to 14.2% in 1996.

By 1999 life expectancy for a baby born in Zululand was down to 28 years. By mid-2003 a million people had died and a further 5.3 million were HIV positive, yet the government still refused to sanction the Health Ministry to use anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs) on a large scale.

It was only after a long campaign by AIDS activists, which included winning cases in the constitutional court, and with a general election looming in 2004, where the AIDS issue was dominating the headlines and meetings, that the government finally agreed to roll out ARVs. Johnson points out that a study by the Harvard School of Health concluded that the delay in rolling out ARV drugs had caused 365,000 unnecessary deaths between 1999 and 2005, including 35,000 babies. It was an African holocaust with which even the impact of Apartheid regime’s policies did not compare.

A step too far

There is no doubt that the AIDS scandal weakened Mbeki. Both COSATU and the SACP had come out early against him on this question demanding he recognise the link between HIV and AIDS and take action. But it was his determination to stay on for a third term as president that finally led to his downfall.

In 2004 the ANC had won its third successive election with its largest ever majority; it received 69.69% of the vote on a 76% turnout and controlled every province. Certainly some disillusion was beginning to set in, reflected in declining voter turnout (down from more than 90% in 1994).

But still the ANC was virtually unchallenged at the polls. The main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, appeared unable to break the ANC’s stranglehold over African voters and struggled to maintain 10-12% of the vote.

The ANC retained its reputation as the party that had broken Apartheid and delivered democracy. It had the active support of COSATU and its 1.8 million members and full-time activists at election time, and above all it had no real opposition from the left thanks to the loyal support of the SACP. Mbeki and his supporters felt invincible. They ensured opposition factions in the ANC were co-opted or cowed. They controlled all the main organs of the state – the police, security services, and many para-statals like the SA Broadcasting Corporation. The press and most NGOs were afraid to campaign openly against the government for fear of reprisals, and big business was generally supportive.

Mbeki now took aim at Jacob Zuma, the country’s Deputy President, a life-long SACP member and a Zulu with a base in the largest ethnic group in the country. Zuma was perceived as a threat to Mbeki who must be removed so the president could have a clear run for a third term. Johnson explains how Zuma, as a result, was investigated by the security services and the Scorpions specialist police unit long before the 2004 elections.

Zuma was accused of taking bribes during the 1990s’ arms deal via his benefactor Schabir Shaik. There was no doubt that Shaik – and probably Zuma – benefited from these deals, but probably a lot less than other key members of the ANC. When the Scorpions raided Zuma’s houses and seized documents from his lawyers, the ANC and COSATU members rallied to Zuma’s support. When Shaik was found guilty and the court implicated Zuma, Mbeki expected him to resign. Zuma refused to go quietly and mobilised his base. When Mbeki sacked him as Deputy President in June 2005 a showdown was inevitable.

Mbeki and his supporters completely overestimated their ability to control and manipulate the base of the party. COSATU and the SACP mobilised against them and they even lost control of the ANC Youth League despite cutting off its funding.

All the pent-up fury at the years of self-enrichment now poured out. The NEC, it was pointed out, was now full of millionaire businessmen and women, a virtual “stock exchange” as one leading ANCer outside the magic circle called it.

A gathering of the 1500 delegates of the ANC National General Council brought the conflict to a head. Many delegates wore Zuma t-shirts and some delegates chanted in Zulu: “We don’t want capitalism. It killed Zuma.” The gathering rejected Zuma’s “request to resign” and went on to throw out Mbeki’s new policy proposals involving provisions for a dual labour market and relaxing labour protection laws for young workers.

At the December 2007 ANC Congress Zuma’s victory was even more decisive, defeating Mbeki in the election for President of the ANC by 2,300 votes to 1,500. In the elections to the NEC anyone considered anti-Zuma was flung out, which included 15 cabinet ministers, 10 deputy ministers, 10 MPs and all but one of the provincial premiers – the “stock exchange” had collapsed. Zuma as president of the ANC could now recall Mbeki and force an election.

He did not do so immediately, fearing a major split in the ANC. Instead he let the dust settle before recalling Mbeki in September 2008 and putting in a caretaker president until the May 2009 elections.

May 2009 and beyond

Johnson’s book does not cover the recent elections. It does however assume correctly that the ANC under Zuma would get back into power. There was indeed a small split in the ANC – the Congress of the People (COPE) took 7.4% of the vote – nevertheless the ANC still gained 65.9% of the vote on a 77% turnout. There is no doubt that COPE represented a rightist split, with its leaders like Terror Lekota claiming COSATU vote rigging and a “communist takeover” of the ANC.

Zuma has managed to refresh the leftist credentials of the ANC once again, with lots of populist rhetoric about “getting back to the people” and “helping the poor”. He is helped in this by the SACP and the leadership of COSATU, who believe that Zuma can head up a “left-led” government. Zuma’s record makes this highly unlikely – after all he sat in leadership and government positions for the 15 years, all the while endorsing all the rightist, pro-business policies of the ANC leadership.

The tragedy of South Africa is that the working class, through the SACP, has tied itself to a multi-class party, the ANC, which is absolutely wedded to capitalism. The great “gain” of this party over the last 15 years has been to develop a small black bourgeoisie in South Africa, one that now sits alongside its white brethren. And this has only been achieved at the expense of the black working class who have gained very little from the end of Apartheid in one of the richest countries in Africa.

Johnson’s book lays this all this out before us only to draw completely the wrong conclusions. For Johnson the real threat comes from the black masses demanding more control and better living standards before they are “ready” and “competent” to rule. The problem is the opposite – the masses did not seize control in the second half of the 1980s when the Apartheid regime was rocked by mass general strikes and city-wide uprisings. Instead a desperate regime, backed by international capital, grabbed the hand of the ANC to save it. This it did with alacrity, and the workers of South Africa are still suffering the consequences. 


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