Review of R.W. Johnson, How Long Will South Africa Survive? The Looming Crisis, London: Hurst and Co, 2015.
There is never a dull moment when you read a book or an article by R.W. Johnson. The language is always pithy, the focus strong, detail well-researched and the conclusions leave you in no doubt as to where he stands – usually in a pulpit of his own construction bellowing his highly personal opinions on whatever subject gripped him. This time it is Zuma’s and the ANC’s South Africa under the spotlight and he has very deliberately recycled the title of his 1977 book on the future of apartheid – a book not popular with those fighting apartheid because of its stark realism about the entrenched power of apartheid South Africa. For a decade it appeared to be vindicated by the staying power of the National Party, but then it appeared less powerful in its message when, within 13 years of its publication, a combination of economic, international domestic and military factors led to the historic decision by De Klerk to unban the ANC and start the process of dismantling of apartheid and the political, civil but not necessarily full economic emancipation of the black majority.
The end of apartheid and the reasons behind it are revisited, very selectively. As always with Johnson there is much posturing and the adoption of positions that he then undermines page or two later. So, on page seven we are told that as a challenge to white power “the Soweto uprising failed completely” – something with which I would disagree as it set radicalised young black South Africans and that many went abroad to join the ANC or became the leaders and foot soldiers of the UDF in the mid-1980s. But then on page eight we are told “after the Soweto uprising nothing was ever quite the same again domestically” as the temperature “of the entire black resistance movement had risen and stayed at its new level”. Both can’t be right. But you get used to that sort of thing throughout the book.
Much of the book is a detailed – and at times obsessively and monotonously so – account of the webs of corruption, patronage and factionalism that are the core elements of the power in the ANC under Zuma. He rightly pulls no punches in describing the corruption, tenderpreneurship, appointment of incompetent cadres to key jobs and general political corruption of the Zuma ANC and public service – one might point to the promotion to key positions of the likes of Hlaudi Motsoeneng, the ANC cats-paw as Chief Operating Officer of SABC ( see pages 113 and 144) or to the endless appointments and sackings of police, intelligence and the National Prosecuting Authority heads. Johnson describes the influence, access to contracts and insider information of businessmen like the Gupta Brothers – now infamous because of the Guptagate scandal over use of an air force base during a family wedding. He unravels the webs of shareholdings, contracts and investments that ties Zuma and other leaders to each other and to powerful business interests.
Zuma’s wheeling and dealing within the ANC, between factions and with traditional leaders and rich entrepreneurs is set out with strong supporting evidence. It paints a picture of a movement and a president mired in graft and intent on the retention and extension of his power through any means he can get away with. Cabinets are reshuffled with incredible regularity to ensure he remains at the top of the pile and to punish those deemed to be insufficiently loyal or those who have endangered the political or economic interests of his allies and clients – like the Guptas. Johnson describes how, after Zuma’s victory over Mbeki at the Polokwane conference of the ANC, the “party’s great regional barons and mayors” who opposed Mbeki’s more centralised approach had come to the fore – the Mabuzas, the Magashules, Mkhizes and others. These are the political allies and clients through whom he rules and from whom he gets support and other forms of payback.
Zuma is portrayed as a would-be Zulu King, which is beguiling but far less convincing. He certainly has an extensive Zulu support network and will retire in splendour – if not indicted and coinvicted for corruption when he leaves office – to his Nkandla complex. But I think the emphasis on Zulu tribalism driving much of what is happening in the ANC is an exaggeration when you consider the need, which Johnson again details himself, for Zuma to build alliances with leaders in Mpumalanga, Free State, North-West and Northern Cape as well as KwaZulu. he needs alliances of party barons across South Africa and a crass tribalism based on his Zulu support base would not ensure his power. He is adept at using a variety of means to engender and retain support, and largesse towards leading Zulu powerbrokers and his home province ais among those means. But tribalism would not win him friends outside the Zulu community and, having used alliance building to defeat and incumbent president, he is too wily to resort to a Zulu supremacism which would alienate four fifths of the population, so for me the argument that Zulu triablism is a driving force doesn’t ring true.
There are seams of gold in the book, but to get to them you have to hack your way through a great deal of bitter and opinionated dross. A psychiatrist would have a field day examining the reasoning behind much of the abuse heaped on anyone Johnson dislikes from Archbishop Tutu, who he says as an inveterate headline grabber, to to “vulgar” communist Kgalema Motlanthe, and Rob Davies with his “mechanical rigidity”. People cannot just be criticised for policies, statements and actions but absolutely condemned ad hominem. Much of it is crass, as crass as his baboon comment in the London Review of Books when writing about African migrants in the Cape. One also has to wade through a limitless lake of bitterness about what has happened to South Africa sine 1994 – expressed in pained, personally affronted terms that suggest that Johnson’s vision of a liberal-democratic paradise that awaited the new South Africa has been systematically and deliberately destroyed. It is as though apartheid and its consequences – political, economic, cultural and psychological – never existed or if they did were never quite as bad as they were painted in comparison with the sheer awfulness of Zuma’s South Africa. It is as though the ANC had a clean sheet to start with that they have soiled and ripped. South Africa has huge problems, is becoming more corrupt and less democratic but it is not beyond redemption and is not worse than it was under the National Party – in myriad ways it is better but there is much that needs to be exposed and fought.
This personal bitterness is mixed with an unreconstructed Cold War mentality and obsession with communist control of the ANC during the liberation struggle and now. This is high contested territory, but my view has always been, and is becoming strengthened as time goes on, that it was the ANC tail that wagged the communist party dog and not the other way round. The ANC used and benefitted from the organizational, tactical and theoretical skills of the SACP and from the Soviet backing it brought. The SACP gained influence, recruited or coopted ANC leaders into the party, including Mandela, but never gained total control or decisive influence. This is shown by the neo-liberal economic dogma at the heart of ANC economic policy, the unbridled pursuit of personal wealth and the use of instruments like Black Economic Empowerment not to distribute wealth, land and empower the poor and marginalised black majority but to deracialise wealth and privilege at the top of the class structure – to open up areas of business, public service appointments and wealth accumulation to a new black elite of senior party members and their clients, not to radically restructure the economy along the lines of the Freedom Charter. As the allegedly attention-seeking Desmond Tutu said, the ANC elite stopped the National Party “gravy train only long enough to get on”.
It is, I stress, a book worth reading for the light it sheds on the development of the networks of power and corruption, the stunning incompetence of government and the threat this poses to any vision of a more equal and democratic South Africa. But you have to be prepared to shrug off the personal attacks and the bittern disappointment that leaos out from practically every page.
Keith Somerville, Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Commonwealth Studies.