The Unfinished Revolution

The Unfinished Revolution

I was 25 when I and the rest of black South Africa were eligible to vote for the first time. South Africa celebrated the tenth anniversary of that event this April.


I was 25 when I and the rest of black South Africa were eligible to vote for the first time. South Africa celebrated the tenth anniversary of that event this April.

  For many observers of the past decade, South Africa has come to epitomize successful “democratic transition.” They marvel at what is perceived as the wholesale transformation of South Africa’s political and social foundation and the apparent consensus achieved between whites and blacks. This is what has come to be known as the “South African miracle.”

The miracle fable goes something like this: Starting in February 1990, the last apartheid president, F.W. de Klerk, lifted the ban on liberation movements, most notably the African National Congress, released ANC leader Nelson Mandela from prison and reluctantly began negotiations for a new political system. On April 27, 1994, millions of South Africans of all races went to the polls for the first time, for an election that to the surprise of many went ahead peacefully. The results gave the ANC a comfortable majority. Consensus-style rule in a Government of National Unity (GNU) followed during the early phase of democratic rule. Two years later the legislature passed a new Constitution–one of the most liberal in the world, recognizing abortion rights, same-sex unions and the responsibility of the state to poor citizens–as well as a number of institutions that “strengthen constitutional democracy” such as a Human Rights Commission and a Commission for Gender Equality. Finally, in one of the most cathartic episodes in postapartheid history, South African human rights offenders and their victims spoke openly of their experiences before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which put past atrocities on record “to a degree unequalled by any other post-conflict inquiry,” as Allister Sparks, a leading South African journalist, puts it in his new book, Beyond the Miracle.

Even when de Klerk’s National Party left the GNU shortly after the new Constitution was established, the aura did not fade, perhaps because of the hopes invested in it. The ANC government, especially then-President Nelson Mandela, worked hard to foster a climate of “reconciliation.” In a pointed departure from the practice of many leaders on the African continent, Mandela stood down after one term, making way for South Africa’s current president, Thabo Mbeki. Despite the imposing shadow Mandela cast over his successor, the new president initially cut an impressive figure. Mbeki charmed whites and business elites, and took popular and symbolically resonant steps toward ending South Africa’s longstanding isolation from the continent. Two further sets of elections followed peacefully and freely. Moreover, civil society institutions proliferated, ready to guard against abuses by the state.

Resilient and attractive as the myth of the miracle is, it tends to obscure some significant continuities in South African society. According to COSATU, the ANC-affiliated trade union, South Africa today ranks third among the most unequal societies in the world (after Brazil and Guatemala). Most estimates put poverty at 45 to 55 percent of the population. Unemployment stands at approximately 40 percent. Sixty percent of “Africans” (to use the terminology that apartheid has left tragically relevant) are poor, as compared with one in every hundred whites. Early on, the ANC flirted with redistributive policies. Within two years of the transition, however, the government–under pressure from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank and threatened with capital flight–settled on the “Growth, Employment and Redistribution” (GEAR) policy, a neoliberal macroeconomic plan that promotes an “open economy” with relaxed exchange controls, foreign investment and privatization as motors of growth.

Not surprisingly, it has delivered only modest growth, and the promised foreign investment has not been forthcoming. According to Patrick Bond, a leftist political economist, South Africa has lost more jobs since 1994 than any country in history outside of wartime or depression. Land reform is moving forward at a glacial pace, about 3 million people are homeless, 18 million lack sanitation services and privatization has meant that millions more risk losing access to water they can’t pay for. As if that weren’t enough, South Africa has been hit with devastating force by a plague even more lethal than racism–AIDS. In 2000, 40 percent of adult deaths were caused by AIDS-related illnesses, and an estimated 5 million of the country’s 45 million citizens are HIV-positive. Researchers predict that if left unchecked, the virus will have taken the lives of between 4 million and 7 million South Africans by 2010.

So what are we to make of the new South Africa? In their new books, Allister Sparks, Terry Bell and David Cohen all try to answer this question.

Sparks, now in the twilight of a half-century-long career, was one of the country’s leading white liberal journalists under apartheid. The author of two acclaimed books and a former correspondent for the Washington Post and The Economist, Sparks is well-known and respected in the United States and England, and it is safe to guess that his book will be received here as a definitive account of the first decade of democratic rule. This is a shame, because, its title notwithstanding, Beyond the Miracle is written largely in miracle-ese.

Sparks praises the TRC as placing “the truth on record” and thinks the government’s neoliberal market economic line is a good start, but does not go far enough: “South Africa should [not] abandon its GEAR policy or undertake a radical change of course. But some modifications are needed to meet our special circumstances.” Just what kind of modifications he has in mind becomes clear in his lament that “unlike other democracies where individuals shuttle between top jobs in government and the private sector, South Africa has no Robert McNamaras or Dick Cheneys or Michael Bloombergs, with experience of both.”

A chronicle of the past ten years of South African headlines, Sparks’s book reads at times like a collection of news articles strung together–informative, but not terribly insightful. The book is more provocative when Sparks uses his insider status and access to President Mbeki to shed light on what many perceive as Mbeki’s biggest blunders: the government’s controversial response (or lack thereof) to the AIDS pandemic and the political crisis in Zimbabwe. The government’s stunning refusal to confront the AIDS crisis–particularly Mbeki’s stubborn insistence, based on the spurious claims of “AIDS dissidents,” that HIV does not cause AIDS–has dominated international coverage of South Africa in recent years. (In a televised address to Parliament in September 2000, Mbeki famously remarked that “a virus cannot cause a syndrome.”) Most observers have been baffled by Mbeki’s AIDS policy. Why on earth would an educated, highly intelligent and sophisticated politician base his government’s AIDS policy on the discredited ideas of a scientific fringe whose work, rumor has it, he encountered while surfing the Internet?

Sparks rejects the theory that, in dealing with the AIDS crisis, Mbeki is a desperate man grasping at straws, depicting him instead as a resolute if misguided leader. He also discounts the idea that Mbeki was asserting African intellectual independence in the face of Western scientific hegemony, pointing out that the fiercest critics of AIDS denialism are the country’s senior black scientists and COSATU, whose members are overwhelmingly black. Instead, Sparks emphasizes Mbeki’s political naïveté and pride, as well as his “deep-seated anger” that linking Africa with AIDS is about “smear[ing] black people the way homosexuals were demonized when AIDS first appeared in the US.” He is on shakier ground when he points to psychological issues, arguing that “it is all wrapped up in [Mbeki’s] past, in his experiences as a child of the struggle…whose whole life was controlled and directed and dedicated for him with little thought for his own wishes.”

Whatever his motivations, Mbeki was ultimately forced to back down. Following pressure from Mandela and Mbeki’s own Cabinet, as well as media and civil society, the government announced in 2002 that it accepted the usefulness of antiretroviral drugs (ARVs). Two years later, it finally began to make ARVs available through the public sector. Sparks, who sees a silver lining in every South African cloud, might take this to mean that “civil society has shown its effectiveness… against misrule.” But again, this triumphal story is misleading. Just this past January (after Sparks’s book was published, to be fair), the government announced that it would slash the budget for ARV provision, citing the “ineffectiveness” of the fledgling program. Much of the funding has since been restored in the run-up to elections, but these flip-flops are not reassuring.

Sparks also spoke at length with Mbeki on the crisis in Zimbabwe, where President Robert Mugabe, a former liberation hero, has led a violent campaign against white farmers and an even more brutal campaign against his black opponents. Sparks rightly chides Mbeki for the South African government’s dithering in the face of Mugabe’s despotism. Mbeki, who (unlike Mandela) has offered only the mildest of criticisms of Mugabe, an ally during the apartheid years, told Sparks that “the extraordinary preoccupation with what is going on in Zimbabwe in reality has got to do with white fears in South Africa.” As Mbeki points out, the far more violent civil wars in Rwanda and Congo have elicited few protests among South African whites. Sparks agrees with Mbeki that many whites are indifferent to black suffering, but he fails to develop the obvious parallel: A racist white minority ruled Zimbabwe for at least a century until it was finally dislodged through the twin pressures of guerrilla war and British-supervised negotiations. The compromises left most of the land in the hands of white farmers. However much one deplores Mugabe’s cynical exploitation of the land problem, it is very real, and South Africa has one too. Under apartheid, whites occupied 87 percent of the agricultural land. By the end of 2001, less than 2 percent of land had changed hands between whites and rural, landless blacks. It is a disparity that will haunt the “new South Africa” as long as it remains unresolved, and one that would make it very delicate, at best, for the South African government to appear to be intervening on behalf of white landowners in Zimbabwe.

In the end, Beyond the Miracle is mostly surface analysis. We do not learn about Mbeki’s attempts to further continental integration and autonomy through an African Union, or the policy and strategic considerations that probably underlie South Africa’s ambiguous response to the unraveling of its northern neighbor’s political and economic system. This points to a larger shortcoming of Sparks’s approach, which owes more to the tradition of political punditry than of investigative reporting. We get lots of grand events and the pronouncements of politicians, but very little of what was going on behind the scenes. As a consequence, the book reinforces the mainstream accounts of South African history in which the protagonists are black nationalists and white Afrikaners. White English-speakers and big business are on the sidelines, relatively benign onlookers.

Terry Bell provides a useful corrective to Sparks in Unfinished Business, which reconstructs how South African businesses and multinational corporations openly aided and abetted the apartheid system in a willing violation of United Nations resolutions: “Businessmen from major corporations acted in advisory roles to the military, especially on manpower issues, and several held high-ranking positions in the armed forces reserves or part-time ‘commando’ units.” The head of the Stock Exchange was a brigadier, for example, and bank and computer companies have been directly implicated in the murky activities of the state’s death squads. Businesses were also engaged in systemic racially discriminatory practices. In the mining industry, for example, they paid as much as ten times more to whites than to blacks and discriminated in the provision of housing benefits. As Bell observes: “These appalling conditions, the meagre rations and even more meagre wages were not required by law; they were a simple outgrowth of racism and the demand for greater profits.” Likewise, there was no law that required business recruiters to line up naked African males of all ages and inspect them as if they were at a slave auction. Thanks to its documentation of such conduct on the part of South African business, the publication of the first edition of Unfinished Business in South Africa triggered a series of class-action legal claims against banks and companies that profited from apartheid.

Bell is a Cape Town-based white journalist who was a radical critic of apartheid during his twenty-seven years in exile. While he remains close to the ANC’s trade union partners, he has emerged as a prominent critic of the ANC-led government’s rightward turn on economic and social policy. Part of the book was written with Dumisa Ntsebeza, the lead counsel representing claimants in a number of the class-action suits. The “unfinished business” refers to the legacy of apartheid, obscured by comforting talk of “reconciliation.”

The book is divided into three “files”: The first reveals the operations of the Afrikaner Broederbond, the secret society to which every apartheid president, prime minister, clerical leader, educationist, senior military and police officer belonged. It reveals the Broederbond’s backing of state-sponsored death squads as early as the 1960s as well as its part in attempts to psychologically manipulate entire populations of black people and to develop chemical and biological agents to control them. These included supplying death squads with lethal muscle relaxants used to kill detainees and “terrorists” before throwing their bodies into the sea, as well as experimental attempts to create drugs that could sterilize and subdue South Africa’s black population.

The second file details the ruthless activities of the South African security forces and their surrogates in the Transkei homeland, which the apartheid government hoped to transform into an ethnically based satellite state, a showcase of its “separate development” program. Many of the records of these activities were shredded in the months before the 1994 elections. The Broederbond, most key security operatives and their surrogates, including Inkatha Freedom Party leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi, were never investigated by the TRC.

The last file is devoted to the bloodiest decade of apartheid, the 1980s, in which then-President P.W. Botha and his generals devised a “Total Strategy,” an intricate plan in which every town, village and hamlet throughout the country was controlled by a fully integrated security net. The chapter concludes by recounting the events that led up to the negotiated settlement as well as to the creation of the TRC. The book is scathing toward the TRC, on which Ntsebeza sat as a commissioner. Bell asserts that the commission was the least likely forum to address South Africa’s unfinished business, dominated as it was, from the outset, by “those beneficiaries on the liberal fringe of the system” (read: white English speakers) who “always ignored the material basis of apartheid.” For them apartheid was a sin, in a religious sense–a form of evil discrimination rather than a system of race and class exploitation.

Unity became the watchword, reconciliation the means. Not surprisingly, business was “leading the charge” and most whites suddenly emerged as “champions of a non-racist future.” There was broad agreement that too much of the truth would be a dangerous thing, although this tended to be dressed up in demands and assurances to rule out a “witch hunt.” Truth was aired, sometimes shockingly, but in the absence of punishment for apartheid’s criminals or compensation for its victims, “reconciliation” was mostly talk.

Business got off light. Powerful figures in the National Party, notably F.W. de Klerk, didn’t do much worse. Bell recounts that in October 1993, as de Klerk was about to depart for Norway to accept his Nobel Prize alongside Mandela, he personally ordered a death-squad raid in the Transkei to destroy an alleged facility of the armed wing of Pan Africanist Congress, a rival liberation movement to the ANC. The death squad attacked a private house in the Transkei capital of Umtata. Five teenage schoolboys who had fallen asleep in front of the television were killed. Hours later de Klerk publicly expressed his approval of the raid, claiming that the victims were “terrorists,” and announced the raid’s success, displaying color photographs of the bodies. The media and white South Africa lapped it up.

Ntsebeza was one of the lawyers for the families of the boys. At the time, the legal team painstakingly worked to counter these falsehoods, but it was the time of talks about setting a date for nonracial, democratic elections, when peace and reconciliation were dominant themes, so most of the foreign press simply overlooked the killings.

In Bell’s view, South Africa’s failure to confront this and other unfinished business of the apartheid era “leaves South Africa crippled in many ways. Corruption and pockets of poisonous racism remain embedded deep within our society.” Many of apartheid’s senior agents have retained a foothold within the army, the police, the secret services and the civil service, and some of them are still ideologically committed to the cause of racial supremacy. Hundreds of people, many in prominent positions who have never come forward, harbor secrets of betrayals and abuses that leave them open to blackmail and manipulation. Bell believes they should be held accountable to apartheid victims and provide them with financial compensation.

Central to the myth of the new South Africa is the idea that the country defied the odds by achieving a nonviolent democratic transition. It’s not entirely false: South Africa could have plunged into a full-scale civil war. And yet the transition has not been free of violence, particularly criminal violence. Since the end of apartheid, South Africa has experienced levels of violence equal to those of countries in the midst of civil war. According to David Cohen, whose new book, People Who Have Stolen From Me, details an epidemic of crime in Johannesburg, “official crime figures show that robbery has risen by 169 percent, housebreaking by 33 percent and cash heists, as well as carjacking by 30 percent” in South Africa since 1994.

Cohen grew up in Johannesburg, but since 1987 has lived in London, home to half a million South African, mainly white, expatriates. In the preface he claims that this gives him a “broader perspective,” allowing him to know his characters with “intimacy–as well as [a] sense of detachment.” The focus of his book is a furniture store in downtown Johannesburg, Jules Street Furnishers. For forty years, the storeowners have sold everything from sofas and beds to VCRs, radios and other consumer goods, catering to a mostly working-class clientele of both black and white customers. Jules Street Furnishers becomes “a fascinating microcosm of life–and morality–in South Africa today.”

The store’s owners, Harry Sher and Jack Rubin, are Cohen’s two main characters. The most interesting parts of the book, however, relate the story of two former hijackers, known by their first names as Veli and Obi, who work for Jules Street Furnishers as debt collectors, mainly in the black townships to the south and east of Johannesburg. Their tale shows how easily guns, the weapons of earlier political conflicts, are available, and reveals that car-jacking, far from being the spontaneous action of amoral young black men, is a multiracial pursuit, generally conducted by organized gangs working with extended distribution and smuggling networks. While on a drive to repossess a refrigerator from a customer who can’t keep up with her payments, Obi unpacks the morality of crime in the new South Africa:

You have to put the law to one side and turn to face what you think is the right decision for you. The law was white man’s law…and we saw that the people who broke it made good money…. We thought–why not us? When I was taking cars I felt like a hero, like the guys in the car thief movie, New Jack City. In the township, when people go to the movies, they cheer for the bad guys. That was us. White people cannot judge me. If I was a white I would not have had to do such things.

Most of the book, however, lacks the depth and insight of the episodes dealing with Obi and Veli, offering instead a stock rendition of crime in the new South Africa. All too often, Cohen replays the racist and stereotypical descriptions of the blackening of Johannesburg’s previously segregated downtown. During apartheid, we read, Jules Street “was a sedate, white, blue-collar street with a mix of residential, retail, and commercial properties.” With the end of apartheid, however, the street has resulted in a familiar nightmare: “released to take on its destiny, that of a vibrant, anarchic African city.”

At crucial times, Sher and Rubin also sound less like real people and more like the “rainbow”-speak of TV pundits, constitutional lawyers, tourism boosters and centrist politicians. “In between the crime, which…we have to deal with, we become attuned to looking for green shoots of progress,” Rubin tells him. “We remind ourselves that our constitution is one of the finest in the world, that we’ve had a peaceful transition to democracy, that it’s only a new democracy, and that all democracies take time to settle.” This is nice, and ordinary South Africans may share such sentiments, but they certainly don’t talk like that.

Cohen’s discussion of the roots of crime is hardly more satisfying. He cites new research documenting “the extent to which crime is carried out by organized gangs for whom lack of employment is not an issue. An extraordinary 40 percent of hijackers and 33 percent of armed robbers are otherwise gainfully employed.” But rather than help us to understand why that is so, Cohen reverts to stereotypes: Criminals live “in an unnumbered shack on an unnamed dusty street in a lawless, impoverished township,” and “it might be something about an entrenched way of life, about the way these people have become wired.” In the end, Cohen does not answer a question he poses at the outset: “What bearing does historic injustice to an entire race of people have on present-day judgments as to who is innocent and who is guilty? How is one to behave as a moral person in a society in which law and order is severely compromised and immorality appears to have become the norm?”

To answer this last question, Cohen might look to the example set by the people who overthrew South Africa’s former, criminal regime. Ten years later, their work deserves to be celebrated, but it is not complete. As Bell’s book reminds us, apartheid was a totalitarian system, in which the state, business, the church and the security police colluded to shape every aspect of individual and collective life: Apartheid guaranteed full employment for whites while carefully preserving a vast pool of impoverished black labor. It controlled where people could live, what work they could do, whom they could encounter in daily life, learn with, even have sex with. And while apartheid’s repressive political and military apparatus was dismantled, the dynamics it engendered in other spheres have yet to be systematically addressed. Cathartic though it was, the TRC dealt with the excesses of apartheid rather than with the deeper workings of the system, while nourishing the hopeful illusion that “normalcy” had somehow been restored and that “normal” market forces could undo the damage caused by that system. The end of apartheid has only begun.

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