Long history and short, hard lessons
Poor training and rampant corruption are robbing the ANC of its dream, writes Heidi Holland
SOUTH Africa’s first democratic election was held in April 1994. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, voting for the first time in his life, declared: “It is an incredible feeling, like falling in love… It’s like a new birth. We are going to be the rainbow people of the world.”
After an 82-year struggle for a non-racial society, the ANC swept to victory with 252 of the 400 seats in the new parliament. When the new legislators gathered in Cape Town for the first time, they chose Nelson Mandela as their state president. In a stirring climax to a legendary struggle, he was inaugurated the next day in the amphitheatre of Pretoria’s Union Buildings before 150 monarchs and heads of government.
The nation’s rebirth had come perilously close to collapse over the preceding months, hovering on the brink of civil war as the Zulu Inkatha movement, die-hard white conservatives and “independent” bantustan governments threatened to use force to thwart inevitable ANC rule. When Chris Hani was found dead in a pool of blood by his young daughter in the driveway of their home on Easter Saturday, 1993, the abyss beckoned particularly alarmingly. But freedom broke through the chaos, and what a joy the post-election celebrations were for struggle weary South Africans.
Everything positive and progressive seemed possible when the triumphant liberation movement took over in 1994. Having won admiration internationally for its peaceful transition to democracy after centuries of conflict, hopes were high that the most admired man on the planet, Nelson Mandela, would conquer the nation’s bitter divisions.
During the ANC’S early years in power, South Africa was run collaboratively by Nelson Mandela and his deputy, Thabo Mbeki. Madiba, as the elder statesman was affectionately known, concentrated on the reconciliation work that so urgently needed to be done in the racially tormented country, and for which he had unusual talent and enthusiasm. Mbeki took care of the dauntingly diverse administrative reforms involved in dismantling apartheid.
Although the ANC had inherited an economy that was virtually bankrupt after years of sanctions and mismanagement, with the country’s assets almost exclusively in white hands, the new government had an array of promising solutions to the world’s worst inequality. To spread wealth a little more evenly, it introduced black economic empowerment ( BEE), the idea being to create a black middle class. Companies with more than 50 employees and revenues of at least R5 million a year were to be given a rating based on how much of their equity was owned by blacks, how many of the top posts were held by the formerly disadvantaged, what training opportunities were open to them, and so forth. The higher a company’s rating, the better its chances of being awarded lucrative public contracts.
Another black empowerment project involved the country’s land, which blacks had not even been allowed to rent under the Land Act of 1913. By 1994, 87 percent of South Africa’s agricultural tracts belonged to whites. As the ANC had long intended, the new government quickly announced that it would redistribute 30 percent of whiteowned farms to poor blacks within five years on a “willing buyer, willing seller” basis. Alongside this reform, it announced an end to the feudal work relationship that had afflicted farm workers for generations.
Clearing out most of the country’s white civil servants (including talented teachers and some of South Africa’s best-qualified police officers and town planners) by offering generous severance packages, the ANC was soon boasting about the proportion of whites in the public sector having fallen from 44 percent to 18 percent. That they were usually replaced by inexperienced and often poorly qualified ANC loyalists was not considered a problem compared with the obviously pressing need for the ANC to provide jobs for its supporters.
But although wholesale employment of blacks instead of whites and all manner of affirmative action was understandable and just in the circumstances, the former oppressor had unfortunately set the ANC up to fail in government by withholding quality education from blacks under apartheid and by failing to provide anything more than menial employment opportunities for Africans during half a century of National Party rule.
Perhaps inevitably, given Africa’s post-colonial track record of bad governance, things began to go wrong. Not only did inefficiencies and mismanagement escalate in daily life in the form of rampant crime due to poor policing, electricity blackouts, declining education and health facilities and standards, as well as innumerable potholes on roads nationwide, but the ANC’S system of “cadre deployment” – the appointment of loyal party members to well- paid public posts for which they were not necessarily suitably qualified – made matters steadily worse.
Thabo Mbeki, having succeeded Mandela as president in 1999, brought a brief Africanist twist to the ANC’S increasingly erratic decisions. An intense, thin- skinned politician who had played an important role in the psychological conquest of Afrikanerdom, Mbeki smoked thoughtfully on a pipe, a habit that came across as urbane and created the sense of a black Englishman whose sophistication was far removed from white stereotypes of Africans. Having been one of the few visible ANC leaders while he was in exile, however, Mbeki’s fault lines were apparent early on – control freakery, a soft spot for pompous presentations as well as a tendency to make decisions that were clouded by race.
Bringing his underground paranoia with him from Lusaka, Mbeki’s instability at the helm became
‘The former oppressor had unfortunately set the ANC up to fail in government by withholding quality education’
apparent in 2001 when he accused three of his rivals – Cyril Ramaphosa, Mathews Phosa and Tokyo Sexwale – of plotting to oust him. In exile, the mere mention of internal ANC sabotage or spying would have been enough to destroy an opponent. Furthermore, Mbeki’s eccentric ideas on Zimbabwe’s rocky road to democracy alienated many of his former admirers. He then made a fool of himself as the entire world condemned his inexplicable and heartless Aids denialism…
As his popularity waned at home and respect for him died abroad, president Mbeki expressed his acute wariness of whites a few months before being deposed by his beloved ANC. He spoke bitterly and embarrassingly during a public lecture in 2007 of the “challenge to defeat the centuries-old attempt to dwarf the significance of our manhood, to treat us as children, to define us as subhumans whom nature has condemned to be inferior to white people, an animal-like species characterised by limited intellectual capacity, bestiality, lasciviousness and moral depravity, obliged in our own interest to accept that the white segment of humanity should, in perpetuity, serve as our lord and master”.
Thinking Africans expressed disapproval at the way some of their prominent peers played the race card when things displeased them… Like Mbeki, most South Africans tried to be even- handed but remained racially and ethnically prejudiced. A few months after he was turfed out of office, a series of horrific xenophobia attacks across South Africa left 62 dead and 670 injured.
Mbeki was a talented mediator who brought a long war in the Congo to a close. Since 2003, fighting in that country has been intermittent and localised, and there can be no doubt that Mbeki’s 2002 Sun City Agreement saved hundreds of thousands of lives.
He was also an able administrator, introducing masses of vital legislation and human rights reforms. But he drove the country towards centralised control, seriously damaging the efficacy of Parliament in the process. His Africanism meant that whites became less evident in the state’s top, highly skilled positions even though blacks lacked the skills and experience to fill the gaps. Some whites had emigrated, but a 2007 study found only 1 400 civil engineers left in local government (three for every 100 000 citizens, compared with 21 two decades earlier). One-third of local authorities had no engineers of any sort. Only 7 per cent of sewage treatment plants met international standards. “The terrible shortage of human capital is now the single most important reason for questioning SA’S ability to move forward,” according to Azar Jammine, head of the consultancy Econometrix.
BEE did not spread equality as intended. Creating some extremely wealthy black individuals and a small African middle class very rapidly during Mbeki’s presidency, it failed to benefit the masses. Redistribution of land on a consensual basis was so poorly administered that it resulted in only 6 percent of farms having changed hands by 2010. The government’s attempts to liberate farm labourers by trying to force employers to take material responsibility for resident workers and their families resulted instead in large numbers of unskilled rural black people being evicted by white farmers. The subsequent boiling over of deep resentments – coupled with increased expectations of imminent change from farm dwellers as well as their employers’ fears of the new dispensation – so hardened attitudes on both sides that over 3 000 white farmers and members of their families have been murdered in isolated homesteads since 1994 by mainly disaffected, dispossessed former farm workers.
There have been many achievements in SA since 1994, the ANC’S successes in office outweighing the failures in the eyes of the majority of its citizens – most of whom still vote for the party in regular, well-organised elections. Apart from the ascendancy of black rule having purged South Africans of the pain and indignity of apartheid, the country has provided welfare benefits for 15 million people; been welcomed back into the international community; cut its murder rate by 50 percent over recent years; almost eradicated severe malnutrition among the under-fives; increased school enrolment to nearly 100 percent; and established the world’s biggest antiretroviral treatment programme for HIV/AIDS.
The worst problem confronting the ANC in office is corruption, both moral and material. “I didn’t join the struggle to be poor,” said Smuts Ngonyama defensively when accused of unfair business practices in 2007. His remark epitomised a prevailing culture of entitlement in the ruling party. Paul Hoffman of the SA Institute for Accountability estimates that corruption is endemic throughout the public sector, partly because so few cases are prosecuted. “From top to bottom, the attitude seems to be: if everyone else is able to act with impunity, why shouldn’t I?” He estimates that about a third of the ANC’S 86-member national executive committee has been investigated for fraud or other criminal activity – including the party’s fourth postapartheid leader, Jacob Zuma.
As the president following Kgalema Motlanthe – the caretaker who stepped elegantly into the job for a few months after Mbeki’s unseemly removal from power by a populist alliance at Polokwane in the last days of 2007 – Zuma was a professional spy and former head of ANC Intelligence during the liberation years.
A proud Zulu, well liked by most of his political colleagues, he lacked Mbeki’s sharp, educated approach but his gentle wit and genuine nonracialism made him a favourite among Afrikaner negotiators in the distrustful atmosphere that prevailed at the time of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison.
‘About a third of the ANC’S 86-member national executive committee have been investigated’
This is an extract from 100 Years of Struggle – Mandela’s ANC by Heidi Holland, published by Penguin at a recommended retail price of R220.
COMRADES IN ARMS: During the ANC’S early years in power, SA was run collaboratively by Nelson Mandela and his deputy, Thabo Mbeki. Mandela concentrated on the reconciliation work that urgently needed to be done. Mbeki took care of the diverse administrative reforms involved in dismantling apartheid.
OLD SPY: Jacob Zuma.