To ask of SA as Lenin did: Chto delat?


To ask of SA as Lenin did: Chto delat?

What is needed if this country is to recover from years of destructive ANC rule, asks veteran foreign correspondent ANTHONY ROBINSON after a recent visit.


MAX DU PREEZ is right to point towards South Africa’s human resources, the tenacity of civil society, the continuing existence of a free press and free speech, enduring elements of an independent judiciary and the green shoots of growing organised opposition to ANC rule as the foundation of his faith in the nation’s eventual resurrection.

As founder and editor of Vrye Weekblad, Max was one of the fiercest critics of the late-apartheid regime. As an Afrikaner he had knowledge of the inside working of the regime, exposed its dirty tricks and was a vocal supporter among the growing body of whites calling for the release of Nelson Mandela and the creation of a non-racial, inclusive and democratic South Africa.

As a self-styled “Pale Native” — the title of his brilliant autobiography — Max’s rage at political chicanery soon, unhappily, fell upon the ANC and its toadies in the SABC and elsewhere, who soon proved to be worse.

Max was one of a number of outstandingly brave and decent people fighting for a better future I met while reporting from Johannesburg for the Financial Times for five years after being expelled from Moscow in 1983.

I left with my new South African wife and small son, a few months before Nelson Mandela was released and the post-apartheid train took off. The huge contribution by white, coloured and Indian opponents of apartheid to its peaceful conclusion appears hardly to have been recognised by the mainly Africanist ANC leaders who succeeded Mandela.

Mandela’s release coincided with the destruction of the Berlin Wall and I spent most of the next decade covering post-Soviet central Europe and central Asia, but never forgot South Africa.

A few weeks ago I returned for a month, staying with Jan and Karin Munnik, generous, verligte Afrikaner friends in Parkview.

Apparently safely

I was surprised to be able to walk, apparently safely, around Zoo Lake and the quiet surrounding streets now lined by towering jacarandas and fortified houses. Only to be horrified by the murder of journalist Jeremy Gordin, in his own kitchen a few streets away, soon after I returned to cold, rainy London.

Flying down to Cape Town and back, nose pressed against the window, allows a God-like overview of the overflowing townships and the even more densely packed informal settlements, reflecting both a doubling of the population since I left and the scale of the task facing those hoping to replace the corrupt and incompetent ANC and encourage a realistic self-help, ground-up approach to solving the dire living conditions of so many.

Later, a day spent driving through the Joburg CBD (where I used to have an office in Union Street) then up to Hillbrow, past Orange Grove and down Louis Botha and through Alexandra, was an eye-opener. Some of the inhabitants of the fetid township that I remember, with sewage running down the unmade streets, have been rehoused in a new suburb alongside, I learnt. But the old township is more crowded than ever, including many illegal immigrants.

Cruising around the CBD in a small bakkie driven by Jan’s friend Archie, from Soweto, was like I imagine driving through Lagos or any other hustling, overcrowded African city, but with high rises, former hotels, including the Carlton, and the once-thriving headquarters of the big banks and mining companies, now dusty and abandoned or turned into squats.

Cracked pavements are now lined with stalls, rubbish everywhere, taxi vans weaving around on both sides of the road. Recent immigrants in their distinctive clothes concentrate in various areas. Nigerians have colonised Hillbrow, for example, but I did not see a single white face in the CBD, or even Orange Grove, where I used to go to speak Italian and eat pizza and ice cream.

Victory for the taxi mafia

Saddest, because stark evidence of breakdown, shelters designed for high-speed bus services along designated tracks, as in Bogotá and elsewhere in Latin America without underground urban railways, lie dusty, unfinished and abandoned. Victory for the taxi mafia.

Similarly, from the still shiny white suspension bridge into the CBD long lines of stationary yellow suburban trains can be seen at Park Station below, idle because the copper cables have been cut down during load-shedding and sold as scrap.              

Mandela,with his call for a co-operative, inclusive “rainbow nation”, had a positive, creative image of a future where South Africa’s ethnic and cultural diversity would be a huge asset in a cooperative effort to repair the pain and waste of apartheid. Many of the brave “inziles” who fought and worked for a new South Africa from within shared that dream.

They organised trade unions, created the United Democratic Front (UDF), went on protest marches, brought in churches and civil society, gained intimate knowledge of the apartheid state as they struggled, often in the face of violent, armed state repression. Some, like Trevor Manuel, became competent ministers. Cyril Ramaphosa, then a young and handsome leader of the mining union, played key roles in the transfer of power from the National Party. I liked him enormously.

But the Soviet-influenced “exiles”, skilled in intrigue and deceit on the Soviet model (and still on show with the Russian invasion of Ukraine accompanied by a fog of barefaced lies and internal repression), were not interested in power-sharing. They refused to consider a democratic, constituency-based electoral system and plotted the kind of party-state regime which the Russians and east Europeans had just decisively rejected.

Race-based politics

Ironically, the ANC’s anachronistic desire to mimic Soviet-style party control mirrored the Afrikaner Nationalists' promotion of race-based politics after their victory in the 1948 elections — a mere three years after the defeat of the race-obsessed Nazi regime in Germany.

Unlike the “inziles”, however, the returning exiles — basking in the warm glow of foreign public adoration — soon proved to be woefully uninformed, even uninterested in the complex reality of the country they had returned to. They were administratively inexperienced and economically illiterate. Revolutionary romantics, many imagined they would enter as heroes to be greeted with garlands and cheers as they marched in triumph with their AK-47s through the main towns and cities.

How do I know? In April 1983 I was expelled from the Soviet Union as an “anti-Soviet slanderer”. A year later, on my way to Johannesburg as newly appointed Financial Times correspondent, I stopped off in Maputo to meet Joe Slovo. We talked for hours. As a KGB officer feted on his trips to Moscow, he saw the Soviet Union as an economic socialist superpower, a model to be replicated in Africa.

In vain, I tried to persuade him that on the contrary, the Soviet Union was socially repressive and economically backward, with the exception of the military sector which absorbed a vast proportion of the skilled labour and natural resources of this enormous, richly endowed country and its Central Asian and east European colonies. It was, I added, hopelessly unprepared for the electronic revolution which was starting its meteoric rise in Asia, including China, which at that time had a GDP five times smaller than the USSR.

As an example, I told him of the salesman for Rank Xerox who told me in confidence that he had sold only 200 copiers — and each one was under the lock and key of the KGB, which feared that otherwise they would be used clandestinely to print hostile “samizdat” pamphlets and banned books.

‘Most reactionary bastard’

At the end of our conversation, Joe told me I was “the most reactionary bastard” he had ever met, but had the good grace to add, “but I haven’t had a more interesting conversation in years”. I replied that I was “delighted to see that the spirit of Josef Vissarionovich Stalin was still alive and kicking in Southern Africa”. At which point we both laughed and embraced. We never met again. After leaving Johannesburg in 1989, I spent the next decade at the Financial Times reporting on the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet empire (which I had predicted.)

While still covering the last years of the apartheid regime, however, I flew to Lusaka with my foreign editor to interview Thabo Mbeki and other ANC leaders in exile. Unlike the South African businessmen and others who had been charmed by their gracious hosts, I was deeply unimpressed. As with Slovo (who I understand later mellowed considerably), I saw them as mentally fossilised 1960s-era “comrades”, although I had no idea at the time that once in power they would follow so slavishly Stalin’s dictum — “Kadr reshaet vsyo!” — cadres decide everything.

The only “cadre” I found reasonably open-minded and curious was Tito Mboweni, who went on to become governor of the SA Reserve Bank — and the recipient of copious amounts of International Monetary Fund, World Bank and other advice and support after the ANC took power in 1994.

Few political parties entered power with as much domestic and foreign goodwill and support as the ANC after the first peaceful, democratic election in 1994, as Max recalls. Instead of the generous inclusiveness advocated by Mandela and former leaders of the UDF, and desperately hoped for by South Africans of all colours and creeds, Mbeki, followed by Jacob Zuma, proceeded to impose the most destructive form of racism imaginable.

Mirror image of the apartheid-era

Ironically, the imposition of Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) and similar policies was essentially a mirror image of the apartheid-era whites-only policies which the ANC had sworn to tear down in the name of righting a huge historic injustice. In practice, as South Africans have learnt to their horror, ANC policies created a bloated new class of black, ANC-linked recipients of free shares and other assets. Ramaphosa, for example (but probably far from the worst culprit, who I knew and liked enormously as leader of the powerful National Union of Mineworkers),  practically overnight became a billionaire “businessman” in a process best described in George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

The question which the rising but still divided opposition parties should perhaps ask the beneficiaries of BEE is what exactly they did to actually create the wealth which they now “own” and flaunt. As Max and many other careful observers have noted, the ANC is responsible not only for the unequal transfer of wealth but also the criminal destruction of wealth by hollowing out the state, the economy and society.

This impoverishment is largely due to BEE and party-linked “cadre” employment throughout the civil service, including the police and armed forces, the discouragement of foreign and domestic investment, and the emigration of many of the most capable managers, businessmen, investors and skilled artisans, mostly — but far from entirely — whites.

The ANC, taking power against the background of the humiliating collapse of the Soviet Union, could and should have taken note of the failure of a brutish system based on the theories it continued to parrot; it should have listened to the wealth of advice and training offered by international institutions, foreign governments and would-be investors; and above all it should have made every effort to keep on board and learn from those South Africans who had demonstrated their desire for a new, fairer and more inclusive country and who had played the key roles in making South Africa the most productive and modern state on the continent, by far.

Learnt nothing and forgot nothing

Instead, like the Bourbon kings of Europe, restored to power after being dethroned by Napoleon, the ANC “learnt nothing and forgot nothing”. It inherited the most advanced and sophisticated, albeit distorted, economy in Africa, with competent, entrepreneurial management, a dynamic private sector and, crucially, a skilled working class capable of maintaining the existing capital stock and infrastructure and building new assets. Without skilled artisans, maintaining power stations, railways and ports is impossible — and these are precisely the people, plus competent civil servants, alienated by the lunatic BEE programme, purged and replaced by usually ignorant politicised “cadres”. A tragic mistake which haunts post-apartheid SA.              

Zuma completed the transition from Leninism to tribalism, all of which has been reported on by the remaining elements of a free press, of which Vrye Weekblad and the Daily Maverick are fine examples.

The comparison with Israel is interesting. The only democracy in the Middle East, with a world-class high-tech component and flourishing economy, surrounded by Lebanon, Syria and similar basket cases, Israel currently risks an exodus of the brightest and best of its society through a warped political system which puts disproportionate power and influence in the hands of feuding religious minorities. The key issue is a struggle over the continued independence of the judiciary.

Despite the huge pressures and disappointments, South Africans have sustained elements of a free press and an independent judiciary and remain free to speak their mind, form independent political parties, and retain rights to private property. If there is still fragile hope that the situation can be stabilised then reversed, it lies here, and the outside world should take note and support these glowing embers.

Ongoing tragedy and destruction

After all the emotion, the marches, the rhetoric demanding an end to apartheid which kept SA in the headlines for years and under constant criticism and pressure, the world assumed that now the job was done and the ANC was triumphant, a new Shangri-La in Africa would automatically and miraculously emerge. Instead, South Africa has been allowed to sink for three decades virtually without protest from those who so ardently called for the end of apartheid without caring about the ongoing tragedy and destruction which followed.

Which begs Lenin’s famous, rhetorical question, as the Bolsheviks seized power in benighted Russia: “Chto delat?” What is to be done? Is it still possible to revive the economy and society given the exodus of skills, years of corruption and plundering and the discouragement of investment?

Max puts his faith in the tenacity and depth of civil society, widespread disillusionment with the ANC in the townships and the plethora of new opposition parties such as Rise Mzansi. He reports that the ANC is no longer confident of maintaining its hegemony and is planning a coalition strategy which would keep it in power alongside the EFF. Much depends on the outcome of next year’s general election. Only if millions of people actively vote in favour of the new parties, rather than passively abstain, will change be affected via the ballot box. Will it be possible to prevent massive vote-rigging and bribery?

A few weeks ago, I attended the Anglo American AGM in London. Despite selling many of its South African assets, moving its HQ to London and investing heavily in new mines in Chile, Peru and elsewhere, Anglo still employs 41,000 people in South Africa. Last year it paid $1.68bn in wages and benefits, handed $2.053bn in taxes to the South African government and spent $5.2bn locally on goods and services. De Beers is also the mainstay of Botswana.

Classic corrupt deal

Eskom load-shedding, theft of copper wires feeding power to the electric locomotives used on the 750km rail line connecting the high-quality Kumba iron mines in the Northern Cape with Saldanha Bay, and delays at the ports and other problems have raised costs and cut profits. Duncan Wanblad, a South African who took over as CEO last year, says the company has joined forces with EDF, the French power company, to build renewable energy wind and solar plants and wants to help get the trains running again. It is looking for ways to use diesel locomotives on the trashed electrified lines. But the dangerously tall diesel locos bought from China, in what looks like a classic corrupt deal, are lacking spare parts.

My impressions contain little or nothing new to most South Africans living this ongoing tragedy in their daily lives. When all eyes are on Ukraine, deteriorating Sino-American relations, a global environmental crisis, massive inflation and the prospect of famine — the list is endless — it will be hard to refocus global attention on South Africa. It will never happen if those elected to govern for the past three decades of corrupt ANC rule remain in power beyond elections next year.

Enlightened self-interest, the only reliable force, indicates that preventing a chaotic collapse of the former African dynamo ought to be a higher priority in the foreign policy of democratic states seeking to preserve international stability. Creating a credible domestic political/social/economic alternative capable of attracting even a fraction of the international help once offered to the ANC and squandered, is an essential but not sufficient prerequisite. But that is what some brave souls are trying to achieve. They deserve support.

♦ VWB ♦

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