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What hope for South Africa? Sadly, very little


The recent death of Winnie Mandela again shows the failures of the ANC regime to provide decent leadership to the long-suffering people of South Africa. The elevation of ‘Mama Winnie’ to mother-of-the-nation status, the airbrushing of her crimes and of her loudly stated support for the atrocity of necklacing, demonstrates the moral bankruptcy of the country’s rulers.

Despite holding power since 1994 the ANC, who once offered so much hope, have done little to improve life for the mass of the black population. Their leadership, weakened by corruption and outdated ideology, is dominated by what South African political expert RW Johnson describes as a ‘gangster elite’.  Of course the obscenity of apartheid had to end, but the ANC seem perfectly to represent the ideas of the ‘new-Machiavellian’ thinkers such as Pareto or Mosca, who influenced Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four so much. They maintained that revolutions are not held to liberate anybody; they are simply the means for one oligarchy to replace another.

The ANC’s rule and ideology have often led to serious mismanagement, ironically exacerbating the country’s problems by using racial classification. Their programme entitled ‘Black Economic Empowerment’ was introduced supposedly to give black people a stake in the economy and key institutions by enforcing black participation or co-ownership. But, dubbed by critics ‘Black Elite Enrichment’, it’s proved a severe drag on progress. Siphoning wealth from productive white-owned businesses to well-connected cliques of black nouveaux-riches – doing nothing for the black poor.

It’s proved to be just one more factor driving white people from the country.  Whatever you think of the history of how the white minority first gained its economic position, their skills and capital are much needed. Increasingly, though, there is little to keep them. Further encouraging their emigration is the surge of support within the ANC for expropriation of parts of the economy without compensation; particularly agriculture.  That’s a thought to let sink in. In a country with a flight of capital, desperate for inward investment to modernise, how bad at understanding economic outcomes can you get?

Despite the odd step forward, living standards for most are under severe pressure. If you’re not one of the elite, somebody’s protégé or a snugly embedded public bureaucrat, things are grim. The unemployment rate is significantly higher than when apartheid ended, increasing from 20 per cent to a current level of 27 per cent, although it’s probable this is a significant underestimate. Some believe the real figure is around 40 per cent.

And life is poor by other measures. Crime levels have fluctuated since apartheid, but for the last few years, violent crime has been increasing again. South Africa is ranked as having the world’s 7th highest per capita murder rate. The townships are dangerous places, especially for women, with sexual violence widespread. More generally, government services are failing, with poor management, patronage and cronyism engulfing them. According to the South African Institution for Civil Engineers, basic amenities and infrastructure, everything from water to road bridges, are starting to crumble away.

It would seem that running a country was always beyond the ANC and although some would find it sacrilegious to say, beyond the capabilities of the much venerated Nelson Mandela. Whatever you think of his moral qualities, it’s now proven that despite his constant lies, even after apartheid’s fall, Mandela was a full member of South Africa’s Communist Party, even on its Central Committee. A party that was as hard-line and orthodox as anything out of Eastern Europe. Hardly a good school to learn decent leadership. You might say, so what? Under apartheid oppression, the ANC was entitled to take support from wherever it chose. Outsiders have no right to criticise in such circumstances. But given that Mandela’s presidency began after global communism had collapsed and different socialist models in other African countries had already failed, he made no great effort to adapt his economic thinking. Mandela and the ANC leadership showed little ability to understand or learn much. Mandela had some admirable qualities, he made a fine figurehead. But in government, with his ideological baggage, questionable friends and failure to tackle corruption, his leadership was severely lacking.

Then there was his famous quote, ‘poverty is not natural, it is man-made’. A lovely slogan if you’re a well-paid western charity executive. But if that was Mandela’s real opinion, such wrong-headedness is difficult to believe. It matters a lot when presidents think wealth is some sort of naturally occurring phenomenon and don’t realise we are lifted out of poverty only by intense and unnatural effort. Judging by their record and current policies it seems Mandela’s ANC never understood this.

The question now is how much change the new president Cyril Ramaphosa can bring? He has made positive noises about tackling corruption and chronic mismanagement in the bloated public sector. However, his attachment to immense wealth and long background in the sometimes unsavoury upper ranks of the ANC, justifies asking whether he will turn out that different from the generally poor quality of much African political leadership?

If Ramaphosa fails, though, something far scarier is waiting for its political chance. The ‘Economic Freedom Fighters’ are a vociferous and extremist party, well to the left of the ANC. They believe only in the erasure of the colonialist legacy, i.e. that the complete dispossession of the whites and the abolition of capitalism will bring ‘justice’ to the masses. In their bizarre uniforms – the full version involves red boiler suits, red berets and Wellington boots – they look crazy enough to believe just that. A clownish Khmer Rouge in waiting; non-lethal so far but still with a favourite chant of ‘Kill the Boer’.

South Africa’s prospects aren’t looking good. There is a real possibility that she becomes the next Zimbabwe or Venezuela. Perhaps her new president can steer her away from the ideological dead ends, corruption and cronyism that have blighted her political culture for so long and address her awful poverty. I wish him well though I lack optimism. But let’s still hope that South Africa’s people finally get the justice they deserve.

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Ollie Wright
Ollie Wright
Ollie Wright is an ex-Labour Party man with a life long interest in politics and history.

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