The winter of our discontent

R.W. Johnson

South Africans have, for several months now, been enduring an exceptional torrent of accusations and counter-accusations of racism. Such accusations have, of course, provided much of the steady badinage of South African politics for twenty years, but even when seen against that background the recent period has been special.

Penny Sparrow, a South Coast estate agent, provided a convenient initial focus with her virtually Neanderthal depictions of blacks as monkeys: what the French would call le racisme primaire. Thereafter all manner of essentially harmless folk have been caught up in the storm and have suffered penalties of one sort or another for a few words or sentiments a mite out of place – or not even that.

The situation has now become so ridiculous that when Helen Zille says how pleased she is by the heavy usage of Cape Town’s municipal libraries, she is accused of racism for having implied surprise that blacks read books.

On many university campuses there is a frankly anti-white frenzy. We have seen delighted declarations that “whiteness is burning” when valuable pictures are torched.

What to conclude from this? A first conclusion might be, for god’s sake avoid social media. Almost everybody who has found themselves in trouble has done so as a result of some unwise and trivial post on Twitter and Facebook. One only has to remember how her addiction to Twitter undermined Helen Zille’s leadership of the DA to see what a hostage to fortune such media constitute.

Why all the fuss over racism?

But what is this hyper-sensitivity about? The answer is not simple. For many years it has been commonplace that black commentators insist that “we must debate race”. On the face of it, there is little to debate. We all know that biologically speaking, no such thing as race exists. It is also common cause that black people have suffered badly from segregation and oppression by whites.

Nobody wishes to defend or exculpate apartheid. So what is the debate about? Usually, it seems, debate is just the wrong word: most often what seems to be meant is a further opportunity to rehearse all the multiple ways in which black South Africans still feel aggrieved. This is not a debate, nor even truly a conversation and very seldom is there anything new to say. It is also purely backward-looking.

All the heat and energy is about past grievances (student radicals frequently attack their opponents for the mistreatment of their parents or even grandparents): there seems to be little constructive thought about the future – or even much interest in it. The picture has been further clouded by attempts to reify “whiteness”, philosophically and sociologically a very dubious notion.

The key factor: ANC failure

The main new fact driving the current hypersensitivity is just that the ANC is visibly failing. No one is in any serious doubt now about this. It even passes the taxi driver test: take a taxi from OR Tambo and the driver will soon tell you that the ANC will soon lose power, either nationally or a least in Joburg. It’s literally on the street.

The ANC elites, anxiously aware of this, feel the cold whiff of change in the air. Hence Gwede Mantashe’s paranoid mutterings about the role of the US embassy in allegedly fostering regime change. It has now dawned on the ANC leadership, that far from being in place “until Jesus comes”, they could meet their Maker quite a lot sooner than that.

It is not clear, after, all, how the ANC’s claim to rule would survive the loss of Pretoria and/or Joburg. Hence, too, the much sharper focus now on the possibility of relegation to junk bond status. When I brought out my last book in May 2015 (How Long Will South Africa Survive? The Looming Crisis) the notion of such a relegation was rather recherché stuff.

The oddity was that although almost nobody was willing to review the book, its central ideas quickly passed into the main conversation. The possibility of relegation to junk bond status thus became the key symbolic test of whether ANC government had failed. The result, belatedly, was to make every ANC spokesman vow to avoid such a relegation at almost any cost.

The notion of ANC government as an evident failure triggered complex psychological reactions. Since this was South Africa’s first African government its imminent failure was seen as an enormous symbolic defeat for the black race by certain black intellectuals – first and foremost in their own eyes.

This in itself was almost unbearably painful, as can be seen in innumerable letters to the editor from black readers saying how personally humiliated and let down they feel by the government’s failure. Second, many black intellectuals were quick to imagine whites sitting on their verandahs of an evening, gin and tonic in hand, saying “I told you so” – an almost unbearable image.

Third, and for that very reason, this produced a renewed anti-white animus, a determination that, if the ship was to go down, at least the whites must go down with the ship too.

Julius Malema, with his usual unerring instinct, taunted the ANC with the thought that some whites were actually enjoying the prospect of a black government failing.

The hardening of opinion

There is a smidgeon of truth in this. It is undeniably true that under the weight of government incompetence and corruption, much white opinion has hardened. This is obvious in a host of ways and certainly to any reader of the PoliticsWeb comment section.

Nonetheless, the overwhelming majority of white South Africans still want their country to succeed, irrespective of politics. Yet at the same time there has always been a tiny fringe of white apologists for black racism – it will be hard to convince future generations how much of the damage was done by whites.

Frequently such folk will find sophistical arguments for the proposition that only whites can be racists, although ordinary common sense shows plainly enough that this is a disease that anyone can catch. Blacks and whites can both be racists in the same way that blacks and whites can both be fast food addicts, both be thieves, both be religious nuts and so on.

What seems to drive such folk, oddly, is a strong sense of collective guilt. They would all insist that their own treatment of black people has been blameless (so individually they are not guilty) but they believe that all white people should feel collective guilt about the past. This despite the fact that all the churches, the UN and no end of judicial eminences have declared that the doctrine of collective guilt – used by anti-Semites down the ages to justify their persecution of the Jews – is not only invalid but an offense against humanity.

The doctrine of collective guilt was invoked by the Nazis when they murdered whole communities in reprisal for the acts of a few resistants. It is a deeply inhuman and reactionary doctrine. So guilt can only be individual. No doubt we should all examine our own consciences, but that is far as one can go.

The history of non-racialism

When the ANC was in its pomp under Mandela, it was proudly non-racial and did not stoop to anti-white racism. The person who really reintroduced racism to South African public life was Thabo Mbeki who repeatedly conjured up loathsome visions of blacks as dirty, diseased, plundering and rapacious folk, an imagined white stereotype, though one which Mbeki himself found weirdly believable.

Mbeki relied more and more on “campaigns against racism” (read anti-white mobilizations), held a World Conference Against Racism and said this would be the guiding theme of his entire presidency. This was all very telling. With the Mandela magic gone, Mbeki felt paranoid and insecure and his first instinct was to fall back on anti-white racism.

Zuma was, at first, much better. With Mbeki’s defeat at Polokwane, anti-white racism faded from the scene. But as the cumulative weight of the ANC’s economic blunders became apparent, this has changed. When the ANC has to fight for survival its last card is racial nationalism: vote for us because we are black, vote against them because they are white.

This situation has been dramatically transformed by the emergence of the EFF. The ANC has always most feared attacks from its left and it can see Malema’s radical anti-white rhetoric gaining traction.

This panics it completely and its response is to attempt to ensure that, whatever else, it will not be outflanked on that theme. It must fight to ensure that racial nationalism works in its favour, and not in Malema’s. Thus whites find themselves on the wrong end of a Dutch auction on anti-white racism.

It must be understood that this is all part of the logic of multi-party proportional representation. A new development to the Left of the ANC will have a ricocheting effect right across the system as one billiard ball after another feels the colliding motion of the next. The eruption of an anti-ANC left has immediately set up a new field of force right across the system.

The eclipse of the old Left

Most obviously, of course, it has had dire effects on the SACP and Cosatu – the old ersatz Left. Nobody bothers to mention the National Democratic Revolution any more. Indeed, the NDR seems to be just as dead as the NDP (the National Development Plan), which is to say, as dead as a dodo. If there is a radical vision held out to the radical young it is Malema’s furious return to the Freedom Charter with forced expropriation of all white assets.(Malema carefully omits the Charter’s strongly non-racial stance.) The SACP can’t compete with that. The best it can do is just stay quiet – rather like Blade Nzimande, who is staying as deliberately invisible as possible during the current university troubles. So much for the SACP’s vanguard role.

In effect, neither the SACP nor COSATU brings anything very substantial to the ANC now. They continue purely on sufferance. The hoary old mythology was that the ANC relied on Cosatu to mobIlize the urban vote for it. But the ANC is losing precisely in the cities, and is relying more every year on the great vote banks of the old bantustans, in which Cosatu plays no role.

The budget has set the stage for a further intensification of racial nationalism. As Anthony Butler commented, its boundaries were “set by cronyism, the power of public sector unions, antipathy towards the private sector and public discontent about the economy”. That is, Gordhan could not go further without disturbing or dislodging the patronage networks on which Zuma’s rule depends.

The ANC clock: always slow

The result is weirdly reminiscent of the National Party dramas of the 1970s and 1980s when enormous pressures for change would be met by the fact that the NP’s clock was set not by those pressures but by the purely internal consideration of the relative strengths of the verligtes and verkramptes.

It is the same now with the ANC. It can proceed only at the pace set by its internal clock, which depends on the balance between its factions, its patrons and their clients. This is way behind the pace required by the international political economy of which South Africa is part.

In effect what this means is that the ANC is simply not able to carry out the sort of reforms necessary to guarantee its own survival. Instead it has adopted a defensive crouch which it will maintain through possible local election losses and a further ratings downgrade. As these things occur its mood will get increasingly sour, panicky and paranoid.

Its recourse to racial nationalism will become increasingly shrill. It will be a good time to remember the old adage that “sticks and stones may break my bones but hard words will never hurt me”. But, of course, it is playing with fire and, as recent university incidents have shown, it is all too easy for this sort of racial mobilization to tip over into inter-racial violence. Should that occur on any scale it would undo the whole post-1990 settlement and leave the country in no man’s land.

The conundrum of student protest

Finally there is the difficult question of how to interpret the current wave of student protest. While this younger generation is just as affected as others by the emotional consequences of ANC failure, there are clearly extra factors – grievances over fees, over accommodation, over the language of instruction, over exclusion because of indebtedness, as well as fear of academic failure born of poor schooling and a weak culture of study, discomfort (of some) at finding themselves in a mainly “white” environment for the first time, unhappiness at the sight of white and Indian students often scoring higher marks and anxiety over the high rate of youth unemployment.

As if this wasn’t enough, the student movement has quickly been hijacked by out-sourced workers wanting to be in-sourced and by ambitious black academics wanting more affirmative action in academic hiring and promotion.

On top of that there is a general fear that ANC fat cats have feathered their own nests by selling out the next generation, a fear sometimes phrased as the Mandela generation selling out to “white monopoly capital”.

That is already eleven separate factors and doubtless there are more. It is this hydra-headed nature which accounts for both the protest movement’s power and its confusion.

However, as the political theorist Michael Oakshott argued, no political movement is born or exists in a vacuum. In practise it intimates its new meanings and demands in terms of the existing political traditions in that society. In that sense the students had to choose between three competing traditions:

1. The Freedom Charter’s non-racial stance – “South Africa belongs to all those who live in it, black and white, and no government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of all the people”.

2. The PAC/Black Consciousness alternative. Although Robert Sobukwe and Steve Biko both insisted that they did not believe in black domination or racial animosity towards whites, their followers have generally interpreted this tradition to mean just that. In addition, BC enthusiasts generally favour de facto racial segregation, with separate racially-based organisations for black students, lawyers, businessmen etc.

3. The radical “Struggle” tradition inherited from the ANC’s thirty years in exile when the party fought for the total overthrow of the system, the “conquest of power”, and a full-on socialist programme. Once the negotiated settlement was reached at Codesa this tradition was cut short but it continued in the popular mind and various leaders bid for its leadership – Chris Hani, Peter Mokaba, Winnie Mandela and Julius Malema among others.

Although Nelson Mandela invoked the first (non-racial) tradition in 1994 as the basis of the new settlement, the truth was that it belonged to the period of Albert Luthuli’s leadership of the ANC and had largely been eclipsed since his death.

But strong traces of it remain for it is still the presumptive base of the Constitution and the entire post-1994 dispensation. In essence Luthuli was a Christian liberal. The black and white students who joined together to pray for peace on their campuses lay exactly within that tradition.

In practice most student activists seem to mix the second and third traditions with little regard for theoretical coherence, just as Malema attempts to combine the (incompatible) first and third traditions.

In truth, the situation is confused. The third tradition has been formally ended; the second was defeated by the ANC and is thus not in power, while the first, though theoretically the basis of the present dispensation, is widely ignored and flouted. The result is literally anarchic.

Thus although some of the activists believe we need to revisit the 1994 settlement and change it, the situation is now quite different from 1990-1994. That period was dominated by the approaching certainty of an irresistible ANC hegemony. Today that hegemony finds itself under assault from all directions with no real certainty about what the new balance will be.

We thus have a period of rough water ahead of us – which could be quite prolonged. It will be a time forvasbyt, for holding fast, for remembering that whatever the accompanying noise, the vast majority of South Africans simply want peace and growth, and remembering too that the country has come through far worse times during the Anglo-Boer War, during the Depression of the 1930s, during the Second World War and during apartheid. It is a resilient country in which it is rational to be an optimist.

R.W. Johnson

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