Sticking to their guns

<strong>After the Party</strong>

Andrew Feinstein <em>Jonathan Ball Publishers, 300pp, £10</em>

Half a century ago, the prospective Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer contemplated the chances for liberal democracy in Africa. White people would do well to think of themselves as "visitors to a new country", she wrote. Most Africans would prefer "to make their own mistakes than repeat successes (or mistakes)" from abroad.

South Africa waited another three decades for the unbanning of the African National Congress, the subject of this heartfelt exposé. By then, tolerance of bad government in Africa had been eroded by a growing awareness of parasitic elites and the perverse, polarising loyalties of the Cold War. Nelson Mandela's inauguration speech, on 10 May 1994, echoed Martin Luther King: "Never, never and never again."

The worldwide, pan-racial struggle against apartheid earned South Africa a unique place in the canon of liberal fantasy. As a white Jewish Capetonian, Andrew Feinstein revelled in the "minor celebrity" of his role as an ANC MP and chairman of parliament's Standing Committee on Public Accounts (Scopa). Next to the portrait of Mandela in his office, Feinstein kept a statue of Martin Luther King.

His lively memoir chronicles a dream sabotaged by the graft, shenanigans and deceits of a £5bn arms procurement programme launched by Mandela's cabinet in the late 1990s. No sooner had Scopa unearthed a food chain of front companies, backhanders and dubious shareholdings than Feinstein was removed from his post.

The substance of the book's allegations is that South Africa's military was compelled by politicians to acquire un suitable equipment that it did not want or need. To advance these contracts, ministers explicitly agreed to disregard price as a factor in the most costly acquisition yet undertaken by the post-apartheid state.

Feinstein's account of this sad affair is detailed and explicit - and no one has yet sued him. The army's director of procurement, Chippy Shaik, solicited favours and bribes for his political contacts. Giddy sums accrued to the late defence minister Joe Modise, the Gucci-shod former commander of the ANC's guerrilla army-in-exile, Mkhonto we Sizwe.

For the government of President Thabo Mbeki, his finance minister, Trevor Manuel, and the former minister of trade and industry Alec Erwin insisted - shabbily - that was all clean. These are no ordinary villains, however. The same triumvirate has been widely credited with the liberalising economic policies that have brought the longest boom in South African history. None is accused of benefiting personally from the arms deal. A likely explanation for the cover-up is that the arms deal fuelled an ANC slush fund for the 1999 election campaign.

Feinstein wisely refrains from speculation on the health prospects for South Africa's constitutionally protected public institutions - perhaps the ANC's greatest achievement, but now clearly in jeopardy. Nor does he analyse the intractable demographic forces that can be marshalled against them, though history suggests that democratic institutions have proved more resilient in wealthy, homogenised societies.

In his opening speech to the current session of parliament, Mbeki quoted Dickens to reflect on contemporary South Africa: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." Later this year, Jacob Zuma, Mbeki's former deputy who was recently elected ANC leader, will stand trial on corruption charges. Schabir Shaik, Zuma's former "financial adviser" and brother of Chippy, has already been convicted of fraud and corruption arising from the arms deal; he was jailed in 2005. Some commentators expect the looming trial will scupper Zuma's ambition to become head of state when Mbeki retires in 2009, but at this juncture such claims are largely guesswork.

Feinstein is more concerned with drawing attention to what has passed. He blames Mbeki for offences on his watch, not least in Mbeki's role as chairman of a cabinet subcommittee in charge of the arms deal. But he also disdains the president's high-handed and confusing responses to the Aids epidemic and the crisis in Zimbabwe. This is understandable, but partisan. Mbeki is in every sense the architect of the new nation - its successes and failures - and a more nuanced figure than Feinstein allows.

Alternately seductive and arguably paranoid, he has spent much of his presidency shrouded in a kind of Caesar complex - an image he has often seemed to relish. But as he neared the end of two terms, the party faithful rallied decisively behind Zuma and his not-all-that-clean cohorts at the ANC's December conference in Polokwane.

Feinstein may yet have to update his book, as prosecutors in Britain, Germany and Sweden close in on aspects of the arms deal within their jurisdiction. He has exposed a mighty rip-off in which some of Africa's new-found "friends" are complicit. Tony Blair, for example, who in 2006 stymied a criminal investigation into Britain's al-Yamamah arms deal with Saudi Arabia, campaigned energetically for Pretoria's inferior and overpriced contract with BAE Systems and SAAB. The lesson is not that a democratic South Africa is new or unknown territory, but that many of the problems which beset the ANC's fiefdom appear disturbingly familiar.

Mark Ashurst is director of the Africa Research Institute in London

This article first appeared in the 24 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The truth about Tibet