The new Randlords

South Africa is booming. The economy is enjoying its biggest surge since the Second World War - and

United States of America Boulevard: there was a time when no self-respecting black-township resident would have wanted an address so redolent of US imperialism. Just a decade or so ago, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara were township street names of choice. One might have thought that Hugo Chávez would now be keeping South African sign-makers busy. No chance, or at least not in Cosmo City, a flashy new housing estate on the outskirts of Johannesburg. Here the US of A Boulevard is among the most sought-after addresses - as is Las Vegas Crescent - because it is here that members of the new, black middle class are flocking in droves, in search of mock-Tuscan villas and a share of the consumerist new South African dream.

When Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, his first speech brimmed with vintage redistribution rhetoric. To be fair on the "old man", it had been forced upon him by anti-apartheid radicals, who feared he had gone soft behind bars, but not surprisingly the markets dived. Since then, however - indeed, since the very next morning - the economic policies of the African National Congress have moved to the right. Now, as South Africa celebrates the anniversary of Mandela's inauguration on 10 May, bigwigs in the ruling party are embracing capitalism with such relish that President Thabo Mbeki, the very man who unleashed this capitalist fervour, is expressing unease over some of his old comrades' pursuit of bling, and the long-quiescent unions are muttering that it is time to take "back" the party.

"This is banker heaven," one American banking executive told me recently, shortly after my return after nearly a decade away. He did not need to explain. All around us in a trendy Johannesburg mall were members of the "Black Economic Empowerment" (BEE) crowd, many no doubt celebrating deals to secure equity from historically white-run firms, a key part of the government's policy to level the economic playing field. I found the scene all the more riveting given that I had last visited that mall in 1993 when, as a newly arrived foreign correspondent come to cover the bloodbath threatening the transfer of power, I had been the only customer in an Italian restaurant. The proprietor was convinced that South Africa was heading for the abyss, and sold up. How wrong she was (on both counts).

Buoyed by the surge in global commodities prices, and steered by Mbeki's prudent fiscal policies, South Africa's econ omy is enjoying its most concerted spurt since the Second World War and Johannesburg is booming. For the past two years the economy has grown at about 5 per cent. This is not as high as it needs to be if unemployment is to come down, but to have ventured such a prediction at the start of my first stint would have led to widespread rolling of eyes. Yet now, consumer confidence is at a 25-year high; the Johannesburg Stock Exchange's top 40 index has gone up nearly 250 per cent in the past three years; house prices are up more than 125 per cent since 2003; new car sales soared by nearly 16 per cent to an astonishing 714,000 last year.

And for once in South Africa's history, it is not just white people who are prospering. Leaf through the pages of City Press, a Sunday newspaper aimed squarely at black South Africans. I remember it for its doughty political coverage, but not much else. Now it has a glitzy motoring section. "Two BMW 3-Series for the price of one", ran a typical headline two weeks ago. Beneath it was a story headlined: "Mercedes-Benz B200 pricey but quite nice". According to figures quoted by the business magazine Finance Week, the number of "super-rich" (those earning more than four million rand - £285,000 - a year) has risen by 50 per cent in the past five years. While blacks, Asians and people of mixed race accounted for less than 25 per cent of this category in 2001, they now account for 34 per cent; that figure is expected to rise to over 40 per cent by 2011.

So what happened to the idealism of the ANC cadres I knew back in the early Nineties? The cynical or simple answer is that many have been seduced by easy money. The Johannesburg of 2007 reminds me as much of Vladimir Putin's Moscow - a boom in construction and car sales and a flowering of oligarchs - as of the unhappy Joburg I knew in the early 1990s.

"We [black South Africans] must have business role models," says one of the better-known members of the ANC billionaire elite, who has had dozens of directorships handed to him on a plate primarily because of his "struggle" credentials. "Are you denying us the right to make money?" says another. They have a point. It is hypocritical for western commen tators to argue, as they often have, that the governments of newly independent African states have no idea how to run an economy - and then condemn their supporters when they prove rather canny capitalists.

But the arguments of the new black "Randlords" are a little lame. Their talk of having been "deployed" into business may be true, but it is also a convenient euphemism for the acquisition of serious money.

Overtaken by greed

The simpler truth is that many "struggle" veterans have appreciated that after years of fighting the good fight they do not need to stay poor. What is more, it is rather easy to become rich, given the desperation of white businesses to prove their commitment to the new era by finding a black partner, and, in many cases, any old black partner.

The rise and fall of the "Queen of BEE", South Africa's most prominent black businesswoman, who had to resign in disgrace recently from more than a dozen boards because of a huge conflict of interest, was a reminder of the perils of the new culture. Mbeki himself has taken to bemoaning the "money, money, money" way. Last year he used the annual Nelson Mandela Lecture to castigate those for whom "success and fulfilment means personal enrichment at all costs and the most theatrical and striking public display of that wealth".

The good news, however, for those who fret from afar that its new elite have been overtaken by greed, is that there is more to South Africa's revolution than just conspicuous consumption. Day by day the country is becoming more "normal".

Society remains, of course, in many ways unthinkingly racist. How is it that so many whites still talk of their gardeners as "garden boys" when they are referring to adult men? Yet, despite Mbeki's Africanist insistence, aired in his weekly online columns, and repeated to me in person, that racism still poisons society, my impression is that race relations have improved vastly. It is far rarer now, as a white man, to be met with the pre-emptive cringe that used to be the hallmark of so many interracial encounters. I remember, soon after my arrival in 1993, hearing of the experience of a black American colleague. She was queuing in Thrupps, the Fortnum & Mason of Johannesburg, and a white woman looked over her shoulder at the French cheeses in her basket and said: "Oh, what good taste your madam has." "I am the madam," my friend replied. That encounter is impossible to imagine now.

The country is also no longer so out of date. In the Nineties many whites, and not just Pretoria civil servants with their beehive hairdos and floral print dresses, or their shapeless suits and grey shoes, dressed as if in a Fifties sitcom. Black South Africans were by and large no more contemporary: township style was a scruffy T-shirt and jeans. I remember Dali Tambo, the designer and chat-show-host son of the late ANC leader, shaking his head in despair over South Africans' dress sense. Since then there has been a collective make-over. Go to one of the half-dozen malls that have opened in Soweto in the past year or so. They are little different from the malls in Johannesburg's suburbs - or, indeed, the rest of the world.

What's getting worse?

So where is the catch? My second morning back, I was reflecting on my impressions of the "new normal" when I met up with a former senior government official and ANC stalwart. What should I keep my eyes on, apart from the boom, I asked? "Corruption, incompetence, unemployment and crime," he said. "They are all getting worse."

South Africa has between 20 and 40 per cent unemployment. Trevor Manuel, the well-regarded finance minister, who has just overseen South Africa's first budget surplus in recorded history, concedes that this keeps him awake at night. After dithering, the ANC is rolling out vast infrastructure projects, in particular for the 2010 World Cup. But 5 per cent growth will not make inroads into unemployment.

Manuel shrugs off the charge that he could have been bolder in seeking higher growth. Speaking to me before he delivered his budget speech, he also rejected the idea that a surplus was an "embarrassment of riches". Rather, he suggests it is an insurance policy against harder times. But he is also the first to rail against the incompetence of swaths of the government which are unable to spend his bumper revenues. He bemoans the lack of a skilled workforce, and concedes that credit levels are dangerously high, because South Africans, particularly members of the black middle class, borrow to the hilt.

"The situation reminds me of Bolivia or Peru," says one businessman. This is not, as you might think, the caustic one-liner of a disillusioned "whitey". Rather, it is the view of Moeletsi Mbeki, the president's younger brother, one of the government's more trenchant critics. In particular he is appalled by the Black Economic Empowerment policy. It is, he says, just a cosy arrangement between white business and the black elite that will return to haunt South Africa.

There are many places in South Africa where the Bolivia/ Peru analogy rings all too true. There is not much bling in Boikhutso, a down-at-heel township in the old Western Transvaal. The main road is at last tarred and more houses have electricity than in the old days. But life is still grim, with unemployment over 50 per cent. It is places like this that spew out the young men who feed the crime wave, possibly the main disincentive to investors as they choose between South Africa and other developing markets.

Crime was appalling ten years ago when I left after my first stint. Now, anecdotally at least, it is just as bad. Take the 24 hours before I wrote this article: the family of a prominent regional politician was held up by a gang at gunpoint at the family house in northern Joburg; millions of rand were stolen in a raid on a military base in Pretoria; a Capetonian I met had been bound with his family and frogmarched through a wood by gun-wielding thugs, expecting to be killed.

The greatest threat to Mbeki's legacy is not crime, however, but a backlash against bling. This is the tussle that will come to a head in December at the ANC's five-yearly conference, when radicals have vowed to take on the centrists, including Thabo Mbeki. I accompanied him recently to Soweto on one of his rare township tours. Bridget Ngeleza, an unemployed secretary, watched his progress from the garden of her shoebox bungalow. She was far from starry-eyed, but thought his embrace of capitalism was right.

"He wants people to help themselves," she said. "He doesn't like to spoon-feed people." My guess is that she reflects the bedrock of the party. It may be ugly, but the era of bling has some years to run yet.

Alec Russell is the southern Africa correspondent of the Financial Times

South Africa’s wealth by numbers

16% increase in number of dollar millionaires in 2005

$11,000 average annual income, compared to $1,750 for the rest of sub-Saharan Africa

25% rise in demand for credit in 2006

3 number of South African billionaires on Forbes's 2007 Rich List

55 number of BMW dealerships in the country (plus one Rolls-Royce and two Porsche showrooms)

Research by Shabeeh Abbas and Jonathan Pearson

This article first appeared in the 07 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: The reckoning

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Brothers in blood: how Putin has helped Assad tear Syria apart

The Syrian catastrophe has created the worst humanitarian crisis since the end of the Second World War. And the world watches helplessly as Putin and Assad commit war crimes.

Sometimes we know the names. We know Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old boy who, covered in mud and dust, was pictured on the back seat of an ambulance in the aftermath of an air attack. We know his name because pictures and a video of him were released on social media and travelled around the world. The outrage that followed was widespread and sincere, the image of the dazed little boy seeming to symbolise the greater plight of the beleaguered residents of Aleppo. But then the moment passed. Few will know that a few days later doctors announced that Omran’s elder brother Ali, who was injured in the same air strike, had died from his injuries. He was ten.

Sometimes we know the names of the babies pulled from the rubble of collapsed buildings – occasionally alive, but often dead; or the names of the children weeping over lost parents; or the women grieving over lost husbands and children; or the elderly simply waiting (and sometimes wanting) to die.

We know Bana Alabed, the seven-year-old girl trapped inside Aleppo whose Twitter account has gone viral in recent weeks. “Hi I’m Bana I’m 7 years old girl in Aleppo [sic],” reads the on-page description. “I & my mom want to tell about the bombing here. Thank you.”

A series of pictures depicts Alabed and her mother, Fatemah, struggling to live as normal a life as possible, one showing the little girl sitting at an MDF desk with a book. Behind her, in the corner, is a doll. “Good afternoon from #Aleppo,” says the caption in English. “I’m reading to forget the war.”

The conflict, however, is never far away. Alabed, whose mother taught her English, has repeatedly tweeted her own fears about dying, followed by stoic messages of defiance whenever the immediate threat of an impending air strike passes. On the morning of 3 October, her words were simply: “Hello world we are still alive.” On 17 October, Fatemah tweeted: “The airstrikes ended in the morning, all the last night was raining bombs.”

But in most cases we never know the names of the victims of air assaults led by Presidents Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin. One of the most haunting images to emerge in recent weeks was that of a mother and child, killed while sleeping in the same bed. The scene had an eerily preserved-in-amber feel to it: a snapshot of snatched lives, frozen in the act of dying. Pictures of ruined buildings and distraught civilians have become routine now, holding our attention briefly – if at all.

As many as 500,000 people are believed to have been killed since the beginning of the Syrian uprising in early 2011. According to a report released in February this year by the Syrian Centre for Policy Research, a further 1.9 million have been wounded. Taken together, those figures alone account for 11.5 per cent of Syria’s pre-revolutionary population. Combine that with the number of Syrians who have been displaced – more than ten million (almost 50 per cent of the population) – and the sheer scale of the disaster becomes apparent.

The conflict has become the worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War. Today it centres on Aleppo, in north-west Syria, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, and a cradle of human civilisation. Various conquerors from the Mongols to the French have fought battles there but none, so it would seem, has been quite as ruthless or committed to the city’s annihilation as Bashar al-Assad.

Aleppo remains the most significant urban centre to have been captured by the anti-Assad rebels, most of whom will (by now) be strongly influenced by an Islamist world-view. Indeed, the most prominent fighting groups on the rebel side are overwhelmingly Islamist in their troop composition and beliefs, a sad marker of Western failures to support secular forces that led the anti-regime resistance in the incipient phases of the uprising.

Yet Aleppo remains too important to fail. Although rebel forces succeeded in capturing only half of the city – the western side remained firmly in the control of the regime – the symbolism of anti-Assad forces holding ground in Syria’s second city (which also served as the country’s economic hub) has buoyed the rebel movement.

Assad is more brazen and bullish than at any other point since eastern Aleppo fell into rebel hands in July 2012. That optimism is born of a strategy that has already worked in other parts of the country where the regime’s troops have slowly encircled rebel-held areas and then sealed them off. Nothing can leave, and nothing can enter. Once the ground forces seal off an area, an aerial campaign of barrel bombs and missile attacks from both Syrian and Russian fighter jets inevitably follows.

To get a sense of just how terrible the aerial campaign has been, consider that the United States accused the Russian air force of potential war crimes when a UN aid convoy was bombed just west of Aleppo last month. It was carrying food and medicines when it was hit. Since then, the UK and France have said that Russia’s bombardment of Aleppo amounts to a war crime.

Putin’s support has come as a boon to Assad ever since Russia formally entered the conflict in September 2015. Despite his administration already using Iranian forces and aligned groups such as the Lebanese Shia militia Hezbollah, rebels had continued to make significant gains throughout the early months of 2015. The most important of these was the capture of Idlib city, 40 miles from Aleppo, which presented Assad with two problems. The first was that it dented the official narrative of revanchist military successes by his forces. The ­second was that it handed the rebels power in a province adjoining Latakia Governorate in the west, where Syria’s Alawites are largely concentrated (Russia has an airbase in an area south-east of the city of Latakia). The Alawites are a heterodox Shia sect to which the Assad family belongs, and which forms the core of their support base.

Keen to reverse these gains – and others made elsewhere – Assad enlisted Putin, given Russia’s long-standing interests in, and ties to, Syria. The Kremlin has long regarded Syria as an important ally, and has served as the country’s main arms supplier for the past decade. There are important assets to preserve, too, such as the Russian naval base in the port city of Tartus on the Mediterranean, which was first established during the Soviet era.

For his part, Putin has felt emboldened by events. The world is changing – not just in the Middle East and North Africa, where the
contours of power continue to be recast, but also closer to home in Ukraine, where the pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown in 2014.

The West is still haunted by the 2003 invasion of Iraq and has been reluctant to be drawn too deeply into the Syrian War. In 2013, the Assad regime used chemical weapons against its own people. This was a violation of President Barack Obama’s so-called red line against the use of chemical weapons, but no retaliatory action came and there was nothing to prevent the Kremlin from using force to shape events in Syria – as it had done in Ukraine.

All of this has marked a new phase of brutality in a conflict already noted for its barbarism. Civilians who avoid death from combined Russo-Syrian air assaults suffer under Assad’s strategy of “starve or submit”, in which supplies are withheld from besieged areas, slowly choking off those ­inside. It has been used to devastating effect against civilians in towns such as Madaya and in Daraya, on the outskirts of Damascus, both of which fell to government control after being sealed off from the outside world for several years. Such a strategy is not designed to deliver quick victories, however. Consider how the residents of Daraya defied Assad’s forces for four years before capitulating in August 2016.

Assad and his allies (Putin, Iran, Hezbollah) have decided to punish and brutalise, deliberately, civilian populations in rebel-held areas. To invert the famous aphorism attributed to Chairman Mao, they hope to dredge the sea in which the revolutionaries swim. And so, it is the 300,000 residents of eastern Aleppo who must suffer now.




It’s easy to lose track of precisely what is happening in the Syrian War as parcels of land swap hands between rebels and the regime. Assad’s forces first began encircling Aleppo at the start of July this year and succeeded in imposing a siege by the middle of that month, after cutting off the last of two rebel-controlled supply routes into the city. The first was the Castello Road, which leads from the town of Handarat into the north-western part of ­rebel-controlled territory. The second route, via the Ramouseh district (which led into the south-western end of the city), had already been sealed off.

The closure lasted for roughly four to five weeks before the rebels re-established access. Aleppo is too important for them, and the siege has forced various groups to work together in breaking it. The effort was led by Jaish al-Fateh (JaF, the “Army of Conquest”), an umbrella group and command structure for several of the most prominent jihadist and Islamist groups operating in northern Syria. JaF also co-ordinated the Idlib military campaigns. One of its key members is Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS, “the Syrian Conquest Front”), which was previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra (JaN or “the Supporters’ Front”) and was recognised as al-Qaeda’s official chapter in Syria.

Several months before the regime began its assault on Aleppo, rebel groups in the north recognised the deteriorating situation there, stemming principally from Russian air strikes. As a result, al-Qaeda urged the various factions to merge and work together to counteract not just Assad, but also Putin. Even the global leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, issued a speech last May titled “Go Forth to Syria”, in which he called on all fighting groups to unite in order to consolidate their control across the north. This opened the way at the end of July for Jabhat al-Nusra to declare that it was formally severing its links with al-Qaeda. It “rebranded” as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.

There are two reasons for doing this. The first is to erode partisanship among the Islamist groups, forcing them to set aside differences and narrow their ambitions in favour of the greater goal – in this case, the breaking of the siege of Aleppo, while also deepening rebel control across the north. The second aim of rebranding is to win popular support by portraying themselves as fighting in the service of ordinary civilians.

Groups such as JFS and others are succeeding in both of these goals. Responding to the abandoned and assaulted residents of Aleppo, they have repeatedly demonstrated their commitment to alleviating the humanitarian crisis. Much of their messaging echoes this theme. The group’s English-language spokesman is Mostafa Mahamed, an Egyptian who previously lived in Australia. “[JFS] is deeply embedded in society, made up from the average Syrian people,” he explained on Twitter, after the group decoupled from al-Qaeda. “We will gladly lay down our lives before being forced into a situation that does not serve the people we are fighting for . . . jihad today is bigger than us, bigger than our differences.”

It is indisputable that this ethos of “fighting for the people” has endeared the group to civilians living in besieged areas – even when those civilians don’t necessarily agree with the full spectrum of its religious beliefs or political positions. That goodwill was only reinforced when the group helped break the siege of Aleppo (in which approximately 500 rebels were killed) in August, if only for a few days. Assad reasserted control within a week, and entrapped the residents again in the middle of that month. The rebels are now planning how to break the siege decisively, but have not yet launched a major counteroffensive.




A freelance American journalist and film-maker, Bilal Abdul Kareem, who has reported on rebel movements inside Syria more intimately than most, has found himself among those trapped inside eastern Aleppo since the siege was restored seven weeks ago. “We came here expecting a two- or three-day trip,” he told me during an interview over Skype.

Life inside is becoming insufferable for civilians, Abdul Kareem said; every building is potted and scarred by shrapnel damage. Those whose homes remain standing are the lucky ones. “Your day consists of nothing,” he said. “There’s no work, there’s no fuel, no industrial zone, no food to sell. ­People sit around and chit-chat, drink tea, and that’s all they do.”

Food supplies are already running low, with most people limiting themselves to basics of chickpeas and groats – crushed grains such as oats or wheat. Sealed off from the rest of the world, those inside preoccupy themselves with survival and wait for the next wave of attacks.

It is tempting to ask why the inhabitants of Aleppo did not flee when they had the chance. Indeed, the Assad regime routinely accuses the rebels of preventing civilians from leaving besieged areas, though there is no evidence to support this view. On 17 October Russia and the Syrian regime said they would halt their bombardment for eight hours on 20 October to allow rebels and civilians to evacuate the city.

In truth, what choice do the civilians have? Most do not trust Assad and they are therefore unwilling to move into regime-administered areas. The alternative is to become refugees, with all the uncertainties and trials associated with that. For instance, refugees have found themselves subject to sectarian violence in Lebanon, and they have few opportunities to find employment in Lebanon, Turkey or Jordan, the three countries where most of the fleeing Syrians have found shelter.

For them, merely to exist in rebel territory is an act of defiance, which is precisely why Assad’s forces make no effort to distinguish between combatants and civilians in rebel areas. To be present is a crime.

The effects of this have been devastating. A spokesman for the Syrian American Medical Society told Middle East Eye, an online news portal, that in July, Syrian and Russian jets had hit medical facilities in rebel-held territory every 17 hours.

Only a few hospitals and medical staff remain. The physical conditions are primitive and perilous. Doctors work in makeshift facilities – a former flat, a commercial garage – which makes them unable to provide anything beyond basic emergency care. In-patient facilities are non-existent, not just because of high demand from those newly injured in fresh attacks, but also from fear that the facility itself will be targeted. “People are literally shuffled out of the hospital with IV [intravenous drips] in their arms,” Abdul Kareem says.

The West’s indifference to all this – coupled with its occasional pious pronouncements and diplomatic dithering – has squandered any goodwill Washington might once have had among Syria’s beleaguered civilians. When Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, and John Kerry, the US secretary of state, agreed a ceasefire in September it lasted barely two days because they overlooked the fears of those trapped inside eastern Aleppo.

The deal had stated that no party would try to capture any new territory. That might seem reasonable enough but given that the ceasefire came into effect just days after Assad re-established the siege of Aleppo, those on the inside were being asked, in effect, to acquiesce to their own starvation.

Deprived of food and medication, no one trusted Assad to negotiate access in good faith, especially after he thwarted UN efforts to deliver aid. “People saw it as a conspiracy,” Abdul Kareem told me. Moreover, there were no significant groups inside eastern Aleppo that claimed to have accepted the terms of the ceasefire in the first place. Kerry had negotiated on their behalf without approval and without securing any humanitarian concessions.

“What planet are these people on?” Abdul Kareem asked. “[Do] they think people will turn on their protectors, for people who didn’t do them any good? They look to JFS and Ahrar [Ahrar al-Sham is one of the Islamist groups fighting in JAF]. Western intervention is pie in the sky.”

The rise of these reactionary rebels is a direct result of liberal elements not being strongly supported at any stage in the conflict. Left to fend for themselves, many have deserted their cause. Those who have persisted not only risk the constant threat of being killed by Russo-Syrian bombs, but are also at threat from jihadist elements operating in rebel areas. That much was clear when remnants of the secular opposition protested against the leader of JFS, Abu Mohammed al-Golani, in the southern Idlib town of Maarat al-Nouman earlier this year. Many of those who did were arrested by jihadists and intimidated into silence.

Whereas liberals are fragmented and frayed, the Islamist rebels continue to coalesce into an ever more coherent unit. The overwhelming might of Russian airpower has convinced them of the need to form a united front in order to pool their resources and co-ordinate their efforts. That is one of the reasons why a jihadist group called Jund al-Aqsa (“Soldiers of al-Aqsa”) announced early this month that it was disbanding and being absorbed into JFS.

Herein lies the real story of how Aleppo – and, indeed, Syria itself – has been delivered to the jihadists. A conspiracy of all the external parties has forged a menacing millenarian movement that is embedded in civil society and communities across the north. Whether Aleppo falls or not, the jihadists will endure.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a member of the war studies department at King’s College London

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood