Mandela’s stoicism, tea with Ian Smith, and South Africa’s civil war that never was

In 2000, on a visit to Zimbabwe, Jason Cowley met the former Rhodesian leader Ian Smith.

It’s not what happens to you but how you react to it that matters.

When I first travelled in and around South Africa in 1998, I was struck by how good the roads were. “That’s because it used to be a police state: they had to move the army around quickly,” I was told by a friend from the University of Cape Town. Like many before me, I was shocked on that visit by the huge disparities of wealth – 15 years later, they are even greater – between those who lived abject lives in sprawling shanty settlements and those, mostly wealthy whites (soon to be joined by the new black elite), who lived close by in their gated mansions, protected by high walls, razor wire and “armed response” teams.

Wherever you went, white people in positions of influence grumbled about the effects of “affirmative action” and state-led plans for black empowerment to address decades of racial discrimination. They were fearful about what would happen in the country after Mandela had served his one and only term as president.

Roads not taken

One of the most powerful criticisms of Mandela’s presidency from the South African left is that he was too willing to forgive his Afrikaner oppressors and too reluctant to challenge the corporate power structures that, on the whole, remained in place after the end of apartheid. That he emerged from prison speaking of the need for reconciliation rather than revenge is why he is so revered, a man for all nations and now for the ages, as Barack Obama remarked, in an echo of what was said of Abraham Lincoln after his death. But shouldn’t Mandela’s economic reforms have been bolder and more transformative? Shouldn’t he have implemented affirmative action more systematically, as well as introducing far-reaching land reform of a kind that will one day be necessary in South Africa? In 1994, 87 per cent of the land was owned by white people; it’s little better today. Political apartheid has gone; economic apart­heid remains.

Critical mass

In 2000, on a visit to Zimbabwe, I met the former Rhodesian leader Ian Smith for afternoon tea at his house in a quiet suburb of Harare. “Smithie” told me he felt betrayed by the old apartheid regime in South Africa. Yet even he, who had done so much to prevent black majority rule in Zimbabwe, spoke of Mandela with admiration. Smith expressed the hope that he would live long enough to witness the fall, or death, of his old enemy Robert Mugabe. He did not, of course.

Mugabe was once celebrated as a great African national liberation leader. Like Mandela, he spent years in prison; the experience embittered him. When Mugabe’s Zanu-PF won power in the first democratic election of 1980, he showed flexibility and willingness to compromise. Learning from what had happened in Angola and Mozambique after the flight of the Portuguese in the 1970s, Mugabe encouraged whites to stay on in the new country. Samora Machel, revolutionary leader and then president of Mozambique from 1975 until his death in 1986 (Mandela married his widow, Graça), advised Mugabe to keep a critical mass of white people in Zimbabwe during the early years of transition. Though many whites left for Britain, South Africa and Australia, those who stayed were allowed to keep their farms and businesses. For a short time after the election, Peter Walls, Mugabe’s implacable enemy in the bush war, was even retained as head of the armed forces; he was ousted only after being implicated in plots to assassinate Mugabe.

For all this, Mugabe was an instinctive despot. His North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade militia was responsible for the massacres in Matabeleland in 1982. He neither forgave nor forgot his oppressors and believed in violent struggle: for him, the end always justified the means. However, he turned against white farmers only at the end of the 1990s, after feeling threatened by the emergence of the Movement for Democratic Change.

Out of the ruins

South Africa has been ill served by those who have followed Mandela, though no Mugabe has emerged. As president, Thabo Mbeki, son of Govan Mbeki, who was imprisoned with Mandela on Robben Island, oversaw years of continuous economic growth but without leading the necessary social and economic transformation. He was diminished by his failure to respond adequately to the country’s Aids epidemic, refusing to accept that the disease was caused by the HIV virus. During his leadership, the murder rate soared and corruption became institutionalised.

Mbeki’s successor, Jacob Zuma, the current president of South Africa, is a dictatorial clown but his failures might yet help the country to become a proper multiparty democracy, as factions break away from the ANC to set up rival organisations.

Dark mirror

In her 1981 dystopian novel July’s People, Nadine Gordimer, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1991, imagines a South Africa ravaged by civil war. The borders have been closed and the rich white suburbs of Johannesburg have been overrun, the houses there looted or burned. The sense of terror and despair is palpable.

The central characters are the Smale family, white liberals, and their servant, July. Fleeing from the violence, the Smales retreat to July’s remote ancestral village. They are dependent on him for their safety and survival: the servant has become their master. The novel is an allegory of what could happen if oppression of the majority continued.

“There were times when things were just so bad,” Gordimer once told me. South Africa could easily have had a catastrophic civil war, of the kind feared by Gordimer and many others who lived under and through apartheid and experienced its absurdities and cruelties, or become a Zimbabwe-style tyranny. Things were indeed just so bad and today they are so much better – and that is because of one man, Nelson Mandela.

A statue of Nelson Mandela unveiled on 16 December 2013 in Pretoria, South Africa. Photo: Getty.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 12 December 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Power Games

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.