The curse of South Africa

Mineral wealth has distorted the economy for generations. Moeletsi Mbeki, brother of South Africa's

The conference of the African National Congress that was held last month was billed as a heavyweight contest between the party's president, Thabo Mbeki, and its deputy president, Jacob Zuma. The conference turned out to be much more than that. It was a complete rout, not only of the president, but also of his cabinet, the sitting national executive committee, and of Mbeki's economy team.

The December conference saw the ANC swing from the centre towards the left, if one believes the rhetoric. Jacob Zuma, the new president of the ANC, mobilised the support of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and the South African Communist Party (SACP) in order to fight for leadership of the ANC.

The ANC is caught in a quandary. On the one hand, its members and leaders want to preserve the economic system inherited from the apart heid era so that they, too, can benefit from it through, for example, Black Economic Empowerment (an affirmative-action programme, initially designed by South Africa's big corporations, that favours the new black elite) and social grants from the government aimed at alleviating poverty. On the other hand, they hanker for change that will ameliorate the growing inequalities and pauperisation among black South Africans. They blame individuals within the organisation for not bringing about the socio-economic changes they would like to see, but do not dare to initiate themselves.

Much of the impetus behind the emerging instability in the ANC, however, is financial rather than ideological. The only solution would be for a leadership to emerge, from either within or outside the ANC, that has meaningful policies for building a more inclusive society in South Africa. Black Economic Empowerment and social welfare programmes do not fundamentally lead to such social inclusiveness. If anything, they entrench the inequalities inherited from the past and exacerbate new inequalities among the blacks.

The undoing of Pre sident Mbeki and his cabinet was that they failed to understand that, with Zuma's rise, a new phenomenon of populism had entered the ANC. They also failed to understand the potential of populism to appeal to the black working class, the black poor in general, and a wide array of disgruntled people associated with the ANC who felt excluded from the inside track.

Their mistake was to see Zuma as a paranoiac who didn't deserve to be taken seriously. Mbeki compounded this error by standing against the populist Zuma but refusing to engage with him in public debate. He thereby appeared to be afraid of Zuma. This encouraged Zuma and his supporters to press ahead with their campaign and, paradoxically, Mbeki's silence persuaded many ANC members that Zuma's claim of persecution was valid.

Placating the poor

South Africa is able to undertake both Black Economic Empowerment and large social welfare expenditures because of its vast natural resources, which are now selling at a premium due to the rapid industrialisation of the large countries of Asia. South Africa's fabulous mineral wealth has been seen as a blessing since the discovery of diamonds and gold in the 19th century. What gets overlooked is the curse that goes with vast natural-resource endowment.

Since the current commodities boom started in the late 1990s, the ANC government has been ratcheting up public spending on the welfare of the poor. Why? Out of the goodness of its heart, reply ANC leaders. Not so, say doubters: rather to placate the poor so that they do not rebel, but most importantly to buy their vote.

In his address to the ANC conference, President Mbeki went to great lengths to explain the good things the ANC government has done for South Africa's poor. He noted that the number of South Africans living below the poverty line fell from 51.4 per cent in 2001 to 43.2 per cent in 2006 and that the number of people receiving social grants increased from 2.6 million in 1999 to more than 12 million in 2006.

But are South Africa's poor happy and grateful to the ANC government? In theory they should be, given the largesse they are receiving. But judging by the support that Zuma and his communist and trade union allies have been able to mobilise among the poor against the mainstream ANC which runs the government, it appears South Africa's poor are very far from happy. This is where the resource curse comes in.

A country develops when it is able to harness the energies of its people and put them to productive use. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. Oil-producing countries are one. For very little effort, petroleum-producing countries pump crude oil from the ground and sell it for fabulous prices to foreigners.

South Africa is similar to oil-producing countries in that it, too, has natural resources - gold, platinum, diamonds, coal, iron ore, and so on - that are valuable to foreigners, who are willing to pay South Africa top dollar for them. While it takes more people to dig out South Africa's minerals compared to those employed to pump up crude oil, mining is still a small employer. Despite employing very few people, mining, however, makes a huge contribution to the country's wealth, in that it accounts for more than half of export earnings. The value that the few people employed in mining produce far exceeds their income. The government, therefore, has large revenues from mining activity that it can redistribute to the rest of society that does not work in the mines. This is what is called a resource curse - governments of resource-rich countries think their people need not work and will be happy living off social grants.

That is precisely the trap into which the ANC government has fallen. At least a quarter of the South African population receives social grants that would not be possible if South Africa were not mineral-rich. Without mineral wealth to redistribute, the government would have to work harder and be more creative to find solutions to unemployment and poverty.

Resource wealth makes it possible for the government not to have to put an effort into redeveloping the economy to create more jobs, and instead it sustains the unemployed and their dependants with social grants.

But do such grants make people happy as the ANC government expects? Paradoxically, while social grants contribute to putting food on the table, at a broader level they make the recipients more insecure because they do not know when the government will withdraw or reduce the size of their grants. Second, the grants accentuate the humiliation that unemployed people feel from being dependent and unable to look after themselves and their families. Every time they collect their social grants, recipients are subjected to all manner of humiliations by the government officials who administer the system. The rest of society stigmatises recipients as idle, worthless and parasitic.

What do South Africa's subsidised and marginalised people do to regain their self-respect? They support demagogues who claim that they, too, are marginalised, and therefore want to replace the ruling elites with people-friendly governments. This, in a nutshell, is what happened at the ANC conference and in the months leading up to it.

Zuma, with the support of Cosatu, the SACP and the ANC Youth League, ran a campaign that told ANC members, most of whom are poor, that he, like them, is despised and marginalised by the elite who run the party and its government. Zuma argued there was a conspiracy by the elite to ensure that he, and poor people like him, are kept away from power and therefore do not benefit from their struggle against apartheid.

Zuma's message resonated with many trade unionists, such as the general secretary of Co satu, Zwelinzima Vavi, who grew up as a farm labourer and worked his way up to where he is today by fighting against discrimination and humiliation under apartheid.

Winners and losers

Did all the passion and recrimination at the ANC conference produce winners and losers? Leaving aside the rather tarnished image of the party, a few bruised egos and what will turn out to be short-lived elation by others, the conference, viewed in the context of the country's future, reproduced the stalemate into which the ANC has been locked since 1994. January 2008 is, therefore, the month in which the country has gone back to business as usual.

As for Zuma - in reality, his was a pyrrhic victory in a phoney war. In the coming months he will be back in court facing corruption charges that could lead to his being imprisoned for many years to come. The case is scheduled to start in August.

The giant trade union federation, Cosatu, which devoted so much of its energy and resources to Zuma's campaign, has come out of the melee a loser. Its leaders are at each other's throats and there were no changes made to the ANC's conservative economic policies, such as the independence of the Reserve Bank, about which Cosatu has been unhappy for many years.

Cosatu ended up as cannon fodder at the hands of disgruntled ANC and SACP politicians who used it as a proxy to fight their battles. Ultimately, under a populist regime, the masses are the main losers.

Moeletsi Mbeki is a deputy chairman of the South African Institute of International Affairs, an independent think tank based at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg

This article first appeared in the 21 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Art is the new activism

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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