Twenty-two years ago, the radiance of Nelson Mandela’s “rainbow nation” shone down upon the world, consigning apartheid to history.
But since then South Africa has gone from hero to zero.
Criticism is everywhere. The country’s media castigate President Zuma for “looting the country”. International investors have turned their backs on a nation they once favoured, and – generations ago – colonially plundered. Even veterans of the liberation struggle are questioning the ruling party’s leadership.
In the space of five dramatic days last December, no less than three Finance Ministers came and went. First, Zuma sacked the highly respected Nhlanhla Nene, replacing him with an obscure MP. It was widely rumoured that Nene had refused to facilitate Treasury approval of nuclear and airways deals which flouted fiscal oversight procedures – deals which would have financially benefited Zuma’s inner circle.
Nene’s removal sent shock waves through the financial markets. The South African rand crashed, and the stock exchange was in meltdown. Just a week before this fiasco, the country’s credit rating had been downgraded to one level above junk status. The situation was now calamitous.
In the end, Zuma was forced to back down, and to re-appoint a former Finance Minister, Pravin Gordhan. Only he, it was felt, had the credibility the President lacked to steady a rapidly sinking ship.
Of course, the ANC is no stranger to criticism. On the one hand, there have always been the ‘jaundiced whites’: those who reluctantly praised the ‘Mandela miracle’, but who never accepted the consequences – namely that their grotesquely privileged existence had to go. These days they can barely conceal their smirks, as they proclaim ‘I told you so!’
I know some of these people only too well: they continually troll me on Twitter. I choose to ignore them, just as I ignored those whites who attacked me during the long, bitter battle against white supremacy and its police state.
They and their children are also part of a whingeing ex-pat community in the UK. Their privileged South African education has opened doors for them in Britain, but they have conveniently forgotten the debts they owe to the land of their birth.
I can – and do – dismiss such voices. But I cannot ignore the growing constituency of people who sacrificed so much for the freedom struggle, and who are now dismayed at the squandering of Mandela’s legacy.
For example, veteran activists like Ahmed Kathrada, one of Mandela’s closest comrades throughout those desperate decades on Robben Island. Or Eddie Daniels – another Robben Island inmate, whose heart was torn at the time of the 2014 general election. Eddie could no longer bring himself to vote for the ANC, but he felt he would betray Mandela if he voted for anybody else. In the end he didn’t vote at all.
Then there is Barbara Hogan: a former ANC government minister who was tortured and held in solitary confinement in an apartheid prison. After the Nene debacle, Hogan spoke out in an unprecedented way, and urged ANC members to call for Zuma’s dismissal: “ANC members must make their voices heard,” she said. “Zuma must go. This man is creating economic sabotage.”
Most recently, struggle stalwart Denis Goldberg – who was convicted with Mandela at the1964 Rivonia trial, and served 22 years in jail – called for a clear-out and renewal of the ANCleadership “from top to bottom”, He added that corruption and patronage was now “so deep-rooted that it is endangering our democracy”.
My own assessment of South Africa today is as a “critical comrade”.
South Africa is the land of my childhood. The country where my parents, as young anti-apartheid activists, were jailed by the whites-only regime, issued with banning orders, and finally forced into exile in 1966, after my architect Dad was blocked from earning a living.
As a teenager in England, I led successful campaigns to disrupt and stop all-white South African sports tours from 1969 onwards. I was denounced in South Africa as “Public Enemy Number One”. In Britain they called me “Hain the Pain”. In 1972 the apartheid state tried to get rid of me with a letter bomb, and three years later made a bizarre attempt to frame me for a bank robbery.
On 8 December 2015, at a state ceremony in Pretoria, I was honoured with the Order of The Companions of O R Tambo, for an “excellent contribution to the fight against the injustices of apartheid, and unwavering support for the South African liberation movement”.
It was a marvellous event and I was very grateful. But the award was somehow bitter-sweet. Today, I worry deeply about South Africa’s future – especially its current leadership.
For nearly five decades, the hideous system of apartheid denied the humanity of all non-white South Africans. Opponents were silenced by banning order, imprisonment, torture or assassination.
Yet for 27 of those years, mostly confined in his bleak, cold cell on Robben Island, Nelson Mandela never lost hope. He withstood immense personal anguish: the death of his mother, and then his son; the cruel banishment and jailing of his wife Winnie; the long separation from his young daughters – toddlerswhen he left them, adults when he next saw them.
Astonishingly, Mandela chose to reach out to his oppressors. He became fluent in Afrikaans. He studied the history and culture of the Afrikaner people. He learned of their suffering under British colonial rule: how Afrikaner women and children died like flies in British concentration camps during the Boer wars. He came to understand their siege mentality.
So, when the regime finally approached Mandela in the late 1980s, he was ready. By then South Africa was poised on the abyss: threatened by economic chaos and imminent civil war. The centre could no longer hold.
Achievements despite horrendous legacy
Mandela steered South Africa through its troubled transition from racist state to rainbow democracy. Nobody else could have healed such a bitterly divided nation. His lack of vengeance became legendary.
In his first speech to Parliament in 1994, he set out the new government’s vision: “Freedom from want, freedom from hunger, freedom from deprivation, freedom from ignorance, freedom from suppression and freedom from fear.”
In those halcyon days, Mandela was more the “father of the nation” than its executive president. Who else would have donned the Springbok rugby captain’s jersey (a symbol of white oppression) during the 1995 World Cup? It was a watershed moment in nation-building, and it also reassured the white-controlled business sector.
Thanks to Mandela’s extraordinary leadership and insistence on reconciliation, South Africa was transformed from a police state to a constitutional democracy. The South African judiciary has powers envied by most other democracies; and the Constitutional Court can (and does) annul statutes of parliament which are deemed to contravene the country’s Bill of Rights.
The achievements of the ANC government since 1994 have been immense: not just under Mandela, but also under his successors, Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma – achievements all the more remarkable given the horrendous legacy of apartheid. The shanty towns; the lack of health care; the forced displacements; the dehumanising education system, designed to keep the black majority as servants for white masters.
All the time a growing population, continuous migration from sustainable rural subsistence to urban squatter poverty, now swelled by over two million immigrants from Mali to Zimbabwe, has meant the demand on government for basic services seems insatiable. As fast as new houses are built, new shacks appear beside them.
Yet in just 22 years, the ANC government has built more than three million new homes. It has created four million jobs. Millions more South Africans now have running water and electricity. Some economists say that income per capita, in real terms, has risen by almost a third.
Massive state bursaries have opened up the country’s universities to
400,000 new students: mostly black.
And, as a result of innovative health programmes (particularly those focusing on HIV and TB) life expectancy has improved and child mortality has been dramatically reduced.
South Africa weathered the global financial crisis of 2008 and its economy seemed vibrant. International investors lauded the country’s solid framework of law, financial regulation, and corporate governance. Basic infrastructure seemed comparable with many so-called developed nations, and was certainly the best in Africa.
It still has a wealthy economy accounting for fully a fifth of total GDP for Africa – with a population of 50 million in a continent of one thousand million.
In 2012, South Africa was ranked 35th in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index, ahead of Spain and Italy.
In 2011, South Africa joined Brazil, Russia, India and China in the powerful BRICS grouping. This was hailed as the dawn of a new era: one in which South Africa would become the gateway for economic growth throughout the continent – the Dubai of Africa.
So when did the dream of the Rainbow Nation turn sour?
Corruption, cronyism and incompetence
In 2008 Thabo Mbeki was removed from the Presidency by his own party, on the grounds that he had abused state power. Some saw it as a bloodless coup, and a threat to democracy. Others celebrated.
Mbeki’s high-handed style earned him enemies, and his HIV/AIDS denialism generated a tidal wave of criticism. A Harvard University study estimated that his disastrous HIV/AIDS health policy led to 300 000 deaths in the years between 2000 – 2005.
For many South Africans, his successor Jacob Zuma was a breath of fresh air. A “man of the people”, proud of his humble background and committed to transforming the lives of the poor.
But, as journalist Ray Hartley describes: “Now Zuma was the man in charge, and South Africa was about to become his personal empire.”
Jacob Zuma has indeed allowed corruption to flourish on a scale which poses a huge and cancerous threat. Cronyism has replaced merit, not only in the public services, but also in the parastatals which play such a vital role in the economy – from energy to airlines and water supply.
The country is now subjected to daily “load shedding” (electricity cuts). South African Airways – once a rival to BA for quality – is almost bankrupt, with fears that its once excellent safety record may be compromised. The water system, once the cleanest in the world, has fallen into disrepair and is shamefully imperilled.
Although there was a modest inflow of foreign direct investment and portfolio investment into the country during the first two decades of freedom, the inflow has all but dried up since Zuma’s dismissal of the Finance Minister in December last year.
Companies are either sitting on piles of surplus cash or investing abroad. Private citizens are spiriting as much money as they are able out of the country.
Under Mandela and Mbeki government debt was reduced from the high apartheid level of 52 per cent of GDP to less than 30 per cent. Butunder Zuma it jumped sharply to 46 per cent.
Protected by ANC leaders in return for political support, the powerful South African Democratic Teachers Union seems to have forgotten its proud history in the struggle for freedom and justice. In 2015, the weekly City Pressnewspaper exposed a jobs-for-cash racket, run by union officials. Subsequent investigations revealed that the union is also running a “complex patronage system” in several provincial education departments.
At one time, South Africa’s ANC government spent more on education than any other developing nation. School attendance doubled since the dark days of apartheid.
Yet out of 140 countries in the 2015-16 World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index, South Africa was ranked at 138 for the quality of its education, below desperately poor, undeveloped states like Burundi, Benin and Mauritania.
South African schools are not short of textbooks because there are no funds, but because budgets are badly managed or siphoned off. Nine out of every ten schools still lack libraries and laboratories.
In spite of this dire situation, the hunger for education is unabated, especially in the most poverty-stricken areas of the country. Every year, inspiring stories are told of students who have overcome incredible odds to pass their exams, often studying by candle-light on an empty stomach.
I have met teachers who take great pride in high standards – only to despair when their bright, well-qualified pupils fail to find jobs, one a gardener at his old school in Pretoria where he had excelled. Unemployment among black youth remains shockingly high, as much as 65 per cent.
And, as in most other countries, the gap between rich and poor has widened and South Africa has a new black middle class, which includes ANC politicians and ANC-linked trade union leaders affiliated to the Confederation of South African Trade Unions (COSATU).
16th August 2012 is a date that will be forever etched in South Africa’s collective memory.
In scenes eerily reminiscent of the country’s apartheid years, the police opened fire on striking black mineworkers at Lonmin’s Marikana platinum mine near Rustenburg. Thirty-four people died, and 78 were injured.
Shockingly, at least 14 of the dead were hunted down and shot from behind, some distance from the main protest area.
Lawyers representing families of the dead miners insisted that the massacre was pre-planned, invoking chilling testimony that “weapons of war” were used instead of proper riot control procedures. Guns were planted on some of the corpses, and witnesses claimed to have been intimidated – even tortured – by the predominantly black police.
At Marikana, the ANC-aligned Mineworkers Union (NUM) – a pillar of the anti-apartheid struggle – lost rank and file credibility to a break-away union, AMCU. Was this why the police acted with such impunity?
Veteran journalist Max du Preez commented:
“The police were more than just badly trained; they were ruthless and in a killing mode. Would they have acted like that if the strikers belonged to NUM or another Cosatu union? I suspect not. They were, knowingly or unknowingly, mirroring the prevailing attitude in the ANC: if you’re not one of us, you are free game.”
The Marikana massacre seemed to symbolise the unresolved legacy of apartheid: a wealthy white-owned corporation pitted against its poor, black migrant workers. Most of them lived in the shadow of the mine at Wonderkop: a sprawling shanty settlement of 40 000 people, with no running water, no proper electricity, no sewage.
Seven hundred miles to the south, close to Mandela’s birthplace in the Transkei, I met the widow of one of the murdered strikers. Her situation was even more desperate now that the family’s meagre income was suddenly destroyed. It was hard to see how two decades of democracy had made any improvement to their living standards.
Under apartheid, government and big business were run exclusively by the white minority. When white rule finally came to an end, the fear was that white businesses and investors would flee.
Instead a deal was struck, and compromises were made for the sake of a peaceful and economically stable transition. A black majority now ran the government but the white minority still ran the economy.
In retrospect it is hard to see how any other course could have been adopted by Mandela and the ANC leadership. But many, like former ANC liberation hero and subsequent ANC Minister Ronnie Kasrils, now see this as “the devil’s pact”: a terrible betrayal of the poorest of the poor.
Companies like Lonmin have brought black South Africans into their management, including a black African CEO. A new black business elite has been empowered – even creating some black billionaires.
But meanwhile, most workers still struggle to survive. The mining strikes of 2015 – lasting for months, at huge cost – came on top of strikes every year since 1994, accounting for over 3 million days lost annually, seriously damaging business and international investor confidence.
Zwelinzima Vavi, former Secretary General of COSATU and one time ally of President Zuma warned in 2010:
“We’re headed for a predator state, where a powerful, corrupt and demagogic elite of political hyenas is increasingly using the state to get rich.”
South Africa’s place in the world
Where apartheid-ruled South Africa was a pariah: untouchable and untouched, Mandela’s foreign policy was based on human rights and respect for international law.
But in 2002, the Mbeki government legitimised elections in Zimbabwe that were marked by widespread violence, intimidation and vote rigging.
In 2007, South Africa caused international shockwaves when it blocked a UN Security Council resolution condemning the Burmese military regime’s abuse of human rights. Archbishop Desmond Tutu called the vote: “a betrayal of our noble past”.
Then in 2015, Zuma’s government refused to arrest the visiting Sudanese President Omar-al-Bashir, thereby flouting a warrant for war crimes and genocide issued by the International Criminal Court.
Many thought that Mandela would be turning in his grave.
Checks and balances
Much is made of the ANC’s political dominance. In 2014 it still attracted 62 per cent of the vote, despite fierce criticism of the Zuma leadership and a slippage from 70 per cent in the 2004 election.
But there is a growing, spirited opposition.
The Democratic Alliance controls the Western Cape where it is respected for effective, non-corrupt administration but struggles to enlarge its national base beyond its current 22 per cent. It is hampered also by its origins of co-existence with apartheid and its economic neo liberalism which seems bizarrely inappropriate for a society with such deep social inequalities.
At the opposite end of the political spectrum is the EFF: the Economic Freedom Fighters, whose self-styled Commander-in-Chief is the astute populist and former ANC Youth Leader, Julius Malema.
The EFF won more than a million votes in the 2014 election, even though it had been in existence for less than a year. It is now the third largest party in the country, with 25 MPs – all of whom attend parliament sessions in their signature red workers’ overalls and gumboots.
Their agenda is radical: expropriation of land without compensation; nationalisation of mines and banks; free education, housing and healthcare.
In 2015, the party made international headlines when they shouted down President Zuma in the National Assembly, and prevented him from giving his annual State of the Nation address. Malema and his colleagues were eventually ejected by armed security officers – an unprecedented move that could have sparked a constitutional crisis.
The arrival of the EFF has certainly shaken up parliament, but the growing power of grassroots social movements may be even more worrying for Zuma’s government.
Since 2008 an estimated two million people have taken to the streets in protest every year. These protests, which have become increasingly violent, are fuelled by explosive resentment at the chasm between expectations and delivery – and frustration at the apparent obduracy of those in power.
In 2011, as protests escalated in towns close to Johannesburg, Zwelinzima Vavi warned that the city was surrounded by a “ring of fire”, and suggested that a popular uprising – spearheaded by unemployed youths – could not be ruled out.
Flash forward to 2015: a different kind of uprising. This time led by university students, demanding free access to higher education and academic transformation at all levels.
The #FeesMustFall movement started when students occupied administration buildings on the campus of Johannesburg’s Wits University, and quickly spread to Cape Town, Grahamstown and Stellenbosch.
“These students have redefined the art of protest,” wrote journalist Caiphus Kgosana. He pointed to the non-violent nature of the movement, and the way it cut across South Africa’s political, racial and gender divides.
The movement is indeed remarkable for many reasons: not least because it forced Zuma’s government to reverse planned fee increases for 2016, and to pledge billions of rand for student grants and debt relief.
The image of white students in Cape Town forming a human shield to protect their black classmates from the batons of riot police would surely have made Mandela smile. But he would also have understood the terrible truth: 22 years after the death of apartheid, white privilege is still alive and well.
Not only white privilege: white racism too,persisting under a veneer of reconciliation and transformation. As South Africans celebrated the New Year, a white woman from KwaZulu-Natal posted comments on Facebook describing black beachgoers as “monkeys”.
Social media erupted in a storm of outrage and hurt. Black South Africans asked why they should continue to tolerate such abuse without seeking violent retribution. As the temperature rose, Twitter comments ignited into hate speech.
Political and religious leaders called for calm, whilst recognising the need for a long-delayed national conversation on racism. The ANC announced that it would press charges in the Equality Court against three people – one of them black – to show that racist abuse could no longer be tolerated.
Then, in the midst of it all, a feel-good moment, as so often in South Africa, on the sports field. A young man called Temba Bavuma became the first black cricketer to score a Test century. The nation celebrated, and Nobel Peace Laureate Desmond Tutu tweeted:
“In a team of stars, three stood out: Hashim Amla, AB De Villiers & Temba Bavuma. One English, one Afrikaner, one Xhosa.”
But cricket aside, there is still much in South Africa to inspire confidence. For example, a largely independent judiciary that continues to withstand verbal attacks by prominent ANC politicians, as well as attempts by Zuma to secure top posts for his cronies.
The Office of the Public Protector, headed by the formidable Thuli Madonsela has also played an important role in safeguarding democracy. Madonsela has vigorously exposed corruption at all levels, pulling no punches in her report on the £14 million state subsidy for Nkandla, President Zuma’s lavish residence in KwaZulu-Natal. She found that the money was spent on a swimming pool, chicken run and cattle kraal under the guise of “security upgrades”.
Key institutions like the Directorate of Public Prosecutions and the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation (the “Hawks”) have been systematically compromised – often by the appointment of politically loyal but professionally incompetent people to top positions.
Yet a vibrant civil society, forged originally during the anti-apartheid struggle, continues both to challenge any attempt by the ruling party to undermine democratic structures and processes, and to demand a renewed leadership in harmony with the Mandela vision.
It is buttressed by a vigorously independent media: outspoken talk radio stations; the respected online publication Daily Maverick; the indomitable but commercially-threatened Mail&Guardian; and City Press. Under Ferial Haffajee’s admired editorship City Press has been a thorn in President Zuma’s side, especially over Nkandla.
Mandela had championed freedom of expression, declaring:
“None of our irritations with the perceived inadequacies of the media should ever allow us to suggest that the independence of the press should be compromised or coerced. A bad free press is preferable to a technically good, subservient press.”
But in 2013 Parliament passed Zuma’s Protection of State Information Bill, informally known as the Secrecy Bill. It invokes draconian powers to prevent journalists from exposing corruption, nepotism and state abuse.
During five years of pressure, media practitioners, and civil society activists managed to force some amendments, but lost the major battle. Now they are waiting for President Zuma to sign it into law. But if government then attempts to use the law to crack down on freedom of expression, civil society is determined to take the case to the Constitutional Court.
Senior journalists like Justice Malala believe that Zuma’s paranoia about media is linked to his “securocratic, conspiratorial outlook” which means that “power is obtained and maintained through control of the intelligence services …. [and] … control of the money.”
Malala also points out that the South African Broadcasting Corporation, transformed under Mandela from a propaganda machine to a public broadcaster, reverted under Zuma to “delivering a mandate for the ruling party”. Indeed new legislation is planned to reinforce that.
Obstacles to transformation
In South Africa today there is a deep mood of disillusionment with the ANC.
It goes well beyond what I experienced during my own twelve years as a British government Labour minister: the inevitable voter disappointment with a governing party – aworld-wide hallmark of modern democracies.
Our Labour government achieved a huge amount, but we failed to renew ourselves. As the years went by, we became more managerial in our focus. We moved further and further from our roots and lost trust.
How much harder it must be for the ANC to retain its ability to self-question when it is steering such a young democracy, and has such a monopoly of the vote.
While South Africa remains “a country of white-haves and black have-nots” (to quote Justice Malala) it is surely futile to expect a co-opted black middle class to provide the magic bullet for transformation.
And is it even possible to launch meaningful economic reform without jeopardising foreign investor confidence? It is hard enough to attempt such a feat in Britain. South Africa must also deal with an apartheid legacy which remains a gigantic millstone around the country’s neck, and a public administration increasingly undermined by corruption and cronyism.
Perhaps the South African government has only two options. The first is to develop a new social compact, where privilege and reward are renegotiated in favour of a more equal dispensation.
The alternative would be to face a revolution of rising expectations and frustration, in which South Africa could once again become as ungovernable as it was during the darkest years of apartheid.
A ‘rainbow’ future?
Can the ANC reclaim Mandela’s vision of the “rainbow nation”?
Perhaps we all expected too much. Perhaps it was naïve to think that the party – for all its moral integrity and constitutionalist traditions – could be immune to human frailty, especially in the face of such immense social inequalities. Could any political party anywhere (including Britain) have done better?
Outside observers have never been able to view post-apartheid South Africa in a nuanced way. The country has either been romanticised as “Mandela’s miracle”, or cynically dismissed as “going down the pan”.
But neither of these perceptions is accurate – and they never were. After the relatively painless transition from apartheid under Mandela, it was always going to be bumpy road.
And yet, this beautiful country remains an inspiration: marvellous to visit, and joyously transformed in spite of the many challenges that remain.
Although he was no saint, Mandela gave the ANC a moral compass which still guides many of his followers. Poignantly he said to senior activists in 1993: “If the ANC does to you what the apartheid government did to you, then you must do to the ANC what you did to the apartheid government.”
Perhaps the “Born Frees” – those young South Africans who never knew apartheid, and who already comprise over 40 per cent of the population – will reclaim his legacy for the 21stcentury.
It was a legacy for which a generation of South Africans sacrificed their lives. Tens of thousands suffered imprisonment, torture and exile in the process. My parents were among them.
It has been part of my journey too. A very long journey: which took me from Pretoria, to exile in London, to be here with you at Swansea University tonight.