South Africa might be seen as a microcosm of the “globalised” world itself. Home to people of African, European, Indian, Asian, and mixed descent, it nevertheless attempts to find some unity of purpose in its diversity. In 1994 with the end of white minority rule, it thus styled itself as the “Rainbow Nation”: the idea that the country’s many racial and ethnic parts can make up a beautiful whole. But rainbows are also elusive, as anyone who has ever tried to find the proverbial pot of gold at the end of one will know.
Comparisons with South Africa’s northern neighbour, Zimbabwe, although imperfect, are instructive. In both cases, a numerically significant, though proportionally small white minority held political power for a century or more. This white minority established an entire state apparatus and a modern economy, of which the black population formed the bulk of the working class. Black people, however, were disenfranchised and–especially the educated among them–began to demand political participation. This demand was increasingly difficult to resist as other African countries (with smaller settler populations) had become independent from British, French and Portuguese colonial rule by the mid-1970s. Added to the internal pressure for radical political reform was now a chorus of international condemnation, including from countries such as the United States, which itself had upheld legal segregation until only about two decades earlier. The white settler populations of Zimbabwe and South Africa withstood this pressure for as long as they could, convinced in the main that a sudden handover of power to the black majority, or rather, to its ostensible representatives, would bring about the ruin of their countries.
While this conviction was brought about by thinly veiled self-interest and old-fashioned racist attitudes, it was also grounded in a certain realism that foreign observers often lacked. This is a point that the white leaders of Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) and South Africa tried to make repeatedly, when interviewed by William F. Buckley in 1974. It is of course true that a small percentage of whites, motivated by the daily oppression and injustice they saw all around them, actively sought an end to the system of white minority rule. However, these were to be found mostly on the political left and their proposed alternative was some form of Third World socialism or even outright Soviet-aligned Communism. It is also noteworthy that even the famous white South African Communist leader Joe Slovo once told the Afrikaner journalist Hermann Giliomee, “They [the African National Congress] are going to fuck things up, we know it,” and regarded the idea of simply handing over land to the average “Joe Tshabalala” and telling him to “start farming” as idiocy. He was prophetic, for this is almost exactly what happened in Zimbabwe after 2000, only “Joe Tshabalala”, rather than the average Zimbabwean, was a Robert Mugabe crony.
The white left put a lot of thought into how to destroy the regimes of hated figures such as Ian Smith and P.W. Botha, but very little into the admittedly difficult task of replacing white minority rule with something that would actually be better. An even smaller–or at least less influential–segment of white opinion, best represented by the late South African politician Helen Suzman, was liberal. Their view was that the state institutions and capitalist economy were not in themselves wicked, and would be legitimate if only barriers to the equal participation of the black majority were lifted and the playing field made more even for all.
This was indeed what seemed to happen in Zimbabwe at first, which may have been one reason why that the international community turned a blind eye to Mugabe’s atrocities upon coming to power. Zimbabwe differed from South Africa in that it had two rival “liberation” movements at the time of independence, Joshua Nkomo’s Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) and Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU). The former comprised mostly Ndebele and was backed by the Soviet Union, while the latter was Shona-dominated and supported by China. After winning the first democratic election in 1980, ZANU proceeded to weaken its rival by whatever means possible, and between 1983 and 1987, the Zimbabwe National Army, carried out a series of massacres of Ndebele civilians, known as the Gukurahundi, a Shona term meaning “the early rain which washes away the chaff before the spring rains.” Approximately 20,000 people were killed and many thousands tortured.
The white population was largely unaffected by this strife and scarcely a word of condemnation was heard from Western governments. A number of American universities even bestowed honorary degrees on Mugabe during the Gukurahundi. Zimbabwe continued to be called “the bread basket of Africa”, due to its being a net food exporter, and its excellent pre-independence education system remained intact.
However, due to the repressive nature of Mugabe’s regime and a gradually declining economy, ZANU-PF’s (as the party was renamed when it merged with the remnants of ZAPU in 1987) political support continued to erode. Although Mugabe did all he could to rig elections and intimidate opposition, ZANU-PF was dangerously close to losing majority support after the emergence of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party in 1999. Mugabe then needed to cash in his political chips, so to speak. He needed a populist policy that would buy him enough support to win the next election in 2002. It was at this point that he settled upon the so-called “land redistribution” issue, which destroyed the country’s economy, leading to hyperinflation and the eventual adoption of the US dollar as the medium of exchange in the country.
In South Africa, the National Party government held onto power for longer, and there is some reason to believe it only relinquished it because of geopolitics. The collapse of the Soviet Union meant that apartheid South Africa could no longer make the case to the United States that it was a bulwark against the spread of Soviet influence in Africa. Nelson Mandela, meanwhile, persuaded the African National Congress (ANC) to drop the policy of nationalising key sectors of the economy in 1992. In fact, especially during the Mbeki administration (1999-2008), the opposite policy of privatisation was pursued. Several black billionaires were created through the government’s Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) policies, including Cyril Ramaphosa, who has just been elected leader of the ANC. However, government corruption, present from the beginning, increased enormously in the Zuma years (2009-present) as an entire “patronage network” emerged under the president. Large amounts of public money were looted and the Gupta brothers, disreputable foreign businessmen, worked together with the Zuma faction of the ANC to “capture” the entire state for their mutual financial benefit.
A joke that white South Africans have been known to tell goes as follows:
Question: What’s the difference between South Africa and Zimbabwe?
Answer: 10 years.
As it happens, more than 10 years have passed since that joke was first told and South Africa has thus far managed to avoid Zimbabwe’s fate. There are a few of reasons why this might be the case. Firstly, the ANC, for all its faults, is a very “broad church” consisting of trade unionists, Communists, black nationalists, African traditionalists, Christians, billionaire businessmen and everything in between. It has so far shown little sign of being beholden to any particular individual, the way ZANU-PF was to Mugabe for 37 years until he was forced to step down only a month ago. There is a term limit of two 5-year presidential terms, which Mbeki respected (although he resigned under pressure before the end of his second term) and Zuma shows every sign of respecting as well. RW Johnson has also noted that unlike many other African countries, South Africa has a long tradition of free speech that allows criticism of the country’s executive leadership. Secondly, South Africa is in a sense “too big to fail”. When Zimbabwe’s economy collapsed, millions of Zimbabweans were able to migrate–often illegally–to South Africa, in order to find work. South Africa’s 55 million people, over 5 times as many as Zimbabwe, have no such option. Only the wealthiest will be able to go elsewhere. South Africa’s economy, although slow-growing, is also the third largest in Africa. Its GDP per capita is the 7th highest, although it is also one of the most unequal countries in the world, with a Gini coefficient of 0.65.
It is against this backdrop that the recent leadership contest within the ruling party took place. The difference between the two leading candidates was stark. One the one hand, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Jacob Zuma’s ex-wife, ran on promises of “Radical Economic Transformation”, which, she explained in a speech to business leaders in August, included “land restitution without compensation,” no longer allowing “the Reserve Bank [to] be policy independent from government”, an end to “White Monopoly Capital” (i.e. alleged white control of the private sector) and economic growth of 5%, to be achieved “through deliberate government intervention in a developmental state.” On the other was Cyril Ramaphosa, who spoke of a “New Deal” for South Africa, involving “the combined resources of all sectors of South Africa society: workers, business – small and big – social enterprises, informal sector and the vast resources of the state,” restoring investor confidence, “1 million new jobs” in agriculture by 2030, maintaining “fiscal discipline to ensure our resources are directed to where they have the greatest developmental impact and not diverted to servicing debt or populist projects” and “targeting 3 percent GDP growth in 2018… rising to 5 percent growth by 2023.” He exhorted South Africans to be “bold and innovative, without being reckless.”
Many South Africans were overjoyed when Ramaphosa won the leadership contest on 18 December. Judging by the performance of South Africa’s currency, the rand, after the news of his victory, so too were investors.
However, there are still some reasons to temper our optimism. Other figures recently elected to senior positions in the ANC are staunch Zuma allies, such as the party’s deputy president David Mabuza and secretary-general Ace Magashule. They can be expected to frustrate any attempts at cleaning house should these clash with their own political and financial interests. Then there is the problem that a number of Ramaphosa’s statements are not so different from those of Dlamini-Zuma. In March 2016, in his capacity as Deputy President of South Africa, he said, “For far too long, this economy has been managed by white people. That must come to an end… Those who don’t like this idea – tough for you. That is how we are proceeding.” Although he remains vague about how this goal might be achieved, and may not really believe his own rhetoric, in saying such things he seems to pander to the populist notion that white and black South Africans are competing in a zero-sum game. In a more recent speech in November, he reiterated the need to “accelerate the transfer of ownership and control of the economy to black South Africans. This is both a moral and economic imperative.” He also opined that, “Our land was stolen from our forebears leading to the destruction of the asset base of the African people resulting in the impoverishment of the black nation.” Land redistribution, he said, would be achieved through “the transfer of state farms on a commercial scale to black farmers and the accelerated transfer of agricultural land.”
This sort of rhetoric, albeit vague in certain respects, is not to be taken lightly. A taboo topic in South Africa is the increasing murder rate of white farmers and their employees. Given the particularly brutal nature of these murders, there is reason to think they are motivated by the outlook–to which Ramaphosa assents above–that they are living on “stolen” land that does not really belong to them. There has certainly been a lot of online hype about farm murders and disagreement about what the true murder rate is, but we do know that the number of farm murders has been on the increase since 1990, and now totals between 1,824 and 3,100. Given that many South African farmers–who number only in the tens of thousands and feed the entire country–are fearing for their lives, the least Ramaphosa could have done was condemn the violence against them and reassure them that they will be treated fairly. However, he did no such thing. Furthermore, it was both unnecessary and irresponsible of him to beat the land reform drum when according to a survey by the South African Institute of Race Relations, only 0.4% of respondents saw “skewed land ownership” as one of “the two most serious problems unresolved since 1994” and “by the Government’s own admission, between 50% and 90% of all land reform projects have failed, the recipients of formerly successful farms failing to produce any marketable surplus.”
Another interesting account of Ramaphosa’s views in 1994 has surfaced, which should make white South Africans nervous. In his memoirs, the late Mario Oriani-Ambrosini, a South African MP from the Inkatha Freedom Party, recounts:
In his brutal honesty, Ramaphosa told me of the ANC’s 25-year strategy to deal with the whites: it would be like boiling a frog alive, which is done by raising the temperature very slowly. Being cold-blooded, the frog does not notice the slow temperature increase, but if the temperature is raised suddenly, the frog will jump out of the water. He meant that the black majority would pass laws transferring wealth, land, and economic power from white to black slowly and incrementally, until the whites lost all they had gained in South Africa, but without taking too much from them at any given time to cause them to rebel or fight.
We do not know whether Ramaphosa still cleaves to these views, or whether he has mellowed somewhat with experience–in both government and business–and age.
It cannot be denied, of course, that South Africa is in a serious situation, with such skewed wealth distribution, extreme income inequality and high unemployment. Ramaphosa’s task in addressing these problems is Herculean and unenviable. But BEE, which involves creating a handful of black billionaires like himself, has already been tried, and failed. Seizing white-owned property or wealth would be sure to fail too, on a much more catastrophic scale than in Zimbabwe (in an extraordinary turn of events, Zimbabwe’s new president Emmerson Mnangagwa, now appears to be reversing its policy and is encouraging white farmers to return). This is not to suggest that its white inhabitants are inherently superior to its black inhabitants; only to recognise the reality that those white South Africans who occupy senior, well-paying positions in the economy do so largely because they are the best qualified for those positions. One can certainly point out that they acquired their skills and knowledge advantage through unfair means over the centuries, but having competent people in senior positions is essential in a developing economy and ultimately benefits everyone. If Ramaphosa wants to create a new generation of skilled black South Africans, he should by all means be applauded. But he should also be willing to admit that this will take time, especially given the damage done to the education system by previous ANC administrations, and that in the meantime, black South Africans in general still have much to learn from white South Africans, who are not their enemies, but their compatriots.