No more Mr Guilty Guy

South Africa's ANC government still blames whites for its own failings. Yet one white thinks he'll be voting ANC this week
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The Independent Online
Here in the leafy vestiges of what was once white Johannesburg, dinner-party talk is about voting tactically in this week's general election, with a view to denying the African National Congress (ANC) a two-thirds majority: a prospect that causes unease among the white bourgeoisie. The fear is that President Mbeki, armed with a crushing majority, might amend the constitution, especially the clauses pertaining to property rights which we hold specially dear. Myself, I am more concerned with preserving the fruits of defeat.

Eight years have passed since the former State President F W De Klerk called a referendum in which the white electorate was asked to choose between ending apartheid and fighting to defend it. I voted for the former, partly because race war was too ghastly to contemplate, but mostly because I was sick of the albatross that dangled from my white neck, reeking of guilt and selfishness and complicity in fundamental injustice. Most whites apparently felt likewise, because 72 per cent of us voted to give up power.

In truth, many of us had secret anxieties about the onset of democracy, but we all yearned for its tangential blessings: liberation from guilt, and redistribution of responsibility for the governance of a country whose problems at times seemed insurmountable. So we put down our guns and gave ourselves into the arms of the great African mother, as the poet Breytenbach phrased it, hoping against hope that she wouldn't drop us.

And lo, she didn't. Standards slid a bit, but there were compensations. We were readmitted to the community of nations. We won the rugby World Cup. We were allowed to travel around Africa again, and Nelson Mandela made minor celebrities of all of us. The state broadcaster, once an instrument of Calvinist mind-control, turned into a funky purveyor of colourful multiculturalism. Africans moved en masse into "our" suburbs, universities and institutions.

Within three years, the pavements of my once lily-white neighbourhood were thronged by black children wearing the uniforms of once-segregated schools, chattering in English with much the same accent as I. Their fathers and mothers had vaulted into the middle or upper classes, acquiring positions of awesome power in business, the civil service and parastatals. After the disintegration of the Government of National Unity, Africans acquired a virtual monopoly of political power, along with direct or indirect control of the army, the intelligence services, all municipalities and about 15 per cent of the local stock exchange. The poor stayed poor, but at least there were black faces at adjoining tables in Johannesburg's best restaurants, and besuited black businessmen alongside you in morning traffic as you ran the gauntlet of beggars with signs saying "Starving, please help." Guilt was being redistributed, along with everything else.

It was a small consolation, but it eased the disgruntlement of white males who had been stripped of their arrogance, demonised before the Truth Commission, passed up for promotion, burdened by rising taxes, impoverished by tumbling property prices and currency devaluations, and hijacked from time to time. Ah well. We'd had it our way for centuries, and we probably deserved no better. So don't get me wrong. I'm not whining. On the contrary, we seemed to have got exactly what we bargained for in the 1992 referendum. Some of us still had BMWs and fat salaries, but in the broader sense we were powerless relics of a discredited system, consigned to the margins of the new society. I liked it. For the first time in my life, whatever was wrong in the country was someone else's fault, not necessarily mine or my tribe's. These were the fruits of defeat, and they were rather sweet.

So imagine my dismay when our second election drew nigh, and it became clear that the ANC was determined to put whites back on the high horse from which we were so ignominiously toppled five years ago. The first signs surfaced at the ANC's last conference, where President Mandela launched a scathing attack on the racist white press, "Mickey Mouse" opposition parties and other agents of "counter-revolution". The deputy tourism minister, Peter Mokaba, followed up with a spectacular parliamentary diatribe against whites and their erstwhile leaders, depicted as "diehard racists, hidebound reactionaries, and bloodthirsty fascist braggarts" whose only pleasure was to "drink nectar from the skulls of Africans and democrats".

Supporters of the Democratic Party, he added, addressing me directly, should not imagine that "blacks are so stupid as to believe that their hands are clean". All whites were guilty. All of us had blood on our hands.

This was a bit rich, I thought, given the Democratic Party's plucky stand over many years in favour of "simple justice, equal opportunity and human rights", as Helen Suzman once put it. Indeed, I could have sworn that the Democratic Party was the real pioneer of liberal democracy in this country, hammering its message of free speech, free markets and free elections until it penetrated the thick skulls of mad racists and loony Marxists alike. We didn't necessarily expect to be thanked, but the last thing we anticipated was being held responsible for the ANC's own shortcomings in government.

Things could have been far worse, I suppose, but most ANC policy initiatives struggled to get off the ground or foundered half-finished. They built half a million houses for the poor, but many are already falling down and funding for countless others appears to have been eaten by corruption. They provided 3 million peasants with clean running water, but about two- thirds of the delivery systems are broken already. They vowed to stamp out illiteracy and ignorance, but high- school pass rates continued to decline thanks to catastrophic mismanagement. They waged war on unemployment, and somehow lost 500,000 jobs in the process.

The incoming President, Thabo Mbeki, launched a moral crusade against lawlessness and indiscipline, but a huge percentage of township residents continued to default on rent and service payments. The war on crime turned into a rout, with police clearing rates - "investigations completed for trial" - dropping from 41 per cent to 33. Only one in 34 armed robbers winds up in jail. Forty-nine out of 50 hijackers escape detection. Our roads are crumbling for lack of maintenance, our hospitals and schools likewise. Upwards of 50 per cent of doctors are planning to emigrate, portending total collapse of the health system.

Anywhere else in the world, a government with such a record would be judged a failure and voted out of power. In South Africa, however, the ANC has a scapegoat: us. Me. The tiny white minority. "Powerful forces are blocking change," claims the ANC's 1999 election manifesto. White civil servants have allegedly thwarted the will of their black bosses, retarding the ANC's ability to deliver its 1994 campaign promises. The "Mickey Mouse" opposition parties are said to have played an obstructive role in parliament, and mysterious "Third Force" elements are blamed for everything from farm murders to organised crime. White-controlled news-

papers that exposed corruption stand accused of racist bias, while white business is condemned for resisting affirmative action and the advance of "economic democracy", code for giving in to the trade unions. Hence the need for an "overwhelming mandate" that will allow the ANC to crush the reactionaries in this week's poll and launch an "intensified offensive for transformation".

What can I say? My heart lies elsewhere, but I think I'll vote for the ANC - not because I relish intensified offensives against my own interests, but because I want our leaders to run out of excuses as soon as possible so that we can come to grips with the real problems that beset our country and continent. A malaise cannot be cured until its cause is diagnosed, and central to Africa's malaise is the cult of victimhood fostered by dictators and kleptocrats who trick their subjects into believing that all their woes are the fault of evil white men: slavers, imperialists, IMF apparatchiks, greedy Americans, the rapacious chairmen of multinational corporations and what have you.

In South Africa, the wounds of history are fresher and the unjust legacy of apartheid is painfully evident, but we are doomed if we accept these as justification for incompetence or corruption in government. Neighbouring Zimbabwe has been ruined by a leader who blamed his failures on the malign influence of white colonials, and an electorate that failed to punish him for his self-serving cant. South Africa might go the same way if the ANC is still in a position to claim, five years hence, that its shortcomings are the fault of white recalcitrants who have tied its hands and sabotaged its best efforts.

If the price of avoiding such a fate is a two-thirds majority, the ANC should be granted it. Our fledgling democracy might lose some of its lustre, but at least black leaders won't be able to dodge responsibility for whatever ensues. As for us pale creatures of the neo-colonial twilight, we will regain the benefits of our surrender, and sidle onwards into oblivion.