Tragedy or triumph?: Can the new South Africa succeed where so many African states have failed? John Carlin and Richard Dowden speculate on two very different outcomes

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The Independent Online
THE YEAR is 2009. The African National Congress has just won its fourth successive election since liberation in 1994. 'Liberation? That's a joke]' left-wing academics mutter.

Rumours abound that the vote was rigged, but you won't read about it in the newspapers. While there is no official press censorship, editors have learnt that it is not wise to inquire too deeply into affairs of state. A year ago, under the Winnie Mandela presidency, the over-curious political correspondent of a small 'alternative' newspaper was assassinated in mysterious circumstances after publishing an expose of corruption involving ministers, trade union leaders and members of the board of a gold-mining conglomerate.

Another thing you rarely read about in the press is the unrest among the impoverished peasants of the Northern Transvaal. The army and security police are scouring the villages searching for the leaders of the 'Steve Biko National Revolutionary Front'. According to Amnesty International, a dozen members of the Biko Front have 'disappeared' in the past six months. . .

IN THE new South Africa, the danger, contrary to conventional opinion, is not that the 'communists' in the ANC will take over, but that they will break away, go undergound and pursue once more the path of insurrection.

The best analogy for what may be in store lies not in Stalinist Russia but in Mexico, where the aptly named Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) came to power in 1929 bulging with promises of social change. It has remained in power ever since, paying lip service to the notion of revolution, of land for the landless, of economic redistribution - but in truth retaining power for power's sake, striking a cosy pact with the big corporations and the urban unions at the expense of the rural poor, and evolving into what has been called 'the perfect dictatorship'.

Today the peasants, inspired by the memory of their martyred hero Emiliano Zapata, are revolting.

Sufficient similarities exist already between the decadent PRI and the ANC government- to-be for the alarm to be sounded in South Africa. Nelson Mandela, the ANC president, is a hugely powerful figure to whom everybody in the organisation's national executive defers. Happily, he is a good and noble man. The problem is that the all-powerful presidency might become institutionalised, and who knows what manner of petty tyrants might follow?

Take Mr Mandela's wife. She provides a perfect example of a budding tendency in the ANC to do as the PRI has done and put the exercise of power above morality and the rule of law, in this case by incorporating individuals, however unsavoury, who might pose a threat as outsiders. Winnie Mandela has been linked to the embezzlement of ANC funds, she has been found guilty of kidnapping and assaulting four black youths, she conducted a three-year reign of terror with the 'Football Club', her personal bodyguard in Soweto. But she commands a populist appeal which, if turned against the ANC, could undermine its power base. The response has been to sanction her misdeeds, hoist her on board, put her in parliament, promote her political career.

As with Mrs Mandela, so with the army and police. A handful of generals may be handsomely pensioned off after the ANC comes to power but most will be forgiven for past atrocities, kept where they are and bought off with tanks, aircraft, frigates. Idealistic notions of slashing the defence budget and using the money to build health clinics could simply fade away. More sinister, the seeds of a new relationship between the ANC and the police emerged last month after ANC security personnel gunned down eight Inkatha supporters in central Johannesburg. The police acceded to an ANC request not to go into ANC headquarters to conduct ballistics investigations.

The ANC may also prove unable to resist the temptation to try to neutralise its old 'struggle' allies in the Congress of South African Trade Unions. It is not unlikely that, after a power struggle, union leaders will make it their priority to preserve the health of the new state apparatus.

As for business, it has been busy courting ANC leaders since their return from prison and exile in 1990. Sol Kerzner, the sleazy owner of Sun City and other casino resorts in the corrupt old apartheid 'homelands', paid for the 50th birthday party two years ago of one of Mr Mandela's two possible successors, ANC national chairman Thabo Mbeki. Mr Kerzner and others have dispensed numerous other little favours to the ANC nomenclatura.

The ANC's behaviour towards the press in recent weeks has provided hints that criticism will not easily be tolerated. At least two journalists have been targeted for ANC opprobrium - one personally condemned and the other pointedly marginalised.

The ANC leadership is comprised almost entirely of city sophisticates more at ease with their white National Party counterparts, the captains of industry and the aspirant union bourgeoisie, than with the tribally rooted rural masses. Look out for a new compact of power that marginalises 'the oppressed' in the countryside. Look out for the non-racial dictatorship. Look out for the peasantry - outsiders at the feast - peering in through the windows of the Union Buildings, glancing from their old masters to their new ones and unable to tell the difference.

SOUTH Africa is a dynamic and vigorous country with enormous potential. It has made a new beginning, and the government-in-waiting is made up of mature and careful people who know they have to balance the demands of the new with the ownership of the old.

Seldom written but often asked is the question: 'How long will it take for the blacks to mess it up?' - as if somehow apartheid had made it a glowing success. Neverthless, South Africa is part of Africa and the continent has had few successes and some spectacular failures since independence 30 years ago. Will this pattern extend to South Africa?

Most of Africa is rural and its peoples are still attached primarily to ethnic or tribal groupings. South Africa is different. It is more than 50 per cent urbanised, and towns have loosened the traditional bonds and structures which dominate in rural areas. Apartheid encouraged, even created, tribalism to divide and rule black people - but they subsumed their differences within the ANC, which vigorously opposes tribalism. Even the Zulu people, who have a particular pride in their past, are divided in their support for the Inkatha Freedom Party. It is estimated that more than half the Zulus support the ANC.

ANC leaders have had plenty of opportunity to learn from the mistakes of government elsewhere in Africa. The exiled leadership lived in Zambia through its years of decline and collapse and had to put up with its incompetence and corruption. ANC leaders have vowed privately never to let that happen in South Africa. They know rapid social change is dangerous and futile, and to alienate skilled managers and workers brings disaster.

Coming second in African politics was often a sentence of death or exile, and the winners only looked after their own people. The ANC, by contrast, is determined to be as inclusive as possible. If anyone thinks that the blacks will now turn on the whites in revenge, listen to the words of Ngoaka Ramathlodi, 38, who will almost certainly become the premier of the new Northern Transvaal province. The ANC may win over 90 per cent of the vote here, and the only opposition is the white right wing. 'Thankfully we have never engaged each other violently,' says Mr Ramathlodi. 'We are a poor province and our only hope is to build together in peace and stability. We all belong here and I would welcome them into my government. I will seriously consider accommodating them even if they don't make it in the polls.'

Having had four years to negotiate and finally work with President F W de Klerk's government, the ANC has come to understand how South Africa and its economy work. The handover after the election will be no great jolt to the system. Mr Mandela will in a sense swap places with Mr de Klerk, who will probably continue in government for the next five years. Nowhere else in Africa has such a lengthy and complicated handover taken place.

When it comes to the economy, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund are ready to start work: perhaps for once they will come up against an African government prepared to force them to deliver programmes which suit the country rather than the ideology of Washington bureacrats. Aid, driven by goodwill and the strategy of making South Africa the engine of recovery for the region, will flood in; capital is already begining to flow back.

Long-term, however, the economy is a serious problem because it cannot grow fast enough to fulfil the expectations of young black people. The cake in South Africa cannot be redivided without some losers.

Suppose that groups, for ideological or ethnic reasons, do mount a violent campaign against the government. Mass action in South Africa is easily containable militarily - the townships were designed to contain such violence. As the ANC found, armed resistance is virtually impossible in South Africa.

The risk of coups, another plague of Africa, is slight. During the rule of Mr de Klerk's predecessor, the defence forces reigned supreme. But from that pinnacle they have been in rapid decline, budgets slashed and forces cut even at a time of dangerous political upheaval. If the South African military were going to become directly involved in politics on their own account, they would have done so by now.

Perhaps the greatest argument for optimism is to see how far South Africa has already come in the four years since Nelson Mandela was released and political activity allowed. Some 14,000 people have died in political violence, but out of a population of 39.5 million that is a relatively small number, considering the political revolution the country has been undergoing. After centuries of hatred and violent oppression, South Africans have reached this election with astonishing speed.

The ANC supporters have learnt that they will not inherit the earth tomorrow, the white right-wing parties have by and large accepted that things will change but they will not be punished for the past. They know they must live together, not only because the alternative is destruction but also because they are discovering that all South Africans share some deep and positive common bonds.

(Photograph omitted)