As the World Cup kicked off, South Africa has been preparing to show its best face to the world. But the country is tense, and at a crossroads. Will it seize this occasion to emerge at last from more than a century of divisive nationalisms?
This has been a tumultuous year for South Africa so far, even by its own standards. Protests at municipal level against poor services and corruption are at an all-time, post-apartheid high. And the tone of public debate is increasingly tense. The April murder of the far-right politician Eugene Terre’Blanche at his farm by two black farm labourers (one only 15) raised the spectre of racial conflict once again. Julius Malema, 29, president of the African National Congress (ANC) Youth League, has become the country’s most prominent politician, mixing brazen populism with racist incitement (this includes singing an old anti-apartheid protest song which goes “Kill the Boers, they are rapists”).
South Africa is at a key juncture, and has been since the end of apartheid. Today’s state, economy and social order are largely the outcome of European colonisation and internal resistance to it. There are lasting colonial characteristics. Two are the legacy of the Dutch: the strategic value of the Cape Sea Route, and so of South Africa as a country, between the declining West and the rising East; and the practice of meeting the country’s labour needs by importing black slaves, which later laid the groundwork for cheap, mostly black labour.
The British developed harbours, first in Durban then Richard’s Bay (then of one of the biggest ports in the world). But it was the British use of cheap black labour on the back of a strategy of divide and rule that really marked South Africa economically. The discovery of gold and diamonds in the 1860-70s set off the first wave of industrialisation. Cheap black labour coupled with British capital and technology (military, engineering etc) ensured the near total and permanent exclusion of blacks from ownership of modern productive economic assets. The British oversaw the expatriation of most of the country’s wealth to Britain. And four of the country’s oldest universities were set up as elite institutions for the Anglo-Saxon white minority, ensuring its cultural and linguistic domination.
The use of the state as a tool of minority domination and wealth expatriation was backed up by Britain’s development of transport and communication. The transport network had two goals: to ensure the mobility of the white middle and upper classes, and of cheap black labour, minerals and industrial goods between the major centres of white settlement and industrial production. White mobility was chosen, but black mobility was enforced, especially through migrant labour and ongoing urbanisation (at the expense of the rural areas).
With the growth of the media (the press from the 1820s, radio in the 1920s and television in the 1970s), a white middle-class view prevailed through most of the 20th century. And the media is still dominated by big conglomerates and the state, limiting its ability to act as a vehicle for genuine democratic expression, even if it does play a critical watchdog role thanks to a number of brave journalists.
Roots of resistance
The roots of the two most important indigenous resistance movements, for Afrikaner and African nationalism, coincide with South Africa’s first British-guided steps towards “exported” European modernity between 1850 and 1900. The first proto-nationalist African intellectuals and leaders were (ironically) products of British missionary schools in the Eastern Cape (home to most of the important ANC leaders). For them, English was a language of progress, and dealt a fatal blow to cultural transmission in African mother tongues.
The combined effects of black exclusion from economic ownership and the loss of cultural memory since the end of 19th century, in the face of the attraction of a European lifestyle, perhaps best explain why the ANC and its cronies in black business excelled in conspicuous consumption and failed abysmally in increasing black economic production after the transition to democracy in 1994.
British colonial policies had major consequences on late 19th century forerunners of Afrikaner nationalism. The imposition of English in schools and especially churches in the Cape Colony led to fears of cultural assimilation amongst Afrikaner intelligentsia, mostly clergymen. Against this background, the main Afrikaner church, the Dutch Reformed Church, established the forerunner of the University of Stellenbosch and the first “Christian-National” schools in the 1860s and 1870s. These institutions produced the first generation of Afrikaner-nationalist intellectuals, and ensured the maintenance of Afrikaner cultural memory.
After the Anglo-Boer war, which was essentially over British control over the mineral wealth of the Boer Republic of the ZAR (now the provinces of Gauteng, Mpumalanga, Limpopo and North-West), the British realised that it was in their interest to co-opt the Afrikaners, to ensure the stability of British state and economic control of the country. Afrikaners were never excluded from economic ownership, and since 1994 the combination of excellent Afrikaans universities and schools and a fierce attachment to the Afrikaans language has meant that Afrikaners countered their political emasculation with growing economic power. This is despite the reappearance of poor Afrikaners after 1994 (now as many as 300,000 out of 2.5 million Afrikaners).
When Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first democratically elected president, three factors presented a genuine chance for the state, economy and social structure to become more reflective of the country’s needs: Mandela’s inspiring leadership, unprecedented national goodwill and relatively strong public services.
But there were not enough educated blacks (a legacy of apartheid) or productive experience and racial attitudes hardened. As a result a pattern of state patronage, an increasing gap between rich and poor, and weak service delivery became entrenched. It didn’t help that the ANC government got rid of more than 120,000 white civil servants from 1995 by offering them early retirement.
Patience ran out
For nearly ten years the ANC failed to maintain or invest in infrastructure, leading to a chronic shortage of electricity, negligible public transport, collapsing public hospitals and, perhaps most disastrously, collapsing black schools. Due to its historic association with English, the ANC elite ensured its domination over the state at the expense of the black majority, and failed to invest in mother-tongue education in primary schools.
By late 2009 it seemed clear that two key groups’ patience with the ANC had run out: big business and the black youth of the townships and rural areas. The achievements of South Africa’s large companies reached its high point from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s. These companies played a pivotal role in the transition from Afrikaner nationalist rule to African nationalist rule. During these two decades, leaders of these companies patiently persuaded – and pressured – National Party politicians to abandon their white supremacist policies. They also persuaded leaders of the black resistance movement – especially the United Democratic Front, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), the ANC and the Communist Party – to accept the preservation of South Africa’s capitalist system which had been created by the companies in partnership with the British at the beginning of the 20th century.
The success of big business’s strategy was embodied in the ANC’s summary adoption of the neo-liberal Growth, Employment and Redistribution strategy (GEAR) in 1996. Ironically this was also the moment when large companies started shifting their head offices to London and disinvesting from South Africa. This was mainly because the African nationalists had no proven ability that they could control their followers. Second, the African nationalists’ long term survival strategy – consumerism for the elite and state welfare for the masses – did not convince several of the large companies that it would bring long term stability to the country.
By late 2009, when Julius Malema emerged as the nearly untouchable voice of angry young black South Africa (jobless and with even worse education than under apartheid according to prominent black intellectuals and businessmen), big business’s fears had proved well founded.
Ironically, the large companies that have emigrated have helped destabilise the South African economy by sending a message to politicians that they are no longer interested in protecting their South African assets. At the same time, some of these companies have not fared that well on the global economic stage. By December 2009 Bobby Godsell, chairman of Business Leadership South Africa, announced that they would henceforth combine their long-standing discrete contact with the government with more outspoken public criticism on areas such as education, health and energy. This is a clear sign that big business in SA has realised that neither de facto expatriation, nor “quiet diplomacy” will suit their long-term interests.
Among white South Africans, especially Afrikaners, there are growing signs of civil disobedience and a refusal to quietly remain part of the country’s 5.6 million taxpayers while corruption increases. The Afrikaner trade union Solidarity has grown to more than 120,000 members and is excelling in trade negotiations, technical education and poverty alleviation schemes. Over the past two year, in more than 280 rural localities, Afrikaners have organised themselves in the National Ratepayers Union, effectively paying their municipal taxes into trusts and setting up parallel structures of municipal service delivery. These localities have apparently experienced far fewer violent, black municipal protests than elsewhere. This confronts the ANC with the spectre of a growing Afrikaner “tax boycott”, a real nightmare for its schemes of patronage and its system of social grants, paid out to 14 million poor recipients and a vital aspect of neutralising black protest.
The official opposition party, the Democratic Alliance and other opposition parties are working on an agreement for cooperation in the municipal elections of 2011.
Early in June it emerged that an ANC faction led by Julius Malema made a failed attempt to undertake “disciplinary” steps against Zwelinzima Vavi, leader of the ANC’s alliance partner Cosatu and a relentless critic of ANC corruption, especially in regard to the awarding of state tenders. (This stance is likely to be the real reason for the move against him.) The move might hasten the moment at which Cosatu finally decides to quit the ANC alliance and form a workers’ party. Past opinion polls have claimed that such a party would win up to 25% of the votes. Meanwhile Cosatu has provided the ANC with organisational backbone in the past two elections.
With clear signs that the Malema faction is planning a full-scale assault on the top six leadership positions in the ANC at its next general conference at the end of 2012, the time for Cosatu to form a party is ripe. It will certainly present the ANC with its biggest electoral challenge yet, and take the country towards a genuine post-racial multi-party democracy.
The combined power of South African business, civil society and political parties could – just as it led to the end of apartheid – bring the country’s century-long experiments with divisive nationalisms to a close. But for that, a genuine long-term vision of socio-economic development, cultural and linguistic diversity and state reform has to take hold before the patience of the country’s long-suffering poor black majority or the deepening frustrations of its minorities boil over.