South Africa: The Liberation's
by John Pilger, Mail & Guardian,
October 4, 2008
The political rupture in South Africa
is being presented in the outside world as the personal tragedy
and humiliation of one man, Thabo Mbeki. It is reminiscent of
the beatification of Nelson Mandela at the death of apartheid.
This is not to diminish the power of personalities, but their
importance is often as a distraction from the historical forces
they serve and manage. Frantz Fanon had this in mind when, in
The Wretched of the Earth, he described the "historic mission"
of much of Africa's post-colonial ruling class as "that of
intermediary [whose] mission has nothing to do with transforming
the nation: it consists, prosaically, of being the transmission
line between the nation and a capitalism, rampant though camouflaged."
Mbeki's fall and the collapse of Wall
Street are concurrent and related events, as they were predictable.
Glimpse back to 1985 when the Johannesburg stock market crashed
and the apartheid regime defaulted on its mounting debt, and the
chieftains of South African capital took fright. In September
that year a group led by Gavin Relly, chairman of the Anglo American
Corporation, met Oliver Tambo, the ANC president, and other resistance
officials in Zambia. Their urgent message was that a "transition"
from apartheid to a black-governed liberal democracy was possible
only if "order" and "stability" were guaranteed.
These were euphemisms for a "free market" state where
social justice would not be a priority.
Secret meetings between the ANC and prominent
members of the Afrikaner elite followed at a stately home, Mells
Park House, in England. The prime movers were those who had underpinned
and profited from apartheid - such as the British mining giant,
Consolidated Goldfields, which picked up the bill for the vintage
wines and malt whisky scoffed around the fireplace at Mells Park
House. Their aim was that of the Pretoria regime - to split the
ANC between the mostly exiled "moderates" they could
"do business with" (Tambo, Mbeki and Mandela) and the
majority who made up the those resisting in the townships known
as the UDF.
The matter was urgent. When FW De Klerk
came to power in 1989, capital was haemorrhaging at such a rate
that the country's foreign reserves would barely cover five weeks
of imports. Declassified files I have seen in Washington leave
little doubt that De Klerk was on notice to rescue capitalism
in South Africa. He could not achieve this without a compliant
Nelson Mandela was critical to this. Having
backed the ANC's pledge to take over the mines and other monopoly
industries - "a change or modification of our views in this
regard is inconceivable" - Mandela spoke with a different
voice on his first triumphant travels abroad. "The ANC,"
he said in New York, "will reintroduce the market to South
Africa". The deal, in effect, was that whites would retain
economic control in exchange for black majority rule: the "crown
of political power" for the "jewel of the South African
economy", as Ali Mazrui put it. When, in 1997, I told Mbeki
how a black businessmen had described himself as "the ham
in a white sandwich", he laughed agreement, calling it the
"historic compromise", which others were called it a
betrayal. However, it was De Klerk who was more to the point.
I put it to him that he and his fellow whites had got what they
wanted and that for the majority, the poverty had not changed.
"Isn't that the continuation of apartheid by other means?"
I asked. Smiling through a cloud of cigarette smoke, he replied,
"You must understand, we've achieved a broad consensus on
many things now."
Thabo Mbeki's downfall is no more than
the downfall of a failed economic system that enriched the few
and dumped the poor. The ANC "neo liberals" seemed at
times ashamed that South Africa was, in so many ways, a third
world country. "We seek to establish," said Trevor Manuel,
"an environment in which winners flourish." Boasting
of a deficit so low it had fallen to the level of European economies,
he and his fellow "moderates" turned away from the public
economy the majority of South Africans desperately wanted and
needed. They inhaled the hot air of corporate-speak. They listened
to the World Bank and the IMF; and soon they were being invited
to the top table at the Davos Economic Forum and to G-8 meetings,
where their "macro-economic achievements" were lauded
as a model. In 2001, George Soros put it rather more bluntly.
"South Africa," he said, "is now in the hands of
Public services fell in behind privatisation,
and low inflation presided over low wages and high unemployment,
known as "labour flexibility". According to the ANC,
the wealth generated by a new black business class would "trickle
down". The opposite happened. Known sardonically as the wabenzi
because their vehicle of choice was a silver Mercedes Benz, black
capitalists proved they could be every bit as ruthless as their
former white masters in labour relations, cronyism and the pursuit
of profit. Hundreds of thousands of jobs were lost in mergers
and "restructuring" and ordinary people retreated to
the "informal economy". Between 1995 and 2000, the majority
of South Africans fell deeper into poverty. When the gap between
wealthy whites and newly enriched blacks began to close, the gulf
between the black "middle class" and the majority widened
as never before.
In 1996, the office of the Reconstruction
and Development Programme (RDP) was quietly closed down, marking
the end of the ANC's "solemn pledge" and "unbreakable
promise" to put the majority first. Two years later, the
United Nations Development Programme described the replacement,
GEAR, as basically "no different" from the economic
strategy of the apartheid regime in the 1980s.
This seemed surreal. Was South Africa
a country of Harvard-trained technocrats breaking open the bubbly
at the latest credit rating from Duff & Phelps in New York?
Or was it a country of deeply impoverished men, woman and children
without clean water and sanitation, whose infinite resource was
being repressed and wasted, yet again? The questions were an embarrassment
as the ANC government endorsed the apartheid regime's agreement
to join the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which
effectively surrendered economic independence, repaid the $25
billion of apartheid-era inherited foreign debt. Incredibly, Manuel
even allowed South Africa's biggest companies to flee their financial
home and set up in London.
Certainly, Thabo Mbeki speeded his own
political demise with his strange strictures on HIV/Aids, his
famous aloofness and isolation and the corrupt arms deals that
never seemed to go away. It was the premeditated ANC economic
and social catastrophe that saw him off. For further proof, look
to the United States today and the smoking ruin of the "neo
liberalism" model so cherished by the ANC's leaders. And
beware those successors of Mbeki now claiming that, unlike him,
they have the people's interests at heart as they continue the
same divisive policies. South Africa deserves better.