Four stories and the state of the nation

By JAY H. ELL / SOUTH AFRICA has to occupy a unique place in modern-day history. It witnessed a powerful governing minority voluntarily cede power to a subjugated majority. The white Nationalist authoritarian racist government, which had given every indication that with its guns and money that it would dig in its heels and cling to power until kingdom come, entered negotiations that could only herald the end of white rule. For those who lived through the jackboot days of naked racism and abrogations of the rule of law, dressed up in the canard of ‘Separate Development’ which had been the euphemism for the despised term apartheid, it was a mind-boggling transformation.

The dictum that dawn follows the darkest part of night could not have been more apt with regard to the setting into motion of the bloodless revolution that ended apartheid. The National Party caucus had replaced the outgoing cantankerous and dogmatic Prime Minister P.W. Botha with its most right-wing candidate, F.W. de Klerk. Little did anyone guess that within a few years De Klerk would lead the whites to accept a unitary South Africa.

Thirty years later this great transformational event has been negated by disgraceful greed and South Africa is one step away from being a failed state.

From apartheid to unity to dysfunction

There are many ways to tell this epic saga with many dramatis personae playing various roles. The colossus of the drama was of course Nelson Mandela who thirty years ago in a fairy tale ending to a dark story became the first president of a new South Africa. While there has been progress and remarkable integration of all aspects of South African life he may well have been furious at the turn of events which has seen sections of his ANC  and an elected leader, Jacob Zuma ,who served two terms as president, bring the country to the brink of bankruptcy through naked shameless corruption on an unimaginable scale. The upshot has been the nobbling of essential infrastructure, increasing unemployment, even more widespread poverty and a six-fold devaluation of the currency.

Thirty years post Mandela, a new administration tries to claw its way out of the byzantine mess caused by nearly two decades of mismanagement where the ideologue President Thabo Mbeki did nothing to further Mandela’s progress, followed by Zuma, who steered the country in a banana state direction. The hope is that Mandela’s purported original choice as a successor, Cyril Ramaphosa, will somehow right the ship.

There are many novels, historical works and biographies whose titles serve to tell the modern day story of apartheid and its end. Jay H. Ell will touch on a few.

Four stories

Alan Paton, South Africa’s most famed author, summed up the fifty year Apartheid era in several best-selling works. The first, the heart-breaking novel Cry The Beloved Country, and the later Ah, But Your Country Is Beautiful are two that exemplify the tragedy of a country beset with racial discrimination. The former novel detailed the tragic outcome of the inequity of white and black South Africa and was a foretaste of the pain that was to follow as racial segregation and discrimination became enshrined in law and practice in the half century that followed. Paton’s later novel encapsulated the faint praise of visitors to the exquisitely ‘beautiful’ South Africa as the dark age of apartheid settled In. It focused on the earlier heroes that battled the system.  Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk To Freedom documented the icon’s interpretation of the tedious, dangerous and courageous battle towards change and equity. Finally, John Carlin’s Invictus: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation heralded  Mandela’s joyful, positive, optimistic and healing approach to creating a ‘new’ South Africa. Jay H. Ell believes that the messages of all four works still ring true in some form or another to this day.

Following Mandela’s first and only term as president the afterglow continued as he pursued tolerance, peace and causes such as the diagnosis, treatment and elimination of AIDS in Africa. The latter effort was particularly significant as his successor, Thabo Mbeki was an AIDS denialist. Mandela thus propped up the uninspiring terms of the ideologue Thabo Mbeki, but the hangover effect could not survive the retrograde impact of two terms of a corrupt populist, Jacob Zuma.  But before we get there and discuss where we are today let us see what has happened those thirty years.

Mandela the president

Amidst great fanfare, jubilation, and a general aura bordering on euphoria, in April 1994, Nelson Mandela won the presidency of post apartheid South Africa, The event was all that more stunning in a milieu which everyone had predicted would be an endless bloody brutal suppressive struggle of propping up white minority rule. To all and sundry’s amazement sanity, compromise and negotiation triumphed. Mandela’s unlikely partner in this unheard of ceding of political power was a doyen of apartheid and one of its chief architects, Willem de Klerk, who had held the Cabinet Position as Minister of Bantu Education prior to his elevation by the right wing of his party to the Presidency. ‘Bantu’ education didn’t even pretend to be ‘separate but equal’.

In this remarkable display of largesse all round the percentage of the white electorate that didn’t go along with De Klerk was minimal, The ‘white’ Party that opposed the new Constitution was headed by former military commander, Constand Viljoen and received two percent of the total electoral vote. Put another way nine out of ten whites voted for De Klerk who had negotiated away white political control. Viljoen himself had played a crucial role in preventing a right-wing white uprising.

This societal optimism was matched by the economic possibilities that this outcome foretold. In truth the White Government had put in place a working infrastructure that could be built upon. The capital that was being promised to this future breadbasket of Africa allowed for the growth of employment and the Africanisation of the civil service and the economy. The latter outcome was essential so as not to make a mockery of the transition that had just taken place. In a study published by the International Money Fund the first ten years after the ending of apartheid saw the pace of growth doubling and inflation brought down to low levels. By the year 2011 the Gross Domestic Product had tripled but then it all began to hit the fan. The good times were not destined to last forever.

Jacob Zuma: corruption and state-owned enterprises

Jacob Zuma, a populist, began his Presidency in the same manner he ended it – under a criminal cloud. President elect Zuma was charged with corruption for an arms deal which his financial advisor was convicted for. There was also a messy public trial for rape where he was found not guilty. When he was forced out of power in 2018 he faced 16 charges of corruption.

One of Zuma’s earliest moves – a highly contentious nuclear deal with Russia – was so off kilter that it was blocked by the Western Cape High Court. The problem Zuma created from the get go was his unashamed involvement with a family from India with whom he and his family had deals with and who appeared to have immense influence on governmental decision making, including cabinet appointments. It was over this period the many State Owned Enterprises degenerated from bad to worse. To this day there is the dreaded ‘load shedding’ where the country has, daily, periods where there is no electricity. The South African Airways went belly up and the Railways are barely functional. The Post Office has become almost totally unreliable. Zuma succeeded in leaving South Africa with a junk bond rating and it has been left to Ramaphosa, his successor, to  bail the country out.

Ramaphosa: internal and external politics

Ramaphosa, with a razor-thin majority against a Zuma candidate in the ANC nomination process, still has to cope with corrupt administrators and politicians from the previous administration. Ramaphosa was immediately courted by Western countries, being the first recipient of a state cisit to the United Kingdom where he was the personal guest of King Charles who bestowed honor upon honor on the South African president. Likewise, President Biden gave him the full treatment with a White House tour. All this in an effort to keep influential South Africa on the side of the West. However the ANC with very powerful Russian and Chinese influences still in evidence  resulted in South Africa declaring that they are in the ‘neutral’ camp on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. South Africa are part of the BRICS group of Brazil, Russia, China and India. Recently they held joint military exercises with China and Russia, Obviously the hope is to obtain as much international support aa possible.

The African National Congress is losing support and face the possibility of not having a majority in 2024. Also the party faces the embarrassment of the successfully run municipality of Cape Town and Province of the Cape both of which are under control of the Democratic Alliance, (DA). The DA’s success is compared to the shoddy administrations run by the ANC.The latter rather than allow the DA to gain a foothold in other municipalities has been forming coalitions with parties to the right of it such as the Economic Freedom Fighters. The latter have consistently gained about ten percent of the electorate while the DA has double the support.

Ramaphosa has been dealt an extremely difficult hand and the outcome of the next elections are crucial as to whether he can set South Africa on the right path. In the meantime he has to cope with a slow and steady brain drain which was exacerbated by the Zuma years. The latter created a despondency as his shoddy kleptocratic regime was responsible for the pathetic services provided by the state, increasing unemployment and the subsequent poverty and crime that these circumstances inevitably engender,

Where are we now with the four stories?

There are many reasons to cry about the beloved country. The hardest pill to swallow is the lost opportunity to consolidate the progress made by the creation of the new South Africa. The suburbs are under siege with barbed wire and privatized security very much in evidence. Infrastructure has suffered as billions have been siphoned off by Zuma and his cabal.

Mercifully, the country is still beautiful. Tourism post Covid is reaching record heights. Cape Town has been voted the number one destination by UK travelers. The area surrounding the Cape is seeing more and more wine farms opening with endless attractions, from wine tasting to restaurants to demonstrations on every manner of topics. The hotels are booked up all along up the Cape Garden Route and the prices are invariably marked up in dollars.

Attractions such as animal sanctuaries often have two prices one for those with South African identities and another for the visitors. The game reserves are another unique destination. The top dollar reserves such as Sabi Sabi are up to $2,000 a night. But when the prices, like in the local restaurants are in rands, there are eighteen rands to a dollar, the fine cuisine is cheap by international standards.

After his long walk to freedom, Mandela could never have imagined that the struggle’s success would be sabotaged by a collection of venal crooks who would argue that they never joined the ANC to be poor. The centuries-long struggle did not have as the objective to make office bearers of the ANC rich. However, Mandela – who had seen it all – would have accepted the block in the road on the path to freedom, and soldiered on.

So what now?

The 2024 election exactly thirty years after Mandela took office will have a great influence on the direction of the Long Walk To Freedom. If the ANC gets over fifty percent, Ramophosa could be in a stronger position to introduce reforms. The fear is that if he doesn’t he will form a coalition with the Economic Freedom Fighters who are demanding nationalization of the means of production. Why wouldn’t the current president go in that direction? The current mess is as a result of state capture of essential services followed by inefficiency and corruption. Also, a as former head of South Africa’s largest trade union, and a successful businessman, he fears that major companies won’t invest in SA under those circumstances. On the contrary money will flow out, a circumstance not conducive to sorting the current income inequities, poor public services and unemployment.  So maybe he had better start talking to the DA, and maybe the DA should for once and for all get its act together.

As for the celebratory Invictus, Jay H. Ell optimistically jumped the gun when Ramaphosa was first elected, on 19 November 2019, that all would be well (to read this blog post, click here.)

So the ball is in Ramaphosa’s court — a leader who is hampered by his own scandals. He is dealing with a party that is  still racked with corruption which he needs to take on, otherwise history will lump him with the whole rotten crew.

At the end of the day

No one can write off this remarkable country in Africa that  produced four Nobel Peace Prize winners in the twentieth century, but The Long Walk To Freedom has lengthened immensely.

There is one fact that cannot be blurred – the South African government’s ‘neutrality’ on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. If the situation for potential financial aid is that desperate so as to not to condemn the neocolonial expansionism, by force, led by a war criminal, the mess is even worse than it appears to be.

This is an edited version of a post on Jay H. Ell’s website I Write What I Like.

FEATURED IMAGE: President Vladimir Putin and President Cyril Ramaphosa at the BRICS sujmmit held in Johannesburg in 2018.


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