The central problem of writing about South Africa is that it is almost impossible to explain the country's slow-motion catastrophe in terms that make sense to foreigners. Consider these headlines, culled from just a fortnight's newspapers. Johannesburg's City Press reports that the head of the ruling party's Political School—set up to nurture "revolutionary morality" among thieving civil servants—is declining to explain how he has come to own two new BMWs and a Maserati. South Africa's Sunday Times alleges rampant corruption in the administration of Northern Cape province. The same paper reports new attempts to silence a trade-union leader who likens the nation's rulers to "hyenas" who feed off the poor. Elsewhere, we have FAILED BILLION-DOLLAR EDUCATION PROGRAM; WHISTLE-BLOWER MURDERED; WIFE OF NIA CHIEF ON TRIAL FOR SMUGGLING COCAINE, the NIA being our CIA. And finally, the story of the hour: The National Prosecuting Authority has abandoned its investigation into the whereabouts of $130 million in bribes generated by South Africa's notorious 1990s arms deal.
In the West, scandals of this magnitude would topple governments. Here, they are almost meaningless. Most will never be pursued or resolved satisfactorily. The electorate will not stand up and scream, "Enough!" In many cases, the alleged culprits won't even be investigated, and the incompetent bureaucrats who presided over the education fiasco will not be fired. In a week or two, these stories will be blown off the front pages by equally hair-raising scandals, most of which will also just fade away. It's been like this for years, and there comes a time when you stop paying attention lest the drumbeat of bad news drive you mad.
Against this backdrop, I didn't exactly welcome the arrival of R. W. Johnson's latest tome, because I knew it would further aggravate my dyspepsia. Johnson is an Oxford politics don who spent his teens in South Africa, hanging around the fringes of the Communist Party and fleeing into exile circa 1964, when the security police started asking uncomfortable questions. Back then, he was a slender young idealist. The Johnson who returned to live here in 1995 was a portly, Churchillian figure, armored with the sort of absolute self-assurance one associates with the British establishment. Decades of exile had turned him into a liberal in the stern nineteenth-century British tradition, meaning that he stood for free markets, free speech, and constitutional democracy and against the silly buggery of his former comrades in the socialist movement. Johnson was also a gifted writer, or perhaps I should say orator; essays and articles just rolled off his tongue and into a tape recorder, ready for transcription by his assistant. The resulting prose was imperious in tone and consistently offensive to the leftish journalists and academics who sought to control perceptions of Nelson Mandela and his Rainbow Nation. Johnson dismissed their output as "ideological wilfulness or sheer pretence." They retaliated by branding him a racist.
In South Africa, in the mid-1990s, the term racist was indiscriminately applied to almost all critics of Mandela's fledgling government. By this definition, Johnson was a very bad racist indeed. He described one of Mandela's cabinet appointees as "utterly incompetent," another as "disastrous," queried the moral caliber of influential African National Congress donors, and warned that corruption was threatening to turn into a "Gadarene stampede" as the Spartan revolutionaries of yore eased into the business of governing Africa's richest country. As a result, his work was effectively banned here—not by the government, but by editors who felt Johnson was undermining a noble experiment in racial reconciliation.
Such considerations didn't apply in London, where the editors of the Sunday Times and the London Review of Books prized Johnson's dispatches and published everything he sent them. Irked by the ex-don's growing influence, left-liberals took to poring over his scribblings in search of errors and thought crimes. In 1998 or thereabouts, Mandela himself sent an emissary to Fleet Street to lay the results before British editors and demand that Johnson be silenced. The central charge was, of course, racism. Over the years, the ex-don's teeming enemies have indeed found two plausible outbreaks of the dread disease in Johnson's vast output. One was a passing reference to the manner in which "our enterprising Asian countrymen" had captured the ears of important ANC leaders. The other was a blog entry that drew a clumsy comparison between the desperate baboons who raid Cape Town's garbage bins and the desperate economic refugees flooding into South Africa from failed states north of our borders. The resulting disputes are worth Googling, but they tend to obscure the central truth about Johnson: His early skepticism about the ruling party has been thunderously vindicated by the course of events.
The leaders of South Africa: From left, Jacob Zuma, Nelson Mandela, and Thabo Mbeki, 2008.
Five years ago, such a statement would have got me lynched in polite South African society, but things have lately come to a pass where the disillusion is so deep that we might just be ready to acknowledge the painful truths embodied in South Africa's Brave New World , Johnson's magisterial history of the country in the first fourteen years of its liberation (1994–2008). This is a big book in every sense, 720 pages long and reminiscent in its tone and scope of the work of his (unrelated) namesake Paul Johnson, author of A History of the Jews and The Birth of the Modern . Both Johnsons are firmly opinionated and intolerant of messy ambiguity. Both have the ability to render the dreariest subject readable by clever deployment of anecdote and broad generalization. And both are inclined to annihilate those they regard as fools.
I'd hesitate to include Mandela in this category, because Johnson, despite his criticisms, admires the old man's courage and praises his attempts to unite a nation divided by yodeling chasms of race and class. He also has a soft spot for the current state president, Jacob Zuma, the colorful Zulu polygamist who was elected in 2009. (Zuma and Johnson are of an age and share a nostalgia for the lush subtropical lowlands of Natal, where both spent their boyhoods.) Johnson's real target in these pages is Thabo Mbeki, the power behind Mandela's throne from 1994 to 1999, and state president in his own right for the nine years thereafter. In Johnson's estimation, Mbeki's rule was ruinous in every sense.
Johnson sees Mbeki as a prince of darkness, simultaneously beset by crippling insecurities and overweening arrogance. The former rendered him paranoid, prone to imagining enemies where none existed and pathologically sensitive to criticism. The latter caused him to view himself as Africa's savior, an architect of grandiose foreign-policy projects that consumed most of his energy while his own country began to show worrying signs of a slide into classically African dysfunctionality. Johnson describes the symptoms thus:
By 1996, he'd sidelined Cyril Ramaphosa and Tokyo Sexwale, key rivals in the struggle for leadership of the ruling party. In 1998, he picked off Matthews Phosa, a lawyer who served as premier of Mpumalanga, one of South Africa's most beautiful and unspoiled provinces. Shortly after coming to power, Phosa discovered that members of his cabinet were on the brink of concluding a secret deal with a Dubai-based hotel group that was willing to pay three billion dollars for exclusive development rights in the province's game parks. The politicians were planning to collect lavish commissions, but Phosa exposed their scheme and ordered a crackdown. Instead of backing him, Mbeki sided with the miscreants, reversing their suspensions and eventually promoting two to positions of greater power. Phosa, on the other hand, was driven into the political wilderness. His crime? He was intelligent, charismatic, and popular with the party's rank and file. As such, he was a threat to Mbeki and had to go.
As Johnson says, episodes like this—and there were many—sent an unfortunate message to ANC politicians and civil servants: Mbeki was willing to overlook sins of venality in return for political support. What made this dangerous is that Mbeki, once he became president, commanded a giant patronage machine bent on placing all South African institutions under the control of loyal ANC cadres. In theory, this implied loyalty to the party or to "the revolution." In practice, it meant loyalty to Mbeki. Those who obeyed this unspoken rule were protected. Those who didn't found themselves in trouble.
In the former category, we find figures like Dr. Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, the tragically incompetent health minister who made South Africa a laughing stock with her bizarre proclamations about alternative cures for aids—"garlic, olive, beetroot, and the African potato"—in the 1999–2003 period. In the latter, we find Zuma, Mbeki's deputy, who pocketed about two hundred thousand dollars in payments that allegedly originated from a French arms manufacturer. This was a mere thousandth of the total paid out in arms-related bribes, but Zuma dared to imagine that he might topple Mbeki and step into his shoes and was thus singled out for prosecution. Those who hogged the balance presented no threat and proved untouchable.
Hand in hand: South Africa's Thabo Mbeki (left) visits Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, 2008.
Interestingly, Johnson provides no evidence that Mbeki was personally corrupt. He was an otherworldly figure, bookish and intellectual, with his eyes on a prize far higher than filthy lucre. Indeed, he seemed to live in a fantasy in which he starred as the eminent statesman, forever stepping off the presidential jet and striding up the red carpet into a forest of microphones to deliver a speech whose intellectual power caused adoring throngs to weep, cheer, and kiss his feet. The theme of these speeches—and again, there were many—was Africa's sufferings at the hands of colonialists and imperialists, and the appalling condescension with which the continent was presently viewed by whites everywhere. In Mbeki's estimation, this perception—or rather, misperception—was the root of Africa's problems. And the cure was the African Renaissance, his project to remake Africa's image.
In theory, the Renaissance project was a sort of moral-regeneration campaign, aimed at putting an end to the postcolonial tradition of one-man rule by authoritarian kleptocrats. But Mbeki could never say this too directly for fear of confirming the very perceptions he was trying to eradicate. He was also deeply concerned about the dignity of African leaders, starting with himself, which meant that any criticism had to be phrased in terms so oblique and flowery as to be meaningless. Mbeki's greatest sins, writes Johnson, were grandiosity and bombast: "He wanted to lead Africa, to revolutionize it . . . to speak for the South—and to be regarded as a major intellectual. These were absurdly ambitious goals, driven by arrogance, based on little that was real. . . . There was no leadership because there was no humility and no realism."
This might strike you as an exceptionally harsh thing to say about a leader who was, after all, making the correct noises about democracy and human rights. But Johnson is right. Mbeki never had much to say about nearby Angola, where the entire economy is controlled by the ruling dos Santos family, or about neighboring Mozambique, where the head of state is simultaneously the nation's richest man. He couldn't even bring himself to criticize Robert Mugabe, the cocky little martinet who reduced neighboring Zimbabwe to a basket case.