How long will South Africa Survive?

R W Johnson

by Hannes Wessels


Anyone seriously interested in how we came to be where we are in South Africa and where we might be going, has to read this book. R.W. Johnson is especially well equipped to deal with this troubling subject. He’s a highly respected academic and a brilliant historian but possibly more importantly, he’s also a patriot who cares deeply about his country and is fearless in his dedication to the truth. For someone who once served proudly as a member of the ANC he is that rare specimen emerging from the liberal community who is quite prepared to acknowledge he might have once been misled and this makes his comments and insights even more credible and compelling. Add to all this the fact that he dared to predict the future in a similarly titled book in 1977 and was proved mostly right so there’s a good, albeit worrying, chance of him doing it again.

In a nutshell his basic premise is the country is too enmeshed in the global commercial and financial system to extricate itself and survive economically. This, he explains, was the real reason the Nationalist government hit a financial brick wall leading to drastic political change and the reason the ANC are about to do the same. Unless public spending is radically reduced and policies embraced to stimulate growth he expects the crunch to come in roughly two years and then the only way out will be an IMF bailout package which will come with bitter medicine that the ANC, like Robert Mugabe, will probably refuse to swallow and then the skids come off.

Johnson identifies the critical juncture in the late stages of Nationalist Party rule as 1985 when P.W. Botha failed to deliver on promised reforms leading to Chase Manhattan Bank leading the financial exodus that eventuated in sanctions and a pariah status that F.W. de Klerk recognised as unsustainable. It was this harsh reality that compelled him to make the dramatic transition to majority rule as demanded by the rest of the world. Interestingly, despite ANC claims to the contrary, the author rejects the idea that ‘the armed struggle’ was a factor in the capitulation of the white minority government. The SADF, he points out, had barely been tested and MK, the armed of the ANC wing was ‘on its knees’.

Johnson goes on to catalogue in nauseating detail the corrupt excesses of the ruling party and those blessed with party patronage which is almost literally a license to appropriate as much money as ‘the favoured’ require from the fiscus without any fear of being held accountable. What is clear is the ANC, like so many other ‘liberation regimes’ elsewhere on the continent is run by people who sincerely believe that the national wealth is theirs for the taking in settlement of the debt owed them for the ‘struggle years’ and anyone who suggests otherwise is ungrateful or racist or both. In blunt and somewhat bitter terms he writes “The criminalisation of the state, an acknowledged reality elsewhere on the continent, is now a going concern in South Africa.”

Just as the Nationalists were forced to their knees financially he expects the same fate to befall the ANC as the private sector turns away in the face of governance that is seen as anti-business. He points out the government repeatedly chooses ideologically based options that it knows will constrain growth but is happy to do so as long as those policies entrench them in power. He sees the government as being composed of ‘communists and fellow travellers’ who have no knowledge of basic economics but view business people as a ‘class enemy’ and this has put the country on a trajectory of lower growth, lower investment and higher unemployment along with increased state spending. Alarmingly, he asks if the ANC will tolerate capitalism enough to allow it to survive or will they simply allow collapse, “blame the goose and slaughter it”.

One familiar refrain that comes out of the mouths of many ‘liberal’ whites who are scrambling for excuses is that the ANC is only corrupt because they are simply picking up where the ‘nasty Nats’ left off and in fact only learned about looting from their predecessors. Johnson squashes this line of thinking. While conceding corruption was certainly a problem under Nationalist rule he points out that they ran the country competently and Calvinism ran deep in the veins of many of the Nationalist leaders. While they had many faults he insists they were not thieves. One striking example he cites is a reference to Prime Minister J.G. Strijdom who used to refund the state at the end of every month for postage stamps used on personal correspondence. One can therefore safely assume this man would not have been of a mind to spend over R200M of public money on his rural dwelling and maintain a costly harem of nine wives.

A salient point, but one seldom hears made, is that economic collapse in South Africa is going to be uglier and probably bloodier than similar collapses ‘up north’. This because in post-colonial Africa the economies that were wrecked were so much smaller and the option to revert to subsistence livelihoods was more available in most of those states. And for those who could not survive in their home countries many had the option to emigrate elsewhere, often in a southerly direction, and this reduced demand upon scarce resources. But this has now resulted in an enormous bubble at the bottom of Africa and the pressure is growing because of the continuing influx of foreigners and a growing population placing increasing collective demand on a shrinking trough. If and when this bubble bursts there is no place to go but at the throats of the other people competing for the same scarce resources. Add to this the hostility being shown to commercial farmers in South Africa which will almost certainly affect food security there is a real likelihood of eventual famine and that will almost certainly lead to violent upheaval.

At the moment there remains a chance the government will come to its senses and stave off disaster by reversing course. A recent statement from the SACP (South African Communist Party) reminding the poor majority that they cannot continue to believe that the ‘state will deliver’ is significant but the state of the nation remains very much in the balance and if the currency is any yardstick then it appears the financial soothsayers are seeing dark days ahead.

In a sad but telling reflection the author laments the fact that “… Zuma has fulfilled the predictive vision of right-wing whites who resisted majority rule on the grounds that it would bring authoritarianism, corruption and incompetence sufficient to ruin the country”. We can only hope those people may yet be confounded!




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