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 ANC.
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 international capital."
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.
First published the Mail & Guardian, Johannesburg