To South Africa Critics

Freedom of expression in post-apartheid South Africa is one of the things that thousands fought, died, or otherwise made sacrifices for during the liberation struggle. These days, most people in South Africa can say whatever they like — now that it’s safe to do so. It’s ironic, however, that certain individuals who were conspicuously silent during the struggle, are today using their freedom of expression to lash out at the very same people who made such freedom possible.

In their determination to be miserable, and in their choice of safe targets, some academic and other critics of the SA Government have developed a curious capacity to wallow in the bad news while ignoring today’s better tidings. South African political discourse is thus reduced to a series of mantras, all of them immune to evidence. The favourite mantra seems to be the government’s “failure to deliver”, a lament that plays directly into the hands of rightwingers. It takes no account of the million-and-a-half families moved from huts and shacks to better housing, or of free medical care and primary education to children, or of the rising child grants, or the equalisation of pensions, or of the provision of clean water, some of it free, or of other kinds of help to the poor, which undreamed of during the dark years of apartheid fascism.

Still, there continues to be much theoretical bickering and criticism of the ANC in some academic and civil society circles determined to construct an edifice of misery on a foundation of the government’s “neo-liberal” policies. What the prophets of doom are saying, in effect, is distinctly racist in character. They are saying African voters are so stupid and backward that they’ve deliberately voted for an inept  government that will not act in their best interests.

Some critics also fail to recognise that South Africa’s historical realities are far more complex than off-the-shelf, dogmatic terms such as “neo-liberalism” are capable of capturing. The reasons for a particular set of circumstances need not necessarily lie in one single cause, but it is important to remember that with the demise of apartheid, South Africa found itself locked into a post-Cold War world-historical system fundamentally hostile to its socialist aspirations. It was and continues to be a global system concentrated around monopoly capital and increasing United States hegemony, and the subversion of true democracy, with no opposing force after the dismantling of the Soviet bloc.

As former president Nelson Mandela recently told the South African parliament: “We see how the powerful countries — all of them ‘democracies’ — manipulate multilateral bodies to the great disadvantage and suffering of the poorer developing nations.” Mandela was referring in particular to the illegal, US-led invasion of Iraq.

Iraq, however, is just one case in which the collapse of the Soviet deterrent has made British and American military power more threatening as a foreign policy instrument against those who may be seen, even notionally, as a threat to strategic Western interests. Hence, at least in part, perhaps, the South African government’s abandonment of any plans to nationalise key foreign interests such as mining and banking.

History has provided many examples of how the West reacts to regional nationalisers of key Western assets. The best known instances are well documented. When Egypt nationalized the Suez canal in the 1950s there was swift and overwhelming military retaliation by Britain, France and Israel. When Iran nationalized its American-owned oil industry the Mosaddeq government was promptly overthrown at US instigation. Later examples include Britain’s intervention in Belize, and the US military intervention in Panama as well as America’s covert backing of surrogate forces and the CIA’s fuelling of “secret” wars in places like Angola, Nicaragua and El Salvador.

The CIA’s interventionist role in southern Africa is well documented. In the 1970s, for example, the CIA  joined hands with the South African intelligence community. According to former secret agent Martin Dolinchek, the American and South African secret services groomed and propped up the Inkhata Freedom Party (IFP). At the same time, a campaign of covert propaganda and disinformation was launched to discredit the ANC. By 1984, with the ANC conveniently banned from free political activity, the IFP was able to claim nearly one million members in more than 2,000 branches. This rose to 1.6 million in 3,000 branches in 1989, and today the figure of more than two million members is generally quoted by IFP officials, headed by a small band of white people who play a disproportionate role near the top of the party.
The IFP’s trade union arm, United Workers Union of South Africa, was formed in 1986, with one of its strongest supporters being the American labour federation, AFL-CIO, which has for nearly half a century been well known as a conduit for CIA money to anti-leftist groups. There is a large body of evidence about incidents in which violence was initiated by IFP members. They responsible for a third of all human rights violations reported to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

It is against this background of real and potential conflict, and covert foreign intervention, that the ANC-led government should be judged. Trade-offs in the face of clear and present dangers are part and parcel of modern-day politics. Never mind such terms as “neo-liberalism”, or facile critiques about “failures to deliver”. More usefully productive might be an enhanced quality of political analysis and historical interpretation on the part of some critics and commentators. No amount of academic or self-styled “far-left” theoretical wailing is otherwise likely to have any effect on reality and and on established fact. A possible civil war has been averted, and the ANC continues to receive overwhelming majority support. This support has repeatedly and convincingly been demonstrated in successive democratic elections judged free and fair by observers, including the country’s most recent election in April 2004.

 Stan Winer is the author of  If Truth Be Told: Secrecy and subversion in an age turned unheroic. Buy this book on-line from

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