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REVIEW: South Africa's Brave New World, by R.W. Johnson
South Africa’s Brave New World: The Beloved Country Since The End Of Apartheid, R.W. Johnson (Overlook Press, 2009).
The whole world had come to Pretoria to see the inauguration of Nelson Mandela as the first democratically elected South African President. It was the greatest assemblage of heads of state since John F. Kennedy’s funeral… But it was the flight of nine SAAF [South African Air Force] Mirages overhead, dipping their wings in salute, which brought tears to many eyes. It said so many things: the acceptance of, indeed, the deference to, Mandela by the white establishment, the acknowledgement that he was fully President, able to command all the levers of power — and, for many black people in the crowd, it meant that for the first time the Mirages’ awesome power and white pilots were on their side, part of the same nation… All the products of that white power, including South Africa’s sophisticated economy and infrastructure, were being handed over intact.
A little over a decade later and that same South African Air Force was no longer able to fly. It wasn’t for lack of planes: new ones were procured from European arms manufacturers in an astonishingly expensive and legendarily corrupt deal. But once purchased the planes rotted from lack of maintenance and languished in hangers for lack of anybody able to fly them. Most of the qualified pilots and technicians had been purged, and most of the remainder had resigned. The air force did technically still have pilots, after all it would be a bit embarrassing not to, but those pilots were chosen for patronage reasons and didn’t technically have any idea how to fly a fighter jet.
It isn’t just the air force. That whole “sophisticated economy and infrastructure” that got “handed over intact” now by and large no longer exists. Consider something as basic as running water: in 1994, South Africa had some of the most sophisticated water infrastructure on earth, with a whole system of dams, reservoirs, and long-distance inter-basin conduits working together to conquer the geographical challenges of having several major cities and mining centers located on an arid plateau. All of this water was safe, drinkable, and actually came out of the tap when you turned the handle. This picture was marred of course by poor delivery to black rural communities and squatter camps, but in the early 90s the government was making rapid progress towards serving more of those people too.
Like the air force, that water system is now basically non-functional. It’s estimated that something like 10 million people no longer have reliable access to running water. When the water does run, it’s frequently filthy and contaminated with human sewage. South Africa had its first urban cholera outbreak in the year 2000, and they are now a regular occurrence. Again, like the air force, this isn’t for lack of money or effort. The state has spent billions on trying to fix the water problems, and the government’s water bureaucracy has tripled in size since 1994. Something else has gone wrong.
Neither of these examples is cherry-picked. Ask about literally any of the necessities for human life, and the picture is the same: basically first-world quality under the apartheid Nationalist government, and basically post-apocalyptic today. The electric grid is failing, with rolling blackouts consuming the country on a daily basis. The rail network, once one of the finest on earth, is now so degraded that mines in the North of the country prefer to truck their products overland to ports in Mozambique rather than risk the rail journey to Durban. The medical system was once the jewel of Africa1 and now teeters on the brink of collapse, with qualified doctors and nurses fleeing the country in droves. As for education, one South African author notes: “When Anthony Sampson’s authorized biography of Mandela appeared one of its more embarrassing asides was that all the educational institutions which had nourished Mandela had since collapsed. A Mandela could be produced in colonial times, but no longer.”
Had enough yet? At last count between a third and a half of the population is unemployed. Public order is non-existent outside gated communities and tourist areas patrolled by private security. The murder rate in South Africa exceeds that of many active war zones. Every major city in South Africa is among the most dangerous cities on earth, and the countryside is much worse than the cities. The reported cases of rape alone establish South Africa as the worst country on earth for rape, and the vast majority of cases are likely unreported, since the police have essentially stopped prosecuting this crime.
Something has gone very wrong. What happened? That’s the subject of this book by R.W. Johnson, an ultra-detailed examination of the 10 or so years following the end of apartheid in 1994. Johnson is the right guy to write this book — he’s lived in South Africa since the 1960s, and was active in the movement against apartheid from its earliest days, so he personally knows most of the players who’ve been running the country. And now he has the bittersweet task of writing a book documenting how what happened is “just what white racists predicted and what white radicals like myself scorned.”
So what actually did happen? Well, one underappreciated fact is that the country was handed over to Leninists. Before reading this book, I think I had in the back of my mind some vague sense, probably absorbed from racist Twitter accounts, that Nelson Mandela had some sort of communist affiliation, but the reality is so much worse than I’d imagined and very curiously unpublicized. Mandela’s African National Congress was a straightforwardly revolutionary communist party during their decades of exile, with leaders constantly flying to the Soviet Union and to East Germany to be wined and dined, and to get lessons on governance from the Stasi.
Those lessons were enthusiastically put into practice — the ANC set up a network of death camps in Angola at which traitors and enemies and just plain inconvenient people were worked or tortured to death. They also founded a paramilitary terrorist army called uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) that waged a brutal dirty war, supposedly against the apartheid government but actually against anybody they didn't like. The vast majority of the victims of MK were black people who happened not to support the ANC, especially Zulus in their tribal homeland in what’s now KwaZulu-Natal province, who were subjected to regular massacres in the 80s and early 90s.
The ANC and the MK had a special hatred for the Zulus. In part, because the ANC’s leadership was disproportionately Xhosa, and their ancestors had suffered during King Shaka’s wars of expansion in the 19th century. But this ancient ethnic grudge wasn’t the fundamental problem, and indeed it was later papered over. The real problem was that the Zulus dared to engage in political organization outside the ANC and its subsidiary, the South African Communist Party (SACP). The preferred Zulu political vehicle was the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), which was associated with the Zulu monarchy and the traditional amakhosi (chieftains). This made it an independent base of power within black South Africa, and a competing claim on the loyalty of Zulu citizens. The ANC considered this situation unacceptable.
Like many avowedly communist organizations, the ANC was allergic to political competition of any sort. Internally, the party practiced an especially harsh form of democratic centralism — most policy decisions were made by a tiny and incestuous central committee, and members were expected to be totally submissive in the face of party discipline. This extended even to the point of party permission being necessary for senior members to marry. Externally, the party had an entitled attitude common to successful revolutionary organizations from North Korea to Albania — they were the incarnation of the aspirations of the South African people and the vanguard of their brilliant future, so all other political organizations were ipso facto illegitimate. Can you guess what happened when these people were handed power?
In the first general election after the end of apartheid, the ANC won a strong majority with around 60% of the vote in the country as a whole. Most parties would be delighted that they’d won a majority in the first election since they’d stopped being banned, but the ANC is not most parties. Rather than being delighted, they were infuriated not to have won a supermajority that would allow them to modify the constitution at will, and even more infuriated that they did not control provincial governments in every single province. Two in particular had eluded them: the Western Cape with its significant non-African and mixed-race populations, and the Zulu heartland of KwaZulu-Natal, where the IFP maintained a tenuous hold.
The ANC responded to this unacceptable situation by launching a campaign to subvert or destroy every independent institution in South Africa, culminating in a savage attack on the country’s judiciary. Beyond just purging independent-minded judges, the ANC also forced the Constitutional Court to humiliate itself by issuing two back-to-back contradictory judgements espousing directly opposite legal principles, with the only difference in the cases being which position benefited the ANC’s electoral prospects.
I’ve mentioned a few times the ANC’s entitlement, which may seem like a weird word in this context, but I don’t know how else to describe the party’s possessiveness and jealousy over “their” voters. Any attempt to campaign amidst or win over the ANC’s traditional base of support in Xhosa-speaking townships and shantytowns resulted in outbursts of insane violence, and government crackdowns against whoever had the temerity to try their hand at politics. Remember when Donald Trump joked about shooting somebody on 5th Avenue? ANC candidates didn’t just joke about it:
…in the Khayelitsha squatter settlement, outside Cape Town… the DA [Democratic Alliance, an opposition political party] had made inroads thanks to the tireless activism of township workers fed up with the warlord-rule of local ANC councillors… One ANC councillor, De Putch Elise, held a meeting where his DA opponents attempted to speak about Elise’s alleged abuse of his housing allocation powers to punish DA supporters. Elise drew a gun and in full view of the crowd shot six of the DA activists, wounding five and killing one… the police declined to lay charges against Elise.
Johnson interviews another black DA activist whose older son is murdered to send her a message, then her younger son, still a teenager, is arrested and beaten unconscious, then an ANC mob burns down her house and loots all her possessions. She ends the interview by telling Johnson: “we were much better off under apartheid,” which is a heck of a thing for a black woman to say, and remember this is before the power outages, the water shutoffs, the collapse of the medical system, and the rapid descent into anarchy.
Needless to say, this is not the story that Western media was telling me about South Africa in the late 90s. Rather they were focused on the dashing and heroic figure of Nelson Mandela. Speaking of which, where exactly was Mandela while all this was going on? Flying around Europe and America getting fêted by celebrities, mostly, and getting sidelined by his much nastier but more effective comrades, including his wife (soon to be ex-wife) Winnie.2 Mandela may have been president, but he barely had control over his own cabinet, let alone the country. As one of his comrades from the Robben Island prison put it: “there is something very simple and childlike about him. His moral authority, the strength of his principles and his generosity of spirit are all derived from that simplicity. But he will be easily manipulated by those who are quicker, more subtle, and more sophisticated.”
The impression Johnson gives is very much that of a man in way over his head, and when Mandela did try to assert himself, the results were usually buffoonish:
He declared that the solution to continuing violence in KwaZulu-Natal was for everyone to join the ANC… In 1995 he told a May Day rally that if the IFP continued to resist the ANC he would cut off all funding to KwaZulu-Natal, the most populous province. This was a completely unconstitutional threat which had to be quickly retracted. Similarly, when he dismissed Winnie from government he failed to read the constitution and thus had to reappoint her and later dismiss her again. Visiting Tanzania, he announced that: “We are going to sideline and even crush all dissident forces in our country.”
Mandela also made a lot of genuinely very big-hearted speeches pitching a “rainbow nation” vision of South Africa and begging whites not to flee the country, but every time the interests of justice conflicted with those of the ANC, he showed himself to be a party man first and foremost. The most revolting examples of this are two incidents in which independent prosecutors were investigating ANC atrocities (in one case a massacre of dozens of protestors, the other case an incident where some Zulus were kept in a cage inside a local ANC party HQ and tortured for months), and Mandela staked the full power of his moral authority on blocking the inquiries. In the case of the massacre, Mandela went so far as to declare that he had ordered the gunmen to shoot, which everybody knew to be a lie, but which meant that any attempt to pursue the coverup would mean taking down Mandela too. Nobody had the stomach to face that prospect, so the prosecutors dropped the case.
If Mandela was a figurehead, then who was really in charge? The answer is the main character of this book: Thabo Mbeki, the deputy president. Mbeki is a villain of almost Shakespearean proportions — paranoid, controlling, obsessive, bad with crowds yet charming in person. Even before Mandela was out of prison, he was already angling for the number two spot, shaping the narrative, quietly interposing himself between the charismatic Nobel peace prize winner and the true levers of power.
This was bad news for South Africa, because in contrast to Mandela’s “rainbow nation” optimism, Mbeki was a committed black nationalist who immediately set about purging whites from the government and looting white wealth, with little regard for whether this might kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. Johnson ascribes a psychological motivation to all this, asserting that Mbeki suffered from a crushing inferiority complex vis-a-vis the white elites, and quoting several truly bizarre and unhinged public speeches in support of his diagnosis. A more prosaic explanation would just be that like many tyrants in the making, Mbeki sought to create and elevate “new men,” men who owed him everything and whose loyalty could thereby be assured.
Whatever the case, Mbeki quickly began to insist that South Africa’s military, corporations, and government agencies bring their racial proportions into exact alignment with the demographic breakdown of the country as a whole. But as Johnson points out, this kind of affirmative action has very different effects in a country like South Africa where 75% of the population is eligible than it does in a country like the United States where only 13% of the population gets a boost. Crudely, an organization can cope with a small percentage of its staff being underqualified, or even dead weight. Sinecures are found for these people, roles where they look important but can’t do too much harm. The overall drag on efficiency is manageable, especially if every other company is working under the same constraints.
Things look very different when political considerations force the majority of an organization to be underqualified (and there are simply not very many qualified or educated black South Africans today, and there were even fewer when these rules went into effect). A shock on that scale can lead to a total breakdown in function, and indeed this is precisely what happened to one government agency after another. Johnson notes that this issue, and particularly its effects on service provision to the rural poor, pit two constituencies against each other which many have tried to conflate, but are actually quite distinct. The immiserated black lower class (which the ANC purported to represent) didn’t benefit at all from affirmative action because they weren’t eligible for government jobs anyway, and they vastly preferred to have the whites running the water system if it meant their kids didn’t get cholera. The people actually benefited by Mbeki’s affirmative action policies were the wealthy and upwardly-mobile black urban bourgeoisie, a tiny minority of the country, but one that formed the core of Mbeki’s support.
That same small group of educated and well-connected black professionals was also the major beneficiary of Mbeki’s other signature economic policy: Black Economic Empowerment (BEE). Oversimplifying a bit, BEE was a program in which South African corporations were bullied or threatened into selling some or all of their shares at favorable prices to politically-connected black elites, who generally returned the favor by looting the company’s assets or otherwise running it into the ground (note that this is not the description you will find on Wikipedia). The whole thing was so astoundingly, revoltingly corrupt that even the ANC has had to back off and admit in the face of criticism from the left that something went wrong here.
What made BEE so “successful” is that it was actually far more consensual than you might have guessed from that description. In many cases, the white former owners of these corporations were looking around at the direction of the country and trying to find any possible excuse to unload their assets and get their money out. The trouble was that it was difficult to do that without seeming racist, because obviously racism was the only reason anybody could have doubts about the wisdom of the ANC. The genius of BEE is that it allowed these white elites to perform massive capital flight while simultaneously framing it as a grand anti-racist gesture and a mark of their confidence in the future of the country.
This is one particular instance of a more general phenomenon, which is that at this stage pretty much everybody was pretending that things were going great in South Africa, when things were clearly not, in fact, going great. But this was the late 90s and early 00s, the establishment media had a much tighter hold on information than it does today, and so long as nobody had an interest in the story getting out, it wasn’t going to get out. Everybody who mattered in South Africa wanted the story to be that the end of apartheid had resulted in a peaceful and harmonious society, and everybody outside South Africa who’d spent decades supporting and fundraising for the ANC wanted this to be the story too.
There were two things that finally caused the dam to break and muted criticism of the South African regime to start appearing in the international press: the first was the situation in Zimbabwe. Like South Africa, Zimbabwe had recently ended decades of white minority rule, but in Zimbabwe things went way more wrong, way more quickly. Robert Mugabe, the incumbent president of Zimbabwe, was running in a contested election, and decided to ensure his victory with a campaign of mass murder and torture which in turn triggered a famine and a refugee crisis.
All of this brought tons of international condemnation onto the Zimbabwean regime, and a lot of countries looking for ways to pressure it to stop the atrocities. The glaring exception was Mbeki’s South Africa, which staunchly defended Zimbabwe for years as the killing and the starvation just kept ratcheting up. It’s unclear why they did this, beyond the ANC and ZANU-PF (the Zimbabwean ruling party) having a certain ideological and familial kinship, both being post-colonialist revolutionary parties that had overthrown white minority rule. But whatever the reason, this was the straw that finally caused Western politicians and celebrities to wake up a little bit and realize that South Africa was now ruled by thugs.
The second, even more catastrophic event that caused the South African government to lose the sheen of respectability was the AIDS epidemic and their response to it. The story of how Mbeki buried his head in the sand, embraced quack theories on the causes of AIDS, and condemned hundreds of thousands of people to avoidable deaths is well known at this point, but Johnson’s book is full of grimly hysterical details that turn the whole story into the darkest comedy you’ve ever seen.
For example: I had no idea that Mbeki was so ahead of his time in outsourcing his opinions to schizopoasters on the internet. According to his confidantes, at the height of the crisis the president was frequently staying up all night interacting pseudonymously with other cranks on conspiracy-minded forums (an important cautionary tale for all those… umm… friends of mine who enjoy dabbling in a conspiracy forum or two).3 These views were then laundered through a succession of bumbling and imbecilic health ministers such as Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma4 or Mantombazana Tshabalala-Msimang who gave surreal press conferences extolling the healing powers of “Africanist” remedies such as potions made from garlic, beetroot, and potato.
Actually, the potions were a step up in some respects, the original recommendation from the South African government was that AIDS patients should consume “Virodene,” a toxic industrial solvent marketed by a husband-wife con-artist duo named Olga and Siegfried Visser. Later documents came to light revealing large and inexplicable money transfers between the Vissers and Tshabalala-Msiming. The Vissers then established a secret lab in Tanzania where they experimented on unsuspecting human subjects, engaged in bizarre sexual antics, and performed cryonics experiments on corpses. Despite this busy schedule, they also produced a constant stream of confidential memos on AIDS policy that were avidly consumed by Mbeki.
The horror of it all is that by this point there were very good drugs that could massively cut the risk of mother-child HIV transmission and somewhat reduced the odds of contracting the virus after a traumatic sexual encounter. There were a lot of traumatic sexual encounters. A contemporaneous survey found that around 60 percent of South Africans believed that forcing sex on somebody was not necessarily violence, and a common “Africanist” belief was that sex with a virgin could cure AIDS, all of which led to extreme levels of child rape. The government then did everything in its power to prevent the victims of these rapes from accessing drugs that could stave off a deadly disease. At first the excuse was that they were too expensive, then when the drug companies called that bluff and offered the drugs for free, it became that they caused “mutations.”
Mbeki’s presidency ended in disaster and humiliation, but it paved the way for one of the most colorful politicians alive today: Jacob Zuma. The most important thing for Americans to understand is that Zuma is basically a left-wing and South African version of Donald Trump. He is colorful, bombastic, and over-the-top. He has a tendency to break into song at political rallies and church services. He says outrageous and inappropriate things. He is beloved by the far left and grudgingly admired by the far right and fanatically hated by all the bien-pensants in the center. He was viciously persecuted by the South African deep state,5 and his accession to the presidency caused a bitter #NeverZuma faction to break off the ANC and start another party (incredibly this party is called “COPE”). Finally, he is an out and proud polygamist and brags openly about his corruption, and people love this because they know every politician is doing it, he’s just honest about it.
The ANC bosses did not like Zuma. For decades the ANC had been dominated by elite, western-educated, communist Xhosas, but Zuma was none of those things. Zuma came from nothing — his mother was a janitor and his father died when he was 3. Zuma was so illiterate and uncultured that Mbeki tapped him to be deputy president on the theory that it would keep his own position secure, since nobody would ever let Zuma be president (yeah this backfired spectacularly). Most shocking of all, Zuma was a Zulu. He danced in a loincloth and leopard skin with the Zulu king at the Shaka festival. The idea of this savage wildman becoming president was just beyond the pale. Something had to be done to stop him.
The last chance to stop Zuma was a credible-seeming rape accusation from a family friend. The ANC pounced on this, and initiated a high-profile criminal trial. This incensed Zuma’s supporters, who insisted that the prosecution was politically motivated (given that over the past decade the ANC had all but stopped prosecuting rape cases in society more broadly, they may have had a point). The trial was a total debacle. Countless thousands of young activists showed up outside the courtroom wearing t-shirts with slogans like “One hundred percent Zuluboy,” “Burn the bitch,” and “Zuma was raped.” When summoned to the witness stand, the president-to-be performed war dances and led the crowds in song. The prosecution collapsed after the accuser's story was found to be inconsistent on numerous points, and a triumphant Zuma rode the backlash all the way to the presidency.
There’s another way Jacob Zuma is like Donald Trump: the corrupt and failed ruling classes of both South Africa and the United States find it convenient to blame these men for everything that has gone wrong in their countries ever since. In fact in Zuma’s case, history has begun to be rewritten so that he can be blamed for things that happened before he became president. Many of the South Africans I’ve spoken to will confidently assert that some problem (say, the power outages) is all due to Zuma. When I gently point out that those outages began in 1998 and innocently ask who was president then, they shut down entirely. Zuma is the scapegoat for the failings of an entire country, and making him the sole source of all evil plays the important social role of allowing everybody to pretend that things were great until he showed up (things were not great). In a similar vein, I will not be shocked if decades from now, Donald Trump is blamed for starting the fentanyl epidemic.
This isn’t the only unreality that South Africans inhabit. I was recently in the country myself, and as rolling blackouts convulsed the city I was in, forcing hospitals onto generator power and preventing fuel deliveries to the airport, a South African liberal earnestly explained to me that all this just meant they were ahead of the rest of the world in the energy transition, and would soon have a resilient grid. This may be the most important takeaway from the fall of South Africa — we are wired always to believe that a return to normalcy is around the corner. No matter how bad things get in your country, no matter how much evidence piles up that you are riding into extreme danger, part of you is still going to insist that things are fine. And for a large number of people, that part means that they will stick around until it’s too late. I once counseled cultivating paranoia, but even just cultivating awareness places you ahead of many people.
Unfortunately you can’t rely on official sources to provide you that awareness. From the end of apartheid through Mbeki’s disastrous response to AIDS, the establishment media and state organs of the West were in total lockstep denial that anything untoward was going on in South Africa. There was a flurry of mild tut-tutting as the bodies piled up both from AIDS and from the Zimbabwean massacres, and then the country more or less dropped off the front page again. In just the past year, South Africa has been wracked by mass riots, seen the rise of a party that out-flanks the ANC from the left while making edgy jokes about white genocide, and had most of its infrastructure enter the final phases of disintegration. How many newspaper articles have you read about one of the world’s largest countries, and formerly one of the world’s most advanced ones, now approaching the status of a failed state? It isn’t because they don’t know. They know. They just don’t want to tell you about it.
The first ever heart transplant was conducted in Cape Town in 1967.
Winnie Mandela was a piece of work. She and her personal bodyguards established a reign of terror over some of the suburbs of Johannesburg, pioneering the practice of “necklacing” — sticking people in car tires doused with gasoline and then burning them alive. It’s also pretty likely that she directly ordered the abduction, torture, and murder of children. After her husband became president, she set a new bar for financial corruption so lurid it even made South Africans gasp.
Imagine discovering that the guy on your BroScience discord named “@XhosaGod420” turned out to be the President of South Africa.
Yes, she was married to Jacob Zuma at one point. Another thing I hadn’t realized about the ANC is how incredibly incestuous it was — at times it seems like every South African politician has been married to every other one. And Jacob Zuma, naturally, has been married to all of them.
The lowest thing the secret police ever did to Zuma was interfere in his love life. For his second or third concurrent marriage, Zuma was suitor to the princess of Swaziland. For a poor boy who’d grown up barefoot in the slums, to marry a descendant of the great King Mswati would have been a crowning triumph of his life, and it seems Zuma was quite taken with the girl in her own right as well. Alas, as he was trying to scrape together the royal lobola (bride-price) of a hundred cattle, the police froze all his accounts and placed his patrons under investigation. The engagement collapsed in the most shameful manner, and the queen mother ordered her daughter never to have anything to do with Zuma again.