Fighting from Below

In this review of R.W. Johnson’s latest book on South Africa, Fighting for the Dream, David Seddon commends an analysis that criticises the ANC as having learned little or nothing from the experience of African nationalism elsewhere on the continent. Although Johnson adopts an approach that explicitly draws on the Marxist tradition, Seddon argues that the ‘top-down’ perspective he adopts does not allow him to see the ordinary people of South Africa as actors and agents in contemporary politics.

By David Seddon

Written and published before the elections of May 2019, this book is nevertheless timely and well-worth reading. Those familiar with R.W. Johnson’s writings on South Africa will know that he is a cynical and partisan observer of South African politics; a self-declared ‘liberal’, committed (as he explains in his brief Foreword) to keeping the liberal spirit and tradition alive in a country he clearly loves. In this analysis of the current situation in South Africa, however, he adopts an approach that explicitly draws on the Marxist tradition.

The book is written in an accessible style. It starts with ‘The Moment of Truth’, on 17 December 2017, when the ANC rejected Jacob Zuma as president in favour of Cyril Ramaphosa and the ‘old ANC exiles’ in favour of those who had stayed behind and fought apartheid on the home front. This, Johnson argues, was the last chance for South Africa to avoid chaos and disaster. ‘For any liberal, communist or African nationalist, indeed for any democrat’, he suggests, ‘the awful possibility now exists that majority rule – the goal so long fought for – will go down in history as a sad failure’. The stakes could hardly be higher. This book is about is ‘how it came to this’, ‘what are the real problems’, and what will be necessary to ‘fight for the dream’.

In Chapter Two, Johnson considers developments since May 1994 when Mandela took office as president but effectively became South Africa’s international representative, leaving the government of the country to an inexperienced team under Thabo Mbeki. It was during this period that the policies of affirmative action and cadre deployment, according to Johnson, led to the expansion of the public-services and the bureaucracy but to a decline in its quality and in its capacity to implement policy. This, combined with the policy of Black Empowerment which favoured the emerging black middle class, led to the creation of a bureaucratic bourgeoisie ‘with fateful implications for the ANC and for South Africa as a whole’.

Also, flawed policies were pursued. The initial Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) based on a Keynesian strategy of public expenditure (which Johnson suggests was never much more than ‘a vast, unbudgeted wish list’) was effectively junked, under pressure from the World Bank, in favour of a programme of Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR), which called for sharp cuts, budget-balancing and privatization, much as the IMF might have demanded had they been allowed to intervene. On the crucial subject of land reform, the government simply turned to the World Bank, which advised that a target of 30 per cent redistribution to black farmers might be reasonable, without any consideration of the practicality of this and its possible effect on the viability of the agricultural sector.

In education, a key area for the future of the country, experienced teachers were encouraged to retire, to be replaced by party cadres and less-skilled teachers, while a controversial outcomes-based education (OBE) system was introduced which eventually ‘collapsed in a shambles.’ Many educationalists, Johnson remarks, felt that OBE had done as much damage as Bantu Education under apartheid. In other sectors too, the search for campaign finance, the advancement of party cadres and private interests encouraged growing corruption. Johnson refers to arms deals in 1997 which effectively paid for the ANC’s election campaign in 1999, and to the establishment of the ANC’s own investment company, Chancellor House, which benefited from insider deals with state-owned enterprises (SOEs), as in the notable case of the local subsidiary of Hitachi and the $2-billion plan to build a power station for Eskom.

All of this took place under Mbeki, and on Mandela’s watch. But Jacob Zuma, whom Mandela had effectively supported again Mbeki, was to continue and deepen this corrupt and inefficient way of governing the country and running the economy after his coalition – of Zulu supporters, the Congress of South African Trades Unions (COSATU), the Communist Party (SACP) and the ANC Youth League (ANCYL) – had swept away Mbeki at the Polokwane Conference in 2007. Under Zuma, Johnson argues, the state came to resemble a mediaeval kingdom in which the monarch (Zuma) stood at the apex of a huge pyramid of patronage that provided the sinews of the state.

This was possible because the ANC, the bureaucratic bourgeoisie, the security services and the national prosecution service, under the effective control of Zuma henchmen, backed him. Under Zuma, corruption became all-pervasive. This resulted in an investment freeze as foreign and domestic investors recoiled from its toxic mix of corruption, lawlessness, state intervention and over-regulation, and a deepening economic crisis ensued. Zuma’s response was to blame white monopoly capital and to promise radical economic transformation, encouraging what Johnson calls ‘a populist downward spiral’.

This was further encouraged when Julius Malema, the leader of the ANCYL, who had backed Zuma but then turned against him, was suspended from the party for five years in February 2012 and went on to form the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) in July 2013. In May 2015, Johnson argued in his book, How Long Will South Africa Survive? that this downward spiral would see the South African economy down-rated to junk status by the credit-rating agencies within two years. In fact, within 23 months two agencies had already done just that, while a third hovered on the edge.

As the ANC approached its five-yearly conference in December 2017, Zuma was largely focused on staying out of jail for the 783 counts of fraud, corruption and money laundering with which he was charged, but courted the ANC faithful with an increasingly populist diet of policies, including that of land expropriation without compensation (EWC), a policy effectively stolen from the EFF. Ramaphosa, in the meanwhile, who had hitherto said remarkably little about the endemic corruption of the Zuma regime, now spoke openly of ‘state capture’ and of how Zuma had ‘hocked the state’ out to the Guptas (an India business dynasty) and other corrupt fixers in return for personal gain.

In Chapter Three, ‘The Contest’, Johnson examines the 2017 ANC presidential contest in some detail and explains how and why ‘the dominoes began to fall’ as they did for Jacob Zuma and his chosen successor, his ex-wife, Nkosazana Clarice Dlamini-Zuma. In Chapter Four, ‘The Conference’,  he reports on the twists and turns of the conference, including the debate over land reform, and the final outcome in which Ramaphosa was elected president of the ANC but declared his own acceptance of expropriation without compensation (EWC), even though he and his faction had earlier argued passionately against  it. The chapter ends with the eventual resignation of Zuma on 14 February 2018 and the ‘Ramaphoria’ that greeted the new president of the Republic.

Chapter Five (‘The New Struggle Begins’) starts ominously with the observation that ‘Ramaphoria did not last long’, but then goes on to document some of the early successes of Ramaphosa and his allies (including notably Pravin Gordhan – described by Johnson as ‘a true believer in the old ANC vision’) in purging corruption. Johnson notes, however, the continuing, indeed arguably the increased, relevance of divisions, factional, ethnic and geographical, within the ANC, particularly in KwaZulu-Natal – where Zuma continued to be ‘the pied piper’, but also in the Eastern Cape. He describes how Ramaphosa was obliged to manage growing divisions within the ANC over the control of land in Kwa-Zulu Natal by ‘traditional’ chiefs by effectively confirming their rights, and how badly this went down with the populists in the party.

Meanwhile, unemployment reached 9.6 million. Even old ANC stalwarts spoke of the movement having ‘just one last chance’. The damage was increasingly clear in the polls. A survey in September 2018 found that the EFF had doubled its support to 13 per cent, reducing the ANC to just 52 per cent, despite the fact that land reform EWC – previously a key EFF platform and now adopted by the ANC under Ramaphosa to draw their fire – was mentioned by only four per cent of black voters as a significant issue.

At this point, the book turns to a more fundamental analysis of the structural problems of the South African political economy. In a lengthy chapter (‘Why Did South Africa Copy Africa’s mistakes’?), Johnson argues that not only have the ANC’s nationalists learned little or nothing from the experience of African nationalism elsewhere on the continent or, by comparison, of the similarities and differences of their own struggle, but also that South Africa in fact shares many features of African nationalism elsewhere.

Crucially, they share the fact that they are ruled by a bureaucratic bourgeoisie or rather an elite status group, rather than ‘a real bourgeoisie’ that might have invested in sustainable economic and social development and tended instead to bleed the country dry for personal gain. He sets out the features of the ‘typical’ African nationalist state, pointing out that ideology was a misleading guide and that self-declared ‘socialist’ regimes were ‘just as likely to steal’ as avowedly capitalist regimes. Also, their foreign policies might be neutralist or even pro-Soviet during the Cold War, but in reality, their biggest foreign investors, trading partners and aid ‘donors’ were Western capitalist countries.

Johnson suggests that ‘this was, so to speak, the script, and the ANC followed it almost word for word’. There were, of course, differences – the South African economy and infrastructure was more developed than that of other African countries – but it was also the case that South Africa was more integrated into the global capitalist world economy and more open to it. However, it is the case, Johnson argues, that ‘what is happening in South Africa is essentially a repetition of what happened a generation and more ago in the rest of Africa’.

Apart from outright corruption, the new bureaucratic and political elite have sucked up money from the white, coloured and Indian minorities by redistributive taxation of every kind, while black capitalists have been protected and privileged. Traditional leaders in the former Bantustans have been brought back into the fold and effectively transformed into a wealthy landlord class, while their civil servants, soldiers and policemen have been incorporated into the corresponding national institutions. At the same time, their border industries have been simply deprived of their preferential tax rates and made to pay the same wage rates as in the big cities, as a result of which the life has been drained out of many smaller and more remote towns, and thousands of jobs in the private sector have been lost.

The Black Empowerment policies have tended to promote the development of a privileged black elite, far more interested in how many directors of large companies are black than in black advancement at lower levels. The vast majority of casual, informal and part-time workers, and the mass of the unemployed – which has reached almost 30 per cent and is far higher among young men – have been almost entirely neglected by government policy. The only real attempt at ‘redistribution’ towards the poor has been the system of social grants, paid for by the minority of tax-payers which keeps the majority of the poor from starving, but also serves as a break on social unrest.

Despite this, however, social unrest is pervasive: the level of public and private violence is high, with ill-treatment by the police and other security services (which have expanded significantly, like other sections of the bureaucracy) commonplace both in the streets and workplaces when there is social unrest. The massacre at Marikana during the mineworkers’ strikes in August 2012 is the most graphic and horrific example of this process.

Like other African nationalist states, South Africa under the ANC had a vision of development through industrialization; like them (for the most part) the vision was not realized. ANC policies have actually had the effect of de-industrializing the economy; on its watch, manufacturing has almost halved while mining – the jewel in the crown, one would have thought, of the South African economy – has seen thousands of jobs lost: by 2018, employment in the gold mines had fallen by 30 per cent (48,000 jobs) since 2009, and less than 20 per cent of the remaining mines were profitable.

As for the energy sector, a crucial element in any development strategy, Johnson refers briefly to the grandiose hydro-electric schemes of many African nationalist states, but does not (at this point) discuss the disaster that is ESKOM (although he does later in the book). ESKOM is a massive poorly-managed state-owned enterprise on which millions of producers and consumers relied for electricity that in February 2019 owed 420 million Rand, had a credit rating deep into junk status but was effectively ‘bailed-out’ by Ramaphosa in early 2019.

Finally, he turns to the land question and compares the recent adoption in 2018 of the policy of land expropriation without compensation by the ANC – following the EFF – with the land policy of Zimbabwe under Mugabe, which arguably crippled the Zimbabwean economy for years after its adoption there.

All of this is explained (in detail in Chapter Seven, ‘The Leaderless World of the Bureaucratic Bourgeoisie’) by the fact that there is no national bourgeoisie in South Africa committed to real investment in capitalist development as the foundation for an eventual National Democratic Revolution (NDR), despite the rhetoric and ideology of the ANC and the SACP (which he considers ‘happily stuck in the 1950s and 1960s’) and the designation of the emerging black middle class as a ‘patriotic bourgeoisie’ struggling against a predominantly white ‘comprador bourgeoisie’.

Johnson cites Marx to argue that the classic case of a government acting ‘as the executive committee of the ruling class’ to promote capitalist development does not apply in South Africa under the ANC. Government remains ‘a spoils system, pure and simple’, like other African ‘kleptocratic states’.

Nor is there any commitment by the ANC government, despite the rhetoric of its historical ally, the SACP, to improving the condition of the working class as a whole, even if it is allied in important respects to the trade unions – which Johnson identifies as institutions of a labour aristocracy rather than vehicles for working class struggle. He suggests that ‘the anti-working-class bias of the new regime was both severe and consistent’ and that ‘soon the rot spread to the unions, where union leaders revelled in high salaries, pillaged pension and union investment funds, and where corruption became endemic’.

The explanation for all of this lies partly in the distinctive class structure of South Africa, in which it resembles other African nationalist states, and partly in what Johnson terms ‘Magical Thinking’– which means ignoring reality in favour of illusions or being divorced from reality. The two are linked, for he sees ‘magical thinking’ as ‘a reflection of the leaderless state of South African society’- the ‘vacuum at the centre’. The new ruling elite has no settled relationship with the forces of production in the way that a class of farmers or industrialists might have – and here Johnson accepts that ‘again, Marxist terms are useful’. The new ruling class is ‘a comprador class’ if anything; inevitably it is opportunistic and feeds off the state – it is a bureaucratic bourgeoisie. He does not use the term ‘rentier state’, although he sees this group as ‘an artificial creation existing only on the taxes paid by old productive businesses and the white middle classes’.

What does distinguish South Africa from other African nationalist states, in Johnson’s view, is the Constitution that guarantees a multi-party system, an independent judiciary and a free press, and the fact that it continues to protect the continuing effective operation of these crucial features of the South African state. Given this, and the preceding diagnosis of the serious condition of South African political economy under the ANC, what is the prognosis and recommended treatment?

Johnson, as a died-in-the-wool liberal looks, of course, first to the Democratic Alliance, a classically liberal party. He is largely dismissive of the DA’s prospects, mainly because in his view it has abandoned its liberal principles and its espousal of ‘advancement by merit and initiative’ in favour of a strategy that increasingly courts the black vote by supporting ‘black advancement’ both within the party and in the country as a whole. For Johnson, the contradictions between the ‘old’ liberal principles and the ‘new’ African nationalist principles surfaced powerfully during the latter part of Helen Zille’s leadership of the DA when she attempted, disastrously to re-launch the party as ‘the Democrats’ with Mamphela Ramphele as party leader, and were sharpened still further by the election in 2015 of Mmusi Maimane as party leader.

Johnson has little time for Maimane as a leader and fears that he may be presiding over ‘a stage in the DA’s disintegration’. For now that the DA has departed from its liberal principles ‘it is difficult to see why is should not become the same sort of vehicle for patronage, racial and ethnic politicking, and the same Big Man behaviour one sees in the ANC.’ It may remain as a possible coalition partner at the national as well as at the local level, thereby contributing a more fragmented political dynamic and the growth of coalition politics but ‘if one is looking to the DA to remedy to lack of a new, post-apartheid ruling class, one will look in vain.’

The last four chapters address the situation currently facing South Africa and South Africans. Chapter Ten considers Ramaphosa’s first year as president and underlines both his political weakness and his whole ‘mistaken’ corporatist approach which together ensured that the kinds of structural reforms that Johnson considers essential were not undertaken: ‘it was perfectly clear that all of these reforms could only be achieved by cutting Gordian knots – in the teeth of strong resistance from vested interest at every point. But that in turn would require a strong and determined government, while the Ramaphosa administration was weak and uncertain’.

Johnson explicitly contrasts this with the recommendations made by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) – advice of which he broadly approves but which was not so much ignored as rejected – and suggests that there could now be a period of low growth and social misery before the government is eventually forced to have recourse to a bail-out by the IMF after all. ‘Fingers in the dyke’ will only postpone the inevitable. ‘Parasitic greed and its accompanying populism are capsizing the state and the economy. There seems to be no force capable of reining them in or even of keeping order: the police are corrupt, incompetent and unmotivated to intervene, while the armed forces are in a desperate state of disrepair’. In most African states, Johnson suggests, this would have triggered a military coup d’etat, ‘but this does not seem to be an option in Pretoria’s case’.

So, Johnson asks, echoing Lenin’s famous question, ‘What is to be done?’ He suggests first, under the heading ‘let my people go’, the liberalization of the labour laws, to undermine the restrictions on the labour market imposed by the trade unions and the labour aristocracy and to provide opportunities for the nearly 10 million unemployed and even larger numbers of low paid workers in the informal sector. He recommends acceptance of ‘the inevitability of globalization’ and the need for market liberalization, breaking up the cartels he believes dominate the South African economy and removing taxes on investment.

He maintains all of this at the same time as arguing that he is not ‘a free-market ideologue’ but a social democrat. He recognizes that ‘under present conditions even free-market competition needs iron-fisted policing and regulation’. Despite the fact that South Africa signed the African Continental Free Trade Agreement in March 2018, which calls for free movement of capital, goods and labour throughout the continent, he suggests that immigration control would be necessary to prevent the mass inflow of migrant labour from abroad, as ‘for South Africa, any agreement to the free movement of labour would constitute an almost suicidal triumph of ideology over common sense.’

He also argues that BEE should be abolished, as should all rules resulting in racially directed procurement, the Mining Charter and other industry charters; indeed, he suggests that all ‘affirmative action’ should go. He recognizes that ‘this would doubtless produce some resistance’ but hopes that ‘once it became clear that these changes would vastly increase the number of jobs, that would soon fade away’. He believes that the government should be quite explicit about the reasons for all these reforms and convince people that they would benefit the vast majority, including the working class and the middle classes, and would be part of a ‘great transformation’ – arguably, he says, a national democratic revolution – and a continuation of the ‘liberation’ process begun in 1990.

The same market principles need to be extended into health and education. Education could become the engine of growth, but would require a confrontation with the teachers’ unions, and ‘that battle would have to be won’. Johnson is very explicit on this point and suggests that ‘it is a sad fact that sometimes progress cannot be achieved except by breaking a union determined to retain restrictive practices’ and refers, tellingly, to Rupert Murdoch’s brutal battle with the print unions and Margaret Thatcher’s with Scargill’s miners. The apparatus of the state itself would require radical reform: ‘this effort would need to begin with a cleansing and upgrading of the police and the judicial and prosecutorial system’. Also, there would need to be quasi-military measures taken against urban gangs, in the name of law, order and security.

Local municipal government would have to be re-organized to combat administrative and financial inadequacy and wide-spread corruption. This, Johnson suggests, could be done by replacing bankrupt councils by a system of prefects appointed by provincial government supplemented by small elected advisory councils. The system of national salary scales for municipal workers should be ended so that poorer communities would not be forced into bankruptcy by having to pay what rich ones can afford.  Municipal corruption is endemic even in the metropoles; indeed, because they have larger budgets, the scope for corruption is greater. Here too, hopeless cases might have to be put under administration. But even so, Johnson argues that the metropoles should all be given greater autonomy to develop their economies.

He briefly discusses the need to stamp out corruption in the public utilities and argues that a World Bank funded programme of privatization could be launched to recycle water in all the major cities, under provincial monitoring. Water scarcity is such, however, that most major cities will never be able to pay the economic price for water and Johnson seems to envisage a massive relocation to the coast where de-salinization will provide the answer.

He also has ideas about the way to revitalize the former Bantustans by cutting back the power of ‘traditional’ chiefs to grant land and by redistributing land as individual freehold property to residents to create a new class of small farmers and market gardeners, working in cooperatives. It would take the popular rhetoric of land reform espoused by the ANC and EFF – involving expropriation without compensation – in a new direction, while presumably maintaining the large commercial farms as the core of South Africa’s agricultural capitalist economy.

He even has proposals for the development of the eastern seaboard from the Mozambique border to Buffalo City (East London) as a major tourist destination – South Africa’s Costa Brava or Costa del Sol – with year-round sun and swimming, game reserves and other recreational facilities, all in the same time zone as Europe. This could be a separate development programme, involving mass re-settlement of existing populations but done with environmental and architectural sensitivity, and making the preservation of wildlife and the natural physical environment on land and sea a priority.

Johnson sees this programme requiring a capacity for planning that he argues the ANC lacks. The RDP, he suggests, was merely a wish list; the GEAR was the only proper plan ever produced, but it was hugely unpopular with COSATU, the SACP and the ANC left, was never properly explained and justified, was not consistently implemented in any case, and was not followed by successive governments. The NDP unveiled in 2012 was ‘another huge, uncosted wish list’. He argues that ‘the elite wants power not in order to use it to achieve various policy goals but simply in order to possess it, to be in charge, to get rich, and enjoy the perquisites of office’. The government has no broader economic strategy. The result is blundering. A proper economic planning unit is needed.

Johnson argues that the chances of all his ‘recommendations’ actually occurring are small, but depend now on Ramaphosa ‘escaping from populism’ and from the forces on the left, exemplified by Julius Malema and the EFF, that have encouraged the ANC to maintain the strategy-less populism that has undermined the economy and impoverished the black masses whom it claims to ‘serve’. Given his popularity, ‘Ramaphosa’, Johnson argues, is uniquely well positioned to draw upon the Mandela myth in support of his mission to ‘save the dream’ – he compares his situation to that of Charles de Gaulle in 1958.

He recognizes that this would be  ‘a new political adventure’, splitting the ANC and giving further opportunity for the EFF to recruit support, and relying on a coalition of ANC Ramaphosa loyalists and DA representatives in government; but he also sees this as the only way to ‘refound the New South Africa on a more sustainable and democratic basis’.  The alternatives, which are briefly considered in the final chapter, include having recourse to the IMF or simply ‘dragging along the bottom’ and hoping to avoid an ultimate crisis.

Interestingly, there is no distinct section, let alone chapter, in the book in which he systematically analyses the EFF and its current role in South African politics. Instead, it is dismissed effectively throughout as marginal – even as its ‘malign influence’ is recognized and side references to it and its activities permeate the text. This is to my mind, a major failing of the book and its analysis, for the rise of the EFF since its formation in July 2013 has been both dramatic and hugely significant.

Referred to at one point as ‘the tiny EFF’, Johnson himself cites the survey of 28 September 2018 which suggested that the EFF had doubled its support since 2014 to 13 per cent, reducing that of the ANC to 52 percent (with the DA on 22 per cent), and now posed a clear political threat. Johnson is also aware of the millions of unemployed young people and the fact that the leader of the EFF is a former ANC Youth League leader; he is also aware of the support for the EFF among younger voters, including students (the EFF students’ association won the 2018 Student Representative Council elections at the universities of Cape Town and Zululand as well as at the Mangosuthu and Durban universities of technology).

In the May 2019 elections, the EFF increased its share of the popular vote from 6.3 per cent in 2014 to just over 10 per cent, reaching double figures and what some have regarded as a possible ‘tipping point’ where it may have secured a momentum going forwards. The ANC received 57 per cent of the popular vote, a decline since 2014 (when it received 62 per cent) but more than predicted by the survey of September 2018 (52 per cent). The Democratic Alliance (DA) received about the same percentage as it had five years before (around 21-22 per cent).

The evident rise of the EFF is something that requires a more considered analysis, as does the slow erosion of support for the ANC (both why it is taking place and also why it is taking place so slowly). Johnson seems incapable of carrying this out.

Finally, something that is almost entirely lacking in Johnson’s discussion, but which is highly relevant to any analysis of contemporary South African politics, is the role and significance of the continuing poverty and marginalization of the majority of black South Africans. This is a major lacuna in Johnson’s account.

Some 7 million young people eligible to do so did not vote in the recent elections. But apathy has its limitations, and the decision not to vote does not necessarily indicate apathy but often frustration with and rejection of the alternatives offered. The importance of ‘non-party’ politics in the form of local collective action, whether through informal associations and social movements or through more structured non-government organizations (NGOs), which has been documented elsewhere by activists and researchers, finds no place in Johnson’s analysis.

He may be a committed liberal, but the largely ‘top-down’ perspective adopted does not allow him to see the ordinary people of South Africa as actors and agents in contemporary politics. A consideration of the South African economy, society and politics ‘from below’ might have rendered his account even more depressing; but it also might have provided the basis for a very different sense of the underlying dynamics and prospects for the realization of ‘the dream’ to which he refers.

Fighting for the Dream by R. W Johnson (Jonathan Ball Publishers, 2019) is available here.

David Seddon ( is a researcher and political activist who has written extensively on social movements, class struggles and political transitions across the developing world.

Featured Photograph: An Abahlali baseMjondolo protest in Durban (2005).



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