It may have been Steven Friedman, one of the shrewdest of our political commentators, who pointed out that all South African political narratives are redemption stories. ‘The white man’ came to southern African shores to ‘save’ the black man from darkness; the Afrikaner Nationalists mobilised themselves to ‘save’ the volk from linguistic and tribal obliteration, following the Anglo-Boer War; and African Nationalists waged a long campaign (glorified in political mythology as a war, it was never more than armed propaganda) to liberate ‘the nation’ from apartheid and racial capitalism: no matter that, in the end, the capitalism remained and the racial – well, the racial remains, too, in familiar as well as surprising new forms.
Still, having won power, what to do with it?
The historian Dan O’Meara, in the glory days here of neo-Marxist historiography (gawd, do I still remember this stuff?!) showed us what the Afrikaner Nationalists did: they used the state as battering ram for the creation, in opposition to the Engelse, of an Afrikaner capitalist class and an Afrikaner bourgeoisie. History, as I have said before, has a way of repeating itself, and who better to learn from, if you are an aspirant African Nationalist, new to the party, than the hated and admired boer? So, just to be clear, the South African Communist Party, that roaring but redundant lion, is right about one thing: this is a class-project that we are seeing at work, not a revolution. Nothing new here, fellow South Africans – we’ve seen it all before.
This is not to say we had, or have, no ideals; not to say, that there were, and are not still, men and women of principle in the African National Congress and in government. I remember well the amazed look with which the new black civil servants, post-’94, would say to themselves, ‘we are the government, and we are here to govern.’ It was as if they couldn’t quite believe it – and who could, the miracle of our rainbow nation was still fresh in all our minds, as was the precipice we had so narrowly skirted. But think about those words: ‘we are here to govern.’ What do they say, and more important, what do they not say?
Hindsight is always 20/20, of course – but what, looking back down the past 16 years, all this emphasis on governing tells me is this: we have tried to govern, without understanding its corollary, the need to consolidate, maintain and run the state. Governing, in this sense, has been (mis-)understood as fundamentally a political project – and hence the language and the practice of ‘deployment’, the positioning of party ‘cadres’ in every critical nook and interstice of the apparatus (another nice neo-marxism) of the state.
The pseudo-revolutionary and militaristic nature of these terms, ‘deployment’ and ‘cadre’, is enough to tell you what is really going on: not the building of the state, but its capture, not the deployment of the state for the creation of an open society and a modern, competitive economy, but its use as weapon of primitive accumulation (damn, those marxists were good!) for a new African bourgeoisie and capitalist class.
I am all in favour, let it be said, of an African bourgeoisie; contrary to Karl Marx, it is the middle classes who history has shown to be the true revolutionaries, not the workers. And, in time, it may be the African bourgeoisie that saves us from our government, and from the ANC – except, and this is the real risk, in my view, except if the new bourgeoise itself is a creature and a captive of the state, dependent on government for tenders and favours, in bed with the politicians, snuffling at the same troughs. I think not, mind you: for all the fuss about the symptoms, South Africa’s is a modern economy, plugged into the world’s economy, we are not desperate and land-locked little Zimbabwe but an economic powerhouse on the African continent. While business-people, black and white, may kowtow to government as the times dictate (remember Thabo Mbeki, anyone?), it is not to government, ultimately, that business owes its existence. In that lies its independence and its freedom, imperfect and compromised though this sometimes might be.
No, the worrying bit is the state. And here we have a law of inversion: the less the capacity and capability of the state, the more ‘developmental’ and controlling it seeks to become. Intent on ‘governing’, the ANC continues to neglect the instruments of government – we have government by fiat, by acts of the will. No wonder that people are cynical – government talks change and transformation, but on the ground the facts remain the same. And where peoples’ lives have improved – and they have, the evidence and the statistics are there to show it – this is not because of development, but through transfers of wealth via the fiscus. Tax and social welfare, not economic growth and development, are the engines of redistribution, here, and of poverty alleviation, and this cannot, in the long term, hold.
On 27 April, 1994, I along with millions of joyous, proud South Africans all over the world, watched on TV as Nelson Mandela was inaugurated, at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, as ‘our’ President, the first democratically elected President of all the people. Like millions of others I wept as the uniformed military chiefs saluted their new commander, and the helicopters of the South African Defence Force flew by in perfect formation, the brave new flag of our democratic republic fluttering stiffly in the wind. I have tears in my eyes now, remembering.
Why is it, sixteen years on, that we South Africans seem so uneasy, so uncomfortable in our skins, so much at odds with one another? Watching the TV news last night, I was struck by how it was dominated by crime and violence – taxi accidents, shootings, robberies. The alarm over spiralling and seemingly uncontrollable crime is certainly one concern, but it speaks to the larger problem. It is not government we need, we have plenty of that: it is the state, that must be rebuilt – transformed, yes, but also consolidated, as I’ve said, and properly equipped and capacitated. And for that to happen, it must be freed from the clutches of cadres and deployees; of tenderpreneurs and the attack dogs of the ANC’s reactionary class project. We need, in short, a modern, politically neutral, efficient and effective state.
When the state can take care of that most fundamental of its obligations, i.e. defending and securing the safety of its citizens; when it can provide us with effective public schools and functioning hospitals; when it can repair the potholes in our roads and guarantee our water supply; when it can shape and maintain the framework conditions for a thriving modern economy (financial services, information and communications systems, ports, harbours and airports, railways and the electricity grid) – then, and only then, I fear, will our young and hopeful democracy truly be safe.