In ‘False Start in South Africa’, R. W. Johnson offers a welcome blast against Pretoria’s new crony-capitalist elite, rightly summoning the spirit of Fanon to depict its parasitical mentality. Johnson is a trenchant and highly readable liberal chronicler of South Africa’s endless political degeneracy, and his assessment of anc rule to date hits important targets: the rise of a grasping bee bourgeoisie, the failure of basic social provision, soaring unemployment and vast inequalities. He is right to warn of possible Zulu–Xhosa tensions, and renewed xenophobia against regional immigrants. Johnson rhetorically exaggerates the importance of white flight—even on his own figures, economically active émigrés represent only 0.5 per cent of the population, and are probably counter-balanced by skilled white returnees, Johnson among them. His fear that the presence of Communists in government will scare away investors seems almost quaint, considering the amount of foreign capital pouring into Beijing. Johnson will say that the ccp are better capitalists than their confrères in the sacp—but that is simply to concede the point. More seriously, though, Johnson provides no explanatory analysis of the anc’s socio-economic failures, nor any apartheid-era baselines against which they might be measured. And in suggesting a lurch to the left under the Zuma government, he totally misconstrues the relationship between the South African Communist Party and the anc.

Any effective balance sheet of South Africa today must start from an analysis of the 1990–94 transition from apartheid—absent from Johnson’s essay here. For it was in the run-up to the handover of power that the conditions for the ‘false start’ were set in place. Although the political position of the sacp was then a great deal stronger than it is now, the Party played an essentially subaltern role in establishing the parameters of post-apartheid rule. It was not the liberation movement but South African financial and export-oriented capital and the us-led global economic institutions that were the principal midwives of the new order, while sacp leaders eagerly offered the forceps—and the mass movement of the townships was kept locked outside the delivery room.

By the end of the 1980s the apartheid regime had reached a dead end. Economically, it had long been undermined by chronic over-accumulation in a bunkerized manufacturing sector and by investment boycotts (whether in solidarity with the anti-apartheid movement or through market reluctance to venture into an unstable environment). Militarily it had been worsted by liberation forces in Angola and Namibia. Pretoria was isolated diplomatically and, following the brutal repression of the 1984–86 township uprisings, under increasing pressure from the us Congress and the White House to move towards some form of power-sharing with the black majority. In this situation, the initiative came from white South African financial and mining companies: Anglo American, Old Mutual/Nedcor, Sanlam and others, whose think-tanks helped fuse capitalist interests with the ‘new Nats’ (‘verligtes’), especially Afrikaner business and professional layers, grouped behind De Klerk.

The fraught and fluid situation in early 1990, after De Klerk had ordered Mandela’s release from prison and the unbanning of the anc and sacp, was powerfully evoked in these pages at the time by John Saul.footnote1 Behind the Kempton Park talks stood the ever-present menace of the white security apparatus; the murderous chaos unleashed in the townships by Inkatha thugs in the pay of the Minister for Law and Order, with white police and sadf support, created a haze of blood and fear. The options available to the anc were limited: ‘military victory’ had never been a serious option. Yet the movement now seemed to throw away advantages that would have allowed it to negotiate from a position of greater strength. A call from Mandela for the boycott and international sanctions to be maintained until the anc’s key conditions were met would have had a powerful resonance. The social turbulence of the townships—rent protests, marches, strikes—could have been given direction by a coherent programme for structural reform. Instead, the pressure of international sanctions began to dissipate as soon as ‘talks’ were under way and, at De Klerk’s insistence, the mass movement was demobilized. The sacp was disequipped by its forty years in exile to expand into a genuine mass party—Deputy General Secretary Jeremy Cronin has vividly described the clamour for membership cards at its 100,000-strong launch rally at the huge fmb soccer stadium in Johannesburg, which the Party apparatus had not the wherewithal to meet.footnote2 For its part, the anc leadership was neither willing nor able to articulate a clear alternative.

Wrongfooted by De Klerk’s offensive, programmatically unprepared, the movement’s leaders were consigned to a secondary role while the macro-economic fundamentals of the post-apartheid order were hammered out by World Bank officials, who organized over a dozen ‘reconnaissance missions’ between 1990 and 1994. An interim constitution was drafted behind closed doors, enshrining private property rights and an ‘independent’ Reserve Bank. anc leaders pledged to pay the debts of the apartheid regime, some $25 billion in foreign bank loans and even more from domestic lenders, cutting deep into future social spending. A 1993 imf loan was conditional upon the new government implementing public-sector wage and spending cuts. Strategies for ‘growth through redistribution’, developed by the left of the anc and Cosatu, were brushed aside. Mandela and Mbeki bowed to the demand of the Fund’s Managing Director, Michel Camdessus, that the anc reappoint the apartheid-era Finance Minister and Central Bank Governor when they took office in May 1994.

The same dynamic occurred in all the micro-developmental arenas. One White Paper after another was crafted by the World Bank and its local proxies, such as Anglo American’s Urban Foundation think-tank or the Development Bank of Southern Africa. These bodies were crucial in shaping the transition in hotly contested fields like education, healthcare, energy and land. Thus water would be priced at ‘full-cost recovery’ under anc Minister Kader Asmal, a ruling that generated massive numbers of disconnections, a cholera epidemic, protest riots and illegal reconnections. Housing policy was constructed by sacp Chairman Joe Slovo in a manner wholly consistent with the World Bank and Urban Foundation philosophy of encouraging private home-ownership. During this period, the main role of the anc was to shoehorn the more radical Mass Democratic Movement allies into ‘coerced harmony’ rather than conflict. In ‘pacting’ exercises organized by Anglo American or Nedcor/Old Mutual, leaders were invited to learn ‘about each others’ basic objectives and philosophy’, and ‘how to make concessions so as to “build trust” between negotiating partners’. Scenario-planning sessions explained the dangers of ‘macro-economic populism’: the model to follow was that of the flamingo and its flock—‘take off slowly, fly together’—rather than an Icarus, soaring too high to meet working-class expectations only to come to a bad end.

Johnson is absolutely right, of course, to deplore the glaring inequalities in South Africa today—the Gini coefficient up from an already high 0.64 in 1995 to 0.69 in 2005, unemployment doubling under the anc to around 40 per cent, if those who have given up looking for work are included. The state’s delivery of houses, water, sanitation, electricity, healthcare and education are widely considered either inferior or more expensive than during apartheid. But these outcomes are the result of macro-economic strategies set in place before 1994 by South African capital and the Bretton Woods institutions, aiming to bind the post-apartheid regime to an orthodox structural adjustment programme—and with which, during the crucial transition period, the leaderships of the anc and sacp effectively concurred. What Johnson calls for—in essence: policies favoured by foreign investors—only amounts to a reiteration of the imf programme to which anc-ruled South Africa has been committed from the start.