After Mandela’s Miracle in South Africa

Michael Bratton. Current History. Volume 97, Issue 619. May 1998.

A miracle is a hard act to follow. Well-wishers celebrated South Africa’s peaceful passage from a racial oligarchy to one of the world’s most liberal democracies not least because it seemed so splendidly far-fetched. Who would have thought that hard-line political opponents could span the bitter chasms of color and class to create a compromise solution? Their constitutional pact seemed to give each side what it most wanted: the black majority gained control of the state, and the white minority received guarantees of a place in the economic sun.

Four years after the country’s founding elections of April 1994, fissures are beginning to appear in South Africa’s historic truce. Black and white South Africans have different understandings of the terms of the transition agreement, especially whether the political miracle marked the beginning or the end of a broad process of change. At the same time, because the pact was struck between elites, politi­cal leaders have not been able to guarantee that all their followers will embrace the new order.

In their attempt to resolve deep-seated differ­ences, South Africans will soon lose the guidance of one of the twentieth century’s true political visionaries. In 1999, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela will step down as president, thus depriving the country of its main unifying symbol. Already the era of “reconciliation”—the policy of forgiveness and partnership that has been Mandela’s hallmark—is being superseded. With the second national election coming in 1999, his African National Congress (ANC) has embarked on a strategy of “transforma­tion” that emphasizes African expectations for economic advancement and downplays minority concerns. Unable to avoid the reality that transfomation must embody the redistribution of wealth, leaders of all political parties are lapsing into a defensive racial discourse.

An Accelerated Transition

South Africa’s transition to democracy was meant to be gradual. Because they could not agree on immediate majority rule, the principal protago­nists—represented by the ANC, the National Party, and the Inkatha Freedom Party—agreed on a tem­porary power-sharing arrangement. Conducted under an interim 1993 constitution, the founding elections inaugurated a Government of National Unity in which the largest parties obtained cabinet seats in proportion to their share of the vote. This consensual dispensation was to last until the 1999 elections, which were to pass the reins of power to the winners and consign other parties to the role of loyal opposition. Only then would South Africa’s transition to a competitive, multiparty democracy be complete.

In practice this timetable has been shortened. An expansive new constitution was signed into law on International Human Rights Day 1996 and entered into force in February 1997. Applauding the text as a monumental achievement, South Africa’s Consti­tutional Court nonetheless insisted on adding pro­visions to strengthen the bill of rights, provincial autonomy, and public oversight. Significantly, Chief Gatsha Buthelezi and his Zulu-based Inkatha Free­dom Party chose to remain entirely outside the pro­cess of constitutional negotiations, contending that promises of international mediation of disputes with the ANC had not been honored. And the National Party, still led at the time by former President E W de Klerk, withdrew from the national unity govern­ment on June 30, 1996, claiming that the new con­stitution discarded power-sharing and that his party could better serve the country in opposition. Thus, for all practical purposes, the “season for power-sharing,” as South African scholar Vincent Maphai put it, has already run much of its course, and South Africa has entered a more rough-and-tumble era of open multiparty competition.

To this accelerated transition must be added Mandela’s phased withdrawal from the political scene. The “old man” has taken the presidency in an increasingly ceremonial direction, delegating all but the most knotty executive decisions to others in the ANC hierarchy. Deputy President Thabo Mbeki has taken charge of policymaking, notably on the economy. Yet the expected accession of Mbeki to the national presidency in 1999 signals more a change of governing style than a new policy direction. Lacking Mandela’s gift for fusing moral authority with a common touch, Mbeki will be a more aloof, professional chief executive. The polit­ical succession has been skillfully managed and will likely occur without the debilitating power strug­gles that often arise when great leaders bow out. While South Africans do not know Mbeki well, and while they will surely never love him as they do Mandela, they are growing accustomed to having him in charge.

Economic Imperatives

Any South African leader is bound to be preoc­cupied with the economy, which must generate enough employment to ease chronic black impov­erishment. As the government’s own targets reflect, economic growth must reach 6 percent per year to keep up with population growth and at the same time lift the poor. Although the South African econ­omy has expanded steadily for five years, growth rates (just 2 percent in 1997, the same rate forecast by the government for 1998) have not been able to make a dent in unemployment, which is rising alarmingly in the nonagricultural sector; at least 30 percent of adults do not have formal jobs. The sit­uation could worsen because of external uncertainties like the price of gold, which has plunged to its lowest level in almost two decades and led to the closure of unprofitable mines. On the positive side, inflation is steadily declining to an expected 5 per­cent for 1998, the rand has retained its value against many major currencies, and foreign direct invest­ment has begun to trickle in.

After four years in power, much of the credit— and blame—for the performance of the economy can be placed at the feet of the ANC government. In the 1994 election campaign, the party promised to make job creation and social service delivery top priorities under its Reconstruction and Development Program. This ambitious public-spending scheme was supplemented in June 1996 by a more orthodox package of monetary controls and invest­ment incentives known as gear, which stands for Growth, Employment, and Redistribution. This homegrown macroeconomic strategy is so market friendly that foreign donors report that they do not even raise economic policy conditions when nego­tiating grants to the government. Such is the new­found zeal of ANC ministers for neoliberal policies that one easily forgets that, as an exile movement, the party was bent on nationalizing mines, indus­try, and banking. Not only has the ANC government adjusted to global economic realities by repudiat­ing these commitments, but it now speaks the lan­guage of privatization in relation to broadcasting, the airlines, and telecommunications.

This turnabout in economic thinking has been painful and politically controversial, especially for the Confederation of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and the South African Communist Party. These partners in the ANC’s triple alliance have nei­ther abandoned faith in interventionist economics nor ceased to defend organized labor’s globally uncompetitive wages; at Cosatu’s 1997 national conference, hundreds of delegates jeered gear. Never­theless, Thabo Mbeki has vowed that he will stick to his economic policy even if it costs him his friends.

In the face of extreme social inequalities, any democratically elected government will face pow­erful demands for redistribution. And policies of economic reapportionment will inevitably engen­der conflict between would-be winners (who will always want more) and prospective losers (who will resist making sacrifices). For example, black business people have taken control of 9 percent of the capital assets on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, but official efforts at black empowerment are criti­cized as elitist. A 1998 initiative to enact an Employment Equity Bill that includes ambitious affirmative action requirements has ignited protests and preemptive countermeasures from the private sector. And, even though the government has steadily shifted spending priorities away from defense and toward poverty relief, it still faces pop­ular impatience. Since 1994, the government has provided electricity to 1.2 million households and furnished water supply for 1.7 million people; yet it remains dogged by complaints that fewer than one-third of the 1 million houses that it promised to build have actually been constructed.

Politics Polarized

Although the country’s leaders would prefer to keep attention focused on the positive possibilities of economic growth, pressures for social justice are making for polarized politics. Three current events illustrate this trend: the fiftieth National Conference of the ANC, the twilight of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and the dawning 1999 election campaign.

When 3,000 ANC delegates gathered in Mafikeng for the party’s fiftieth congress in December 1997, Mandela gave a vituperative valedictory speech. Before cataloguing the ANC’s achievements, he lashed out at “a counterrevolutionary network [based among those] who have not accepted the reality of majority rule.” Accused of subverting the government’s program were apartheid holdovers in the bureaucracy, the main white opposition parties, foreign-funded nongovernmental organizations, and “the bulk of the mass media.” Although the text of the speech was reportedly prepared by Mbeki’s office and is thought to reflect his views, it was presented by Mandela, perhaps because his vast authority made a strident message more palatable, and because a reversal of roles enabled Mbeki, whose supremacy is still being established, to rise above the fray.

International press coverage of the speech was adverse, seeing in the president’s sweeping attack an unhealthy defensiveness and a failure to distin­guish between critics and enemies. Black domestic audiences reacted much more favorably to a public rebuke of those white South Africans who insist on the preservation of what are widely perceived as ill-gotten gains. Indeed, Mandela probably enhanced his status with core constituents who felt that he had gone too far to accommodate white interests.

Certainly the speech helped the ANC reunify a fragmented party. In the elections for the party’s deputy presidency, the hierarchy headed off the insurgent candidacy of former First Lady Winnie Mandela who, despite a popularity born of cam­paigning among the marginal poor, had become an embarrassment because of her penchant for corrupt and high-handed tactics. The party instead stage-managed the ascent of Jacob Zuma, Mbeki’s hand-picked associate, to the number two position and in the process laid claim to political support in KwaZulu-Natal, Zuma’s homeland. To their credit, the delegates (who were overwhelmingly African) helped the ANC reaffirm its well-established nonracial credentials by electing seven non-Africans to the party’s ten top executive positions.

Truth And Its Consequences

This reaffirmation comes at a time when plati­tudes about South Africa’s “rainbow nation” have worn thin and doubts have surfaced about South Africa’s respected Truth and Reconciliation Com­mission. Set up in July 1995 under the supervision of Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the trc was a bold attempt to confront the country’s brutal past without the cost and divisiveness of Nuremberg-style trials. It was charged with three tasks: to uncover the truth about human rights abuses; to offer amnesty to those who con­fess a politically motivated involvement; and to make reparations to victims. Armed with the stick of subpoena power and the carrot of amnesty, it is easily the broadest, most powerful commission of its kind ever created.

Since 1995, several thousand victims have testi­fied before the TRCs public hearings, providing, at last, a chance for those who suffered to be heard. At the same time, a stream of low-level apartheid func­tionaries has come forward to admit, often in chill­ing detail, how they served as the covert hit men of a deranged regime. Moreover, in December 1997, under the glare of international media coverage, the commission delved into the alleged involvement of Winnie Mandela in several murders in the late 1980s, revealing damaging new information. The TRC has accumulated a repository of apartheid’s inner secrets, making denial difficult and a recur­rence that much more remote.

However, as the commission prepares its final report for release this June, it faces dwindling confidence from across the political spectrum. The truth about the chain of command in the torture and killing of anti-apartheid activists will remain obscured until senior figures such as former Prime Minister P. W Botha and Chief Buthelezi drop their boycotts of the TRC proceedings and agree to testify in person. The families of victims express growing anger at a process that opens old wounds but offers little succor afterward. From the right-wing side of the fence, the Freedom Front’s Constand Viljoen and his followers suspect that the TRC is a plot to scapegoat Afrikaners as a people. They are espe­cially troubled by the revelation that, without pub lie hearings, the commissioners granted a blanket amnesty to 37 top ANC leaders for acts committed during the liberation war.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is dis­covering that truth does not automatically lead to reconciliation. Even more than for Mandela, Arch­bishop Tutu’s career has been built on peaceful accommodation: but as Tina Rosenberg remarked in the November 18, 1996, New Yorker, it is far from clear that his “gospel of reconciliation [will] triumph over the human impulse to seek vengeance.” The graffito scrawled on a Pretoria underpass—’Tutu has made them confess; now we will kill them!”—surely represents an extreme view, but it nonetheless captures the missing element: justice. For many South Africans, the righting of wrongs will require more than criminal justice for official perpetrators; as the scholar Mahmood Mamdani recently argued, it must also include a meaningful mea­sure of social justice that involves broad sacrifices from apartheid’s mul­tiple beneficiaries. A vice-chancellor of a former black university put it suc­cinctly: “Lasting reconciliation will be achieved only when there is health care and education for every South African child.”

The most ambitious goal of the trc, targeted through extensive radio and television coverage of its public hearings, is to change how white South Africans think. In this it has so far failed. Few whites are willing to admit complicity in apartheid. Shocked, threatened, and ultimately fatigued, many are shutting out the TRC’s findings. Tutu summed up the mood of the coun­try by saying in late December last year that whites begrudge being asked to carry a burden of guilt and blacks resent the failure of whites to acknowledge how lucky they are: “And so we sit in our little cor­ners feeling angrier and angrier … But I still think we have a great deal going for us … if [only] we could have the courage maybe to be a little more honest.”

Talking and Not Hearing

The opening volleys of the campaign for South Africa’s second national elections (expected to be held between April and July 1999) have only con­firmed that contending parties talk past each other. At the opening of parliament in Cape Town in February 1998, opposition leaders came out swing­ing against Mandela’s ANC conference speech. Tony Leon, the head of the Democratic Party, introduced a party document entitled “The Death of the Rain­bow Nation” that sought to paint affirmative action as reverse discrimination. In the Western Cape, the National Party is trying to woo “coloured” (mixed race) voters by splitting them from Africans and promising promotions within the party. In response, black parties are closing ranks.

To play the race card would seem to be a losing strategy for small white parties whose only chance of gaining access to government lies in attracting black voters. More realistic is the United Democratic Movement (UDM), formed in March 1997 by Bantu Holomisa and Roelf Meyer, after they broke with the ANC and the National Party respectively to form a multiracial alliance. In February 1998, Meyer announced that he would defer leadership to Holomisa, but it remains to be seen whether the party can rise above the latter’s reputation for opportunism. The UDM’s best opening would seem to lie in a policy platform that challenges the ANC’s progressive positions on abortion, criminal rights, and the death penalty, and that taps into the strong currents of social conservatism among Africans. Opinion polls from late 1997, however, suggest that the UDM attracts no more than 4 to 7 per­cent of the national vote. If these figures hold, the results of the 1999 elec­tions will be similar to those of 1994. Because the euphoria of a founding election cannot be repli­cated, voter turnout will drop, but the ANC will still likely receive about six out of ten votes nationally. As in neighboring Zimbabwe, there may be a heightening of racial rhetoric and a rash of redistri­bution promises as elections approach. But such polarization can be read as a product of, rather than a threat to, the gradual consolidation of democracy. No political party—including Inkatha and Freedom Front on the right, or the Pan Africanist Congress on the left—is questioning the legitimacy of elections, seeing them instead as the main game in town.

From Political To Criminal Violence

Political violence is in decline. Most encourag­ing is the apparent determination of national ANC and Inkatha leaders to broker a rapprochement that will reduce deadly interparty clashes during the next election. The idea of an ANC-Inkatha merger has been floated, only to be denied by Buthelezi, who is nonetheless capable of changing his mind at the last minute. Moreover, the prospect of right-wing extremists taking up arms to secure an Afrikaner volkstaat (people’s state) now seems increasingly quixotic. None of these observations rules out the possibility of local feuds in rural KwaZulu-Natal or disruptive skirmishes by rem­nants of the old regime’s more shadowy supporters.

The larger threat to social stability comes from criminal violence. The murder rate in South Africa—65 people per day in the first nine months of 1997—is among the highest in the world. The carnage is concentrated in Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Durban—and further concentrated in black residential areas of the latter two cities—while the rest of the country remains reasonably safe. In early 1998, President Mandela claimed that the ANC’s tenure had been accompanied by a decrease in major crimes. The facts, however, are mixed. Some serious crimes (murder, aggravated theft, and robbery of businesses) seem to have fallen slightly in 1997, while others (assault, residential burglary, and rape especially) continue to climb. But the police admit that crime statistics are unreliable, due in part to ignorance about conditions in the former black homelands, and are reluctant to say the tide has turned.

Conventional wisdom connects crime with job­lessness. The abolition of influx controls and the growth of informal squatter settlements, coupled with the shortage of jobs, lend credence to an economic interpretation. It does not explain, however, the connection between crime and violence. Here it is necessary to remember that South Africa’s seem­ingly smooth transition was actually very turbulent. Both the state security forces and a generation of guerrilla fighters adopted tactics of intimidation and vigilantism. A gap in authority opened between an ever more repressive state and the increasingly ungovernable townships—into which large num­bers of weapons have continued to flow.

By early 1998 the country’s security crisis was epitomized by a rash of high-profile problems: gang violence, farm murders, and a spate of armed bank heists. Crime is becoming increasingly organized and internationalized, with Russians, Colombians, and Nigerians believed to be involved in smuggling drugs and guns into South Africa and diamonds and luxury cars out. The national police commis­sioner has warned that endemic crime is “the biggest threat to democracy in South Africa.” The business press emphasizes the negative economic repercussions in the form of high insurance premiums, emigration of skills, and a downturn in tourism. And public opinion surveys confirm that fear of crime is pervasive among South Africans.

The Frayed State

The perceived ubiquity of crime raises tough questions about state capacity in the new South Africa. Is the state defaulting in its most basic duty to provide law and order?

The performance of the South African Police Ser­vice certainly leaves much to be desired. The force makes arrests for just 16 percent of crimes reported, many suspects escape custody before they are brought to trial, and when trials are held witnesses often refuse to testify because the authorities cannot protect them. Similarly, the justice system shows signs of disintegration; for example, delays in bringing cases to trial have lengthened as senior prosecutors have resigned and their junior replace­ments have refused to work overtime without pay. For cases that do make it to court, the rate of suc­cessful prosecutions is in decline.

The root of these problems lies in the apartheid era, which saw black South Africans reject the authority of a state they regarded as politically ille­gitimate. The restoration of public confidence in the police and courts (not to mention the army and the prison service) will take time, a process that has not been helped by the ANC’s slow start in grappling with issues of law and order.

The new government was at first torn between a liberal impulse to protect individual rights and a growing popular outcry for action against violent criminals. Over the last year it has taken a few decisive steps: to tighten bail laws, to introduce mini­mum sentences for serious crimes, and to establish the country’s first detective academy. In an effort to shore up confidence, the government also appointed a no-nonsense businessman to revamp the mission, management, staffing, and training of the police force.

Citizens also expect the state to improve mate­rial welfare. Popular demands for a better life are especially intense in South Africa, whose transition was in large part a revolution of rising expectations. Indeed, South Africans view democracy instrumentally, associating it with jobs, incomes, and housing rather than with its intrinsic guarantees of civil and political freedoms. The ANC government is thus under strong pressure to deliver basic goods and services, preferably before the next election. In attempting to do so, it encounters other state weak­nesses. Some central government ministries are par alyzed as inexperienced new recruits and intransi­gent old-order functionaries struggle to implement an expanded range of tasks. Among local authori­ties (overloaded with responsibilities for water, san­itation, electricity, roads, and refuse services), the problems are manifestly financial, though they go much deeper. In March 1997, the minister for local government said that about one out of three local authorities lacked the discretionary funds to deliver basic services at an acceptable level, with one out of eight possessing insufficient cash reserves to cover monthly obligations.

A large part of the fiscal crisis of local govern­ment originates in the rent and service-charge boy­cotts launched by the mass democratic movement against township boards appointed by the apartheid government. These mass actions bred a culture of nonpayment that has proved difficult to eradicate. Boycotts have even spread to upscale white suburbs as rate-payers dodge local taxes or escape into pri­vate fee-paying services. Because the ANC govern­ment’s masakhane (let’s work together) campaign to encourage payments induced little voluntary com­pliance, new approaches are being tried, from com­munity self-mobilization to abrupt service cut-offs. Still, it is unclear whether municipalities that once served only an affluent minority can command enough resources to address all needs even if every­one pays. Clearly the state alone cannot solve the problem of distributing basic services: what is required is a collaborative governance scheme that yokes state and civil society in a common project.

After the Miracle

The approaching retirement of the 79-year-old Nelson Mandela comes as the transitional era of reconciliation and power-sharing in South Africa is winding down. The constitutional order will most likely remain democratic: major political players will operate according to agreed-on rules of the game by observing the bill of rights, the electoral laws, and the judgments of the courts. The economic strategy will become increasingly mixed as the ANC government strains to balance its commitment to generating employment through private investment with the rising insistence of its key constituencies for material and social justice. And political discourse will be sharply polarized, even if the distribution of power is not: the ANC will consolidate its hold on the central govern­ment while small parties, consigned to permanent opposition, will snap at the ANC’s heels with charges of eroding privilege or betraying the poor.

Seasoned observers of African politics see in the ANC’s dominance the portents of a de facto one-party state, with all the threats to accountable democracy that such a scenario entails. They worry that the ANC may win two-thirds of the seats in the 1999 parliamentary elections, thus enabling the government, should its present commitments change, to amend the constitution at will. These concerns are valid to the extent that evidence is already available that some ANC officials cut legal corners and practice or condone corruption. In a weakness typical of other African leaders, both Mandela and Mbeki have yet to come out against graft among party loyalists. But concerns about the threat of political monopoly overlook countervail­ing powers, unusually strong by African standards, embedded in South Africa’s state (especially the constitutional court and numerous public watch­dog agencies) and its civil society (which features a plural press and nongovernmental organizations). These elements can quickly call into question the legitimacy of a corrupt government.

Which brings us to the central issue. The threat to the South African miracle emanates not so much from a state that governs too much, but from one that governs too little. The most serious flaw in the new South Africa is not imminent authoritarianism but the relentless erosion of political authority. It is most evident in a frayed government that cannot effectively control crime or redistribute services quickly and broadly enough, highlighting the need to reconstruct both police services and local government from the ground up. State incapacity would appear to be at least as serious a constraint to overcoming poverty as persistently low rates of economic growth.

While popular discourse casts these challenges in terms of “delivery,” this puts altogether too much onus on the state. The bureaucratic apparatus in South Africa is weak in good part because its inherited structures are historically disconnected from its mass clientele. The ANC is well placed to help medi­ate a new social contract between state and citizen that restores state legitimacy. To accomplish this, the country needs a new generation of visionary leaders who can help South Africans see that crime and poverty are not only linked problems, but also shared ones. To generate the deep reserves of trust and civic responsibility necessary for a brighter future, black and white South Africans will have to recognize afresh that their futures are inexorably connected.