An election day read

2009-04-22 00:00

CONVENTIONAL wisdom argues that the key to South Africa’s political crisis lies in the arms deal. But Johnson shows convincingly in this masterful book that the assassination of Chris Hani was just as crucial, as is the ANC’s burden of archaic policy and paranoid exile culture.

Much of what Johnson has written in the past has been prophetic, illuminating his work as historian and political commentator. He writes with the verve of the betrayed, using the rapier and where necessary the bludgeon. Occasionally, some might say, he unnecessarily inserts a knife and then twists it.

His relentless dissection of the slow deconstruction of Africa’s only modern, industrial state is illustrated by endless examples of institutional and service-delivery failure. South Africa’s new rulers emerged from exile, external and internal, ill-prepared to run a 21st-century nation. Many of the capable carried the failed baggage of the Soviet empire where, Johnson reminds us, there was no grass-roots opinion.

He provides plentiful evidence of the ANC’s one-party aspirations. As he memorably describes it, democracy for many ANC leaders is an event, not an ongoing process. Surprised at the peaceful transfer of power, this has not been respected and translated into good governance. Instead, massive patronage and Wild West business practice have served the new, tightknit, often inter-married, elite well. Institutions have been suborned to their purpose: Johnson evokes the ghost of Hendrik Verwoerd stalking the land.

Sometimes he gets it wrong. He quotes without comment Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s belief that he, and by extension Inkatha, “represented the old, non-violent Luthuli wing of the ANC”. Such historical fiction is as bizarre as much ANC mythology. But Johnson’s conclusion to this compelling survey, appropriate to the moment, cannot be faulted. A successful South Africa must be accepted as multiracial: it awaits black political leadership appreciative of the contemporary world that can attract the confidence of minorities.

Christopher Merrett

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