Originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal.
By R.W. Johnson
(Overlook, 702 pages, $40)
Trevor Manuel, the South African finance minister from 1996 to 2009, got his job when the aging Nelson Mandela asked, at a cabinet meeting, who was a good economist. Mr. Manuel raised his hand thinking Mr. Mandela had asked who was “a good communist.” Mr. Manuel served his country ably. But the appointment of the sole competent minister in the first government of African National Congress was a matter of blind luck.
This will hardly come as a surprise to anyone who has followed R.W. Johnson’s reporting. The South Africa correspondent for the (London) Sunday Times and a frequent contributor to the London Review of Books, Mr. Johnson has been a prolific critic of the ANC’s 16-year tenure in power. “South Africa’s Brave New World,” his political history of the post- apartheid era, amounts to a book-length indictment of the ANC. Its leaders come through as so corrupt, lecherous and violent that governance is not even an afterthought. “If we didn’t dine with thugs and crooks,” says one to Mr. Johnson, “then we’d always eat alone.” The book is a catalog of sins and rumors (footnoted, though often attributed to private sources or, for example, “old girlfriends” of ANC members). It is big and disorganized but filled with credible gossip—like the Trevor Manuel story—and therefore a delight.
Sixteen years is longer than any honeymoon should last, and it is past time that a book as unrelentingly negative as Mr. Johnson’s emerged to correct for the optimism lavished on South Africa’s rainbow nation following the collapse of apartheid in 1993. In Mr. Johnson’s view, the ANC turned South Africa into a giant kleptocracy run by thugs who would gladly sell their people back into serfdom as long as the price was right.
A self-described liberal who “cheered on” the wave of African nationalism of the postwar era, Mr. Johnson now sees the black supremacist ANC as the third in a trilogy of nationalisms (the first two were British and Afrikaner) that have ravaged South Africa. He is nostalgic for the economic growth of the apartheid era; the country was run by hardscrabble racists who built nuclear weapons, but they increased everyone’s standard of living.
Today the economy and infrastructure are in shambles. Unemployment is 25.3%, up from 17% in 1995. When I last visited South Africa in 2008, the state-owned energy giant Eskom was implementing rolling blackouts because of low capacity and booming demand—the predictable effects of the ANC’s drastically subsidizing the price of electricity. The Eskom engineers’ proudest technological achievement that year was the installment of home warning systems. Users could thus be alerted when their grid was in danger of going dark so that they could rush to lower their usage and persuade Eskom to spare them, as if their door was marked with lamb’s blood, when the blackout rolled through.
Most of the blame for South Africa’s failings falls to the leadership of the ANC, in Mr. Johnson’s view. Though he makes some allowances for Nelson Mandela, he is here a sad figure: publicly fêted by his ANC colleagues but privately scorned as senescent and incapable. Mr. Mandela accrued 27 years of moral capital in prison but had none of the political savvy necessary to run a government or build a functioning economy. Mr. Johnson points to the opportunity Mr. Mandela wasted when, after his inauguration in 1994, he failed to ask the EU to back up its lengthy moral encouragement with financial concessions, especially the granting of free trade with the European Union.
While Mr. Mandela comes across as hapless, the villain of this narrative is Thabo Mbeki, who emerges as one of the most cowardly and morally obtuse men ever to lead a free nation. Among Mr. Johnson’s most sensational accusations is that Mr. Mbeki knew in advance about the 1993 assassination of Chris Hani, a potential rival. Mr. Johnson builds a strong circumstantial case that Joe Modise, later defense minister, conspired in the killing and that Mr. Mbeki was long beholden to Mr. Modise for the favor.
Less controversially, Mr. Johnson details Mr. Mbeki’s support of Robert Mugabe (he claimed to be trying to ease the Zimbabwean dictator out peacefully while actually abetting an African auto-genocide) and his denial of the country’s HIV problem. Mr. Mbeki enshrined in policy the ravings of AIDS denialists and encouraged the fighting of the disease with garlic and potatoes. Mr. Johnson traces such missteps to Mr. Mbeki’s black revolutionary nationalism and a lingering Leninist tendency to view all dissent as fifth-column activity by puppets of patronizing whites.
Neither Mr. Johnson nor anyone else expected much of the government of Jacob Zuma, Mr. Mbeki’s successor, a man known for “simple and unquestioning devotion to the ANC” and for stating that to preserve his health he had been sure to shower after having unprotected sex with the HIV-positive woman who accused him of rape. But recent reports say Mr. Zuma is planning to take innovative steps. Among them: firing incompetent ANC officials, a move that would certainly distinguish him from his predecessors. If Mr. Johnson’s descriptions of the farcical political scene in South Africa are even partly accurate, one is left to wonder who besides a few accidental economists will be left standing.