Follow @book_lounge
Subscribe here to receive invitations to our events and our monthly Newsletter
* = required field

Allister Sparks – discussion of 'First Drafts'

Monday, June 28th 2010

We’re delighted to present the text of Allister Spark’s discussion of his book First Drafts, as presented at the Book Lounge. Please note that the copyright for this text belongs to Mr Sparks.

 “Let me tell you first about the book. It’s called “First Drafts,” a title taken from an epigram coined by Philip Graham, legendary publisher of The Washington Post, who said that a journalist’s job is to write “the first rough draft of history.” Now I have written a great many such first rough drafts, because I have now been covering this turbulent country of ours for 59 years.

But this collection of first drafts focuses only on the 10 years between 1999 and 2009 — or what might be called the Thabo Mbeki Decade. I have selected and stitched together a collection of my writings covering this period into what I call a contemporaneous history of this extremely important period in the unfolding story of the New South Africa. Chapter Two, if you like, or the Mbeki phase which came after the Transition or Nelson Mandela phase and which saw the rise and fall of President Mbeki and with that a change in the very nature of the ANC. Now we are into Chapter Three.

 But before dealing with that let me explain what I mean by a contemporaneous history. Most histories are retrospective, in which writers look back with all the perfect vision of hindsight so they can reconstruct events as they actually turned out, making it look so clear and logical that you can only wonder at the inability of contemporary policy makers and analysts and ordinary people to foresee what should surely have been obvious to them.

 But of course life’s not like that. I have always been fascinated by how things looked at the time those decisions had to be made, when the future was anything but clear.

The other problem with retrospective history is that it tends to get written, or rewritten, by partisans; by historians with a particular ideological perspective who present it in a way that shows their world view to be the correct one. Or, worse still, it is written by the victors who airbrush out whole roles that were not of their doing to enhance the historic importance of their triumph.

 So that’s what I’ve tried to capture here: the essence of how things looked at the time before the course of events became clear and before the historical revisers got to work. I’ve stitched together these selected writings to try to tell the story of our second decade, the Mbeki decade, in snapshot form. Still shots of how things looked at the time. It makes for a different kind of history.

 Another thing; in covering what has been, and still is, a transformational passage in our history, I have tried to set the unfolding South African story in a global setting. I have done this because I have become increasingly aware of the interconnectivity of the world. No country, no individual, is an island anymore. We live in a world where an airplane flying into a skyscraper in New York can cause economic shudders in Johannesburg and Cape Town; where the fall of a wall in Berlin can radically change the political landscape in South Africa; where a war in the Middle East can drive up oil prices and send the cost of living rocketing world-wide; where political ideologies cooked up by neo-conservatives in Washington can impose constraints on the policy choices faced by Presidents in Pretoria; and where the crash of Lehman Brothers in New York can alter the balance of ideological debate within the ANC alliance. And now we have the Greek crisis rattling our JSE. Beware of Greeks bearing debts!

 So the story has to be contextual. And as we face the future, and ponder what the next phase, Jacob Zuma’s Chapter Three, may hold for us, we have to consider that in a global context as well.

 Now I want to talk about where we may be headed in the coming decade, but to do that we must first look at where we have come from; to get a sense of trajectory as it were. I want to deal briefly with two major events in our history that have distorted the socio-economic structure of this country and which constitute the taproot of many of our current problems.

 The first is the 1913 Land Act. Long before the formalised structures of apartheid were put in place, this law, which I regard as the most damaging ever enacted in this country, destroyed the black peasantry at a stroke.

 The reason for the act was to provide an abundance of cheap labour for the mines of the Witwatersrand. South Africa’s gold, discovered in the late 19th century, was deep down and the ore was low grade. Had it been discovered at such depths in Canada or Australia or the United States, it would probably have stayed right there. Only the plentiful presence of cheap labour in South Africa made it possible to mine it.

 In 1913 black miners were paid two shillings a day, compared with 20 shillings for white miners, and when the black miners asked for a raise to three shillings after the first year, the Chamber of Mines told them that would shut down the whole industry.

 The problem, as Professor Colin Bundy, a former Wits Vice-Chancellor now at the London School of Economics, showed in an early study, was that black peasants were beginning to establish a degree of economic independence at the time, so that as the mines gobbled up more and more black labour white farmers, a primary constituency for our early white governments, began to complain about the shortage of cheap labour that they, too, needed. So the law was enacted, prohibiting black people from owning land anywhere in the country. They couldn’t own it even in the black reserves demarcated for them, because that was held communally by the tribal chiefs. So with the passage of that act the black peasantry was destroyed and all black people, wherever they lived, were turned into a mass migrant labour force, a black proletariat totally dependent on the white-owned economy.

 That done, the next disabling act came with the introduction of the industrial colour bar, later amplified by the apartheid regime’s Job Reservation Act, which made it illegal for this black proletariat to do skilled work — or even acquire certificated skills through technical colleges or apprenticeships.

 So we end up with no landed peasantry, a massive unskilled working class and no management class at all. All compounded by a disastrously inferior Bantu Education system.

 That is what the new South Africa inherited in 1994. A daunting inheritance indeed for a newly empowered liberation movement, committed to giving its expectant people a better deal after generations of deprivation, but without the skills or resources to enter the economy on their own — and with no-one in its own ranks with the management experience to run the show as efficiently as it should be run.

 The first phase of our transition, the Nelson Mandela phase, had as its priority the urgent need for racial reconciliation, to prevent a military-backed right-wing white backlash which could so easily have happened, as we moved from white minority to black majority rule. Mandela, with his magnetic personality and magnanimous spirit of forgiveness, managed that dangerous transition brilliantly and deserves all the kudos that have been showered on him.

 But then it fell to Thabo Mbeki to handle Phase Two, which was the need to prevent a crisis of expectations arising in the black community if their long-awaited liberation didn’t bring about a material improvement in their own lives and opportunities. And do that pretty soon, because Mandela was already being criticised for doing too much to appease the whites and not enough to advance the blacks. Political change alone was obviously not enough. As Mbeki said to me at the time: “You can’t just give black people the vote and leave it at that, with everything else staying the same. You have to have economic as well as political integration.”

 But Mbeki’s difficulty as he confronted this need lay with those deeply entrenched disabilities in the black community that I have been speaking about. How to bring about quick black economic advancement? Mbeki’s solution was to introduce affirmative action and Black Economic Empowerment. Quick fix solutions that did bring significant benefits to a substantial sector of the black community, but failed to do so for others — thereby splitting the black population into a growing black middle class and a large lumpen proletariat.

 In other words our population began developing a new class stratification overlaying — not replacing but overlaying — the old racial stratification. And that meant the black political constituency began to change, for these different classes have different interests.

 In the old days all black people were in the same boat; all were oppressed, so it was relatively easy to keep them all united in the same political movement. But no longer; now their interests differ, and that is putting huge new strains on the ANC and its alliance partners.

 Today we have a sizeable black middle class that is doing very nicely, thank you, and a large lumpen proletariat who can’t get jobs in a technologically advancing economy that has less and less need for unskilled workers. In which unskilled workers are in fact becoming obsolete.

 Nor is that the only factor putting stress on the ANC alliance. The organisation itself has undergone a fundamental change of character as it has moved from being a liberation movement to becoming a governing party.

 From its birth 98 years ago, when it was formed to oppose that old Land Act, the ANC has been a broad church, a coalition of many different ideologies and faiths, ethnic groups and even races, who came together for the common purpose of fighting for equal rights; for the liberation of the black population and an end to their economic exploitation. That is the glue that held all these disparate elements together — the common idealism and spirit of the liberation struggle.

 But once liberation was achieved, that binding factor disappeared. The glue began to weaken; and as the accession to power replaced the commonality of the struggle, the different elements within the coalition began seeking to use that power to further their own factional agendas. So the in-fighting began as the different factions jostled with each other to gain control of the centre of power — the presidency and the multiple nodes of power and patronage down the line from there. Idealism gave way to ambition and avarice.

 There was another major character change as well. To join the ANC during the struggle years required huge self-sacrifice. It was a banned organisation and to join it, to do anything to further its aims and objectives, was a crime carrying severe penalties. Those who joined the ANC during the struggle years took huge risks, of arrest, imprisonment, torture, even death in many cases. They abandoned friends and families, left their country for the harsh and precarious existence of life in exile, all in the cause of an ideal — the liberation of their people.

 But you don’t risk anything to join the ANC today. Quite the contrary, you join it today because it’s the doorway to opportunity and success in life. From self-sacrifice to self-advancement. To wealth, a big car, a big house, fine clothes and tenderpreneurship.

 And so cronyism and corruption have crept in to corrode the soul of the ANC — and weaken it. With the idealism gone and faction-fighting racking it, the ANC is a much more brittle coalition now that it used to be.

 The seeds of this weakening unity were sown during the Mbeki era. Mbeki was a good engine-room manager, as he showed during the Mandela presidency, but he was not a good leader. His dark obsessions and obscurantism allowed the optimism and even the nonracial glow of the Mandela years to fade; while, worst of all, his inability to project his personality and his uncomfortable disconnection with his own people resulted in him failing to take his constituency with him when he took the unpopular decision to drop the ANC’s old socialist agenda and go for a business-friendly growth path with his GEAR policy.

 I believe that was the right decision in the circumstances of the global environment; you couldn’t swim against the tide. But then you’ve got to be able to take your people with you when you make such a big U-turn. Mbeki failed to do that and he paid the price.

I’ve just been in Brazil and was fascinated to see how that country’s remarkable President, Lula da Silva, has succeeded precisely where Mbeki failed. Lula, an old trade unionist and rabble-rouser ran for the presidency as leader of the radical left-wing Workers Party of which he was a founding member. But when he came to power in 2002 and found that the Brazilian economy was beginning to forge ahead, he decided to ride the growth wave, dropped his old ideological baggage and became the ultimate pragmatist. A complete U-turn. But he is a charismatic figure, a consummate persuader who was able to project a vision of his country as an awakening giant and coming world power, so that he was not only able to carry his old followers with him but pick up a whole new crowd instead. Today, as he approaches the end of his second and last term as President, he has an astonishing 80% approval rating in the opinion polls.

 But it was not only Mbeki who paid the price for his failure. The ANC paid a heavy price too. Mbeki’s obduracy, his failure to realise that he was heading for defeat at Polokwane — something that was obvious at the time, as an article in this book written three weeks before that fateful conference shows — led to a split in the ANC.

 It was a serious split. Anyone who attended COPE’s preliminary rally in the Sandton Convention in November 2008, and its spirited launch in Bloemfontein a month later, can have no doubt about the level of dissent in the black community. The fact that since then has seemed hell-bent on self-destruction with a crazy leadership conflict  doesn’t alter the fact that the fissure became visible.

 What’s even more important is that the split broke the ANC’s image of inviolability. Yes we know it has a special cache as the party of liberation. We know, too, that people tend to vote their identity. Modern political scientists believe that political decisions are driven by interests, but I think identity is equally important — perhaps even more so. I spent long enough analysing politics in apartheid South Africa to know that vast numbers of Afrikaners continued to vote for the National Party long after they had serious doubts about its policies: some became verligtes, even public critics, but they still voted for the NP because it was their party, the party of their people into which they were born.

 So, too, are black people when it comes to the ANC — an identity hardened by its years of struggle and its image of self-sacrifice and heroism. But these loyalties are not immutable. They weaken with time and education and social mobility — and especially when a split occurs, when some major figures break away and make it more socially acceptable for others to do likewise. The movement loses its monopoly hold on ethnic loyalty; it becomes easier to leave it without feeling you are an ethnic traitor. And the more who leave, the easier it becomes for others to follow. That, I believe, is the real significance of the COPE split. Although it disappointed at the election, it broke the ANC’s monopoly hold on black political loyalty.

 That and the sheer bitterness of Polokwane which has left scars in branches across the country, together with the intense turf wars that have continued ever since, the rivalries over deployment and the granting of tenders — all made worse by the loss of its idealism in the face of pervasive, almost institutionalised corruption, have made the ANC a fractious and unstable governing party.

 Now we have Jacob Zuma as President, and we are entering Phase Three. A phase I have called “A Critical Time” as the title of this analysis, because I believe the ANC may be heading for another and more serious split — which may be either good or bad for the future of this country, depending on how it takes place. That is still part of the unknown future. Tomorrow’s retrospective historians will no doubt be able to show that the way it unfolds was inevitable, but I’m afraid we’re still stuck with contemporary analysis in the here and now. As Sam Golwyn famously said, “It’s foolish to make predictions, especially about the future.”

 So let me give you my foolish analysis of where I think we may be headed.

 Jacob Zuma is the very opposite of Thabo Mbeki. He is poorly educated, whereas Mbeki was degreed, sophisticated and urbane. But Zuma has street smarts where Mbeki had none. He has a feel for his people, a warmth and a connectedness that was sadly lacking in Mbeki. Mbeki was a grand analyst with a grand vision of the future, of a prosperous South Africa becoming a world power and leading the way to an African renaissance with the economic, spiritual and cultural upliftment of the long-despised black people everywhere on this earth.

 Zuma has no vision at all. He is a conciliator, an African traditionalist whose instinct is to govern by consensus so that he can keep everyone in the fractious ANC alliance together and alienate none. But he has no idea where to lead because he has no vision. So he is a weak and indecisive leader, paralysed by the self-imposed need for perpetual compromise.

 It is Zuma’s primary concern to try to keep all these fractious elements inside the ANC tent – and I believe it is precisely that which is going to cause the ANC to break up. Because he can’t please everybody all of the time, and his inertia is causing frustration to mount. By trying to please everyone he is frustrating everyone.

 Another factor is that the frenzy of  the Zuma camp’s campaign to mobilise support in the run-up to Polokwane, with  its emotional rallies, the bitter attacks on opponents and the machine-gun song, together with Zuma’s ruthless determination to get off the hook of his corruption charges – during which he and his supporters attacked the judiciary, impugned the Constitutional Court and ultimately subverted the National Prosecuting Authority — all combined to introduce a new level of  no-holds-barred politics into the ANC.

 In Moeletsi Mbeki’s words, the Zuma campaign opened the door to “populist demagoguery” – with a whole new group, with Julius Malema in the lead, now using those methods to whip up emotional support and increase their political influence, which of course is now also the key to the accumulation of wealth.

 So we have a three-way brawl tearing the heart out of this once great liberation movement. I don’t believe it can continue indefinitely as a united entity. The lure of power and patronage are now the only binding elements keeping it together, but even they become divisive factors for those who lose out in the in-fighting.

 Of course great political movements don’t just break up on their own in a logical, predictable way. It takes catalytic events to trigger political splits — and by definition catalytic events are unpredictable; they come as a surprise and that’s what gives them impact.

 But the political climate is ripe for such surprises. Stormy times lie ahead. The ANC’s important National General Council meeting will take place in September: the Youth League has already said it will use that to mount an attack on Malema’s arch-enemy, Gwede Mantashe, which of course will lead to a huge punch-up with the SACP, of which Mantashe is chairman.

 Then we have local government elections due next year, and given the ANC’s dismal record of service delivery and the evidence of rising grassroots discontent, the ANC could be in for a shock — at least to the extent of a heavy black stayaway. The loss of control over a number of town councils, perhaps even a major city of two, could raise questions within the ANC about the quality of Jacob Zuma’s leadership.

 That in turn could see some challenges to his leadership begin to emerge in the long run-up to the ANC’s next national conference in 2012. Once that happens the faction fighting will open up more schisms.

 Who will break cover to become a contestant? Will new players appear, old ones fall away? We don’t know. But I’m prepared to wager that the warfare will be intense and destructive. The ANC and its alliance partners, already in such a bitter state of fractiousness, will not be able to hold together.

 What then?

 I’ll offer you three scenarios. One is a fulfillment of what has always been the worst-case fear that a break-up of the ANC will, in Yeats’s words, see the centre fail to hold and things fall apart; in other words the country slipping into a state of insecurity and disorder, as has happened so often before in African states after they’d made promising starts.

 The second possibility is that the avalanche of criticism being directed at Zuma from almost every quarter will be a wake-up call that may see him tighten his grip on the party and start showing some determination and leadership. That may happen, but I don’t it highly. He is a good listener and he does have his ear to the ground, but I don’t think he has a vision of where to lead and his overriding concern is not to go down in history as the man who broke up the ANC.

 The third possibility, which I like to believe is more probable, is that a break-up of the ANC will lead to a realigned political landscape with two or more evenly balanced parties competing for electoral support — a change that would immediately empower the electorate, thoroughly disempowered at the moment by the dominance of a single party within a proportional representation list system that makes supposed public representatives more responsive to party leaderships than to the people, the voters, the electorate.

 Accountability to the public would be introduced at last — the one thing most seriously lacking in our system. South Africa’s transition to a proper functioning democracy would then be complete.

 For that to happen will require some careful strategising by people both within the ANC and outside, not least among the opposition, by people who care about the future of this country and who must surely be able to see by now that a break-up of the ruling alliance is looking increasingly likely.

 The fragmented opposition needs to unite, and there are signs of some of the key parties moving in that direction. But if such a united opposition is to present a real electoral challenge it must have a black leader. And not just any black leader, not a token figure; it must be someone with real stature, real credibility and preferably with struggle credentials. Some names are being whispered, and I am aware that some talks have taken place, but it’s obviously a highly delicate issue at this stage and I’m not going to venture any speculation.

 I don’t think COPE will join that process, not at this stage. Nor should it.  It has to try to get its shambolic house in order first. If it does, it could inflict some damage on the ANC in next year’s provincial elections, particularly in the Eastern Cape, and so hasten the break-up. Or it may break up itself, in which case some of its members will drift into the new united opposition if it is indeed formed, some may return to the ANC, and some may just disappear into the wilderness. The potential for it to become a meaningful force is there, and I think the next few months will determine whether it will become so or not.

 If it does, then with two substantial opposition forces established by the beginning of 2012, the scene will be set for a realignment when the break-up comes. But everything will depend on which players come on stage and what catalytic events occur between now and then.”

 Copyright Allister Sparks 2010

 Megan  Monday, June 28, 2010