RW Johnson: ANC’s promotion of racist rhetoric has an even darker side. But it won’t work.

RW Johnson was the star attraction at South African trade union Solidarity’s #StopRacism conference yesterday. And he did not disappoint. The best-selling author, historian and former Oxford don explained how the ANC’s increasingly vocal racist rhetoric is designed to distract attention away from its failings – and its underhand strategy of enriching the politically connected. Johnson remains optimistic about SA’s future, though, convinced the propaganda isn’t working, nor shall it. He makes a very strong case that this is the last kick of a dying horse. Hope springs. – Alec Hogg

I spent a couple of fruitful hours today, watching the webcast by trade union Solidarity. It put together a really potent group of speakers to discuss racism and the escalation of this scourge in South Africa. The star attraction was historian and best-selling author RW Johnson and as you listened to what he had to say today, you’ll get the drift on why I admire and respect the man so much. Johnson believes that the sudden escalation of racist rhetoric by South African politicians is merely the last kick of a dying ANC horse and one doomed to failure. He says it’s a way for them to disguise the real agenda – and that is enriching politically connected elite while there’s still an economy to plunder from. Here’s the former Oxford Don himself.

Let me just start off with two quotes. One is from Julius Malema. “Those are desperate moves by a dying donkey” where he’s referring to the ANC. “These people – mark my words – are going to start killing. They have become so desperate that they are going to start killing. They’ve started killing each other internally. They will come for us.” Secondly, I have Gwede Mantashe giving a memorial lecture on Fidel Castro where he spoke about “the depth of hate between members of the ANC’s National Executive Committee”. A rather interesting quote – not about black/white hatred, but actually black/black. Now, my own view is that the whole issue of hate speech is that it’s a minor part of a much larger picture. We have to accept that there’s been a long history – hundreds of years – in which whites were able to insult people of colour and worse than insult; enslave and beat etcetera.

Many people with a common level of understanding probably see what is happening as a sort of ‘tit for tat’ and that we are now suffering this. After all, most elections under apartheid (maybe not all of you were old enough to have witnessed them, but I certainly was) were all exercises in racial mobilisation – it was ‘swart gevaar’. That’s what it was about: racial mobilisation against blacks. Now, it’s happening against whites and I would say that public racism has always been one-sided. I don’t think it’s ever been an equal thing and I don’t think it ever can be. When I was a kid; if a black man raped my white woman, he was hanged. If it was the other way around and a white man raped a black woman, he’d get a fine or a short sentence. It was, quite obviously, not an equal law and that was just commonplace. We’re all supposed to have moved on a long way from that, but the current situation is a peculiar one in the following sense.

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Firstly, we have an almost complete halt to economic growth caused by the cumulative weight of ANC legislation and other behaviour, which is stifling investment. As a result, we’ve got falling per capita income and the state’s running out of money. Secondly, we have a complete loss of ANC hegemony. Party loyalties may remain but the ANC is now seen as a party in decline, riddled by corruption. It no longer has the moral high ground or anything like that and there’s a great drop in its prestige. But on the other hand, the pressures exerted by the black bourgeoisie are in no way attenuated by the economic situation. There’s absolutely continuing pressure for more jobs, higher wages in the public sector, and more BEE etcetera. It doesn’t stop, irrespective of what the financial or economic situation may be.

This leaves the ANC leadership in a somewhat beleaguered situation and it has opted to radicalise its rhetoric in response. As you know, all the talk is about fighting poverty and inequality but that isn’t real at all. The only thing that is real is satisfying the demands for the black bourgeoisie. One of the reasons why I don’t think e.g. that stuff about land is terribly real is because firstly, there’s no money allocated for it in the budget at all. If we were serious, you would have money allocated for land reform. Secondly, there’s nothing in it for the black bourgeoisie, frankly. Farming is damned hard work and a lot of farmers are going bust. It’s the same as demands for a black bank. You hear the demand but we all know that Barclays is trying to sell ABSA. If they would step forward and buy, they’d be delighted but no-one’s offering. 

RW Johnson
Rhodes scholar, anti-apartheid activist, author and former Oxford don RW “Bill” Johnson

It’s just not happening. All the external pressure from the IMF and the rating agencies etcetera, is for a whole series of reforms of sort, which I won’t go through but you know – better management of state, industries and labour market reforms etc. None of that is really on the table as far as the ANC is concerned and indeed, all their policies are effectively hindering investment, slowing down growth and creating more unemployment. The fundamental process, which they want is one of redistribution of wealth and income away from the black poor to the better off black and away from the middle-class whites in the same direction. This results in mounting contradictions. I wrote a paper before Gordhan was sacked but certainly up until then, the Treasury was trying to cut the budget deficits.

Ministers were continually coming up with expansionary schemes, which would satisfy some of these pressures coming up all the time from below them. The Treasury was of course, having to refuse, producing a great deal of frustration and anger. The ANC… In this situation, Zuma has started to talk about radical economic transformation etcetera but it’s a very peculiar thing. In terms of the old agenda, this was supposed to happen as the ANC (with great acclaim from a large electorate, which is always growing) would be marching towards socialism. It wasn’t expected that this would be a last-ditch attempt as the party went backwards, which is what the current situation actually is. In the past, white-owned businesses were a pretty soft touch in this situation and that has ceased to be true. Firstly, they’re feeling the pinch as well.

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They also can’t really manage with the whole idea of ‘once empowered is not always empowered’. They must repeatedly give away more and more of their equity. They’re digging in their heels. They have to. Similarly, the banks are under pressure. The farmers are under pressure because of drought and in general; white businesses, in the situation where it can’t easily give… There was always a lot of give in this situation up until now. That really is no longer true. The net result of that situation is that the pressures from the black bourgeoisie have never decreased and they’re not likely to, but the ability to satisfy them is much less in the current situation. What that produces, is exacerbated tensions of every kind: tribal, ethnic, racial, dog-eat-dog, and faction fighting. It’s all there and it’s bound to be and if you imagine that we suddenly had 5% economic growth, a lot of this would go away just like magic, including a lot of this racial name-calling.

These are all features of a low or zero-growth economy where everyone is fighting for whatever and using whatever means that are at hand. The hate speech thing is yet one more attempt by the ruling elite for manufactured consent (or, at least, it’s appearance). This is part of the increasing desperation that is loss of hegemony. You can see the ridiculous situation. You’ve got the SABC, which is ‘his master’s voice’ added to which, you have ANN7 ‘the Gupta channel’ in addition to which, they took over the main English-speaking newspapers. Net result: Zuma at 20 percent among the urban population. It’s not working. They control all the means of propaganda and yet, everything shows in all the polls that they’re actually down. It just isn’t working. Now, this produces a situation of some desperation on their part. Again, this is not what the script was supposed to be.

Flag map of South Africa

Now, what they are doing in practice is to try to borrow from classic, elite protection mechanisms, which we’ve see in other parts of Africa (particularly more backward parts of Africa frankly) and one of the favourite things there, is to try to criminalise any criticism of the great leader. You’ll notice that this is a key part of the legislation that any insult to the president will carry particular penalties. This is partly African ‘big man’ patrimonialism, but I think it’s also a very difficult situation and I can’t imagine any other place in Africa where every day, in the newspapers, you can read thunderous criticism of the president. You can see hostile cartoons. You can see anything you like. A figure of fun, for example. This is not something that African politicians anywhere else really have to put up with and is something, which is greatly resented. There’s bound to be a clash over the question of free speech because the Hate Speech Bill is going to come right up against the Free Speech clauses in the Constitution.

Personally, I cannot see how the Hate Speech Bill can really win but that may not be the most important thing here. Incidentally, it isn’t just a matter of our Constitution. It’s a matter of our whole history. When I came to this country in the 1950’s, you could hear people slagging off Strydom and Verwoerd. They were saying whatever they wanted to. There was never a time when that didn’t happen in this country so there’s a long history of free speech, which goes back far before our Constitution and which, frankly, we’re all used to whatever our colour. I do think that they’re really up against it in trying to limit free speech in this country. Nonetheless, the leadership is boxed in. What is its answer to this? Well, the answer is simple. Let me just give you a parallel. In 1990, the London Times sent me out to do a series about South Africa at a time of change and I went up to Waterberg and spoke to Kronig’s election manager/agent.

He wasn’t really very pleased to see me. He saw me as an Engelsman/Rooinek’ and he came up with a whole series of insults against the Queen. I remember saying, “I’m a Republican. I don’t really mind what you say. It doesn’t touch me” but he carried on all the same, and I realised that Afrikaner nationalism (and remember, it was at its last croak) … What was the fundamental, underlying thing? Well, it was anti-British imperialism. That’s how it all started. That was the most fundamental form of mobilisation, starting from the Anglo-Boer War and for understandable reasons, but that was its dying croak. Now, we’re in a somewhat similar situation with the ANC. We may as well face the fact that African Nationalism was (and is probably always bound to be) a form of racial mobilisation against the white oppressor. At grassroots level, that was always bound to be very powerful.

There were always white and Indian intellectuals who were either liberals or communists, who wanted to ‘pin the tail on the donkey’, the idea of non-racialism but it was always a bit skin-deep, truthfully. I was in the ANC long ago and I can tell you that I used to hear a great deal of racism on all sides. It wasn’t unusual at all and certainly, all the mobilising talk was always against the Boere (and that meant all whites, by the way. It didn’t mean Afrikaners). The answer in this situation is ‘white monopoly capital’, which is their version of the great Satan as it were and clearly, this is a strategic decision and they key word in that of course, is white rather than monopoly capital. The monopoly capital is about/in the direction of the Communist Party, etcetera. What is happening? We’ve got all these tremendous tensions: tribal, ethnic, racial, and factional (above all).

In effect, what the ANC leadership is trying to do is to insist on the primacy of the black/white division as against going above all those other divisions and to subsume those under it, as it were. Now, I frankly think this is an uphill task and I rather doubt their ability to do it. I think that the whole hate speech thing is very much part of that. The only thing I would say is that I think finally, that there is a way in which we have to try and think sociologically about hate speech because I don’t think it’s quite the same. I can remember when I was at school in Durban (long ago), there was always a great deal of racist rhetoric but 90% of it was actually for the consumption of other whites. It wasn’t even common in those days, to use insulting terms like ‘coolie’ or ‘kaffir’ towards Indian or black people to their face. You only did that if someone really wanted to hurt or insult and that wasn’t all that common.

Economic Freedom Fighters’ leader Julius Malema

I do think that when it’s happening with black people the other way around where a different sort of thing is often going on… For a start, we have a long history in which whites were the bosses. They would be employers. They were in the strong position and it took a certain degree of boldness for anybody to come out and say rude things about whites publicly. In a sense, when a ‘Malema’ does that, he’s being the young warrior of the tribe, coming forward and hurling insults at the enemy to show that he’s brave and he’s bold. He knows that it will shock people and it will get him talked about, and they will say, “That chap Julius is not afraid of whites” and this will be a sort of positive thing to say. In other words, I think there’s a different sociology to this than there is for whites and I think it goes back. The old PAC slogan was ‘one settler, one bullet’ and again, they were young warriors boasting and waving their spears.

In that sense, it was not really all that harmful. It wasn’t really going to go anywhere but as Mark has pointed out, it’s dangerous stuff because we are in a situation in which law and order is always under threat in this country. If you’re going to allow (in a situation of a great deal of desperation, because that’s what you’re talking about when times are hard as these) … Think of the situation of ANC MP’s being told to vote for or against Zuma. Many of them know perfectly well that if they put a foot wrong and they lose their jobs, they will be sitting in a shack, unemployed in a squatter camp. They can’t fall back on being a lawyer/doctor or whatever. They will actually be unemployed and semi-starving so it’s a very desperate situation and people in those situations fight hard. That is the danger about this sort of thing.

There is a lot of ugly and bad feeling around because of our zero-growth etcetera, and I do think hate speech is dangerous in that situation but I also think it’s important for us if we’re going to discuss the whole thing, to realise the wider context. That’s where we’re at and if you like, the good news is that the ANC is near its last croak and this is a desperate, last throw and I don’t really think it can work for all sorts of reasons.

After the formal presentation, Solidarity opened the floor to questions and during this discussion, Johnson (who himself, is a former ANC activist) offered a rational response to the assertion that all whites South Africans should be bearing the cross for sins of the past – an issue popularised as ‘white guilt’.

A very important point, which really gets overlooked far too easily is that in medieval times, the Jews were persecuted because it was said that they had killed Jesus, and so they were all collectively guilty. This was the rationale for anti-Semitic pogroms. It was this, which caused all the chief religions and certainly, all the Christian churches as well as the Jews etcetera, to say that there is no such thing as collective guilt. Guilt is, by definition, only individual. It cannot be more than that and this was over and over again. It always came up. For example, in the Second World War, when the Nazis were faced with some particular resistance thing, they would carry out mass reprisals. They’d burn down a whole village and kill everyone in it like they did at Oradour-sur-Glane in France.

Author RW “Bill” Johnson behind his desk at home in Cape Town. His best seller How long will SA survive? has topped the non fiction lists for the past year.

This would be condemned precisely for the same reasons – because you were trying to hold people collectively guilty for something so we shouldn’t believe in anything called ‘white guilt’. There’s only individual guilt.

Also during question time, Johnson was asked his views on the Zuma administration’s newly-adopted slogan of ‘radical economic transformation’. As you might have expected, he didn’t exactly mince his words.

I think it’s mainly a cover in the sense that what really matters to the government is helping that black bourgeoisie, which is pushing its relatives and friends who are in the civil service and who are black businessmen, etcetera. That is the group, which they’re really answerable to. Now, of course, they will talk about radical economic transformation, which sounds very nice. It sounds like we’re about to do something for everybody out there but if you then see what this boils down to, very quickly you’d find that it’s getting 100 black industrialists – making 100 black people very rich. We’re told now what it’s going to be and I saw that Nomura did a thing about this, asking “What does it actually mean?” and they said, “It’s going to mean change in procurement rules.” i.e. it’s going to be our BEE getting more of the cake. Right? That’s how it goes.

The business end of it is always going to be at that part of the spectrum. It’s not really going to be about… Well, occasionally there might be a little bit more put on Social Grant or something like that just before an election. Okay, that can happen but otherwise, I don’t think they’re terribly interested in sweeping social change. It’s very difficult to see in a situation of high unemployment and more or less zero-growth, how on earth you do it frankly, even if you really wanted to. I can’t easily see that. By the way, let me just mention one thing. I didn’t entirely agree with Koos when he was talking about equality and it’s worth making a point or two about that. Firstly, I don’t think that the African society is normally egalitarian. If anything, there’s a very strong ‘big man’ culture. Zuma is quite clearly, to anyone like me who grew up in Natal, is a Zulu chief.

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He behaves like one, assumes he should be treated like one, and has as many wives as one, etcetera. That is the model. If you like, the Zulu King is really the model for him. That’s not at all an egalitarian notion. The other thing I would point out about this is when Laurie [Schlemmer and I were doing a lot of polling work on this sort of thing… If you gave black people a statement like ‘everybody should be completely equal and all the money and everything should be distributed completely equally between everybody’, 60/70% would say, “Yes, that’s very good”. If you then follow that up by saying, “Well then, what we should do if you agree, is we should take away most of the money from white people and give it to black people, (which would have followed)” … There, you wouldn’t get many saying, “Yes”. The reason why is that they could see.

We would check why there’s this big difference and only 20% would agree to that. Why? They knew perfectly well that doing that would create social conflict. They didn’t want social conflict and anywhere they could sense it, they backed away from. I think it’s very important to realise that because these things qualify the egalitarian regime, one way or the other. I do think it’s also the case that if you look at a lot of advertising on TV, a lot of it aimed at the African market is highly aspirational. If you’re advertising anything to do with your family or your future, you have pictures of pretty young black girls throwing their mortar boards in the air because they’ve just graduated. That’s a key one, which you get all the time. Alternatively, you have suave black men in expensive suits, drinking expensive whiskeys on their yachts. I noticed that one recently. This is incredibly inegalitarian stuff. It’s looking towards a very different sort of future.

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