Looting of South Africa is no accident – James Myburgh

Who would have thought, at the dawn of democracy, that South Africa would find itself looted and plundered almost to the point of collapse 28 years later? And by the very liberation movement, now ruling party, that promised it freedom from oppression? But that is what happened, and many commentators now believe it was not the result of incompetence or corruption – but a state policy in line with the constitution of the ANC. Following the collapse of Soviet communism, the ANC was forced to abandon socialism as its ultimate objective. The ANC/SACP had demanded of its elect the greatest of sacrifices in the battle against the evil of white domination, but had also always promised them, once victory was achieved, a society where they would be abundantly compensated for all their sacrifices and suffering. In 1955, the Freedom Charter, drafted by the SA Communist Party even contains a “looting” clause: the “national wealth” of the country “shall be restored to the people” and the “mineral wealth beneath the soil, the Banks and monopoly industry shall be transferred to the ownership of the people as a whole.” The promise was that the wealth then monopolised by the white minority – however created or acquired – was to be taken from its “owners” and given over to the deprived black majority. Of course it would be the liberation movement which would first take over this wealth and then decide how the loot would be distributed. Small wonder that we find ourselves in 2022 with a state on the brink of collapse and a society frustrated by promises which are still unfulfilled. First published on PoliticsWeb. – Sandra Laurence

Why the ANC loots

By James Myburgh

Last week The Presidency released the final two volumes of Judge Raymond Zondo’s reports into “state capture” during Jacob Zuma’s period in office. These have laid out in detail the systemic plunder of the state and parastatals by the Gupta family and others – aided and abetted by unscrupulous foreign companies and consulting firms and by ANC members or fellow travellers.

The significance of the Zondo reports lies less in what they revealed – much of what was already known or suspected – but that this was being confirmed by an official commission, appointed by then President Jacob Zuma himself (however reluctantly), and with its findings publicly accepted by President Cyril Ramaphosa. While in previous decades complaints about African National Congress corruption could be dismissed or disregarded as coming from the liberation movement’s enemies, this was an indictment coming from within the heart of the ANC itself.

This has forced some serious introspection by intellectuals from the liberation movement itself and those sympathetic to it. The basic question posed by the Zondo reports – for the ANC and South Africa – was how a liberation movement, once renowned for its heroic self-sacrifice, could have descended to this?

As Raymond Suttner put it, in an article that appeared in Polity and the Daily Maverick, something had gone “terribly wrong,” with the ANC and its allies having “betrayed the oppressed people of South Africa”. For Justice Malala, writing for TimesLive, the fatal moment came in 2008 when Jacob Zuma forced Thabo Mbeki out of the South African Presidency. Malala writes that despite his faults Mbeki “was a man who understood very deeply the supremacy of the constitution. He cared deeply for the country’s institutions even when he disagreed with their interpretation of their role in an evolving democracy.”

The Financial Times meanwhile commented in an editorial that “The ANC has been in power for 28 years. That is too long for any party to rule unopposed. Its transition from liberation movement to self-serving political incumbent is complete.”

I want to argue that these efforts to try and identify the point where the ANC “went wrong” suffer from a basic misunderstanding of the character of the ANC in particular and liberation movements more generally. 


In early June 2003 I gave a presentation at an African studies seminar at St. Antony’s College Oxford on the way power had become dangerously centralised under President Thabo Mbeki, with the institutional checks and balances within the political system largely neutralised. This had most notably allowed Mbeki to impose his views on “HIV and Aids” over the ANC, and then to shut down the parliamentary investigation into the highly suspect arms deal.

At the time I was still casting about for the correct “frame” for what was going on in post-apartheid South Africa and had for the purposes of the presentation settled on the reassertion by ideologically driven ANC exiles of their Soviet-derived doctrine of democratic centralism.

In Britain there has long been a tradition of left-wing intellectuals identifying deeply with the African nationalist cause and, to use the words of George Orwell, “placing it beyond good and evil and recognizing no other duty than that of advancing its interests.” Any hard criticism of the ANC and its agenda coming from a white South African was viewed as profoundly impertinent and would, on occasion, provoke a torrent of abuse in reply.

At the time too, the intense, almost holy, moral aura that had surrounded the ANC under the leadership of Nelson Mandela had not yet worn off, and I was given a hard time during the question period afterwards.

After the seminar, which was held in the late afternoon, there was a supper in the dining hall upstairs. One the attendees at the seminar was Terence Ranger, the retired former Rhodes Professor of Race Relations at Oxford University, and at the meal he sat down next to me for an informal talk.

Ranger was a brilliant British historian renowned for his deep knowledge of and sympathy with African nationalism. He had been deported from Southern Rhodesia in 1963 for his involvement in the nationalist cause there, while lecturing in the history department at the University College of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. Both Joshua Nkomo and Robert Mugabe attended his send-off.

After this he had taken up a lectureship at the University of Dar es Salaam, in Julius Nyerere’s Tanzania. There he had written two monographs on Southern Rhodesia which, as his obituary in The Guardian in 2015 noted, were histories of resistance to white colonisation which had “provided African nationalism with a heroic past.” The headline to that obituary described him as a “champion of African nationalism, and one of the continent’s most radical and influential historians.”

I knew of Terry Ranger and had seen him about but had not met him in person. It was with some wariness then that I awaited the verdict of this great historian on my highly critical (as I viewed it) but underdeveloped analysis of the ANC in power.

Anyway, he prefaced his comments with the story of Field Marshal Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher, the commander of the Prussian forces at the Battle of Waterloo. After the war had ended, Von Blücher had been invited to Britain to be thanked for the crucial role that he and his troops had played in the defeat of Napoleon. On viewing London, in all its imperial grandeur, Von Blücher is said to have exclaimed: “What a city to loot!”

Ranger then added that the ANC must have had the very same feeling on ascending to power in South Africa in 1994, given the wealth of the country, by far the richest and most developed in Africa, that had just fallen into its hands.

Though I had been highly suspicious of the arms deal, this notion – that the ANC’s orientation from the start had been towards plunder – was not one I had considered. And yet over the following weeks, months, and years the more this framing has seemed to fit better, and explain more, than any other. This applied not just to what happened subsequently, but also to what we have learnt of some of the very first actions of the ANC after securing power.

It is not just that an arms deal was pursued from the very start, for purely venal motives, but that the ANC sought concomitantly to dismantle critical checks and balances as quickly as it could. By 2007, as ANC Secretary General Kgalema Motlanthe himself observed, the rot had spread across the board. “It’s not confined to any level or any area of the country”, he told Carol Paton of the Financial Mail. “Almost every project is conceived because it offers opportunities for certain people to make money.” By the time Zuma ascended to power there were few institutional checks left against this kind of looting, the Directorate of Special Operations having been dismembered before he took over in the Union Buildings in April 2009. The death warrant for the DSO having been signed into law by interim President Motlanthe himself just a few months before. 


Yet however much this startling and unexpected insight has been confirmed by events it does nonetheless seem to jar with the heroic mythos and mythopoeia of the ANC – the willingness of its leaders and members to risk and sacrifice everything in the struggle. As Suttner rightly notes those who joined the liberation movement “had to prepare themselves for the dangers entailed and the possibility of arrest, torture and death”.

If one views the matter through Von Blücher’s perspective this apparent inconsistency disappears. It should be remembered, to start with, that throughout its heroic age the liberation movement had an explicit policy of seizing the wealth of the country. The 1955 Freedom Charter, which was drafted by the South African Communist Party Central Committee member Rusty Bernstein, and which gave expression to the minimum programme of the Party, even contains a looting clause. This is the one stating that the “national wealth” of the country “shall be restored to the people” and the “mineral wealth beneath the soil, the Banks and monopoly industry shall be transferred to the ownership of the people as a whole.”

In plain English the promise was that the wealth then monopolised by the white minority – however it had been created or acquired – was to be taken from its “owners” and given over to the deprived black majority (“the people”). Yet even here there is a rhetorical sleight of hand as it would be the liberation movement which would first take this wealth into its possession and would then decide how this loot would be distributed.

In a highly discriminatory system where members of the black African intelligentsia were denied meaningful opportunities and were regarded by the dominant white minority as belonging to a subordinate and inferior race, such racially infused communist ideology exerted an obvious and powerful appeal.

In the early 1960s the SACP, which meant most of the ANC leadership as well (including Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela), adopted the Road to South African Freedom as its programme. The formulation and adoption of this programme ran parallel with the move towards establishing MK and seizing power by force, a hugely risky and dangerous endeavour (and one that soon misfired terribly).

The immediate tasks of the National Democratic Revolution, as set out in this document, involved the systematic despoilation of the white minority. The farms, shops, businesses, factories, and mines that they owned and ran would be taken from them, and they would be pushed out of their positions in the state, judiciary, and newly nationalised enterprises. The apparently high-minded intention was that this initial national revolution would pave much of the way towards the transition to full socialism and the abolition of any exploitation of man by man.

In the 1970s the ANC/SACP’s adoption of a People’s War strategy went in lockstep with the determination to completely dispossess the “white exploiters,” an ever-deeper commitment to Marxism-Leninism, and a desire to impose a socialist order on South Africa. “The seizure of power by the people”, the ANC’s 1979 Green Book stated, “must be understood not only by us but also by the masses as the beginning of the process in which the instruments of state will be used to progressively destroy the heritage of all forms of national and social inequality.”

Even though a socialist system, had it ever been realised, would have imposed limits on personal accumulation and conspicuous consumption, nonetheless members of the liberation movement would have enjoyed an elevated status in such a system (as members of the Communist Party did in the German Democratic Republic). They would have manned the newly vacated positions in the state and nationalised enterprises, would have had priority access to foreign currency for the purchases of imported goods, and would also have had the pick of the properties abandoned by the fleeing “exploiters” and “oppressors”.

In the mid-1980s, at the time of the great national insurrection against apartheid and white rule, the liberation movement was still committed to the nationalisation of all but the smallest private concerns. Its intellectuals had started to express the first doubts only as to whether it would be a good idea for a future socialist state to take over the “small enterprises in the townships, on the street corners, the barbershops, the small traders, the handicraft stalls, and similar activities”. Nationalising them, experience had taught in Mozambique and elsewhere, might have proven to be more trouble than it was worth. Still, throughout the 1980s the ANC nonetheless remained committed to “The nationalisation of the mines, banks and monopoly industries” with any change or modification of its views in this regard regarded as “inconceivable”.


By the late 1980s the ANC had effectively checkmated the ability of the National Party to govern its way out of its crisis, though it had been unable to seize power by armed force. It was seen as offering the only credible alternative to an oppressive and discredited existing order. The NP government’s own opinion polls showed that the ANC enjoyed the support of some sixty percent of the population. It had won the support of this majority (and much of the intelligentsia as well), in good part because its leaders and cadres had presented the most powerful challenge to apartheid and been willing to dare and sacrifice more than anyone else. This was the basis on which the ANC’s mythos was built.

Over the next few years, following the collapse of Soviet communism, the ANC was forced to disclaim nationalisation as an instrument of policy, and abandon socialism as the ultimate objective. There were good political and economic reasons for doing this, not least the hard lessons that had been learnt from the experience of other African nations.

The reality though was that this was not just a formal party policy that could be turned off again at the flick of a switch. The ANC/SACP had built up a revolutionary army based on certain irrevocable commitments, which could not so easily be discarded.

The liberation movement theology of the ANC/SACP was one which had both demanded of its elect the greatest of sacrifices in the battle against the evil of white domination, but had also always promised them, once victory was achieved, a dispensation wherein they would be abundantly compensated for all their sacrifices and suffering. This was a struggle moreover that had taken four decades from the time of the adoption of the Freedom Charter, three decades longer than initially intended or expected.

The ANC’s entry into power then was always going to be the moment at which, for the liberation movement elect, the account for these long-promised and long-delayed rewards started falling due. Though its socialist commitments were relatively easily abandoned, the movement remained committed to the implementation of the National Democratic Revolution. Through the negotiations it had many of the country’s finest lawyers – many of whom would later end up on the Constitutional Court – involved in ensuring that none of the concessions it made in the negotiations would place any kind of real obstacle in the path of ultimately realising these objectives.

This expectation of present rewards for past sacrifices would be a driving motive force within the liberation movement from the start. The role of responsible ANC leadership was to realise this where possible, and restrain it where necessary, but it was not a force that could be arrested. As Machiavelli wrote in The Prince, the free distribution of loot is “very necessary to a prince who marches with his armies, and lives by plunder, sack and ransom, and is dealing with the wealth of others, for without it he would not be followed by his soldiers.” It goes without saying that any Prince who reneged on such promises following victory would likely soon find himself not just without an army but missing his head as well.

The liberal constraints on the ANC’s programme – such as the merit system in the appointment and promotion of civil servants, administered by an independent Public Service Commission – were regarded with undisguised frustration across the liberation movement, and were abolished as soon as it was possible to do so. A socialist system and ethos may have placed its own kind of restraints on this impulse, even if it accelerated it in other ways, but these too had now been dropped.

South Africa was not alone either in seeing former communists become gripped by a singular avariciousness following the death of the socialist ideal. In the second volume of his autobiography, published in 2000, the former Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, noted how after China moved away from communism “many communist activists who felt they had been deceived and had wasted the best years of their lives set out to make up for lost time and enrich themselves in every way they could.

“The same happened with communists in Vietnam. Both regimes, once justly proud of their total selflessness and dedication to the communist cause, are bedevilled by worse corruption than the decadent capitalist Asian countries they used to revile and despise.”

The ANC could nonetheless get away politically with personal accumulation by its cadres for as long as it could sustain the fallacies that it was the “same as its subjects, and is flesh of their flesh”, and that its aims and interests were the “very same as those for which the governed work and struggle”. The enrichment of senior ANC leaders and their spouses provoked remarkably little controversy or outrage during the Mbeki presidency and in the years immediately after.

These fallacies were shattered in the Zuma-era as growth stalled, the state became increasingly dysfunctional – both in large part because of policies adopted in the Mandela and Mbeki eras – and the promise of a better life for all faded; and the sharp-elbowed immigrant Indian Gupta family, working alongside unscrupulous foreign companies and consulting firms, pushed almost everyone else aside when it came to the plunder of the state and state-owned enterprises.


A useful and illuminating way of understanding the current relationship between South Africa and its liberation movement is via the fable of the Tortoise and the Scorpion. The story goes that there was a Tortoise who was inseparable friends with a Scorpion. They were deeply attached to each other and shared the same outlook on life.

One day they were compelled by circumstances to travel to a new land, but on their way there they came to a mighty river that they had to cross. Dismayed, the Scorpion said that he could not swim, and would have to remain behind. But the Tortoise, who could, said that he would carry the Scorpion across on his back. Halfway across the river the tortoise felt a tap, tap, tapping on his shell. “What is that noise, what are you trying to do?” he asked the Scorpion.

The Scorpion replied, “I am trying to sink the sharp end of my sting into the flesh of your body.” The Tortoise was flabbergasted by this and asked plaintively: “But why are you doing that? We are old friends. I am doing you a great favour. And if you succeed, we will both perish!”

To this the Scorpion responded: “Please do not misunderstand me. I regard you as my dearest friend. I have nothing but gratitude for what you are doing for me now, and I know full well what will happen if I succeed. But my nature compels me to sting, whether I wound foe or friend, and I can do no other.”

The moral is that it is pointless to expect a liberation movement to act contrary to its nature or take offence when it fails to do so. The question is only whether South Africa possesses a “shell” hard enough, and can survive long enough, so that it can reach the other side of the river and throw the scorpion off its back.

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