A Rumour of Spring South Africa after 20 Years of Democracy

Published in late 2013, a month before the death of Madiba Nelson Mandela, Max du Preez has analysed just where South Africa finds itself as it prepares to mark 20 years of the democratic dispensation on 27th April.


Published in late 2013, a month before the death of Madiba Nelson Mandela, Max du Preez has analysed just where South Africa finds itself as it prepares to mark 20 years of the democratic dispensation on 27th April. 

It is a sobering picture, but not entirely gloomy. Du Preez, like any professional journalist, takes a measured approach to assessing the current situation and extrapolating what the future is likely to hold.

For example, Du Preez chooses to quote Frans Cronjé, the deputy chief executive of the South African Institute of Race Relations (an institution that the author describes as “not exactly a left-wing organisation”).

Cronjé stated: “The ANC may be accused of many things, and it can be debated that state delivery is the best development model for the country to follow, but the data we have published is unambiguous that the ANC and the government it leads [and has led since 1994] deserves considerably more credit for improving the living standards of poor and black South Africans than it has received”.

So just why does the issue of ‘service delivery’ – the provision of housing, water, electricity and toilets to townships, squatter camps and rural areas – arouse so much heated criticism of government performance?

In Cronjé’s view, the protests are more a function of raised expectations than a failure to deliver. Nevertheless, it would be difficult to find any South African who is truly sanguine about the country’s progress.

And Du Preez gives voice to these concerns. He writes with considerable authority, an authority that has been earned as a fearless journalist and radical Afrikaner commentator.

In 1973 he started working as a journalist at Die Burger, then still the official mouthpiece of the National Party, and the year after became a member of the first editorial team of Die Burger’s northern sister, Beeld. He then became the political correspondent of South Africa’s Sunday Times and Business Day.

He next co-founded and edited the progressive anti-apartheid Afrikaner newspaper Vrye Weekblad that exposed the apartheid hit squads led by the infamous Dirk Coetzee and Eugene de Kock. For its troubles, the paper got its offices bombed; and was finally closed after being sued for defamation by an apartheid police general, Lothar Neethling.

A year earlier he had been a member of the so-called Dakar Safari of 1987 – a group of over 50 Afrikaner thinkers led by Dr Frederik van Zyl Slabbert that travelled to Senegal to meet with a 17-man ANC in exile delegation headed by Thabo Mbeki.

They met to try to find a road map out of the violence, repression, political morass and moral void that South Africa had found itself in by adopting apartheid. The Botha government deemed them traitors. After the Dakar Safari, many of this group of Afrikaners went on to visit both Ghana and Burkina Faso. Du Preez recalls his meeting with the “extraordinary” Burkinabé President, Thomas Sankara.

He admits that he thought the ANC in power would better resemble the post-colonial government of Burkina Faso than that of Zaire’s Mobuto Sese Seko. He was to be a little disappointed.

For the ANC has, almost since taking power, been plagued by a series of scandals, stretching from the infamous multibillion-dollar arms procurement deal to President Jacob Zuma’s Nkandla homestead ‘upgrades’.

Andrew Feinstein described the arms deal in detail in his 2009 book After the Party and alleges that up to $200m was paid in bribes to senior politicians and officials.

Shortly after Du Preez’s book was published, the public protector, Thuli Madonsela, completed a provisional report into the improvements made to Zuma’s Nkandla homestead. The leaked report concluded that the president derived “substantial” personal benefit (of around $20m) from works paid by the state that exceeded the security needs of his private home.

It is only a provisional report as the public protector has to provide those affected by the report’s conclusions the right to comment. But many believe that Zuma was less than honest in insisting to parliament in November 2013 that his family paid for his private residence’s upgrade, that only security features were paid for by the state.

Conservative Afrikaners frequently deride Du Preez, along with Slabbert et al, as having been duped by the ANC on the Dakar Safari. And when discussing the scandals that regularly lap against the ANC’s door ask: “What did you expect?”.
As Du Preez writes, even prior to Thuli Madonsela’s provisional report, which she titled Opulence on a Grand Scale: “Nkandla is a real scandal in the eyes of most South Africans, not just opponents of the ANC.

“Spending so much state money on such luxury at one man’s house while millions live in shacks and hardly have food to eat is outrageous in anyone’s book. Not even the men and women in Luthuli House [headquarters of the ANC] are trying to justify it. This is the kind of thing corrupt dictators like Zaire’s Mobuto Sese Seko … did. It is completely alien to South Africa.”

Scandal and sleaze is but one of the “big issues” that Du Preez turns his investigative, prescient gaze towards – he also examines the state of education, land reform, crime and policing, the judiciary, nationality and race.

He describes the standards of primary and high school education in South Africa as “without doubt” the greatest and most depressing failure “and the brightest flashing red light”.

In a chapter titled ‘An undeclared war on our own children’, the author presents a number of startling statistics. The most startling is perhaps that despite 10% of government spending going to education, the country has the worst performance in science and mathematics of all sub-Saharan countries. Du Preez suggests that the malaise affecting education “mirror[s] those of other spheres of governance: corruption; bad and fast-changing policies and decisions; bureaucratic incompetence; and political expedience counting more than productivity”.

When he discusses land reform, he claims that no other issue elicits so much anger, fear and fiery confrontation as the ownership of land. “Few, if any, other national issues are as misunderstood, misrepresented and mismanaged as the land question,” he contends.

He is particularly critical of the lack of a firm grasp of what land there is available, and who might want to work it – pointing out that the Minister of Rural Development and Land Reform, Gugile Nkwinte, stated in April 2013 that government had paid out over 71,000 restitution claims to applicants who chose cash over the transfer of about 1.3ha of land (worth $600m).

Crime and policing is another huge concern for most South Africans. It is truly sobering that the first post-apartheid police commissioner was convicted of corruption over his dealings with Glenn Agliotti, a self-confessed organised-crime kingpin.

“The rot did not stop at the top,” writes Du Preez. “In July 2013, the police disclosed that 1,448 serving police officers were convicted criminals, all guilty of serious crime.”

Earlier in the book, Du Preez writes of his shock at the Marikana tragedy, when 34 striking mine workers were shot dead by police. And, again, when footage emerged of a Mozambican taxi driver, Mido Macia, being dragged behind a police van.

“Police brutality has become a daily fact of life,” he observes, “and communities fear the police as they did the apartheid police – not so much the wealthier white communities, mind you, but those communities that were supposed to be most in need of liberation.”
As for the associated issues of the judiciary, nationality and race, much of what the author writes on these subjects is so specific to South Africa’s situation – such as the relationship between the administration, democracy and the country’s constitution – they are difficult to grasp for those readers without a working knowledge of South African society and its norms.

But Du Preez offers a clear explanation as to why the issue of race in South Africa, and what constitutes an African or a coloniser, is far more complex than a simple black and white apartheid-style analysis.

It looks as if South Africa is about to enter its first true post-Mandela watershed. Many envisage this year’s May polls as being the most competitive since the end of apartheid and already the tripartite alliance is fragmenting.

In December 2013, a decision by one of the largest trade unions, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, that it would withdraw its support for Zuma’s ANC at the elections, came as a bombshell.

As for the author’s own prognostications, given the tone of this book, they are remarkably optimistic. He is reassured by the fact that when South Africa has previously confronted political meltdown, stability and democracy prevailed.

It is as the last sentence of this impressive book states: “There is, after all, more to South Africa and South Africans than the president and government of the day.”

Stephen Williams

A Rumour of Spring
South Africa after 20 Years of Democracy
By Max du Preez
ZAR230 Zebra Press (SA)
ISBN 978-1-77022-543-5

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