An honest assessment of post-apartheid South Africa

Friday, 19 August 2016
Richard Dowden

John Campbell’s new book Morning in South Africa ends with a simple judgement: “On balance even with the clouds, it is morning in South Africa.”

Having cited and analysed the failings of the ANC government, the paragraph that precedes this judgement gives a balanced assessment of South Africa’s remarkable transformation, listing “a consistent pattern of credible elections… a range of political vices are heard… freedom of speech in absolute… no infringement on the guarantees of human rights … the rule of law holds sway…. The judiciary has remained independent. Civil society is strong.”

Campbell points out that while the apartheid legacy will mark South Africa for generations to come, social and economic change has been slow. Campbell has been one of the most stringent commentators on South Africa for decades. In articles and at conferences he's has torn into the jargon of the anti-apartheid struggle and exposed the ineptness of some of the decisions of the African National Congress. Though he has given no comfort to the apartheid regime.

He points to the positives that have taken place since 1994, for example how in 2008 black people made up 14% of the middle class compared to just 7% in 1993. And that proportion is increasing, gradually changing the perception that while the black majority dominate politics, the white minority dominates and still owns much of  the economy. 

But it is the land that remains the difficult area. The ANC’s Freedom Charter, the document drawn up in 1955 which became the constitution of the ANC, states: “The mineral wealth beneath the soil, the banks and monopoly industry shall be transferred to the ownership of the people as a whole.”

This was written at the height of the Cold War. It mattered then whose side you were on, and the ANC, driven largely by pro-Soviet communists and supported with money and weapons by Moscow, was clearly in the Soviet camp. The anti-apartheid movement was led by the South African Communist Party which was close to Moscow. Its language was laced with Marxist phrases and driven by a Marxist vision of South Africa. Liberals like the white South African Peter Hain and Anthony Sampson, who was an old friend of Mandela, were ignored or even shunned by the leadership of the anti-apartheid movement.    

When the Soviet Union collapsed, Washington was left with a free hand in the world. It brought an end to the war in Angola and prised Namibia from South African control. The ANC continued to speak in Marxist slogans but gradually dropped its commitments to state ownership of key industries and giving land to “the people”.

But unlike the struggle for Zimbabwe where land and ownership was the core issue, South Africa’s revolution came from urban and industrial struggles. The people who took a new stake in the land and the wealth were many of the ANC leaders and the new African middle class. Many of them have bought farms but, as Campbell says: “Some large commercial farms have therefore been distributed to black collectives rather then being broken up into individual plots. These have not been notably successful.”

Morning in South Africa by John Campbell is published by Rowman and Littlefield.

Richard Dowden is Director of RAS