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South Africa: The Politics of Massacre

20 August 2012

South Africa: The Politics of Massacre

By Gwynne Dyer

Forty-eight hours after South African police killed 34 striking miners last Thursday (16 August), Julius Malema showed up at the Lonmin platinum mine north of Johannesburg to assign the blame.

“President Zuma said to the police they must act with maximum force,” Malema told a crowd of thousands of miners. “He presided over the murder of our people and therefore he must step down….From today, when you are asked ‘Who is your president?’, you must say ‘I don’t have a president’.”

President Jacob Zuma was in Mozambique when the slaughter happened, and is unlikely to have given the police instructions on dealing with a local strike. But professional demagogues don’t have to worry about the details, and Malema was fundamentally right in what he said next.

“Zuma doesn’t care about the mineworkers, he came here last night and met with whites,” Malema said. “It’s not the white British (mine-owners) who were killed. It was you.” And in a final slap at the governing African National Congress (from which he was recently expelled): “They only come to you when it’s time for elections. Once you put that cross, they disappear.”

Julius Malema fills the same role in today’s South Africa that Winnie Mandela did in the dying days of apartheid in the early 1990s: the radical demagogue who uses violent, often anti-white invective to articulate the rage of the impoverished black majority. This terrifies South Africans who have something to lose, black and white alike.

Malema preaches hatred of the rich and hints at social revolution. The fact that he has become mysteriously rich himself at the age of 31, although his only jobs were as an official of the ANC Youth League, doesn’t bother his millions of admirers at all. They just want to see a real redistribution of the country’s wealth in their favour, and they think Malema is their best bet.

They are probably wrong. Malema is ruthless and cunning enough to have a chance at winning power some time towards the end of this decade, when the ANC’s political near-monopoly finally collapses. But he is not skilled enough, and perhaps not even clever enough, to push through that sort of redistribution without destroying South Africa’s industrial economy in the process. Nevertheless, many of the poor feel they have nowhere else to turn.

It is now 18 years since the fall of apartheid, and a substantial class of prosperous middle-class blacks has emerged (together with a small group of very rich people with close links to the ANC). However, the poor majority remain desperately poor, and they no longer trust the ANC to bring positive change in their lives. They are starting to defect politically, and the main battle is being fought on the territory of the trade unions.

Mining is South Africa’s biggest industry, and the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) is the country’s biggest union. It is closely tied to the ANC, but many believe that it is also in bed with the bosses. Cyril Ramaphosa (who chaired the ANC’s disciplinary appeals committee that expelled Malema from the ANC early this year) was the founder of the NUM 30 years ago, but now he is on Lonmin’s board.

The Lonmin strike is actually a turf war. The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (ACMU), a new, radical union, has been stealing the members of the National Union of Mineworkers, including three or four thousand of the 26,000 men working in Lonmin’s platinum mine. ACMU promised to triple the workers’ wages, and the violence began when it tried to stop NUM members from going to work.

Ten people were killed in clashes between the two unions in mid-August, including two police who were hacked to death with pangas (machetes). So the police were understandably nervous last week when they faced an angry mob of about 3,000 workers armed with pangas, spears and clubs.

Unleashing a torrent of automatic fire that killed 34 strikers and wounded 78 was an act of gross indiscipline, but frightened men, even if they have far better weapons, will not always respond in a measured and disciplined way when they are under attack. The reflex, unfortunately, is to hold the trigger down and spray the threat with bullets.

Nobody wanted this tragedy to occur, and it is unlikely to happen again in the same way. Jacob Zuma will still probably be re-elected as the leader of the ANC in December and go on to a second term as president. There will be a commission of inquiry, and judges will reach conclusions and make recommendations.

But the main political beneficiaries of the incident are the forces that are trying to loosen the grip of the ANC’s old guard on the unions and the country. It has been a very auspicious occasion for Julius Malema, who is trying to position himself as the only real alternative to Zuma and the gang. Some time later in the decade, the Lonmin massacre may come to be seen as a turning point in South Africa’s history. Or not, because history does not run on rails.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and . (“Julius…alike”; and “Mining…board”)

 

 

The African National Congress at 100

5 January 2012

The African National Congress at 100

By Gwynne Dyer

“It’s a bittersweet victory,” said William Gumede, a distinguished South African academic, about the hundredth anniversary of the African National Congress (ANC), which opens with a enormous party in Bloemfontein on Sunday. “This is our tipping point. From here things will go downhill. No liberation movement has moved upwards from this point.”

It’s a grim prognosis, but Gumede, author of “Thabo Mbeke and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC,” insists that South Africa is no exception to the rule. “Every African country thought it was exceptional. If you look at the archives of Nigerian papers at the time they got independence (1960), everyone in Nigeria, in Africa and indeed the world over thought they were exceptional. No one wanted to criticise them.” But then it all fell apart.

It has not fallen apart yet in South Africa. Eighteen years after Nigeria got its independence, there had been a terrible civil war, the generals were already ruling the country, and the average income was lower than it had been in late colonial times. Whereas eighteen years after the end of apartheid in South Africa in 1994, it is still a more or less peaceful democracy, and the living standards of the poor have at least not declined.

But maybe that was just because South Africa was fortunate to have an extraordinary generation of leaders: men like Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo who were intelligent, incorruptible and dedicated to democracy. Without them at its head, can the ANC be trusted? A lot of people doubt it.

Mandela chose Thabo Mbeki as his successor because he trusted him to keep the government clean and democratic, but there was already something wrong there. However saintly Mandela was, the way he imposed Mbeki as leader of the ANC, and therefore president of the country, was considerably less than democratic.

Mbeki turned out to be more autocratic than Mandela had hoped, but his overthrow in an internal ANC coup in 2008 was hardly a triumph for democracy either. Of the two men who played the biggest roles in organising that coup, one, Jacob Zuma, is now president of the ANC and the country, while the other, ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema, spends all his days plotting to take his place.

Zuma, a man who has faced multiple charges of corruption and rape, miraculously emerges unscathed from the courts each time, and his co-conspirator in the main corruption case, Shabir Shaik, has just been released from prison for “medical reasons.” Malema, an accomplished demagogue, has built his popularity among the poor black majority on barely disguised racial incitement against whites, mixed-race people and other minorities.

Politics is a tough old game in every country, but there is a systemic problem here: the ANC doesn’t do democracy well. Gumede put his finger on it when he pointed out that the ANC, like other African parties that fought liberation wars, had a military structure. “They tended to centralise; there was not much internal democracy. When they came to power they couldn’t break away from this culture, which undermined internal democratic processes.”

Dozens of heads of state and an estimated 100,000 ordinary South Africans are flocking to Bloemfontein to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the ANC. They honour it because it brought freedom to the black majority in South Africa without destroying the country’s democratic institutions in the process. South Africa still has free elections, free media and a justice system that is free from government influence (most of the time).

But that has been relatively easy up to now. The ANC still enjoys mass support because of its heroic past, so it has won every national election so far without having to break the democratic rules. The question is: what will it do when it can no longer win without breaking the rules?

That day is probably not very many years off. The ANC’s share of the vote has been falling steadily, partly because of its perceived corruption but largely because almost two decades in power will erode the popularity of any political party. The election in 2014 will probably be the last in which it can hope to win a parliamentary majority honestly.

The most important crisis in South Africa’s history will occur when it loses the election after that. Only if the ANC then goes meekly into opposition can we conclude that South Africa really is an exception to the rule that liberation movements don’t do democracy.

The rule doesn’t mean that Africa is doomed eternally to political oppression and corruption. A number of African countries have passed through that long tunnel and emerged on the other end as flawed but generally law-abiding democracies: Kenya, Zambia, and Mozambique, for example. But it would be much better not to go into the tunnel at all.

The ANC will really deserve the admiration of the world if it can leave power without a fight. At the moment, the odds on that happening are no better than even.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 13 and 14. (“The rule…even”)

South Africa: Malema’s Game

14 August 2011

South Africa: Malema’s Game

By Gwynne Dyer

Julius Malema did something unusual on Saturday. The leader of the Youth League of South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) apologised for something he had said. “We are a young people who will time and again commit mistakes and are prepared to learn from those mistakes,” he declared.

There were only three things wrong with his apology. One was the use of the “royal We”: it was Malema himself who said that the ANC should work to overthrow the government of neighbouring Botswana, not some anonymous group of youths. Secondly, he is not actually a youth: he is 30 years old. And thirdly, his remark was clearly premeditated, and he is not really sorry for making it.

Julius Malema is increasingly seen as a likely future president of South Africa: President Jacob Zuma has said that he is a good leader who is “worthy of inheriting the ANC.” But this doesn’t necessarily mean that Zuma really likes Malema. Most of the ANC’s leaders dislike him, but they also fear him, for he has the enthusiastic support of millions of the poorest people in South Africa.

The ANC’s goal was to bring power and prosperity to South Africa’s black majority, but it has only half-succeeded. Seventeen years after it took power, one-third of the country’s people are still living on less than $2 a day, and they are almost all black. So there is a promising political niche for somebody who articulates their anger and advocates radical solutions, and Malema has won the competition to fill that niche.

He won it by being more radical than anybody else. He’s the only prominent member of the ANC who has scolded the president for not being sufficiently supportive of Robert Mugabe, the octogenarian dictator who has reduced neighbouring Zimbabwe to penury. He advocates nationalising South Africa’s mining industry (by far the country’s biggest source of employment and revenue), and seizing the land of white farmers without compensation.

He insists on singing “Shoot the Boer” (the white farmer), the old apartheid-era “struggle” song, despite South Africa’s laws against hate speech and the fact that 1,489 white farmers actually have been murdered since the end of the apartheid regime in 1994. So the poorest and most marginalised people in the country love Malema for his ferocity and recklessness, and that gives him enormous leverage within the party.

Only once before has the ANC tried to discipline him, in May, 2010, when he was forced to make a public apology, fined, and ordered to take anger management classes after he “brought the party into disrepute” by criticising President Zuma. But he didn’t attend the anger management course, and before long he was back at it.

After his latest outburst, calling for regime change in Botswana, which he said was “a foot stool of imperialism, a security threat to Africa and always under constant puppetry of the United States,” ANC leaders called again for him to be disciplined, but it didn’t happen. Malema made a semi-apology (“We should have known better”), but he did not abandon his plan to use ANC Youth League resources to support the opposition in Botswana.

Neither did he repudiate his call for the nationalisation of the mines, and the ANC is so afraid of him that it has said that nationalisation “requires further study” – even though the party leaders know that it would cause the collapse of the South African economy.

Does Malema understand that? Perhaps not: he only finished high school at the age of 21, with near-failing grades. But since his whole political strategy requires him to be a raving extremist, he would probably still be arguing for the same measures even if he understood their consequences. Perhaps the heavens would fall if he got power, but so what? He would be in power, and that’s what counts.

It must also be acknowledged that the people who would lose in a South Africa ruled by Malema are not the people who support him, for they have absolutely nothing to lose, and there are a lot of them. The ANC’s leaders know that, and dare not take him on directly. They scheduled a meeting on Monday to discipline Malema for his most recent transgressions, but then they lost their nerve and cancelled it.

So could this reckless, ruthless demagogue end up as the elected leader of South Africa? Yes he could, and that would be the end of the brave experiment in tolerance and democracy that South Africa has been living through for the past two decades. But it depends on two things: how well the economy is doing, and how badly the ANC is doing in the opinion polls.

The two things are clearly linked: the better South Africa’s economy is, the more popular the ANC will be. An ANC that is not afraid of losing power in the next election would never give Malema a chance to take power.

But an ANC that foresees itself losing power in the next election – and after 17 continuous years in power, its popularity is eroding fast – might well turn to Malema in the hope of turning its political fortunes around. That’s unlikely to happen in the next general election in 2014, but by the one after that it could be a real possibility.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“Does…cancelled it”)

Twenty-Five Years of Non-Violent Revolution

12 June 2011

Twenty-Five Years of Non-Violent Revolution

By Gwynne Dyer

The “Prague Spring” of 1968 was a gallant attempt at a non-violent democratic revolution, but it was crushed by Soviet tanks. Eighteen years later, in the Philippines, the first “people-power” revolution succeeded, and since 1986 non-violent revolutions have driven a great many dictators from power. The most recent was in Egypt, in February – but there never was a guarantee that these revolutions would turn out well.

It depends partly on how bad the ethnic and religious cleavages are in a country: Bulgaria and Romania were okay, but Yugoslavia was a blood-bath. It depends to some extent on how poor and illiterate the population is, although even very poor countries have made a successful transition to democracy. And it depends on good leadership and good luck, too. But it is the dominant political phenomenon of our time.

The revolution in the Philippines succeeded because by the late 80s, everything was happening in real time on global television. Oppressive regimes that had never had much compunction about killing people who challenged them didn’t feel confident about doing it before a global audience. They no longer felt free to use massive force unless the protesters gave them an excuse by resorting to violence themselves.

The Marcos regime that was overthrown in the Philippines in 1986 was a mere kleptocracy with little ideology beyond a vague “anti-communism”. When the infection spread to China in 1989, the outcome was different, because a disciplined Communist dictatorship WAS willing to kill large numbers of its own people in front of the television cameras. It understood that if it failed that test, it would not survive.

Less ruthless Communist dictatorships in Europe, longer in power and ideologically exhausted, did fail the test. The non-violent revolutions that began in East Germany in November, 1989, and ended Communist rule in the old Soviet Union itself by late 1991, could have been stopped if the local Communist regimes had been willing to follow the Chinese example, but none of them had the stomach for killing on that scale.

So about 350 million Europeans got their freedom and almost nobody died. At almost exactly the same time, the apartheid regime in South Africa released Nelson Mandela and began the talks that led to majority rule in 1994. A very well-connected African friend of mine told me later what had actually happened.

In late 1989, after the East German, Czech and Romanian regimes had fallen with scarcely a shot being fired, the head of the National Intelligence Service, the South African secret police, went to State President F.W. de Klerk and warned him that if the African National Congress put half a million people on the street in Johannesburg, he would only have two options: to kill ten thousand of them, or to surrender power unconditionally.

If he didn’t like either of those options, he should start negotiating the transfer of power now. So Mandela was released, and eventually there was a peaceful transition from apartheid to majority rule.

Then there’s a long gap, perhaps partly explained by the fact that the number of dictatorships in the world had already shrunk considerably. An attempted non-violent revolution in Iran in 2009 was mercilessly crushed. People worried that repressive regimes might have finally figured out how to counter non-violent revolution. And then along came the “Arab spring.”

So the technique is still alive, and it worked in Tunisia and in Egypt. On the other hand, it has been stamped out in Bahrein, whose fate resembles that of Prague in 1968. And while the revolt in Yemen has probably displaced the old regime, it has been very violent, and the new regime may be no more democratic than the old.

Same goes for Syria, and of course for Libya. There are no one-size-fits-all techniques for revolution or for anything else. But the desire for democracy, equality and fairness survives everywhere, and the least bad technique for trying to achieve those things is still non-violence. Even if sometimes the revolution succeeds but the aftermath doesn’t.

The original “people power” revolution in the Philippines was followed by two decades of political turbulence. Yugoslavia splintered into half a dozen warring fragments. Russia, though it escaped mass violence, is not exactly a model democracy.

On the other hand, South Korea, Indonesia and South Africa are now all democracies. So are Poland, Romania and Taiwan. The aftermath may not be what most people hoped for in Egypt, and it probably won’t be in the case of Syria. But non-violent revolution works often enough, and its results are positive often enough, that it is still the most hopeful political development of the past quarter-century.

The glass is half-full, and getting fuller. Even the most wicked and ruthless rulers must now take world public opinion into account, and we expect them to behave much better than dictators did in the bad old days. They may disappoint our expectations, but that is the standard by which they will be judged, and they know it.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 6. (“It depends…time”; and “So…happened”)

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.