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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.


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.
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.

Burma: Not A “Mandela Moment”

14 November 2010

Burma: Not A “Mandela Moment”

By Gwynne Dyer

People love historical analogies, so it’s easy to think of Aung San Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest on Saturday as Burma’s “Mandela moment.” When Nelson Mandela was freed from 27 years of imprisonment in 1990, it marked the start of a process that saw the negotiated end of the apartheid regime and genuinely free elections in only four years. Maybe that sort of thing will now happen in Burma too.

That would be nice, but it would be unwise to bet the farm on it. “The Lady”, as everybody in Burma calls her, has the same combination of saintly forbearance and tough political realism that enabled Nelson Mandela to lead the transition to democracy so successfully in South Africa, but her situation is very different.

Mandela emerged from prison to assume the leadership of a powerful, disciplined mass movement, whereas Suu Kyi must start by picking up the pieces of a party that has split and lost focus during her seven years of house arrest. Its leaders are almost all elderly men, and there is no younger generation of leaders in sight.

South Africa was utterly isolated politically, and its economy was crumbling under the impact of sanctions. The Burmese regime has diplomatic relations with its trading partners in Southeast Asia and a very powerful supporter in China. Burmese living standards are dramatically lower than those in neighbouring countries due to forty years of corrupt and incompetent military rule, but the economy is growing.

And the most important difference: when South Africa’s President F.W. de Klerk freed Mandela in 1990, he already knew that the apartheid regime was doomed. He wanted to negotiate a non-violent transition to a democratic system that would preserve a place for South Africa’s white minority, and Mandela was the best negotiating partner he could hope for.

The regime that has just released Aung San Suu Kyi, by contrast, does not think it has lost, and a transition to a genuinely democratic system is the last thing on its mind. It has just finished an elaborate charade of elections (nine-tenths of the candidates were government-backed) under a new constitution (one-quarter of the parliamentary seats are reserved for the armed forces). It already has all the democracy it wants.

Why did Burma’s military rulers even bother to construct a pseudo-democratic facade like this? After all, their power really rests on their willingness, demonstrated again only three years ago, to kill unarmed civilian protesters in the streets. They don’t care about being loved, so long as they are feared.

But they are as concerned about preserving the country’s independence as any other Burmese, and that makes it desirable to end Western sanctions against the regime. They are hugely dependent on China as an investor and a market for their raw materials, and that is not a comfortable position for any Burmese to be in.

“When China spits, Burma swims,” says the old proverb. If Aung Sang Suu Kyi can persuade the Western powers to end sanctions against Burma – and she has already hinted that she will help – then the regime can use better relations with the West to counterbalance China’s overweening influence in the country.

Obviously, the regime is betting that it can use “The Lady” in ending sanctions without risking its own hold on power, and perhaps it is right. She faces a hard task in rebuilding her party, which split over the question of whether to participate in the recent bogus election. Even if she succeeds, the generals can always arrest her again and lock her away for as many years as they like. Who would stop them? But they could still lose their bet.

The citation for Aung San Suu Kyi’s Nobel Prize in 1991 called her a shining example of “the power of the powerless,” and that power is real. It could be seen in the adoring crowds who came out to see her when she was freed: after seven years of invisibility, her appeal to two generations of Burmese who have lived under the boots of the military regime all their lives is undimmed.

Like Nelson Mandela in apartheid South Africa, or Vaclav Havel in Communist Czechoslovakia, or Mohandas Gandhi in colonial India, she is a realist about power and fear. “People have been saying I know nothing of Burmese politics,” she said when she was first drawn into politics during the non-violent protest movement of 1988. “The trouble is, I know too much.” And the 1988 protests were duly drowned in blood.

But she also knows that Mandela and Havel and Gandhi eventually won. They all had to accept that the guilty would go unpunished, for otherwise the outgoing regime would fight until the very last ditch. They also understood that negotiating with the enemy is necessary, and so does she. As she said in 1997: “I would like to set strongly the precedent that you bring about political change through political settlement and not through violence.”

Despite all that, those other heroes of non-violence got what they were really struggling for in the end: a free and democratic country. And Aung San Suu Kyi could ultimately achieve that too, even though it is hard to see from here the precise route that might lead her to that goal.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 13. (“Mandela…sight”; and “But she…violence”)

South Africa at 20

15 February 2010

South Africa at 20

by Gwynne Dyer

On the 20th anniversary of the day in February 1990 when the end of South Africa’s apartheid system was announced the former President F.W. de Klerk wrote: “We astounded the world in 1990 and in 1994, and we shall do so again.”

But in 1990 and in 1994 the astonishment was about the fact that disaster had been avoided, and even now it is not astonishment at the country’s success.

South Africa has the second-highest murder rate in the world (after Colombia), the education system is one of the worst in the world, and Aids accounts for 43 per cent of all deaths.

It may be true that South Africa is doing better than was expected, but that only shows how low expectations were when Nelson Mandela was freed from prison 20 years ago this month.

It took four years of tough negotiations between the apartheid government and the African National Congress before the first election in which non-whites were allowed to vote, and many people had grave doubts that a peaceful transition was even possible. Indeed, the most common question I heard at the time was: will there be a civil war?

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It was exactly the same question I had heard so many times when I was covering the collapse of the Soviet Union a couple of years earlier, from frightened people who hoped that a foreign journalist might know the answer.

I always said no, there will not be a civil war, and I turned out to be right both times, but I must admit I was less confident in the South African case. There was certainly a lot more shooting in South Africa.

In the end, South Africans’ shared interest in a peaceful and prosperous future triumphed over racism and tribalism – and a fairly peaceful and prosperous future is what they got.

There have been two lawful and orderly changes of President since Mandela took office after the 1994 election – and with only 6 per cent of the population of sub-Saharan Africa, South Africa accounts for more than a third of its gross domestic product. But it is not exactly an economic miracle. As the only industrialised country in Africa it has always towered over the rest of the continent economically, but its growth rate in the past 15 years has been only a modest improvement on the near-stagnation of the later apartheid years.

A new black middle class has emerged, but the gulf between the comfortable minority of all colours and the poor black majority has only widened.

South Africa does not control its borders effectively, and the result is that at least 10 per cent of its population are undocumented foreigners. Most come from nearby countries like Zimbabwe and Mozambique, but there are significant numbers from as far away as Nigeria.

They are often better educated and more enterprising than the locals, and the resentment of poor South Africans exploded into vicious anti-immigrant violence in May 2008.

There will almost certainly be further violence unless most of the illegal immigrants are sent home, but the ANC says it owes the other countries of southern Africa a debt of gratitude for having given its members shelter during the years of the anti-apartheid struggle. Those countries now depend heavily on remittances from their citizens who are in South Africa illegally, and the ANC cannot bring itself to expel them.

That is a high-sounding moral motive that we can all admire, but the presence of the illegal immigrants also serves to divert the anger and envy of poor, black South Africans from the homegrown middle class, black and white alike, that has been the real beneficiary of economic growth since 1990.

Almost 40 per cent of black South Africans are unemployed, and they are well on the way to becoming a permanent underclass.

These are the people for whom the state boasts that it has built three million new homes since the end of the apartheid, but almost all of them are cramped two-room houses in the typical township style.

More millions of these houses now have electricity, water and sanitation services – but a huge proportion of the people in them don’t have jobs, mainly because they lack skills that are relevant to a modern, developed economy.

Education for black South Africans was always poor, and during the final 15 years of constant anti-apartheid protests there was a “lost generation” that scarcely went to school at all. The end of apartheid should have changed all that, but it didn’t.

The money was spent on providing houses and services to keep people quiet, not on building a school system that would give them a future.

According to the World Economic Forum, South Africa’s education system ranks 119th out of 133 countries. Only a quarter of South African children finish high school, and a mere 5 per cent go to university.

Most of those high school graduates and university students are now black South Africans, but the country is becoming a two-tier society with a hereditary underclass that gets only the crumbs from the table.

The thing about South Africa that is truly astonishing these days is that the poor put up with it.