October 7, 2011 10:03 pm

Is South Africa the new Russia?

Former communists bin communist economics, but keep the idea that the party must control what it can

Very soon after gold was discovered in Johannesburg in 1886, my ancestors pitched up there. They never found gold, but they made a living in ancillary services. The Boer war did cause some havoc: the British locked up one of my great-grandfathers as a Boer spy, and sent another to a prison camp in Ceylon, where he spent much of the war playing chess while dodging tropical diseases. Mostly, though, the family found South Africa a comfortable place to be white.

My parents left nearly 50 years ago, but dozens of my relatives remain in the country. Many live with a nagging worry common among whites there: that one day the blacks might drive them into the ocean. The current bogeyman is Julius Malema, white-baiting president of the African National Congress’s youth league who enjoys singing, “Shoot the Boer”. The ANC is about to rule on whether he is guilty of bringing the party into disrepute.

Malema seems to confirm a favourite white and foreign interpretation of South Africa: the country as a colour war waiting to happen. By this analysis, South Africa is the next Zimbabwe. However, that’s probably the wrong interpretative frame. In fact South Africa is more like the next Russia.

Few South African blacks have ever wanted to drive the whites into the ocean, though I’ve never understood why not. The Pan Africanist Congress is a “black consciousness” party, which long used the catchy unofficial slogan, “One settler, one bullet”. It has had leaders more charismatic than Malema. It could also plausibly claim the martyr Steve Biko as a soul mate. Yet in the first free elections of 1994, after 300 years of white domination, the PAC got 1 per cent of the vote. Blacks preferred the ANC, whose Freedom Charter opens with the claim, “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white”. The ANC has been so successful at creating a shared South African nationalism that the nationwide pogroms of 2008 targeted black foreigners.

Nor do South African blacks now seem keen on Malema. The latest poll by TNS SA puts his support in urban areas at 17 per cent. Malema matters chiefly as an actor in the ANC’s internal fight to oust President Jacob Zuma, says William Gumede, author of Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC. “Malema sees himself not as a king, but as kingmaker.”

Malema isn’t Robert Mugabe yet, but Zuma is an African Vladimir Putin. Like Putin, Zuma joined the Communist party aged about 20. The party – not mentioned once in Zuma’s 840-word biography on his presidential website – would shape his life for 27 years.

Like Putin, Zuma became a secret policeman. In the late 1980s, while Putin was a KGB man in Dresden, Zuma was the ANC’s head of intelligence in exile in Zambia. His unit, “Mbokodo” – or “the stone that crushes” – became known for the torture of suspected informers. Gumede says: “That unit had the worst reputation inside the ANC. Their hands were not clean.” Zuma has never spoken about his role in Mbokodo.

Zuma left the Communist party in 1990, a year before Russia’s party collapsed on Putin. Neither leader now believes in communist economics. In fact, Malema’s calls for nationalisation irritate Comrade Zuma. But as in Russia, South Africa’s ruling party keeps its hands on the commanding heights of the economy. Most of the richest South African oligarchs come from the ANC: Cyril Ramaphosa once nearly became the party’s leader, and Saki Macozoma and Tokyo Sexwale were imprisoned on Robben Island. Today Sexwale is back in government as minister of human settlements.

This is how former communists rule. They bin communist economics, but keep the idea that the party must control what it can. The state’s assets – minerals, police, information – are at the party’s disposal. The ANC recently wrote a “Protection of Information Bill” that would have allowed almost any government document to be kept secret in the “national interest”. Transgressors could have got 25 years in jail. (The party pulled the bill last month, and is now rewriting it.) The Chinese engineers, businessmen and farmers who form the latest wave of immigrants to Africa (see Nick and Marc Francis’s new documentary When China Met Africa) must find the post-communist style all too familiar.

Moreover, Putin and Zuma as former communist secret policemen seem to have retained a particular fondness for spies. Zuma’s minister for state security, Siyabonga Cwele, is currently accused of ordering spying on other senior ANC figures.

The ANC has always housed many factions. There are democrats like Nelson Mandela, a few “black consciousness” types like Malema, and a faction of ageing former communists. “The democratic factions are really on the retreat,” laments Gumede. It’s getting harder to see as the world forgets about South Africa, but old communists are a bigger worry than Malema.

simon.kuper@ft.com

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