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Johannesburg to Mafikeng
We have been waiting all day for the president. Now the hour is drawing close. Inside the giant sports hall at North-West University’s Mafikeng campus, we enter a sea of yellow-and-black African National Congress T-shirts, throbbing disco music and the roar of more than 2,000 students.
The scene is stage-managed for Jacob Zuma. Aged 71, South Africa’s president may lack the magic of Nelson Mandela but he has a rich baritone. And he can jive like a man half his age to the old liberation favourite, “Umshini Wami” (“Bring Me My Machine Gun”).
Zuma appears, flanked by ministers and bodyguards. Many salutations follow. Finally, the leader rises. More thunderous applause. But instead of a virtuoso performance, the president complains that he is coming down with flu.
He bombards his audience with statistics such as increased state funding for student bursaries, back-up generators and sewage plants. Every 10 minutes, the same ANC refrain: “We have a good story to tell.” Slowly, the students drift away.
My day on the campaign trail with Jacob Zuma, aka JZ, is the first leg of a 12-day tour of southern Africa. The trip will take in neighbouring Namibia and Angola, frontline states in the war against apartheid. My broad assignment is to report on the second great struggle, 20 years on from the end of white rule: the transition from the bush to government and the heavy expectations which come with black majority rule.
We set off from Johannesburg in driving rain, just before dawn. Our destination is Mafikeng, roughly 300km to the northwest. Back in 1900, at the height of the Boer war, Colonel Bryan Mahon led a 1,000-strong British column to relieve the town, which was surrounded by Afrikaner insurgents. It was here, in the sandy outpost of the Cape Colony on the edge of the Kalahari, that Colonel Robert Baden-Powell (later, founder of the Boy Scouts) made himself the symbol of British pluck and endurance, as Thomas Pakenham describes in his magisterial book, The Scramble for Africa.
Today, our mission is to nail down an interview with Zuma, the engaging, raffish president. Zuma is the great survivor. He has overcome criticism of his polygamy, rape charges (he was acquitted) and a still unresolved arms corruption case. And then there is the curious tale of how $23m came to be spent on security for his rural home, Nkandla.
No one doubts his courage: he was born into poverty, spent 10 years in prison on Robben Island and later served as head of the ANC’s military intelligence wing. Later in my trip, an ANC veteran tells me over dinner about the time he was dispatched undercover from Mozambique to South Africa:
ANC operative: “What happens if I am caught?”
Zuma: “Try to escape.”
ANC operative: “But what if there is no chance to escape?”
Zuma: “Prepare to die gracefully.”
Zuma came to power in 2009, having toppled Thabo Mbeki as ANC president. On May 7, the ANC, the dominant political party in post-apartheid South Africa, faces national elections. One top businessman says flatly: 2014 will be the ANC’s “last safe election”.
Mafikeng is solid ANC territory. A tall, muscular local party baron reminds me of the violence here in 1994 when Eugène Terre’Blanche led armed Afrikaner irregulars in a botched bid to disrupt the country’s first multiracial elections: “They came but some of them never went home.”
The presidential motorcade arrives, more than an hour late. Zuma, a short, tubby, bald figure with an infectious laugh, steps out of his black BMW estate (licence plate WMD), poses briefly for pictures and retires for ANC consultations.
A lunch meeting with a dozen tribal elders follows, again hopelessly late. One by one, they rise to denounce the quality of public services, arrogant local ANC politicians and a remote national leadership. “A good leader always comes home,” says one formidable lady. “If you don’t come, the children will find another father.”
At the end of the day, JZ finally sits down with me for an interview. He brushes off the criticism with a joke. Children are best dealt with by an occasional beating, he says. Pravin Gordhan, South Africa’s finance minister, winces. An indispensable guide for the FT during the day, Gordhan has been a guardian of fiscal discipline and the promoter-in-chief of a national development plan – supported by all parties – for tackling inequality and poverty.
I ask Zuma if he minded being booed in front of world leaders live on television at Nelson Mandela’s commemoration service.
“I didn’t take it as a big issue because that’s part of democratic politics,” he says. “I’m sure many of those heads of state have been booed at one point or the other.”
He remains confident that the ANC will prevail in May. “Given our performance and our delivery, I don’t know what will make me think that people are not going to give us the overwhelming majority. They will.”
Zuma’s confidence is born of a view that the ANC is destined to rule for ever, for the best of all worlds. But things are stirring below the surface of South African politics.
Just after noon we are sitting on a balcony in what feels like a safe house, a remote lodge in the plush 500-plus-room Kruger Park Lodge in Hazyview, a rundown town near the border of South Africa and Mozambique. A sign on the lawn warns: Beware hippos.
We have flown northeast from Johannesburg in search of Julius Malema, firebrand populist and scourge of the African National Congress. His original message was not encouraging: “JuJu” does not speak to white capitalists. Then our man in Joburg countered that the FT supported Neil Kinnock’s Labour party in 1992. That apparently clinched the interview.
After a 45-minute delay, the commander-in-chief of the Economic Freedom Fighters finally appears, all dressed in black. Black hood, black tracksuit, black air-pump trainers. The trademark Breitling wrist watch is conspicuously absent.
Our conversation runs smoothly until I ask Malema about the ANC’s claim that South Africa has a good story to tell, built around 20 years of social and economic progress.
“No! We are worse off than we were under apartheid,” says JuJu, eyes flashing. “Before, we did not have electricity or running water. Democracy has given us [the black population] the vote but there is still no clean water or electricity. We are in more pain than ever.”
Malema breathes fire and a ton of brimstone. President Zuma is “a monster”; black empowerment entrepreneurs are “parasites”; his political heroes are Castro, Chávez, Mugabe – “despite all his mistakes”.
Malema’s programme is in fact Mugabe-esque, especially the state expropriation of land and natural resources. He wants to launch a state mining company with 40 per cent offered to private investors; and introduce a change in the constitution to allow public control of the means of production.
Here speaks the Marxist theoretician from the township. Yet a certain naïveté underlies his planned ascent to power.
Malema – formerly head of the ANC’s youth wing – launched the EFF last year. He claims 400,000 members, at R10 ($1) a pop. He wants his party candidates – drawn from squatter camps and rural townships – to give up 30 per cent of their salary if they win seats in parliament.
Despite his vitriol against a corrupt ANC, however, Malema also faces money laundering charges relating to the awarding of government contracts in Limpopo, his impoverished home province. He denies the charges, saying that they are politically motivated. An opponent says: “Malema is no different – he is angry that he does not have a seat at the trough.”
Still, his fiery charisma appeals to South Africa’s disaffected youth and the millions still stuck in poverty. As we leave, I ask the shaven-headed Malema how old he is. “I’ve just turned 33.” Conscious that he has aged beyond his years, he briefly tells his life story of growing up in Limpopo.
“When I was nine years old, I did not go out and play soccer. I was taken away to military training camp and taught how to shoot a gun.
“I don’t have friends of my own age. I always grew up with older people.”
Malema is a political force asking some of the right questions about modern South Africa. But as for the answers …
And so on to the spanking-clean capital of Namibia: Windhoek.
We were forewarned about the waiting Bentley but nothing could have quite prepared us for our host and chauffeur: Desmond Amunyela, the confident face of post-apartheid Namibia.
Desmond is dressed in Gucci black, offset by a yellow airport security jacket donned so he can greet us in the terminal. His business interests include airport duty free, fish processing, oil exploration, real estate, uranium mining and, wait for it, the Windhoek Observer, a weekly newspaper.
Aged 40, Desmond is reputedly a millionaire many times over. “Namibia is going places,” he says as we cruise along Robert Mugabe Avenue. A theatrical pause follows. “Well, we think we’re going places.”
Namibia, with a population of barely two million, covers an area of 825,000 sq km, much of it desert. It won its independence on March 21 1990, liberated by the Swapo resistance movement led by the founding father and president Sam Nujoma. It is a young country with old values forged by tribal society, German colonial influence and Afrikaner culture.
Desmond grew up a street-savvy boy from the townships. His career took off as a floor manager at Burger King in London’s Piccadilly Circus.
Ever with an eye for an opening, he recruited unemployed Somalis to clear the tables on condition they gave up their first week’s wages.
After a spell at an onion factory in Watford (“A girlfriend,” he explains), Desmond moved to Sweden, where he became interested in marketing. Back home, he launched a billboard business. Then he moved into natural resources, a sure-fire success on the back of the global commodities boom driven by China.
Our first stop is the trade ministry, headed by Calle Schlettwein, one of Namibia’s longest-serving public servants. Grey-bearded and tousled-haired, he speaks with a remorseless logic and heavily accented English. It sounds familiar. Ach Ja, the German finance ministry in Berlin.
Schlettwein outlines Namibia’s “growth at home” strategy to reduce reliance on fishing and mining and boost expansion in other sectors. Bank credit is hard to come by, he says, and job-generating small businesses need more support. But overall he is optimistic about a country enjoying enviable political and economic stability.
Windhoek – Walvis Bay
We are pulling every string to secure more high-level meetings in Angola, to little avail. An email from an adviser to Isabel dos Santos, the fabulously rich daughter of the president, delivers a simple message: No way.
One last option is Martha Namundjebo Tilahun, a Namibian businesswoman well connected in Luanda, Angola’s capital, and the rest of Africa. She arrives to breakfast slightly late, a study in sophisticated elegance.
Martha tries a few speed-dials, including Isabel. No answer. So we switch our conversation to the rise of women in Namibia to positions of prominence in government and business. I saw it first hand at dinner where several impressive women in financial services were present. A new positive discrimination law on gender has also helped, says Martha.
For now, it is time to head west to the coast in the company of our guide for the day, Jan Joubert, a native Namibian. I first met Jan in Sierra Leone two years ago. A former South African special forces commander during the apartheid years, he arrived in Freetown in 1995 to work for Executive Outcomes, a private military contractor. In some eyes these were the new-age mercenaries but for the Sierra Leone population, ravaged by rebel forces who mutilated and slaughtered thousands of civilians, they were saviours.
Jan is still based in Sierra Leone and is currently non-executive chairman of Octea, a holding company for a diamond-mining firm owned by BSGR, founded by Beny Steinmetz, the Geneva-based tycoon. His company is locked in a dispute with the government of Guinea over a lucrative iron ore deal beset by allegations of corruption. He denies the allegations. (Jan offered to accompany us in Namibia as a private citizen. We were hosted by Namibians during our three-day trip, including Tonata Shiimi, a former government spokesman, and Phillipine Angula, daughter of one of the country’s most experienced post-independence ministers and a prolific businesswoman in her own right.)
Jan’s parting words to my wife and me in Sierra Leone had been: “I have shown you bits of hell; one day I want to show you paradise.”
So here we are hurtling west along a gravel road toward Walvis Bay, one of the country’s main ports. Our journey takes us past a shanty town on the edge of Windhoek, a herd of giraffes and through the rugged Hochland on the edge of the Namib desert, reputedly the oldest in the world. The sense of emptiness is overwhelming.
Almost 400km later, we arrive at the Skeleton Coast. Ambitious expansion plans are under way, partly financed by the Chinese – more evidence that they are all over Africa, even in this windswept setting. The Namibian government wants to turn the port into a hub in the Southern African Development Community, the regional trade grouping now enjoying a second coming.
Last stop of the day: a fish-processing plant run by Jan’s old school and military buddy, Pierre “Whitey” Marais. Whitey employs 1,400 people on land and more than 100 crew at sea. He greets us in grey T-shirt and shorts. Inside the freezing factory, we hear about the new growth markets in Germany for hand-sliced, high-quality monkfish and Namibian hake. My tummy rumbles. It’s 8.15pm but Whitey is unstoppable. My abiding image: a proud Afrikaner-Namibian holding up a Walvis Bay red fish, beaming from top to toe.
Our efforts to track down Angola’s chefs grandes – the big chiefs who run the economy – have yielded one notable catch: José Filomeno dos Santos, the thirtysomething head of the sovereign wealth fund.
José Filomeno is the son of president José Eduardo dos Santos, Africa’s second-longest-serving ruler (34 years), a few weeks behind Equatorial Guinea’s. That is a touchy subject, as I discovered during a two-hour conversation at the fund’s headquarters, a swanky new building which counts Halliburton, the US oil services company, among its occupants.
Dos Santos speaks fluent English, alongside his native Portuguese. In case of miscommunication, a Swiss note-taker and two PR advisers flown in from Dubai are present. Dos Santos, tall and elegantly attired, greets me with a friendly smile and a slightly nervous handshake.
“I was born in the late 1970s in a communist state,” he says. “All of the shops were government-run. There were times when we could only find rice or sugar for months ... The country was invaded by South Africa and we were living at war. It was a rather dim beginning.”
The civil war following independence from Portugal in 1975 was a brutal proxy for the cold war. The ruling MPLA fought alongside Cuban tank columns, with Russian advisers in the shadows. The Unita opposition was backed by the might of the South African military. The fighting only stopped in 2002 when Israeli intelligence helped the MPLA to track down and kill Jonas Savimbi, head of Unita. All Angolans therefore speak of a young country, barely more than 10 years old.
The legacy of the war is legion: four million people displaced, a lost generation of doctors, teachers and professionals; once-fertile land still infested with landmines; roads, bridges and infrastructure destroyed; and a chronic reliance on oil production, which supplies 80 per cent of government revenues. This makes it doubly hard to encourage the diversification the Angolan economy desperately needs.
Dos Santos avoids using the term “oil curse” but in soft-spoken tones he describes how Angola is shifting from a command to a market-based economy. “I think the battle has been won. The party has lived through socialism. Today we live in different times.”
The wealth fund is supposed to nudge the reforms along – though empty desks in adjoining offices suggest this will be a slow process. With $5bn to invest, the fund is billed as a nest egg for future generations and a catalyst for income growth at home, chiefly via venture capital opportunities. Some 7.5 per cent of the fund is reserved for social investment.
So why is dos Santos the best person for the top job? Is it entirely coincidental that he is the president’s son? And is he being groomed to succeed his father?
A frisson follows. Dos Santos explains that he followed his mother, an Angolan diplomat, to Sweden and the UK. He wearily trots out his qualifications: two business degrees in London (Regent’s University; a masters at Westminster University). Then he declares, emphatically, “This is an opportunity for the country.”
The president’s son believes that the fund is pioneering a new, more transparent approach to investing, distinct from the war era, where army commanders and the MPLA retained strong commercial interests. But surely these ties endure?
Dos Santos weighs his answer. “You are a state entity, where you have to think and act as a private one but you also have a lot of political pressure … this will not be a revolution overnight.”
Not every Angolan is so patient. Elias Isaac, a burly activist for the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa, an NGO funded by George Soros, sums up Angola’s postwar challenge: “We have a multi-party democracy but we don’t have a pluralist society. There is no space for the opposition.”
Over lunch, Isaac describes how MPLA cells have infiltrated the private sector, while big business is dominated by former generals and the party. “It’s just like Russia – nothing has changed.”
Asked about the new sovereign wealth fund, Isaac says: “The president missed a great opportunity. He could have risked not appointing someone close to him. Instead he confirmed our suspicions of elitism and nepotism.”
Three giant portions of beef, chicken and rice arrive. We tuck in. Suddenly four men in slick dark suits slip through the front door and place themselves directly in Isaac’s line of sight. The activist is visibly spooked. One of the presumed state goons ostentatiously pulls out his mobile phone. Our conversation stutters to a halt.
Minutes later, we are back outside in the rain, watching the cars crawl through rivers of water and an Angolan tropical storm.
Luanda, Luanda Sul
The missile-shaped memorial to Dr António Agostinho Neto, fisherman, guerrilla, poet and founding father of modern Angola, stands in a vast parade-ground space close to the Atlantic shoreline. It took 20 years and millions of scarce dollars to build. Inside the marble memorial, imposing statues representing the proletariat line the corridor leading to Neto’s garlanded tomb. The place feels like Moscow, circa 1976.
Today, Angolans appear respectful of the past but desperate for a better future. Mass poverty grates against a tiny rich elite. Mario Cruz, a 35-year-old executive at Banco Atlantico, says the struggle between old and new is best captured by the view from his plush office overlooking dozens of razed shacks in the Chicala district.
“That used to be beach,” says Mario, “but in 1992, when the war started again, thousands of refugees from the countryside squatted there. It was the only safe place. Now it’s going to become a beach again.”
There are signs of change in Luanda: an impressive two-lane promenade, a construction boom and the rapid growth of automatic telling machines as Angolans take up bank accounts. (They still prefer hard cash: our modest guest house demanded $1,500 for three nights on arrival – or no beds. We paid up.)
“Angola will move even faster in future,” says Mario, who returned in 2002 after studying in England. Why so confident? “Because two-thirds of the [21 million] population is under 25; there are more than 15 million cellphones; and there are more than three million Facebook followers.”
That still leaves huge challenges in education and health, a lack of trained professionals for government service – and corruption. But at least there is evidence of postwar reconciliation. Dos Santos Sr appointed as head of the armed forces a former Unita commander. The president’s inner circle may be worth untold millions but he himself has avoided visible excess: he spent a fortune on a stylish new parliament building rather than constructing an African strongman’s palace. Aged 71, he represents a certain stability even though the question of succession looms large.
In the evening, we brave crushing traffic jams and take the 18km ride to Luanda Sul, the luxury, high-rise metropolis built as an extension to the capital. We arrive 80 minutes later. As I stride in yellow Jacob Zuma T-shirt and blue jeans through an utterly soulless landscape, two young Angolans offer the crooked right-arm salute of the ANC and bellow out: “Amandla [Power] … ”
I salute back, but omit the correct response: “ … Awethu [to the people].”
On the journey home, I ask our guide what the people in the shanty- towns of Luanda make of Luanda Sul. Surely it is a monument to inequality?
“No,” he replies, “the poor people see that people have become rich and they think that one day the money will come to them.”
After a pause, he adds: “If sometimes we complain at home, our mother and father criticise us. They simply say: no more war.”
After several days of leaden skies, torrential rain and power cuts, it is a relief to escape to the brilliant sunshine of Cape Town. Memo to self: ideal relocation for FT global headquarters.
My final interview is with Helen Zille, leader of the Democratic Alliance, the national liberal party. Fairly or unfairly, the DA is still viewed as a white party. It could have been very different had a much-touted link-up with Mamphela Ramphele’s Agang party materialised. But Ramphele reneged at the last minute, leaving the DA without the high-profile black presidential candidate many argue they need for electoral breakthrough.
Zille claims that Ramphele, a former partner of the murdered black activist Steve Biko, was simply not strong enough to bring along her supporters. “I have learnt a good lesson,” she says, ruefully.
Zille speaks in the clipped, courtly manner reminiscent of a stern headmistress. She is withering in her criticism of the ANC though retains a softish spot for Zuma. He often invites “Ntombi” (an affectionate Zulu word for lady) for a twirl on the dance floor.
She says that the ANC is paralysed by contradictions in the labour movement, the youth wing and between its more pro-business factions. “The ANC cannot implement policy because it is too deeply divided – but you cannot be in limbo indefinitely.”
I recall a conversation a week earlier with Zwelinzima Vavi, reinstated this month as the general secretary of Cosatu, the powerful trade union federation. He is rumoured to be planning to launch a rival labour party. Vavi says the ANC has failed to stem rising inequality or get a grip on the crisis in the education and healthcare systems. “This is a ticking time bomb.”
Zille wants to broaden the DA’s support in the May election beyond its natural base in the western Cape. She is hopeful that she can push the ANC below 50 per cent in Gauteng: that would be a minor earthquake in a province which is home to Joburg and Pretoria.
Overall, she is optimistic. “We were in much greater danger in 1994 when you had white nationalists against black nationalists.” The break-up of the ANC and a realignment in South African politics is therefore only a matter of time. And then, she believes fervently, the DA’s moment will come.
We are steaming toward Robben Island on the Susan Kruger, a rickety blue prison boat laden with overwhelmingly white and coloured (mixed-race) tourists. Our group includes two former members of the South African Special Forces, Jan Joubert and Div Lamprecht, as well as Phillipine Angula, grandniece of Herman Toivo ya Toivo, founding father of the Swapo resistance movement in Namibia. Toivo was himself a prisoner with Nelson Mandela on the island.
Now a national museum, Robben Island has served for 500 years as a place of banishment for epileptics, lepers and political prisoners. Our first guide offers a potted history of apartheid. The tone is chatty, the content propaganda-lite. Phillipine has abandoned her smartphone; the Afrikaners listen impassively. Div chafes slightly at the notion that race classification only began after 1948. By his account, first-generation settlers from places such as India were proud in British colonial times to be viewed as coloured and distinct from white Afrikaner or black South African.
The silence on the island is overwhelming. Nothing can erase the bleakness of the prison, the cramped cells, spartan exercise yards or the old lime quarry, where Mandela (prisoner 466/64) ruined his eyesight in the blazing midday sun.
Our second guide, an ex-prisoner, knew Mandela. He was shipped to the island as a young ANC recruit who had been betrayed by a turncoat. Today, aged 59, he has lost none of his independent streak. There’s not enough time to tell the real story of prison life, he grumbles.
We shuffle through the prison and peek inside Mandela’s cell.
Phillipine, after being prodded, reveals her revolutionary heritage to our guide. It turns out he knew the Swapo founding father. After that, we are treated like royalty. Finally, it is time to bid farewell.
“Are you ready to take the long walk to freedom?” asks the guide.
We are indeed. Black, Afrikaner and white European walk together in the footsteps of Nelson Mandela towards the prison gates.
Twelve days in southern Africa is a reminder of how far the region has come. Apartheid disfigured communities. War devastated nations. The transition from white majority rule could easily have gone wrong.
Twenty years ago, South Africa was at boiling point. But the country did not descend into civil war, nor did it disintegrate like Yugoslavia. Nelson Mandela and President FW de Klerk struck a pragmatic alliance and persuaded the majority of South Africans to put country before party and race.
That bargain is still holding. The economy has tripled in size. A new middle class is emerging. Access to health and education is improving even if inequality overall is increasing. So much more needs to be done but as one ANC veteran explained: so much needed to be undone. The incoming government had to dismantle a system which condemned 40 million black and coloured people to being second-class citizens, often living in squalid townships far from their place of work. “The achievements of the past 20 years are understated by everyone, even South Africans,” said the veteran.
South Africa is now building a new state. The process is chaotic, often frustrating. The next decade will be critical. Much will depend on political leadership. The ANC, an uneasy combination of party, government and state, will have to find common ground with business leaders and civic groups. Mistrust, particularly in the light of widespread labour unrest and corruption, abounds. And Madiba, the benevolent founding father of the new South Africa, has gone.
If you believe in Africa – a mineral-rich continent finally improving governance, building a new middle class and growing the regional economy – you have to be positive about South Africa. Because South Africa is the turbocharger for the rest of the region. It has the brains, the expertise and the industrial base to drive progress in neighbouring Namibia, Angola and the rest of the neighbourhood.
The temperature is much lower in South Africa today than it was 20 years ago. But it is rising. Jobs are badly needed in a country where 40 per cent of the population is under 20. South Africans demand a better future. They will not settle for a glass half-empty – and nor should they.
Lionel Barber is editor of the FT. To comment on this article please post below, or email firstname.lastname@example.org
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