Review: How long will South Africa survive?The Looming Crisis by RW Johnson (2015) Assessment 7 out of 10

As much a work of journalism as an academic study.

When you visit South Africa it is hard not to be enchanted. When you read this Book it is hard not to be depressed.

The difference between South Africa and other African states is that the ANC inherited a relatively wealthy country with an effective government and security forces. The ANC has presided over a slide in comparative performance. From Nelson Mandela onwards, the intention was not “one man, one vote, once”, but an effective one party state, making ANC rule permanent. ANC performance in government has disappointed many observers and appears to confirm a white view that Africans can’t govern. This isn’t true, look at Botswana. What it does suggest is that revolutionary movements can’t govern. Johnson sees the worst outcome if, having plucked the goose, the ANC or its successors slaughter it; the enforced seizure of land from commercial farmers and lawlessness in town and country repeat mistakes made in Zimbabwe.

ANC rule is characterised by violence, corruption and incompetence. Ministers make hugely expensive foreign trips and attend party conferences and indabas. Large sums are spent on outside consultants, doing the work which civil servants either can’t or won’t do and did when South Africa was governed by the National Party. President Zuma is seen as reverting to the sort of African tribalism and “big man” portrayed by John Reader in “Africa; Biography of a Continent”, where the chief lives in his kraal surrounded by his wives. Zuma is assisted by the Gupta family, who have effected “state capture”. The object of rule by Zuma and the ANC is not to govern but to display power and enrich cadres, family and sycophants.

Criminalisation of the state has gone furthest and fastest in Kwa Zulu Natal. Whilst South Africa has become increasingly urbanised and black town dwellers sophisticated, the ANC relies on its large majorities in Kwa Zulu Natal and amongst the rural poor. Throughout Africa you see such people wearing T shirts emblazoned with the name and face of the ruling party and president, effectively promising patronage.

Johnson’s arguments rely on history, economic performance and voting patterns. However the book is as much a work of journalism as an academic study. This is an advantage as much as a weakness. Readers will better understand current affairs, the repeated votes of no confidence in Zuma and why they fail, the disgrace in the UK of Bell Pottinger, hired by the Guptas to tell untruths on their behalf, Zuma seeking to secure the appointment of an ex-wife as president, so he will be protected from prosecution for corruption. It means the book will soon be outdated, encouraging Johnson to write its replacement.

Johnson’s original work, “How long will South Africa Survive? ” was published in 1977. The version I reviewed, published in 2015, was subtitled, “The Looming Crisis”. Predictably, Johnson has updated his analysis as, “How long will South Africa survive?; the Crisis Continues”, I am sure worth reading on a future trip to South Africa. Dare one ask whether the frequency of rewriting indicates that the problems are accelerating ?

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