Johnson’s cheap thrills and serious possibilities
Business Day, 6 Nov 2015
RW JOHNSON’S recently published How Long Will South Africa Survive? has been received in much the same way as EL James’ erotic novel, Fifty Shades of Grey. They have both been widely read, at least by English-speaking whites. But both have been smuggled out of bookshops in paper bags, to be discussed only in hushed tones and among trusted friends.
Fifty Shades (reportedly) contains explicit scenes involving bondage and sadomasochism. Johnson dwells on themes that are equally titillating for some readers: the ostensible inability of black nationalists to govern a “modern state”, the resurgence of tribalism in domestic politics, and the well-deserved and devastating economic comeuppance that the African National Congress (ANC) will apparently soon have to face. Although Johnson often writes for cheap thrills, there are good reasons for South Africans to explore the central argument of this deliberately provocative book. Johnson observes that SA is deeply integrated into the international capitalist order, and remains as dependent as ever on inward capital flows. Citing the 1922 Rand Revolt, Sharpeville, and the post-Rubicon 1980s, he posits an “iron law” of SA history: whenever capital inflows are interrupted, a “generalised regime crisis” always results.
Governments in SA must therefore remain acutely aware of the international economic limits to domestic politics if they wish to survive. But a combination of parochialism, apartheid windfalls and conjoined global economic and commodity booms has led ANC leaders into a fatal complacency. This has left them vulnerable to an impending “regime change” moment.
Refreshingly immune to journalistic conventions of balance, Johnson remorselessly details negative tendencies under ANC rule, such as the emergence of an “unproductive bureaucratic bourgeoisie”, renewed ethnic conflict and a “criminalisation of the state”.
This relentless one-sidedness results in analytical gains. His description of the ANC as “a giant federation of political bosses held together by patronage, clientelism and concomitant looting and corruption” may not capture the full and glorious character of the liberation movement as it is today, but few would deny that it highlights most of the key unfolding trends.
Johnson ends with an informal scenario exercise that raises important questions about the country’s political future. On his account, ANC leaders cannot regain control of their patronagedriven movement because its central logic revolves around the pursuit of resources and the defence of entrenched interests and ideologies.
The practical consequence of patronage and corruption is a growing ungovernability. However strenuously Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene tries to rein in public spending, he simply cannot do so. Johnson refers here to the recent relentless expansion of the public sector wage bill, to the planned National Health Insurance scheme, and to proposed investments in nuclear power-generation.
In such circumstances, SA cannot return to a sustainable fiscal path over the medium term. Rating downgrades by credit agencies are, therefore, just around the corner. Bonds will acquire junk status, and foreign institutional investors will flee. Amid a general collapse of government capacity to service debt, pay public sector wages, and tackle social dislocation, the ANC will face a key moment of decision. Will it go cap in hand to the International Monetary Fund, and accede to that body’s likely demands for public sector pay cuts and labour market liberalisation?
Or will it turn to anticapitalist scapegoating, wealth taxes, the looting of pension funds, and expropriation? Johnson’s conclusions are unthinkable. But it would be interesting to know exactly why they are wrong.
Butler teaches politics at the University of Cape Town