RW Johnson’s insights

John­son’s cheap thrills and se­ri­ous pos­si­bil­i­ties

Business Day, 6 Nov 2015

Anthony Butler

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

 

 

 

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