Tasks of transformation

Print edition : October 23, 1999

The centrality of race in the South African system and society remains even under democratic rule, and a real change on this front will evidently take time.

ANY political transition entails both continuity and change. This is so of transitions of the most uncompromisingly revolutionary kind as of those marked by negotiations and deals - not to speak of long-anticipated transitions such as the one from Presid ent Nelson Mandela to President Thabo Mbeki in South Africa.

The completion of a hundred days of the Thabo Mbeki presidency has provided the occasion for many analyses, each trying to discover and delineate the points of departure from the policies laid down in the first five years of democratic government in the country. As always, implicit in such analyses is the conviction that the democratic credentials of the new President, who continues to be portrayed in the liberal English language print media as a secretive and vengeful Africanist, in sharp contrast to t he supposedly benevolent Mandela, are suspect. In this perspective, the jury is still out on Thabo Mbeki. This, despite the fact that throughout the Mandela presidency, Thabo Mbeki was closely involved in every aspect of the crafting and implementation o f the policies of the government and of the African National Congress (ANC).

The fundamental tasks facing the new government remain substantially the same as faced by the first democratic government; and arise out of the same history that the people of South Africa have inherited. In the context of the immediate and urgent needs of the people, these are: reduction in what is oddly described as 'unacceptable levels of crime' - as if there are or ought to be 'acceptable levels of crime', and the related problem of corruption; economic growth and a more equitable distribution of th e results thereof; creation of jobs to mitigate the problem of around 30 per cent unemployment, also causally related to the problem of crime; and service delivery - drinking water, electricity, housing, education, primary healthcare, social services. At a more fundamental level, and less easy to measure either in terms of its nature and magnitude or its implementation is the transformation, meaning the genuine deracialisation of South African society, going beyond the legal dismantling of apartheid law s structures; and the entrenchment of a democratic culture.

While all these are inter-linked, the most serious task is the control of crime. Even for a society and a state long inured to cruelties and horrors, the recent incident in Bez Valley in Johannesburg where a young woman was gang-raped over two days and, further, had her face disfigured by hot iron, presents moral and administrative challenges with which it appears simply unable to cope. Crime, the one activity that has been totally deracialised, touches all, even the seemingly highly-placed and the powe rful. Two Members of Parliament became victims recently. In the first case, the MP was shot in an apparent 'car-jacking' attempt. But he foiled the attempt by shooting back. (It is not uncommon for people to carry a personal weapon.) In the second incide nt, another MP was a victim of car-jacking. Rape and murder, molestation of children, murders on farms, taxi wars, bank heists, unless involving high-profile victims or very large sums and numbers of victims, have long ceased to be news. White-collar and commercial crime involving millions of rands, too, has ceased to be news.

President Thabo Mbeki with Nelson Mandela in June 1999. The fundamental tasks ahead of the Mbeki Government remain substantially the same as were faced by the Mandela administration.-PETER DEJONG / AP

None of this is new. Nor is the problem in any way related to the onset of the democratic dispensation. However, of late there is a growing perception that the democratic and constitutional order is 'soft on crime'; and that by favouring the criminals it is victimising the victims of crime further. While this perception is widespread among the people, not all of them diehard supporters of the old order, there are other nuances suggesting that some in authority too may share such perceptions. Indeed, the government appears to have been caught in its own rhetoric of taking the hardest line on crime. The new Minister for Safety and Security, admiringly nicknamed by those seeking instant solutions as 'Fix-it' Steve Tshwete, has adopted a 'no-non sense, hands-on' approach (the description is borrowed from media coverage of the Minister's initiatives) and take the war to the criminals. While such determination is welcome, rather more problematic is the apparent attempt to see links between crime a nd vagrancy, or crime and street trading, crime and shacks and other necessarily unattractive features of urban life, reinforcing the worst middle class prejudices.

One such initiative that is foredoomed to fizzle out is the ongoing 'clean-up' of the pavements of Johannesburg that are crowded by hawkers and vendors, to reclaim them for the use of pedestrians. Such exercises are planned for other cities as well. Ther e have been such initiatives earlier, with squatters evicted from lands they had illegally occupied, protesting with futile rage or mutely watching the destruction of their hovels. It is entirely possible that behind such squatters and street traders are organised rackets controlled by criminals. But no one seems to consider whether such zealous initiatives which necessarily involve the destruction of the livelihood of many poor people, forcing them to take to crime and add to the already large number o f criminals, are a realistic option to solve the very real problem of urban decay, especially in the city centres. No one seems even to consider the factors and the motives that initially led to the abandonment of the city centre by business and indu stry.

The approach is integrally related to the broader perspective on economic growth, employment and distribution adopted in mid-1996 - the so-called Gear (Growth, Employment and Redistribution). Although the bitter polemics surrounding Gear between the ANC and its allies in the tripartite alliance, the South African Communist Party (SACP) and Cosatu, during the last two years, which were openly manifest both at the ANC's Mafikeng Conference in December 1997 and the SACP's Congress in Johannesburg in June 1998, appear to be now muted, differences on macro-economic policy persist.

The recent strike action by 12 public sector unions, not all of them affiliated to Cosatu, protesting against the government's decision to break off negotiations on the annual demand for inflation-linked wage increases, is only one manifestation of such differences. The unions demanded an average increase of 7.3 per cent (with an additional one per cent for teachers) while the government would not resile from its offer of a 6.3 per cent increase.

However, the dispute goes beyond a difference over a one per cent gap. The government simply could not afford to appear to be climbing down to the unions' demands because of its conviction that only such a hardline attitude towards the unions would reass ure the 'foreign investors' - that amorphous and indefinable community which, despite all evidence to the contrary, is presumed to be anxious to bring in large investments into the country.

Underlying this approach is the conviction that only large foreign investments can ensure Growth, which in turn would generate Employment, which in turn would lead to Redistribution - together forming that near divine triumvirate of the policy anagramat ised as Gear. This is a perspective with which the unions profoundly disagree both out of political conviction and as a matter of experience of what such a perspective has done to the economies of other countries that have followed such prescriptions.

Given its near-total commitment to the orthodoxy of the market, the progressive reduction of fiscal deficit and to the perfectly-balanced budget, it is unlikely that pressures from its allies in the tripartite alliance will lead to any basic changes in t his commitment, though Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi has said that Cosatu would throw its weight behind the public sector unions when they launch their strike action in November. Equally, given the logic of the tripartite alliance and the fact that its historic necessity is recognised on all sides, these confrontations, howsoever bitter, are unlikely to lead to the break-up of the alliance. For the government's macro-economic policy is contested not merely by the Communists and the unions; it is an area of contestation within the ANC as well.

Above all is the complex task of transformation. Superficially one sees evidence of transformation all around. Leaving aside Parliament which since it became genuinely representative reflects the ethnic and racial demography of the country, blacks are pr ominently present in many other structures and institutions, though some sectors such as banking, advertising, mining and higher research institutions remain racially exclusive, with an insignificant black presence. The financial papers keep mentioning t he increasing share of black-run companies in the market capitalisation of shares on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. The Governor of the South African Reserve Bank, Tito Mboweni, is a veteran of the liberation struggle and a former Minister of Labour in the Mandela government. Society pages in the glossies now routinely carry pictures of black, upwardly mobile professionals of both sexes, glowing with good life and mingling with apparent confidence with whites of their ilk. Black economic empowerment i s a shrine at which everyone wants to worship, or at least make a genuflectory gesture. Indeed, the rage now is African Renaissance, an idea and an objective enunciated by Thabo Mbeki and now taken over by others, some genuinely convinced and others simp ly on to a good thing.

AND yet, in the midst of this flowering of black self-confidence and pride and optimism, an incident like the one that occurred at the Tempe military base of 1 SA Battalion near Bloemfontein on September 16 jolts one to the harsh realities of South Afric a. On that day, Lieutenant Sibusiso Madubela of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) shot dead seven of his brother officers and soldiers, as well as a civilian, all white, before he was himself shot dead. Sibusiso Madubela, needless to say, was black. He was part of the component of the Azanian People's Liberation Army, the armed wing of the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania, which had been absorbed into the SANDF. Similarly, components of the Umkhonto weSizwe, the ANC's armed wing, have be en absorbed into the SANDF. This process was supposed to be part of the transformation of the old South African Defence Force into the SANDF.

The transformation of the defence forces, given their rigid and ordered culture of discipline and obedience to authority, not to speak of the esprit de corps, should have been a relatively smooth affair. The latest incident and, even more so, its aftermath, shows how difficult and problematic the task is. The soldiers he killed were given military burials unless the family preferred otherwise. Madubela, evidently, could not qualify for such honours even though the PAC and his relatives requested for one.

Members of the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania, who were absorbed into the South African National Defence Force, carry the coffin of Lt. Sibusiso Madubela at the funeral in Umtata in Eastern Cape on October 2. The massacre at the Tempe military base near Bloemfontein has triggered a soul-wrenching debate over the racial transformation of the SANDF.-OBED ZILWA / AP

However, when the body was taken to Umtata in Eastern Cape for burial, about 40 fellow-soldiers from Tempe, all black, attended the funeral. They had been permitted to do so by the authorities on condition that they did not wear their uniforms and did no t carry weapons. Nevertheless, a salvo of shots was fired there. Present at the funeral was the APLA's former chief of operations, Letlapa Mphahlele, who gave the order for a 'ten shot salute'. Many of those attending the funeral, going by the pictures t hat have appeared in the media, wore their old APLA uniforms. Madubela may have died in the course of committing a crime (which dis-entitled him to a military funeral); but for those who attended the funeral, he was 'a soldier, a hero', one who "offered his life in the struggle against the oppression of the black soldiers in 1 SA Battalion". One of the reports on the funeral quoted a relative of Madubela as saying that she wished he had killed more whites.

It would be facile to dismiss such openly expressed hatred and bitterness as an aberration, related to the peculiar history and political pathology of the PAC. Indeed, political and army leaders have underplayed the all-too-evident racial dimensions to t he incident. While such caution is perhaps necessary, the incident only underlines the complexity of the task of transformation. Rumours and inspired leaks that the officer who had overstayed his leave had 'gone berserk' because his salary had been withh eld, cannot explain the enormity of the outrage. Only less inadequate are other factors recounted by friends and relatives - that Madubela had been frequently ill-treated and marginalised, that he constantly felt diminished as a person and as a soldier b y the dominant culture of the armed forces.

What the incident does show is the centrality of race in South Africa. To argue that this should not be the case 'even five years after the democratic transformation' is to be blind to reality. As in India where decades after caste has been 'abolished' a s a category in collection of census data, it remains a crucial social and economic indicator, so in South Africa where despite the dismantling of apartheid laws, race remains a crucial indicator.

What should really disturb those committed to democratic transformation is not the persistent reality of race as a factor affecting every area of economy and society, or an alleged 're-racialisation' of South African society, but that there seems to be a deliberate shift from the perspective of a genuinely non-racial democratic South Africa, a defining feature of the ideology of the liberation movement, to creeping multi-racialism.

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