Alms (and arms) for oblivion?

‘This house [Parliament] stands on the threshold of a bold new age. You have the power to define our nation’s destiny. Your decision will affect generations to come. Your endorsement of this historic Defence Review will invigorate the Renaissance. And your support will put us in the vanguard of Africa.”

That’s Ronnie Kasrils, then deputy minister of defence, speaking in Parliament in 1997. The Defence Review was the document that justified spending billions in the notorious arms deal—about R29-billion at first, but coming out closer to R50-billion by the end (which is still not in sight). Kasrils was right, but in the wrong way, when he said the decision to go ahead with the deal would “affect generations to come”. As for invigorating the (African) renaissance, well —

Paul Holden’s book The Arms Deal in Your Pocket (Jonathan Ball) is a remarkably short, neat, coherent account of the deal that has become what Mark Gevisser calls “the poisoned well of South African politics”. It would be all too unfortunate if the arms deal did, in fact, “define our nation’s destiny”, as Kasrils had it. But it appears to have thrown the Thabo Mbeki presidency off course right from the start; certainly its ramifications contributed significantly to his fall and to the ascendancy of Jacob Zuma.

Mbeki was the man to modernise the ANC, to turn it from a liberation movement into a modern political party capable of running a developing democracy. He and his team would put South Africa on the path to prosperity in a globalised world. Schemes such as Nepad and the African Union were grand attempts to halt African state kleptocracy and institute good governance across the continent, without which, progress is impossible.

But even before Mbeki took up the presidential mantle he was deeply involved in the arms deal—and diverting it to reach desired outcomes, particularly in terms of the “offsets” that he and others seem to have imagined would compensate by way of investment into South Africa for the billions spent on military hardware we didn’t really need. The “offsets” barely materialised.

It’s not a great stretch to see the arms deal, and what went wrong with it, as a key factor in the Mbeki presidency’s slide into secretiveness, paranoia and denialism, not to mention its vicious attitude towards any dissent or revelations of wrongdoing. The manipulation of bodies designed to create checks and balances on the executive began with the emasculation of Scopa, the parliamentary oversight committee, and has carried through into the debacle around the National Prosecuting Authority now being mulled over by Frene Ginwala (though the way she caved in on Scopa doesn’t incline one to hope she will be stronger this time).

Holden’s straightforward account of the arms deal and the fallout is sobering reading, with the compensation that at least now you can get a clear narrative and a clear explanation of it all to date.

The same would go for Brian Pottinger’s book, The Mbeki Legacy (Struik), which takes a broader view of the Mbeki era—and carefully enumerates its successes and failures. Unfortunately, there are more of the latter.

Pottinger marshals an impressive roster of facts and figures to make his argument. For instance, the fact that a mere 6% of crimes reported to the police result in a conviction: this says a great deal about the decline of state functions in policing and justice. The figures on education, employment, skills, crime and so on are equally worrying. We are in danger of what Pottinger calls “demodernisation”—exactly the opposite of the Mbeki presidency’s chief national project.

How did Mbeki become “the father of the grand design and the unfulfilled hope”? Pottinger blames “ideological overreach”. Huge, complex legislative initiatives (and endless acronyms) proliferated under Mbeki, while the capacity to implement them diminished disastrously. We have ended up with a “proxy state” where private companies try to fill the gap in state services. There are more people employed by the private security industry than by the police and army combined.

This resonates with Jonny Steinberg’s analysis in his recent book Thin Blue. The state has become just another competitor in a marketplace of “services” (and not a very good competitor at that). It has lost its authority as a regulator, or even as an honest broker. This of course leads to corruption and rampant self-interest. Also noted by Steinberg, and borne out by Pottinger, are the pressures of rapid embourgeoisment—a process at the heart of the redistributive agenda of Mbeki’s black empowerment programme, though also an instance of hopes generated but incapable of fulfilment beyond a smallish group of the newly enriched.

Pottinger is clear that not all such failures can be blamed on the Mbeki version of affirmative action, but it has certainly played a central role in both the lack of state capacity (loss of institutional memory, experience and expertise) and the development of a “client class” dependent on state contracts to maintain its new wealth and social status. (I’d also argue that Mbeki-style affirmative action has contributed largely to the death of non-racialism as a discourse of amelioration and reconstruction in South Africa.) Meanwhile, trickle-down economics have failed the poor, so we are left with up to one-third of all South Africans subsisting on some form of state welfare.

This is an important point. The so-called “left” in the Zuma ascendancy (Cosatu, the communists) are fond of branding Mbeki as a Thatcherite who sold out to the Washington Consensus, but at the close of his presidency we are left with an immense welfare state—though in the form of cash hand-outs rather than improvement of institutions such as state hospitals or investment in infrastructure such as Eskom’s. How the “left” intends to expand this legacy, as it seems inclined to do, without bankrupting the state, is hard to see.

Pottinger offers some potential solutions to the problems South Africa faces at the close of the Mbeki era. They seem plausible and the idea of legislative simplification in general is good.

He also sees the limitations of trying to re-engineer society by fiat: for instance, he acknowledges that affirmative action is necessary, but it could be driven by incentives rather than quotas. Most of his proposed solutions, though, require political will and inspired leadership—and that’s just what we seem to be lacking right now.

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week. Read more from Shaun de Waal


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