Vol. 15 No. 18 · 23 September 1993

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Johnson’s South Africa

We are all familiar with the ubiquitous pub character who has no good word to say for anybody or anything, who sees nothing but the worst in the present and future, whose views are peppered with anti-foreign, racist remarks. He is generally dyspeptic, sour and gloomy. He also bears a striking resemblance to R.W. Johnson (LRB, 8 July, LRB, 22 July and LRB, 5 August) whose survey of the prospects for South Africa’s future repeats (in rather more sophisticated language) every gloomy prognostication, rumour, exaggeration and distortion I am used to encountering in every pub frequented by whites, from Lusaka to Cape Town.

While a good deal of what Johnson reports is factually correct, the sum of his conclusions is a gross distortion of the actual situation in South Africa. Consider briefly only a few of the more damaging generalisations he makes. ‘Every top ANC politician now has business patron(s) who pay for his house, car, children’s education and much else besides.’ Every top politician? I challenge him to name more than, at most, six who qualify for this description. Nor, surely, is it a heinous offence that these few exceptions should accept favours from sympathisers (which doesn’t make them ‘patrons’) in view of their total lack of personal resources and the arduous daily responsibilities they face.

Afrikaners, he says, are ‘upping sticks en masse’ and heading for safer homes in the Cape. En masse? How many of the two million-plus Afrikaners have in fact engaged in this new trek for safety? A few thousand at most. I recently looked into this situation in the Western Cape and found that, with few exceptions, all those who had moved were either pensioned civil servants, senior retired army officers, or rich farmers who have established second homes.

Johnson’s special animus is reserved for white liberals and African nationalists. The former, he says – failing to distinguish between the different strands of liberals – refuse to stand up to the ANC. What of the Democratic Party, van Zyl Slabbert’s IDASA, the Institute of Race Relations, enlightened businessmen and others? Such an undifferentiated judgment is sloppy.

He doesn’t hesitate to quote rumours as if they were facts. For example, he says it is ‘rumoured’ that ex-president Kenneth Kaunda has three homes in South Africa and spends most of his time there. Neither statement is true. Kaunda owns no property in South Africa (in fact, he doesn’t even own houses in Zambia except for his home in his own place of origin). In his antipathy, Johnson smears Kaunda as a villain. Kaunda has admittedly made serious political mistakes, but knowing him as intimately as I do, a fair judgment on him is that he has always been a humane, decent, honest and committed Christian.

To Johnson, as is true of many others, ‘African nationalism’ has produced a ‘state of anarchy, corruption and disaster’ throughout the continent. As one with a fairly wide knowledge of just about every African country, I fail to recognise his generalisation as being typical of Africa. No more than six of the continent’s 52 states qualify for his inaccurate description. A number of countries (such as Nigeria, Kenya, Togo and Zaire) are in turmoil, not because of ‘tribalism’ and ‘separatism’, but because they are involved in a healthy demoralisation process. To describe Zimbabwe as ‘a socialist’ country is about as accurate as saying that Britain is socialist.

Johnson’s second article is shot through with internal contradictions. Two examples. Having spent a lot of effort in showing up the ANC as a single-minded monopolistic party, he ends up by acknowledging in a single sentence that the ANC is not ‘a tiger’, but ‘a broad church’. A more careful analysis of the ANC as a broad church would avoid many of the errors he makes. A second contradiction is that, having said that the SA Communist Party (SACP) intelligentsia act as the ANC’s strategic brain, he goes on to criticise the ANC’s shadow finance minister, Trevor Manuel, for having been ‘effectively taken over by the World Bank’s economists’ – another bunch of Communist intellectuals?

In his third article, which is devoted to examining the SACP, he presents them as a government-in-waiting; but after devoting thousands of words to this frightening prospect, he concludes, mirabile dictu, that ‘there is no prospect of the SACP being able to build an East-Germany-in-Africa, strive as it might, and it is doubtful whether it will even be able to prevent the embourgeoisement of its own cadres’ (emphasis added). He then lamely poses the question ‘whether it will put up a fight before it accepts that the nationalist revolution is real, but the socialist revolution is not.’

Finally, Johnson concludes that South Africa is in a state of ‘incipient anarchy’. Such a pessimistic conclusion is perhaps inevitable if what Johnson reports even remotely approximates the realities of the present situation. South Africa is indeed in a stage of cruel political violence, a situation not unknown in other countries undergoing a radical reordering of political power. It is predictable – and indeed has been predicted – that the closer the political centre (the Government and the ANC) come to agreement on the basis of a federal democratic constitution, the worse the violence will become, as the white ultras (as in the case of Algeria) and dissident black leaders attempt a last-ditch stand to prevent the majority from establishing an interim coalition government and arranging for the holding of the country’s first ever democratic elections. There are still hard times ahead, but I believe that after another bloody chapter, we will see the end of apartheid South Africa and the birth of a new society which will be faced with the immense difficulties inherited from centuries of inequitable rule.

Colin Legum
Plaw Hatch, West Sussex

Your correspondent R.W. Johnson writes disparagingly of a ‘Chaucerian variety of pilgrims’ to South Africa, including some ‘old anti-apartheid lobbyists out for a holiday in the sun’. What a pity that he could do no more than gather together the rag-bag of anecdote, gossip and misinformation. There is no evidence that he met or tried to meet any of those South Africans of all races who are attempting, despite all the difficulties and dangers in a time of escalating violence, to create something of value in housing, health, education, social welfare or politics from the wreckage of the apartheid era. There is no evidence that he went anywhere except in (white) middle-class suburbia; or that he met or listened to any blacks at all, except perhaps the flunkey whose memorable exchange was: ‘Have a nice safe evening at La Bonne Cuisine, sir.’ Apparently he moved among ‘society hostesses and their millionaire husbands who happily trill about their friendship with Comrade This and Comrade That’; ‘Anglophone professional or businessmen’ who, ‘especially’ if they were also Jewish, kept their heads down; and ‘greying and affluent whites’ fleeing with their property to ‘the part of the country which, having the fewest blacks, is safest’. He manages small sneers for all of them.

Not so long ago in your columns Johnson was propounding the thesis that Buthelezi and his Inkatha Freedom Party represented the real new dawn on the South African horizon. But that was yesterday’s thesis. Now he excoriates the ANC and the state for the fearsome corruption which flourishes on all sides’, without need even to mention the fully documented corruption of Inkatha, which received state funds in secret to destabilise the ANC, and which brought into the Kwa-Zulu police recruits who had been secretly trained by the South African death squad. Johnson now also remains totally silent on the record of Inkatha ‘impis’, and of Inkatha-inspired hostel mobs which turned Alexandra and other townships into killing fields. He does make one – and only one – substantial mention of Inkatha, to assert that ‘the largest set of victims [of the current violence] are Inkatha officials killed by the ANC. Rich even by Johnson standards: two allegations in one sentence, both unproven and both almost certainly false.

Johnson does not like the ANC and its allies. This explains the main thesis of his second article: that the ANC is creating the ground for a venal one-party dictatorship. In order to prevent the facts getting in the way of a plausible-sounding theory, Johnson ignores the evidence from decades of ANC ‘multipartyism’ both before and during the current constitutional negotiations. He reduces all that to the mealy-mouthed admission that ‘officially at least the movement is committed to multi-party democracy. But the statements to this effect look more and more like the pro forma utterances of a leadership keen to maintain contact with an international gallery of public opinion.’ How does he know? Because ‘the ANC talks of itself as the “nation"; its guerrilla wing is “the spear of the nation"; and its newspaper the New Nation.’ (Its newspaper? Since when?) And even more sinisterly: ‘ANC speakers extol human rights and pluralism at meetings carefully orchestrated to allow only one voice and one party line.’ By which criterion Tory, Liberal and Labour Parties are all concealed one-party conspiracies.

The ANC, we learn, ‘has appointed a board of trustees to act as the “guardians" of cultural life’. Whose? ‘The Congress of SA Writers shows ominous (?) signs of de facto ANC alignment.’ ‘Local enthusiasts who want to start a literary journal … complain of difficulties … because the journal is not ANC approved.’ Is this gossip to be taken seriously as the underpinning of his great one-party theory? We learn that there is an Indian dominance in the administration ‘of rugby, cricket, soccer and the national Olympics, even though Indians play little of any of these sports’. Little! Cricket! Cricket is as much an obsession amongst Indians as rugby is amongst whites.

L. Bernstein

R.W. Johnson writes: Messrs Legum and Bernstein both reproach me, in effect, for being too gloomy about South Africa. In a sense I sympathise with them. They both belong to a South African generation which, having followed the country’s evolution form abroad for thirty years, has now, like the rest of us, to face the possibility that the ending of apartheid may not usher in the liberal, Communist or social democratic dream which we have, respectively, espoused (I am the social democrat of the three). Such an awakening can be painful.

Mr Legum’s judgment seems dodgy to me. He has failed to understand that my reference to ‘socialist Zimbabwe’ was a joke, and has contrived a confusion all his own between World Bank economists and Communists. And surely he knows perfectly well the legal reasons which make it sadly unwise to print a list of corrupt politicians? More seriously, I am simply dumbstruck that he believes that only six African states are on the casualty list, a list that doesn’t include Liberia, Angola, Mozambique, Algeria, the Sudan or Somalia. Similarly, if someone tells me that the complete social, political and economic breakdown currently visible in Zaire is part of ‘a healthy democratisation process’, I frankly begin to wonder whether he is playing around with hallucinogenic drugs.

Most remarkable of all is his description of Kaunda. For nearly a whole generation Kaunda prevented free elections or a free press, detained people without trial, promoted his own personality cult, presided over wholesale corruption and brought about the economic ruin of Zambia. If the inadequacy of Legum’s judgment on this record is not apparent to him, further comment seems superfluous.

Lionel Bernstein is right that many Indians like cricket, and also right that many fine people are working with great energy and imagination for a better future here, but wrong to suggest that I am or ever have been a supporter of Buthelezi and the IFP. He is right that Inkatha scandalously received secret state subsidies for some of its rallies; but wrong to suggest that it bears sole responsibility for the carnage on the East Rand. The IFP and ANC are simply rival African nationalisms, rather like Zapu and Zanu in Zimbabwe or Kanu and Kadu in Kenya. If it is foolish to treat the ANC or IFP as morally worse or better than one another, it is the purest folly to demonise either, but since the IFP is the more frequently demonised in the media, an attempt at balance will often have the appearance of being pro-Inkatha. At the time I wrote there had indeed been a particularly egregious campaign of assassination against IFP officials in Natal and on the Reef, but the smoke of battle moves on: this week we mourn different victims, such as the (pro-ANC) American student Amy Biehl, murdered by a township gang, the bus passengers wounded by AK-47 fire from unknown assailants in Beaufort West, and the steady toll of dead in Bhambayi squatter camp.

Mr Bernstein’s indignation over the question of one-party dictatorship is welcome – but surprising. For almost half a century now Mr Bernstein has been a leading member of the SACP which, throughout that time, has been an enthusiastic supporter of one-party dictatorship. Indeed, up till 1988 the SACP espoused the one-party dictatorship of the GDR as the model for South Africa, since when it has switched its loyalties to one-party Cuba. I am glad to hear that Mr Bernstein now favours multi-partyism – no sinner repents too late – but the idea that there existed a long historical period in which he or his party were encouraging the ANC to think this way is, to put it kindly, revisionism on the grand scale. I am not encouraged by the fact that he apparently still does not understand why the idea of a party-aligned writers union is ominous.

On the hillsides behind me as I write, a squatter invasion is under way – the number of shanties there has exploded from three hundred to nearly two thousand in a month. The local white residents are in a state of hysteria as their properties become worthless; the possibility looms of violent clashes between black squatters and nearby Indians who claim the land; and there is dire talk of an IFP-ANC squatting race, it being assumed that each side will want, if it can, to turn those hillsides into a political no-go area for the other. Nobody – neither the local authorities, the ANC or the IFP – seems to have the will or nerve to grasp the situation, though all agree it is a disaster and will stand in the way of the low-cost housing scheme planned for that area. So the situation drifts and gets worse as more squatters, displaced by the murderous fighting in Bhambayi, pour in. Already there’s fighting down there too: you can hear the gunfire from where I sit – indeed, I think I heard some more tonight as I booted up my computer to write this. To Colin Legum, I suppose, that gunfire would be part of a healthy democratisation process. To Lionel Bernstein, I guess, it would be the sound of IFP murderers at work. That way they can both feel that it will stop once certain political changes are made. To me it represents just trouble and ungovernability and I have no confidence that it will stop. But I very deeply hope that they are right and that I am wrong.

The centre fights back

In her review of Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalise American Education (LRB, 22 July), Lynn Hunt complains that I offer ‘no clues to [my] own values or [my] understanding of the truth and no intellectual defence of [my] position beyond expediency’. This charge is untrue, as Hunt’s own summary of my defence of the cultural Left will show. But even if it were true it would be irrelevant to the educational questions I am concerned with in the book. What ails education today is not a shortage of works that expound the author’s ‘own values’ and ‘understanding of the truth’, as if improving education were a matter of setting everyone straight about what to think. Such works provide little help with the problem of the curriculum, which is not going to be solved by my, Lynn Hunt’s or somebody else’s presentation of the truth, however cogent. The problem of the curriculum, I take it, is how to create enough coherence out of what is necessarily going to be a plurality of very different views and assumptions so that students can make better sense of their education.

Hunt thus misses the point of my concern with ‘teaching the conflicts’. As I argue in the book, we are already teaching the conflicts now, in that we are exposing students to a vast welter of conflicting and disparate beliefs and methods. My point is that we will continue to teach the conflicts badly until we do so explicitly.

Gerald Graff
University of Chicago

Nixon’s Greatest Moments

The ingenious low technology of the typewriter age, as recounted by John Lowenthal, is hardly decisive proof of Hiss’s innocence (Letters, 22 July). As for General Dmitry Volkogonov, Lowenthal has simply stuck to the original and discredited version of the story, as launched by Alger Hiss at his press conference last October. Hiss had claimed that Volkogonov, having (at Hiss’s request) examined the relevant KGB files, had found no incriminating references to him, and thereupon claimed to be exonerated of the charges levelled against him.

The Volkogonov ploy was destroyed not long after by Herbert Romerstein, a leading American authority on Soviet communism. It turned out that Volkogonov did not have free access to secret files, but merely looked at those made available to him by Yevgeny Primakov, head of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (successor to the KGB’s First Directorate). It was and remains an absolute rule that Moscow never exposes its spies (defectors excepted). In November 1992, not long after the Hiss press conference, Volkogonov happened to be in Washington to testify before the Senate Committee on prisoners of war. Romerstein met him and Volkogonov confirmed that he had not been given free access to the secret files. Oleg Gordievsky, a major KGB defector, makes a number of conclusive references to Hiss’s espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union, in the book co-authored by Christopher Andrew, KGB: The Inside Story. A brief quotation tells it all: ‘The KGB’s main source within the State Department, Alger Hiss, was actually a member of the American delegation at Yalta.’

Brian Crozier
London Wl

What is cunnilingus?

As I know the LRB takes a particular interest in these matters of nomenclature, let me help out with the question posed by Adam Phillips: ‘Who other than Ernest Jones could have defined cunnilingus … as apposition of the mouth to the vulva?’ (LRB, 5 August). The answer is Havelock Ellis, in his Sexual Selection in Man, from which Jones evidently cribbed these words – except that Jones preferred to write ‘vulva’ where Ellis had ‘female pudendum’.

John Lavagnino
Brandeis University, Massachusetts

Those Italians!

Edward Luttwak’s informed account of the corruption in Italy’s partyocracy would read better if it were not so determinedly illuminated with 20-20 hindsight (LRB, 19 August). The levels of corruption in Italian political life have been a source of cynical discussion amongst Italian intellectuals for decades now. Even now Luttwak’s analysis has two diminishing features, one minor, one major. The minor problem is his determination to be so even-handed in his dismissal of the partyocracy that he has to go beyond his evidence – witness his unnecessary cheapening of the PCI’s post-1945 role in combating poverty, and his dismissal of claims of US ‘bacteriological warfare’ in Korea as mere Moscow propaganda. The evidence of the use of these weapons in Korea is not negligible. The US did have a substantial research effort in the field, and had recently spared from prosecution and brought back to the US several of the Japanese microbiologists and doctors who had been part of the notorious Brigade 731 which had, as the Japanese government itself has now admitted, taken part in bacteriological warfare and experimentation on Chinese, Russian and American prisoners of war in China. Independent investigators of the Korean allegations at the time were themselves divided on the evidence, so it is unsurprising that, to quote Luttwak, the claims are ‘still believed today by many middle-aged Italians’.

The more serious problem with Luttwak’s analysis refers however not to the past but to the present and future, the role of the Northern League. He sanguinely describes its seemingly inexorable rise in Lombardy as a necessary part of a federalist modernisation of the Italian state. In doing so he ignores the strong racist and anti-semitic elements within the League’s political agenda and its ideological affiliations with other parties and groupings of Europe’s emerging extreme Right. If the rise of the League is really a precondition for Italy becoming Luttwak’s ideal of a ‘normal’ state I for one would not wish to live in such ‘normality’.

James Jonas
London WC1


Readers of Malise Ruthven’s excellent piece on the Waco siege (LRB, 9 September) should seek authority for the Rapture of the born-again not in the Book of Revelation but in 1 Thessalonians, 4.17, a text just as highly valued by those eight million American fundamentalists.

Frank Kermode

Where is he now?

Freddy Hurdis-Jones can find out about his old school friend Mervyn Jones (Letters, 9 September) by reading his chapter ‘Learning to be a father’ in Fatherhood, edited by Sean French (Virago. 1992).

Sebastian Kraemer
London SW2

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