The Rainbow Over: Post-Apartheid South Africa Is Not Delivering the Liberal Dream but a Nightmare of Communism and Corruption

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"BRING ME MY MACHINE GUN!" sings the next president of South Africa in a pleasing baritone, and as the audience joins in with the catchy tune, he intones more politely the second line of the song, "Please bring me my machine gun!" Nobody actually obliges. It is the thought that counts, and the thought is worrying.

We are at an election rally of the mighty African National Congress on the sports field of Springbok, a small, rather arid town. This is almost the top left corner of the Republic of South Africa, separated from the Europeanized tourist enclave of Cape Town by hundreds of miles of brooding mountains with occasional picturesque oases of modest comfort on the way. People do not come here unless they need to. The railroad stops a long way south, at the evocatively named settlement of Bitterfontein. The highway is so sparsely used that tortoises--a mainstay of the local wildlife--occasionally succeed in getting all the way across it. Many of the local people are Namaquas, a distinctive tribe, once nomadic, now mostly not, whose lovely high-boned features look almost Chinese.

In short, this is just round the corner from nowhere.

What is the leader of a party that currently holds 72 percent of the seats in South Africa's parliament doing in such a place? He will become president on April 22 whatever the people of Springbok do. The problem is that he fears a demoralizing snub from the voters and has good reason to. The Rainbow Nation inaugurated by Nelson Mandela is not living happily ever after, and he, Jacob Zuma, is not exactly a reassuring figure.

A breakaway party, the Congress of the People, has been doing surprisingly well here and so needs to be squashed. It will be. One of COPE's leading figures, Allan Boesak, told me that the ANC had wooed him to campaign for them. He said they assured him that money for the campaign would be readily available because they were receiving funds from Libya's Col. Muammar Gaddafi.

There is certainly cash to play with. People who turn up at the ANC rally are handed gifts of bananas and cans of cola, no small thing in a part of the world where many make their living from garbage-picking. Hundreds of people are wearing yellow T-shirts bearing Jacob Zuma's face. COPE's local officials--one says he left the ANC because he believes it has now been wholly taken over by Communists--claim that generous food parcels, supposedly government aid aimed at the poor, are being given only to ANC supporters. These grossly cynical tactics will work, even though the discontent is real. Even up here everyone has noticed that 15 years of majority rule have largely been wasted. Like almost every South African town, Springbok still has a relatively rich, mainly white part with a steakhouse, supermarkets, and hotels and an absolutely poor black part hidden behind one of the hills that stand all around. If the promises and hopes of "liberation" had been true, this would not be the case.

True, these days there are ways round and through the old barriers, and wealth now easily trumps skin color. The night I was there, white waitresses in the main restaurant were respectfully, even obsequiously, serving an opulent and confident party of well-dressed and powerful black Africans, probably politically connected. But most South African blacks are still very much on the bad side of the hill and likely to stay there.

It is not that nothing has been done. Comrade Zuma's motorcade--everyone is a comrade in the ANC, the last habitat of proper Stalinist politics outside the museum states of Cuba and North Korea--rolls through streets of neat new houses and past a modern high school before it bounces and jolts into a desperate zone of shacks and shanties. It parks outside the most wretched of them all, a structure mainly consisting of blue plastic sacks, whose tiny, crinkled 49-year-old occupant, Elizabeth Cloete, could easily be mistaken for 94. She makes about $10 a week scavenging through garbage for small saleable items. Many of the people here seem--and are--permanently dazed either by cheap wine or drugs. It is hard to blame them. This is one of the many places in Africa where it seems straightforwardly wrong that we can share the planet with such conditions and seemingly lack the power to alter them.

The president-to-be removes his black leather Stetson and goes inside Elizabeth's appalling home to do penance for the failings of the ANC. It is obviously necessary to humble himself and at least seem able to help since his party has been in power for more than a decade and he will shortly be in office himself. He is rather good at this sort of thing, a genuine man of the people who has been poor himself. He grew up as an unlettered herd-boy. His father, a policeman, died when he was tiny. His mother had to move away to work as a maid in a rich white person's house. Zuma's life has at no stage been easy, and it would be foolish to underestimate him. The problem is not that he is a nonentity. Anything but. The problem is what this life has made him good at.

He does not hurry away as a Western politician would have done. We wait in the heat as he absorbs the badness of the conditions. He will later say, in one of the few moments of his speech in clear, plain English, that those conditions are very bad. As he emerges from the slum, I attempt politely to speak to him, weeks of requests for interviews having been met with a silence that might mean either inefficiency or disdain. I am immediately told off by a party commissar, who gets even angrier when I ignore him and try again. It is explained to me that in the new South Africa journalists do not speak to politicians without an appointment, and I cannot have an appointment.

This behavior is a tiny sample of the general arrogance of the ANC, an arrogance that has helped to engender a new and serious challenge to its power. More tribe than party, it has for years been the only serious political formation in supposedly democratic South Africa. All major black African factions, and some white ones, have existed inside it, keeping their disagreements more or less to themselves. Influencing all has been the Communist Party, deeply embedded and entangled in the ANC structure.

In the days of Soviet power, it happily supported every grotesque show trial, Red Army invasion, and KGB repression that was available and would have supported more if asked. Its complete devotion to the Kremlin, and its leading position in the ANC, was one of the main reasons for the long survival of the repulsive Apartheid system. Western powers feared that the end of Apartheid would necessarily mean the establishment of a Soviet satellite on the strategic southern tip of Africa, in possession of its gold and diamond fields and much else besides. That is why the USSR had to fall before Apartheid did.

Now the CP continues, extraordinarily unreconstructed. It recently had a hand in the removal of Thabo Mbeki, the former president who was driven from office in a constitutional coup last year. The politics of this are complex. Mbeki was not much of a president, aloof and inclined to defend incompetent colleagues. But he was a smooth man, educated at a British university, European in manners, and wholly dedicated to the main task of all South African governments--keeping foreign investors happy. He was, however, scornful of Jacob Zuma. And he was viewed by the Communist Party and its allies as an obstacle. It was this combination that would eventually lever him from office.

Nelson Mandela, now a sort of global brand, has floated above the surface of politics, reassuring and dazzling outsiders who want to believe that the future is bound to be happy. He was, alas, a rather vague president, and Mbeki was perhaps not the best successor. Poor Mandela, now heading into the sunset of his days, was recently transported to an ANC rally where he more or less endorsed Jacob Zuma. Pictures and a YouTube video of this sad occasion show the old man looking used and baffled.

The Western world has assumed until now that South Africa's experiment was a complete success. This is largely because liberal opinion, which determines how most news is covered, has so very much wanted it to be so. It was vital to them that this project did not go wrong. The Left was wounded when conservatives accused them of being soft on socialist regimes in Cuba and Vietnam. South Africa, a repulsive tyranny propped up by Western conservatives, was their answer. "You do it, too," they never quite said but always meant.

The mirror image was almost complete. The Soviet Union aided the ANC with money and training. Many of its leading figures--including Jacob Zuma--spent time in Moscow or East Germany being "trained," presumably in things other than how to run a multiparty democracy with an unfettered press and a free economy. Zuma later became a formidable senior officer in Spear of the Nation, the ANC's often ruthless armed wing, and questions about his conduct there remain unanswered. To this day, the ANC elite maintains close relations with regimes and movements--Havana, Libya, the PLO--that took Moscow's side in the global Cold War.

Preferring to forget this, many broadcasting organizations and newspapers, more or less dominated by left-liberal thinking, treated the final years of Apartheid South Africa as the greatest story ever told. To them, it was the truly satisfying part of the end of the Cold War. It was always implicit in their coverage--as in too much of the parallel coverage of the fall of the Iron Curtain--that all that was needed was the end of the old regime. When it did end, their approach was apocalyptic. The British Broadcasting Corporation described the long lines at voting stations in the first post-Apartheid election as "biblical"--an odd description given that there are no mass-suffrage elections in the Bible. But we knew what they meant: the liberation of the children of Israel with miracles, the annihilation of the armies of the wicked, and pillars of cloud by day and pillars of fire by night. It was, at last, the coming of Utopia. Soon afterward, the foreign coverage of what was going on in Utopia as good as stopped.

The occasional whisper emerged about the disastrous, tardy handling of HIV-AIDS and the health minister who believed beetroot was a remedy. Crime--especially as it affected tourists and expatriates--was sometimes mentioned, though it is far worse for the majority, living in terror of gangs in police-free shanty towns. A little was said about the curious arms deal under which South Africa--a country with no enemies except its own elite--purchased quantities of grotesquely expensive warships and airplanes. Recently, though only when the violence had reached frightening levels, it was reported that native South Africans were engaging in horrifying xenophobic riots against their brothers from the north, economic migrants who had crossed the poorly policed border in search of work.

In fact, this was and is a full-scale crisis, for which South Africa's politically correct authorities have no real solution. They are no longer ready to be ruthless at the frontier for fear of accusations of xenophobia or of the thing they charge all their critics with--racism. They know that trainloads of deportees will in most cases simply come back again. They long ago watched powerlessly as great new squatter camps erupted on the edge of the old townships, outpacing sincere but inadequate attempts to re-house the poor.

The failure is on display with embarrassing clarity at Cape Town's airport, currently being expanded to cope with tourism and the surge in traffic expected during next year's World Cup. Arriving passengers cannot avoid seeing the shanty towns that have now spread almost to the airport perimeter and which crowd up to the edge of the smooth First World freeway into the city. This is symbolically important because Cape Town, with its smart new waterfront and lavish, shaded suburbs, is the Potemkin Village of post-Apartheid South Africa. Unlike the viciously dangerous and ugly Johannesburg, where you can be robbed between the arrival lounge and the airport hotel, Cape Town tries to preserve a sense of order, civility, and optimism.

It is the stronghold of the other important opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, whose leader, Helen Zille, has proved an effective, clean, and popular mayor. There are historic reasons for this. The DA, until recently mainly white, has managed to win serious support among the confusingly named Cape Colored community, which is strong in this part of the country. Though her ancestry is in fact German, she has become impressively African. She can slip effortlessly between English and Afrikaans, the language of the "colored" community and also of the old hardline Afrikaners. Better still, she can speak fluent Xhosa, the tongue of what has until now been the most important black African grouping. It is as impressive to watch her speak as it is unimpressive to watch Jacob Zuma.

He regurgitates the leaden slogans of the ANC's Communist-trained apparatus. It is only when he sings "Bring me My Machine Gun" that he comes to life at all. It was also the only time when his audience in Springbok stopped chattering and listened to him. Zille, whom I found at a university rally in the vineyard-surrounded town of Stellenbosch, is by contrast lively, witty, and sharp. If this contest were about ideas and character instead of machines, tribes, and loyalty, she would win. She is also sensibly pessimistic, and her ambitions are limited. She has no hopes of beating the ANC's juggernaut and openly acknowledges that at this stage all she can do is begin to create a broad opposition. "The closed crony system," she warns, "leads to power abuse and eventually to a criminal state." She urges her supporters to concentrate on reducing the ANC's vote and to get the ruling party used to the idea of real democracy. Otherwise it will misuse its excessive power--something she warns "inevitably leads to Zimbabwe." Liberation movements such as the ANC, she says, make bad democratic governments because they believe their goal is to seize power. She does not say, but implies, that they have nothing in their DNA that tells them it is healthy or good to give up the power they have seized. In a world where so many politicians fail to grasp that liberty relies more on the spirit than on the letter, her clarity and good sense are heartening. The problem is that she and her message may well have come too late.

For Jacob Zuma is a living symbol of what many have feared South Africa would become. Earlier this month, he finally escaped a threat of prosecution on corruption charges--connected with the infamous arms deal--which have hung over him for many years. Alas for South African justice and the rule of the law, Zuma was not acquitted in court. The charges were cancelled by a state bureaucracy, the national Prosecuting Authority. Zuma's good friend Schabir Shaik, who was in fact convicted of corruption and imprisoned, was recently released on medical grounds--for a procedure supposedly only available to the terminally ill, which he is not--amid howls of skeptical derision. Jackie Selebi, the national police commissioner, is famous for asking, "What's all the fuss about?" when taxed with the country's appalling levels of crime and violence. He is currently suspended, accused of having a "generally corrupt relationship" with a convicted drug smuggler and also "defeating the ends of justice."

There are other portents that suggest President Zuma's inauguration will end South Africa's fanciful Rainbow dreamtime. Unlike the peaceable Westernized Xhosas Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki, and unlike most of the ANC leadership so far, Zuma is a Zulu--a member of the warlike nation that humbled the British Empire at the epic battle of Isandlwana and that still remembers its ferocious past with pride. He loves to wear full tribal gear, loincloth and all, though he tends to spoil the effect by encasing his feet in white running shoes.

He is a proud polygamist, with four living wives and 18 children. He has already considered how to cope with this tricky detail when working out which of his spouses will be first lady. He explains, "There is no First Lady. If there is an occasion, one day we will have the wife we are with, another day we will have another one." He rather winningly defends his domestic arrangement by saying of his more conventional critics: "Many of them have wives, girlfriends, and children that they try to hide. I love all my wives and children and I'm proud of them, so I'm completely open about it."

He is almost wholly politically incorrect. During a trial for rape in which he was acquitted, he famously claimed to have avoided the danger of HIV by taking a shower afterward, which suggests that his government's policy on this problem may not be much of an advance over its predecessors' approach. He has been publicly rude about homosexuals and homosexual marriage. (He was compelled to retract.) He also hinted that he might favor a return of the death penalty.

It will be very difficult for American and European progressives to pretend that he is one of them. He is wholly and completely African, a Big Man of the traditional sort, jovial, powerful, faintly menacing, happy to be borne about in high-speed processions of big black Mercedes-Benz cars. In this he is like all too many of his brother presidents in the sad zone of lawlessness, greed, and despair that stretches northward from the banks of the Limpopo River to the southern shore of the Mediterranean Sea, and which South Africa was never supposed to join.

Let us hope they do not bring him his machine gun.

Peter Hitchens is a columnist for the London Mail on Sunday and blogs at http://hitchensblog.mailonsunday.co.uk.