The New Games In Town

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POLITICS JUNE 16, 1997

The New Games In Town

Think of South Africa as a country that grew drowsy around 1945 and drifted off to sleep. It closed its eyes sure of the world around it, a world in which it played a respected, progressive role. A charter member of the League of Nations, and then of the United Nations, it had bound with the other white dominions to preserve Western civilization during World War II, and shared with them an identity defined by the liberal habits and heritage of the British Commonwealth.

Perhaps in the twilight of a deepening oblivion, South Africa felt this world begin to shake under the weight of an African nationalism unleashed partially by that very defense of enlightenment principle. But, by the time the rumblings grew deafening, and overturned the entire well-mannered, self- satisfied edifice, South Africa was fast asleep. And, as South Africa snoozed, there arose, from Khartoum to Lusaka, an African identity built on the negation of its predecessor. The heady and headstrong leaders of the day vowed to build nations not merely free from colonialism, but free from the West's stale, corrupt model of economic development and social organization.

One has only to recite the names from that era--Kenyatta, Azikiwe, Lumumba-- and then from ours--Moi, Abacha, Kabila--to see that this vision lies in ruin. In Mozambique, where Eduardo Mondlane won a brutal war of attrition against Portuguese rule and became a hero to radical intellectuals throughout the globe, the dirt-poor government of Joaquem Chissano now solicits its former masters to rebuild along the Indian Ocean shore the luxury hotels that once symbolized colonial privilege. Zambia and Tanzania, which at independence hatched grand schemes to rediscover the socialist principles supposedly inherent in African tradition, now compete for the mantle of the International Monetary Fund's most dutiful pupil in Central Africa. And these are the bright spots. The countries that have not submitted to Western economic orthodoxy--Nigeria, Congo, Sudan--find themselves in such advanced states of decay as to raise the question of whether they remain, in any meaningful way, states at all.

Black South Africa, awaking to take its place as an African, rather than an imperial, nation, finds the African identity that it cherished during those long, brutal years of sleep a corrupted and diminished inheritance. And so it has rejected it. Rather than assume an identity based upon economic and cultural isolation from the destructive West and a search for authentic, self- sufficient development, the African National Congress has embraced its reverse. The identity it is building is in large part an appropriation of the West's understanding of, and prescriptions for, Africa. As a result, the new South Africa, contrary to all expectations, is being shaped by those best able to anticipate and deliver the South Africa that the West desires. The center of this effort is Cape Town, and, if all goes according to plan, its showcase will be the Summer Olympics in 2004.

A decade ago, almost no one in South Africa thought the future would look like Cape Town. When South Africans imagined their country under ANC rule, they imagined Port Elizabeth, a gritty, industrial city smack in the middle of the Xhosa (and ANC) heartland of the Eastern Cape, a city consumed by the ANC-inspired civil unrest that led, in 1986, to the declaration of a national State of Emergency. Or they imagined Johannesburg, where a mighty ANC-aligned labor movement, its soul in the mines, contested white South Africa's control over the means of production. Or perhaps a few imagined Durban, where Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi plotted an alternative (ostensibly more moderate) black South African future based on the political exploitation of Zulu nationalism. A South African joke of the mid-1980s: How can you tell a white South African optimist from a white South African pessimist? Answer: the optimist is learning Zulu while the pessimist is learning Xhosa.

But Cape Town, capital of the Western Cape, was home to neither language. The Western Cape is the only region of the country without an African (or black) majority. Of its residents, 55 percent are "coloured," a sprawling, Afrikaans-speaking apartheid category that encompasses the descendants of the indigenous, non-Bantu peoples of the Cape, the descendants of Malay and Indian slaves imported by the Dutch in the eighteenth century, and anyone legally acknowledged as the product of racial miscegenation. Coloureds, deeply ambivalent about the prospect of African rule, wielded little power within the ANC and none within Buthelezi's Inkatha Freedom Party. And Cape Town, a sleepy agricultural and tourist city bordered by a ring of mountains and two oceans, boasted little heavy industry. So Cape Town was by its demography, its history and its geography peripheral to the black politics forged in the cauldron of State of Emergency South Africa in the mid-'80s. And it was from that cauldron that everyone assumed the new South Africa would arise.

And so it would have, had the African National Congress overthrown the South African government. But--and this is the key to understanding how Cape Town emerged as the model for post-apartheid South Africa--the ANC did not overthrow the white government. To be sure, a rich mythology, influential both inside and outside South Africa, suggests that it did. According to the lore, the ANC's bombing campaign, run from exile in Lusaka, in tandem with the street warfare of its young comrades in the townships, and its efforts to stigmatize Pretoria internationally, forced F.W. de Klerk to negotiate the handover of power from a position of weakness. In essence, this is the familiar African story of negotiations as a fig leaf for the transfer of power to a triumphant nationalist movement able to cripple white authority through guerrilla war and mass mobilization. It follows the ANC's long- standing belief that apartheid was simply "colonialism of a special type" and would fall in much the same way as its white supremacist cousins north of the Limpopo River.

Were this true, Cape Town might still be a backwater. As it actually happened, however, the South African government did not hand over power from a position of overwhelming weakness. By the late 1980s, when secret talks with the ANC began, the government's news blackout had exiled its abuses from the world's television sets, and South African business had found ways to evade sanctions; while sanctions distorted the economy, they hadn't really cut into white standards of living. The guerrilla campaign waged by the ANC for a quarter century had proved almost totally ineffectual. Chased by the apartheid military from every country on South Africa's border, the ANC was marooned in far-off Zambia, from which infiltration into South Africa was extremely difficult. The desperate, brutalized township kids who screamed Nelson Mandela's name and set collaborators alight were also reeling from P.W. Botha's 1986 declaration of a State of Emergency, which left them facing not police vans, but tanks. By the time of Mandela's release in 1990, rising civil violence, a declining economy and international isolation had left white South Africa depressed and neurotic, but the edifice of white power was simply too sophisticated and entrenched to collapse like a Latin American junta or a colonial outpost. The bureaucracy remained intact, business elites had not fled, and the military and police, even with their large numbers of black foot soldiers, remained loyal. As ANC military chief Joe Slovo conceded in 1992, "we are not dealing with a defeated enemy."

There is another reason the revolutionary model of the new South Africa did not come to pass. By the late 1980s, much ink had been spilled, both inside and outside South Africa, arguing that the white government, with its theology of racial classification and hierarchy, was on the wrong side of history. But so, it turned out, was the ANC. Through the end of the decade, the ANC's blueprints for South Africa's development sounded as if they had been photocopied from a Bulgarian economics textbook. The party lionized East German dictator Erich Honecker and in 1990 noted with sadness "the loss the liberation movement has suffered with the disappearance of the German Democratic Republic...." In October 1991, Harry Gwala, then-ANC boss in Natal, writing in the Congress's official journal, Mayibuye, condemned Mikhail Gorbachev and " t hose who employ bourgeois morality and imperialist norms in dismembering a socialist union and suppressing the Communist Party...."

By the early 1990s, while South Africa's white elite was realizing it had to abandon its dream of racial separation, the ANC was realizing it had to abandon its dream of state-directed wealth redistribution. Soviet money had dried up, and the Congress, looking at Africa's wretched socialist orphan states, realized that, if it was to gain the Western blessing (and money) it needed to govern, there was no choice but to conform to Western requirements for an economy based on the free market.

The ANC's realization in turn freed de Klerk to make a decisive strategic break with his predecessors. White leadership had long sought to co-opt blacks politically and thereby legitimize South Africa to the world. In that vein, they had proposed various absurd scenarios--separate parliamentary chambers for different racial groups, black representation on meaningless advisory committees and township boards--to bring blacks into office while denying them power. F.W. de Klerk's epiphany was to realize that these schemes were no longer necessary. Free elections no longer represented a threat because an ANC forced to accept the logic of capitalism would not substantively endanger white privilege. As University of Cape Town political scientist Hermann Giliomee has written, "In the government's perception the ANC without Soviet backing was a containable force."

It was these realities that shaped the compact hammered out during secret talks with the imprisoned Mandela, and then during four years of raucous multi-party negotiations. And that compact represents, in sharp contrast to the romantic tale usually told about South Africa's transformation, a significant victory for the white establishment. The ANC does not rule South Africa, at least not by itself. It rules in coalition, no longer with the National Party, which left the government of national unity two years ago to define itself in opposition, but with the entire white power structure. The ANC oversees a military whose top officers are largely holdovers from a defense force that hunted them as criminals. Its policies are implemented by a mostly white civil service. The doyens of South African industry have funneled millions into the ANC's campaign coffers, and Nelson Mandela regularly receives members of the prestigious Brenthurst business group at his home. The Anglo American Corporation, the mineral empire long demonized as the economic backbone of apartheid, last year bought itself into the bosom of the new government by selling Cyril Ramaphosa, the ANC's former secretary- general, and Nthato Motlana, Mandela's doctor and confidante, at below market price an Anglo subsidiary worth 10 billion rand ($220 million).

It is not, of course, that there has been no change in South Africa. The emotional and psychological magnitude of a democratic election and an ANC-led government is immense. But while that government remains a potent symbol of the African nationalist vision the ANC upheld throughout its exile, its policies represent, in large part, the renunciation of that vision. The ANC's first budget actually reduced corporate taxes, and its tight fiscal policies have cut South Africa's budget deficit from 6.9 percent of gross domestic product the year before it took over to 5.1 percent this spring. Last fall Mandela's government went further, announcing an even more austere budget aimed at reducing the country's deficit to 3 percent by the year 2000. And far from nationalizing the banks or the mines, as it pledged during its decades in exile, the Congress is actually moving toward privatizing the South African telephone company and other state-owned industries.

The strategy of sophisticated white elites, to bring South Africa back into the world's graces by coupling real political change with a lack of real economic change, has worked. Mandela's policies are, if anything, more pro- free market than those pursued by de Klerk. And while this is probably a good thing for the country's long-term future, it is still deeply disillusioning for ANC leaders and supporters who for years took it as axiomatic that free elections would mean a massive effort to reduce the economic gap between whites and blacks. As Tokyo Sexwale, premier of Gauteng, the region encompassing Johannesburg, exclaimed in December 1994, "are we in power or are we in office?"

It is this new South Africa, one that few would have predicted, that the world will mark if Cape Town hosts the 2004 Olympics. In March, Cape Town made the International Olympic Committee's first cut, and this September the IOC will choose from among the five finalists. Cape Town is the sentimental favorite, and its promoters are selling its bid as a celebration of South Africa's reintegration into the continent, and of Africa's coming of age. Their logo is a torch with its flames colored in the hues of the South African flag tracing the outline of the entire continent. The attached slogan reads, "Thousands of years ago the continents divided and went their separate ways. Now it is time they return to Africa." South African National Olympic Committee President Sam Ramsamy told United Press International that holding the Olympics in Cape Town would represent a triumph for "South Africa, Africa and for the progressive forces of the entire world."

The Olympic bid paraphernalia mirrors the vision of post-apartheid South Africa nurtured by the ANC during its exile: a country awaking from its white, imperial identity to a pan-African one. On the ground, this identity is indeed being forged. Go to Johannesburg (the hub of a province that has changed its name to Gauteng, Sesotho for "place of gold") and you will find yourself in perhaps the first legitimately pan-African metropolis. Whites have deserted the city for increasingly autonomous suburbs. They may still drive into underground car parks, from which they take elevators up into high- rise offices, but the street is all African. In recent years, Johannesburg has been flooded with immigrants from throughout the continent, from Mozambican mineworkers to Ugandan doctors to Zairean traders. Nigerian smugglers have turned it into a major cocaine hub, and refugee intellectuals from Africa's dictatorships have made it a center for exile dissent rivaling London and Paris.

But it is Cape Town, not Johannesburg, that gained the right to bid. And Cape Town, a city long viewed by its white residents as "Mediterranean" (a statement as much about race as about climate), is the major South African city least evocative of the African nationalist vision of a post-apartheid order.

The Western Cape was the only region de Klerk's National Party won in the 1994 elections. And that victory has given political manifestation to its cultural difference. In the Johannesburg airport, you can find not only " township" music, but the music of artists such as Salif Keita from other parts of the continent. In the Waterfront, the vast mall that houses Cape Town's Olympic Bid Committee headquarters, the music selection sounds like something you'd hear in Peoria. Soccer stadiums regularly draw huge, predominantly black crowds in Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth, Durban and Bloemfontein, but the African Cup of Nations, which South Africa recently hosted, didn't schedule a match in Cape Town. Whites are increasingly migrating to the Cape, and it has long served as the white vacation hub. But Johannesburg's burgeoning black middle class, seeing the city as inhospitable, hits the beach in Durban instead.

And the uncomfortable truth of Cape Town's "pan-African" Olympic bid is that the city was chosen over Johannesburg and Durban in large part because of its "non-African" features. Johannesburg, with one of the highest murder rates of any city not currently at war, was deemed too violent. Cape Town, on the other hand, has, as former Mayor Gordon Oliver says triumphantly, " traditionally always been much safer than other parts of South Africa." Indeed, the city recently loaned beleaguered Johannesburg some of its police force. As South African-born political scientists Kogila Moodley and Heribert Adam suggest in their excellent book, The Opening of the Apartheid Mind, the Cape may be becoming South Africa's Slovenia.

Much of the criminality that plagues Johannesburg is really the continuation of violence that began during the State of Emergency in the 1980s, violence then deemed "political," and which ANC leaders admit played a crucial role in wresting control of the townships from the government. So Cape Town, a city that was not at the forefront of antiapartheid resistance, and indeed voted for the party of apartheid in the 1994 elections, is being rewarded for it.

Beyond its safety, Cape Town is considered a better tourist city than Johannesburg. It has a more temperate climate, and, while Johannesburg's scenery consists largely of mine dumps, Cape Town boasts a wide variety of mountains and bays. But here, again, the criterion is ironic. Throughout its exile, the ANC, like other African liberation movements, espoused a self- reliant development strategy centered on heavy industry. Now that same ANC, spouting the IMF line, spurns heavy industry for tourism. Mining, based around Johannesburg, and long the backbone of the South African economy, has been growing less competitive internationally, and tourism, long reviled as fostering a degrading, neo-colonial ethic, now lies at the core of the ANC's economic plan. Despite rhetoric about integrating South Africa into the continent, the Olympic bid is part of a larger effort to lure Americans and Europeans to Cape Town, a city they appreciate precisely because of the "non- African" features about which its white population has long boasted. This is hardly the vision of the new South Africa nurtured by the ANC's commandos when they sat in squalid camps in far off Zambia.

The new South Africa, bitter though its ironies may be, is far preferable to the alternatives--and the alternatives are on grisly display to South Africa's north. But the compact undergirding the new South Africa--which requires blacks to accept not only that staggering inequities persist, but that they must persist, and that those responsible for these inequities continue to wield substantial power--depends on a patience that may already be starting to wane. The National Union of Miners, long an ANC ally, has attacked the government for its policies of "IMF-style, neo-liberal deregulation." The popular black newspaper City Press has written that " constant claims by senior party leaders that they cannot undo the damage of apartheid overnight do not appeal to the people. They want to see clear proof that a new government is in power." And the business magazine Financial Mail has warned: "there is a schism developing between the ANC-aligned masses and those elected to represent them."

Chris Ball, the Olympic Bid Committee's head and a millionaire banker, seems to understand. He conceived of the bid because he believed, in the words of an aide, "eight or nine years after the elections things would start slowing down and some of the enthusiasm would come undone, and this would create a new energy, give people something to focus on, to mobilize forces in a focused way." It may work, except that Cape Town's Olympic bid actually embodies the hard realities from which it is meant to distract. If Cape Town does indeed host the 2004 Olympics, the organizers will claim the games symbolize the triumph of African nationalism, but the Western tourists, statesmen and businessmen who attend, as well as white South Africans themselves, may listen and smile, believing that it represents instead their quiet triumph of co-option.

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By Peter Beinart

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