Destroying South Africa's Democracy: USAID, the Ford Foundation and Civil Society

September 1, 1998 Topic: Society Tags: AcademiaCold WarEconomic Liberalism

Destroying South Africa's Democracy: USAID, the Ford Foundation and Civil Society

Mini Teaser: For however delightful and heroic a man Mandela is, and no matter how utterly justified his movement's struggle has been, one should not be blinded to the problems with his party.

by Author(s): R.W. Johnson

As the new South Africa interacts with the United States, there are times when one has to pinch oneself to be sure that the things one sees are really happening. South Africa was doubtless the only industrialized country where a majority of the population saw O.J. Simpson as a hero and greeted his not guilty verdict with rapture; Simpson's lawyer, Johnny Cochran, naturally rushed out here to star on the chat shows. American consular officials proudly posed with him in apparent celebration of the verdict, before Cochran was led away to watch a sheep noisily slaughtered in his honor, African-style.

My own introduction to the oddities of the American-South African interface came during the run-up to South Africa's first democratic election in April 1994, when the election monitoring project I was running brought me into contact with the U.S. Democratic Party's international arm, the National Democratic Institute. NDI, like its counterpart, the International Republican Institute (IRI), received funds from USAID to promote multi-party democracy in South Africa. This bipartisan election support project was specifically tasked with providing non-partisan support to all the formerly disenfranchised political groups who had agreed to participate peacefully in the election process. In practice NDI leaned heavily and lopsidedly toward the African National Congress (ANC). One oddity of this overt favoritism was that, given the powerful position within the ANC of the SACP (South Africa's old-style Communist Party--which still brandishes the Lenin badges and hammer and sickle icons long discarded by its brother parties elsewhere), NDI frequently provided a platform for the Communists. The SACP played a brave role in the liberation struggle and is a player of some significance in the South African multi-party system, but it is doubtful whether the U.S. Congress, when it voted through the money, had in mind quite the sort of outcomes that resulted.

I first experienced this irony in action at a USAID-funded voter education conference hosted by NDI in Cape Town, attended by a
variety of non-governmental organizations (NGO) and the political parties. Each party was invited by NDI to send two delegates. All the parties except the ANC sent the requisite two, but the ANC and SACP completely dominated proceedings thanks to the double-counting of front organizations, with the SACP and the ANC-aligned trade unions separately represented, together with the ANC youth league, the ANC women's league, and so on. In addition, many of the NGOs present were in effect ANC-aligned. Inevitably--and to the apparent satisfaction of the NDI organizers--this meant that ANC and SACP activists really ran the conference: even the voter education materials produced at the conference were little better than subliminal ANC propaganda, among other things prominently utilizing ANC colors in their artwork. (And it should be remembered that the numerous illiterate voters were guided largely by the parties' colors.)

Similarly, when delegates discussed political intimidation, it was simply assumed that whites constituted the whole problem--though everyone knew that several of the mainly black parties, including the ANC, were exercising enormous pressure on voters in many African residential areas, to the point that they were no-go areas for other parties. A speaker from South Africa's liberal Democratic Party (liberal here is used in its older English sense) was bold enough to point out that some ANC activists in that very room had violently broken up Democratic Party meetings held only a mile away the previous week; he was booed down and did not get to speak again.

At another session a visiting academic asked how on earth South Africa's lengthy pre-election negotiation had resulted in such an extreme form of proportional representation (PR), with a national list and no constituency representation at all. In every other country with a dominant party, he pointed out, that party had successfully insisted on a majoritarian system: in the annals of political science there was no parallel for a party such as the ANC agreeing to a PR system of any kind, let alone such a rigid one. Mr. Essop Pahad, a prominent Communist (who today runs Deputy President Thabo Mbeki's office), jumped up to say that the ANC and SACP, being ultra-democrats, had insisted on PR. Fatally provoked, I pointed out that actually the PR system was the result of an unholy alliance between the SACP and de Klerk's National Party (which, with 20 percent of the vote, could thus get 20 percent of the seats). The SACP had many white and Indian activists who could never get elected in white or Indian constituencies--and they would run into trouble in black constituencies. So it suited the SACP to have Mandela at the head of a long ANC list, with large numbers of SACP activists further down the list being easily coat-tailed in by the great man's appeal. The gasps of sudden comprehension at this home truth from non-Communist blacks in the room did not save me from Mr. Pahad's predictable wrath. I got no further chance to speak.

I had been scheduled to address a second such NDI conference but I was now quickly dis-invited: there had been a mistake, a visiting speaker had to be fit in, and so on. Later, I asked a friend on the conference committee what had really happened. "You were blackballed", he said, "The SACP said that at the Cape Town conference you had been guilty of 'harassing the comrades', and this could not be allowed to happen again." NDI had concurred. I could not but reflect on the fact that I had been blackballed by the SACP because I had dared to let the cat out of the bag in front of black listeners by giving a truthful account of the origins of the country's electoral system, a subject that should have been at the heart of the conference's concerns. This blackball had been backed up by NDI and the whole affair had been paid for by the U.S. taxpayer.

As the 1994 election neared, NDI and IRI collaborated on a project to bring out American political experts to act as advisers and assist the parties previously unused to electoral politics. In South Africa's bitterly partisan culture a major point of the project was to demonstrate the possibility of real bipartisan collaboration in a common cause. Unfortunately, in the case of the ANC bipartisanship was the first casualty. One of those brought over was Clinton's pollster from the 1992 election, Stanley Greenberg, who, together with a media consultant, was seconded to the ANC along with two GOP counterparts. Fairly quickly, however, things fell apart as Greenberg defected from the project to become the ANC's overtly partisan adviser.

This turned out to be only the mildest of warm-ups for the way things were to go once the ANC won the elections. Power, patronage, and fashion now reinforced political correctness. Before long voluntary organizations were facing a bill prepared by the Development Resources Center, an ANC-aligned NGO set up by David Bonbright, a former Ford Foundation employee. The Center's bill aimed to set up a government-appointed body with plenary powers over all NGOs: it would have power to sack any of their trustees or officers and impose its  own; to subpoena any document or person from any NGO; to change the name of any NGO; and to forbid it to fund-raise (i.e., to exist). The very presence on the statute book of this sort of legislation, sadly typical of African one-party states, would be grossly intimidating of voluntary associations--the South African Jewish Board of Deputies was only one of many religious and professional groups to approach my foundation in grave disquiet over the bill, for such legislation would allow the government to intervene in any church or synagogue in the land.

The Cause of Political Correctness

It seemed fantastical that such a threat to independent civil society could come out of the Ford corner, but in fact the Ford Foundation was actually financing the DRC, the body pushing this monstrous bill, and continued to do so even when other sponsors drew back aghast as NGOs like the Helen Suzman Foundation led a campaign--joined by every sort of educational, welfare, and religious association in the country--that ultimately saw the bill dropped. Should anyone introduce into the U.S. Congress a bill empowering a government-appointed body to sack the president and trustees of the Ford Foundation and replace them with nominees of its own, renaming the foundation as it did so, Ford would doubtless cry foul and vigorously oppose it, and rightly so. (Indeed, the U.S. NGO community objected vociferously to a far less sweeping measure, introduced to the U.S. Congress last year by Representative Ernest Istook [R-Oklahoma], that was directed primarily at political action funds derived from labor union membership dues.) But here, apparently in the general cause of political correctness, Ford effectively promoted this starkly anti-democratic measure. In the course of the campaign by local NGOs against this bill, the Ford Foundation's position was strongly criticized in public print--to no avail. Indeed, Ford continued to deny its support to those organizations who had fought the bill, reserving its largesse for those that had either supported the bill or refused to speak out against it.

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