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

Not long after, a group aligned to the ANC Left and the Communist Party set up an organization claiming to represent all NGOs. In classic front organization style, Sangoco (the South African NGO Coalition, as it calls itself) immediately announced policy positions well to the left of the ANC (echoing communist attacks on the "neoliberal international order" and demanding the cancellation of debts owed to foreign, including U.S., banks). Sangoco, which again is Ford Foundation funded, has consistently attacked the Mandela government's economic policies from the Left, attempting to exert pressure for a shift in a more socialist direction. In this, Sangoco claims to represent the views of thousands of NGOs--though the only party to support it was the Communist Party. Sangoco then attempted to force a "code of ethics" on "Northern NGOs" (i.e., foreign donor organizations). Such a code would have required them to report on their activities to the South African government, admit that they might use their power "to sabotage local programs", and accept Sangoco-dictated policies over what they did, whom they might employ, what salaries they could pay, and so on. The aim, quite clearly, was to gain control over foreign donors and force them to fund only ANC-aligned NGOs. Once again, this clear threat to a pluralist civil society was--and still is--funded by the Ford Foundation.

The biggest U.S. donor in South Africa is, of course, USAID--which, inter alia, awards grants to the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute. During its long years in exile the ANC tended to take a fairly straightforward pro-Soviet and anti-American line (for example, supporting the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and attacking Reagan's "constructive engagement" policy) and some of these prejudices linger. This creates an atmosphere in which USAID is under some pressure to overcome these prejudices by showing that it is on the side of the (ANC) angels. The effect is to make USAID extremely sensitive to an ANC/SACP version of political correctness, a sensitivity reinforced by its employment of "progressive" local staff.

This situation could--and did--have some strange results. In 1996-97, due to hold-ups in Congress, IRI (which, in contrast to NDI, has adopted genuinely non-partisan programs) was for some time unable to obtain its grant from USAID. Tom Callahan, the then director of IRI in South Africa, described to me how he had made endless unproductive trips to USAID, where he had to deal with a locally hired USAID official who was also a Communist Party member. The man's dislike of all Americans--and particularly Republicans--was patent and his attitude was obstructive and unsympathetic, even though IRI was in such dire straits that it was considering a shut-down of its entire operation. In vain did Callahan point out that the Republicans were the majority party in Congress, that the money had been extracted from American taxpayers, that it had been voted through Congress, and that as a South African the man might have regard to the fact that Uncle Sam had given him a nice job out of the deal. Mark Twain had, Callahan reminded him, once specified that the difference between men and dogs was that, on the whole, once you'd fed a dog it didn't bite you. The irony went unappreciated.

Belatedly, IRI's grant came through--but the impression was by now widespread that there was not much point in anyone other than ANC-aligned organizations applying to USAID for help. Indeed, it was at this time that my own foundation, which stands unrepentantly for liberal democratic values, was warned by a local USAID official to "stay away from USAID"--an attitude happily disclaimed some eighteen months later by a new USAID director. By this time, however, my foundation had been reduced to applying for help to the regional USAID office in Botswana--only to be told that we were not regarded as an "appropriate" organization.

The Fate of a Continent?

How can things like this happen? Of all the states in transition toward democracy South Africa is certainly one of the most important. It is so much the engine of Africa that a whole continent stands or falls by its success or failure. It is, indeed, hard to contemplate the consequences of this transition failing. It would be bound to have an acutely demoralizing effect on the wider black diaspora in the United States and elsewhere, with many people likely to conclude that Africa and Africans are somehow intrinsically hopeless cases, reactions that could have a damaging impact on race relations far beyond South Africa.

Such considerations have led all Western governments to embrace South Africa's "miracle" evolution away from apartheid and toward democracy with great supportive fervor, a stance further strengthened by admiration for the extraordinarily attractive figure of Nelson Mandela and his movement's long and bitter struggle against great odds and great evil. Beyond that many Western governments, foundations, and individuals are acutely sensitive to the charge that they were too complaisant for too long in the face of apartheid, a charge which melds into broader feelings of colonial or racist guilt. The ANC itself shares this perspective and has no hesitation in telling Western leaders that South Africa is now "entitled" to their support, aid, and investment. In addition, not just the United States but many other Western societies are increasingly multicultural and now include substantial black or Coloured minorities whose attitude toward the Mandela government is comparable to that of diaspora Jewish populations toward Israel. These minorities exert considerable political pressure and are liable to see any failure by their governments to extend maximum support to the Mandela government as a benchmark reflecting attitudes toward black people in general.

All of these factors, together with sheer relief that the apparently intractable problem of apartheid has been solved, have led many Western governments to adopt a policy of virtually uncritical support for the ANC government. Unfortunately, that is where the trouble begins. For however delightful and heroic a man Mandela is, and no matter how utterly justified his movement's struggle has been, this should not blind one to the fact that the African nationalist party that rules South Africa today is recognizably kin to the similar parties that set up single-party or one-party dominant regimes all over Africa, and that its hegemonic ambitions overlap all too comfortably with the instinctive practices of the old-style Communist Party, which has historically always constituted "the central nervous system" of the ANC.

Although the ANC claims to be democratic, its own internal practices suggest that this is only partially true. Enormous pressure is exerted to ensure that, whenever possible, there is only one candidate for each senior position in the party. Party discipline is extremely strong and is prized above all else--Jacob Zuma, the party's number three, has publicly insisted that such discipline is more important than the country's constitution--and there is a party-mindedness that can extend into any area of social life. In exile, indeed, it was normal for activists to seek the party's blessing for their marriage or divorce. When an ANC official wishes to move into the private sector, he has to seek the party's permission: he does not resign but is "deployed." When ANC activists get into trouble for anything--ranging from corruption to murder--the party frequently holds its own inquiry and pronounces judgment, defending its own wherever possible. Thus the ANC guards who shot dead eight Inkatha marchers outside ANC headquarters in 1994 were successfully protected by the party, which refused to cooperate with police investigators. Naturally, party members are expected to--and generally do--observe the party line no matter what its twists and turns. Open dissent is seen as grounds for expulsion.

Above all, the party--it prefers to call itself a liberation movement--is at best ambivalent about the need for opposition parties. ANC spokespersons often seem to believe that things would be better if complete national unity were to be achieved, with everyone supporting the ANC. Last year, for example, President Mandela told audiences in the troubled province of KwaZulu-Natal that the road to peace was for everyone to join the ANC--and the ANC has repeatedly invited the Pan Africanist Congress and Inkatha Freedom Party to join it so as to achieve complete racial (black) unity. Communist Party spokesmen indignantly reject the notion that an opposition is vital to democracy and insist that civil society is more important--at the same time that the party preaches to its activists the need to achieve hegemony over civil society. Opposition parties themselves are frequently not just criticized but demonized and accused of being part of some vast counter-revolutionary conspiracy. The so-called "white" press comes in for similar treatment. When it is pointed out that many of its journalists and editors are black, they are simply dismissed as "white pawns", the proof being that their newspapers carry criticism of the government, for it is assumed that all blacks ought to support the ANC.

Mandela's Attack on the NGOs

President Mandela's speech to the ANC's Mafikeng party conference in December 1997--thought to be largely the work of his deputy and
successor, Mbeki--was replete with such references. The opposition parties, though multi-racial, were characterized as "white" and "defenders of apartheid privilege" (though the liberal Democratic Party--one of those singled out for attack--had strenuously opposed apartheid since its foundation in 1959). They were grouped collectively as "the counter-revolution"--a grouping that apparently also included much of the press, for "the bulk of the mass media in our country has set itself up as a force opposed to the ANC." The harsh sectarianism of the speech was sadly at odds with the spirit of generosity and reconciliation Mandela has always shown. Mandela makes no secret of the fact that he is given speeches to read by "my bosses" but he is above all a loyal party man and, as at Mafikeng, is willing to give speeches that he himself would never have composed. The speech is thus of more importance as a reflection of thinking within the ANC inner circle than as a reflection of Mandela's personal views.

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