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

"Various elements of the former ruling group", Mandela claimed, "have been working to establish a network which would launch or intensify a campaign of destabilization", a campaign consisting of "the use of crime to render the country ungovernable, the subversion of the economy and the erosion of confidence of both our people and the rest of the world in our capacity to govern." This "counter-revolutionary conspiracy" had, Mandela said, been active for a year and its activities included

the encouragement and commission of crime, the weakening and incapacitation of the state machinery, including the theft of public assets, arms and ammunition, the hiding of sensitive and important information, the building of alternative structures including intelligence machineries as well as armed formations. Evidence also exists that elements of this counter-revolutionary conspiracy are maintaining a variety of international contacts.

The president offered no evidence for any of these charges.

Mandela's reference to "international contacts" became clearer as he broadened the attack to include NGOs: "Many of our non-governmental organizations are not in fact NGOs, both because they have no popular base and the actuality that they rely on . . . foreign governments, rather than the people, for their material sustenance." The particular sin of this type of NGO was its attempt to act as a critical watch-dog over our movement, both inside and outside of government. Pretending to represent an independent and popular view, supposedly legitimized by the fact that they are described as non-governmental organizations, these NGOs also work to corrode the influence of the movement.

Moreover, Mandela continued, "some of these NGOs act as instruments of foreign governments and institutions that fund them to promote the interests of these external forces."

To understand the context of these remarks one must note that during the fight against apartheid many so-called "struggle NGOs" emerged to work for the ANC cause in a period when the ANC was banned. Many such NGOs did valuable work and contributed notably to the fight for liberation. They were, however, highly politicized--their officers and activists were invariably ANC members or activists and often members of the Communist Party as well. Such NGOs, though claiming to constitute civil society, in practice took an unwavering ANC line. The ANC view is, of course, that this is the right way for non-governmental organizations to behave--hence Mandela's suggestion that sinister foreign forces were engaged in a pernicious attempt "to set up an NGO movement separate from and critical of the ANC", an impermissibly "liberal" conception of what NGOs should be about. "The past three years", Mandela declared, "have taught us the lesson that there are NGOs and NGOs. As a movement we have to learn to make this distinction and defeat the pressure blindly to accept a liberal determination of which organisation is an NGO and what role such NGOs should play."

The area really in dispute here is what donor organizations involved in transitional democracies call "D and G", that is, their Democracy and Governance programs. The biggest local organization involved in this area in South Africa, the Institute for Democracy in South Africa (IDASA), typifies the way that the ANC would like NGOs to behave: its chairman is director-general of the president's office and, as such, is also the cabinet secretary. Its regular publication, Parliamentary Whip, is edited by the former correspondent of the British communist paper, the Morning Star. IDASA takes a fairly steady ANC line, runs many joint programs with government, and is effectively a quasi-governmental organization. Inevitably, it is the biggest recipient in its field of USAID and Ford Foundation support. However, USAID had--atypically--also made a grant to the (liberal and independent) South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR) for a public policy monitoring project which had placed the Institute in the "watchdog" role so strenuously objected to in Mandela's speech. This monitoring was viewed by the ANC as utterly obnoxious.

It was apparently this grant to the sairr that led Mandela, in another section of his Mafikeng speech, to launch a headlong attack on USAID, an attack that induced considerable nervousness within the U.S. embassy and USAID mission. It became clear that USAID's grant to the SAIRR was unlikely to be renewed. A good deal of frantic diplomacy took place in the wake of the speech, at the end of which USAID settled for purely private reassurances from the ANC--which allowed the public attack on USAID to stand.

But the attack had its effect. IRI found itself discouraged by USAID and the U.S. embassy from working with the full range of political parties, from the Inkatha Freedom Party and Democratic Party to the newly founded United Democratic Movement (UDM), within its multi-party training programs. (The multi-racial UDM, led by Bantu Holomisa and Roelf Meyer, is particularly loathed by the ANC because Holomisa, who had previously topped the poll in internal ANC elections, is clearly able to steal votes from it.) Ironically, IRI, which was attempting to work with the full range of parties in fulfillment of its non-partisan mandate, was effectively discouraged from doing so by the pro-ANC pressures emanating from the USAID mission and the U.S. embassy. It decided accordingly to devote its energies to local government work where the parties are weaker. Similarly, when USAID commissioned U.S. and South African academic experts to conduct an independent review of its Democracy and Governance program in 1997, it was displeased to find that the resultant report warned of a possible trend toward one- partyism and a consequent need for USAID to spread its support beyond the circle of ANC-aligned organizations toward a more pluralist and independent set of institutions. One might have thought that such a pluralist approach should have been fundamental in the first place to USAID's mandate to help consolidate a multi-party democracy in South Africa. In fact this reference had to be suppressed before USAID was willing to publish the report--essentially because ANC dominance has already reached a point where USAID is extremely nervous of offending it.

Even such concessions were not enough, however, and the South African government requested an inquiry into USAID's support of South African NGOs--an inquiry then jointly conducted by USAID and government representatives. The inquiry was requested "after government became concerned that the U.S. agency was giving its support to South African anti-government organizations." The inquiry concluded with USAID promising that its support would only be given "to programs in support of Pretoria's policies" and that in future it would "improve its communication with the South African government on USAID's support of NGOs in South Africa." The problem, of course, is that the government tends to regard any NGO that airs any criticism of any of its policies as "anti-government." In practice the new deal would seem to give the government veto power over USAID supporting any but ANC-aligned NGOs, so that USAID will now almost formally be made part of the effort to build the hegemony of the dominant party.

The Crucial Fraction

And here lies the nub of the matter. The ANC, which won 62.7 percent of the vote in 1994, has now publicly set itself the target of winning a two-thirds majority in the 1999 elections. Such a majority would enable it to alter the constitution unilaterally. ANC spokesmen have already given some indication of what they would like to use that power for: to bring under political control such islands of relative independence as the attorney-general, the auditor-general, and the governor of the Reserve Bank, and to ensure that there is greater political control of the judiciary. Beyond that, many suspect, lies an ambition to alter the constitution's property clause to make expropriation easier and a change to a first-past-the-post electoral system, which would effectively wipe out the opposition parties. There is also talk of a new law to "regulate media diversity", which is likely to involve an extension of government intervention in the press.

Quite clearly a two-thirds ANC majority in 1999 could spell the death-knell of meaningful multi-party democracy in South Africa and could indeed capsize the entire transition process. Certainly, the prospect is disturbing enough to make USAID's decision to suppress mention of the dangers of one-party dominance seem at best bizarre, even irresponsible. After all, in 1994 Mandela himself publicly stated that he was relieved that the ANC had not won a two-thirds majority. Such a result would not only empower the SACP and ANC Left--whose influence would be greatly reinforced within an ANC-only political universe--but it could panic the Indian, Coloured, and white minorities, accelerating emigration by these groups. It would also alarm domestic and foreign investors, further damaging the currency, property, and stock markets--and the currency has already halved in value in the four years of ANC rule to date. The resulting economic contraction would impact on a country whose social fabric is already exceedingly weak, whose unemployment level is already 25 percent and rising, whose HIV-positive rate has already surpassed 15 percent right across the country among the 13-59 age group, and whose social dislocation and mass unemployment have produced some of the world's highest crime rates. In the wake of a two-thirds ANC majority in 1999, in other words, those who rightly greeted the "South African miracle" with such acclaim in 1994 could quickly find that they had little left to cheer.

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