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

Even if some of these dominoes did not in fact fall, a two-thirds ANC majority in 1999 could well signal a dividing line between the development of a liberal, pluralist multi-party democracy and what Fareed Zakaria has called "illiberal democracy." That is, while South Africa might remain a democracy in the crude sense that more or less free elections continued to take place, the notion that the fundamental freedoms, the rule of law, or any checks and balances on the power of the executive could then be easily maintained would certainly come under pressure. This is not to make a point against the ANC; experience throughout the developing world suggests that democracy would not be safe in the hands of any party liberated from the restraints of constitutional rule by a two-thirds majority. South Africa has, after all, already experienced under the Afrikaner Nationalists what a one-party dominant regime can do: the abolition of black and Coloured representation, constitutional amendment at will, institutionalized discrimination and racism, the proscribing of organizations, the banning of individuals, press censorship, detention without trial, and so on. All of these things happened while, within a restricted racial franchise, free elections continued to take place - for a minority of the population.

Although the ANC government's failure to carry out many of its 1994 election pledges has disappointed many of its followers, the prospect of its gaining a two-thirds majority in 1999 has to be taken extremely seriously. Here the example of next-door Namibia is relevant. In 1989 the ANC's sister movement, the South West African People's Organization (SWAPO), won 58 percent of the vote in Namibia's first democratic elections. Five years later SWAPO, despite disappointing many of its followers, had many advantages it had lacked before - it controlled the army, police, and broadcasting media, dispersed government patronage, and organized the elections. Sure enough, in 1994 it won 73 percent. Freed of all restraints, the SWAPO government has become more highhanded and corrupt. It also seems probable that the constitution will be amended to allow an indefinite extension of President Nujoma's term of office beyond the two terms now permitted. The moral is obvious: an ANC two-thirds majority could indeed be achieved in 1999, and the results could be dangerous to democracy. Despite that, one can already hear politically correct voices finding sophistical reasons in favor of a two-thirds majority.

Against Pluralism

The United States clearly faces a delicate problem in South Africa. On the one hand it wishes to lend strong support to the breakthrough of democracy there symbolized by President Mandela's accession to power in 1994 - and to this end it has, like the European Union, extended considerable aid to South Africa. On the other hand the Mandela government has posed it some awkward problems with its radical 1960s-style Third Worldism. (To convey the flavor: everyone within the ANC is addressed as "comrade"; we are in the fourth year of our "National Democratic Revolution"; and the ANC has declared 1998 "The Year of Popular Mobilization for the Consolidation of People's Power.") Looking abroad, the ANC has given high priority to its warm relations with Cuba and Libya (Mandela actually decorating Qadaffi with South Africa's highest honor) and has attempted to sell arms to Syria and Rwanda. It is currently negotiating to open diplomatic relations with Iraq and North Korea. Most mornings on the state-owned South African Broadcasting Corporation one can hear vitriolic attacks on the U.S. government from Alexander Cockburn. President Clinton's visit to South Africa in April was preceded with attacks launched from Deputy President Mbeki's office on "Northern NGOs", and even before Clinton's plane had touched down Mbeki had gone on air to reject the Clinton formula of "trade not aid." President Mandela publicly insisted that anyone who wanted South Africa to tone down its relations with Castro and Qadaffi could "go jump in a pool", a remark naturally cheered on by the Communist Party.

Faced with this the United States has, in effect, decided to embrace the new government while ignoring its radicalism, presumably in the hope that it will gently tow the ANC toward more moderate waters. This optimism has resulted in U.S. taxpayers supporting projects of a surprising kind. Thus USAID has spent $25 million on training the Communist-led Confederation of South African Trade Unions and spends millions more on educating black South Africans in economics at the University of the Western Cape, the self-styled "intellectual home of the Left", where education is generally radical or Marxist in hue. USAID is also giving $50 million to a minister of health who is involved in a bitter dispute with U.S. pharmaceutical companies over intellectual property rights (which they claim she is stealing). One can understand that there may be a certain realpolitik behind such choices - with sometimes ironic results, as for example when U.S. intelligence officers recently invited South African intelligence chief Linda Mti to receive its OSS Golden Candle Award at the Global Intelligence Forum in Washington. Mr. Mti, who, like the whole top level of South African intelligence, is East German-trained, accepted the award - and then launched into a bitter attack on "Americacentrism", "imperialist exploitation" which had led to the "rape and pillage" of the Third World, and so on.

Similar astonishment was experienced by U.S. congressional supporters of the African Growth and Opportunity Bill, when South Africa's trade and industry minister, Alec Erwin, on a visit to Washington on August 6, airily dismissed the bill - from which South Africa stands to be the chief beneficiary - as "marginal", and said that "South Africa did not need" the bill's sweeping trade preferences and was ready to be excluded from its provisions. Mr. Erwin - a leading member of the Communist Party, which rejects the Clinton administration's "trade not aid" emphasis exemplified by the bill - is an outspoken advocate of the view that South Africa should seek its trading future outside of its traditional partners in the United States and Europe. Currently some 90 percent of South Africa's export credits for the Americas have been extended to a country with which it does almost no trade: Cuba.

Such contradictions could be taken broad-mindedly as simply part of the passing show. But the real crunch comes with the question of a two-thirds ANC majority in 1999. South African liberals and democrats are appalled at the possibility of South Africa again becoming a one-party dominant regime: that was the experience we lived through between 1948 and 1994 and we want no more of it. Yet the ironic fact is that such views make those of us who hold them highly politically incorrect in ANC-ruled South Africa and thus pretty much untouchables as far as USAID, Ford, and other American foundations are concerned. A good number of concrete examples suggest that I would, quite literally, have a far better chance of gaining support for the foundation I run from American philanthropic or taxpayer funds if I were a Communist Party member. One can see no realpolitik reason for this. A two-thirds majority for the ANC (or any other party) could well ensure that South Africa becomes - at best - an illiberal democracy and that the path to a competitive multi-party democracy is blocked off. What is hard to understand is why almost the whole weight of U.S. (and, for that matter, EU) aid is being routed into directions that will help that two-thirds majority come about, capsizing the miracle for which we all cheered just four years ago.

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