December 15, 2021

Eighty-six years separate South Africa’s Act of Union of 1910 and its fourth Constitution, adopted 25 years ago. In that time everything changed… and nothing.

The former event brought the country’s warring white tribes together in a wary equilibrium of mutual benefit which lasted through more than seven decades of economic growth and modernisation. The latter cobbled together all the nation’s tribes — black, white, Asian and mixed-race — into a fragile comity that, despite a weakening State, has yet somehow survived its first quarter century; frayed, hissy and bowed, to be sure, but somehow miraculously still alive.

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The Act of Union was forged less than a decade after a bitter war, described either as a noble, imperial mission, or one of Africa’s great freedom struggles, depending on which side of the kopje one sat. The critical fault-lines at the National Convention called to give form to a united South Africa were between a Cape liberal vision of South Africanism, which included a very limited form of “Native” representation in Parliament, and a bleaker, exclusionary view by the Boer Transvaal and Orange Free State delegates. English-speaking Natal, from which many of the imperial combatants had come, was also exclusionary: it wanted to exclude itself from Union altogether.

The Boer approach won and thus was early laid the contours of the apartheid state which, in various guises, survived two World Wars, The Great Depression, two fringe Afrikaner rebellions and a bruising white national strike in 1922 which was eventually suppressed, literally, by artillery fire. It also survived decolonisation, international sanctions, two decades of simmering internal rebellions, two States of Emergency and a 15-year-long defensive wars along the borders of Angola and Mozambique which consumed huge amounts of national resource and the time, although not many of the lives, of my generation of young white males.

How on earth did it hold together?

A healthy devolution of power to provincial level helped mollify Cape Liberals and “Natal Stand” reactionaries, as did a mutual respect for language, culture and religion. International sanctions also solidified a sense of unity: it is amazing what indiscriminate vilification can do to engender a sense of common purpose amongst otherwise diverse people.

But the real glue, despite all challenges, was the trajectory of the country towards modernisation, economic growth, rising employment in all sectors, burgeoning physical infrastructure and growing national prosperity, although grievously unequally distributed. Money, the balm to nearly all wounds, softened the edge of communal antagonism between English-speaking and Afrikaans-speaking whites; there was a quantum improvement in living standards across the board, initially for whites and then increasingly for other marginalised groups.

International sanctions in the Eighties spurred a surge in internal industrial manufacturing and high tech development from which Afrikaners were disproportionately the winners. Sanctions thus won not by making white South Africans poorer, as liberals predicted, but by making Afrikaners richer and more amenable to the tides of history.  This was not the generation of 1948 that brought the Afrikaner’s National Party and Grand Apartheid to power. This was an educated, richer, more cosmopolitan generation which accepted the absurdity of a small racial minority trying to dominate a much larger, restless and offended majority. The Afrikaners started dealing for an inclusive future South Africanism, a broadened and modernised Cape vision if you will, that would bring stability and profit.

In the early Nineties arose the perfect confluence of event, circumstance and personality.  The border wars ended with the advent of Glastnost and the end of superpower meddling in the region: everybody went home. The internal rebellions were snuffed out by two brutal States of Emergency during which the State had assumed virtually limitless powers of arrest, detention and censorship. Stellar political leadership arose in the opposing camps. The two most important western leaders, President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, threw their weight behind the project.

It succeeded in a way it could never have done now. Catapult this moment forward to today and the African National Congress would be incited to up the ante by Western governments and a feral social media: armed resistance groups would be equipped and trained to “equalise” forces, human rights groups would have piled into the fray, white politicians would have been threatened with the Court of International Justice and progressives would have sought to virtue-signal the people of southern Africa into oblivion. Whites, like the Israelis, would have gone back to the trenches.

It never happened. Three years of intense negotiations at the Convention for a Democratic South Africa brought a genuinely and proudly homegrown solution: no local leaders being forced with gritted teeth to shake hands before some benign United States President here.

But this new Constitution, celebrating its 25th anniversary last Friday, differed from its original version in significant ways. And therein lay its strengths and its weaknesses. Its legacy, a sorely tried one, now lies intimately connected to the central question of whether South Africa will reemerge as a modern state.

The first change was a major concentration of power at the central level: the powers of the nine newly created provincial units — ironically created more on a geo-tribal basis than the old four provinces had ever been — are vestigial. When centralised systems do not work, through State weakness or lack of central political coherence and mission, as in contemporary South Africa, it creates damaging centrifugal forces throughout the polity.

A recent survey of Western Cape residents showed half wished to cede from South Africa. In the Zulu homeland of KwaZulu Natal, a low-level insurgency has been underway for two years, culminating in the bloody July Troubles for which the instigators have not yet been caught. The only thing stopping a renewed 1910-type Natal Stand is the fact that the rebels are a discredited faction of the ruling party with whom nobody wants to associate.

So bad is the collapse of the centre, that more than 60% of South African voters in a recent poll said they want a committee to run the country, if only they would deliver jobs, security and services.

The new constitution also eschewed the attempts by the then ruling whites-only National Party to entrench “group rights”, by which they meant race vetoes. Faith was instead placed in a durable constitution embedding individual rights and an impeccable Constitutional Court to defend those rights.

The Constitution and the Court has worked just fine for 25 years: the ruling party, on the other hand, has not. Massive public sector incompetence and corruption has crippled state and para-state entities; eroded confidence across the board in institutions (particularly criminal justice ones); forced a skills exodus and a foreign capital investment hiatus and driven unemployment: another benchmark in joblessness was reached last week when it officially topped 34.4 % and a heart-stopping 66.5% for those between 15 and 24 years old.

The minorities, meanwhile, are being systematically discriminated against by statute in terms of job opportunities, study grants, internships and other opportunities, a process in which craven corporates seek to outbid each other. Many of the victims were born long after apartheid. Many of the beneficiaries, meanwhile, are children of wealthy black parents; they also never knew apartheid nor indeed poverty.

Under those circumstances, it is not surprising that individuals are falling back on the oldest safe zone redoubts: family, community, tribe. Last month’s local government elections saw a significant drop in the support of the ruling ANC and surges of support for the extremist black socialist and conservative Afrikaans-speaking white and coloured parties. Independent candidates representing ethnic neighbourhoods did well.

So where should hope be sought, on this 25th anniversary of the new democracy’s founding document?

Two anecdotes and a comment.

One: in the run-up to the first democratic election, the African National Congress and members of the Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party engaged in a midday shoot-out in the centre of Johannesburg.

I found shelter behind an armoured personnel carrier with a young rifleman from a Cape regiment.

“So what do you think?,” I asked the soldier.

“Sucks”, he said, “and I haven‘t even had my fucking breakfast.”

So, it is a tough and resilient nation, bomb-proof, that has survived a thousand predictions of Armageddon.

Two: a few months ago I was invited to a Founder’s Day celebration at my once all-white, all-boy state school. The Head Prefect was white, her deputy Indian and the rugby captain black. And we won the memorial match. If it took 80 years for the white tribes to come up with the current constitution, perhaps we need to be patient a bit longer for the younger generations to have a shot.

And lastly. The toxic ruling party that has done such damage for so long is in free fall, its internal organisation is in a shambles; so toxic is it that not one of the major parties would enter coalitions to save its control of the country’s major metro’s.

Only in Ethekwini, largest metro in KwaZulu Natal, with its former Mayor and 16 councillors on bail for alleged fraud, did the ruling party hold on by its fingertips by allying with a tiny party sympathetic to the faction in the ANC’s own ranks that instigated the July Troubles. But that is the Natal Stand.

Last week, 26 ANC Parliamentarians broke ranks and voted against a constitutional amendment that would have allowed seizure of land without compensation. Small green shoots, perhaps, but potentially heralding the beginning of a seismic re-alignment in South African politics that could see a split in the ruling party and the emergence of a coalition of modernist parties committed to turning back, after so many wasted years, the country’s race to irrelevance.