Hannibal Elector: The 20 Year Review becomes a bumper sticker

By Richard Poplak 12 March 2014

This week, Jacob Zuma rolled out the glossy 20 Year Review. How you read it depends on your tolerance for dissembling, revisionism, and science fiction. By RICHARD POPLAK.

Over the past four years, I have travelled the continent in order to co-author a book that will, I hope, interrogate the notion of Africa Rising. I’ve researched liberation narrative after liberation narrative, and there is always a point in the arc where everything appears to be going perfectly, and were I to stop reading right there, this continent’s history would be a glorious one – untamable GDP growth; functioning governance institutions; a population that is productive and happy and whole.

Then, as if ordained from above, it all goes to hell. A ruling party calcifies into an autocracy; the rains fail; structural adjustment packages wipe away the public sector. The streets of the capital run with blood; farmland becomes a killing field. The nation must rebuild itself on the ruins of dreams that can no longer be recalled. In this way, every African country becomes a shadow state.

When I am handed the brick-like bag containing a book called “20 Year Review: South Africa 1994-2014”, and when I reach for the contents and gaze at its cover, I have one of those moments – a brief bout of wishful thinking that brings the conceptual intent of the book blindingly to life. South Africa’s story – its compromised, difficult, unruly truth – is reconstituted as the Review’s alternate reality. I see a utopia where we are whisked from our homes to our workplaces in bullet trains; where the walls of upper-middle class suburbs were long ago torn down because borders between rich and poor are meaningless; where the GDP fattens every year; where one is as likely to see a fellow citizen reading a thick volume concerning Kierkegaard as one is to see them writing it – on a locally designed laptop, in an overpriced café, in Khayelitsha.

I come to my senses as the TV lights burn up the Union Building’s Sefako M. Makgatho Presidential Guest House, the multi-purpose room in which the review is being released. At the lectern stands President Jacob Zuma. Although ostensibly non-partisan, this event signals another gearing up of the ANC election machinery, which properly groaned into motion following the President’s State of the Nation address.

That speech’s tagline – “A Good Story To Tell” – was in fact an injunction: go positive, comrades! But it’s the line of a song that keeps hitting a discordant, Schoenberg-esque wall of noise, otherwise known as Reality.

The unfortunate thing about Jacob Zuma is that immediately upon encountering him you understand exactly his role in the country’s political journey. He is surprisingly small in stature, and radiates no intelligence but rather an avuncular charm that at times reveals itself as a serrated charisma. His chief weapons are his smile and his deep voice, effective in closed settings like this one, if less so in the stadiums in which he is these days routinely booed.

Zuma is a fixer, an intermediary. He is both the sinew and the metaphysical spark inside an organism devoted to feeding, and without him, the creature would simply gorge itself to death. You can see it in his gait: he is not a man of purpose, but a man of power. And power without purpose belongs to those with the resources to marshal it.

So to hear him speak of the past twenty years, as a politician devoted not to the future but to the moment, is reasonably depressing. The document itself is lushly printed on premium weight paper, a tender that must have been sweet to those who reaped it. But it is not a review. It is a marketing brochure. To be sure, the ANC government has done some very good things over the course of its two decades in power. But those things are difficult to find inside all the check-how-awesome-we-are dissembling.

Regardless, the review has one fundamental and irredeemable flaw: it compares post-apartheid South Africa with pre-apartheid South Africa (as did the 10-year review, as did the 15-year review, as will the 40-year review). And while that is the basis for a fascinating historical study, many of which have been conducted, it is not the platform for a sober, wonkish review of a South Africa’s current situation. Apartheid South Africa was a fake state that was a disaster by almost any metric – it’s like comparing the performance of your new Mercedes AMG against that of a dune buggy. A review only means anything if it judges present conditions against the aims of those who forged them. If the aim was true, good. If the aim was off, less good.

Did the ANC aim to create a state that left the framework of apartheid intact in order to enrich a narrow elite connected to the ruling party? If so, they have done splendid work. But I don’t think that was the aim, at least not initially. “On average,” Zuma intones, “the economy has grown at 3.2 percent a year from 1994 to 2012. That is a marked improvement over pre-1994 growth rates.” And in a rare moment of frankness: “However, this growth, while most welcome, is modest compared with other emerging economies.”

That’s an understatement. South Africa’s growth is enough to make some people very rich, but not enough to reduce unemployment levels, or raise the standard of living for most. As far as the 20 Year Review is concerned, it’s more than good enough.

During question period, Zuma tells us that we must take something important into account. “I always feel there is something we don’t look at [when we are compared to our middle economy peers]. Many of the countries we look at did not have institutionalised racism, wherein the majority of its citizens were deprived of education and economic opportunities.”

And he’s right. Racism was, however, merely the means of exploitation, albeit one that has left deep wounds that will never heal. In South Korea before Park Chung Hee, the majority was similarly “deprived of education and economic opportunities”. South Korea was remade in twenty years. Not a particularly pleasant twenty years, but just look at the joint now.

What racism did to South Africa has been wrought by dozens of other –isms all over the world. And what the 20 Year Review cannot paper over is that the ANC has failed to wipe away the effects of our –ism. The 20 Year Review, and documents like it, are designed to stop the arc of our liberation history in midstream, right at the point where all is going well.

As the launch is ramping down, as the clatter of tableware can be heard next door in preparation for lunch, the convener, Minister Jeff Radebe, reminds us that we have a good story to tell. He name checks a “Mr. Coleman” from JPMorgan, “who has recently released a similar report.” But those of us in the cheap seats know this to be Colin Coleman of Goldman Sachs, whose own 20 Year Review we so delicately parsed in these pages. It’s a fitting end to this muted ceremony, which wasn’t about the future but about a manufactured past. Because Goldman Sachs always bets short.

And, as they’ve made abundantly clear, they are betting on South Africa. DM

Photo: Err, kinda obvious.

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