R.W. Johnson: 40-odd years prophesying the end for South Africa

This updated version of How Long Will South Africa Survive? sees the country more crippled than ever by corruption, cronyism and greed

29 August 2015

9:00 AM

29 August 2015

9:00 AM

How Long Will South Africa Survive?: The Looming Crisis R.W. Johnson

Hurst, pp.288, £25, ISBN: 9781849045599

I think this should begin with a truth-in-journalism disclosure: I know R.W. Johnson well enough to call him Bill. Since this opens me to charges of bias, let me start by acknowledging that Professor Johnson (a former leader of the ‘Magdalen Mafia’ at Oxford and author of a witty book on the subject) is unpopular in certain circles down here in South Africa. In spite of his record — 12 books, platforms at several esteemed British publications and an engaging prose style — Johnson has been shunned by local book fairs and banished from our op-ed pages. In the early 1990s, the African National Congress went so far as to attempt to shut him up in London, too, sending an emissary to tell several British editors that the man was a reactionary whose scribblings should be suppressed.

This animus dates back to 1977, when Johnson published the first version of How Long Will South Africa Survive?, a book remembered today for its central heresy: he described the ANC’s armed struggle as a feeble affair and predicted that the apartheid regime was more likely to be toppled by economic and moral pressure from its western trading partners. In 1977 this was greeted by jeers from the left, but Johnson turned out to be spot on: the ANC’s guerrilla campaign fizzled, while sanctions and disinvestment campaigns drove Pretoria into a position so desperate that it seemed almost relieved to surrender once it became clear that the ANC’s Soviet backers were collapsing.

And now we have How Long? Mark II, a book that bears the same title as its illustrious predecessor and wrestles with the same question.

Johnson opens his argument with an extended vignette involving Mandla Gcaba, a nephew of Jacob Zuma and according to Johnson, one of the state president’s key backers. Gcaba is a boss in the taxi business, a man whose foot soldiers defend their turf with heavy weapons. He is also linked to a police constable named S’bu Mpisane who vanished just before testifying in a murder trial that threatened to put the president’s nephew in jail. When the heat died down, S’bu came back to life, married into Zuma’s ‘Tammany machine’ and began to move up in the world. Today, still a policeman, he owns a mansion worth 94 times his annual salary and, according to Johnson, bought his wife a Rolls Royce for Christmas.

There are many similar stories in today’s South Africa, and they provide Johnson with one of his central themes. The rule of law is threatened, he says. Police are bent. A stench of corruption hangs over government, and those in a position to check the rot are often themselves contaminated by scandal. By now, all the world knows about President Zuma’s sprawling rural residence, built at taxpayers’ expense by contractors whose charges seem to exceed the explicable by a factor of ten. There are many similar stories in that regard too.

According to Johnson, Zuma’s extended family has benefited hugely from the patriarch’s accession to power, acquiring a financial empire that extends from hi-tech enterprises in Johannesburg to oil plays in the Congo basin. His tribe has done rather well too: Zulus now constitute the largest voting bloc at ANC conferences and occupy key ministries in Zuma’s cabinet. On the next rung, we find a network of what Johnson calls ‘warlords and patronage lords’ running the provinces, and below them, a new class of black businessmen and government mandarins who work together to divert state resources into their own pockets. As Johnson sees it, this ‘predatory’ elite can feed its voracious appetite only by redistribution away from others, in the process impoverishing everyone but itself. ‘This is not some form of aberration from the liberation struggle,’ he says. ‘A glance around Africa shows that this is liberation.’

Ten years ago, Johnson would have been crucified for saying such things, but How Long? Mark II was greeted by an ominous silence here in South Africa, making its way on to local bestseller lists without any review attention, not even attacks from Johnson’s enemies. It seems even they are reconciled to the fact that Johnson is right again: South Africa is in crisis.

As befits a man steeped in the Oxonian PPE tradition, Johnson views the world primarily through an economic prism, and what he sees in South Africa is darkness descending. Our manufacturing and mining industries are shrinking, strangled by declining productivity, soaring wages and laws that terrify potential investors, inter alia by requiring whites to hand large chunks of their businesses to black empowerment partners. The only sector still growing is the public one, where civil servants earn staggering salaries and often do little in return. Sceptics in this regard should read Johnson’s reportage on South Africa’s schools, which are funded at the highest rate in the developing world and produce (at least in maths) the second worst results on the planet.

How long will this last? In Johnson’s view, the end could come tomorrow, or perhaps a few years hence. All that is clear is that South Africa’s spending on social grants, civil service salaries and rampant baksheesh is unsustainable, and the day of reckoning will come. The consequences are likely to be awful for all concerned, including liberals who were counting on Mandela’s liberation movement to smash the evil doctrine of Afro-pessimism and lead the dark continent into light. As Johnson sees it, that issue is already settled: 20 years of ‘suicidal’ policies and ‘almost complete fecklessness’ in their application show that the ANC is ‘hopelessly ill-equipped’ for the task of running a modern industrial economy. All that can save us now, he concludes, is the ANC’s unlikely ouster in an up-coming election.

In the interest of objectivity, I must acknowledge that Johnson pays little attention to the ongoing global economic crisis, a factor that has reduced other emerging economies to penury through no fault of their own. Other than that, he has written another immensely readable and disturbing book. Let us pray that his prophecies are this time mistaken.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £20 Tel: 08430 600033. Rian Malan is the author of My Traitor’s Heart, a memoir of growing up in apartheid-era South Africa.

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Show comments
  • jim

    This is a terrible shock!!..No one saw this one coming….Who could have guessed things would get this bad?

    • freddiethegreat

      Especially with that nice mr mandela!

      • justejudexultionis

        Nelson Mandela signed off a one billion dollar arms deal that served no discernible defensive purpose when millions of his own people are unemployed and go hungry and the basic infrastructure of the country collapses.

    • clint

      Everyone who lives here (SA) Jim, those with a brain that is.

      • Johnny Foreigner

        Clint, I think jim was taking the p1ss.

    • freddiethegreat

      AP Treurnicht, for one.

  • jack

    Africa. The cradle of corruption.

  • freddiethegreat

    Forget elections. A bloody revolution is needed. Hang the last cadre with the guts of the last comrade

    • Greg Van Heesch

      Where can we sign up

      • freddiethegreat

        I wish I knew. I have heard there is a sort of underground that has infiltrated the ANC and bumps one every now and then, but they don’t seem to have a website!

  • Jonty Cecil

    Nothing like a pack of Marxist Oligarchs.

    • justejudexultionis

      Enough about Scotland.

  • Hegelman

    Crumbs !

    You make it sound nearly as corrupt and crooked and destined to crash as “Britain” !

    Worrying indeed. One had hoped at least some other countries were OK.

    • dpscoles

      Dream on

  • greggf

    Perhaps its one saving grace is Stellenbosch and the wine growing region, at least the wines exported to Réunion from SA compare very favourably with those from France.

    • E.I.Cronin

      I was wondering how the vineyards are coping – they have extraordinary wineries almost 400 years old. We are seeing more and more refugees from S.A over here and very few will talk about how bad it is.

      • greggf

        Our daughter went last Christmas/NY with her fiancé/friends and she said Stellenbosch was very European with very few “natives”. They enjoyed “magnificent” wines – fizzy pinks for 4 – 5 Euros (74R) a bottle – and her fiancé is French! And a worth a return visit. However they wouldn’t remember official Apartheid days. I went to Jo-Burg just after but that is not the same as further south. She says Jo-Burg is very segregated naturally now, so that’s no change then…..!
        SA may be an accelerated example of how parts of Europe will become given time.

        • E.I.Cronin

          5 euros a bottle!! ouch… how do they stay in business? hopefully they make better money on international sales. (though i can’t say I’ve even seen a SA bottle on the shelves here). I feel for them, the South Africans I’ve had dealings with have all been great people (mostly from Cape Town). A relative does business in Joburg and doesn’t leave the secure hotel. A frightening scenario for Europe but I think you are right.

        • freddiethegreat

          Skip Janiceburg

    • obert

      Ha ha, I was in Stellenbosch some time ago playing squash at the local University courts. My partner and I finished the game and walked along the street, remarking to each other, with some amazement, that the town was impeccably well maintained. My friend asked, “I wonder how long this status quo can last?” Almost at once we passed a sign on an elegant old building saying, “Commission for land reform”. We both burst out laughing. I think that said it all!

  • Reginald Garott

    “Thanks to the adulatory stupidity of Western
    liberals, the terrorist regime was entrenched in power in SA.”

    Who is going to mop up now the mess that ANC imparted on this beautiful country? The new Western Policaly Correct leaders? I doubt it. “Cry the bellowed country”, indeed.

    • Greg Van Heesch

      President Trump will sort these thieves out. Go Trump

      • freddiethegreat

        We could use some stiff sanctions

  • Mo Haarhoff

    Stop praying that R W Johnson is wrong and let’s get this over with. The more drawn out it is, the longer the poor will suffer. We in SA could really benefit from sanctions now. Any offers?

    • freddiethegreat

      Agreed. Even better, the return of colonialism

  • As an aging British expat who lives in South Africa and is unlikely ever to leave the country with the Rand hovering around R21 to the pound, nothing in this article surprises me. It is very depressing to read this article and to look forward to a bleak old age.

  • justejudexultionis

    The UK government should send troops into South Africa in order to topple the racist, corrupt and authoritarian ANC regime headed by that incompetent bigamist Jacob Zuma.

    • Simon Fay

      “incompetent bigamist”

      Marrying the same bird twice?

    • freddiethegreat

      Bring back colonialism. (NOT the Chinese kind)

  • Jantjie (turns the lights off)

    I managed to get my money out on time, at a reasonable rate, if you count a 30 per cent loss on your life’s savings reasonable.. after 18 years in SA enough was enough.. the corruption described is actually worse and entrenched in SA.. It will go the way Zimbabwe went, and is still going.. with some fabulously wealthy blacks, millions of incredibly previously disadvantage, presently disadvantaged blacks, and some whiteys screeming their heads off at corruption, alas, all in vain.

    • Johnny Foreigner

      Why did you hand the country over, everybody knew what would happen if you did?

  • Gilbert White

    Well you all moaned about the Belgian Congo as well. Canibalism eradicated amongst many other other sins. African punishments for Africans. Plenty of jobs for the old boys. Even car assembly. Then they were told you do not have to grow mealy under the boiling mid day sun, hop over for free things.

  • Ivan Muller

    I have been living here with doom prophets predicting the end of South Africa since before the days of PW Botha….apartheid, the AWB, the ANC, the Zumas, the Guptas, the Molemas, etc etc…but you know we will (and have) survive them all!

    • Gilbert White

      Sud Afrika, was invented by Lord Chlemsford, Mr. Ostrich . Do you listen to Paul Simon’s, under african skies, before being tucked in, each night?

    • Quite right. Prophets of doom also need to make a living. And the darker the book, the better it sells. We love it here in SA, we’re making a difference, some things get worse while other things improve, wish people would stop whining. Time to braai.

      • kingkevin3

        So you must have missed the Argentinian game then?

  • One can judge what freddiethegreat writes above, but understand against what background: the slightest tinge of corruption is treason against the country, against every individual here. The treason steals opportunities from those whom need them most. Treason is a very serious contravention. Even in holding a position which one cannot execute – i.e. seeing to it that water delivery reaches communities, borders on treason.

    • freddiethegreat

      In the good old Soviet Union (which the comrades and cadres claim to follow) the entire drooling – sorry, ruling party would get 9 grams of lead

  • Pity we can’t emigrate to Britain either, because Britain is also doomed to be a failed state:
    And of course, the weather sucks. Perhaps I’ll wait for Johnson’s third edition in another 20 or 30 years, predicting the war of wars or whining about the final apocalypse in South Africa. Until then, I will enjoy the sunshine and get on with life in this beautiful country.

    • kingkevin3

      Mate London is booming. The Springboks are an embarrassment. The world is once more as it should be.

    • dpscoles

      You are joking I presume ?! There are more Safas in the UK than ever before, the economy is booming with record employment levels, we have a proper centre right government and will soon vote to leave the socialist EU. Who cares about the weather when I can drive around my village without fear of being carjacked or held up waiting to collect my kids from school. Plenty of expat Safas tell me the same. Best of luck anyhow.

  • tomthumb015

    Corruption is alive and kicking in South Africa, why is every journo so surprised about this?

    • freddiethegreat

      It’s actually State police. We call it BEE

  • So Marxists and those educated by Marxists are having a hard time running a free country. How can this be?

  • Chamber Pot

    South Africa unable to serve as an example of a thriving ” Rainbow Nation ” can serve as an example to us all.

    We don’t like the Rainbow and, if ordinary white people have no home in South Africa, there is an obvious corollary in Europe : that is that the recent influx of non-Europeans will have to leave ?

    The UN needs to step in and hold these crooks and carpetbaggers to account and guarantee diversity. South Africa is too important in the global system of race relations to be allowed to go the way of Idi Amin’s Uganda ?

    Ordinary, armed, white Americans would be right to view these developments with horror.

  • Aggie

    Has anybody commenting here actually read the book? Clearly the sub responsible for the headline hasn’t because neither the first How Long Will South Africa Survive nor this one in fact prophesy the end of the country. The first book was about how long the whites could remain in power and the latest actually ends optimistically (well, relatively so anyway if Johnson’s two imagined scenarios come to pass).

  • Mow_the_Grass

    SA – slow burn Zimbabwe

  • Mow_the_Grass

    First things first.
    £25 x approx R21 to the Pound = R525.
    Too much!
    But everything else in the article seems – spot on

  • kingkevin3

    no better expression of the rapid decline than the piss-poor Springbok XV that call themselves rugby players….even the english were never that embarassed by their inadequacies on the field