US aid to South Africa

RW Johnson asks why the ANC government should determine how American taxpayers’ money is spent.

Of all the states in transition towards democracy South Africa is perhaps the most important. A whole continent will stand or fall by its success or failure. Such considerations have led all Western governments to embrace South Africa’s “miracle” evolution away from apartheid and towards democracy with great fervour, a stance further strengthened by admiration for the extraordinarily attractive figure of Nelson Mandela and his movement’s long and bitter struggle against great odds and great evil. Many Western governments, foundations and individuals are acutely sensitive to the charge that they were too complaisant for too long in the face of apartheid, a charge that melds into broader feelings of colonial or racist guilt. For all of these reasons they have over-compensated by adopting a policy of virtually uncritical support for the country’s first democratic government.

But, however delightful and heroic a man Mandela is and no matter how justified his movement’s struggle has been, this should not blind one to the fact that his party is recognisably kin to those which set up single party or one-party dominant regimes all over Africa. The ANC’s hegemonic ambitions overlap all too comfortably with the instinctive practices of the South African Communist Party (SACP) which has always constituted “the central nervous system” of the ANC. Although the ANC claims to be democratic, its own internal practices suggest that this is only partially true. Party members are expected to — and generally do — observe the party line no matter what its twists and turns. Open dissent is seen as grounds for expulsion. Above all, the party is at best ambivalent about the need for opposition parties, which are not just criticised but demonised and accused of being part of some vast counter-revolutionary conspiracy.

President Mandela’s speech to the ANC’s Mafikeng party congress in December last year — thought to be largely the work of his deputy and successor, Thabo Mbeki — was replete with such references. The Opposition parties were characterised as “white” (though multiracial) and “defenders of apartheid privilege” (though the liberal Democratic Party had strenuously opposed apartheid since its foundation in 1959) and grouped collectively as “the counter-revolution”. The harsh sectarianism of the speech was sadly at odds with the spirit of generosity and reconciliation Mandela has always shown.

In that same speech, Mandela also attacked those non-governmental organisations that relied on foreign funding. By setting themselves up as critical watchdogs over our movement, he said, “these NGOs also work to corrode the influence of the movement”. Moreover, some of them “act as instruments of foreign governments and institutions that fund them to promote the interests of these external forces”.

The area in dispute here is what donor organisations involved in transitional democracies call “D and G”, that is their democracy and governance programs. The largest local organisation involved in this area in South Africa, the Institute for Democracy in South Africa (Idasa), typifies the way that the ANC would like all NGOs to behave: its chairman is director-general of the President’s office. Its 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 organisation. It also receives more USAid and Ford Foundation support than any other organisation in its field.
The biggest US donor in South Africa is, of course, USAid, which inter alia awards grants to the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute (IRI). Like other American donor organisations here, USAid is extremely sensitive to an ANC/SACP version of political correctness, a sensitivity reinforced by its employment of “progressive” local staff.

This situation has had some strange results. In 1996-97, due to hold-ups in Congress, IRI in South Africa was for some time unable to obtain its grant from USAid. Tom Callahan, the then director of IRI, made endless unproductive trips to USAid, where he had to deal with a locally hired official who was also a Communist. The man’s dislike of all Americans, and particularly Republicans, was patent and his attitude was obstructive and unsympathetic. In vain Callahan pointed out that the Republicans were the majority party in Congress, that the money had been extracted from American taxpayers, and that it had been voted through Congress. Very belatedly, IRI’s grant came through. My own foundation, which stands unrepentantly for liberal democratic values, was warned by a local USAid official to “stay away from USAid”.

However, USAid also made an atypical grant to the liberal and independent South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR) for a public policy monitoring project — thus placing the institute in the “watchdog” role that the ANC so dislikes. It was, apparently, this grant that produced the headlong attack on USAid in another section of Mandela’s speech to the party’s December congress. Despite frantic diplomacy the attack had its effect. It became clear that the grant to the SAIRR was unlikely to be renewed. IRI found itself discouraged by USAid and the US embassy from working with a wide range of political parties in its training programs that are intended to be non-partisan. It decided subsequently to devote its energies to local government development where parties are weaker.

Last year USAid commissioned an independent review of its democracy and governance program from US and South African academics. Their report warned of a possible trend towards one-partyism and a consequent need for USAid to spread its support beyond the circle of ANC-aligned organisations towards a more pluralist and independent set of institutions. One might have thought that such a pluralist approach should have been fundamental to USAid’s mandate to help consolidate a multiparty democracy in South Africa. In fact this passage was suppressed before publication. Even such concessions were not enough. The South African government requested an inquiry into USAid’s support of NGOs, and this was conducted jointly by USAid and government representatives. It concluded with USAid promising that its support would only be given “to programs in support of Pretoria’s policies”. 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.

Here lies the nub of the matter. The ANC, which won 62.7 per cent of the vote in 1994, has now publicly set itself the target of winning a two-thirds majority in the 1999 elections — enough to alter the constitution unilaterally. ANC spokesmen have already given some indication of how they would like to use that power: 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. The prospect is disturbing enough to make USAid’s decision to suppress mention of the dangers of one-party dominance seem bizarre if not irresponsible.

South African liberals and democrats are appalled at the possibility of the country 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 those of us who hold such views are highly politically incorrect in ANC-ruled South Africa and thus pretty much untouchables as far as USAid, Ford and other American foundations are concerned. It is curious to reflect that I would have a far better chance of gaining support for the foundation I run from American philanthropic or taxpayer funds if I were a member of the Communist Party.