Rainbow nation rogues and heroes

BY ALEXANDER MATTHEWS

Ragged Glory is lucid, thoughtful and eloquent: a calm and smoothly digestible account of democratic South Africa’s political stage. Peppered with quotes from interviews Hartley did as a political reporter, the book explores the both the style and substance of post-apartheid South Africa’s leaders. There is Nelson Mandela’s reconciliatory approach and his bid to steady a listing economic ship, which had been battered by years of sanctions and disinvestment, and had a jittery business community eyeing the life-rafts. Hartley looks at Thabo Mbeki’s ascendance, the insanity of his Aids denialism, and his eventual downfall. Then there is Jacob Zuma’s astonishing — rise to power, and the legal tussles (involving accusations of rape and corruption) that has so far been unable to ensnare him.

But Ragged Glory is not just about politicos. Government’s policy formulation (and its spotty implementation) is accessibly decoded too. Hartley introduces us to the alphabet soup of abbreviations that would mark the constantly shifting approach to tackling apartheid’s legacy and growing the economy. First was the ill-fated RDP (the Reconstruction and Development Programme) whose only significant legacy, it seems, is to be the colloquial (and incorrect) adjective applied to low-cost government housing. Mbeki’s Gear (Growth, Employment and Redistribution) came next. It was pro-market and recognised the need for a labour market in which it was easier to hire and fire people— much to the horror of the ANC’s trade union allies who felt increasingly isolated by the imperious Mbeki’s imperious disdain for consensus-building. Gear was also abandoned, in favour of Asgisa (Accelerated and Shared Growth Initiative), which emphasised spending on big infrastructure projects to try to curb the country’s stubbornly high unemployment rates. Hartley captures the ever-more vigorous muddying of policy waters as Zuma sought to appease the left wing which had helped propel him into office: in 2009 he created both an economic development ministry (run by a COSATU man, Ebrahim Patel) as well as a national planning commission which would ultimately produce the much-praised but largely unfulfilled NDP (National Development Plan).

While there isn’t much in Ragged Glory that you wouldn’t have known about had you been paying attention (or a frequent reader of one the newspapers Hartley has written for, or helmed) over the last 20 years, Hartley ably puts it all in context, providing sharp analysis and a narrative flow that sweeps you beyond the headlines to a better understanding of the political landscape. There’s not a lumpen cliche in sight; Hartley has a refreshingly crisp, vivid turn-of-phrase — for example: After a cycle in the political washing machine, Gear would have lost its bold colours and emerged as a faded quilt of stitched-together policies.

Hartley isn’t polemical — he marshals the facts to make a quietly scathing indictment of the erosion of the rule of law and “the rising tide of corruption and self-enrichment”. “There is hope for South Africa,” he concludes in the book’s final chapter. But while there is hope, Hartley shows the alarm bells are ringing, too.

Ragged Glory is published by Jonathan Ball and is available from Kalahari.com.

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