Bring Me My Machine Gun

The Battle for the Soul of South Africa, from Mandela to Zuma


By Alec Russell

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Award-winning journalist Alec Russell was in South Africa to witness the fall of apartheid and the remarkable reconciliation of Nelson Mandela’s rule; and returned in 2007-2008 to see Mandela’s successor, Thabo Mbeki, fritter away the country’s reputation. South Africa is now perched on a precipice, as it prepares to elect Jacob Zuma as president — signaling a potential slide back to the bad old days of post-colonial African leadership, and disaster for a country that was once the beacon of the continent.

Drawing on his long relationships with all the key senior figures including Mandela, Mbeki, Desmond Tutu, and Zuma, and a host of South Africans he has known over the years — including former activists turned billionaires and reactionary Boers — Alec Russell’s Bring Me My Machine Gun is a beautifully told and expertly researched account of South Africa’s great tragedy: the tragedy of hope unfulfilled.


To Sophie, Mungo, and Ned, with my undying love.

1652First Dutch settlement founded at the Cape by Jan van Riebeeck
1836Start of the Great Trek by Afrikaners from the Cape
1886Discovery of gold on Witwatersrand
1899-1902Anglo-Boer War
1910Union of South Africa founded with the merging of the Boer Republics of the Orange Free State and the Transvaal and the British colonies of the Cape and Natal
1912Foundation of the African National Congress in Bloemfontein
1913Native Land Act restricts blacks to reservations, depriving millions of their birthright
1918Nelson Mandela born in the Eastern Cape
1948National Party comes to power on platform of separating races
1955Congress of the People adopts the Freedom Charter
1959Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) breaks away from ANC
1960Sharpeville Massacre: 69 protesters killed by police; ANC and PAC banned
1962Nelson Mandela arrested
1964Nelson Mandela and other ANC leaders sentenced to life imprisonment
1976Soweto student uprising
1977Steve Biko dies in police custody
1989F. W. de Klerk takes over leadership of National Party
1990F. W. de Klerk unbans the ANC and PAC and releases Mandela from prison
1994First democratic election; inauguration of Mandela as president
1999Thabo Mbeki inaugurated as president after ANC wins increased majority
2004Mbeki wins second term with even larger majority for ANC
2005Jacob Zuma fired as deputy president and charged with corruption
2006Jacob Zuma acquitted of charge of raping the daughter of a family friend; corruption case thrown out of court on a technicality
2007Zuma defeats Mbeki in election for leadership of the ANC; Zuma charged again with corruption, fraud, racketeering, money laundering, and tax evasion
2008ANC deposes Mbeki as national president after a judge throws out Zuma’s corruption case on a technicality; Kgalema Motlanthe is appointed as caretaker president; ANC breakaway movement, the Congress of the People (COPE), founded in Bloemfontein, birthplace of the ANC

There is no shortcut to the country of our dreams.
The history of countries throwing off tyrannical regimes tends to follow a pattern. In the immediate aftermath there is euphoria, accompanied by utopian pledges for the future. Then the new rulers find the business of governing more difficult and messier than they could ever have imagined. They also find that it is far harder to overcome their own past than they had appreciated as they plotted their takeover in prison or in exile. It is in this second stage that the true meaning and trajectory of a revolution unfolds.
In Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the jubilation at the overthrow of communism soon gave way to distress at the hardship of the shift to free-market economics and to agonising over how to exorcise the past. Africa had yet harder experience in the second half of the twentieth century, when the continent celebrated as colonial flags were struck down, only to see the promise of the new era swiftly implode. The new states were betrayed by the colonizing powers, which had equipped them with only a handful of graduates to run their governments. They were betrayed by Moscow and Washington, who used them as proxy battlefields of the Cold War. Most of all they were betrayed by their own leaders, many of whom did little but bask in personality cults and fill foreign bank accounts while beggaring their people. These new states inherited a complex set of challenges, not least how to take a largely undeveloped society into the modern world. The task would have challenged any new political cast, however brilliant. South Africa, the continent’s unofficial superpower, is no different.
For a few years after the end of white rule in 1994, Nelson Mandela’s visionary leadership encouraged the hazy belief that a political miracle had occurred and that a new South Africa had been born, exorcised of the torment of the past. For many years it had been widely assumed that South Africa’s fight for liberation from apartheid would end in a race war. Instead, the tall, dignified leader of the African National Congress emerged from twenty-seven years in prison preaching forgiveness. Together with the last white president, F. W. de Klerk, a more flawed but also brave leader, Mandela steered their troubled land to peace. South Africa’s negotiated transition from white rule to democracy was one of the wonders of the late twentieth century. But it was only the first chapter of the postliberation narrative.
The ANC made a steady start in tackling the legacy of white rule. It swiftly introduced a liberal constitution supported by independent courts that guaranteed rights long denied under apartheid. It revived the economy. It established South Africa as a presence on the world stage. But after fifteen years in power, the ANC is in danger of losing its way. It has catastrophically failed its two greatest challenges, AIDS and the collapse of Zimbabwe on its border. Now it is fighting to escape the shadow of so many other liberation movements that came to office with great dreams only to see them founder under the weight of unfulfillable expectations and against the backdrop of corruption, infighting, and misrule. South Africa’s second “struggle” is underway.
When I first came to South Africa in April 1993, the struggle against apartheid was reaching a dramatic climax. Mandela had been released from prison and the ANC unbanned three years earlier, but white extremists and Zulu irredentists threatened to secede and plunge the country into chaos. While the worst of the apartheid laws had been repealed, traveling across the country was still like stepping back in time. Outside the major cities the only black people in sight in the areas traditionally set aside for whites worked at gas stations and cafés or waited at the side of the road for transport home to their township. The presenters on state radio had the same homely tones—and fruity 1950s BBC intonation—that had comforted white South Africans through the long years of white rule. The news was unremittingly bleak: mediation talks between the ANC and the government were stalling; pylons had been blown up by right-wing extremists; the townships east of Johannesburg were engulfed in fighting. It all sounded depressingly familiar.
I had come to South Africa from Bosnia after eighteen months’ reporting on Yugoslavia’s descent into civil war. There I had learned to despair of the cynicism of politicians who whipped up ancient ethnic animosities for their own ends. There were grim parallels with the situation in South Africa. Just as shadowy paramilitaries stoked tensions in the Bosnian hinterland in the countdown to the war, death squads were at work in South Africa, running through early morning trains in the sprawling townships of Soweto randomly killing commuters and fomenting the fighting in the townships. Then, of course, there were the maps.
Under apartheid the domestic maps of South Africa had resembled giant blotting pads, reflecting the borders that the Nationalists drew up for the tribal “homelands” to ensure that whites rather than blacks had most of the prime agricultural land. Now right-wingers were once again plotting another unjust carve-up, this time of a white rather than a black homeland that would keep them safe from the “horrors” of majority rule. Their proposals bore no relation to demographics of political reality. They reminded me of the maps that Bosnian Serb warlords had sketched out for me over endless glasses of plum brandy, ludicrously justifying their annexation of most of Bosnia. In those uncertain months of the southern autumn and winter, I learned to dread the moment when during an interview an Afrikaner would announce it was time to look at the map.
Robert Van Tonder was the ultimate bittereinder (from South African history, an Afrikaner who refused to surrender to the British). A short, silver-haired man with a military bearing and bright red cheeks, he favored a blazer and tie rather than the long socks and khaki shorts that were once the signature of white African farmers. The impression was more country club than Afrikaner patriarch, but his clipped sardonic tones espoused the Old Testament certainties and white supremacist convictions of the early Afrikaners who had fled to South Africa in the seventeenth century.
Van Tonder’s father had been one of the diehards who wanted to fight the imperial British troops to the last in the Anglo-Boer war at the start of the twentieth century. His mother had spent years in a British concentration camp. In his fevered imagination he would lead the followers of his tiny Boerestaat (Afrikaner homeland) party into the grave rather than submit to the “communistic” (his descriptor) ANC. I met him in June 1993, in the last turbulent year of white rule. He stood as if to attention, gazing out over the gum trees that lined his farm. There had been no rain for two months. A chill wind sweeping over the veld rippled through his maize. It also seemed to prime his doom-laden rhetoric. His voice rose. The dismal history of postcolonial Africa would be repeated in South Africa. F. W. de Klerk, the then president negotiating a settlement with the ANC, was a traitor and a fool. Civil war would follow if there were not a white homeland.
“I was in the desert a long time, but now they say I am a prophet . . .” he said. “De Klerk is trying to reconstruct the Tower of Babel. He’s trying to do the impossible. How in the hell will he succeed? They will say, ‘Van Tonder, you are raving in calling for a separate Afrikaner state.’ But if they don’t agree, they will have a Lebanon situation.”1 He stopped abruptly and led me into his farmhouse. There he reached for a map of South Africa from the mid-nineteenth century, when the short-lived Boer Republics of the Transvaal, Northern Natal, and the Orange Free State were just taking shape. As we sat looking out over the veld, I knew I was in for a long afternoon. There is something about irredentists and maps.
“General de Gaulle said every fifty years the world goes mad,” he said as his stubby fingers jabbed at his chart. “The nonsense the ANC tells people. The resistance of the Boerestaat is as inevitable as the sun coming up in the morning.” He took me outside. Under the thin wintry sun we gazed out over his farm, stretching into the empty veld. He saluted under the vierkleur (the old Boer Republic flag) for a photograph. Then, unsmiling, he waved me away.
Van Tonder’s defiance and racist rancor appeared unbending. But the elections of April 1994 swept away his dreams of stopping the clock and exposed his party as little more than a few right-wingers with a fax machine. A dozen or so kindred spirits detonated bombs, killing more than twenty people on the eve of the elections. The dull boom echoed across Johannesburg one sunny Sunday morning, as the most deadly of these bombs exploded outside a hotel in the center of the city. But there was no third Boer War. The bombers were swiftly arrested, tried, and convicted. Van Tonder repaired to his farm in mutinous isolation.
For the next four years I chronicled the fairy-tale ending of apartheid and marveled with the world at Mandela’s reconciliatory wizardry and South Africa’s transformation from a pariah state to a moral authority. I never saw Van Tonder again. He sounded off in public, decrying the new order, once a year on what was known under apartheid as the Day of the Covenant, the anniversary of the 1838 annihilation of a Zulu army by a few hundred Boers. These annual diatribes, handwritten in spidery script, would chug through my fax machine in my office in Johannesburg. I could translate only a few words of the Afrikaans, but the apocalyptic gist was clear from the exclamation marks. Then, almost fourteen years after my first visit to his farm, I had an extraordinary flashback to the old dinosaur. I was keen to write about the phenomenon of the new black middle class bursting out of the townships and had been told to head for Cosmo City, one of the new glitzy housing estates booming on Johannesburg’s outskirts.
Themba Molefe, a diminutive figure with square thick-rimmed glasses reminiscent of the style sported by the late Zairean dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, was one of the doughty journalists who in the old era sought to expose the abuses of apartheid. In the final months of white rule we had celebrated together until dawn, after the white government and the ANC reached a peace settlement. Fourteen years later, he was the first to highlight that where Van Tonder’s crops once swayed in the winter wind, there was now a smart new housing estate for blacks. The giant gum trees that fringed Van Tonder’s home were still standing. But most of the right-winger’s farm tracks were hidden beneath tarmac. Where his faded “old” South African flag once fluttered defiantly at his gatepost was a billboard advertising special deals. In the final insult to his memory, his thatched farmhouse had become the site headquarters. The nerve center of the Boerestaat had become Cosmo City, a temple to black middle-class bling.
Van Tonder never lived to see the bulldozers turning his hectares into swanky black housing; he died in 1999 after a long fight against cancer, railing to the last against the advent of democracy. But there is one aspect of post-apartheid South Africa that would unquestionably have surprised him: the ANC embraced capitalism with a relish unthinkable when its leaders returned from exile and prison in 1990, talking of nationalizing the commanding heights of the economy. With its fancy mock Tuscan homes with fake campaniles and pastel-shaded villas with giant engraved bronze gates, the United States of America Boulevard was a solid symbol of the vanquishing of the old order. Cosmo City was the fruit of a partnership between private developers and the authorities. It offered three categories of houses, including state-subsidized low-cost homes for people from a nearby shantytown. It was tangible evidence of the success of the new order. Under apartheid black people had had to reside in drab dormitory townships deprived of all but basic amenities. Now they could glory in the best the free market had to offer.
In the old days, when radical politics held sway in anti-apartheid circles, Castro Street or Guevara Avenue would have been the address of choice. The profusion of American street names in the wealthier area of Cosmo City, including Tennessee Street and Las Vegas Crescent, reflected how a more globalized view of the world had taken hold of the ANC.
The ANC has proved a reliable steward of sub-Saharan Africa’s largest economy, embracing orthodox fiscal and monetary policies and handling the nation’s finances far more steadily than the Afrikaner Nationalists in the last years of apartheid. A decade after the end of white rule, South Africa enjoyed its most concerted period of economic growth since the Second World War. Between 2004 and 2007 the economy grew at an average of 5 percent a year. If someone had suggested to me on my arrival in South Africa in the last year of white rule that the big economic argument a decade later would be how to move from 5 to 6 percent growth, I would have dismissed the idea as absurd.
In April 1993 I had rented a furnished flat next door to a tiny Johannesburg shopping center. Most nights I would repair to La Via, a homely pasta house run by Bertha, an Italian expatriate. I was usually the only customer. Bertha and her Swiss waiter, Pierre, would share predictions of gloom over carafes of red wine. She was obsessed with the idea that the ANC would impose a Marxist state.
“Look at them—they will be like Russians,” she said, marching round the empty restaurant in a mock totalitarian goose-step.
Instead, like Van Tonder’s farm, La Via and its humdrum neighboring shops have long since vanished. The shopping center houses Assaggi, one of the smartest restaurants in town, where members of the new black business elite meet to discuss deals with executives from the old white-run companies. For once in South Africa’s history, it was not just white people who were prospering. When I started a second stint as a correspondent in South Africa in January 2007, consumer confidence was at a twenty-five-year high; the Johannesburg Stock Exchange was up nearly 250 percent over the previous three years; house prices were up over 125 percent in the previous four years; new car sales had soared year after year by nearly 16 percent. In a continent where, in the second half of the twentieth century, incoming liberation movements time and again destroyed their countries’ economies, these were powerful signs of how the ANC had confounded the skeptics.
And yet I started to fret that I had been too easily seduced by the outward signs of change: the cranes and building sites testifying to an infrastructure boom, the flashy cars on the roads, and the emerging black middle class. When Thabo Mbeki succeeded Mandela in 1999, there was a sense in and outside South Africa that his leadership was just what the country needed. I was among his cheerleaders. For five myth-making years the great humanitarian had worked his magic to forge a new nation. His shrewd successor would be the technocrat to consolidate the country’s democratic foundations. But long before Mbeki was ignominiously ousted from the presidency in 2008, a more complex and troubled picture was emerging of the new society and of the ANC.
The ANC was quick to label exposés of conflicts of interest as counterrevolutionary, but like so many dominant political parties across the world, it was losing sight of the distinction between itself and the state. It had, in short, been corrupted. What, I pondered soon after my return, was I to make of the engaging party member who gossiped about how he introduced some American investors to officials in the presidency to prove to them that he had the right political credentials so he could have his share of a big deal? How was I to square that with the statistics that showed South Africa still had one of the starkest divides between rich and poor in the world? At the policy conference of the ANC in June 2007, several thousand delegates had assembled from across the country sporting baseball caps and T-shirts with old liberation slogans. The sessions resounded with Marxist-Leninist pledges and calls for the ANC to remember that it should be “pro-poor.” I stopped in the parking lot to count the number of limousines and convertibles lined up alongside the buses that had brought humbler delegates from across the country. I gave up when I had reached two hundred.
In the colonial era the white mining magnates who made fortunes from gold and diamonds were known as the Randlords. They lunched at the paneled Rand Club in central Johannesburg, shot francolin and guinea fowl in country estates, and presided over mansions a few miles from the city center. A decade into majority rule a new class of Randlords had emerged. They were black, superrich courtesy of the ANC’s policies to reverse the financial injustices of white rule, and as well connected to the government as the Randlords had been to the colonial authorities. The new tycoons argued correctly that some of the same commentators who liked to criticize them had for years prophesied the ANC would impose a Marxist state. And yet it was Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s lament to me—that too many in the ANC were focused on self-enrichment—that was more resonant.
Life in the townships improved markedly, but with unemployment at around 30 percent it was hardly the “promised land” blacks had hoped for at the end of white rule. In 2008, nearly fourteen years to the day after I had reported on the burning of a suspected apartheid stooge, I found myself chronicling such appalling scenes again—only this time the targets were not alleged informers but immigrants accused of taking jobs from impoverished South Africans.
Against this backdrop the “Rainbow Nation” has long since lost its sparkle. A casual brutality casts a shadow over society. There were more than nineteen thousand murders in 2007 and over fifty thousand reported rapes. Beyond the small multiracial elite, South Africa is a country of polite polarization. Fearful of crime, resentful of affirmative action, wary of the pricklier stance of Mandela’s successor, and still imbued with prejudice, many whites live all but cut off from their black compatriots, in what amounts to a privatization of apartheid.
Onto the stage of this vulnerable young country balanced between potentially disastrous challenges has stepped the larger-than-life figure of Jacob Zuma.
On a rain-swept day shortly before Christmas 2007, Zuma skipped onto a stage in a large tent outside the northern town of Polokwane. He moved with the grace of a boxer in his prime. Before him were several thousand ecstatic delegates of the ANC, tooting on horns, blowing on whistles, and swaying back and forth to old anti-apartheid tunes. Their man was thickset, in his mid-sixties, with a shining bald head, an easy smile, and a magnificent, deep, rich voice. He delivered a rousing speech. Then he paused for effect as a smile flitted across his face. Opening his shoulders, he swiveled his hips, and the word mshini rolled from his mouth. Then his right fist was in the air, and he exploded into the stirring strains of his signature anthem, the old struggle song “Lethu Mshini Wami” (Bring Me My Machine Gun).
Zuma had just been elected leader of the ANC. Some of the more illustrious names in twentieth-century political history preceded him, including Chief Albert Luthuli, the first of the anti-apartheid movement’s three Nobel peace laureates; Oliver Tambo; and of course, Mandela. He offered the electorate the raw crowd-pleasing politics that had been sorely lacking under his aloof predecessor, Thabo Mbeki. His election was a seismic event. For a liberation movement to unseat a leader after just ten years in his position was unprecedented in southern Africa. It heralded a potential renewal for the ANC as it emerged from under the shadow of the increasingly autocratic Mbeki. Zuma had cracked the monolith of a hegemonic ruling party, setting a welcome post-apartheid precedent that leaders who erred could expect to be dismissed. The former freedom fighter had a heroic past and formidable political skills. He promised to tackle crime, AIDS, poverty, and Zimbabwe and to bring back the reconciliatory ethos of Mandela’s era. But that was not the whole story. The man who saw himself as the country’s savior had no formal education, at least eighteen children, a penchant for populism, and a history of scandal. He was embroiled in a corruption probe relating to his ties with his former financial adviser, who was in prison for procuring a bribe for him from an arms dealer. He had been tried for the rape of the HIV-positive daughter of a family friend. While he was acquitted, his testimony further clouded his reputation. He did not dispute that he had had unprotected sex with the complainant while knowing she was HIV-positive. He testified that, according to Zulu custom, his accuser had solicited his attentions by wearing a short skirt and it would have been an insult to her to refuse her.2
The first battle, against the old South Africa of Van Tonder, has been convincingly won. Wonderfully the old racist shuffled out of South Africa’s story without much of a fight. Since then life has improved for most South Africans. But now a new battle for the soul and future of the new nation is underway. It is this drama that this book explores. It is a story of leadership, inspirational and flawed. It is the story of the near impossibility of overcoming the nightmarish legacy of an abhorrent system. It is the story of divided races seeking a common course on the same land. It is also the story of a once-lionized liberation movement learning that it is hard to buck the trend of so many revolutionary movements that have ended up losing sight of their ideals and spending more time on infighting and making money than leading the people. At its heart is the question of whether the ANC can avoid the atrophy that has enveloped other African liberation movements that had such high hopes at independence.


On Sale
Apr 14, 2009
Page Count
336 pages

Alec Russell

About the Author

Alec Russell is World News Editor at the Financial Times, and formerly their Johannesburg bureau chief. He previously covered the wars in the former Yugoslavia and Africa for the Daily Telegraph and was its foreign editor from 2001-2003. From 2003-2006 he was based in Washington, D.C., and covered the Bush administration. He is the author of two books and lives in London.

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