Postcard from Gauteng

Notes on South Africa from Ian Parker.


The Star newspaper and Chinafrica magazine are the two free publications for arrivals on the stand at Oliver Tambo airport in Gauteng (Johannesburg), along with maps and tourist brochures – passenger arrivals are up over two million now this year, with the largest number coming from Zimbabwe.


The Star is a liberal broadsheet that has been around since 1887. It is now owned by a businessman who says he was Mandela’s doctor on Robben Island, even though he went to medical school after Mandela left. It carries the headline “Battle-ready Zuma says bring it on”. According to the article, now that he is free, Jacob Zuma looks to be pushing to be installed as chair of the ANC at its upcoming conference while also pursuing a legal case against journalists who leaked and published his medical records.

The Star is a liberal broadsheet that has been around since 1887. It is now owned by a businessman who says he was Mandela’s doctor on Robben Island, even though he went to medical school after Mandela left.

The Star dislikes this prospect and tells you so in its op-ed, and there are some comments inside the paper that indicate that support or opposition to Zuma is pretty well split on racial lines, with whites outraged that he is back in action. The letters page includes complaints that the ANC is ‘a shadow of its former self’ as well as one, from Tel Aviv, trumpeting Israeli democracy.

Page 2 reports on one of the many attempts to slice off leading members of the main, and mostly also discredited opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, and recruit them to new formations; this time it is about African Capital Investments claiming that it has given money to ActionSA as well as the Democratic Alliance.

ActionSA, a party that succeeded in attracting a black mayor of Johannesburg with some progressive policies before taking a hard line on immigration, denies this. That kind of attempt to buy political influence is rife, and also plays bad; it’s worth courting and worth keeping quiet. Zuma may be a liability, and xenophobia is a card played by most parties now, including the ANC and radical split-offs, but the attempts by the right to break the ANC are no better. Even the radical split-off from the ANC, Economic Freedom Fighters, EFF, who turn up to parliament in workers’ overalls, pitched to this as well recently, raiding restaurants to expose ‘illegals’.

Other stories in this issue code ‘race’ in South Africa in different ways, with tabloid twists on deep structural issues. There is a report of a serial killer of ‘sex workers’ in which the women are black but the killer’s racial identity is unclear; the ‘surge in teen deliveries alarms Health Department’ story homes in on the ‘surge’ in black communities; the ‘role model’ story on page 3 has a guy telling us to go beyond ‘looking at the colour of the skin’, this from someone crowned Albinism Top Model and Ambassador for 2021/22. Reports in the paper and distribution of people in the airport – most passengers are white and most workers are black – indicate that apartheid of some kind is potent in what people do and how they speak about themselves.


Walls of the airport are taken up with advertisements for Chinese bank investment opportunities in South Africa, and Chinafrica is expanding the domain of Beijing throughout the whole of the continent. This is Volume 14, Number 10. A full-page advert for Volume III of Xi Jinping’s The Governance of China – the first and second volumes ‘have received an enthusiastic response from China and other parts of the world’, we are told – is followed up by a glowing review later in the mag.

The third book on the thoughts of Xi Jinping apparently concentrates on his environmental policy, and the review has an eye to its readers, claiming that ‘most African nations are still in desperate need of industrialisation, but they face the same international climate policy constraints as developed ones’. The good news comes in the form of articles targeting specific nations, and a range of Chinese and African hack pet journalists cover, for example, Burundi, for which China is one of its major trading partners for coffee and tea; Zimbabwe, exporting citrus fruits to the Chinese market; and Kenya, where there is a photo of the Handover Ceremony of the First Batch of Fresh Avocados from Africa to China.

Pride of place, not surprisingly, goes to the Belt and Road Initiative, BRI, which ‘drives global development’ through ‘accelerating trade flows’; 149 countries have now ‘joined’ the BRI. This is followed up later in this 64-page full-colour giveaway publicity brochure by the role of Chinese digital developments in ‘reducing poverty’. That article, rather appropriately, and with no sense of irony, has a lead photo of visitors checking their phones behind a screen displaying facial recognition software at the Global Mobile Internet Conference at the China National Convention Centre in Beijing.

The emphasis is on what one article by the ‘Diplomatic Society of South Africa’ calls cooperative development, with not a whisper about surveillance or the kinds of trade unions that might see surveillance as a problem. The director of the Centre for China Studies in Abuja, Nigeria, is similarly diplomatic in his article on China’s proposed ‘Global Security Initiative’—criticising NATO for enabling insurgencies in Libya and countries to the south—and promoting the AU (African Union). China is on the side of the good here for its role in ‘enhancing Africa’s regional security architecture through concerted support to the peace and security mechanisms of the AU’.

There are government links with China, but also much suspicion. The ANC only has to look north to the rapidly-indebted African countries to see what generous ‘aid’ from Beijing will tie them into. Much more appealing is the link with Russia, and those mainly covert links, exposed in the media recently. Ministers were travelling back and forth to Moscow, and it transpired that an eye-watering costly deal for Putin to build nuclear power facilities in South Africa was being worked up behind the scenes.

The South African Communist Party, SACP, has seven cabinet ministers tied into voting for the ANC, up to their necks in the economic mess; some refer to them now as the South African Capitalist Party. For the SACP, this is the ‘stage’ theory of history with a vengeance; the Stalinists were always clear that transition to socialism could not happen before the ‘bourgeois’ dispensation was firmly in place, and now they are stuck with it, shoring that up with all their might. What they might get in return is diplomatic links with Russia, and their influence plays out in the refusal to condemn Putin’s special military operations in Ukraine.


Violence is endemic, and that makes trade union activity all the more difficult, and the violence is fuelled by poverty, desperation and also by the breakdown of the security forces. Just one indication of this is that 22,000 police, that’s about 10 per cent of the total force, are now suspended, and their ‘misconduct’ in many cases is that they have ‘mislaid’ their weapons. The current running total of deaths reported per day in the country, and those are only the ones that are reported, is 57.

So, there is a full ideological attack from different directions in the media, and difficult conditions for the organised working class, among others who are on the sharp end of South Africa’s own ‘peace and security mechanisms’, austerity and widespread ‘load shedding’ – scheduled power cuts that are also driving small businesses into the ground. Generalised xenophobia plays against offers of help from outside. So what resistance is there to corruption and violence at home and no less corrupt, and capitalist, offers of aid from China or Russia to sort things out?

There is, however, a lasting effect of the militant trade union struggle that went along with the ANC’s military campaign and the talks that led to Mandela’s release and the end of apartheid’s legalisation with free elections in 1994. About 24% of the workforce is unionised, and there are radical trade union federations such as SAFTU, the South African Federation of Trades Unions, that jostle alongside the larger, but not much larger, ANC-aligned federations. The language of struggle is still explicitly in anti-capitalist terms, something that opens up fracture points in and against the ANC and the SACP.

This is a wealthy country, people will tell you, but that wealth is distributed in such a way as to replicate many of the economic-political structures of apartheid. South Africa has the greatest wealth disparity – the gap between the super-rich and the wretched poor – in all of the world. That means there is hope for a better future for all here, a hope that is kept alive politically through trade unions and political campaigns, but not so much in the hopelessly divided left. Organisation is at the heart of the problem and the solution, and what happens on the ground needs to be weighed against what the media outlets tied to vested interests tell us about it.

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Ian Parker is a Manchester-based psychoanalyst and a member of Anti*Capitalist Resistance.

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