RW Johnson is an exasperating writer. Sooner or later he makes such outrageous statements that one feels open-mindedness is wasted on him. Only for a moment, though, because one is invariably persuaded to continue with what can be absorbing journalism offering scatterings of penetrating insights.
At least in his new book he keeps to safely dead metaphors when referring to wild African animals; I spotted an elephant and a crocodile, but mercifully he stayed away from the baboons. Nothing overtly racist this time. Forty professors won’t be writing to distance themselves from him.
A certain sloppiness in the thinking behind what looks like a paper crunch makes this one of his lesser efforts. The fact that the book is selling well, says more about the panicky state many South Africans found themselves in as they wearily contemplated how to do their duty to vote, without losing the little sense for respectability they still had after Zondo, et al.
His previous bestseller, How Long Will SA Survive?, had an unfortunate title. Of course, SA survived beyond the 2017 deadline he set, and SA will survive the doomsday scenarios he sketches in Fighting for the Dream as well — depending on what one means with “SA” and “survive”.
For Johnson, SA means the liberal state he believes it is, and with survive he means on the template of a Western country with just enough patronage to keep investigative journalists in their jobs and economic indicators to keep ratings agencies honest.
Sometimes the new book feels like a follow-up to the last, with the writer, slightly peeved that his predictions about an inevitable IMF rescue job did not come true, hammering those into a blunt prescription to President Cyril Ramaphosa: get to the IMF before it gets to you.
Johnson is not really a liberal, more like an American neocon, despite claiming he votes for social democrats. He has a 1970s’ fixation with the IMF as the panacea for the third world, and so while an IMF loan to SA is very conceivable and might even come to pass, he doesn’t ask the type of question he asks abundantly elsewhere in the book: what makes anybody think an IMF loan will make a difference?
Fighting for the Dream contains short sections of workaday analyses of aspects of our polity that are plain and digestible on all levels, and the demolition job he does on the DA left me in despair at the difficult job we South Africans face to get rid of the ANC. On that I can agree with Johnson.
Close attention has already been paid in the reception to the book to the results of the surveys he did with eNCA, particularly the important outcome that Ramaphosa is hugely popular among the general populace, in a wide disjuncture with the slim victory he achieved over Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma in the race for ANC president, and more importantly, with the compromise he and his supporters had to make in allowing Ace Magashule’s dodgy election as secretary-general to stand. What will happen if Magashule’s lot wins the ANC cold war? Will we see uprisings like those in Mafikeng against Ace’s joker pal, Supra Mahamapelo?
This is also important context for the one possibility he raises that Ramaphosa has to exploit to make a difference, rather than join the ANC Veterans lobby as a loyal-comrade-but-at-least-I-tried: to fashion the presidency into the semi-independent mechanism the constitution allows it to be. Johnson doesn’t believe Ramaphosa has it in him to do so, not to any great effect, and unfortunately it is hard to disagree — especially, as Johnson points out, that even after a year and more in power, his presidency still only had a single economist in its ranks.
Johnson’s suggestion that an independent unit consisting of at least 20 economists that would monitor, advise and plan for all departments and entities, is a good one. (In the meantime the president has set up an advisory board).
Other suggestions by the writer border on those of a megalomaniac playing a SimCity-type video game. That the eastern seaboard should be transformed into a Costa del Sol can still be entertained, but Johnson believes that SA’s internal cities are an aberration, and should all be moved to the coastal areas, where our future water problems could be solved by desalination.
He offers Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle as models for Ramaphosa to follow. Really RW, on which planet? One does not have to be a #RhodesMustFall apologist to see that SA’s colonial past will feature ever larger in our public discourse, a fact underlined by the good showing of the EFF. Even Mandela has become a dubious icon, but Johnson insists that Ramaphosa’s popularity is due to his closeness to the first black SA president during the rainbow times.
Surely Ramaphosa is so well-liked because he stands head and shoulders above the rest when it comes to competency, pragmatism and grim sincerity, all the while tackling the widespread disillusionment with 1994 head-on? Johnson fails to see the good news in his own research.
The book is dulled by repetition, and contradictions there are aplenty. For instance, Johnson wants a return to the government of national unity, but at the same time approves of greater contestation in future ANC leadership races. As in Zimbabwe, a government of national unity would just spread patronage and state capture to the opposition.
The dream in the title refers to the ANC’s ideals, which is what every party should have. More successful is his description of some ANC projects as magical thinking, such as National Health Insurance, expropriation without compensation and fighting unemployment by making a jobs apocalypse inevitable. But he ends the book with his own magical thinking, a liberal wish list, quite a long one (as if having persuaded himself with his pinkie, he takes his own whole hand).
In the end, Fighting for the Dream is like one of those series where the final episode, often deliberately, leaves too many strings untied; there will have to be a sequel. RW Johnson will have to come up with a new season, and soon; this book will be dated before the first new blossoms of the year.