The Human Cost: Extract from ‘Southern Africa’ by Stephen Chan

Southern Africa by Stephen Chan

Southern Africa by Stephen Chan

Southern Africa: Old Treacheries and New Deceits by Stephen Chan (out now in paperback) explores the political landscape of southern Africa, examining how it’s poised to change and what the repercussions will be across the continent. In this exclusive extract, the author tells the story of Joseph, a struggling Zimbabwean looking for work. Illustrating the human cost of the complex political issues of the region, Chan explains the aims – and challenges – of this ambitious book.

Extract from the introduction to Southern Africa: Old Treacheries and New Deceits by Stephen Chan

Johannesburg, 2008

‘Sold into slavery, but he rose to become the right-hand man of Pharaoh.’ Joseph was thinking about his biblical namesake. The great Pyramids must have seemed like the towers of Johannesburg to him. He trudged among the towers as he had done every day for weeks, pleading for work, not rising to become the right-hand man of anyone. He would have to lower his sights and try in the suburbs and then, like everyone said he would, scavenge a job in the outlying townships. He had his heart set on not having to steal, but he had a family to support back in Zimbabwe and he knew that, if push came to shove, he could always find odd jobs as an enforcer, a debt collector and muscular repayer of debts. A deserter from the Zimbabwean military, he knew a thing or two about how to repay those who forgot their obligations.

If it was as an enforcer then at least he wouldn’t have to work in the townships long minibus rides away. The collection industry was hardest at work in the inner city suburbs, where tens of thousands of people like Joseph looked for jobs and borrowed funds to finance their search. You move in groups of three, kick down a door, rough the guy up, issue last warnings, and take whatever’s of value in the grubby room. It wasn’t exactly a noble profession, thought Joseph, but he wouldn’t have to move from the edge of Hillbrow – where thousands of Zimbabweans had ‘settled’, mostly without papers, and had somehow established both a community of their own and stilted relations with the locals. The Mozambicans nearby were not always so successful, and were more conspicuous when they chatted to one another in Portuguese.

Joseph had deserted his military unit in the southern provinces of Democratic Republic of Congo. He had fought in the battles for Kinshasa as the new millennium began, when the Zimbabweans helped Laurent Kabila consolidate his power as Congolese President – providing the throne for him that even the legendary Che Guevara, in his ill-fated African adventure of 1963, could not. Before Kabila had been assassinated he had effectively ceded control of much of his country’s southern mineral wealth to the Zimbabweans. Joseph had stood guard as the senior Generals and henchmen of Robert Mugabe helped themselves to the spoils. It was designed to reinforce their loyalty to Mugabe. Disgusted, not willing to risk his life for such people, Joseph deserted and now watched the daily newspapers in Johannesburg for signs that Thabo Mbeki might persuade Mugabe to give up at least some of his power. All the while Mugabe resisted, and his Generals backed him up – men who, on television, appeared even more self-satisfied than when Joseph had seen them, behaving furtively before they became self-confident in their plundering of southern Congo. ‘I would not want to be the right-hand man of such a Pharaoh,’ thought Joseph. But, as he watched the limousines cruise by in Johannesburg, read in the newspapers about corruption charges brought against Jacob Zuma, he realised how merciless even South African politics could be and thought, in a no-smoke-without-fire sort of way, that corruption was laying down its foundations amidst the tall buildings. ‘We can teach them a thing or two about that,’ Joseph muttered as he knocked on another office door.

This was a one-man show. It was a fellow Zimbabwean and, yes, he had a job for Joseph – a choice of two jobs, in fact. He could be part of a small Zimbabwean labour gang that provided hod-carrying on the cheap for one of the fly-by-night South African construction companies that were throwing up housing units, quickly and badly, so that the ANC could honour its election pledges to poor communities. The company had been swiftly formed to take advantage of the empowerment regulations that privileged black businesses, and its bosses knew very little about the building trade.They knew enough to pay very low rates for illegal Zimbabwean labour.

The other job was better, his countryman said, eyeing Joseph’s physique. It was to provide protection for these same labour gangs. ‘The local workmen have been undercut by us,’ he said, ‘and there are some areas where we are helping to build houses which have the rumblings of a lot of anger building up.’

Joseph got a uniform with green and red epaulettes (he had to buy his own boots), a PR24 – the standard issue police swing baton – a construction-site helmet, and a car ride to his immediate assignment. He couldn’t believe his luck, but he also knew that what his new boss had told him was true. Away from the mix of Hillbrow, anti- Zimbabwean sentiments had been increasing for some time and Joseph had to run the risk of its exploding in his own face. Even the South African workers performing the more skilled tasks would look down critically upon their Zimbabwean labourers. And he knew that the security guard had to be him, had to be a Zimbabwean. A South African would think twice in the current climate before standing between a Zimbabwean labour gang and a crowd of angry unemployed fellow citizens. The Egyptians, thought Joseph, were going to turn upon the Israelites.


I begin with that story from 2008. It is reminiscent of an earlier story from 1941 when the young Nelson Mandela, fleeing the restraints of the countryside and a small university, arrived in Johannesburg – anxious for the bright lights and opportunities, but penniless and proud – and had to take a first job as a security guard, being thankful for the opportunity. The growing intimacy and integration of the Southern African region has meant that what was once a saga in one country is now a repeated saga in a connected network of countries. And, just as South Africa then was a country of vast inequalities, there are today vast differences in wealth and opportunity among the different parts of Southern Africa. There have also been vast increases in complexity since the days of the young Mandela. It is not simply a case of white despots in Pretoria having a modern counterpart in black despots in Harare. Economies, politics and expectations have grown larger and more sophisticated – and so have the way they partake in the world outside Southern Africa. This has posed certain problems in how to write this book. In particular: how to write an intelligent book for the non-specialist reader who has a newspaper and television knowledge of Southern Africa built around a small number of political leaders – whose personalities and motivations are often trivialised or turned into caricatures of good and evil?

I have concentrated precisely on a small number of countries from the region, and on a small number of their political personalities, but have tried to give them their full range of complexities and contradictions. I wanted to suggest by this that the entire region and the way its parts interact is full of complexities and contradictions. So that Nelson Mandela is not a saint, but a skiving, jazz-freak student radical, lately given to wearing stupid shirts; so that Thabo Mbeki did not fail by simple lack of effort in his ‘quiet diplomacy’ with Robert Mugabe, but was driven by complex and highly learned patterns of reasoning; so that Robert Mugabe himself did not become a tyrant because of a love of tyranny, but lost himself in the contradictions of his convictions, until his stubbornness became malignant and finally malevolent; so that Jacob Zuma did not gain the leadership of the ANC by sheer vulgar populism, but by harnessing an unlikely alliance of brilliant political and business minds who helped him for the sake of their own revenge. The ambition of this book is to endow what the Western media has turned into black caricatures with the same sort of life we would automatically assume was inherent in Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron, Nick Clegg, George Bush, Barack Obama and Nicolas Sarkozy.

It is also to repay some debt to a region that helped form me. Some of my own experiences weave in and out of this book. The intention was to help further humanise the region – for it is clear I made many mistakes as a young man high on diplomatic and political adventures – but I hope I do not intrude too much on the personalities and themes of the book, particularly as they become more complex in their own right as the book develops.

Having said that, I set out to tell a story: one that links many stories, and some of these have had full-length books written about them. The industry of Southern African biography is huge, and I have contributed to it myself. But the aim here is not to recount the life of Thabo Mbeki as comprehensively as Mark Gevisser or as critically as William Gumede, or to give a blow by blow account of the formation of Robert Mugabe.

The aim is to show how, in a linked and intimate region, lives and political decisions weave in and out of one another. Agendas clash, sometimes they dovetail, and sometimes they dovetail in unexpected and perverse ways.

Stephen Chan

Stephen Chan

Stephen Chan is Professor of International Relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. He writes regularly for Prospect magazine and the New Statesman. His many publications include Robert Mugabe: A Life of Power and Violence. Chan was recently awarded an OBE for his work in Africa.

Southern Africa: Old Treacheries and New Deceits is available now in paperback from Yale University Press

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