February 14, 2012 Leave a comment
Andrew Feinstein’s career is nothing short of extraordinary. Born in South Africa, then educated in some of the finest Anglo-American Universities in the world, he joined Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) at just 30 years old. Within two years he was advising Tokyo Sexwale – the then Premier of South Africa’s key Gauteng province – on economic policy, and within three he was elected (with the ANC) to the South African National Assembly. He was truly, in the words of an American diplomat in Atlanta, “one of Mandela’s people”.
Like many in the ANC, he went through a disillusionment with the party that ended Apartheid following the end of Mandela’s leadership in 1999, and resigned in 2001. But Feinstein’s resignation came under very specific conditions. In 1998/9 Tony Blair travelled to South Africa on a diplomatic mission linked to a highly controversial arms deal between BAE systems and Saab, and the South African government. Feinstein began investigating the arms deal, the biggest in South Africa’s history, and soon concluded that an official investigation was needed. He was, as he puts it, “effectively thrown out of parliament”. But this was by no means the end. He is now one of the ANC’s foremost critics, and his books are blurbed by the likes of Desmond Tutu and Arundhati Roy.
His political stature, however, is somewhat at odds with its physical counterpart. Feinstein is not the tall, imposing figure one would expect to meet in the halls of South African government. “It does cause problems, believe me”, he laughs, as he recounts the many meetings with diplomats who are generally the skyward side of six foot.
But when Andrew sits down across from me, and begins to speak on subjects for which he clearly has an imperishable passion, it becomes easy to see why he was so formidable in Parliament. His voice is deep, and powerful, and somehow manages to be both simple and logical, but retains the activist’s unorthodox twang. It’s an observation he’s heard before. “I’m completely oblivious to it”, he smiles, “I find it strange when people feel I speak unconventionally”. He feels he knows the forge in which his rhetorical style was made: “a combination of speaking formally in parliament – for instance I spoke in Mandela’s final debate in Parliament – to speaking in a football stadium of seventy thousand people, and everything in between.”
Feinstein remembers his early days working in the ANC with a genuinely misty eyed fondness. “It was extraordinary. I was able to work in Black African townships, and it became very clear to me very quickly that, despite being banned, the ANC undoubtedly represented the aspirations and wishes of the majority of South Africans, and I felt enormously privileged, from my late teens, to work with an organization like that.”
But in the early years, he says, no one expected the party to be as successful as it was. “None of us imagined a situation where we would become the government of the country, let alone where we would become formal politicians.” They were activists, he says, and such success seemed highly unlikely.
While he describes working in the early ANC as a privilege, working with Mandela is more like an honour. “To work for Mandela was probably the greatest experience that a person could have.” And Mandela himself, he says, “was the most remarkable statesman and human being, probably of the last hundred years [who could disagree?]…a man with a sense of selflessness that I’d never come anywhere across before, but also with great humility, and a sense of great responsibility and service.” To have sat for over 20 years in jail, he continues, “and to still have that when you come out, let alone the forgiveness and reconciliation that he preached, is something that I don’t think could be bettered.”
Feinstein’s description would fit a saint. George Orwell once described Mohandes Gandhi in similar terms, but with a critical bent. “One must choose God or man”, Orwell concluded, does this criticism apply to Mandela? Is he too selfless to be a relate-able human being, of flesh and blood?
“He isn’t without his weaknesses, as his personal life even from before he went to jail would attest. But he isn’t particularly interested in material things, because he came out of jail at an age when they probably weren’t important to him… I do think that he is perhaps, in intellectual, and personal and emotional ways, evolved further than a lot of the rest of us.” Perhaps a little, then, “but Mandela’s work was certainly about this world, not the next”.
Feinstein no longer has much praise to give for the ANC, and absolutely none for its President. “Jacob Zuma, for me, exemplifies anti-intellectualism, a complete lack of engagement in policy, and a complete inability to deliver for the basic needs of the poorest 40% of South African society…What Zuma and his acolytes have succeeded in doing is feathering their own nests incredibly comfortably. Zuma’s own family as well as most of his closest political cronies have become incredibly wealthy individuals through the course of his presidency. That will be his lasting legacy, and it will be a tragic legacy.”
The more controversial Malema is treated even more harshly. “Malema was absolutely crucial in getting Jacob Zuma elected. What has happened subsequently is that as Malema’s more outrageous statements, tinged with racism, as well as his behaviour which has been economically opportunistic to a degree that would make even Zuma blush.” This is as damning an indictment of Feinstein’s former party as one could imagine. Compared to Malema, I suggest, Zuma looks like something of a moderate. “The fact that we might see Zuma as some sort of moderate, or some sort of force for good, is reflective of just how far ANC politics have fallen from the days of Mandela.”
Feinstein now lives in the United Kingdom, where he has just written his latest book The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade – a tome that documents all of his experience with the BAE South African arms deal, and a good deal more about the trade responsible for 40% of all global corruption. “It is also a very, very good place to be, doing the work that I do on the global arms trade and global corruption deals.” BAE systems have their offices in London.
Behind Feinstein’s impressive knowledge of the global arms trade, there is also a clear set of political principles. He is extremely critical of free-market economics, “the basic tenets of which are flawed”, and has even less time for it in relation to arms. “The global trade in bananas is more highly regulated than the global trade in weapons, by quite a long way. This is by design; not just of weapons manufacturers but also of governments of virtually every political stripe.”
He believes the production of weapons is necessary, and cannot simply be abolished, but also that “the manufacture of those weapons should be done in a highly regulated, highly controlled, way that is to the overall benefit of society, and that’s not currently the case.” Stronger regulation, and more of it, is his answer.
The reason is, beyond the existing state of regulation, is simple. “I have been researching this area for over a decade now… I have yet to come across an arms deal – be it formal government to government, or a so called grey, or black market deal – that does not involve an element of illegality in it.”
The South African arms deal is certainly not an exception to that claim. I ask him what Tony Blair’s role actually was. “The reality is that Tony Blair, like John Major and Margaret Thatcher before him, was the sales person in chief for the British arms industry, and specifically for BAE Systems – Britain’s largest arms manufacturer, and probably its largest manufacturing business”, he answers. “He went to South Africa, and he was going to persuade them of the value of this BAE deal, regardless of how completely inappropriate, expensive, and corrupt it was for South Africa itself. For me, unfortunately, it came to characterize the nature of Tony Blair’s politics and his premiership.”
The idea that the arms industry has unrepresentative influence is hardly a novel one, but Feinstein delivers it with real force. He recalls that “Robin Cook remarked in his mémoire that BAE Systems seemed to have the key to the door of 10 Downing street… that seems to me to be broadly accurate.” This goes hand-in-hand with a general militarism. “It’s reflective of a country that was, and continues to, grapple with its place in world affairs since the collapse of empire. This is one of the reasons why British Prime Ministers of every stripe hang so determinedly to this vestige of power that is the British Arms industry.”
Given the all too cosy relationship between Arms and Government, is it enough to simply regulate the industry, and is it even possible? Feinstein has no illusions about this. “I think you need a sense of political consciousness in an electorate before serious regulation can take place, but that’s part of a broader political point.”
Feinstein says he focuses on the arms trade “not only because I’ve seen its devastating impact on South Africa and other countries, but also because it is an extreme manifestation of all that I believe is wrong in the relationship between business and politics in our current political process. Politics is driven by money, by corporate interests, in virtually any party, and I think what is required is a realisation that our political leaders don’t seem to be representing our best interests. I think it’s that sort of realisation that could lead to a change in the way in which we regulate the market mechanism in the arms trade.”
Andrew Feinstein spoke for New Turn last month at the University of London Union