Politics

The Crossroads, Part II: The solution for Cosatu – and South Africa

By Branko Brkic 22 April 2010

On Monday, we discussed the painful nature of the dilemma that Cosatu finds itself in. Today, we bring your attention to the only political solution that would ensure real functioning democracy in South Africa has a fighting chance.

But before we start discussing the solution itself, there’s a clear distinction we need to make between formal democracy and functioning democracy.

Formal democracy itself is not necessarily a difficult task to achieve: All the powers that be need to do is ensure a significant-enough number of citizens shows up to vote. From outside, just about any election that doesn’t involve violence and intimidation is considered free and fair, and the country in question is left to its own devices. But way too many times election results are overwhelmingly skewed towards one side or the other. The reasons for that are varied:

  • The party already in power has control over media outlets, conducting Goebbels-like propaganda to frighten citizens from voting for the opposition, as happened in Serbia during the Milosevic years.
  • The control of food resources, as was the case in Zimbabwe where cutting off food supplies was used to threaten entire villages should they vote for the MDC.
  • Sometimes the imbalance in numbers between different nationalities in one country is used to drive a wedge between them, where the ruling party would regularly capture almost the entire vote of the majority nationality – as the recent Sri Lankan election amply confirmed, giving President Mahinda Rajapaksa total control over the country’s future.
  • And sometimes, as in South Africa, the wounds of the recent past are so deep that almost the entire voting bloc of one race would never consider voting for the candidates of a different skin colour.

As a result, a government that’s installed after such an election enjoys complete control over a country’s affairs, pretty much free of any real oversight. The situation is aggravated if, as in SA’s case, the initial victory was achieved by a party that was a genuine force for good, led by a saint-like personality and where the institutions of democracy didn’t have enough time to develop their own spines. Even more worrying is if the party/alliance won four elections in the row and, no matter what happened, the voting patterns all but ensured their rule would not be challenged for a foreseeable time.

As a result, in South Africa, formal democracy is but a thin veneer over what really is a one-party state.

And then, there are functioning democracies, ones that do not rely on a party’s past glory, but its current performance. The crucial difference between a functioning democracy and just a formal democracy is that at any given moment, the party in power can be replaced by the opposition, whose main job is to watch for missteps and report them to the electorate, mostly through a free media. That fear keeps the governing party in constant check. It also focuses it very nicely on the job of delivering. And, of course, no matter who’s in power, the institutions of democracy retain their institutional memory and are able to continue running the country even during crises caused by the parties fighting for power.

Because, in the real world, the trust-but-verify approach is the best way for citizens to retain control over the ones they put in power. The democracies with giant majorities have to live only with the ‘trust’ part of the equation. In South Africa’s case that would be, well, how can you not trust that the party of liberation will be committed to doing good and in a blemish-free fashion?

The practice of  deploying premiers of provinces, mayors of cities/towns/municipalities, rather than electing them directly, is just inconsistent with a functioning democracy.

While the US may not be the perfect example, there are still roughly 800,000 directly-elected officials there (at all levels, across the country), all of them one scandal away from getting the boot. And yet, even the president of South Africa is voted for by Parliament, and not directly by the people. Our premiers and mayors are first and foremost responsible to the party (most often the ANC) that deployed them, not to the people they’re supposed to serve.

Which finally brings us to the point: If South Africa is to have a decent, liveable future, it needs to upgrade what is currently a formal democracy into a fully functioning democracy.

Strangely enough, in political terms, the one and only move that would ensure this crucial transformation is surprisingly simple, but probably the most difficult one: In short, South Africa needs to create another centre of political gravity that would equal that of the ANC.

And the ONLY player that could answer that call would be a Cosatu/DA alliance.

Okay, by now you have probably checked this reporter’s forehead and called the ambulance. But the logic is there, and it’s strong.

First, the electoral math: Together, Cosatu and the DA would probably attract between 30% and 35% of the vote nationwide, while the ANC would probably have lost the absolute majority it now enjoys. Then efforts would focus on attracting the other, smaller players. The SACP would almost certainly go the Cosatu way; it is almost unthinkable for them to remain allied to a party that wouldn’t deal properly with Julius Malema over his Zimbabwe and Mugabe statements. Cope, the Independent Democrats and Inkatha are not known to be the current ANC’s friends either. Remember, the newly created bloc would enjoy a significant pull; it would be seen as a player that can actually win it this time around; and even if not many more parties themselves join, their voters would. And the ANC would then finally have to face the fact they have pissed off way too many people since 1994.

While the electoral map is a reasonably easy point to prove, the one that appears much more difficult is an ideological one: Cosatu and the DA appear to be just too far apart in their ideologies. And yet, that might not be entirely consistent with reality.

Should Cosatu finally decide that its mission is to represent the class of the overworked and underpaid, as we argued on Monday, then its first and foremost job is to help create an economy that would actually grow in the right way, an economy that takes care of its working class by increasing employment.

And as we’ve already noted, the ANC-controlled government has failed to deliver on any of that since it took power in 1994. What’s worse, it has somehow managed to forget about the nationwide infrastructure. It is just a matter of time before the major failures will further affect SA’s ability to produce value; Eskom’s misdeeds alone will cost the working class several hundred thousand jobs.

Cosatu’s and the DA’s traditional constituencies, working and middle class respectively, are the prime generators of jobs and value in any country. The middle classes are the engines of the entrepreneurial class, which is consistently the world’s best creator of sustainable jobs, and the working-class people are the ones who roll up their sleeves and make things happen.

Now, in a functioning democracy, both workers and business owners would be helped by an efficient government, whose job would be to make sure that the country and its people can rely on a first-class infrastructure, quality services and reasonable, well-enforced laws.

But we’re not in a functioning democracy. The ANC-led government, through its arrogance, incompetence and wrong, if sometimes well-meaning, strategies, has become an astronomically expensive and bloated behemoth, that is more interested in feeding itself than delivering value to the taxpayers. In short, it is demanding some of the most expensive tax burdens in the world, collects them at a first-world rate and then delivers services in a manner more becoming of a third-world country.

Cosatu and the DA could continue as though nothing happened, content with the ANC government wedged between them, or they could decide that it is just way too expensive and inefficient. They could also decide that they can form a government of “national unity” and do a far superior job. Remember, both Cosatu and the DA are committed to stamping out corruption, enhancing economic growth and a more equitable society. Both Cosatu and the DA would also work hard on instilling much, much more accountability to voters on the part of leaders, creating a job-nurturing environment, creating an investment-friendly climate, an end to a bureaucratically entangling state and the creation of a knowledge society versus the tenderpreneur society we have today. In our books, that is what matters.

A Cosatu/DA alliance wouldn’t be the world’s first example of marrying ideas and electoral heft to deal with a crisis either.

As the Great Depression wrecked the US economy in late 1920s and early ’30s, Roosevelt’s Democrats brought together intellectuals, labour unions and ethnic voters (including African Americans in the north) in a coalition that saved the country. The key to their alliance was not pure ideological consistency, but an agreement on main issues and a coalition that was sufficient to win and to govern.

The latest example of a surprisingly good fit between the business and working classes, without a third party between them, is Brazil, whose economy is enjoying a stellar success under President Lula, himself a former union leader.

And it should really make sense from Cosatu and the DA’s corners: Cosatu will truly have to throw away everything it believes in to remain in the alliance with the party that is now moving in a direction that will put them at odds on each and every substantive issue facing the country. Should it chose the DA as a partner, Cosatu would benefit from the skills the DA has acquired in successfully running the Western Cape, its well-organised infrastructure and a full line-up of experts willing to help. And that’s just the beginning. The DA would, from its side, finally shed its image of being a “white” party, making the alliance itself the first political grouping that would transcend race in this country. Ever.

Strangely enough, a Cosatu/DA alliance would be very good for the ANC itself. If it’s to retain power or not, the ANC will have to focus again on what its true mission is. By default its politics will have to migrate from the current behind-the-door showdowns between warring internal factions, which appear disinterested in the real problems facing the nation, to really delivering on electoral promises. Through that process, the ANC would have a chance of returning to the great party it once was. Nothing sharpens a party’s focus like an election that could be lost.

But if Cosatu, and the SACP, continue fortifying the ANC’s power, the ruling party will complete a process of transformation that will inevitably deliver populism as its main driving force, a prospect that could truly devastate South Africa.

Dear reader, if you’re still sceptical, we understand. The Cosatu/DA alliance is probably just a political fantasy scenario. But desperate times require desperate, though brave and bold solutions, like a President Vavi and a Prime Minister Zille.

By Branko Brkic

Read more: The Crossroads, Part I: Cosatu’s dilemma.

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