Analysis: Where to next, South Africa?

By Branko Brkic 30 August 2010

Barely seven weeks have passed since the end of the 2010 Soccer World Cup, and South Africa feels as though it has transferred into the twilight zone. From what was arguably one of the greatest triumphs of sporting capitalism in the world, the country is increasingly being squeezed between groups that either believe Marx, Lenin and Trotsky were right or that Venezuela's Hugo Chavez is the world's greatest living man. And being bullied into believing these are only two options on the table. By BRANKO BRKIC.

The last full week of August 2010 brought firm displays of power and determination by two antipodes within the ruling tripartite alliance: At one pole, the public servants’ strike raged across the country, accompanied by ugly scenes of dehumanising stupidity, and being greatly strengthened by Cosatu’s Zwelinzima Vavi’s threat to stop SA’s heartbeat. At the other pole, safely ensconced behind menacing bodyguards and security officers, ANC Youth League officials and national general council delegates plotted their way to greater influence of their own; influence that would result in changing of SA’s Constitution to bring their Chavez-like plans to reality, as well as to ensure hastening their own ascent to power. 

As we are writing this, President Zuma has ordered his relevant ministers to return to the negotiating table to break the strike deadlock, a move that may have been designed to bolster his weakened decision-making credentials. Still, sitting somewhere in the middle, almost nobody believes he would be asked by his own people to lead them for another term.

It appears that we are about to hit a fork in the road, and both directions offer a lousy future.

And yet, not everything is necessarily definite. Depending on how the events of the next 30 days or so play out, SA could be in for a surprise or two. The picture of our future is still developing.

But before we continue talking about what will paint that picture, and perhaps to understand the process better, let’s look at the events that led to the destruction of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia, whose long-time leader, Broz Tito, died in 1980 after leading the country and his party since 1945. In 1985, the communist cell of Belgrade elected a new boss, a little-known banker named Slobodan Milosevic. And as had been the case many times before, Milosevic became leader of Serbian communists in 1987, as his best friend and mentor, Ivan Stambolic ascended to the post of president of Serbia.

But in the same year, Milosevic, a career communist until then, turned nationalist, split with the official line and demanded an urgent and forceful resolution of Kosovo’s Albanian separatist problem. Where he encountered a problem at party level, he steamrollered the opposition, including his own boss and best friend, Stambolic. In the best populist tradition, while controlling the press completely, he stoked up people’s feelings of righteous anger and then organised so called “people’s revolutions” to replace the leadership of the provinces he needed to put into his column. (You are completely free to draw parallels with one Julius Malema’s consolidation-of-power tactics) His plan was pretty sound: He was to mobilise and organise his forces to become a majority compared to the “enemy faction” from Croatia and Slovenia, before the 14th Congress of the Yugoslav Communist Party in January 1990. He completed his master plan well before that date.

And his domination of the party’s congress was total. His people came to power, his policies became federal policies. At that moment, he thought, he was in control of the whole country.

Except that Croatian and Slovenian communists simply couldn’t and didn’t want to stay in the party  dominated by the polarizing and uncompromising figure Milosevic was. So they pulled out of the Federal party, effectively ending its existence.

By the end of the 1990, there were free elections in every Yugoslavian province and the communists were still clinging to power only in Serbia, after an election campaign marred by violence and intimidation. Suddenly, Milosevic’s master plan, so brilliantly executed, meant nothing anymore. His only way of thinking, through communist party apparatus, was simply outdated and no longer applicable to the entire country. So he turned to his last set of friends, the heavily-ideological Yugoslav Army for help in stopping the secession of Croatia and Slovenia.

The result was the bloodiest war in post-WWII Europe.

So why, you may ask, do we dedicate so much space to a loser politician in charge of a perpetually losing nation? Well, history is there to teach us something rather painful in this case.

The ANC and its partners are built very much in the same way, and on the same understanding of the liberation movement’s moral righteousness and total infallibility as was the Yugoslav communist party. As any communist party, for that matter. The same system of deployment wrought incalculable damage to country’s economy. The same near-total blindness to global developments and civilisational gains. The very same claims of exceptionalism. Especially where communist parties are concerned, history can teach a lot. The current antagonism within the tripartite alliance is a sure sign of a party that was running the country having gone unchallenged for way too long. So long, in fact, that the original idea around which the organisation was built has been long-relegated to largely fictional self-congratulatory statements about how great the country is and how well everyone lives. (Repeat after us: We have successfully completed the SABC’s transformation from the state broadcaster into a public broadcaster.) No, the glue that holds every organisation that has near total power is just that, total power. And if one side in the ruling alliance does not enjoy that power, the organisation will eventually have to undergo a major, sometimes crippling and always painful make-over.

So it is important to understand current events in the Cosatu – ANC – Youth League maelstrom through this historical perspective. Cosatu and the Youth League are motoring in completely opposite directions at full speed. Cosatu wants more socialism, Youth League chooses to follow an even worse path of cheap populism. But what is important to understand is that what happens within the ANC proper in the following weeks will substantially define the future of South Africa. By orchestrating his total domination over the Youth League and with his renewed push for his own agenda, Malema has pulled the wires to the point of breaking. And if his allies in the ANC leadership use the national general council to pull ever so slightly more in the same direction, it may render the alliance null and void, very much the same way as Milosevic did in 1990. In other words, if successful in taking over the ANC, Malema and company will probably win the battle, but lose the war.

Still, it is not an easy task being a Cosatu leader these days. On one side, one has to satisfy the raging members regardless of the waning popular support, and on the other, one has to find another way of attacking the ANC without explicitly stating that the alliance is no more. Vavi and company have a painful choice to make these days, one of becoming the power themselves or not. And if Malema’s line wins at the national general council, that choice will probably be made for them. The only remaining question would be whether to go it alone, or attempt a takeover of the ANC itself.

Next: SA’s future: possible scenarios. (With disclaimer, of course)

Photo: A composite – South African state workers seeking higher wages take part in a strike in Johannesburg August 26, 2010. South Africa’s top labour federation COSATU threatened on Thursday to sever its long-standing alliance with the ruling African National Congress and widen a state workers’ strike next week to key industries. Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko AND Julius Malema, leader of the African National Congress’s Youth League (ANCYL), speaks to the media at the ANC headquarters in Johannesburg April 8, 2010. The firebrand youth leader of South Africa’s ruling party made clear he would not be hushed on Thursday, demanding Zimbabwe-style land seizures from white farmers and promising to keep singing a controversial song. REUTERS/Peter Andrews.


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