The cacophony of our democracy, usually described as “vibrant” in foreign publications, can sometimes obscure the trends and dynamics that really matter. So loud the rhetoric and ferocious the discussion that what is happening behind the scenes, below leaders’ top level actions and spokespeople’s announcements, can be obscured. To an extent, that is happening in our country, with its current focus on who is in charge, is he really in charge, and will he really be in charge after the 2019 elections.
To overlook, or miss, the longer-term dynamics in any country could be terribly dangerous; the backlash to Barack Obama among white voters was largely underplayed, if not totally missed, for years before the election of Donald Trump. However, in South Africa there are now probably at least four key trends that will really determine and drive our politics over the next few years. They predict a future society that is more complicated and possibly more divided than we are now.
It is entirely possible that some of these trends could be stopped or diverted, and it is hard to establish how four of them will eventually combine.
It is also hard to determine which of them will prove the most important over the longer term. The four trends, in no particular order, could be identified as these: a weakening of the ethos of non-racialism (with an accompanying rise in ethnic chauvinism), a sustained tolerance of immoral or even criminal behaviour by politicians, the federalisation of power and of course our widening and still racialised inequality.
These trends, taken together, could be the key drivers of our future.
It is clear the fabric of our society that was based on Nelson Mandela’s non-racialism is beginning to unravel. Ebrahim Rasool suggested earlier this year that perhaps the most important dynamic of the last 10 years has been a weakening of the spirit of non-racialism. Ten years ago, a comment from a politician that he was going to “cut the throat of whiteness”, or an attack upon a senior government official based solely on their race, would simply not have been tolerated. Our society then, with the Mandela reconciliation era still fresh in the memory, would not have accepted such a comment. These days, instead of outright rejection of racism and intolerance, each time a politician says such a thing, our society grows more used to it, bit by one barely perceptible bit. Particularly in the face of a lack of criticism from the country’s top leadership.
At the same time, there is some evidence that the populace might be beginning to focus on their identity based on their language and particular community history, rather than on just class and their identity as South Africans. In Vuwani in Limpopo, protests over the last two years around a demand for a specific municipality appeared to have an ethnic element to them. It appears that one group wants a municipality just for itself. In KwaZulu-Natal, such is the political power of Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini that President Cyril Ramaphosa had to rush to him to provide an assurance that the land under the Ingonyama Trust would not be touched. Zwelithini also called on traditional warriors to defend his land, if there were attempts to remove it from his control. At the same time, it is also possible that some politicians may try to harness racism in the run-up to the 2019 elections.
In other words, we could start to see the way a person looks, or the language they speak, starting to play a bigger role in our politics than in the past. This will surely lead to division, and greater temptation to play to the base, rather than reaching out to new constituencies.
At the same time, there is also a set of strange temporary coalitions that this can lead to. Last week the group AfriForum met with King Zwelithini to discuss land. Their shared interest is obvious; both want to keep things as they are, in a repeat of the dynamic that led to the “Concerned South Africans Group” which involved the then Conservative Party (which was a party to the right of the National Party in the whites-only parliament), the IFP and the leaders of the Bantustan states. These coalitions can be difficult to deal with, because of their temporary nature, and the support they can sometimes generate.
Then there is what could charitably be called a tolerance of sustained immoral behaviour. The fact that Bathabile Dlamini is still in Cabinet despite her obvious immoral and probably illegal behaviour in the social grants payment scandal is an obvious example. Nomvula Mokonyane is still a minister too. Mosebenzi Zwane is still not in jail. Earlier this week the Gauteng ANC confirmed its members had voted Qedani Mahlangu into the provincial executive committee. And then the ANC leaders had the gall to defend that decision in public. All of this in a province in which it only won 54% in 2014. And then there is the fact that a man arrested for being involved in cash-in-transit heists who worked at Luthuli House is only a news story for a few days. There are many more examples of this. And yet the ANC does not appear concerned in the slightest. Its deputy secretary general Jessie Duarte still claims that “the conviction of comrade Tony Yengeni worries many of us in the ANC”.
The major problem here is that the ANC is not alone in this immoral behaviour. EFF leader Julius Malema could still face corruption charges in Limpopo relating to tenders also involving the then Limpopo Premier Cassel Mathale. His party is supporting Tom Moyane, the suspended SARS Commissioner (despite its wriggling in knots on this, there is surely no other way to see it). The party’s deputy leader, Floyd Shivambu, has been caught on video assaulting a journalist, and the party only defends him.
The DA also has problems in this regard. It was so desperate for votes in 2014 that it signed up King Bhuleyekhaya Dalindyebo, despite the confirmation of earlier court rulings that he was guilty of violent assaults.
The fact that all three main parties are caught up in this behaviour means that the electorate has no choice, there is no one clean and pure. That may be the case in many other democracies too, but in our case there is a certain intensity to this dynamic. This may have its roots in the fact that the criminal justice system inherited from apartheid is not seen as legitimate in the eyes of many people. The courts (and judges) remained the same after 1994, with the possible consequence that the entire system does not have legitimacy. This allows politicians to make claims against it, and weaken it further.
As yet, there is no indication that voters will punish the party concerned for this kind of behaviour. This suggests that people have become inured to scandal. In the longer run this could mean that some politicians/leaders will realise they can break through the boundaries of what is considered immoral, pushing them further into an oblivion. And in the meantime the potential for some government departments to be looted (again) or for government money to be misused will surely grow. If left unchecked, this could lead to a situation where government runs out of money – service delivery would then suffer, and the day could come when social grants could not be paid. Never mind the continued neglect of infrastructure that you already see daily in both small towns and big cities.
Within all of this is another important dynamic that may not necessarily be negative, but can complicate our politics to the point where it is difficult to effect any change. It is what could be the called the continued federalisation of power.
When Mandela came to power in 1994 the political centre was strong, big decisions could be made through consulting only the centre and that meant what is now Luthuli House. As a result politicians in national government had great power, and great freedom of political movement as the base of their legitimacy. That has now changed. The ANC’s provinces have grown in strength and power. Because of the influence they have in ANC leadership conferences, no politician with national aspirations can ignore them. The same process is now devolving into the cities – Herman Mashaba has risen to national prominence through his mayoralty in Joburg.
At the same time, as some people feel left out of decision making, or ignored by national government, so they are forming their political formations along local lines, often among people from the same area who speak the same language. Perhaps the most successful of these has been the African Independence Congress, the party formed to campaign for the town of Matatiele to be moved from the Eastern Cape to KwaZulu-Natal. It now holds the balance of power in Ekurhuleni in Gauteng, and may still be able to force the ANC to bend to its will. This kind of event would cause a headache for any party in government. It will have the impact of making it difficult for anyone to have a comprehensive programme and to be able to implement it.
This kind of dynamic could be replayed in many places. The ANC declined an offer from the EFF to form an administration in Nelson Mandela Bay earlier in 2019, probably precisely because it did not want to only be in government through the largesse of Malema, which would mean he would be able to call the shots there.
This type of development will have different effects that will be both positive and negative in the longer run. Usually, devolving power can be a good thing, because it stops any single group having a total grip on power. However, it can render implementing much-needed change much harder. And devolving power in this way can also give other politicians greater scope to develop their own power base, no matter how small. This could introduce a new short-termism into our politics that means problems will pile up with no hint of a solution.
It also means that preventing incompetent provincial and local governments from, say, educating children or running a health department, could get harder. Imagine if a province run by one party failed to properly educate children and national government run by another party tried to mount an intervention. That would surely be opposed for political reasons, with the result that ordinary people could suffer from this lack of service delivery.
And finally, there is what is still probably the most powerfully dangerous dynamic of them all, our generally racialised inequality. On Sunday the City Press newspaper published a report showing that the top of the corporate pile is still dominated by, yes, you guessed it, white men. At the same time, for many millions of people in this country, whether they be unemployed or mineworkers there is no evidence to them that apartheid’s economic system has ended at all. This presents those who want to use violence or other means to improve their lives, or simply to have a chance at a decent life, with the legitimacy to argue their case. Over time, it could be even harder to argue against using violence, particularly when people believe that it will actually achieve their aims (as it did, arguably, during the #FeesMustFall protests).
It is this dynamic that is probably the greatest danger to our democratic project. If it continues to intensify, and on the evidence before us it looks as if it will without a major intervention, it will lead to potentially catastrophic problems in the future. There is a prospect of a large group of people who simply do not believe the state, including the education system, the police and the social contract between South Africans, is legitimate. This will result in the state having to resort to use of force more and more often, with the possibility of continuous escalation.
Three of these dynamics can possibly be reversed. Racialised inequality may decline if there is strong economic growth (and that’s a big “if”). The move away from non-racialism could also be reversed through a sustained campaign by leaders to stop using racial language. And the continued tolerance of criminal or immoral behaviour could also be reversed, through a combination of ethical leadership and political consequences for parties that tolerate corruption.
However, the federalisation of power dynamic now appears unstoppable. The question may be only, how far will it go?
It is important to note, though, that despite all of the above, nothing in politics is inevitable. It is entirely possible that there are other dynamics that have not been identified as yet that come into play. And it is difficult to see how all four of the dynamics mentioned here will play out in conjunction with each other. But taken together, they do appear to provide evidence that there could be big changes coming in our politics in the medium- to long-term future. DM
"Every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone" ~ Mark Twain on Jane Austen