First published on polity.org.za
There are a range of developments happening simultaneously at the moment that throw a disquieting light on any democratic and potentially broader emancipatory project in South Africa. Some of these do not receive much attention in media coverage or political discourse
There is a sense amongst very many people that their lives have not improved significantly since 1994 or that some qualities of dignified, safe and reasonably comfortable existence have been denied them. I used to argue, in the early years, that things had utterly changed in some rural areas which had previously had no access to water -other than in often polluted rivers- and electricity or where people had previously had to travel long distances to the nearest white town in order to telephone someone. They would previously see the telephone and electricity wires above their townships going from one white town to the next. (Guest Essay “A Conversation with Raymond Suttner: Reflecting on a Decade of Freedom in South Africa”, The Australasian Review of African Studies, 27:1, June 2004, 8-17)
Some of these changes had implications beyond the increased access to basic needs, improved physical health and wellbeing. Access to water in taps, freed women and girl children from fetching water from rivers and in some cases, patriarchs destroyed the water pipes. They did this because women, while standing around the taps, discussed political matters and in the early years of democracy some were elected-for the first time- to office in councils and other structures.
In some cases, those gains have remained or been extended but, in many, there have been setbacks especially in maintenance of clean water, electricity supply, access to healthcare, land and shelter. With the now extensive use of mobile phones, the performance of Telkom has been a less significant factor than it was 24 years ago.
In some cases, new threats to realising these rights have emerged or resources to carry out the obligations have been squandered or have not been used or there has been insufficient or inadequate human capacity or in one or other way what momentum there was in the early years has not been sustained.
The failure to meet constitutionally required provision of basic needs has become almost systemic, in that many people have been waiting for two decades and plans have been developed but never implemented or as we have seen with school infrastructure, responsibility has been evaded for one or other reason over a very long time. (See Faranaaz Veriava on a recent court victory, while relating the stratagems indulged in by the Department of Basic Education, to avoid meeting basic rights)
In response we now see protest action on any given day, often on the same issue, in places thousands of kilometres apart. Usually there is no organisational connection between protesters in one place and those in another. There is little sustained organisation in most of these protests. They are not bound together by a common programme or ways of understanding.
Under apartheid people protested or engaged in insurrection in order to create a society and state where their rights would be respected. In present-day South Africa they protest, often for some length of time because they are not enjoying rights, which authorities are obliged to provide because that is what the constitution demands. Just as the ANC and its allies denied that the liberation struggle was for civil rights, which implies that these are rights that citizens are entitled to access, now people are demanding what are in fact civil rights, in the changed post-1994 constitution.
Studies show that inequality between rich (mainly white) and poor (mainly black, referring to Africans, Coloureds and Indians-especially Africans and women) has widened and we are the most unequal society on earth. What was supposed to be remedied or substantially mitigated has been left unattended or partially addressed and then left unfinished after 24 years.
In the early years there may have been situations where there was a case of “chasing numbers” in providing some basic needs, without training local people for maintenance. Thus, where water pipes are blocked, very often those who can repair these are located many kilometres away and what could be repaired locally, requires skills that put the resource out of reach for an unnecessary period.
In some situations, failure to meet obligations has been due to incompetence or lack of capacity or lack of will where budgets have not been spent. In some cases, this has been a result of corruption or state capture. Whatever the reasons may be there are very many people who do not see post-apartheid South Africa as having provided significant changes in their living conditions. They also appear, increasingly, to have lost confidence in the present state having the will to remedy these situations or correct the setbacks.
While the inauguration of representative democracy in 1994 generated an upsurge of hope, many have grown cynical or hostile and do not cherish expectations of improvements in their lives in the now, not so new South Africa. Protests and especially violent protests are a sign that people do not have confidence in the available processes in order to secure state action to improve their lives. They do not see or are not told of procedures that ought to unfold and can be relied on to open up remedies that will be realised. There is a sense that there are substantial blockages preventing improvement in their basic living conditions and they consequently, relatively frequently, take things into their own hands, albeit often without a plan beyond manifesting frustration through wreaking destruction, or what media call “mayhem” or going “on the rampage”.
The Cyril Ramaphosa project
It is well known that Cyril Ramaphosa was elected ANC president with a small majority last December and much of what he has done or not done, appears to be resulting from the need to maintain his support base. Despite this qualified support, there has been commendable, albeit uneven work towards regularisation of state practices, notably in cleaning up State-owned enterprises and re-instilling respect for the Rule of Law. (See Natasha Marrian casting doubt on the extent to which people are in fact being held accountable, an article unfortunately behind a paywall)
There can be no question that the Treasury must be defended, and irregular expenditure brought to a halt, whether in terms of corruption or the wider attack on state sovereignty referred to as state capture, where powers of the state were illegally ceded to others who were able to make a fortune out of state resources.
On the one hand, Ramaphosa was and is vulnerable but on the other he needed to put a stop to the pillage. While we, as citizens of South Africa must be cognisant of these constraints it is undesirable that the needs of citizens should be held to ransom by intra-ANC factionalism that needs to be managed in order to maintain Ramaphosa as ANC and also state president.
Even if some cabinet appointments were an attempt to show even-handedness by including those who had supported the candidacy of his ANC presidential opponent Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, what is the value of appointing people who have demonstrated no capacity to do work, honestly and competently? This is especially important where they hold portfolios which address socially vital issues.
Remove corrupt and incompetent ministers!
Some of these appointments are people who have shown themselves to be unable or unwilling to perform their tasks and in some cases ones who are alleged to have been involved in or overseen departments involved in large-scale corruption or state capture. Their retention in high office implies continuity, a case of “Zumaism without Zuma”. Their presence is at a time when the signal that needs to be sent if there is any “new dawn”, is that of rupture with what went before and dispatching of some people to the “outer darkness”.
If Ramaphosa is to assert his leadership, he needs to act and stare down the potential threat that the removal of these ministers might constitute. In truth, most or all of these have no real constituency that they bring in support of this new government. Their removal would not destabilise the government more than their presence means that people are holding portfolios where they are not performing often vital tasks.
The President, the ANC and Traditional Leaders
It is important to compromise or show adequate respect to a range of stakeholders. But if the ANC has a policy of redressing land hunger, how does the president justify his excessive deference to King Goodwill Zwelithini and other traditional leaders, in various statements from the earliest days of his election as ANC president? The traditional leaders have a place under the constitution. But they are not hereditary rulers, governing parallel to or sometimes in place of the democratic state, but subject to its constitution.
The King and the managing of the Ingonyama trust has been contrary to the constitution and to the detriment of erstwhile small land owners. (See Aninka Claassens). How can the president of the country rush down to the King to assure him that his powers under the Ingonyama trust are sacrosanct, when many legal opinions argue that the act is unconstitutional and that practices conducted in the name of the act are illegally usurping rights of those living in the area? (Abuses are found in other parts of South Africa, especially mineral rich areas, where Traditional Leaders sometimes make deals with mining companies over land which belongs to the community.)
The entire episode where President Ramaphosa left all his duties in order to reassure the king about the Trust was disquieting, not simply because it was inappropriate and ill-judged but also in his reaction to the photo of him kneeling. He responded that that was an old photograph where he was showing the king his book displaying his high-quality cattle.
The president needs to be advised to be more self-reflective on such questions, and to consider how others see what to him is a harmless gesture. How does the president think a displaced former small landowner or one paying exorbitant rent will react to a picture of the president and the king exchanging notes on their respective conspicuous consumption? Is this display of his cattle wealth to the King demonstrating sufficient sensitivity to the ANC’s claimed constituency of the poorest of the poor?
Credibility and balance
Ramaphosa does not seem to be focused on the range of issues that are explosive in the country at the moment. A few weeks ago, he said that “in two weeks” there would be a significant change in the situation where people found themselves under great pressure from price hikes. How could he make such an undertaking? Unsurprisingly, the period has passed without significant results. There are periodic instructions to ministers to attend to this or that and report speedily on how it will be remedied. The power of these instructions has now diminished in the public eye, with the exception of the important steps taken to clean up the state and state-owned enterprises. Even here, we know that the damage done by state capture will take long to repair and few have, thus far, been held accountable. (See Natasha Marrian article).
The president, the government and the ANC need to focus on investment and raising resources to meet a range of commitments. But there needs to be a balance. One gets the impression that there is little compassion towards the poor, those who are causing “mayhem” on highways because their shacks are being torn down. Why are they still in shacks? Why are these torn down? What is the plan to remedy their situation and that of many others facing situations of poverty -including de facto 40% or more joblessness, and extensive homelessness? There are few recreational facilities for the high number of youths who are unemployed, and this is a fertile ground for the already high levels of crime.
The answer to state capture includes rebuilding democracy.
The Zuma project was an attack on the state’s capacity, ensuring that the Guptas and their allies had inside knowledge and power over appointments and decisions. It was thus also an essentially anti-democratic project. In a sense, state capture was a form of treason, usurping the powers of the democratic state in order to achieve undemocratic goals.
The response to Zumaism cannot be purely at the technocratic level in cleaning up, important as that is. There needs to be a democratic vision, where those who are currently protesting, throwing rocks and destroying a range of other things-have a sense of hope. (It is disquieting to see a KZN MEC feeding into this disillusionment and despair by suggesting that protests be banned and see the response of Right to Know)
“The term ‘Hope’ writes Ana Cecilia Dinerstein “designates a desire for change and a belief in a situation that is better than the existing one.” She refers to the work of Ernst Bloch, which she says portrays hope as the most genuine feature of what makes us human. “Hope is not fantasy, faith, optimism, or wish, but rather the strongest of all human emotions….In this view, hope possesses a utopian function, which enables us to engage with the ‘not yet’ dimension of reality that inhabits the present and can be anticipated here and now. Hope in this sense is wilful rather than wishful: it informs people’s concrete endeavours to forge a better life.” (“Hope” in Keywords for radicals, edited Kelly Fitch, Clare O’Connor and AK Thompson, AK Press, 2016 pp 199,201).
People will recover their hope for a better life if the president and his government demonstrate that they are concerned about the poor, through a vision, which includes a series of steps to remedy the problems that ought to have been addressed over the last 24 years.
Whether Ramaphosa and the ANC can stay the course in realising these goals remains to be seen. The ANC may still win the elections in 2019, but it needs to evoke some sense of enthusiasm, amongst its support base and the public at large. But it may well be that this is a task that cannot be left to the ANC or the ANC alone. It also seems that no opposition party is advancing a vision that excites the imagination of the population at large, who remain in large measure an oppressed people. That type of organisation, despite the urgency, needs to be patiently built. Its task is nothing less than reconstructing the democratic order in South Africa.DM
Raymond Suttner is a scholar and political analyst. He is a visiting professor and strategic advisor to the Dean of the Faculty of Humanities, University of Johannesburg and emeritus professor at UNISA. He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities. His prison memoir Inside Apartheid’s prison was reissued with a new introduction in 2017. He blogs at raymondsuttner.com and his twitter handle is @raymondsuttner