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Talking about the revolution: SA’s economic and polit...

South Africa


Talking about the revolution: SA’s economic and political stasis and the ways to end it

Illustrative image. Photos: South African president Cyril Ramaphosa during the swearing in of new members of the National Assembly and election of the National Assembly speaker in Parliament, Cape Town, South Africa 22 May 2019. EPA-EFE/NIC BOTHMA / ANC General Secretary Ace Magashule addresses the media, 6 June 2019. Photo: Felix Dlangamandla/Netwerk24/Gallo / A protestor fuels a burning barricade on a major road during an early morning violent protest in Eldorado Park, Johannesburg, South Africa, 08 May 2017. EPA/KIM LUDBROOK

Our many chattering classes often talk up the possibility of a revolution in South Africa, mostly led by the unemployed youth. What they invariably forget is that we have an important safety valve: A true freedom of speech and political association. The only movement that would jumpstart SA’s economy would most likely have to come from the inside the ANC. Someone has to win, someone has to lose.

The events of last week have once more revealed the deep and possibly unsolvable divisions within the ANC, this time on economic policy. At the same time, it is clear to everyone that our economy is in deep trouble: Growth has slowed down to a halt, unlike the number of unemployed young people, which has grown dramatically. It seems that South Africa is in an economic and political stasis. And yet, for the moment, both economic change and revolution do not appear to be on the cards.

This is not to say there are no economic solutions: There are plenty, but they are all held back because of political contestation. It is easy to blame personalities and individuals and interest groups for this. But it may be important to differentiate between the structural reasons and the personalities, because this might reveal whether this stasis will simply continue or if there is a chance to break out of it and thus bring some hope for the millions of unemployed.

If you remove all the personalities and all the names that are currently part of the noise around our economy, it is still possible to make certain structural points.

The most important is probably to say that economics and economic policy was always the rock on which the liberation movement was going to founder.

Liberation movements in general, and ours in particular, have often been multi-class movements; they include workers, the unemployed, teachers, doctors, lawyers, small business owners, everyone who was oppressed under the previous regime (in our case, apartheid). This is a large, unwieldy coalition of many class interests. And, as Moeletsi Mbeki has said, this coalition of class interests cannot agree to a single economic policy.

And so it has been here.

But what one would expect to happen is that either this coalition would fall apart or another movement representing a different group of class interests, but with a more narrow focus, would emerge to contest power.

That has not happened in South Africa, mainly because the ANC has been good at co-opting those who would achieve this. When the Congress of the People (Cope) was formed, Gwede Mantashe and others were able to contain it through a tried and tested carrot and stick combination.

When student protests started in 2016, the ANC moved in to take those leaders under its own wing and some are now in the party’s formal structures. Workers’ movements, which might have created a strong political party of their own, were also corporatised — Cosatu leaders are in Parliament under the ANC’s whip, some are in Cabinet, some former union leaders are rich businesspeople.

The glue that held them together for all these years: Power.

Thus, the ANC is the only game in town for those who wish to pursue that political power. It is because of this combination of vastly different interests that the personalities who clearly cannot work together find themselves in the top leadership structure of the ANC (like the top six national leaders, and the same applies to the NEC). They cannot leave because there is no other option. Worse, some people may now be afraid of jail, and so they have to fight with an intensity driven by survival rather than just a plain self-interest.

This creates a kind of death grip in the ANC: People who disagree strongly are tied together with the power superglue, and so they keep fighting. At the moment it appears that what is happening is that there are continuous tussles over power. When it comes to big decisions, both sides will accept some kind of truce just to get over the hurdle, to appoint a Cabinet or make a decision about a state-owned entity, or an NEC statement, or anything else.

They are perfectly aware that they have agreed to a five-minute truce, knowing that in 10 minutes they will be fighting again.

And in some cases, they will appear to agree to a truce only to sabotage it themselves just to gain a small advantage.

This is not because they want to do do this — neither side is happy with the five-minute truce. It is because they have no other option.

Part of this stasis is because the nature of our society makes it very, very difficult to form any other coalition of forces that could challenge the ANC (although, given enough time, the pool of potential voters for the Economic Freedom Fighters might increase).

The recent history of the Democratic Alliance shows how hard it is to forge a coalition of classes. This can appear to be all economic — our racialised inequality and the fact we have the highest inequality in the world must mean that our class differences are starker than in most other places. As a result, the difference between views on economic policy are starker and thus the disputes over policy are at a higher temperature.

In a situation like this, with more and more young people unable to find work or hope, one would diagnose our situation as ripe for some kind of revolution. That we would be one huge economic shock away from some disaster (say a dramatic increase in the cost of living for some reason).

But that does not appear likely either.

This is because unlike other countries where there have been revolutions recently (think Arab Spring, Sudan, and so on), we have an important safety valve: Freedom of speech.

In other countries where this has happened (and these revolutions were often linked to the cost of living and high levels of youth unemployment), there was repression. That is not the case here, and freedom of speech has become a value that appears embedded in our society.

As a result, political leaders are able to see if the temperature is rising in certain places. If they see and hear community leaders making arrangements for protests, if they keep tabs on comments on Twitter and talk radio, they are able to know that something is brewing in a particular area. By now, it must be possible to predict where protests will happen with some accuracy.

This allows them to act — to at least give the appearance of listening to that community, and thus cooling the temperature.

And this then means that it seems unlikely there will be some kind of full-scale revolution against the current government, or political structure, or simply the state of things. Tensions like these tend to simmer instead of boil over.

So all of this then, on a simple structural level, suggests that the current political and economic stasis will continue — that we are locked in.

This is where personalities become important. It is entirely possible for people, and leaders of factions, or people in communities, or others, to act in some kind of way that brings this stasis to an end.

But there is also another aspect to this.

In many other democracies around the world, there has been what looks like a move away from ideology, and the politics of the personality has become more important. In other words, if policy and ideology don’t matter, then it is all about the politics of the personality, and their push for power.

It could be argued that this has been happening in the ANC and that the current fight over the Reserve Bank’s mandate is merely the leaders of different factions jockeying for power. In other words, to introduce personalities to our analysis now, it is the Ace Magashule faction using this issue simply to weaken the President Cyril Ramaphosa faction.

If this is the case, and if the policy doesn’t matter and if it is only about post-ideological infighting, then it would seem that is unlikely that any kind of policy can be implemented.

Unless of course, something happens that dramatically shifts the picture. And by dramatic, it would mean that one or other faction is able to achieve a proper, comprehensive victory.

This then would return the ANC to the days when Thabo Mbeki was president, when one group of people was able to dominate economic policy. However, it is likely that the days of one faction being able to do that in the party are long gone. Its multi-class nature has found much more expression now; that clock will not be turned back easily. DM


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