“Fragile democracies have one advantage over solid ones: they know when they’re over” — The Edge of Democracy.
Across the world, a contagion has spread. It has attacked parliaments and legislatures and senates and congresses, wiping out centuries of democratic precedent. In our own little post-colonial vegetable patch, much of this goes politely unmentioned. In particular, the death of British parliamentary democracy has passed almost without comment — a silent scream of subconscious panic that seems to ask: if it can happen to the old boss, what chance do we stand?
None, as it turns out.
Every death is different, and each is tragic in its own way. But the root causes are consistent throughout.
First, the gilded-age-level distinction between rich and poor has become so extreme that our societies are no longer sustainable.
Second, power accrues solely to the wealthy and/or their corporate benefactors, resulting in electoral processes that launder front companies into office.
Third, modern technocratic states are staggeringly complex machines which are by design distancing and alienating — citizens no longer feel empowered or able to influence their own lives.
Fourth, retail politics demands that the divisions inherent in any group of people — race, religion, gender, sexuality, class — are relentlessly exploited for gain at the market place, ie polls.
Fifth, that exploitation has become weaponised, initially by cable news and now by social media, resulting in iron-clad — if entirely empty — tribal standoffs between “right” and “left”, with their competing and inviolable “truths”.
We are thus in the middle of a global revolution, waged as a series of palace coups by the ruling elite. Consider Brazil, where a corruption scandal was used as cover fire in order to depose a leftist government, ushering in Jair Bolsanaro’s far-right suicide cult.
In South Africa, the site of democracy’s demise is, of course, Luthuli House, where the ANC is ripping itself to shreds in a manner so vicious that the fight will soon start spilling on to the streets.
(Already dozens have been killed in politically motivated violence, but no one yet from the governing elite, the mainstream press or the financial stratosphere. That part is coming soon.)
South Africa’s authoritarian pathogens are by no means restricted to the ANC, but within it they find their perfect expression. One faction of the party is run by a Z-grade warlord from a farming province, whose stupidity and greed have turned out to be fungible assets in a party defined by stupidity and greed. The other faction is led by a businessman who bought his presidency for the price of a decent private jet — the classic example of a self-anointed princeling who soars millions of light-years above the daily experience of his people.
What are they fighting for? That’s a good question. For Ace Magashule (along with the rump of former president Jacob Zuma’s faction, and their EFF allies), it is an economic battle pursued on identitarian lines: public and private sectors in their entirety must be owned and operated by the state, and the beneficiaries must be black Africans linked to the ruling party — a network of patronage and predation that fans out across the country, slurping up every last cent in its path.
Also, they are fighting to spend the rest of their lives out of the slammer.
For Cyril Ramaphosa and his cabal, the fight is for something more esoteric: a developmental state that is non-racial in nature, a gorgeous melange of public and private working in lockstep in order to enrich the entire country, person by person.
The problem with the former approach is obvious. The problem with the latter drags us, kicking and screaming, back into South Africa’s democratic transition. Good governance concerns much more than the curtailment of corruption — primarily, it must be a vector for inclusion. Instead, South African democracy was premised on exclusion. With property rights and land ownership reified in the Constitution, and with a financial system ballasted by Western-style private ownership, tens of millions of mostly black people were destined to be locked out of the formal economy.
This could have been ameliorated by good policies rigorously pursued — agricultural programmes that combine long-term land tenures with state investment; housing initiatives that actually address migrant-worker displacement; the dismantling of colonial-era sweetheart deals for “traditional leaders”; the disbursement of unused state and corporate-owned land in a coherent manner; a living minimum wage; a corporate restitution programme.
But nope. For the past 25 years, the ANC has allowed the formal/informal tracks to rot alongside each other. During the mind-boggling plunder of the Zuma era, every last state-owned entity was robbed into insolvency, and then beyond. Literally, at this moment, only a single SOE — the Post Office — could stand on its own rickety legs without a billion-rand bailout, and it has just chased away its turnaround specialist CEO.
Weirdly, the commentariat still seems to speak of the Eskom crisis in terms of solutions plural, but there is only one available solution (insofar as anyone would term it that): the power utility has already collapsed the South African economy, rendering it little more than a reanimated corpse lurching towards an IMF bailout that will be as brutal as it is inevitable. As always, a structural adjustment will be premised on privatisation and tens of thousands of job losses, resulting in a war with the unions that will a) sabotage and destroy most of the remaining viable infrastructure and b) deepen the violent populist impulses that are already rife across this land.
Fun fact to keep in mind: Eskom did not “fail” — it was deliberately and wilfully broken.
Meanwhile, corporate South Africa — once a shining exemplar of well-regulated capital accumulation that for decades quietly off-shored its profits — has gone full drunken pimp. The JSE is a joke, the punchline of which is “Naspers”. Some of its largest companies have turned out to be Ponzi schemes, while the captains of industry — not that we have any industries — are firmly aligned with the Ramaphosa faction.
To wit: with all the Zondo/Nugent commission blood-letting, (and ignoring for a moment the Public Protector’s two-bit shakedown tactics), perhaps the most important document recently puked into the public domain was the affidavit Ramaphosa submitted to Busisiwe Mkhwebane’s offices, detailing the finances of his non-campaign campaign for the ANC presidency. With no apparent embarrassment, Ramaphosa sought to prove that his team raised so much money that he could not possibly have noticed R500,000 gifted to him by Bosasa (a company so vile and corrupt that only in South Africa could it remain a going concern). News24 has recently demonstrated that Ramaphosa was indeed involved in raising cash for his campaign. But then there was the amount CR17 managed to raise: roughly R440-million, allegedly equalled or exceeded by the opposing faction.
That’s nearly a billion rand for an internal ANC election campaign in which open campaigning is by tradition forbidden.
South Africans are so news-addled and punch-drunk that this number barely caused a murmur, mostly because the EFF and the Democratic Alliance are equally guilty when it comes to raising scads of dark money for mysterious purposes. But just take a moment for the facts to sink in: Ramaphosa spent R440-million, a chunk of which constituted a personal contribution, to buy himself the presidency.
And he’s the good guy?
That said, it should come as no surprise to anyone that the ANC’s internal democratic processes are a sham. One of the legacies of the transition was a Big Party political system that should have been subjected to electoral reform at least a decade ago. As a result of this rigged-for-corruption model, the parties have become either spectacularly money-soaked or spectacularly broke, but always spectacularly useless.
The DA is a laughing stock with its own oligarchic fanbase; the EFF is the reactionary black nationalist wing of the Zuma/Magashule ANC, and a budding patronage mafia in its own right. (Together, following the coalition age that arose from the 2016 municipal elections, it has managed to further trash Johannesburg and Tshwane — proving that the only thing either of them can govern is a Camps Bay piss up, but not without nearly burning down a mansion in the process.)
With no viable competition, South African democracy, such as it is, unfolds within the ANC. This has proved — there’s no other word for it — catastrophic. A patronage syndicate at war with itself cannot govern: unemployment has ticked up to 29%, easily one of the highest official rates in the world. The economy is unable to grow, but neither can it evolve — a far more important metric of success. Centuries of plunder has denuded much of South Africa into a wasteland that is all but uninhabitable; the gentle term “water scarcity” is employed to describe swathes of a country from which climate crisis refugees will soon flee in bedraggled lines, headed for cities that cannot support their numbers.
Meanwhile, the courts are a proxy war zone for elite factions, and law enforcement at any level remains a good concept in theory, but nearly impossible in practice.
Truth matters. It matters deeply.
But it can only be fostered under certain conditions — namely, where institutions like the presidency and oversight mechanisms like the public protector’s office remain intact and are inhabited by people untainted by corruption, foolishness and incompetence. Think of former president Jacob Zuma’s obscene submissions to the Zondo Commission, a long list of lies and bullshit that only added to the man’s ignominy. The word spy — impimpi — is back in circulation.
This coded term was dropped for one reason: to get the blood flowing, in the veins and on the streets.
What, then, comes next?
Much like Russia following the end of the Yeltsin regime, this country can no longer sustain several large warring factions, to say nothing of their off-shoots, adjuncts and spin-offs. It’s a zero-sum game.
In other words, South Africa, on its current trajectory, will soon become a mafia state led by a solitary don who has wiped out the competition. In the post-bailout chaos the new capo will have to pull the great Russian trick of formalising the informal sector and informalising the formal sector, ensuring that all rents flow to one source, and that everyone is subject to the same implicit tyranny.
On paper, the two main sides are fairly evenly matched. But in pure realpolitik terms, Ramaphosa is not backed by the law so much as bound by it — because he professes loyalty to the Constitution, he can fight using only formal structures. This, as we have learnt elsewhere in the democratic world, is not a winning strategy.
The opposing side has what we’ll call here the power of negation — the power to destroy offices and institutions merely by inhabiting them for a few months. This was Zuma’s genius, and it is his gift to the faction that bears his legacy into a brave new future. Mkhwebane is their current standard-bearer — she is, for all intents and purposes, the final public protector, whose job it is not to hound Ramaphosa into the wilderness, but to destroy her office for whomever comes next. Fact-based reality can’t last in the face of these people, because truth doesn’t put food on the table — often, it does the opposite. What does it matter if the judiciary is not captured, when it feels like everything is captured by some malevolent force from the bog?
And so next comes our Putin, the figure who will embody left and right, up and down, light and dark, formal and informal, legal and illegal, truth and lies, beef and chicken, liberalism in all its amorphous possibilities but authoritarianism in practice.
As the writer Peter Pomerantsev noted of modern-day Russia:
“The Kremlin’s idea is to own all forms of political discourse, to not let any independent movements develop outside of its walls. Its Moscow can feel like an oligarchy in the morning and a democracy in the afternoon, a monarchy for dinner and a totalitarian state by bedtime.’
The ANC has done fairly well at this by default. Soon, it will become the movement’s bread and butter.
The man most likely to succeed in this environment is… drum roll… Julius Malema. In the weeks and months to come, we will learn much more about the EFF’s operations, many of which — bank robbing, for instance — are clearly illegal. That said, there is already enough material in the public domain to put him behind bars for years. But who will pursue him into the populist abattoir? The Hawks? The timorous, mouse-like National Prosecuting Authority? Ramaphosa himself?
Consider the optics of Malema in chains, and work backwards from there.
Lots of the same old people will stay wealthy under our Putin. Others will be stripped of their wealth and resources so that it can be spread to incumbents faithful to the new don. In other words, the same old shit, just differently positioned. If you’re poor, you’ll certainly notice the difference. If you’re rich, it will all depend on your ability to grovel.
That’s how it ends. Not with a bang, but with a case of Moët and a cheque with eleventy-leven zeroes.
Much like doffing a hat to a lady or tipping a car guard, democracy is a custom. In South Africa, as with so many places in the world, that custom is on the brink of disappearing. We can try hanging on, but that would require the man who bought the ANC pulling his head out of his ass and getting to work. Sadly, Ramaphosa has a bad case of the global contagion that has afflicted the old-school genteel liberal centrists — he believes that history is weighted in his favour and that it always arcs towards justice, as Martin Luther King Jr said.
He should bone up on his history. It would remind him of what happened to Martin Luther King.
It takes care, intelligence, hard work and — above all — good faith to tend to a democracy. None of that is possible within the ANC of today. And so South African democracy, always imperfect, is dead. What comes next is just a version of what came before. DM