South Africa


Five political trends that define where South Africa is going

ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule, Photo: Leila Dougan / EFF leader Julius Malema, February 12, 2019 (Photo by Gallo Images / Sowetan / Esa Alexander)

A week is a long time in politics, said former British prime minister Harold Wilson. In South Africa, it sometimes seems as if a day is a long time. But look beyond the frenetic news cycle and longer-term trends are emerging.

It is by now clear to almost everyone that South Africa’s news cycle, a quick succession of fast-paced developments, is moving at a frenetic rate. Political events appear to have adopted a frenetic pace, much faster than they used to; the “breaking news” announcements are coming almost daily.

There are many reasons for this, many of them because of the breaking up of the political dispensation that governed from 1994 and the weakening of the fundamentals that are designed to underpin it. Still, it is important to examine the longer-term trends that are being played out, to look at the impact they are having, and try to understand how our near future will be shaped.

In June 2018 this writer suggested there are at least four key trends that show where we are going. These four were, in no particular order:

  • the rise in importance of “non-national identities” (such as class, race, language and so on);

  • the federalisation of political power (the move of power from the national centre to the provinces and in some cases the cities;

  • continued acceptance of immoral behaviour by politicians (and the resultant lack of accountability); and, of course,

  • continued racialised inequality.

Just one year on, you would expect all these trends to still be with us, and indeed they are. But it is worth examining if the dynamics around them have changed in any way.

It is also important to consider adding another trend. In this case, the “new” trend would be a strongly motivated and frenetically executed campaign against institutions which enable people of South Africa to make fact-based political decisions.

In other words, there is a massive effort underway to delegitimise the media, mostly referred to as the “mainstream media”. This newly opened front could have important consequences.

It is sometimes hard to evaluate the change in how people define their identities and realities. It is not obvious to an outsider if someone is “feeling” more or less South African or if the language they speak is now more important to them than it was a few months ago. But one can examine some of the possible consequences of these feelings through incidents that occur. In other words, if there is an upsurge in protests for municipalities along linguistic lines (as happened in Vuwani a few years ago) then one can say with certainty there has been a direct link between the two issues.

However, the past year or so has possibly seen fewer incidents like this.

Perhaps the most important leader who is not officially aligned to any national movement (in other words, is not a member of a political party or religious group with a national organisation) is King Goodwill Zwelithini. While he has publicly objected to the proposed changes to the way the land under the Ingonyama Trust is administered, he has not appeared to garner any more support than he already had.

Meanwhile, for the first time in a decade, there is a leader at the national centre in President Cyril Ramaphosa who has actually tried to promote a fully South African identity. His use of many of our languages while speaking, his attempts to unite people rather than divide them, may well be having an impact. This could still be a small impact for the moment, but could, over time, have a sizeable cumulative effect.

However, this effort could be partially weakened by the continued federalisation of political power.

This process has been underway since Nelson Mandela took the oath of the presidential office in 1994 and it appears unstoppable. Over the past year, it has probably increased the pace as ANC provinces and mayors in the big metros continue to take as much power as possible.

In some cases, incidents over the past year have displayed the weakness of the ANC at the centre.

A good example of this is the case of Andile Lungisa. While he is a councillor for the ANC in Nelson Mandela Bay, he is part of a coalition under the UDM’s Mayor Mongameli Bobani. The ANC’s Eastern Cape province told him to resign. He refused. The ANC’s national executive committee has asked him to resign. He has refused. This means that the ANC at a national level is unable, in some cases, to line up local ANC official, a massive sign of weakness.

There is some evidence that the DA suffers a similar problem. It has had at least one mayor who has refused to resign, despite being instructed to by the party.

It is still, of course, evident that racialised inequality has not changed for the better over the past year. It certainly still is a fact that almost all poor people in South Africa are black.

However, what may be making this situation worse is an apparent loss of hope about growing the economy for poorer black people who have no prospect of getting a job. When Ramaphosa came to power he promised a “social pact” between government, business and labour. This has not materialised so far.

As a result, it would seem that economic reform, of the sort that would actually arrest the decline and give a fighting chance of growing the economy and create jobs for poorer people, is now further away than it seemed a year ago. This surely intensifies a situation in which a handful of people have a lot and most have very little, if anything.

Certainly, the prospect of any change here appears to be a very long way away.

This brings us to the trend of continued acceptance of immoral or criminal conduct. Here it may depend on how you see things.

The ANC’s appointment of people such as Mosebenzi Zwane and Faith Muthambi as chairs of parliamentary committees does not suggest that there has been any change in this regard.

However, if it is true that arrests of people accused of wrongdoing during the Zuma era are imminent, then perhaps this could be about to change. If you have lost hope on this issue then you will think things have only become worse.

Then there is this final, new(ish) trend, that we should add to the collection.

Over the past few months, there has been a sustained and organised attack on media organisations which belong to a vanishing bunch trying to report the truth. The political dynamic that has been seen in the UK and the US of “post-fact politics”, where facts don’t matter, where people “have had enough of experts” is now very much present here.

Journalists who try to report on facts are attacked. Social media is literally weaponised against them.

It is now harder to report the facts (which means it becomes easier to hide facts), and second, the ferocity of the attacks on the media has made those facts less believed once they are published. Instead of journalists being asked questions about how they arrived at certain facts and conclusions, they are asked questions about their identities and perceived ideologies, along with a mind-boggling variety of conspiracy theories.

In the longer term, this is bound to be bad for democracy. At the same time, it is a type of attack that is hard to fight against and almost impossible to stop. Taking a pen to an automatic weapon fight is not a recipe for victory, or even survival.

The dynamics identified here are obviously not the only emerging trends and they will ebb and flow, with new ones emerging. For the moment at least, it seems that these five trends will play an important role in our immediate future. They are not easy problems to solve and some are nigh impossible. DM


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