South Africa

OP-ED

When the country seems ungovernable, Ramaphosa may become the fall guy – and the populists will win

President-elect Cyril Ramaphosa raises his hand to the oath during his inauguration ceremony at Loftus Versveld Stadium in Pretoria, South Africa, 25 May 2019. South African lawmakers elected Cyril Ramaphosa as president following the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party's win earlier this month in the country's general elections. EPA-EFE/YESHIEL PANCHIA / POOL

History has shown that populists and revolutionaries find their mojo during periods when there are multiple areas of dysfunction in the relationship between a political system and the society it is meant to serve. The evidence of this in South Africa is abundant.

If you watch television news, and follow images on social media, you will probably think that the country is going down in flames. From Tshwane to Alex and downtown Johannesburg, small businesses owned and run by immigrants from Africa and Asia are being looted and destroyed. There is bloody banditry on the country’s main transport networks that ends up in the loss of life and property. There is a growing sense that something, or someone, is behind the violence and destruction. Already there is the talk of a “third force” at work to make the country ungovernable.

What does seem clear, anyway, is that there are patterns to the violence, and that the strings may be pulled somewhere by someone. We cannot be sure. But nor should we slip into conspiracy theories…. What we can do is disaggregate the violence, consider the likely political forces that push and pull at them, and what nightmares may come from it all, when we pull all the evidence and speculative theorising together.

We can bat away popular conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theories find root in times of crisis and uncertainty. Of course, places like the US, where people have way too much time and money on their hands, provide fertile ground for conspiracies. The greatest appeal of conspiracy theories is the titillation. Some people build careers on building and spreading conspiracy theories. And there is no doubt that they can be fun – sometimes. It would be great, for instance, to imagine that Jacques Brel is alive and well and living in Paris. For the most part, however, they have to be avoided. And so, stopping short of conspiracy-mongering, what shall we make of the almost systemic violence that is underway in the country, and directed at foreigners?

There is only one political loser – Ramaphosa

If we set aside the physical destruction, the loss of property and of lives for another discussion, there is only one political loser in the violence that is spreading from the motorways of KwaZulu-Natal to the capital, Tshwane. That loser is Cyril Ramaphosa. By accident or design, the political axis of Jacob Zuma, Ace Magashule, Julius Malema, Irwin Jim, Neil Coleman, Zwelinzima Vavi and part-time revolutionaries in Cosatu and the SACP, are the winners. This populist revolutionary axis, an informal alliance, tends to share objectives. In no particular order, it starts with getting rid of Ramaphosa, people like Tito Mboweni, Pravin Gordhan and Lesetja Kganjago – among others.

The second phase would be to replace them with “revolutionaries” that can, once and for all, crush “white monopoly capital”, create a Marxist-Leninist state and nationalise the mines, commercial banks and, of course, the South African Reserve Bank. This Marxist-Leninism is at the base of Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), of Irwin Jim’s National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa; it drives Vavi, Coleman, and, when it can guarantee a personal pecuniary gain, Magashule and Zuma. This is, of course, speculative. But the conditions for such a takeover are becoming increasingly perfect, especially with the growing expanse between the state and the society it is meant to serve.

Conditions for a populist revolutionary takeover

History has shown that populists and revolutionaries find their mojo during periods when there are multiple areas of dysfunction in the relationship between a political system and the society it is meant to serve. The evidence of this in South Africa is abundant. For instance, there are recurrent service delivery protests, with massive backlogs and breakdowns in the provision of education, healthcare, housing and public safety. Public policing of violence appears to be failing, and the military was called in on the Cape Flats to try to quell bloody gang violence. One outcome is a low-intensity civil conflict between gangs and the security forces. The public service seems paralysed.

The state appears to be unable to establish the conditions for job creation, for growing the economy and spreading the gains of that growth more equitably. Whatever plans are placed before the ruling alliance, whatever their strengths or weaknesses, the axis members reject them for purely ideological reasons. The political system appears to be incongruent with the society it is meant to serve. Under these circumstances, pressures are building up. Can the state not intervene directly in curbing the violence?

State Capture beyond administrative functions

Under conditions of extreme social conflict, the state can deploy its security forces and, at worse, use violence to stop mass criminal or paramilitary activity. The South African state does not have the capabilities to intervene – at least not in an effective way. This lack of capabilities goes back to the removal of Thabo Mbeki (and rolling back the work done by Trevor Manuel at National Treasury, Tito Mboweni at the Reserve Bank, and Pravin Gordhan at SARS), and more brazen State Capture after Polokwane.

One vital aspect of State Capture, and of the Zuma years, has been the neglect of the military, increased corruption in the police force, and the transmogrification of the country’s intelligence community into a personal service for the protection of Zuma and his people. The neglect that has crept into the military is an abomination. The intelligence community may be the biggest danger to civil society. The key, here, is that until the Mbeki presidency, South Africa was on a growth path, but with important ministries and departments of the state failing to distribute gains to communities. Instead, they redirected funds to private pockets. This much has become clear over the past two-to-three years.

Under Mbeki, South Africa was (increasingly) functionally integrated into technological global political-economic systems and structures. To the populist revolutionaries, this is tantamount to treason… After Polokwane, the Zuma regime retreated into a quasi-tribalist nationalist polity, retreated (somewhat) from global integration (in functional terms) and almost completely lost the moral authority that South Africa had in international relations. Maite Nkoane-Mashabane, a Zuma appointee, presided over this, and she is one of the sleepers in the Ramaphosa Cabinet.

At home, the Zuma government steadily and increasingly failed to address domestic needs. Mbeki’s growth was squandered, and Zuma and his cronies simply looted whatever was left. This was how multiple dysfunctionalities between the state and society began to grow. This, history has shown, is when populist revolutionaries slip into power.

We are in a situation, now, where the state seem helpless; whereas the country was on a path to more purposeful participation in global political-economic and financial matters, more progressive regional and African integration, this project is now seen as “selling out” to “imperialism” (and the distinguished professor’s favourite new desideratum, “sub-imperialism”), and “white monopoly capital”; the President seems absent; pockets of violence are spreading across the country; there are most gruesome attacks on women and children, and the country, in general, seems ungovernable. This is fertile ground for the populist revolutionary axis. It is not inconceivable that the axis is satisfied with what is becoming systemic lawlessness – and the spreading gap between the state and the society it is meant to serve – and that this would serve their purpose of getting rid of Ramaphosa.

Above, reference is made to the Mbeki era of functional integration into the global political economy and global finance. While the country has been burning, so to speak, Ramaphosa has travelled abroad to re-establish South Africa’s role in world affairs. This is necessary, if the country has to return to a growth path with equitable distribution. The problem is that while Ramaphosa is away, and Mboweni prepares for the World Economic Forum, the revolutionary populists may, just maybe, be gloating over a country that is becoming ungovernable, which provides them an opportunity to take power.

That is not a conspiracy theory. Any reading of revolutions across history shows that when there is a growing divide between the state and society, and when modernisation (functional integration into the global political economy and global finance) runs too far ahead of the people, populists will pull the state back. This, it would appear, is where South Africa funds itself. DM

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