Unstable Democracy – disruption needed again to ensure the centre holds

By Raymond Suttner 21 January 2020

Professor Raymond Suttner. (Photo: Madelene Cronjé / New Frame)

Post-apartheid democracy has become unstable insofar as many key institutions have been hollowed out and do not serve democratic objectives. At the same time, the country is gripped by a range of social problems, very often involving violence in the home, street, schools and other places. We need stability but of the kind that enhances our freedom, with space for all to contribute.

This article first appeared on Creamer Media’s website: polity.org.za

At the inauguration of post-apartheid democracy, there were some fears for stability, though these related to the old regime and the far right and indeed some conspiracies were uncovered, and generals were dismissed. There were occasional court cases in the years that followed.

But generally, in the present, substantial threats to the stability of South African society and democracy do not emanate from the extreme right or apartheid diehards.

There is a threat, and it takes multiple forms, not the conventional one of an uprising of one or other type. There is a constant sense that things are falling apart – not just in conventional security issues but all over: bridges collapse, buildings crumble, roads are overrun by floods, hurricanes and gale force winds strike, school children die in unsafe waters or in school swimming pools, others are stabbed to death, teachers are stabbed or shot on school premises, guns and drugs are commonplace in schools.

No one is safe anywhere – on the streets, in cars, at home and at work. A great deal of sexual harassment and assault takes place in the workplace. Complaints are often suppressed or dismissed because of the hierarchies of power that make it difficult for those who suffer injury to have their violations adequately addressed.

There is a range of acts of violence and destruction that remain unexplained and often referred to as “mindless”, as with the destruction of trains on a massive scale and to a significant extent trucks transporting industrial goods. There are drive-by killings in Melville and violence is an everyday matter, in the Cape flats and numerous other places where gangs rule or have a strong presence, with security forces having limited oversight. I cannot explain much of what happens, but terms like “mindless” or “senseless” reduce it to irrationality, when there may well be reasons to be found, once we dig deeper.

When Yeats wrote that “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold…” (The Second Coming, in The Collected Poems of WB Yeats, MacMillan 2 ed 1950, pages 210-211), it was an insightful statement that has been drawn on in many contexts. But we are not talking of one centre in South Africa today, or something happening or absent at the top only. We need to look at multiple sites where institutional power does not function or operate for the benefit of the inhabitants of the country – in the national government, provincial authorities, local government and in local level traditional leadership.

There is a deep sense of the collapse of state functioning as an effective way of serving the people. Insofar as these institutions are still in operation, it is seldom in the interests of those who are meant to be served. This was given judicial imprimatur when the High Court ordered the Eastern Cape provincial government to dissolve the Makana municipality in Makhanda (formerly Grahamstown) for failing to carry out its constitutional duties to provide services to residents. The court action derived from campaigning of the Unemployed People’s Movement and broader popular support.

At a national level the threats relate to conflicts within the ruling ANC, tearing the organisation apart as a political leader of society. The ANC is no longer a significant political force, in the sense of providing a political vision or leadership to society at large. In full view of the public, its leaders attack one another. Some of this leadership have been fingered in allegations of State Capture, through bypassing processes of state functioning in order to loot.

For those who have looked to electoral alternatives to the ANC, whatever one may think of the DA, it is now in disarray and could well disintegrate. The EFF, from often being a bearer of constitutionalism in the Zuma era has, in recent times, been implicated in many cases of alleged fraud and diversion of funds. It has also resorted to threats and acts of violence, anti-Indian racism and other brands of cheap but dangerous populism.

The economy, Eskom and climate change

At the present moment, the economy is in decline in a range of ways, with zero growth, massively increased debt, that will be hard to repay, and unemployment of over 40%, most highly represented among the youth. I use the expanded definition of who is unemployed since those who have given up looking for jobs are just as unemployed as those who are counted because they are still job seekers.

There is a threat of total relegation to junk status by the rating agencies. Whatever one thinks of rating agencies and their conservative political orientation, junk status will increase the cost of borrowing in an already heavily indebted state. That will leave still fewer resources for those in need of developmental solutions.

Much of the current crisis relates to the destruction of Eskom’s capacity over many years, preceding State Capture and wholesale looting of the Jacob Zuma era. There is a fear that unless that capacity is restored the economy will collapse and it has already been hard-hit by power outages in the last few years, causing substantial losses to big companies and driving smaller ones into bankruptcy or threats of that.

There is a real possibility of the country slipping into “total darkness” in the sense of loss of all power from the national grid.

The problem that arises is what measures are taken to ward off this danger and enable the economy to continue to function, wheels of industry to turn, shops to be open and working without expensive diesel solutions. Obviously, we as inhabitants of the country are also entitled to light in our homes. But there is no democratic, inclusive debate on this matter.

Eskom has always relied on coal, and in recent times there has been a very limited entry of renewable sources. It has been shown that renewable energy, especially from the sun and wind, can be produced more cheaply than fossil fuels and can be put into the grid fairly quickly, much quicker than it was at an earlier stage. It will also create new jobs, though a fuller debate will enable us to assess how this relates to the decline of mining and the effect that increased use of renewables will have on mining jobs.

There is strong resistance to this discussion and opening to renewable energy at the level of the Energy Ministry. There is a range of bureaucratic obstacles to the opening of space for renewable energy, and this may not simply be ministerial arrogance. It appears that the coal industry, as in Australia and the USA, is linked with various public officials. Ferial Haffajee suggests this: “Its procurement budget is still large and trade union members are said to have cornered coal and coal transport contracts for family members. The fixes on the Medupi and Khusile power stations are going to need big budgets, and political patronage networks are lining up for these. These networks are believed to have their lines of support on the party’s NEC which explain why Eskom is subject to such a tussle.”

If the recovery of our energy supply is to continue on the current almost exclusively fossil fuel trajectory, we are en route to an Australian climatic future. Even now, there are more and more changes in our weather patterns, with hurricanes, gale-force winds, flooding, extreme heat and drought on a scale and intensity that is unprecedented.

Some of these conditions are creating havoc with the lives of the poor, with shacks being flooded or blown over and advice to people to avoid lighting flames. Avoiding the use of fires is sensible, but how are people – without access to electricity – to cook and keep warm, those who are consigned to shacks after more than a quarter-century of democracy?


If our society is in disarray in various ways, we need to create some measure of stability. The word stable is seemingly neutral, but it is also controversial. It does not appear in the index of any of a range of political studies books or dictionaries of sociology or keywords I consulted. The word connotes certainty, predictability, regularity and a range of qualities that one associates with a sense of security, that one knows what to expect from life, that in a stable condition no unforeseen disaster will arise. Medically, where danger has passed, a person is often said to be in a stable condition. They are not in danger of losing their life. In conditions of unrest, the situation may be said to have stabilised where there is a reduction of tension to the point where the danger of continued fighting has been reduced to minimal.

Alternatively, the same word can and does have a conservative connotation referring to ensuring the continuation of certain qualities in institutions, society at large, in a marriage, in a family etc. There is no danger to the existence or continued operation of these institutional or social conditions, but that very stability may be undesirable, insofar as they may represent conditions of life that connote long-standing inequality and excessive respect for hierarchies of power.

As a working understanding, I would suggest that stability is good if that which is stable is founded on freedom, respect and similar qualities. If a condition of life ensures individual freedom and freedom from arbitrary attacks or arrest, being in a stable condition is good.

But it cannot be sufficient if the stability that is achieved at any one moment is finalised and not open to debate, development, improvement and enlargement. In other words, at the same time as one needs to stabilise the freedom that has been achieved, freedom is a concept that is not static but ought to be open to continued expansion of what is possible for people to do in order to improve the conditions of their lives and their own self-realisation as free human beings. The very freedom that we value cannot be stabilised in a fixed, finalised form, whether in the Constitution, the law or any other document. Post-apartheid judicial doctrine generally recognises this very well.

Where one exists under a democratic constitution, as we do, a range of institutions need to function in a manner that advances its values. A range of people, especially in government, have to do things that are in conformity with the principles, specific stipulations and values of the Constitution. There must also be room for other individuals, outside government, to make inputs into decision making in order to influence the development of democratic life.

Democratic life needs a level of certainty, but one more ambiguous word, “disruption”, points to another quality that is needed for an emancipatory society, that innovative developments that disrupt understandings may well contribute positively to democratic life. The onset of democracy in South Africa was itself a disruption of life as it had been known under apartheid. Disruption which often has a negative connotation, as in someone being a (negatively) disruptive influence, could be used positively in order to explain that some developments entail a disruption of stability, the stability of the previous apartheid order in our case.

In contemporary South Africa, when engaging with the multiple crises we face, we need to be engaged with, defending and strengthening the freedom that we have and simultaneously building on, augmenting and enhancing this in order to make lives more fulfilling. DM

Raymond Suttner is a visiting professor in the Faculty of Humanities, University of Johannesburg, a senior research associate at the Centre for Change and emeritus professor at Unisa. He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities. His writings cover contemporary politics, history, and social questions, especially issues relating to identities, gender and sexualities. He blogs at raymondsuttner.com and his Twitter handle is @raymondsuttner



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