South Africa


It’s time for the law-abiding middle to take ownership of South Africa

Soldiers and police confiscate looted goods in Alexandra, Johannesburg on Thursday, 15 July 2021. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla / Daily Maverick)

The political and socioeconomic crisis in South Africa has not arisen by chance. It is a result of liberation-movement populism, that protects entitlement and impunity. There is going to be a rough ride ahead, but there are approaches that can lead to a more inclusive, more functional society.


Greg Mills heads the Johannesburg-based Brenthurst Foundation. Ray Hartley is Research Director at the foundation.

From the blazing shopping malls of KZN to the hapless condition of the police, we are seeing evidence of the state of the ANC and South African politics. In the rampant lawlessness and selfish opportunism, we have glimpsed the abyss into which we are plunging unless we change direction.

It is a world of economic desolation, of an impotent state and of racial polarisation, which shares much with the Venezuelan slide except that the government there still wields power.

However, if we raise our gaze from the ashes, we will see that we can recover and even emerge stronger. But this will not happen without a seismic change in our political alignment. The failed politics of the past decade must be set aside and the opportunity to build a new consensus must be seized.

In the immediate term, the government will, with the help of the private sector, gain back a measure of security and social control. The damage, however, has been done and the criminals that have extorted at the margins have come out of the shadows to occupy a central role in deciding what business must pay in order to proceed.

This situation has not arisen by chance. It is the consequence of liberation-movement populism, according to which entitlement and impunity go hand in hand. A zero-sum mentality pervades along with an unhealthy dose of 1960s ideology. The ANC’s policy confusion reflects the polar division across the South African political landscape, between populist redistributionists, as exemplified by the EFF, and the pro-market constitutionalists epitomised by the DA. To the right of the DA lurk those who preach dangerous ethnic sermons. The ANC’s attempts to span liberation-movement populism and constitutionalism left it organisationally paralysed and directionally schizophrenic.

There are two short-term opportunities for resetting politics in a more positive direction.  

In the first, President Cyril Ramaphosa takes command, displaying leadership, getting tougher and putting policies in place that will ensure growth while reeling in state expenditure.

A second opportunity provides more. In this scenario, the constitutionalists recognise the severity of the crisis and put aside their differences to return the country to the rule of law.

The DA, which should see a surge in support at the local government elections — unless the RET faction can get them postponed — would be an attractive partner for the pro-market, pro-growth constitutionalists in the ANC.

The DA would likely accept this scenario, simply because there is no way that it will gain an electoral majority in the next generation of SA politics. But it could conceivably be the broker of a different future, underpinned by values of respect for the rule of law, non-racialism, and the economy shared with the ANC’s constitutionalists.

The alternative is truly too ghastly to contemplate: The ANC turns to its corrupt RET faction and the equally corrupt EFF to form a coalition of the lawless that makes our current predicament seem like a picnic.

The unravelling of the ANC between these two poles of the RET faction and the constitutionalists will quicken if former president Jacob Zuma stays in jail. And if he doesn’t, the RET faction will take this as a victory.

For the country, like the ANC, there is going to be, either way, a rough ride ahead, but there is no question which rough patch leads to a more inclusive, more functional society.

What South Africa needs is for the law-abiding middle from across political parties to stand together for constitutionalism and the rule of law. The construction of an effective criminal justice system that can act to protect life and limb and that can put the criminal syndicates who run these anarchic disruptions behind bars will have to be a priority.

We need a mature democratic system where the parties that support the rule of law and economic reform are in charge. There is simply no alternative. DM


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All Comments 30

  • Agree Greg, let’s hope the DA give the constitutionalists in the ANC their support without resorting to petty politicking. Time for all to put the country first.

    • But when we come out of this, it is important to remind everyone that this is a pure ANC failure…else we will be stuck in the same place forever.

      • It certainly is an ANC made catastrophe. Nobody forget that. Ah! There is one point…. The MEDIA was all for trashing the DA for years, they are complicit in reducing the DA vote in the last election with their nit-picking attacks.

    • He has delivered remarkably well considering the thread-thin balance of power that has existed in his favour for most of his term as President.

      • I agree with you Paul. From what I read and see, much of what he has done has been on a precarious razor edge which results in chaos or stability. For me, the jailing of Zuma was just one of these he has been forced to juggle with. I am hoping that some political analysts can outline Ramaposa’s path in this light so that people can understand how carefully he has had to tread.

        I may be wrong, but it seems to be logical.

        My dilemma though is whether to vote for him to keep him on his diplomatic path or to vote for the opposition DA to empower a coalition in that direction. I would like to read more debate around that too.

        • Ramaphosa is only one person in the top bunch. They can remove him in a flash and then your “vote for Ramphosa, he is a good guy” reason is just smoke. Vote for the party that is best, fancy tactical voting is wishful thinking. The DA is and will be the best party to get SA right. DO NOT REWARD THE ANC FOR THEIR FAILURE!!

          • The DA has nothing to offer other that failed neo-liberal economic perspectives.

      • Agreed, to a point. He could have – and should have – delivered more than he has. The reality of the breaking of a basic contract between people and ‘the system’ points unblinkingly to that. It is time for him to choose between his party and the people. I’m not holding my breath.

      • A few perspectives: CR was elected on a unity mandate. Unity between communist/fascists and constitutionals is ultimately not possible. CR has a project to tip the balance to the constitutional side. A big component of this has been the Zondo commission. The report will land later this year, should enable him to neutralise many people, and complete the tip. Second factor is the municipal elections, now against the background of the riots and their instigation. This should force many traditional ANC supporters to at least re-evaluate their automatic loyalty. I cannot predict the outcome, but I expect it will compound the pressure on the party. A split is looming, with the stronger side remaining. The EFF is waiting.
        Hold on for the Zondo report.

        • What time warp are you living in Louis? The SACP has been among the fiercest defender of the Constitution and the most vocal against corruption.

  • It is also up to the people to stand up and be counted. The vast majority did not partake in this looting. They (all of our marginalised population) now need to stand up together and tell the government to pull out the finger and get on with fixing this place and getting criminals where they belong. They fought for this country – the fight is not over yet.

  • The elephant in the room is that we have all failed. Social justice is not going to come about through a trickle down consequence of an unfettered market approach to the socio-economic system. The ‘capture’ of those like Nelson Mandela, Tokyo Sexwale and Cyril Ramaphosa by the neo-liberal narrative is the main reason for the mess we find ourselves in. Clean and efficient government is a necessary but not sufficient condition for attaining social justice. So yes, let the middle come together, but it can’t be to sing from the same old hymn sheet.

    • Clean, efficient, non corrupt government with accountability is however the very very basic prerequisite, and hence it is completely correct to focus on it. Just imagine what social systems could be in place now had the ANC not stolen absolutely everything…

    • Absolutely. The country needs a new deal, not platitudes. I am hoping that this starts with the local elections. We cannot allow them to be postponed. If the people can unwedge the ANC with the kind of coalition that would also check the DA’s neoliberal agenda, but employ their ability to govern, we – as a nation – are winning.

      • Stop peddling the “DA has a neoliberal agenda” myth. Ever bother to read up about the DA policies?
        “The party’s economic policy is also broadly centrist, and supports a mix of high spending on crucial social services such as education and health care, a basic income grant, and a strong regulatory framework, with more “moderate” policies such as a lower budget deficit and a deregulated labour market.”

        • So I would agree that the DA does lean into neoliberalism, embracing the best parts of it, while also providing the safety nets needed in their policies. Neoliberalism is not necessarily a bad thing.

          • I guess it’s a matter of definition. The current definition seems to exclusively concentrate on the worst outcomes and is being used to demonize some parties, mostly without any proof.

        • Karl – what is the source of your quote? I have researched various DA policies on various occasions. “A deregulated labour market” is of course a prime characteristic of the neo-liberal agenda.

    • The neo-liberal plan might have worked had it not been for over a decade of pillaging of the state. I think you grossly underestimate how much growth happened during Mbeki’s years (a man who clearly embodied the neo-liberal approach), and how much decline happened during Zuma’s (the corrupt populist), and how the ANC has become so corrupt that stealing is the norm within the ANC, although CR is starting to take action against that.

      In regards to trickle-down economics, by this point it’s fairly clear that the rich get richer and the poor don’t get much of a leg up under those kinds of systems if they’re left unchecked. Our systems should always be focused on putting in as many safety nets as possible for the poor, but how do you do that when the state, even under Ramaphosa, bleeds money left and right with very little of where the money is going (well, we know where it’s going – into the pockets of people in local and national govt)?

      • Rowan – how was this growth measured and who benefited (as far as I can tell a lot of people who were already comparatively comfortable became even more so)? Why do we still have one of the highest income disparities in the world? Why did we not put better social security measures into place during those boom times or improve the primary and secondary education systems? Yes, we can’t blame the DA for that, but do you honestly think that they would have done anything different?

  • I intend to continue voting for the DA, whilst sympathising with Cyril Ramaphosa, who is a GOOD man. He has taken the high road, the clean road, the road less travelled, in the corruption-riddled ANC. Hopefully our future will consist of strong, corruption-free coalition parties.

  • It’s absolutely essential to the long term survival and prosperity of this country that all political parties that are founded on values, morals and ethical conduct need to put there difference aside and form some form of coalition that can take the majority of the citizens I not there confidence….we need to prioritize and create decent jobs, proper shelter…so the poor can have a dignified life….there is so much work to be done….there shoul be low levels of unemployment….and the unions need to be part of the solution…rather than a stumbling block …only interested in the short term with huge wage demands….rather a quarter loaf than none at all….

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