Hope or hopelessness? The factors influencing South Africa’s political near future
While the short-term focus of most of our politicians is naturally aimed at the local elections and the outcomes they may bring, a growing set of trends is becoming apparent. They may well shape, or even define, our future over the medium term.
South Africa’s ever-increasing inequality and poverty, the possible resuscitation of Eskom, the renewal process in the ANC, the DA’s possible boxing into a tighter ideological space and the growth of smaller parties could have a big impact on our future.
Making predictions is a difficult business, particularly when our politics move so swiftly. That said, certain identifiable dynamics could become very important in the near future.
The first two are obvious: the fact that so many people are so much poorer than they were just two years ago, with its twin sibling, the re-entrenchment of deep inequality.
The consequences of this could be the defining feature of the next five years. Many people are angry, having lost trust in the government and other institutions of democracy, along with a visible weakening of social cohesion.
For many who live in townships, there is a serious risk of the explosion of interpersonal violence. The pandemic has seen the rise of protection rackets in many parts of the country — like in Khayelitsha, where residents are told they have to pay “protection money” after purchasing a new TV. In one case, a young woman was told she had to pay money to “protect” her new weave.
These types of groups will be hard to dislodge.
Those in the middle classes may suffer more property-related crime.
This ever-increasing poverty, anger and frustration will also lead to more calls for a basic income grant (BIG) as a panacea.
While the ANC itself has not taken a hard decision on this, and Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana has indicated his opposition to it, the pressure over this issue will only grow.
This week Defence Minister Thandi Modise, during an interview with Newzroom Afrika, became the latest senior ANC leader to say she supported a BIG because increasing social spending and strengthening our society is an important way to protect people.
This of course is also related to our immorally high inequality.
This might lead to more strain with people demanding more financial help from those who have the means.
As a result, one of the biggest debates in the next 12 months could be around BIG, to the point where it is implemented.
While this debate is raging, it appears that the conversations on the restructuring of our economy, the structural reform which has been necessary for so long, have simply abated.
What then finance minister Tito Mboweni described as his “hallelujah moment” in 2020 has simply disappeared. Even the promise by President Cyril Ramaphosa to ensure that the new spectrum for mobile phone data would be released has fallen into the never-ending morass of court action.
For the moment, there is no evidence to suggest that the president’s reforms will become a reality.
The only hope that this may change is if Ramaphosa feels emboldened after a presumed victory at next year’s ANC leadership conference and empowered to carry out a proper reformist agenda in the real world, where the people of South Africa live.
This may be a slim hope.
One of the major longer-term problems behind the shrinking of our economy has been the electricity shortage over the past 13 years.
While there is Stage Four load shedding this week, there may be some hope on the horizon. It is clear that the maintenance carried out on the power stations, which is contributing to the current load shedding, should also prevent more load shedding in the future. The consequences/benefits of the decision to allow proper embedded generation, to allow companies to produce and sell their own electricity, may soon be felt.
Perhaps in the next four years, there may be an end to load shedding. This would remove one of the most important constraints on our economy.
While these dynamics around our economy are crucial, so is one of the dominant political trends of the moment.
One of the main tasks the ANC has is the process of “renewal”. While there has been some change, there is also still a huge amount of pushback.
Perhaps the most important political event of the past three years has been the suspension of Ace Magashule as secretary-general and the implementation of the ANC’s “step aside” resolution.
Since Magashule’s suspension, ANC office-bearers who have been charged criminally have stepped down. This is a major development and appears to be becoming more entrenched within the ANC. This will also almost automatically ensure it happens in other political parties too.
However, major challenges remain within this process.
As Justice Malala has noted, people who have lied, like Malusi Gigaba, people who have ensured the near-collapse of the SABC, such as Faith Muthambi, and someone who worked actively to help the Guptas, such as Mosebenzi Zwane, are playing a major role in the local elections. They are interviewing the party’s candidates for mayor in different provinces.
This shows how big the job is. Someone like Dr Zweli Mkhize feels obliged to resign from the Cabinet because of the Digital Vibes scandal, but feels comfortable remaining in the ANC’s National Executive Committee.
Early next year the Zondo Commission report will be made public, and how the ANC deals with the findings against those implicated may help determine whether it can continue with the process of renewal.
Meanwhile, the growth of newer, smaller parties is likely to continue. It is entirely possible that both the ANC and the DA will lose some of their support to other parties.
This might make our politics less predictable and less stable.
What is impossible to predict is whether service delivery in local municipalities will improve, or get worse. There are too many dynamics at the local level to make any kind of prediction on how this will play out. Pressure on politicians to deliver may grow, however, which could lead to better outcomes in the medium term.
All of this suggests that the pressures within our society are bound to grow over the next five years. What is less certain is how the politicians will respond, or even if they can respond.
While it is unlikely that there will be a pandemic in the run-up to the next local election, it is not certain that the pressures our society is under will necessarily ease in any significant way. DM