South Africa


Beyond the roller coaster ride — whither South Africa?

Beyond the roller coaster ride — whither South Africa?
(Photo: EPA / Nic Bothma)

Given the systemic risks facing our society, South Africa urgently needs a national agreement, or social compact, that enjoys wide support among major role-players and broader society.

Like being on a roller coaster ride, South Africa has been thrown into a vortex of contradictory emotions by news events of the past fortnight: the arrest of executives allegedly linked to corruption at Transnet, a criminal case laid against President Cyril Ramaphosa for issues related to the robbery at his Phala Phala farm, and the Dubai arrest of the alleged kingpins of State Capture. Add to this the ominous threat to the director-general in the Presidency and things become, to quote Alice in Wonderland, curiouser and curiouser. 

The public square of social media has naturally gone into hyperdrive. Subjective self-interest may inform the responses, especially to the Phala Phala matter, by various role-players. But there is also genuine concern in broader society because South Africans hope that those leading the renewal project are, like patriarchal expectations of Caesar’s wife, utterly above suspicion.

Amid all this, the question begs serious consideration: shorn of personalities, what is the strategic moment in which South Africa finds itself and what are our collective tasks as a society? 

As has been said before, the beneficiaries of corruption and State Capture will not give up without a fight. And we are at that strategic moment where matters are coming to a head, with the final report of the commission on State Capture about to be released and with law enforcement agencies now pouncing. The battle of wills and for domination of the public narrative has been joined, and things are bound to get nastier. 

The strategic moment is about how these battles are fought and, consequently, in what state South Africa emerges at the end of these furores. Reforming governments are, by definition, delicate as they strive to correct past wrongs. They are at their weakest when they also have to manage a polycrisis such as the current risks generated by Covid-19, the war in Ukraine, natural disasters and attendant socioeconomic difficulties. This is partly because the confluence of crises lends itself to opportunistic exploitation by those opposed to reform. 

And so, how the country manages all this is fundamental. It requires that we pay attention to detail while not losing sight of the strategic national objective, which is the realisation of the political and socioeconomic ideals enshrined in the Constitution.

The details of the moment, however, also throw up a multiplicity of objectives among the main political players. 

The first category of objectives relates to those who seek at all costs to avoid paying the price for their nefarious deeds, even if it entails attempted insurrection, as was experienced in July 2021, or other forms of destabilisation of the current administration.

In the context of the 2022 African National Congress (ANC) national conference, these forces seek to attain a continuum of possibilities: to remove those fighting against corruption and State Capture or to surround them at the seniormost level in a way that renders the renewal project ineffectual. The existential alternative for them is the prospect of orange overalls.

The second category of objectives is associated with the “natural” role of opposition parties to oppose and undermine the incumbent. It appears, at times, that the contraption that emerges from this does not matter to the actors as long as it helps to bring them into or closer to political office. Many of these parties hope for coalitions or informal support in confidence-and-supply arrangements at national and provincial levels after the 2024 elections. Within some of these parties are individuals who are dead against the renewal project because of their own conflicts with the law and who see their salvation in a partnership with ANC elements in the same boat.

The third category comprises those who seek renewal of the state and society at large – to strengthen state institutions, ensure accountability and place the country on a higher growth and development trajectory. 

There may also be local elements outside of the political arena – and possibly a motley crew of foreign interests – who believe that a weakened centre-left political school of thought in South Africa may be an opportunity for profit maximisation or for narrow geopolitical designs. This is informed by a calculation that episodic and opportunistic policy formulation that attaches to volatile coalitions may be easier to manage and control. 

And so, the setting in which South Africa lands at the end of all these developments could either be a decisive movement forward to attain the objectives contained in the country’s Constitution or societal fracture. The choice may appear obvious, but the question is how to emerge out of the current rut. 

Given the systemic risks facing our society, South Africa urgently needs a national agreement, or social compact, that enjoys wide support among major role-players and broader society. 

Such an agreement should include, first, a revamped Reconstruction and Recovery Plan with a clear implementation programme. The plan should outline not just the long-term benefits, but also, the contributions and sacrifices that each of the partners is expected to make. 

Second, there should be a commitment and decisive action to strengthen the capacity of the state to lead in the implementation of the compact. This means, among others, an effective and efficient bureaucracy and state-owned enterprise sector. 

Third, the compact should be underpinned by the rule of law, accountability and a commitment to act against law-breakers, including those identified in the reports of the commission on State Capture.

In addition to the current social partners, the process to develop such an agreement should also involve players outside the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac), including the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu), political parties represented in Parliament, small and micro-entrepreneurs and representatives of unemployed workers. In electoral terms, the principles underpinning the agreement can be used to assess parties and candidates taking part in the 2024 elections.

While society has diverse political preferences, the current strategic moment requires that these should be underpinned by the collective national interest. Personalities do matter, and individuals who seek leadership should similarly be judged in relation to the common strategic objective. And it is a given that no one is above the law: whoever is accused of wrongdoing should be investigated without fear or favour. 

In other words, as we ride the roller coaster, we dare not lose sight of the strategic moment and its implications. Our task is not only to avoid social implosion but also to place the country on a new development path. The choice is ours and it is about all of us. DM

Joel Netshitenzhe is the executive director of the Mapungubwe Institute and a member of the ANC National Executive Committee (NEC). He writes in his personal capacity.



Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Craig B says:

    A social compact with a corrupt government. It’s better that government cleans up that mess itself. The rest of us are too busy surviving in spite of poor governance across the board.

  • Lothar Böttcher says:

    “While society has diverse political preferences, the current strategic moment requires that these should be underpinned by the collective national interest.”
    Who or how can this “collective national interest” be held high where *all* citizens can see it clearly? Which “personality” or institution or affiliation has the moral integrity to tell us, the citizens, what our collective national interest is?
    Small things such as rule of law on the roads, functional and efficient government institutions, and other fundamentals all need to work so every citizen understands their civic duties and responsibilities.

  • William Kelly says:

    Meh. Nothing new, just more hollw wishful thinking and nice sounding words…hope it makes him feel better at least.

  • Dennis Bailey says:

    In other words, the same old same old with same people driving. Sorry, but we don’t trust the ANC any more than we trust the alternatives. All our current crop of politicians are found wanting in the extreme. None has imagined a future that focuses on the sustainability of the planet, of equal opportunity in a land whose resources belong to all, that protects the most vulnerable from thieving scoundrels in parliament. Basic minimums of the constitution we already have.

  • Sara Gon says:

    As the architect of BEE, Netshitenzhe has no place talking about compacts, opposition co-operation. and business buy ins.All we want to see is the ANC out of power and while it remains in power, hire the private sector to get it out of some of its mess. Stop faffing with feel good irrelevancies like social compacts and programs. Govern properly or get out of the way.

  • Dave Reynell says:

    The bus has left (or the ship has sailed). Irreparable damage has been done. The ANC are no longer capable of governing and the barbarians are at the gate.

  • Linda Holding Holding says:

    Well said Joel. SA needs to collectively draw up a National Manifesto!

  • Sydney Kaye says:

    We don’t need any more compacts. Compacts don’t fly when different people have different agendas. We need an honest capable government with rational proven business friendly policies and the toughness to impliment them, and well criminal justice system and security agencies with educated and experienced leaders.

  • Miles Japhet says:

    Too true. The private sector has the will and the means to create economic growth but government has to create an enabling environment. BBBEE legislation needs to be removed amongst much else for reasons that ate now obvious in terms of so many unintended consequences, chiefly skills flight and corruption.

  • Craig Cauvin says:

    Very nicely written Joel- and the answer seems painfully obvious, doesn’t it? The trick is to get from where we are now to some version of where any thinking South African knows we should be without the big bang ex…/im-plosion. It would take a level of unity I believe we are yet to see in SA.

    Just not sure I see anyone in the current or emerging leadership landscape with the skill, the personality, the vision or the drive to make it a reality.

    And then you have the electorate…

  • Hilary Morris says:

    A very good article which seemed to promise some hope for the future, until it starts outlining what the agreement requires from us all. Basically what it requires from the ANC, is precisely what the ANC has shown over the last nearly three decades that it has neither the will, the capacity nor the leaders to implement. Mr Netshitenzhe may as well ask that we all fly to the moon on nothing more than our own steam. Big sigh – it should be do-able – just not possible under the ANC rule.

  • Tebogo Phakwe Phakwe says:

    Mr Netshitenzhe, a government that works for all, that is able to the meet basic needs of its citezens is what we all need. We need a state that will protect us from real or perceived threats. What I read in your article is a lot of kumbaya and nothing that addresses the challenges we all face, nothing that prepares us for what is coming. I can tell you now that the clear and present danger to this country’s economy, governance and the rule of law is your organization the ANC. I’m not saying by removing the ANC from power will solve solve our problems overnight, but that will be a starting point. I’m not discounting the fact that there are individuals who are good in the ANC, there are plenty of them actually.

    It will be very naive to think that the ANC will stand by and allow comrades to go to jail, that won’t happen. The real ANC is now a group of powerful and wealthy individuals with vested interests in all sectors of our society. I appeal with those good men and women still left in the ANC to stay put and manage the implosion that has already started.

  • R S says:

    How do you agree to a social compact when half the country appears to be a gangster state that is happy to function like a mafia? See what the taxi industry is doing to the bus industry.

  • Confucious Says says:

    Let’s be honest; when the government comes crawling to the private sector for help (cap-in-hand unashamedly), it’s socialism/communism coming to capitalism for help. Yet, as they ask for this help, they are busy stealing from, accusing, pointing fingers and killing off etc… the private sector.

  • Gerrit Marais says:

    The scariest part is that, this is coming from an ANC NEC member. The situation is obviously beyond dire. May the Gods help us, as there appears to be no other solution.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted