South Africa


Why South Africa still has a chance

Why South Africa still has a chance
The National Planning Commission is embarking on a review of the National Development Plan’s implementation failures. Photo: A South African flag is waved on top of a building as thousands of supporters of South Africas national soccer team Bafana Bafana celebrate on the streets of Sandton during a parade of their team in Johannesburg June 9

While the decline and probable fall of the ANC may be disturbing, there is another important dynamic, which is that we are seeing the promise of accountable democracy.

There are increasing signs that the South African government is in office but not so much in power. This is not to say that it is powerless, just that it appears there is no single group of politicians who can exert their will. There are many signs of this, from the lack of progress in changing economic policy to the current weakness of the state, to the infighting in the governing party. 

While this may resonate with what is happening in other countries, such as Lebanon or Sri Lanka or even the US, there are also major differences. There are green shoots emerging that our politics is capable of renewing or regenerating itself and that the old barriers to real political change are weakening, albeit slowly. Key to this is the endurance of institutions like the Electoral Commission and the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA).

The signs of political weakness are everywhere.

The government has been unable to develop a comprehensive plan to manage our electricity needs. Unions have lost the ability to officially control the situation, with workers going on an unprotected (pretty well organised — ed) strike.

There is a deepening crisis of legitimacy within our police, as communities increasingly turn on them or even attack police stations.

The person in charge, legally, President Cyril Ramaphosa, has a few problems of his own. The revelation that he appeared to break SA Reserve Bank regulations by keeping a large amount of US dollars on his private property appears to have paralysed him. It certainly gives the impression that he is not able to respond properly to the Zondo Commission’s findings on those responsible for State Capture and those who are still corrupt in our state.

Ramaphosa, then, plays for time, insisting that the nation waits for four whole months before responding.

In the meantime, the newly elected leader of the ANC in Gauteng, Panyaza Lesufi, says publicly he wants the party’s National Executive Committee (NEC) to respond more quickly and decisively to problems.

On the day he says this, one member of that same NEC, Derek Hanekom, calls another, Tony Yengeni, a “moron” on Twitter, while Yengeni publicly calls on Ramaphosa to step aside over the robbery at Phala Phala.

Then there is a Cabinet minister, Dr Aaron Motsoaledi, who has claimed that there is a “dictatorship” of NGOs because of their legal challenge to the decision to end the Zimbabwean Exemption Permits. This same minister has been caught on video telling a political meeting that foreign nationals are “rascals”.

This may well reveal a deep sense of paranoia within the government, and perhaps the ANC.

At the same time, the cost of living is skyrocketing. The prices of food and fuel are going up dramatically as the end of the pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine perpetuate the underlying inequality and poverty of our economy.

SA is not alone…

We are, of course, far from being the only country in this position.

In Lebanon, a political crisis has unfolded over several years as the cost of living has gone up dramatically. Its inflation rate for May was 211%.

In Sri Lanka, there is such an acute foreign exchange shortage that only emergency services are allowed to buy fuel.

In the US, the country is now so divided that a Supreme Court with a low level of legitimacy is able in just one week to strike down a state law around restrictions on carrying guns and remove a right held by women for more than 50 years.

The crucial difference

But there may be a crucial difference between these countries and ourselves.

While we are in a difficult position, there is important evidence that our society and our politics are capable of renewal and regeneration.

One of the reasons the ANC is in the position that it is, is because it has not brought fresh energy into its top leadership. A brief look at its top six national officials, and even the average age of Cabinet members, will reveal this. If it can renew itself, if it is able, for example, to introduce current Gauteng Premier David Makhura to its national leadership (as Lesufi has hinted should happen) then it might be able to remain in power for a while longer.

But, as the party is finding out, it is not the totality of our politics. Instead, we are seeing the rise of organisations that are beginning to challenge the status quo. These include the EFF and ActionSA.

Many may not like their politics or their leaders or their agendas. But the point remains: our society will create new organisations if those in power are not serving their interests. This suggests that if there are repeated failures by our governing classes, the pressure on them will increase until eventually there is change.

And our political system, that of proportional representation, may be key to this.

The African Independent Congress was created as a direct response by the people of the town of Matatiele to a decision to change the provincial boundaries around them. They created a party and it won some political power. For a time it even held the balance of power in the metro of Ekurhuleni.

This is very different to Lebanon.

There, elites rule through a system where parliamentary positions are settled through sects, where the position of Speaker is always a Shia Muslim, the President a Christian and the premiership goes to a Sunni Muslim. This is based on a census conducted before World War 2.

Sri Lanka’s crisis has been brought about by the fact that one family, Rajapaksa, has been able to dominate for many years.

And in the US, much of the problem is structural. No one in their right mind would these days introduce lifetime appointments to the Supreme Court, or all federal courts, but the country’s political divisions (and the use of wedge issues like abortion) are so great that any reform is impossible. Their state-based political structure, where the majority of people live in cities, but a person can lose the popular vote and still become president through the Electoral College, will also not be easily changed.

In some countries, politics is dominated by religious identity. This makes it virtually impossible to change the country and usually turns politics into an absolutist game, won through the sheer power of unchanging numbers.

We do not have these problems, thankfully.

While identity politics may be growing in strength (the rise of the FF+ and the Patriotic Alliance points to this; the rise of ActionSA argues against it), this is not nearly as difficult to counter as religious identity, which invariably leads to a form of absolutism.

A democracy that works

Such is the sense of crisis in South Africa that this can be forgotten. There is much evidence that despite its problems, our democracy works. That while the decline and probable fall of the ANC may be disturbing, there is another important dynamic, which is that we are seeing the promise of accountable democracy. With all of its problems and shortcomings, nevertheless.

However, for this to work, our electoral institutions (and our judiciary) must function. The centre must hold. If they are threatened or weakened in any way, then the rise of accountability will not happen. One of the strengths here is the structure of the system itself, that parties can observe everything, every single step of the way.

For there to be accountable democracy the Electoral Commission needs to be protected and strengthened.

It is easy to be despondent. For most people in South Africa, life is worse than it was three years ago. Much of this is because of our politics and its impact on our economy.

But it will not always be this way. Our politics has shown itself to be capable of creating both accountability and renewal. Our electoral institutions are fairly durable at this moment. Now we also need the NPA to start firing with both barrels. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Carsten Rasch says:

    The elephant in the room is that the State has been politicised in order to capture it. Governing is not just about politics, or policy, it’s about action, implementation, the daily grind of state machinations, and this has virtually ground to a halt everywhere. What’s happening today is just the ‘stuiptrekkings’ of a public service that once was. This is the reason why the Metros, despite the political changes, are still deep in the hole.

  • Dennis Bailey says:

    I hope you are right, Stephen, my lived experience is that little of our fragile democracy works. But then I live in another country, KZN! Here we shoot at the opposition and run like hell. Then Cele comes and commiserates and talks democratic governance, then runs like hell. Those of us who are left mop up enough to make what is clearly anarchy look like democracy. That, or we all run like hell.

  • John Cartwright says:

    Yes. Time to rebuild.

  • Jean-Paul Kloppers says:

    I’m not sure how useful it is to compare SA to other countries. An analysis of whether SA has a chance has to look at SA factors and these look bleak indeed – from Eskom to a hamstrung NPA to our fiscal cliff, consumer confidence in the toilet, unemployment etc. Yes, it may not be that bad. But it can most certainly get a lot worse and it’s not clear whether our democracy will continue to work should that happen. As the July riots of last year showed, SA is a tinderbox of discontent.

  • Jon Quirk says:

    SG’s argument, which boils down to saying that our situation is not as bad as we believe because some other countries are in an even greater mess, is a little like saying that rape in South Africa is not such a big deal because, in the Russian-occupied enclaves in Ukraine, it is even worse.

    Are we really no better than Russian butchers? I’ll leave Stephen to ponder on that one – meanwhile Rome, our Rome, burns.

  • William Kelly says:

    NPA? If you pin your hopes on that sir, you’re clutching at straws. We have, need I remind you, a genuine proposal for amnesty for the State Capture goons. Amnesty! How does this empower the NPA to do what has to be done? No, the NPA will not change. And with it, the core pillar of accountability fails, and with that any faith in the political system, no matter how much the ‘centre may hold’.
    Ankle bone knee bone etc.

  • Paul Savage says:

    NPA: missing in action. Batohi: missing in action. You don’t have to prosecute every one of these scoundrels immediately, just pick one or two low hanging fruit, to show you are serious. There are so many to choose from. Please.

  • David Wolfe says:

    As a foreigner, but one who is involved with education in South Africa, I am also somewhat optimistic as I see the power, desire, idealism of the young people of this beautiful country.

  • Gerhardt Strydom says:

    Stephen, you nailed it with an accurate description of the calamity, but also with introducing the notion that hope has not left the stage completely, but is in the marginal shadows of the stage.
    May brave and capable leaders who wish to serve, and not to harvest, come forward (soon).

  • Rob Wilson says:

    I am not as confident as you are Stephen, and this comes from believing that politics is not the most important enabler-competence and the will to work is. back in 1993 I believed that South Africa could be different from Zimbabwe based on the presence of a sizable professional and skilled minority to tide the country over while a new generation of black people could be educated to take over. How naive could I have been? State capture aside, the sheer incompetence at operational level in highly technical entities is frightening 28 years on-witness Eskom, water supply, sanitation, municipalities, Health services, the simple old Post Office…I could go on. I hope that I am wrong and that you are right.

  • Hermann Funk says:

    Ramaphosa has been paralytic since he became deputy president and hasn’t changed.

    The only salvation is a much stronger and more united civil society.

  • Dhasagan Pillay says:

    @DM – I’d watch a ppv debate between Raymond Zondo and Lindiwe Sisulu on constitutionality; added revenue streams that could be activated during the broadcast could include a quick fire quiz, with an option for viewers to buy a ball for the other contestant to throw a ball at a bullseye to dunk their opponent, when one of them gets the answer wrong. Money could be donated to charity or to buy sanitation supplies so the Presidency stops trying to defend their indefensible inability to follow their own norms and standards so South African children aren’t at risk of drowning in human faeces… but that’s just me hey.

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