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Meet the Highwaymen stealing your democracy

Meet the Highwaymen stealing your democracy
Illustrative image | Sources: From left — Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe, former health minister Zweli Mkhize and suspended ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule. (Photos: Gallo Images)

The UK is a mess. AmeriKKKa is scary. Brazil needs a shrink. A new podcast tells the story of South Africa’s democratic meltdown, and places it in the context of a global surge in illiberalism.

Liberal democracy is having a bad century.

Don’t take my word for it. According to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, there were more than 76 major popular uprisings on the planet last year.

The US research organisation Freedom House reported in 2022 that global freedom has declined for 16 consecutive years, as attacks on liberal democracy have ramped up. The organisation’s “Freedom in the World Report” states that the global order is nearing a tipping point, with three out of four people living in a state of democratic breakdown, oppression or outright authoritarianism (subjective as these categories may be).

If the numbers sound nasty, the reality is even more grim. In July 2021, following ex-president Jacob Zuma’s decision to sojourn in a rent-free government-run boarding centre for the terminally ill, violence exploded across the country, resulting in the deaths of more than 350 people. Stores and malls were looted, racial violence made an unwelcome return to the mainstream, and communities locked themselves off from their neighbours in a dress rehearsal for a Mad Max sequel. (Zuma recently thanked these people for their service.)

President Cyril Ramaphosa characterised this violence as an insurrection, but no one knows less about what’s going on than the hapless gemsbok salesman. Call it what you will: riot, uprising, botched coup. The results, however, are the same: chaos. At the heart of it was the same brand of elite infighting that prevails in so much of the world — a few hundred scumbags fighting for the last of the slops on the table.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. In the brutal hangover following its own brief moment of electoral ecstasy in 1994, South Africa has been dismissed as just another developing world backwater, backsliding into the Cradle of Humankind, a vicious Hobbesian cage-fight for the last kudu on the Highveld. But, it’s worth reminding ourselves that South Africa is a working example of a liberal democracy, with a progressive Constitution, governed for the past 28 years by the African National Congress — a century-old organisation with a broad ideological range and a long history of democratic engagement. The ANC faces off against a free press and well-financed opposition parties that contest free elections under the watchful eye of a functioning judicial system and a robust civil society.

Is that democracy? Well, it depends on whom you ask. 

And anyway, to quote the political analyst Astra Taylor, “Democracy may not exist, but we’ll miss it when it’s gone.”

It comes down to this: if democracy — whatever that word means — can flame out in South Africa, it can flame out anywhere. And it has, and it is.


With all of this in mind, along with my colleague Diana Neille, I decided to undertake a road trip through post-meltdown South Africa, and see if, in the wreckage, we couldn’t pinpoint the causes of our own insanity. And, in the process, discover clues for why the entire world seems to be losing its collective mind.

In order to give some shape to the journey, we chose to focus on three politicians, almost at random, who have played a role in how recent South African history has unfolded. They are Ace Magashule, Gwede Mantashe and Zweli Mkhize. We call them the Highwaymen.

These politicians were shaped by the Struggle, but since liberation, they have grown increasingly toxic. Like athlete’s foot or crotch rot, they’ve infected the body politic with an embarrassing and difficult-to-cure malaise. But they’re part of a herd, a sort of shambolic global cult of elite powerbrokers determined to strip-mine their countries down to the last grain of sand. (In Mantashe’s case, very literally.)

As I’ve noted, we believe that South Africa is emblematic of the rise and stumble of liberal democracy in its various incarnations. And in our work studying democratic flameouts, we’ve come up with a seven-point breakdown to diagnose this progression. In the South African context, this breakdown has happened within and around the ANC, which has, by and large, been the only game in town, politics-wise.

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It all starts with ideological contestation — the jostling for ideas that occurs in any new political movement. In South Africa, this happened in and around the nascent African National Congress, formed in 1912 as the South African Native National Congress, which grew to become the largest liberation movement in Africa.

For an organisation formed during the violent ructions of the colonial project, the First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution, on what did the founding members of the ANC hope to focus? Racial oppression? Class oppression? Liberal reformism? Were they petit bourgeois conservatives, as local communists considered them? Or were they forging a middle way between all these competing outlooks?

Contestation over ideology naturally creates our second point: divisions.

Then came the budding revolution — in this case, against apartheid’s racial fascism — leading to the hardening of ideological divisions into point number three: factions.

Once in power, factions of a political organisation start a battle for influence, which requires networks of patronage. This fosters our fourth point: corruption. Perhaps a better term for corruption, at this stage on our continuum, is elite capture. The political philosopher Olúfémi O Táíwò describes elite capture as what occurs “when the advantaged few steer resources and institutions that could serve the many toward their own narrower interests and aims”.

Corruption (or elite capture) inevitably gets out of hand when it becomes entrenched at the top of the power pole, and the in-group grabbing all the resources becomes smaller and smaller. South Africans have coined a term for this next phase: we call it State Capture, our fifth point on the continuum.

The apartheid state, under the National Party, ran a deeply corrupt system of elite capture that had incalculable ties to business interests. South African race-based fascism was a collaboration between corporate South Africa and the regime. But for the purposes of this exercise, we’re focusing on the rise and devolution of a democratic project. Once State Capture becomes the norm, once it has hollowed out law enforcement and intelligence services, it has to be supported by some kind of system to maintain itself. Ergo, point six: organised crime.

Which, of course, quickly blooms into its only logical and time-tested manifestation: all-out gang warfare, which in this case resulted in a massive, country-changing social uprising — one that hasn’t really ended, but simmers on beneath the surface.

This construction details the South African experience. It’s our view that a version of this seven-point programme threatens to undermine virtually every other attempt at liberal democracy on the planet, too.

The gang warfare scenario can unfold in many different ways in many different places. But across the world, corruption and kleptocracy have become increasingly weaponised. They’ve fuelled the rise of populist nationalist movements, like the BJP in India, and illiberal forces that are gaining power in Brazil, Turkey, Hungary and the United States. They’ve also been declared the most profound threats to democratic governance and national security in the 21st century, by more than 100 government leaders, multilateral institutions and civil society organisations.

After all, to quote the philosopher and mystic Simone Weil, from her monograph On the Abolition of Political Parties, “The ultimate goal of any political party is its own growth, without limit.” 

In South Africa, that truism is proved every day.

Into the vacuum step the men with the guns.


As the ANC hurtles toward its 55th electoral conference in December of this year, it’s difficult to find anyone who gives a rat’s ass about the party, very much including most people in the party. It has shattered into a zillion self-interested pieces; its decline is obvious for all to see. The Highwaymen, however, are still determined to steal. So what comes next? 

Well, in the ruins of post-uprising South Africa, there is much to see, but mostly charred buildings. They all tell the same story: democracy is in crisis.

So what follows is a true crime podcast. It’s the story of the murder of a country. And yours might be next. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Dennis Bailey says:

    Brilliant, Richard! Just brill, Bru.

  • Nick Poree Poree says:

    Who is going to challenge the ANC and EFF to put their money where their mouth is ; explain why the billions “extracted” from their political connections are not invested in thriving BEE industries populated with 82% of AA and PDI black managers ? The country would benefit from retrenchment of top 400 politicians (release the best brains in the country) to engage in competitive private sector industrial development, youth mentoring, and employment creation.

  • Jonathan Hendey says:

    An important article. You can’t solve a problem before you understand it, and this kind of work improves understanding. But lets not imply that liberals are incapable of authoritarianism. In some quarters it is they who demand that the old patriarchal power should vest in the loudest-screeching mob (led of course by these self-sanitizing warriors). Such a mob is as good a tyrant as any.

    • Glyn Morgan says:

      Please give an example of a “liberal” party that is as good as a tyrant. And I will show you a party that is not, by definition, “liberal.

  • Malcolm McManus says:

    The ANC embracing democracy was a simple way to get into power. Now that they have it and are losing support, it no longer supports their needs. They hate it.

    • Nick Griffon says:

      People have to remember that you vote democracy out by voting for the wrong people long enough but then you have to shoot to get it back. I fear we have only 2024 left to change the course of this country.
      Also a sad state of affairs that 60% of SA voters can be bought with a T-shirt and a meal during a rally just before the polls open.

  • Janet Trisk says:

    Brilliant podcast! Thanks so much. I cant wait for episode 2. I love how you set our SA meltdown in a global context.

  • Ritchie Morris says:

    Politicians get far too much profile and have too high entitlement expectations and feelings of self-importance. Most politicians are unqualified for the portfolios they hold and thus incapable of the necessary level of management and decision making. This is compounded by their unwillingness to take the advice of the professionals/experts and those with the right engineering, scientific and economic skills. Citizens and the business sector need to gain a greater say in the future. The press has an important role to play in not giving excessive ‘air’ and profile to politicians and questioning the policy they drive. My late Dad said that ‘the definition of a politician is someone who says a lot about nothing’. So true to this day.

  • Gavin Cromhout says:

    Superbly written! This is why I subscribe – to support journalism of this calibre.

  • John Smythe says:

    Very good. It’s like a real-life crime novel. Scary but true. Can’t wait for the next episode. A Steinheist type documentary would be amazing.

  • Sam van Coller says:

    A very helpful explanation of how we got from the past there to here – an essential step before we can get from here to the future there. It seems liberalism has the seeds of its own downfall. It has generated enormous economic growth and social progress but, in doing so, has developed political and economic institutions that foster power contestations in preference to decisions that are rational or ethical. Liberalism has become a veneer for power. South Africa is a very diverse country, deeply divided by an ugly history of oppression and exclusion resulting in ever-increasing inequality and social problems. It is completely unrealistic to imagine that a liberal constitution based on majoritarianism can provide the political decision-making to find a sustainable road. The reality that a ‘one representative’ political party can hold the country to ransom in a coalition is also a nonsense. We have to find an institutional road that will enable conflict resolution that leads to greater co-operation to prosper supported by structures that embrace rational decision-making processes to assist. Persuading the current holders of political power to go such a road quickly enough to turn South Africa around is a challenge – it will require a carefully thought through strategy to succeed. I fear power will win over morality in the end

    • Glyn Morgan says:

      “It is completely unrealistic to imagine that a liberal constitution based on majoritarianism can provide the political decision-making to find a sustainable road.” 1/ Rubbish. 2/. Suggest an alternative to democracy.

      • Sam van Coller says:

        I referred specifically to South Africa. Read my total comment and resist quoting a few words without context. Simple majority will ensure a highly divided, dysfunctional country as it is doing now. Government that is totally the product of power contestation will result in South Africa performing well below its potential. A simple majority even with proportional representation in the South African circumstances is not democracy – the current evidence would seem to support it. Current alienation from the political dispensation is substantial. Just look at how divisive your favourite party is as illustration

  • Sue O'Connor says:

    Brilliant podcast!
    I look forward to the 2nd episode, as depressing as it’s likely to be for the majority of South Africans.

  • Glyn Morgan says:

    I quote – “As I’ve noted, we believe that South Africa is emblematic of the rise and stumble of liberal democracy in its various incarnations.” – The DA is the biggest liberal democratic party in South Africa. There are others, maybe. How many times has the DM, N24 and various publications laid into the DA for very little reason? The free press has tried to destroy the liberal democratic opposition. Say “sorry” Poplak.

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