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Our ‘Burning Man revolution’ will be at the ballot box

Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession. He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.

The African National Congress is in a furious huff because Moeletsi Mbeki posited that a Tunisia-style revolt could happen in South African around 2020. The ANC says it won’t. I agree. Sort of.

As the flames of revolution and dissent spread from Tunisia across the Maghreb and into the Middle East it is natural for everybody to take a look at their own countries and wonder whether or not they are next. Bahrain, Jordan, Yemen, Algeria, Libya and even parts of Iraq have seen uprisings. There are tremendous rumblings in Iran and Saudi Arabia. No country, it seems, is safe. The question of “who is next” has sprung up as far afield as England (struggling painfully with a buckled welfare state) and America.

As the people of Ermelo and the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union took to the streets, even as the memory of last year’s public servant’s strike and the riots in Mpumalanga lingers – it seems natural to consider the likelihood of revolution in South Africa. Political analyst Moeletsi Mbeki reckons it will be around 2020, when the industrialisation phase that China is undergoing ends. A slowdown in Chinese industrialisation will lead to a drop in demand for Africa’s commodities, leading to a drop in prices, which will eat into the GDP of commodity-rich countries like South Africa. At that point, South Africa’s welfare state will collapse and the poor will revolt against a government that is no longer able to feed them, predicts Mbeki.

The ANC is not amused in the least by this. ANC spokesman Brian Sokutu told BusinessDay, “Our fledgling constitutional democracy, which continues to make inroads in redressing decades of apartheid, cannot be equated with tyranny or stagnation in our growing economy, as Moeletsi insinuates.”

The peanut gallery also had something to say. The ANC Youth League issued a statement of its own, saying, “The Tunisia-like protests will not happen in South Africa, because the ANC government has made profound progress in placing institutions, structures and virtues of democracy, which allow the people of South Africa to freely and fairly choose public representatives after every five years.

“Besides entrenched democracy in South Africa, the ANC government is at the forefront of the attack in the battle against poverty, unemployment and starvation. The ANC government has since 1994 provided basic services to the people of South Africa, including water, electricity, sanitation, houses, roads, access to free education, healthcare, safety and security and many other basic social services needed for sustainable livelihoods,” the ANCYL statement said.

Which is completely beside the point. Moeletsi Mbeki was referring to the fact that the ANC is using the welfare state to keep the poor at bay, not insinuating that we don’t have free and fair elections in South Africa, or a police force which kicks down dissidents’ doors at night. “People don’t eat democracy,” Mbeki is reported to have retorted.

But since Mbeki raises several important points, which the ANC has so spectacularly failed to address, it is worth exploring the matter a bit. The government has been able to provide people with critical resources because of an erstwhile booming economy, aided greatly by high commodity prices. But it has largely failed to diversify the economy and, should the massive commodity price slump occur in 2020, we will be in serious trouble. In all likelihood the welfare state would collapse.

But at no point in his analysis does Mbeki allude to the fact that South Africa, unlike Tunisia or Egypt, is actually a democracy where people get to vote out the parties they don’t like. I don’t believe that we will see revolts in 2020 simply because the government of the day will be far better equipped to handle the inevitable economic slump. In a word, either the ANC will no longer be ruling the country, or its majority will be so greatly eaten away that it will be implementing the best possible policies (with country coming ahead of tripartite alliance) in an effort to retain power. It will be far quicker to handle strikes, poor service delivery and the like than it is now. In fact, it will be far quicker in exorcising the populists within its midst so as not to haemorrhage any more votes to the opposition parties.

We are seeing the trend towards that today. The ANC has already lost Western Cape after in-fighting rendered the party at provincial level completely paralysed. The people did not revolt there, they simply voted for another party. In provinces where ANC loyalty is stronger, it will take a while, but the disaffected there will also eventually realise they have no choice but to switch allegiances.

So yes, Mbeki is right – up to a point. The poor will be furious when the government no longer gives them bread. But this will not translate to a country-wide populist revolt such as we’re seeing in the Middle East, because the other igniters (apathetic or tyrannical government, massive unemployment with no relief in sight) will not be present.

The ANC is also right up to a point. Tunisia-style revolts will not occur, but mostly because whatever government is in power then will not resemble the one we have now. DM


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