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DEEP BLUE: What is to be done?


Nic Borain is a political analyst, writer and garlic farmer. He advises financial market investors about South African politics and is currently top ranked in the Politics and Industrial relations category of the Financial Mail Analyst of the Year ranking.

If we set great store by recent approval ratings then, hopefully, the Nkandla Crew is no more than a fleeting overcorrection of Thabo Mbeki’s technocratic and stultifying hold on the ANC. The real question then becomes: What happens next? Could it be possible that power will “lying in the streets” simply waiting to be picked up, as Lenin describes the Bolsheviks' doing in 1917?

I have been catching up on my Lenin – Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, in case like me you can’t spell and were confused with Yoko’s sadly departed squeeze.

I never got through the full Collected Works, Volumes 1, 2 and 3. Now two of those thick tomes are holding up a bookcase in a little cottage in the country from where I cannot recover them for reasons that are too mundane to discuss here.

The third (actually Volume 2 – Progress Publishers, Moscow 1977), still in my bookshelf in Cape Town, is so unspeakably boring; I have resorted to trawling the Internet for handy quotes.

I am interested in Lenin because he always struck me as supremely confident in the capacity for human agency to change and shape the world. He repeatedly asserted that what was required was a clear diagnosis of the problem and the global context in which the problem exists (the objective conditions), a precisely formulated, but flexible strategy and a tight disciplined party (which together constitute the subjective conditions) and voilà the ramshackle tsarist chaos becomes the Soviet Union and later the Cold War – a doubtful improvement, but certainly a profound change.

Yes, I know it was faintly more complicated than that, but I beg your indulgence with my shorthand for a moment.

Part of what I want to understand is whether Lenin and his comrades actually caused the change, or that it was inherent in a deeply unstable system, waiting to unfold or burst forth as revolution and civil war. Lenin said once that in 1917 the Bolshevik Party “found power lying in the streets and simply picked it up” but elsewhere he endlessly discusses how to recognise it (power), how to wrestle it from various enemies, when to reach for it, what to do with it and precisely how to use it.

But it is his supreme belief that given the right subjective and objective conditions almost anything is possible that has piqued my interest in tracking down some of the old fox’s words. I think power is lying in the street in South Africa. It only appears that the Nkandla Crew have a tight hold on it; I am convinced that their hold is over a shrinking kingdom. We will wake one day to realise their grip has shrunk to reach only to the edge of the reinforced military-grade concrete bunker walls of the Nkandla nest and that the rest of us are in an eerie vacuum full of potential and threat. And when that moment comes, those at the centre will realise their weakness and will be at their most dangerous.

I may be wrong, but I feel that South Africa has become the sovereign equivalent of a substance called Quick clay (Leda clay). I would love to bore you with the details, but the long of the short of it is that the stuff is solid ground until you give it a good knock and then it turns to liquid – usually with deeply distressing consequences for people who live down the slope.

This is revealed, for example, less in the fact of the Central African Republic catastrophe than in the apparent very widespread preparedness of ordinary citizens to think the worst of the motivations for the deployment of the troops in the first place. It appears that few South Africans don’t harbour a suspicion that, in fact, our soldiers died (and killed droves of drug-crazed, damaged children) to protect cronies of the ANC and government leaders and the loot they were piling up in that foreign land.

Zuma has established a rigid hold on the centre of the ANC, with the Mangaung results showing this clearly. He has since then destroyed the challengers: Julius Malema is being edged towards prison and ignominy by the various organs of the state that have been deployed against him, so too are the minor gangsters in Limpopo (minor in relation to the victors moving against them) and a similar fate awaits Vavi and probably Irvin Jim and a host of smaller oppositionists.

But Zuma himself, his spokesman, the Gupta deployment centre and the hard-faced – but given what happened in CAR, the deeply incompetent – individuals who inhabit the intelligence apparatuses are, it appears, in danger of losing hegemony over the ANC and over the country.

There is some free-to-air indication of this – here are Zuma’s recent approval ratings among city dwellers indicating all-time high disapproval and all-time low approvals:

borain graph

I realise this is not adequate proof. We will have to wait and see how the electorate votes in 2014 and, possibly more importantly, what happens at the ANC national conference in 2017.

But truthfully, my current interest in Lenin is about something more than Zuma’s hold on the ANC. I am convinced that the Nkandla Crew is a temporary phenomenon, part of an overcorrection of Mbeki’s technocratic and stultifying hold on the ANC; that they (Zuma and his cronies) are performing so poorly and are so overstretched that inevitably there is a gradual build-up of internal opposition that will turn into a flood if the ANC loses any ground in the election next year.

(Of course I might be dangerously wrong. I think Zuma has overreached himself, that the CAR is just one example of this, that the ANC has self-correcting mechanisms for this kind of failure – but I suspect observers of Mabuto Sese Seko might have had the same mistaken sanguinity circa the mid-1960s.)

My interest is more about whether there is something inevitable about what happens next. Is South Africa, and possibly the world, poised in a manner comparable to Russia in 1917 or the world at the end of the 1980s? Is the present pregnant with the future?

Lenin’s overconfident “What is to be done?” approach to the world and history seems to contradict his comment that the Bolsheviks just found power lying around and picked it up. The ANC’s (or rather Zuma and his cronies’) Second Transition in the lead-up to Mangaung, became a simple donning of the finery of the National Democratic Plan post the crushing victory of that faction at Mangaung.

So are we to hope that this or some other version of the ANC will tease, and worry and harry our society into a better trajectory that will grow the economy and improve the democracy? Or is whatever was going to happen going to happen anyway?

 I don’t have an answer – although I am convinced that politicians and political parties do have enough agency to damage the sovereign interests of any nation, even if they don’t have enough agency to do much good. Which leads me to my generally pessimistic approach to politics, and what is possible through politics. Politicians can pick up the power if it’s lying in the street. They can surf the wave, perhaps even skilfully. But where the whole thing is moving to is set at a deeper level. And in a country like ours, with a small open economy and a growing deficit in state capacity or capability, we are tossed on the waves and our leaders are like babbling children tumbling in the surf. DM


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