Defend Truth


South Africa’s Weimar moment


Ivor Chipkin is director of the Government and Public Policy (GAPP) think-tank. See GAPP’s new report The Governance of Economic Planning at

I wonder if South Africa is not living through its own Weimar moment in the sense that even as its democracy looks fragile and its economy is in trouble, there is tremendous cultural vitality in the arts, in photography and in music. There is also growing disillusionment amongst sections of the political and intellectual classes with liberal democracy as a route to social justice.

When I was little, I used to love going through my grandmother’s cupboards, finding in them all sorts of objects, jewellery and photographs that spoke to another time and another place. One of the treasures in this respect was a torn brown envelope, two or three dozen Deutsche Mark banknotes in 500 and 1,000 denominations. They had become worthless in the hyperinflation in Germany during the Weimar Republic of the 1920s. In the 1970s in Johannesburg when a 50c piece could buy you almost anything at the school tuckshop, I would feel the notes between my fingers and contemplate the incredible wealth they would bring to me if, miraculously, they regained their value.

I am thinking of those notes as I sit in Berlin and reflect on the nostalgia in contemporary Germany for the period of the Weimar Republic. Presided over by a political and intellectual class largely hostile to its liberal foundations, it eventually collapsed under the weight of economic crisis and Nazi aggression. The Nazi state was the denial of everything Weimar stood for, unleashing on the world the catastrophe of world war, genocide and the uprooting of tens of millions of people. For all its vulnerability, the Weimar Republic represented another German future in two senses. It was democratic. It was also a moment of extraordinary vitality in the arts, in the sciences and in architecture. It is impossible to imagine, for example, the achievements of the US in all these fields without the tens of thousands of German emigres, many of whom where Jewish but by no means all, who fled the Nazis. Some came to South Africa too, bringing with them the German avant-garde in architecture, in art, in psychotherapy.

I wonder if South Africa is not living through its own Weimar moment. I don’t mean this in the sense that Nazism threatens the republic and that South Africa is on the verge of war.

If the analogy has any meaning it is in a mood. At the same time as South Africa’s democracy looks fragile and the economy is in trouble, there is tremendous cultural vitality in the arts, in photography and in music. There is also growing disillusionment amongst sections of the political and intellectual classes with liberal democracy as a route to social justice.

The democratic break-through was supposed to issue in a period of reconstruction and development, of economic transformation and of prosperity. That it hasn’t is increasingly being read as a failure of democracy itself. The situation is not helped by the fact that the defence of constitutionalism is often interpreted as a defence of white privilege.

The argument goes that constitutional democracy provides too many opportunities for conservative and racist forces to stall and block progressive government policies and to embarrass officials and politicians. The property clause in the Constitution has, on these terms, stalled land reform by making appropriation dependent on a ‘willing buyer, willing seller’ basis rather than on a principle of justice. Likewise, Black Economic Empowerment is pursued in a way that does not upset existing property relations. Attempts to contain a hostile media are met with court challenges and the courts themselves too frequently rule in favour of the status quo.

Is it really possible to transform economic and social relations in South Africa without privileging the rights of blacks over whites? This is precisely what the constitution does not allow, except in very limited domains. It is in this context that there is a growing impatience with a ‘rights-based’ politics.

More and more people are prepared to question whether economic and social justice can be achieved within the existing constitutional framework. In South Africa the appeal of the ‘development state’ arises from this frustration. The Chinese experience apparently affirms a model of economic transformation where the authority of the executive is not constrained by constitutional or democratic niceties. The South Korean miracle happened during 30 years of military dictatorship.

Difficult questions about the limits of liberal democracy are raised in these concerns. They resonate with debates happening elsewhere in the world about the crisis of democracy and the conflation of this term with a parliamentary system. Pierre Rosanvallon, one of the more original thinkers about the history of democracy, notes that a fundamental mutation is under way in the idea of democracy itself. Since the French Revolution, the term has referred both to a system of elections and of multi-party competition and to a society that pursues social equality as its goal. The fact, as Thomas Piketty shows so well, that inequality is growing, even in established democracies is evidence that this link is coming apart. Political democracy does not generate social democracy.

It is easy enough to imagine that the very high levels of inequality in South Africa, that have actually worsened in the democratic period, are symptoms of this worldwide democratic malaise.

This analysis, however, only holds in part in South Africa. Despite the insistence that the African National Congress (ANC) has pursued neo-liberal policies that have prejudiced the poor, there is much evidence to the contrary. ANC governments at all levels offer public housing and services at sub-economic rates and have expanded welfare measures. Ironically, the experience of the ANC has furnished much evidence that it is possible to pursue developmental policies in the context of a liberal democracy. Democracy is not the problem.

The chief obstacle to economic and other transformation is not primarily in the field of policy. In many decisive fields, like health and education, even economic policy, the problem is not entrenched interests resisting progressive change.

Frequently, state administrations are not able to implement government policies. The failure of land reform is as much a consequence of poor land registration practices as it is a consequence of farmers’ resistance. Inequality is made worse by shocking educational outcomes in public schools that condemn generations of matriculants to unemployment. And so it goes on. The problem is on the side of implementation, that is, with administrative capacity. This mantra is frequently repeated, though its theoretical and political consequences are seldom drawn. The ANC has shown itself to be especially reckless with public institutions.

There is a growing radicalism developing from within the middle classes and on university campuses – often fuelled by readings of Steve Biko and Frantz Fanon. New political movements are preoccupied with symbolic acts, with questions of representation, with Western knowledge and with social identity. These are important debates in their own right, though in their current form they miss what I believe are the key challenges of contemporary South African society.

It is important that we draw the correct conclusions from the current malaise.

Germany today has found peace and prosperity on the model of Weimar. In the period after 1945 and in the period after 1990 this was achieved, in part, on the basis of painful choices about state institutions and public bureaucracies. West Germany prioritised administrative stability after 1945 and integrated many Nazi-era civil servants into its new federal administrations. Even prior to unification, German authorities were developing detailed plans for the amalgamation of the myriad administrations of East and West Germany. Today these plans are being used by forward-thinking Korean scholars and officials preparing for the eventuality of Korean unification.

Understanding the weakness of the state is the most important theoretical task today. Building effective state administrations is the single most important political challenge. DM


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