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Progressive Politics: In search of a silver lining in the current crisis


Ivor Chipkin is the Executive Director of the New South Institute think tank, based in Johannesburg.

Progressive politics is not only to be had on the streets or on the factory floor and/or against the state. It must happen too in the state, in building effective institutions and supporting reform-minded politicians and public servants.

Things are coming to a head and the stakes are as high as they could be. More and more revelations will surely emerge in the coming days and weeks about the relationship between the Zuma family and the Gupta family, about the shadowy links between groups based in the provinces and about deals concerning state-owned enterprises, about “rogue” intelligence units, about the current leadership at SARS, the Hawks and about the police.

Most of the commentary on these matters discusses them in terms of “state capture” and/ or as evidence of battles in the ANC itself. Of course, these explanations are not mutually exclusive. There can be battles between factions in the ANC over state capture. The trouble with these politics-of-the-belly-type arguments is that they discount politics – not simply as competition between groups over resources, but as conflicts driven by ideas and, dare one say, idealism.

Yet, it is precisely such “idealism” that we must take seriously – even when it is so obviously self-serving. When Edward Zuma complains bitterly that media reports about his father and about the new wealth of his clan are the noise of a campaign to control the economy and destabilise the government, he repeats an argument widely believed in South Africa. The outcry at the firing of Nene, like the response to Black Economic Empowerment generally, is seen as the reaction of “white capital” to economic competition and the emergence of a different kind of economy. Maybe this is why President Zuma laughs so much. He believes that the shouting around him is the cacophony of entrenched interests under pressure.

Current developments are not simply signs of a struggle between different factions of the ANC or even class factions or social groups. They are also about competing conceptions of the state and its role. Viewed from this perspective I think we can describe two tendencies in South Africa today.

The first is modernising and bureaucratic – it seeks to establish the sovereignty of institutions that more or less work on the basis of impersonal rules and regulations. The other is patrimonial and ambivalent about institutional autonomy.

This is not simply a battle between the corrupt and those with integrity, progressives versus reactionaries. Patrimonial instincts are deeply embedded in certain critiques of the current situation that see formal institutions and their autonomous lives as working, ultimately, against the interests of the working class, the poor and of blacks in general. In other words, pursuing “progressive” politics is thought to require subverting institutionalised practices. This tendency produces some very unlikely bedfellows: from the self-righteously corrupt to various civil-society formations to political parties, including elements within the ANC and to the Economic Freedom Fighters.

Unsure if the disruption of key institutions is a sign of something positive or not, progressive movements have been silent in the face of recurring purges in the justice sector (the police, the NPA, intelligence etc), at SARS and now the National Treasury. The same ambivalence leaves the National Treasury vulnerable too. Only the other day Patrick Bond repeated what has become a tired mantra, that Treasury is the vanguard of neoliberalism in South Africa. Even if this were true it obscures that something else was going on during the 1990s as well – “fiscal consolidation” was nothing short of a project of state building. The problem is that we do not have a language for talking and thinking about institutions that does not reduce them to expressions of private interests.

And therein lies the major point. Weakening bureaucratic processes and state institutions has a ring of “progressive” respectability; seeking to build them and insulate them against politicisation, a ring of liberal reaction.

The critique of South African institutions is often well-founded, the solution is usually self-defeating. Many of the economic institutions in South Africa reproduce structural racism and inequality, from financial institutions that suck up capital that once went into the building of factories, into more and more abstract financial products or into commercial property, to mines and farms that are increasingly mechanised and, hence, employ fewer and fewer people and/or employ them on precarious bases. Government institutions, from hospitals to schools, provide poor service, leaving people sick and poorly educated.

There is much wrong with the institutions governing public and private life in South Africa. Deep-seated patrimonial instincts mean, however, that we define the solution in terms of personalities – hence the nonstop merry-go-round of purges and deployments and suspensions in the public sector. Very seldom is the response held to be in the design of “just” institutions, defining impersonal rules to govern them and embedding supportive cultures.

There are forces today, organised through families and personal friendships, through party processes, in provincial governments, state-owned enterprises and intelligence agencies, that profit from a fragmented state structure, whose institutions are weak and whose processes are shambolic. They are showing themselves, moreover, ready to resort to intimidation and violence. Their corruption and cronyism are given theoretical and political respectability by this ambivalence to the state and to its institutions.

Progressive politics is not only to be had on the streets or on the factory floor and/or against the state. It must happen too in the state, in building effective institutions and supporting reform-minded politicians and public servants.

This is precisely what a patrimonial politics cannot produce. It does not produce politics of and about institutions, only politics of and about personalities.

In rejecting the politics of Jacob Zuma, therefore, there is an opportunity to think afresh about what it would take to set South Africa’s young democracy on a more solid and progressive footing. Therein lies the silver lining in the current crisis. DM


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