Opinionista Susan Booysen 11 July 2018

Unsettled new politics and the ambivalent point of ‘25 years of democracy’

South Africa’s fast approaching 2019 benchmark of 25 years of democracy is one that will be celebrated with circumspection. Instead of unadulterated fêting, the country is immersed in a renewed transition in which people’s politics, processes of rule-making and ideological points of departure have been turned on their heads.

There is a new ambiguity in South African politics, economics and culture. The liberation from apartheid is done, shortcomings and all; 2018-19 is about the disaggregation of the defects and disappointments that came with the quarter of a century of democracy.

The new realpolitik is that the institutions of politics are found wanting and are supplemented. Modes of popular participation are extended in iterations that go beyond the constitutional prescripts of the 1990s. Wherever the windows of policy opportunity arise, citizens appropriate spaces and make de facto policy while politicians still deliberate.

The citizenry is bolstered by a new critical awareness, renewed ideological interrogation, repositioning and recognition of the need not to wait for politicians – even if politicians also appropriate new political openings. New opportunities and new flexibility will be the mark of 25 years of democracy.

Gone are the clearcut and routine celebrations associated with South Africa’s 10-year and 20-year celebrations, self-congratulatory special reports and year-long campaigns on a “great Constitution” and “economic achievement”. The face and pace of South African politics have changed. New narratives and a changed political culture define the unfolding time of 25 years of democracy.

The critical mood has escalated to such an extent that there was no Cyril Ramaphosa honeymoon once he took over in early 2018. The once-assumed new mood of renewal and an unquestioned new epoch even escalated into the question: Is there really a transition? On the social media front the mood descended into occasional #RamaphosaMustFall eruptions, contrasting with opinion polls that keep rewarding the new Ramaphosa order.

South Africa’s political landscape has been affected in no mean way by the turbulence of extracting Jacob Zuma and installing Ramaphosa as ANC and South African president.

In that last-ditch Zuma effort to hang on to power, “radical economic transformation” became a political weapon. It exploited the new mood of outstanding debts payable to citizens who had not benefited substantially enough from the 20-plus years of democracy.

Political succession was more complicated than Thabo Mbeki’s handover (with resentment but little resistance) to Zuma. Zuma, his associates and followers from provincial and sub-provincial bases now latched on to the mood of disappointment and discontentment to extract political capital for their Radical Economic Transformation (RET) retorts – ignoring the Zuma decade’s wastage of time and resources.

The Zuma rearguard campaign flourishes in the new political climate, in which there exists a window of opportunity to agitate for more incisive change. The Zumaists pair this with “unfair treatment” of their “president”. The ANC is destabilised, to the point of the resurfacing of the question of whether the centre is in control.

In a circular way, ANC destabilisation feeds into state institutional processes. Ramaphosa-initiated clean-up actions, channelled via investigatory and legal routes, are resisted. Business confidence lags or flounders, the rand falls to Zuma levels (albeit for different reasons), public revolts against fuel price increases and cost of living accumulate.

Zumaists reinterpret this as evidence of the post-Zuma order failing. On other fronts, alliance politics in municipalities are held hostage: the governance question often centres on which individual can be swayed or bribed to cross over to another party. There are parallel structures: besides the realities of State Capture, taxes and other dues are paid to an underworld of shadow or parallel government structures… against the background of political parties and candidates paying their dues to smugglers, poachers and abusers of human rights.

This period of unsettled politics comes largely in the aftermath of #FeesMustFall and the mainstreaming of decolonial and feminist discourses, along with the deaths of Struggle icons, in particular Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.

The fires of struggle, fuelled by frustrations of ideals not attained, have been reignited. There is the new politics of populism. Citizens taking their fates into their own hands. Political guilt and the moral weight of the injustice of poverty and inequality boost the openings for bottom-up change.

Crimes of poverty are difficult to prosecute; exclusion from education and title deeds often have more moral force than constitutionalism and electoral, representative democracy.

Crowds (and even small crowds or rampaging mobs) achieve more, faster, than the MPs and MPLs on their benches. While the elected ones still struggle to re-establish the credibility of, for example, Parliament, crowds progress in claiming urban land through protest and occupation (even if rebutted temporarily).

Traditional counter-elites undo years of uneasy constitutionalism by mobilisation of troupes of traditional leaders, plus a few threats.

These are some of the shifting frontiers of governance, public policy-making and political culture as South Africa edges towards its 25-year mark. South African politics is on its head; South Africa 2018-going-towards-2019 is a far cry from 1994. DM

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