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Our Burning Planet: South Africa’s Carbon Democracy is going over the cliff


Dr Vishwas Satgar is an Associate Professor of International Relations. He is the editor of BRICS and the New American Imperialism – Global Rivalry and Resistance (2020, Wits University Press). He is a co-founder and activist in the Climate Justice Charter Movement.

With the planet heating rapidly, South Africa is spinning off into a very disconnected, self-absorbed and parochial space. Hence the fundamental question: Where is our carbon democracy?

The past few weeks have revealed palace wars: Public Protector against Pravin Gordhan; Public Protector against President Cyril Ramaphosa; more of the Red Berets’ undemocratic moves in Parliament and then former president Jacob Zuma going for broke with his toxic tales at the Zondo Commission.

All of this political theatre has become high drama in our political discourse. The liberal commentariat amplifies the narrative by framing the script with simple binaries: constitutionalists versus looters, democrats versus authoritarians. All of this correlating with good versus evil and all one has to do is choose the good saviours. While our political world shrinks and becomes inward-looking, the United Nations has drawn attention to the fact that the world is experiencing one climate disaster every week. This includes floods, heatwaves, droughts, cyclones and other extreme weather events.

Another optic to explain developments in contemporary South Africa is to think beyond the binaries. We are living through and observing the second transition in our market-driven carbon democracy. This transition is about the terminal decline of ANC-led national liberation politics and nationalism; it is exhausted. Its greatest achievement has been to engender the forces that will destroy it and possibly our constitutional democratic order.

For the past two decades, we have been fed a regular diet of how virtuous the middle class is by an Afro-neoliberal common sense. The ANC-led Alliance succeeded in creating almost nine million new African members of the middle class. This social class is marked by an Americanised consciousness which includes an obsession with acquisition, possessive individualism, a technology fetish, nihilistic celebrity culture and a carbon centric way of life. As conscripts of a globalised American way of life, wanting to be more American than actual Americans, this middle class is also debt-ridden and precarious. At the same time, it has not been a bulwark against the degeneration of South Africa’s democracy and its capture. In the largest democracies in the global south, India and Brazil, sizeable parts of the Americanised middle class have delivered their democracies to anti-democratic forces through the ballot box.

The new post-apartheid middle class is centrally implicated in the degeneration of South Africa’s democracy. To understand this, we have to understand how the ANC-led Alliance turned its back on the working class and the poor.

This is also the story of how South Africa has received and internalised neoliberal reason: a world order project to remake the global political economy in the image of the USA and transnational capital. South Africa’s national liberation movement is one of the oldest on the African continent and in the world. It was also a revolutionary movement. Moreover, the ANC was also a movement vaunted and celebrated given how repulsive, racist and brutal apartheid was. We imbued it with mythical virtues and gave it an over-inflated place in our national imagination.

Given the convergence of diverse ideological forces in its midst the ANC is also contradictory, facing limits and objectively constrained by the contingencies of power relations. At the same time, it made political choices that shaped the direction of nation-building and post-apartheid democracy. Many of these choices related to economic policy went beyond the necessities of stabilising a debt- and crisis-ridden post-apartheid economy and became entrenched in state policy for over two decades.

This became part of national liberation common sense and was championed by an Afro-neoliberal fraction of the national liberation bloc. This fraction included successive ministers of finance, technocrats in the Department of Finance, the new middle class in the state, financialised sections of emergent black capital, finance capital, transnational capital and various international institutions. The translation of neoliberalism into South Africa, by this fraction, entailed giving it a South African idiom, coding it in national liberation discourse but most importantly ensuring a measure of trickle-down (through social grants, for example) while encouraging recognition of tribal authorities, LGBTQ+, affirming a liberal feminism that is about representation in male-centred hierarchies and allowing Mandelaesque Rainbowism to refract social antagonism.

This homegrown Afro-neoliberalism is grounded in two forms of reason: a de-democratising commitment against society (Thatcherite influenced) and hard-boiled pragmatic calculations (Reaganite influenced) to ensure what works for the market, first and foremost, will ostensibly work for society.

The Afro-neoliberal class project maintained the strategic initiative for over two decades, which entailed locking South Africa into deep globalisation through entrenching the power of global finance in the economy, shrinking manufacturing, encouraging further reproduction of the carbon-based minerals-energy complex such that platinum and coal became major exports and ensured South African agricultural exports continued under further monopolization of the sector. While this class project spawned a broader and racially diverse middle class it failed in terms of unemployment, inequality, hunger and ecological devastation. It has been central in creating a crisis of socio-ecological reproduction for which workers and the poor have had to pay the price.

Moreover, Afro-neoliberalism also failed politically and this is what defines South Africa’s second transition. Those at the centre of this project have to take responsibility for where South Africa’s thin and fragile market-centred carbon democracy has come to. Afro-neoliberalism spawned three counter projects from within the national liberation bloc and all are led by aspirant or new middle-class forces. These forces are infused with the impulses of a desperate and crisis-ridden society.

First, Zuma’s kleptocratic project has entailed criminalising the state to engender a transactional middle class. The ersatz scream of “radical economic transformation” is from one fraction of the national liberation bloc wanting rapid class mobility.

Second, the emergence of the Economic Freedom Fighters reflects the first significant rupture in the national liberation bloc. Malema and his Red Berets strut through our democracy with a patina of radicalism but yet this game is really about Malema’s nose for weaknesses in our body politic which he can exploit to his advantage. The degenerate and neo-fascist logic at work will undermine every democratic gain achieved by workers and the poor, so this opportunistic and anti-democratic force can achieve power.

Third, Irvin Jim’s Socialist and Revolutionary Workers Party, is the second significant rupture in the national liberation bloc, although it still has to be seriously tested politically. It is led by well-paid middle-class union functionaries, who are building a caricature of the South African Communist Party, but grounded in sectarian dogma harking back to a Stalinised dystopia in which some are more equal than others and state terror is the means for social engineering.

These forces are not anachronistic and have the potential to fracture the ANC-led Alliance but also destroy the foundations of South Africa’s constitutional order. To continue an Afro-neoliberal class project is to strengthen these forces. Cyril Ramaphosa’s economic thinking has not displayed a fundamental break with Afro-neoliberalism. His fixation on foreign direct investment, as the basis of growth and development, completely occludes the socio-ecological crisis that is the result of such thinking.

A good example of this is how the business press has been cheering on the potential take-over of Pioneer foods by a US investor as a realisation of Ramaphosa’s dream for investment-led growth. In the context of climate shocks, volatility in globalised food markets and the recent collapse of South Africa’s food system in the drought such investment is certainly not in the national interest.

Also the brazen intention by his government to break up Eskom without a national debate and a clear plan to ensure a just transition for workers and society is a flashpoint that is also gridlocking South Africa’s socially-owned renewable energy transition. Again, the Afro-neoliberal class project expressing the power of credit rating agencies, investors and international institutions like the World Bank is a recipe for major social conflict.

In a climate-driven world, building blocks for society such as food, water and energy have to be ring-fenced as strategic and even anchored around democratic public utilities and other socialised institutional forms. However, these issues do not feature in the Afro-neoliberal reasoning at work in Ramaphosa’s class project.

Hence a weak carbon democracy, anchored in explosive socio-ecological conditions, is being led down a self-destructive path. In short, Afro-neoliberalism, which has been at the heart of ANC rule, through its own anti-democratic practices which privilege the sovereignty of capital, has spawned a state of political disorder which defines South Africa’s second transition.

Political disorder and the uncertainties of South Africa’s future are compounded by the dynamics of intensifying climate chaos. The ANC electoral manifesto does not have anything serious to say about the worsening climate crisis, the lessons to be learned from the drought and the deep just transition required now. Instead, it flaunts commitments to 20th-century style industrial development, a declaratory developmental state and resource nationalism. The ANC is willing to bury its head in the sand regarding the worsening climate crisis and premise its choices for the country on the false dichotomy of carbon development as opposed to addressing a mere “environmental problem”.

This means the ANC simply does not care if more people die from drought, heatwaves, floods and other extreme climate impacts induced by global heating. It does not appreciate the challenge of socio-ecological collapse as an imminent possibility with the worsening climate crisis.

In this context, Barbara Creecy, Minister for Forestry, Fisheries and Environment, does not have a strong mandate from the ANC to advance ambitions climate crisis policy. She is also leading a department that has consistently failed to hold accountable those responsible for carbon and broader toxic air pollution in our society. According to the World Bank, 20,000 people die annually from air pollution. Given that this minister was part of the Gauteng Government responsible for the #LifeEsidemeni tragedy she needs to appreciate that one more death from air pollution because of ineffective regulation is unacceptable.

Gwede Mantashe, Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy, is clearly hell-bent on driving the resource nationalism of the ANC, with more carbon extraction as the “big game-changer”.

Besides having Eskom (number 29 on the list of 100 major carbon polluters in the world) and Sasol (number 45 on the list of 100 major carbon polluters in the world) within his portfolio, his pronouncements about the Total gas find, his opposition to the Xolobeni judgment against extractivism and his commitment to the dubious idea of “clean coal” place him on a collision course with present and future generations. He and the ANC are imposing a death sentence on all life forms through support for carbon interests and the reproduction of this weak carbon democracy. It is not the first time Mantashe is on the wrong side of history. His boisterous support for Zuma was the first.

This time, he and the Afro-neoliberal project of the Ramaphosa regime will have to face the street rage of climate justice forces, led by children and other progressive social forces, rising in the country against human and non-human extinction. Hope born from such rage emerges at a social-ecological breaking point and has been unstoppable in history. Mantashe the Communist dialectician should know this and heed the warning, because this time he will lose. DM


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