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Where to from here, South Africa?

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Ashley Forbes became active in student organisations while at high school, and was active in the establishment of the United Democratic Front in 1983. He later joined uMkhonto we Sizwe, the military wing of the ANC. He went into exile in 1986 and completed his military training in Angola. After his release from Robben Island in 1991 he completed a three-year Business Management diploma in Singapore. He assisted with the establishment of the Robben Island Museum and returned to the island in an act of unintended irony to take up the position of Estates and Services Manager. He is currently a fundraiser for a variety of NPOs in Cape Town.

The ANC has accomplished what the full might of the apartheid government could not do during the height of state repression in the mid-1980s. Enabled by the elite, it has destroyed our once glorious liberation movements, co-opted our once-powerful trade union federations, incapacitated our once-respected student and women’s organisations, and relegated our once-vanguard of the poor, the SACP, to the dark alleyways of power.

Like so many South Africans I sat, beer in hand, around a roaring fire with three buddies on Heritage Day. I was blown away by the diverse points of view and opinions held by this small sample of South Africans as we discussed our history, politics, cultures, and society. During this easy time of reflection, some views were thoroughly amusing while others were rather depressing.

Whatever the orientation, we all fundamentally agreed from the outset that South Africa is a place like no other in this whole world.

We spoke about how challenges to European colonialism began in 1914 and how by 1960 a good number of African and Asian states achieved autonomy or outright independence from their colonial masters. Although South Africa became a Union in 1910, the country was still regarded as a colony of Britain till 1961 after it became the Republic of South Africa.

The twist in the tail is that South Africa did well to expel foreign colonial conquerors, but instead of extending independence to all citizens, South Africa opted to create what has often been referred to as “colonialism of a special type”. All the features of foreign domination were transferred internally to a small white elite who excluded most of the population from political life and shut them out from the wealth created.

So, while the phase of violent conquests by European nations disappeared from the world scene after the 1960s, South Africa experienced a “colonialism of a special type” when the majority of the population continued to be dominated by a white minority that existed inside the country.

As if this was not in itself an absurd and cruel feat, South Africa went on to create the only formal, racially institutionalised political and economic system in the world, that was referred to as apartheid. Within the white colonial bloc, monopoly capital wielded enormous power, concentrated in the hands of a few, controlling the most significant sectors of the economy such as mining, manufacturing, finance, agriculture and services.

While capital accumulation is a feature of most societies, the absurd level of concentration in South Africa was unprecedented. By the mid-1980s, 2.7% of enterprises controlled more than 50% of our country’s total turnover and 6% owned 85% of all fixed assets.

Under the weight of nationwide unrest, international sanctions and the people’s war, in 1994 South Africa elected to create a wholly imported, Western-style democracy based on such values as freedom, equality, free speech, the rule of law and the sanctity of private wealth accumulation. Through a well-orchestrated series of economic policies from Growth, Employment and Redistribution (Gear) to the current Growth Path, monopoly capitalists were empowered to grow their wealth even further by focusing on privatisation and the liberalisation of exchange controls.

These economic strategies have allowed the wealthy elite to expand their vast empires outside the borders of the country and comfortably reach the highest form of capitalism, which is imperialism. These few South African capitalists have now extended their dominance beyond national borders into the global economy. After three decades of democracy, it is not coincidental that South Africa is now the most unequal society in the world, where about 80% of total wealth is held by 10% of the adult population and the top 1% holds the biggest chunk.

According to the Bloomberg Billionaire Index, as of 5 September 2021, Johann Rupert and his family have an estimated worth of R134-billion, just eclipsing his nearest competitor, Nicky Oppenheimer. Poverty, on the other hand, has increased for the majority of the population, as more middle-income earners, black and white, slip below the poverty line.

South Africa’s unemployment rate of 34.4% is the highest in the world. South Africa has the highest failure rate among SMMEs in the world and has a credit rating that is three levels below investment grade.

My buddies and I moved things up a level, proceeded to open the hot stuff, while the question that lingered on everyone’s mind was: “how can South Africa improve on this list of unimaginable, negative indicators?”

But before we could answer the question “where to from here”, we first had to take stock of where our country is right now. We discussed how most South Africans do not have confidence in any of the political parties in play. They have lost faith in the institutions of government to bring about any meaningful change. South Africans do not trust the institutions of state to protect the values and ideals that are enshrined in our Constitution. Our economy has been flat over the past decade.  Poverty has steadily increased and the standard of living of the average citizen is in fast decline, with rising prices and salary increases way below inflation.

The current ruling, dominant ANC government has accomplished what the full might of the apartheid government could not do during the height of state repression in the mid-1980s. Enabled by the elite, it has destroyed our once-glorious liberation movements, co-opted our once-powerful trade union federations, incapacitated our once-respected student and women’s organisations and relegated our once-vanguard of the poor, the SACP, to the dark alleyways of power.

The majority of South Africans have woken up and it is no longer business as usual. The discontent from below that has been brewing for decades is now bubbling to the surface. While many South Africans have given up on democracy, they have not given up on showing their dissatisfaction through protests that have been steadily escalating in number and virulence over time.

By the time I dig up my flat pot with the potbrood and take the other round of potjie with lamb stew off the coals, friend number one was ready to suggest that President Cyril Ramaphosa is ideally positioned within the billionaire club to drive the interests of the wealthy elite. He explained that many South Africans trust our battered president more than they do the institution of the ANC, and he has a fighting chance to get a second term in office.

While playing the long game to secure his presidency, he fails to deal decisively with corruption and theft of taxpayer’s money for fear of isolating any corrupt formations and networks inside the party that he hopes may vote for him at the 55th Elective Conference of the ANC in December 2022. Trillions of taxpayers’ rands have been stolen from the public purse and while President Ramaphosa will not act decisively against corruption to recoup these funds, he has managed to embroil us all in R500-billion worth of debt, borrowed from the IMF and World Bank to replenish our looted state coffers.

According to friend number two, South Africans will come to learn who President Ramaphosa really is if he succeeds in securing a second, five-year term in office. He has already centralised all critical decision-making bodies by locating them solidly within the office of the president. He has brought the most strategic department of state, intelligence, under the direct control of the presidency.

All that remains is to tighten his grip on the police and army, get elected as president in 2022 and then the real show will begin. The position of president is the only position in government that no one political party has the power to remove. The president will have the power, if he so chooses, to break ranks with the ANC, aggressively prosecute all corrupt ANC members even if it splits the organisation in the interests of the public good.

Friend number two predicts that he will sweep any discussions on the land question, nationalisation and fundamental economic change under the carpet, as has been done over the past three decades.

The president will transform himself into a popular reformer and corruption buster, will try to secure international investments, and kick-start the economy with a newly constructed growth path, supposedly to create jobs and prosperity for all. Popular discontent may escalate, but the president, who has concentrated power around himself, will deal decisively with any challenges to his authority.

South Africa will then create a uniquely 21st-century dictatorship that can be sold as “democracy of a special type” and the elite will surely increase its wealth exponentially, and more and more, the masses of our people will be driven into abject poverty.

Friend number two tried to answer the question by using the analogy of the runaway train. He says that South Africa will never improve its rating of being the most unequal society in the world. All that is going to happen is that the economic and political powers that be will keep the country on its current economic trajectory. He says that passengers on the runaway train will be assuaged, made to feel content with business as usual, ignorant of the fact that there is no train driver, that the train is incrementally increasing in speed, that the train will eventually run out of tracks and plunge itself into an abyss.

He predicts that in this scenario, the ANC’s alliance partners, Cosatu and the SACP, and the ANC Women’s and Youth Leagues will become far more vocal in their support of the president and the ANC. Those politicians, economists, intellectuals and huge media organisations that are owned by the elite will continue to peddle the myth that South Africa is on the right track and that there are no real benefits to changing course.

Only cosmetic changes will be made to appease citizens, as has been done for the past 27 years. Promises will be made and never kept. All the right things will continue to be said while major decisions will be deferred to commissions and delayed for years.

Friend number two concluded by saying that in this scenario the political, social and economic status quo will continue just as it has for the past 27 years. The majority of people will be kept in this purgatory of inertia, while the wealthy elite concentrates its wealth and expands the gap of inequality even further.

Friend number three began sketching a scenario that was literally out of this world. He believed strongly that nobody should bother to do anything for our people, or the planet. He believes that the wealthy elite of this world has already decided to mine the planet to death, or until it is uninhabitable for human beings and for life in general. Space is the new frontier that the super-rich have in their sights to colonise. The starting ticket price on Virgin Galactic to be transported to the edge of space is about $450,000 (about $11,250 per day for life support and “toilet”) although the prices may fall over the next 10 years, to about $100,000.

Elon Musk stated in 2016 that a round-trip ticket to Mars could in future only cost about $200,000. According to friend number three, every South African should work very hard to make as much money as possible in the little time that we have left, and hopefully pass some wealth on to our children so that maybe one could afford a third-class ticket to a space station orbiting the moon or have enough money to bribe someone to stow away on a cargo carrier that is on a one-way trip to Mars.

I don’t know if it was his intense demeanour as he sketched this scenario or whether the “green, green grass of home” began to take effect, but the three of us simultaneously found release in laughter. We could not help thinking about all the weird and wonderful ideas that must be circulating on National Braai Day.

We began to imagine what Johann Rupert and Nicky Oppenheimer may be contemplating on this Heritage Day as they gaze at the distant stars of the Milky Way that drapes their sprawling properties while their smart butler ignites their gas barbeques, opens their $49,000 1996 Dom Perignon Rosé Gold Methuselah bottle of Champagne, and raising the awnings to provide some protection from the wind, offers to light their $1.3-million-a-stick Gurkha Royal Courtesan cigars. DM

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