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Contemplating the perfect conditions for famine and a ghastly future

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Ismail Lagardien is a writer, columnist and political economist with extensive exposure and experience in global political economic affairs. He was educated at the London School of Economics, and holds a PhD in International Political Economy.

As the price of food starts to rise, we have dreadful political-economic policies, emerging food scarcity, widespread poverty, crop failures, tensions between rural and urban people, recurrent xenophobia, an erosion of democracy and persistent attacks on the press. We’re approaching the definitional bases for a famine.

It’s tough to come out and say it under current circumstances, but Cyril Ramaphosa may be the last good president South Africa will have for at least another decade or two. Perish the thought that we may have to endure several more years beyond that… The great fear that has slipped into my mind (there really are no limits to thinking) is that South Africa may be in the process of laying the foundations for a famine, and a ghastly future overseen by potentially dangerous populists and revolutionaries. I sincerely hope I am wrong. 

Nevertheless, the statement about Ramaphosa should not be misconstrued as a complete endorsement of his leadership. It also does not ignore any of his failings. It is simply a claim that it’s difficult to identify a candidate beyond Ramaphosa who fully understands the problems that beset the country. 

The liberation movement that governs – they really have not made the transition to being a “political party” – is becoming exposed, almost weekly, as thoroughly incompetent and at war with itself. For the liberation movement, the focus is on saving itself, first, and if that is good for South Africa it’s all good and well. Everything may well end up in tatters. We should not imagine it’s impossible. When pushed, I don’t envisage a future South Africa “like Zimbabwe”, I look further north to countries like Liberia or the Democratic Republic of the Congo (but I keep telling myself that I have to be wrong)…

As for the current crop of leaders – especially among parliamentary backbenchers – there are very few people who can read or write complex sentences. They may know the words and melody of every song they sing and dance to, but (in my direct experience), they are quite unable to understand the significance of their own actions. They are, in strict Marxist terms, “a suffering, conditioned and limited [species], like animals and plants”. If this holds, the good news is that they cannot hold on to their seats on the backbenches indefinitely.  

To paraphrase the claim by a former US secretary of the treasury, who said of the dollar in the early 1970s, “It may be our currency, but it’s your problem”, we may not be members or supporters of the liberation movement that governs, but they are our problem. 

The horror lies waiting 

I write this as we watch the price of food rising because of Russia’s war on the Ukrainian people. Along with this, there are states of affairs and policies that when viewed together echo the definition of famine. We have dreadful political-economic policies, there is emerging food scarcity, widespread poverty, crop failures and tensions between rural and urban people, South African nationals and foreigners. We should not make the mistake of thinking “it can’t happen here” – as Sinclair Lewis wrote about creeping fascism in the 1930s. 

It does not help that the horror that lies in waiting, beyond Ramaphosa and the liberation movement, is a multi-cephalic monster made up of populists – 21st-century fascists who represent a uniquely South African brand of ethnonationalism – and politicians who have a very poor and terribly myopic (and nostalgic) understanding of long-run social and historical forces that shape (and reshape) our times. The latter would imagine a return to the political-economic rhetoric of the Soviet era, and the former represent the latest incarnation of the organic fascism that marked the inter-war period of the last century. Both represent the political economy of disaster, chaos, authoritarianism, rapine and revenge – behind a fig leaf of social and economic justice, and/or a fealty that places the liberation movement that governs before the country.  

As for the populists and those hankering for a return to orthodox Marxist-Leninism, as do Julius Malema, individual members of the South African Communist Party, Irvin Jim, Zwelinzima Vavi and those hiding in plain sight behind pretensions of social or economic justice, we can expect rhetoric of “a Hundred Flowers” – not what may follow after the revolution. It was Marx, himself, I think, who wrote (I paraphrase): never ask someone to tell you about themselves. They will only tell you nice things about themselves. South African revolutionaries will insist that they will get right what the Soviet Union tried to achieve in 70 years. 

It is telling that some of their ideological predecessors, notably Chairman Mao, claimed that Joseph Stalin (for instance) had made a mess of his attempts to consolidate power and that he (Mao) would get things right. In a speech delivered in February 1957, On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People, which was to be the beginning of the Hundred Flowers Movement, Mao made the argument that he knew better, and would be a better leader for the people of China. What happened over the next three to four years has gone down as Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” – disaster and famine.  

Mao, believing he would get right what Stalin got wrong, implemented a set of policies that plunged the country into a catastrophe in which tens of millions of lives were lost through exhaustion, illness, torture and hunger. I am completely sure that Mao did not say, at the outset, that millions of people would die between 1958 and 1962. And so, the revolutionary leaders who may follow Ramaphosa will (for example) not tell us how many people will die or suffer humiliation, degradation, alienation, poverty and hunger after they take over the government and the presidency. 

Withhold the bad news 

The development economist Amartya Sen was quite forthright in his view that famines are made by bad policies (and curbs on a free press). With his “entitlement approach”, Sen drew attention to the availability of food and the inability (of the poor and the hungry) to access the food to which they are legally or socially entitled. So, even under conditions where a lot of food is available, “starvation” occurs because of the “inability to establish entitlement to enough food”, by the poor and the hungry.  

The irony is that the direct effects of famine are felt by one group of people while the actual decisions that caused the famine are invariably made by political leaders who, unsurprisingly, never starve – until the point where the electorate puts them out to pasture.  

As I tried to explain in this space previously, Ramaphosa does not have the time to address all the problems that beset the country, but that is the least of his problems. What lies in wait are hard-line Marxist-Leninists, revolutionaries and populists who are building their support bases to become the next government of South Africa. Should this happen, we should not be surprised if the country enters a period of hardship as the revolutionaries attempt to “get right” what their ideological predecessors failed to achieve. 

As things stand, it is hard to find someone who is not ethically compromised as well as to gain an understanding of the social and historical situatedness of the domestic and external pressures on South Africa’s political economy. I get the sense, and have some insights, albeit limited, that Ramaphosa knows what is required to address the multidimensional crisis the country faces. He dares not tell the electorate the bad news. It will not get him re-elected.  

Although I was not smitten with Václav Havel (as a politician), I always remember his New Year’s address in 1990. “For 40 years you heard from my predecessors on this day different variations on the same theme: how our country was flourishing, how many million tons of steel we produced, how happy we all were, how we trusted our government, and what bright perspectives were unfolding in front of us. I assume you did not propose me for this office so that I, too, would lie to you.” 

And so… South Africa faces several difficult years with food prices increasing, spreading food shortages, government policies and institutions failing, high levels of poverty, unemployment and inequality, a xenophobic society, unspeakable daily violence and democracy gradually being eroded, with a rise of revolutionaries and populists promising they will get things right (like Mao did). This, it seems, is a perfect formula for a ghastly future. None of the revolutionaries or populists holds steadfast to democracy. They want to establish a Marxist-Leninist dictatorship paired with policies of outright rapine and revenge. At the extremes – given, especially, food shortages – we cannot ignore the possibility of famine.  

While I raised the famine that followed Mao’s promise of getting things right, Amartya Sen focused on the Great Bengal Famine of 1943, the Ethiopian famines of 1973 and 1974, the Bangladesh famine of 1974 and famines in the African Sahel during the 1970s. They all had one thing in common: the absence of, or very unstable democracy. Sen concluded: “No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy,” in Democracy as Freedom. DM

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  • I used to go with the line that, when comparing SA with Zim,”It could not happen here-we are too strong, too developed, too many First World anchors.” I was wrong and the speed with which it has happened has caught us all unawares. Our only hope is Ramaphosa. What he needs to do is find some safe way to declare a State of Emergency, detain all the main criminals, and meet out some harsh justice and firm crackdowns. If he were to go on TV and make the necessary speech, he would have the backing of the vast majority of South Africans. Democracy has to be temporarily suspended. This in my view is the only way, our only hope.

  • I have to disagree. Ramaphosa is not ‘our only hope’. He is not the silver bullet that many want him to be. He is merely the head of a dysfunctional liberation movement that is, among other things, catastrophically corrupt. In every sense I can think of, the ANC embodies the term “Enemy of the People”. And you want them to declare a state of emergency in order to clean up the rot that they themselves have caused? They will clean it up all right – by sweeping all of their wrongdoings under the carpet. A SoE would simply give them even more freedom to act with impunity for their own self-interest. I don’t trust Ramaphosa after Marikana and I don’t trust him now because he still wears the black, green and yellow.

    No, I’m afraid avoiding famine likely means doing the exact opposite of declaring a SoE. As Ismail Lagardien has pointed out in this article, giving Marxists more freedom to enact their lunatic “solutions” has only ever resulted in death and despair. We do not need a messiah to save us from ourselves. We need a deliberate strengthening of the principles and institutions that make democracies work as they should. More accountability; more responsibility; more checks and balances.

    • Good Morning Stephen. I am no particular fan of Ramaphosa but my views are given recognising the Realpolitiek of our situation i.e. can you see the ANC losing power? Who/what can we offer as an alternative? The opposition is hopelessly splintered and while the obvious solution would be for all of them led by the DA to get together round a table and elect one strong leader in a Centrist party to challenge the ANC, the question is-can you see it happening? So whilst I agree with much of what to say what is your alternative that might have a chance of succeeding??

      • I support your contention … but would insert the word “strong ETHICAL leader” in the observation. Unfortunately … that is a quality that is as rare as hens teeth in politics ! I would suggest on the political front that in SA, Madiba was the last person to display that quality, possibly as the result of his enormous respect and deference for the Arch. Madiba went so far as to say something to the effect that if the ANC does what the apartheid regime did to SA, we would have to do the same to it as we did that with the apartheid regime – and he really meant it !

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