/ 7 November 2008

SA is not as stable as we think

In the aftermath of the ANC decision to recall former president Thabo Mbeki, one of the most serious warnings was sounded by his brother.

In the aftermath of the African National Congress (ANC) decision to recall former president Thabo Mbeki, one of the most serious warnings was sounded by his brother, Moeletsi, namely that the ANC is exposing South Africa to the risk of civil war.

As far as could be established, little further media attention was paid to this warning from one of South Africa’s best political analysts, and it is certainly worth pondering.

At the risk of generalising too much, it is striking that a lot of the political analysis since Mbeki was toppled sounds as if South Africa is a stable liberal democracy in the midst of a simple change of government. Nothing could be further from the truth.

South Africa’s most important historical challenge remains the establishment of harmony between the country’s various communities on the basis of economic self-sufficiency.

A number of policies that could achieve this goal include mother-tongue based education and economic development; the devolution of capital to local community level; a strategy for rural development; and a social pact between business, labour, civil society and the state to carry out such policies. Unfortunately none of this is visible in the current political scene.

Perhaps this kind of thinking is absent from the current political scene because so much of South Africa’s political analysis opts for the previous political dispensation as the point of comparison for the current political dispensation.

This comparison is not without worth, but it fails to take account of the continuities in South Africa’s political economy over the past 150 years. If one wants to make sense of what is happening now in South Africa, these continuities might be useful.

It can be argued that since the middle of the 19th century, South Africa has had a state with executive capacity under the control of a minority elite, maintaining its control over the country through a strategy of divide and rule.

Historically this elite has, in conjunction with the corporate sector, acted as intermediary with South Africa’s most important trading partners. In the process it has maintained an economic structure benefiting a limited part of the population, while not recognising and mobilising South Africa’s cultural diversity and communities creatively and democratically. Tools with which other countries have been modernised, including the state, education, transport and communication, have been used for elite modernisation and to ensure cheap energy and labour for the economy.

Whenever the controlling elite in South Africa has been challenged by, mainly, Afrikaner and African nationalists, its response has been co-optation. In the long run this state of affairs is, of course, not sustainable, and the way the Mbeki administration has run the country might have taken the system to its limits.

Instead of learning from the failures of Afrikaner nationalism, the Mbeki administration applied its peculiar mixture of neo-liberal economics and African nationalism to South Africa.

One of its main challenges was to live up the fiction of a black middle-class. This was mainly done by using the state, as well as policies like affirmative action and BEE, to create a black middle-class. Both of the latter policies maintained the classical elite strategy of co-optation (on the basis of race), instead of seriously reforming the very political economy responsible for social inequality in South Africa.

In the process the state and infrastructure was seriously weakened to the point where restoring it will take much more than just a new government.

Up to 60% of South Africa’s people have not tasted ”a better life for all”, and fourteen years of largely commodity-based economic growth have not bought stability or narrowed the gap between rich and poor. In fact, South Africa now has one the highest rates of public protest in the world, as Patrick Bond from the Centre for Civil Society of the University of KwaZulu-Natal keeps on pointing out.

It is unlikely that a ”Lekota party” will threaten the ANC’s hegemony, since the constituency of the politicians mentioned in connection with such a party is the same constituency that was defeated at Polokwane last December — the black middle-class. It is also unlikely that the ANC will rupture further soon, as too much economic interest for a new generation of patronage seekers in the current ANC leadership depends on the illusion of party unity.

The fact is that the ANC is a party in disarray, where internal division and violence is on the rise. The clash between the big capitalists and the socialists in the ANC is an explosion waiting to happen, as both sides know all too well that there is simply no serious vision in the ANC unifying them anymore. This lack of vision is all too graphically illustrated by the increasing violence and violent rhetoric in the ANC, as well as the tendency to use quasi-religious revolutionary purity as a political yardstick.

All this is taking place against the backdrop of serious instability in South Africa. This includes: the fact that the government’s commodity bonanza-financed grant system could not prevent May’s xenophobic attacks; the fact that Thabo Mbeki twice in the last four weeks of his term saw fit to remind the security forces to act professionally and maintain the Constitution; representatives of the South African Security Forces Union during August said that they would not intervene if the crowd outside a Zuma court appearance got out of hand, as they themselves support Jacob Zuma; increasing militarisation of ANC gatherings, where MK veterans in military outfits are more visible; and that South Africa’s security forces may be unionised, whereas South Africa’s biggest labour federation is now a serious player in the ANC’s faction fighting.

Those who think that Zuma will provide the necessary leadership to ensure stability must perhaps think again. If there was one issue on which Zuma was consistent since Polokwane last December, it was his preference for Mbeki to finish his full term. Precisely on this issue Zuma failed his first big political test when the mavericks in his party succeeded in toppling Mbeki.

South Africa is certainly facing a period of protracted instability. Our best hope now is to get business and civil society together around a post-nationalistic, community-centred vision for the country.

Johan Rossouw is the editor of the Afrikaans edition of Le Monde diplomatique