/ 1 June 2009

Toxic balm in the Dinokeng scenarios

The self-appointed “experts” who compiled the Dinokeng Scenarios are worried about the lack of engagement between citizens and the government, and they want us to swallow their “remedies”. They are right to have concerns. The lack of public involvement in meaningful political activity is a huge problem which should be examined, but we should be worried about the prescription.

We need to ask why, when between 1973 and 1986 public involvement seemed so high, the problem of disengagement has become so profound.

Between 1986 and 1989 mass political activity in South Africa was banned. Leaders were detained and meetings forbidden. Incredibly, after emergency restrictions were lifted, some activism resumed. But after 1990 this was further disrupted by the disbanding of the United Democratic Front (UDF). This inevitable event meant that numerous organisations lost their organic link with Charterism which existed under the UDF umbrella. These organisations did not develop links with local ANC structures. Politics became a vocation separate from other civil society activities, self-contained and vulnerable to careerism. There was no independent forum for discussing party issues.

After liberation, foreign funding for most NGOs dried up. However, the surviving NGOs could rely upon the new constitutional, democratic structures of the state, particularly the courts. Hence those NGOs which could get funding tended to replace voluntarism with professionalism, setting up salaried offices which gradually absorbed the whole NGO. NGOs thus also lost organic links with civil society. This dependence on funding promoted the rise of business-oriented NGOs, or “BONGOs”, which may sometimes serve public interests, but their loyalty and agenda derive from corporations.

In the past such organisations did not harm democracy — nobody in the 1980s pretended that the Free Market Foundation was a civil society group — but now such organisations appropriate civil society’s function and claim a popular base which seldom exists.

When the ANC decided to adopt the austere growth, employment and redistribution (Gear) plan, they broke implicit promises, making the ANC vulnerable to populist agitation. Committed to Gear but fearing public criticism, the ANC adopted a facade of unresponsiveness. Since the SACP and Cosatu pursued the populist route, those organisations appeared (probably misleadingly) more democratically open than the ANC.

Inadvertently, the ANC government lost touch with the people. Gear was abandoned after the fiscus was balanced, yet the ANC did not satisfactorily re-engage the public. This collapse of participatory democracy was not only leadership’s fault; it could not have happened had the ANC functioned properly at branch level.

The “Dinokeng Scenarios” set out to address this problem. Of three “scenarios”, two assume bad outcomes, one assumes good ones. Bad outcomes arise, allegedly, out of bad decisions.

One such “scenario” assumes continued present policies, assuming that changing conditions will not change the implementation of policies. Hence crisis increases, provoking an unexplained “rift” between government and citizens, leading to growing crime and union power and the collapse of political society. If one assumes consistently bad decisions, this “Colombia” conclusion is possible. But present policies need not necessarily generate bad decisions.

Another scenario presumes the “developmental state” pursued by the ANC, nominally, since 2003. This state intervention initially succeeds, but soon the state alienates business, destroying investment, and the deficit expands until South Africa falls into the hands of the International Monetary Fund and social delivery ceases. This “Zimbabwe” end product requires bad decisions to be made continually and this scenario rubbishes policies which have succeeded in East Asia.

In contrast, the “good decision” calls for a civil society based on parent-teacher associations and medical aids to arise, for the ruling party to adopt the DA’s rhetoric of “competence” and thus lose votes, forcing it to coalesce with the DA. Business then helps develop a “social pact” and provides services (somehow, this is supposed to help “citizens work with government”). This somehow encourages business to make social investment, “citizens” to further support opposition parties, and proportional representation to be replaced by a constituency system. This “scenario” embodies no logical argument; it is a conservative white business people’s wish list.

Business pretends that present policies or more interventionist policies must fail, because business wants a politically weak state to serve business interests. Hence the calls for “public-private partnerships”, which benefit the private more than the public.

This “civil society” resembles a depoliticised white suburb where the school PTA and the Lions’ Club meeting are the political interface. The trouble is that corporations engage with the public as consumers, without democracy or consultation.

It is a “scenario” that undermines, rather than fosters political engagement. It also offers little for the poor. Rather, it seeks to expand and perpetuate present depoliticisation so as to serve the richest of the rich. Realistically, this would probably combine the worst of the two negative “scenarios”, as the public battles bad corporate-led governance (as in Argentina), while corporate warlords rule (as in Angola). This is the future that big business (and its friends in Zuma’s government) wants for us. We don’t have to accept it.

Dr Mathew Blatchford lectures at the University of Fort Hare