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Toxic politics: Diary of a bad year

It can be exciting, even exhilarating, to witness a real-time shift in the global economic balance of forces. China and India are emerging as new global powers in front of our eyes.

Their emergence is as decisive, defining, irrevocable and irreversible as was the emergence of independent states in Africa, Asia and South America in the 1960s. They marked the collapse of the colonial world order. The world had to be re-imagined, reconfigured.

Being witness to such a global process has made me contemplate how one learns about oneself, one’s family, immediate community and the vast world beyond.

Parts of the world I know because I have lived in them and continue to live in them; others I have heard and read about. Depending on how old I was, I saw, or heard, or read, and contemplated the world. In those ways I became aware of the central importance of cross-generational interaction in the construction of one’s knowledge of oneself and the world.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 occurred long before I was born. I heard and then read about it. I also heard and read about two world wars and the role of German technology in the execution of the second war and the trail of scientific and technical development that saw the United States drop atomic bombs on Japan.

I was at school in Swaziland when an errant copy of Time magazine got me to travel in my imagination with Nelson Mandela, the Black Pimpernel, to Ethiopia, Algeria and China, looping back in historical significance to the independence of Ghana. My South Africa seemed a part of that world spirit. The pulsating urgings of nationalism, accompanied by advances in knowledge and technology, defined my sense of an expanding yet interconnected world, and how much my suffering country was a part of it.

This is the background against which to attempt an approach to an understanding of the current state of South Africa. Hearing, reading, witnessing and contemplating the world, and the manner in which these ways of personally engaging the world are reflected and given play in the network of social institutions, provide a different angle to an understanding of how successful societies replicate their success over time. They provide opportunities for their citizens for seamless cross-generational interactions within the network of private and public institutions that give definition to national effort.

“The institutional landscape continent”
The institutional landscape in South Africa and across the African continent is under severe stress, which affects political parties, governments, parliaments and multilateral organisations of all kinds.

Consider the sudden and unplanned departure of then-president Thabo Mbeki, when the ANC threw away in an instant years of institutional knowledge. It was more than an individual who left. A body of knowledge and experience did too, regardless of how they may have been understood.

Consequently, younger members of the ANC have little access to an aspect of their organisation’s contemporary history; even more so with the remaining elders in the organisation willed against any reference to it. A deep chasm emerged in the interactive space between one generation and another, which will take years to rebuild.

This chasm has spread throughout the network of institutions around the country through a mixture of purges, deployments and reshuffles. Thus the problems of a dominant organisation have spread across the country and into the very fabric of national life.

The sudden expunging of one aspect of organisational experience throws up questions about what kinds of knowledge and experience are left and what new ones will develop within the organisation. What gets left and rises to fill the gap is bound to be influenced by the circumstances of its emergence.

Nothing illustrates this more clearly than the latest case, that of John Block, chairman of the ANC in the Northern Cape and its MEC for finance, who has been arrested and charged with tender fraud. Gwede Mantashe, secretary general of the ANC, has announced that the ANC will not ask Block to step down — that area of responsibility belongs to the premier of the province. This is procedurally appropriate.

However, Hazel Jenkins, the premier, is reportedly fully behind Block and will neither suspend nor fire him. The impact of her stand on the matter is bound to foreground that of President Jacob Zuma, who has to balance party against state interests. He is president of both. While we wait for the disciplinary processes of the party to rule on Block’s conduct, we also wait to see how the president of the republic will exercise his accountability to the state. His choice in the matter will signify his priorities.

But Mantashe’s comments on the matter do hint at the president’s priorities. The unstated background is that Block’s arrest unleashed a groundswell of political support for him in the province that is difficult for party leaders to ignore. To manage this political situation it seems politically prudent to allow the law to take its course while reducing the impact of the legal process by keeping the man in his job. While this re-establishes a precarious balance within the party, it results in anguish for the state and observant citizens who fear the far-reaching impact of this situation on the culture of public systems and wonder about the depth of commitment to the integrity of state institutions by both the president and his party.

The public anguish increases when Mantashe compares the position of the ANC on the Block issue with Mbeki removing his deputy president, Zuma, from office in 2005 following allegations of corruption. The implication is that Zuma should have remained in his office despite the allegations against him.

We cannot tell for sure what Mbeki’s overarching motives were but we must focus on the impact of leadership decisions on the workings of the state or the party in balancing the interests between the two.

This reopens the debate on the issue of the legal presumption of innocence. Whatever Mantashe may personally think of the matter, the import of his and his party’s stand suggests they are of the view that someone who is legally presumed innocent can then be presumed substantively innocent by a party official outside of the processes of the justice system for the purposes of maintaining a balance of interests in the ruling party. This position clearly favours the ruling party but results in anguish for the public system of governance for which the party in government has accountability to all citizens.

From the point of view of the public, the presumption of innocence does not preclude the possibility of guilt, nor does it preclude the possibility of legal innocence. What is decisive here is the possibility of guilt as rendered probable against accumulated implicative evidence. To protect the integrity of public office and the governance systems of the state from the corrosions of public suspicion and trust is a legitimate reason to suspend an affected officer from office. The demise of deputy president Zuma back in 2005 can make sense against this perspective.

When Zuma was asked on television after the recent national general council of the ANC whether he felt his name had been cleared, he said: ‘Absolutely! Absolutely! I am satisfied my name was cleared. The ANC thought I should be the president. And they made me the president.”

Innocence conferred
According to Zuma, the ANC conferred innocence on him. In the same way, innocence has been conferred on Block. Innocence was conferred on Travelgate suspects. From then-president Mbeki’s time, the ANC continues to spare no effort to ensure that innocence is conferred on arms-deal suspects (whoever they are) by ensuring that we never ever get to know. The suspects will maintain a silent presence in our society, wreaking moral anxiety.

In all these cases, legally suspect individuals have had innocence conferred on them by their party. Innocence has not been established in a public court of law under the auspices of the state for whose management, according to the Constitution, the ANC has ultimate accountability to citizens.

It is difficult to resist the implication that the phenomenon of politically conferred innocence in the ruling party has assumed official status as a mode of understanding to justify political conduct. If this is so, then the legal culture of public systems countrywide is seriously at risk.

This hazardous situation will not spare even the ANC itself. Its internal accountability systems will surely deteriorate as corruption, legitimised by the conferred innocence of legally suspected individuals, will thrive uncontrollably, consuming the organisation itself. In this way the organisation will ensure that the legacy of its corroded systems will surely pass on to future generations of its members and, by definition, to the rest of the country.

This is a serious condition in our democracy that the electorate will have to decide if it can live with and, if so, for how long.

The prospects for the survival of our democracy if this situation were to be prolonged is best appreciated through what could happen. It is not a random scenario. It emerges from a reading of public messages and their possible meanings, which can reasonably be inferred from events that, taken as a whole, result in the scenario. It brings together politics, the economy, defence and state security, foreign relations and social systems. It speaks of the extent to which a young person growing up in South Africa can be shaped by forces around him or her to be a part of systems of growth and sustainability or systems of decay.

To begin with, it is not unlikely that politics in South Africa is being monetised through political party involvement in commercial investing. The ANC sets the public example of this process through the business it conducts through Chancellor House, its investment arm.

ANC may be the richest political party in the world
In the minds of many, the ANC, once at the vanguard of one of the greatest humanistic revolutions in history, may arguably have become the richest political party in the world. In a period of fierce capital accumulation, this development may not be that surprising but it does bring about a scenario in which a party in government is in competition with its own citizens for commercial gain. In that position it has the capability to corrupt public systems for its benefit.

The party of a government in power, which competes with its own citizens for commercial gain, can be tempted to seek a monopoly over political and economic power by any means and for as long as possible. It can transform (or deteriorate) into a commercial syndicate carrying out some of its business clandestinely in the shadow of its political legitimacy.

It can display at least four defining features of governance in a country in which the identities of nation and dominant party have coalesced, even in a democracy: secrecy and selective messaging through media control; paternal surveillance through state security agencies, with the army partly transformed into a school for patriotism (and the chilling prospect that it can be deployed against the ‘unpatriotic”); populist self-assertion where quantity (a million-member campaign, accumulation of ministries) is valorised above the selective, qualitative rigours of a professional yet caring state; and enormous wealth and privilege for those at or close to the centre of power.

Monetisation of politics will also drive funding for electoral campaigning with direct threats to our sovereignty particularly where such funding is from foreign sources. Capital accumulation at home and the low ethical demands that accompany it will feed into foreign policy objectives abroad.

The uses of a scenario are that it can be contemplated. It is not necessarily a reflection of an achieved reality as such, but an indication of the likelihood of its occurrence if a trajectory of events follows the emergent pattern discerned.

If we put the above scenario in the context of the seismic shifts currently under way in the global economic order, we can ask whether as a country we are responding to them with the requisite robustness and creativity of a nation that has dedicated itself to a constitutional future. We can ask whether in the international arena we have identified our niche in the light of our solemn commitments at home. We can ask whether we are confident enough in the success of our national project at home as a foundation against which to assert our solemn homegrown principles even against the most powerful countries in the world.

South Africa cries out for citizen stimulation beyond politics, even more so when the stimulation that emanates from there is more constrictive than expansive, more absorptive than permissive. The span of human aspiration is disproportionately, if obsessively, concentrated in the domain of politics. The increasing centralisation of effort this implies works in the direction of the scenario above through the cooperation of the entire social sphere.

The truth behind rich and poor
To broaden the range of social stimulation we should remember that poverty will not be eliminated by more money. We know of very rich people who are profoundly poor. Poverty is eliminated by a lifestyle of communal endeavour in which social effort is coordinated rather than controlled for universal benefit. Strong institutions across the span of social interests will provide a wider net for South Africans to interact for an overarching national purpose.

As signs of a global economic recovery become stronger, South Africa needs to respond with strong internal governance capability. To achieve this capability in the long term, we must prioritise education and community building over the next two decades as foundations for a robust and lasting democracy. These will be the sources of our internal strengths and the basis of our contribution to a desirable partnership with China, India and Brazil, all pressing forward to alter global power relations significantly.

Only on this basis do we have a chance to be an effective and equal member of that group.
Simultaneously we could take full advantage of the equally positive continental trends of growing and vibrant market economies, elected governments increasingly becoming the norm, and low levels of interstate conflicts. This is overall a promising, emergent African reality, offering a relatively stable continent. It is in such a continental environment that as a country we need to provide strong leadership.

The strain that our internal system of governance currently experiences coincides with the rise of new elites and a steady expansion of South African business across the continent.
Do we play rapaciously or do we project our best internal aspirations, and build our capacity and capability to be what we wished to become in 1994?

Njabulo S Ndebele is a writer and research fellow in the Archive and Public Culture Research Initiative at the University of Cape Town.

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