August 17 marked the 30th anniversary of the murder of Ruth First. She was an incisive writer, a democrat in undemocratic times, a white woman when to be white meant to be loyal to apartheid, and a woman when to be a woman was to be submissive to maleness. But she was none of these. Instead, First used her life to grapple with questions of power and was killed by a letter bomb.
The anniversary of her death came a day after the Marikana massacre, a troubled time for the democracy she was denied. The coincidence of the two makes this a fitting time to reflect on First's thoughts.
Her 1970 book, Barrel of a Gun, seems an improbable place to start. It describes and analyses the political circumstances that gave rise to a stream of coups in Africa in the 1960s. But it does lead us to ask two questions: What is a coup? And who really holds power in South Africa?
Coups, we used to think, were military-political events. They were once common in other parts of Africa. But in the past two decades they have become something of an anachronism. With the recent exceptions of Côte d'Ivoire, Mali and Madagascar, civilian power has been entrenched and there is greater stability. The wind of democracy has swept away the military elites of First's time.
In this context, South Africa is a democratic touchstone in the new Africa. Our founding mothers and fathers were students of First and sought to protect our democracy by making the Constitution our supreme law. We are safe. But are we? Or have we perhaps been lulled into a false sense of security?
Arrests the state
What is the essence of a coup? Is it to be understood by its form or by its effect? First defined a coup as an act that "arrests the state". It is an odd description. The picture usually conjured up by coups is of people being arrested by the state, not of the state being arrested. In First's lifetime, the most common way to "arrest the state" was through the actions of small bands of men empowered by the barrel of a gun. As she said: "Power lies in the hands of those who control the means of violence."
But in our age the barrel of a gun is no longer the only way to arrest the state. Might it be that power can be seized without being seized? Might it be that power may be taken from under people's noses without even causing us to sneeze?
Looking back on nearly 20 years of our democracy, it might seem heretical to suggest that power in South Africa is not where we think it lies. But it is certainly not with the masses who increasintly cry out for bread, jobs, health and education. Granted, they have a vote. But what does it buy them?
So where is power? I would argue there is strong evidence to indicate that there have been not one but two coups during our short democratic dispensation.
The first coup occurred by stealth sometime in the late 1990s. The men who effected it did so under the cloak of the infamous arms deal. In the guise of a contract to purchase a future means of violence, the will of the people who had expressed opposition to the purchase of arms in their public responses to the defence review was subverted. Weapons were bought regardless.
As significant as the purchase of horribly expensive and unneeded armaments, however, is that the arms deal gave to secretive people a secret power over parts of our government and state, as well as over some of our most powerful politicians. This power continues to be exercised and felt today.
Paul Holden and Hennie van Vuuren sum it up perfectly in their book on the arms deal, The Devil in the Detail: "Over the period from 1995 to 1998, while the defence review was being contested and discussed and dissected, a body of interests was at work while the public's attention was diverted. By the time the review was completed, what had formed was an intricate web of forces: a web of politically connected individuals with stakes in companies that would get rich quick off the arms deal, international lobbyists with access to the very top of the South African government and a defence industry with its future at stake."
Again, breaking from the traditional form of the coup, the second South African coup was not one in which the old leaders were overthrown. Instead, they were democratically removed, depending on how you understand democracy.
It can be argued that the second (ongoing) coup is a much deeper one, because it has resulted in power being transferred to many levels of the state other than the national.
It began with the ascension of Jacob Zuma to the presidency in 2009. Faces changed, but not the guards. The new power spread through the localisation, beneficiation and diversification of corruption.
The tolerance of corruption permitted new elites to gain and hold power. In many parts of South Africa power is no longer vested in constitutional structures – local, provincial or national government. Fiona Forde, for example, writes in her biography of Julius Malema: "As trumped-up as it might sound, Malema was running Limpopo from his Sandown home. Sure, all the right structures were in place in Polokwane, but he had put all his men and women in positions that mattered and a premier that was amenable to his ways."
Malema's story is by no means unique. Every municipality has its own Pétit Julius. It illustrates how power has frequently been transferred to criminal elites. The new "military" has no constitutional power itself but is connected to those with formal political power, those who are able to bend it to their own interests either through blackmail or enticement.
Surely this is the only way to understand the government's apparent impotence in the textbooks tender in Limpopo and other provinces; the apparent immunity of John Block and his merry men in the Northern Cape; the thousand municipalities that seem hostage to somebody other than the electorate; the deliberate perversion of the notion of "innocent until proven guilty" to allow tainted persons to hold lucrative office while the broken wheels of justice inch forward.
So, back we must go to the words of First. "Africa needs a pitiless look at herself," she said. "It must be a long look, without the sentimentality which is the other side of colonial patronage." If we take this long look at South Africa, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that while we have danced to the songs of democracy and played in the theatre of Constitutionalism, power has shifted by stealth out of the hands of the people and out of the reach of the Constitution.
The big question is: If all this is true, what can we do about it?
Mark Heywood is the executive director of public-interest law centre Section27