‘Radical’ change is our collective responsibility

The first half of 2014 experienced a continuum that should be natural in a democracy: electoral campaigning, a popular mandate and the translation of that mandate into a government programme, as reflected in the processing by the Cabinet of the medium-term strategic framework and last week’s State of the Nation address. In this sense, South African democracy is becoming ever more predictable as it matures, at least in its rituals.

But how do these rituals relate to matters of substance? What is the high-level meaning of the outcome of the elections and its implications for policy going forward?

All agree that South Africa’s fifth democratic elections confirmed the maturing of our democracy. We can debate the quality of electoral discourse as well as the meaning of the levels of registration and voter turnout compared to the previous election. But with registration above 80% of eligible voters and voter turnout at about 75%, electoral participation remains high.

The acceptance of the results by the participants – which is a critical measure of the legitimacy of any elections – and the stable 1.3% proportion of spoilt votes in both 2009 and 2014, point to a polity that enjoys popular legitimacy.

What about the actual outcome?

The first, and perhaps most important, issue is that about 92% of the electorate supports the National Development Plan. The NDP issues may have been buried in the electoral clutter out on the hustings. Yet, though they may quibble about the capacity of, and commitment by, the government to implement it, the majority of the parties support the NDP.

There are other major trends that have not found prominence in post-election analysis.

The main schools of thought in South African politics have remained within their historical ranges. The broad liberation movement – what can be referred to as ANC+, including the Congress of the People (Cope) in 2009 and now the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) – has garnered between 63% and 73% since 1994.

From the combined 22% of the National Party and the Democratic Party in 1994, support for “the DA+” (with the Democratic Alliance including the erstwhile Independent Democrats and New National Party) has ranged between 16% and 23% in the same period.

The gains that the DA has made in “traditional” African constituencies may reflect changing race dynamics. This confirms an interesting trend that small breakaways from the ANC such as the United Democratic Movement and Cope seem to act as transit stations for those who become disillusioned with the ANC. At the same time, the ANC seems to have consolidated its support among the coloured community in the Northern Cape and rural parts of the Western Cape.

It should be worthy of celebration that, both in 2009 and 2014, the three largest parties – including Cope in 2009 and now the EFF – have a national, rather than regional, footprint. Further, that the ANC has again increased its support in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) cannot be attributed merely to the ethnic origins of its president. Indeed, since 2004, the KZN provincial administration has specifically targeted rural areas (particularly north of the Tugela River) for “social delivery”. And so, profound material self-interest has had a major impact on voting trends in this province, untangling the web of ethno-cultural allegiances.

It can be argued that the centre of gravity of South African politics is shifting leftward. This is reflected both in the rhetoric of the EFF and the fact that the DA has in its pronouncements moved closer to the policies of ANC.

One can split hairs about the gulf between rhetoric and conduct on the part of some EFF leaders. But the reality is that their message has found resonance within an important section of society – including educated young Africans.

The fact that this constituency represents a school of thought that has elected to stay in the tent, rather than emigrate from electoral politics, cannot be decried. One can begrudge the DA for its policy contortions. But to the extent that these reflect an acknowledgement that it cannot make much headway without embracing the key concerns of the majority of the people does speak to the centrality of these issues in mainstream South African politics.

What about the concerns of the so-called black “middle class”? Some of the shifts in this regard may be reflected in low voter turnout, but also in the fact that, except for marginal gains in Buffalo City, on aggregate the ANC’s tally in the metros declined by some 10.3%. The DA gained 6.5% and the EFF garnered 11.4%. In part, this suggests disaffection among sections of poor and working-class voters – but, critically, it also represents the voice of middle strata that are dissatisfied with specific issues.

Now, a convenient response can be that this section of society is lost and confused – and that the government can, to paraphrase Bertolt Brecht, dissolve the black middle class and elect another!

Some even argue that these strata tend, as a principle, to vacillate – that they cannot be relied on and should be jettisoned as “a motive force of the revolution”. Scholars of Indian politics have written about the “great Indian middle class” and how its electoral fickleness has undermined the performance of the Indian Congress Party over the years, leading to the rout that it experienced in that last election.

The South African black middle class is, in the main, a product of policies of social change. Though their rise and sustenance depend directly or indirectly on government policies, they do not rely on state largesse in the form of access to water, electricity, social grants and other such basic services. And so, as in India and elsewhere, other issues such as probity, ethics, accountability, decency in the conduct of politics and, in Gauteng, e-tolls, start to assume prominence in their voting behaviour or even electoral participation.

The question that needs to be asked is whether their primary concerns are, in fact, inimical to the cause of social transformation. And the answer is a firm no! Probity, ethics, accountability and decent political conduct are critical attributes of the national democratic society that the ANC seeks to build. Thus, in the 2012 preface to its strategy and tactics document the ANC condemns “new expressions of corruption and greed, which not only result in the wastage of public resources but also undermine the confidence of our people in government and in our movement”. In other words, if these issues influence middle-class voter participation, it is not so much the mote in the middle class’s eye (to paraphrase Matthew 7:5) but the beam in thine own eye that should concern the ANC.

Even with regard to e-tolling, the fact that most of the protesters were not against paying for the highway upgrades as such does show that the challenge was more about the payment system. The Gauteng MEC for transport seems to acknowledge this in asserting that, though the existing system cannot be reversed, a fresh look will be required with regard to future upgrades.

And so, arising out of the election trends is the broader question of how the newly elected government and the other social partners can and should respond. The fact that more than 90% of the electorate voted for parties that support the NDP should serve as the starting point.

South Africans want a state that is legitimate, efficient and ethical. They are impatient that the economy should be set on a high-growth path; they prefer that such growth should be combined with equity. Shorn of all the detail, this is what the NDP calls for. The radical in “radical” should be about these fundamental matters.

What does this mean in actual practice? A few issues in the NDP merit highlighting.

With regard to the state, radicalism has to include the totality of measures required to improve its capacity to implement its policies. Be it in relation to economic and social infrastructure or the industrial policy action plans, the intent of government should be felt in actual implementation – informed by clear high-level objectives that are understood by public servants, the private sector and civil society alike.

In addition to creating jobs and providing basic services, an argument in the NDP that has not received much attention is about the set of measures that are required to reduce the cost of living for the poor. Among these are the cost of basic necessities such as food, administered prices that include energy and municipal rates, transport costs and the very serious challenge of high mark-ups over cost in South Africa’s product markets.

And, although not adequately canvassed in the NDP, a radical programme of transformation should include measures to address inequality by ensuring that economic growth is pro-poor. This can be done through income and minimum-wage policies to stem the “trickle-up effect” and through economic empowerment policies that emphasise employee share ownership schemes.

The NDP asserts that undue political interference in the work of the bureaucracy and micromanagement undermine the stability and professionalism of the public service, attributes that have been fundamental to the success of East Asian developmental states. In this context it proposes that an administrative head of the public service should be appointed to manage recruitment and the careers of senior managers.

Related to this and fundamental to the state’s popular legitimacy are comprehensive and decisive measures to shore up the ethical foundations of the state. “If corruption is seen as acceptable in government, it will affect the way society conducts itself,” the NDP argues. But it also decries incidences of corruption within the private sector and calls for an obligation on this sector to use the criminal justice system, not merely administrative sanctions, to deal with corrupt activity: “Additional consideration could be given to making it a requirement for businesses to include corruption cases in their annual reports to increase transparency and build public trust.”

What this underlines is that, precisely because the challenges facing the country cannot be dealt with by any of the social partners alone, a radical way of doing things should permeate all of society. For instance, economic sectors and individual companies should be crafting strategies that align their core mandates with the NDP. Shareholders, boards and managers alike should look beyond the short term and ensure that investments are measured also “by the development of human capital, management of innovative potential, compensation aligned with value creation, supply chains that are sustainable and measurable evidence of the overall contribution of the enterprise to society”, to quote Lynn Forester de Rothschild, chief executive of EL Rothschild, and founder and cohost of the 2014 Conference on Inclusive Capitalism (Financial Times, May 21).

Radicalism on the part of trade unions should include the promotion of workers’ interests, the elimination of the social distance that has developed between leaders and the led, and the mastery of strategies that reap benefits for workers without creating a scorched earth. In the words of the NDP, in a “developmental state, unions share responsibility for the quality of services delivered, for improving the performance of government, and for fighting corruption and inefficiency”.

Furthermore, civil society radicalism should be reflected in activism by the religious community and among intellectuals, the youth, women and others to promote both the sectoral and collective interests.

The outcome of the elections communicates a clear message about the needs, concerns and aspirations of South African society. At its core is the issue of economic growth with equity, under the leadership of a state that enjoys popular legitimacy. But these aspirations can only be met if all societal leaders seriously work towards a social compact of common interests.

In other words, there are historical moments when it is truly “radical” to rise above the false comfort of ideological fundamentalisms.

Joel Netshitenzhe is the executive director of the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection. Visit mistra.org.za

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