Fans of old vinyl records will know how infuriatingly often the needle can jump and settle into one groove, playing the refrain from that particular track endlessly until nudged back into its spiral progression towards the end of the piece of music.
South Africa needs that nudge. It seems perpetually stuck in a groove whose constant refrain is “watershed”.
In 2016 it was the “watershed” municipal elections and 2017 was the “watershed” of the ANC five-yearly national elective conference. And 2018 was pivoted on the “watershed” question of whether the ruling party’s new leader could not only oust his predecessor from power but also halt state capture and rebuild a corrupted state.
Now we have 2019, an electoral year in which the “watershed” question appears to be less about which party will win the national election and more about whether it will win with a big enough majority to give President Cyril Ramaphosa the additional political space to make more decisive advances with his reform agenda.
What remains clear is that the balance of forces in the ANC is still so delicately poised and the Zuma faction so dangerously anxious about what a Ramaphosa-led administration may have in store for it in terms of accountability for its egregious ethical transgressions of the past decade, and with so much to lose, any slippage in the ANC’s majority will be used against Ramaphosa even to the point of deposing him.
This leads to an acute, and somewhat painful, dilemma and contradiction. The ANC stood by while Jacob Zuma and his cronies ransacked the body politic and looted the state. The sense of betrayal is profound and deeply held. On what possible basis does the ANC deserve support now?
From a progressive perspective Ramaphosa may be the best man for the job — a contested point of view — but does his party deserve another big majority merely because it is the essential vehicle to ensure that he has the necessary mandate to get on with the job and get the parasitic rent-seekers in the nationalist wing of the ANC off his back?
There is no satisfactory answer to the second, corollary question of: “Well, if not the ANC, then whom?” because the harsh reality is that anything less than a 60% or bigger majority for the ANC is too problematic even to contemplate.
Although they do not appear to offer anything substantially different from the ANC on how best to create jobs and sustainable economic growth, the Democratic Alliance might perhaps provide cleaner, more effective government — but there is no evidence to suggest that they can get anywhere near a majority.
As things stand, the DA will do well to increase substantially on the 22% they attained in 2014, let alone the 26% two years later at the “watershed” municipal elections.
In 1979, the Saatchi advertising agency produced one of the iconic electoral campaign posters of all time for the United Kingdom’s Conservative Party — its slogan, above an image of a long line of unemployed people queuing for the dole, was “Labour isn’t working”. It hit the Labour Party hard in its political heartland; it challenged them on their own ideological turf — employment and the hopes of working men and women.
Clearly, the DA has sought to emulate this game-changing campaign slogan with its “The ANC is killing us” poster.
It is a serious, but probably misconceived, attempt to attack the ANC’s core legitimacy with working-class voters. Because 2019 will be an election that will pivot around one central issue — trust — the question is whether the DA will persuade voters that it, rather than the ANC, can be trusted with power.
But back to the electoral dilemma: what is extraordinary is there is no serious green alternative amid the cacophony of the 563 registered political parties. This country is crying out for a red-green alliance — one that can join the dots between social justice and sustainable economics and articulate a powerful alternative vision of how South Africa’s natural and human resources can be developed and deployed.
The work of the new Institute for Economic Justice and of progressive political economists such as Vishwas Satgar at the University of the Witwatersrand is beginning to lay the platform for new thinking and innovation in economic policy and, perhaps, for such a new movement.
When one scans the global horizon, especially in emerging markets and so-called comparative competitors, an objective analysis suggests South Africa is in remarkably good shape — at least in terms of democratic institutions and the rule of law.
But the harsh reality is that global investors are unlikely to come to South Africa’s rescue — at least not in sufficient numbers and volume to create the decent new jobs that are essential if the country is to have a future in which more than a relatively small elite can prosper.
So, the number one mission for Ramaphosa in 2019 — apart from winning the election — is to settle on an analysis of the structural constraints on the economy that commands consensus support and that can, in turn, provide the stimulus for a concerted domestic action plan.
Adopting and slightly adapting economist Thabi Leoka’s approach (she has presented a paper to the presidency on the structural constraints facing the economy — over which there is little consensus at the moment), the three-part strategic mission for 2019-2024 would be to build a home-grown, self-dependent, new manufacturing sector based on renewable energy and increased domestic beneficiation of extractive commodities such as platinum, which will create jobs for working-class men and women.
Second, a fundamental resetting of the public education sector based on good teaching standards and that will create the skills the economy needs — tradecraft and not greater access to university just for the sake of it.
Third, a complete cleaning up of the public service and state-owned enterprises so that they can deliver on their constitutional and statutory mandates in service of society and not hidden, malign, secret nefarious interests connected to the ruling party.
On the third strategic limb, huge progress was made last year and there are sound reasons to be cheerful, optimistic even. South Africa is politically and governance-wise in far better health than at the end of the previous year.
But the president needs to show how the plethora of commissions of inquiry, changes in state-owned enterprise boards and management, and social compact-building processes matter to citizens and lay the platform for improving their lives in concrete, meaningful ways.
Writing this year’s State of the Nation address will be especially tricky. Ramaphosa’s debut performance last year was pulsating — and not just because it was rhetorically so much better than the nine speeches Zuma delivered during his truncated term as president. This year, Ramaphosa must set out a convincing case for his presidency that builds trust where he needs it most — with the wider electorate.
Although he must also set the foundation for the sort of strategic attack on the structural constraints to sustainable economic growth that must be delivered by his government before the year is out, we must recognise that the “real” State of the Nation address will come in June, after the election.
In an election year, the politics will tend to be driven by the pursuit of power and not its use. Ramaphosa must leverage the Zondo commission into state capture and other inquiries to show how the ANC is not afraid of the truth and is holding its feet to the accountability fire.
This is the only way to finesse the tension at the heart of the dilemma. Only by presenting a strong case that the ruling party is grasping the nettle can it regain lost trust.
So, Mr President: be straight with the people. Own up to your party’s and your predecessor’s fallibilities, win your election and then lead decisively by imposing a reform agenda that addresses the underlying structural constraints on socioeconomic transformation.
It’s messy and complex, and socioeconomically the challenges are so great that, thanks to the fiscal hangover of the Zuma years, they may never be met. The country may simply stumble from one crisis to another, persistently exposed to the risk posed by populist demagogues with their fake analyses and prescriptions.
The risks are huge. The agents of state capture are not yet vanquished and will continue to fight back and undermine Ramaphosa at every opportunity. The centre has not yet held. The country remains stuck in its “watershed” rut and it is far from certain that the election will nudge it into a smoother groove.
Richard Calland is an associate professor in public law at the University of Cape Town and a partner in the political risk consultancy, The Paternoster Group