/ 17 July 2019

South Africa must avoid authoritarian solutions

Ramaphosa himself is not unaware of the political impossibility of the fantasy of a return to the way things were before Zuma
Ramaphosa himself is not unaware of the political impossibility of the fantasy of a return to the way things were before Zuma, but now with added austerity, writes the author. (David Harrison/M&G)



In 1975 Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi found herself confronting escalating popular ferment and declared a state of emergency. In his compelling new book, Emergency Chronicles, Gyan Prakash argues that the Emergency was a response to popular protest that had intensified as it became increasingly evident that independence had failed to realise its promise of democratic transformation.

In Prakash’s analysis the turn towards authoritarianism was not a temporary intervention that ultimately preserved the existing order. On the contrary, “Hindutva and market liberalisation emerged out of the emergency’s ashes to meet the tests posed by popular mobilisation.”

In contemporary India hypercapitalism is articulated to hypernationalism via a violent authoritarianism, organised through both the state and popular forces. Not entirely unlike European fascism in the 1930s, social stress is displaced into the horizontal scapegoating of vulnerable minorities to reduce the risk of vertical confrontation. This offers an effective but authoritarian means to contain the political crisis produced by the popular discontent that arises from a deep social crisis.

Prakash returns to BR Ambedkar’s warning to newly independent India, delivered in 1949, that: “In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality … We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy.” Prakash writes that for Ambedkar democracy should not be reduced to holding elections but must be “a value, a daily exercise of equality of human beings”.

By this measure South African democracy has been a miserable failure for the majority, who remain impoverished, spatially and culturally excluded, subject to institutional contempt and terrifying rates of criminal violence, governed with increasing state violence and at risk of serious repression, including, in some parts of the country, assassination, if they have the temerity to organise outside the governing party.

It is 25 years since the ANC’s ascent to state power, and 15 years since popular protest in the form of burning tyres and road blockades started to become a routine feature of ordinary life. But despite the scale of discontent, no national force that could build a form of popular organisation with the strength and commitment to enable a democratic resolution of our social crisis has cohered. At the same time, there is no political party genuinely committed to building popular democratic power, and no party that can offer a serious challenge to the ANC at the hustings.

The faction of the ANC now led by secretary general Ace Magashule, and supported by the Economic Freedom Fighters in significant respects, is committed to a kind of political gangsterism, legitimated by hypernationalism, in which a political class profits from the state at the direct expense of the most vulnerable citizens.

It is a form of politics that may rhetorically threaten or actively displace some forms of white domination but can only result in a profoundly authoritarian, violent and unequal society. One only has to look at Mpumalanga under David Mabuza, the Free State under Magashule, or Durban under Zandile Gumede, to get some sense of just how grim things would be should this form of politics come to dominate society.

The faction of the ANC led by President Cyril Ramaphosa includes, and is publicly supported by, people who aspire to the fantastical idea that there can be some sort of return to the way things were before Jacob Zuma stormed the political stage. That hope is forlorn because a return to the economic and political arrangements that collapsed the Thabo Mbeki presidency will, in time, do the same to a Ramaphosa presidency. This is because he and his allies, operating in a far tougher economic, fiscal and political environment, are bereft of any concrete ideas as to how to effect this return in a way that will enable a viable path out of impoverishment for the majority.

Ramaphosa’s opposition to corruption has won him and his faction some sense of legitimacy. But this is limited and will prove to be impermanent as it becomes clear that the social crisis is worsening.

The logical solution for this faction would be to attach itself to the popular anger against corruption, sometimes expressed in militant forms of protest, and to offer immediate and significant concessions to the most organised and mobilised parts of this constituency through strategies such as rapid urban land reform, attempts to manage systemic impoverishment with democratic and respectful forms of negotiation rather than escalating state violence, and the right to recall local party representatives.

But, although this faction may have some of its roots in the trade union movement and the popular struggles of the 1980s, it is now too habituated to the cool corridors of power to pursue a serious attempt to ally itself with popular forces and sentiments in a potentially democratising project, one that could sustain its credibility in society and secure its authority in the party by routing widely loathed local political bosses.

Ramaphosa himself is not unaware of the political impossibility of the fantasy of a return to the way things were before Zuma, but now with added austerity. Although often absent from the national debate, or present in a manner marked by an insipid inability to grasp and seize the moment, he has made two significant moves that indicate an awareness that the subordination of society to the market will be a difficult sell.

One of these has been to join the Democratic Alliance in a scurrilous turn to attempt to incite xenophobic sentiments from above. The other has been to note his attraction to authoritarian states, such as Paul Kagame’s regime in Kigali. He is not alone in this attraction, which is shared by pro-business figures such as Tito Mboweni and Herman Mashaba.

Rich Mkhondo, an intellectual firmly embedded in elite circles, has taken matters a step further and, in the Sunday Times, openly called for dictatorship. Mkhondo says he is for an enlightened despotism “that will exercise absolute power over the state, but for the benefit of the population as a whole”. His list of “benevolent dictators” includes a figure as chilling as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

In January 2018, The Guardian reported that Erdoğan’s political clampdown had resulted in criminal investigations into 150 000 people, 50 000 people imprisoned on remand, more than 100 000 public sector employees arbitrarily dismissed under state of emergency powers, including hundreds of academics and a quarter of the judiciary, and at least 100 journalists jailed.

Mkhondo is not part of some lunatic fringe confined to Twitter. He is a person with significant power, writing in the largest-circulation newspaper in the country. He speaks for a faction of the elite that actively and openly desires an authoritarian resolution of the crisis. If the faction of the ANC that has made its fortune from accommodation with the market can fend off the faction that aspires to accumulate wealth from the state, it may very well find itself confronting significant popular discontent and seek to win wider support for a more authoritarian path.

This is not to suggest that Ramaphosa’s trajectory is likely to end up in a position as extreme as that of Narendra Modi in India. Modi has spent his entire life in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a far-right organisation inspired by German fascism that has spent almost a century preparing itself for an authoritarian form of hegemony. The ANC includes authoritarian currents but, thankfully, none of them are remotely analogous to the RSS.

Nonetheless, we should not assume that we will be immune to the deep structural forces that undercut democratic aspirations in India or, for that matter, Algeria or Zimbabwe. A bid for an authoritarian resolution to our crisis is far more likely than an attempt at a democratic resolution.

We should not underestimate the extent of our crisis. The scale of unemployment, particularly among young black people, is staggering and unsustainable. Trust in many state institutions, including the police, is low and participation in electoral democracy is in decline. Violence, through criminality, political assassinations, state violence targeted at impoverished people who cannot survive within the strictures of the market, and popular violence against people deemed criminal, or outsiders of one sort or another, is a routine feature of life. Things have already reached the point at which the deployment of the army to the Cape Flats has been welcomed by many.

In this uncertain and perilous situation Ambedkar’s insistence that democracy must be “a daily exercise of equality of human beings”, and his warning that a failure to translate formal political equality into “social and economic life … will blow up the structure of political democracy” is a warning to a society that, although already in crisis and subject to often violent forms of authoritarianism at the local level, it has not yet sought to make an explicit attempt to manage popular discontent with authoritarian measures at the national level.

Richard Pithouse is an associate professor at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research, the co-ordinator of the Johannesburg office of the Tricontinental Institute for Social Research and the editor of New Frame

Update: This piece was originally published on July 15 2019. It has been republished.