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Empty politics in a time of crisis

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Empty politics in a time of crisis

Photo by Ivor Markman
Professor Raymond Suttner

6th February 2017

By: Raymond Suttner

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Current South African political discussion appears fixated on the ANC succession race, over who will succeed Jacob Zuma as ANC president (if he fails to stand again, which cannot be excluded) at the end of this year. The best efforts of many analysts are devoted to speculating over who is most likely to take his place and the various alignments of forces within the ANC behind one or other candidate.

None of this discussion relates to programmes that any of these candidates might implement that could free South Africa from the wide-ranging political, economic and institutional crisis it now confronts. And we can’t blame the analysts, since none of the candidates have identified themselves with any concrete, developed vision. There is nothing in this “debate” that can give cause for hope to those who still have not derived benefits from post-apartheid South Africa.

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Politics has disappeared from the ANC, an organisation where debate once thrived, where members used to spend many hours arguing over the direction the organisation and the struggle should take. It has been emptied of serious discussion over change and ways of achieving change.

For that to exist there must be a serious commitment to programmatic goals and that would require organisational renewal. My sense is that it is too late, and too many of the interventions to “correct” the direction the ANC now takes hark back to a past that is itself contested, and which cannot serve as an adequate guide to navigate the challenges the organisation now confronts.

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We know, of course, that the ANC will again develop one or other formulation to supplement the “National Democratic Revolution (NDR)” at its policy conference and at the elective conference at the end of the year. A few years ago it was the “second transition” or some such phrase. One can be careless about the exact words because there was no substance to the phrase and no programme for implementing anything different or meaningful relating to the fate of those who need substantial change in their lives. There is no intention to make that change happen.

The same goes for the SACP, which may sometimes operate with very learned doctrines, but in practice has endorsed or been indifferent to most of what has wreaked havoc with people’s lives in the last nine to 10 years.

Even if Zuma were to go, patronage politics, often merging into corruption, has become so entrenched within ways of running the ANC that no one has time for discussing ideas. Ideas, in any case, have no bearing on what matters most to most politicians or aspirant politicians ‒ that is, what will benefit them personally.

All efforts have been bent towards further improving the lives of those who are already benefitting from access to state power, or those who hold such power or can appoint people to positions or ensure that they have the opportunity to secure one or other contract. For purposes of succession it means that no candidate is electable unless s/he can offer material benefits: an opportunity to “eat” by fair or foul means. Delegates are no longer interested in hearing about “NDR”. They want to know what one or other person’s candidature signifies for them in rand or dollar terms. People are now killed in order to secure a share of these spoils.

There are repeated suggestions for electoral reform, moving to a constituency system with one or other variation, sometimes including elements of proportional representation (PR). However, buying of voters and offers of jobs and other rewards occur just as easily under constituency systems as under PR systems. To think that tinkering with modes of election will retrieve the integrity required in our politics is myopic.

The economic crisis, inter alia, almost zero growth with over 40% unemployed, with some 50% of youth amongst these – interfaces with what has become a crisis of legitimacy. State institutions have been hollowed out and the president and others act with impunity, undermining and defying the law of the land.

Any other president with so many clouds hanging over him would act with caution and humility. Zuma has a sense that he can do what he likes, fostered partly by the continued organisational backing he enjoys. He remains bold and ready to plunge the country into further crises should it be personally beneficial for him and his close associates. He is unconcerned about the fate of the economy or the country as a whole so long as there is something in it for him. Hence the continued rumours around firing the Finance Minister or bringing institutions like the banks to heel. Relegation to junk status does not concern him.

It is a paradox that many of those who cream off state resources (required to bring about major transformation), who have captured or sought to capture state institutions in order to pillage wealth, are now attacking “white monopoly capital”. Is it not reasonable to ask whether big (predominantly) white capital, which is less dependent on the state for its economic advancement, may well be more amenable to transformation than those who are intent on diverting state resources towards their own benefit? In other words, the attack on “white monopoly capital” is one of many diversions used to divert attention from looting state resources.

That the constituency the ANC purports to serve does not figure highly in these calculations or discussions is illustrated by the cynical callousness of government, one of the more notable being the Minister of Social Development, Bathabile Dlamini, in relation to the continued issuing of social grants. The department will certainly miss the deadline to change the service provider for administering grants and appeal to the Constitutional Court for an extension of the contract with the provider, who was found to have been awarded the contract illegally. Likewise, the Esidimeni tragedy, where at least 94 lives have now been lost in Gauteng, speaks to a level of indifference towards the fate of vulnerable people that was not what many would have expected under an ANC-led government.

South African legitimacy crisis. There is a sense amongst many South Africans that they are trapped in a political situation that does not serve their needs but where they are powerless to remedy it. They have voted repeatedly and their vote has proved to lack the power to remedy the multiple crises that beset the country or to combat the indifference to those who suffer from this malgovernance, on the part of the current leadership of the ANC and the country.

The vote for which so many people fought so long and hard has proved to be an inadequate weapon. One can only vote for what is offered and if the process of selection of candidates has been “captured” in the sense that it depends on money and patronage then there is little space for citizens to vote for that which can make a difference to their lives.

The Constitution, which has been so widely admired and seen by many as one of the most advanced in the world, has proved insufficient to avert the hollowing out of institutions of state. No constitution maker has been able to craft a document sufficiently powerful to address the type of challenges that are now faced: challenges of impunity, dysfunctionality of state institutions, undermining or defiance of the law. It is evident to all that key state institutions like the Hawks, the NPA, SARS, ESKOM, Denel, Transnet and many others have been bent to serve the needs for enrichment of a group closely allied to the president.

Significantly, despite the limitations to which I have alluded, the local government elections indicated that many citizens were prepared to exercise a choice outside the ANC and brought DA-led metros in alliance with the EFF and other parties into being. The City of Cape Town has claimed many achievements in the 10 years of DA rule, as has the Western Cape. But, as indicated before, the DA may well fall short of what is required by much of the electorate and be unable to sustain or extend their victories.

Obviously the alliance with the EFF has its own stresses, but the DA itself has an ambiguous relationship with the black majority and the poor more generally. Its efficiency has tended to be skewed against the poor and it is widely perceived to be insufficiently sensitive to racism.

Its emphasis on getting things done tends to lack compassion. People can see this and it may well mean that there is a definite ceiling to the support it can attract.

But what are we to do, if the electoral terrain appears unlikely to provide an emancipatory outcome? It would be a mistake to abandon electoralism or to write off the ANC. Even if one takes the example of the slide into decadence of the once proud Indian Congress in India, there is no iron rule that precludes recovery on the part of the ANC. At this point in time, however, that appears unlikely.

Without abandoning the electoral terrain it is nevertheless important to explore additional options. At this point in time, where the choices that may matter most are not offered through party political elections, it is important to augment those choices. There is a need for a broad alliance of forces, but not simply a replica of the UDF of the 1980s, which mainly spoke for the poor. It needs to be even wider in potential scope.

We know that business has intervened – albeit behind closed doors ‒ to try to remedy some disastrous decisions and avert others. We also know that most voters belong to faith communities and that citizens belong to a range of other sectors and organisations that are concerned about the country and their liberties. None of these – rich or poor ‒ derive benefit from the current lawlessness and corruption that runs through government. All have a common interest in clean government and meaningful steps need to be taken to bring these forces together.

Leaders from these diverse sectors, who care about the future of their country need to hold discussions, if they are not already doing so, in order to build a common front that can rescue the country we love from its present impasse.

Raymond Suttner is a scholar and political analyst. Currently he is a Part-time Professor attached to Rhodes University and an Emeritus Professor at UNISA.  He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities.  His prison memoir Inside Apartheid’s prison will be reissued with a new afterword, by Jacana Media in the first half of this year. He blogs at raymondsuttner.com and his twitter handle is @raymondsuttner

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