Friday, 30 March 2018

Democracy in Decline: The Tyranny of Self-Interest

"He proved his supreme ability for organizing the masses into total domination by assuming that most people are neither bohemians, fanatics, adventurers, sex maniacs, crackpots, nor social failures, but first and foremost job holders and good family men.

The philistine's retirement into private life, his single-minded devotion to matters of family and career was the last, and already degenerated, product of the bourgeoisie's belief in the primacy of private interest. The philistine is the bourgeois isolated from his own class, the atomized individual who is produced by the breakdown of the bourgeois class itself. []

The mass man whom Himmler organized for the greatest mass crimes ever committed in history bore the features of the philistine rather than of the mob man, and was the bourgeois who in the midst of the ruins of his world worried about nothing so much as his private security, was ready to sacrifice everything - belief, honor, dignity - on the slightest provocation. Nothing proved easier to destroy than the privacy and private morality of people who thought of nothing but safeguarding their private lives."

Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, [line space inserted]  

A Democracy Lost in Translation

The 1990s were a difficult time in South Africa. In the transition to democracy the country was on a knife edge. Many expected that civil war would break out. The 1980s had been turbulent; and it all seemed to come to a head in the years leading up to the first democratic elections in 1994. Nobody was sure of what would happen when the new era dawned. Fear and paranoia ran rampant, especially among the white populace; some people stock-piled food, others kept their guns at the ready.

But fears soon transformed into a sense of purpose. A new vision permeated the national psyche. We began to enjoy the hope of a new future; one in which we became an exception to the rule, an inspiration to the world. We became acutely aware of our moment, and its place in history. Pride replaced fear in our estimation of ourselves, even though the fear did not entirely leave us. Our history, after all, was resident deep within us, and between us, and had made its place in the world. There was an immutable intransience to it. It was resilient, enduring even if it was moved into the shadows, for however long. Our history, it would prove, was unending.

Yet we still tried to outrun it. We tried to be ‘normal’. And so we joined with a vision of ourselves that matched what we imagined normal was like. And all we had was our desperation to be part of the ‘outside world’, as we knew it then. Two decades of television shows governed our understanding of what democratic life – freedom – was like. From Dallas to the Cosby Show, we were caught up with the possibility of a life outside of our existence; one that seemed simple and actualisable because it was fiction.

“Work hard, live well and prosper!” became our reason for existence. It quickly replaced all our former aspirations for a new society, a new way of life, a pathway to a greater future. We understood the meaning of life as the well-being of all of us derived through work and play. Our reason for existing was no longer the hope of a new future for our children and theirs. It was now the simple actualisation of success through material gain.

Materialism and ‘security’ became the purpose of everyday life. Securing employment, acquiring property, and starting a family became the hallmarks of a life well lived, and the more abundance one enjoyed the better. People put a lot of time into imagining what the cars they drove and what the clothes they wore said about them. It was a fantasy of life that closely mirrored what we already had, and so we failed to detect what we were diverging from. And we were not to know the magnitude of this divergence until we had been wholly caught up in it, too far down the line to beat a quick retreat.

We became what we had never imagined we would be. We evolved into a caricature of a society, fuelled by lives lived in dislocation. Communities became less important than the individual. Individual existence came to dictate what was important, and that was simply looking out for oneself. “What’s in it for me?” and conversely, “What will it cost me?” came to dictate the terms of individual existence more than it ever had before. And in truth what was there to stop it? We no longer lived for each other, or for a future that we could mutually enjoy; we lived for the day to day, and it seduced us into an endless lull. It self-replicated ad nauseam, and that suited us just fine, for it rendered no need to reconcile the present with the overwhelming past that stuck to us like a late afternoon shadow on a sun-drenched day. There was no escape from it but to pretend it wasn’t there, or to seek shelter from it.

And it went on for a remarkably long time. Just enough so that most would forget, and be so caught up in the now as to be unable to effectively recall the past. That past which was most recent was even more obscured by the present, precisely because it was so close to it. The distant past receded, and was banished into latency, where it settled restlessly, churning away in the background of affairs like a subdued, unfinished brawl.

Time flowed quickly, and much water passed under the bridge. A new century arrived, and we became entrenched in what we had unwittingly absorbed and uncritically embraced. The new materialism dug its roots in deep, and flowered conspicuously.

“I’m rich bee-yach!!” went Dave Chappelle’s penultimate jingle of the Chappelle Show; the very last thing you heard after each show. Being rich became all important. It became even more important than power. Materialism entrenched itself so deeply, that everyone, whoever they were, and whatever their station, was caught up in it. We began to express our identities through our consumer choices; it gave us status, located us within the social hierarchy. Even charity became a status activity.

Families and family life became commodified. Conspicuous consumption extended to the whole family; what cars they drove; what schools their children went to, where they went on holiday, what gym memberships they had. As the world outside became more uncertain and fast changing, the more we retreated into the private realm of families, jobs and credit-fuelled extravaganza’s of spending.

This was the end of history in South Africa. Never before had such a profound rejection of and suspicion of the public realm existed, even under Apartheid. It was not simply apathy. Rather, the public realm was viewed as an intrusion into the comfort of the private realm. Fighting for the public good became increasingly viewed as an activity fuelled by an immaturity, and an idealism that bore no resemblance to the prevailing realities of the new worldview that had taken hold.

‘Homo-economicus’, the rationally self-interested, atomised and individuated everyman became the standard bearer for the new society. It was natural then that apathy in the public realm was justified as being a responsible job-holder or parent. It was natural that the very forces that negate the sustainability of community and society were elevated, and began to do their work. Introversion into the private realm served to escalate the disintegration in the public realm. And it was thus in many different parts of the world, as societies everywhere struggled to absorb and accommodate the tacit values and beliefs that underpinned the project of ‘globalisation’.

A Troubled Era: The Erosion of Democracy and the Public Realm

"The principles of monarchy and despotism - namely what keeps them going - are respectively honor and fear. What keeps democracy going is the far more demanding matter of 'a constant preference of public to private interest .... [it] limits ambition to the sole desire, to the sole happiness, of doing greater services to our country than the rest of our fellow citizens ... a self-renunciation, which is ever arduous and painful'. This is one of the main reasons why democracy does not work, Montesquieu is suggesting, because people are not that selfless."

A.C. Grayling, Democracy and Its Crisis

We now live in an era where democracy and democratic rule itself has come under scrutiny. “Democracy is not the panacea for our social and developmental ills that we thought it would be” many exclaim in frustration in the developing world. “It is failing us, just as it is failing the developed world!” they conclude.

“Look at how well China has developed itself! And it did it without democracy. Centralisation and ‘moderate’ authoritarian rule yields better outcomes that simply adopting democratic rule. It was over-sold, a lie, and we are suffering as a result of it!” 

In my travels across the African continent I have heard many versions of this theory being advanced. And to be sure, neoliberal democracies have indeed failed in many developing world countries, like my own. South Africa wholly adopted the neoliberal prescriptions after its transition to democratic rule and now boasts the ignominious honour of being the most unequal country in the world. This inequality is a social and political force for extreme polarisation, and the further we have ventured into our relatively young democracy, the more fractious and divided the once hailed ‘rainbow nation’ has become.

And so, our African counterparts regard us as a cautionary tale of sorts. Even though we unquestionably have the most advanced economy, institutions and democracy in Sub-Saharan Africa, we have replicated the very conditions that the struggle for freedom from Apartheid rule sought to achieve. We have entrenched spatial, racial and class inequality and it is tearing the nation apart. So much so, that we have no room for anybody else in our society.

My colleagues across the continent see us as a postcolonial ‘baby’, in a sense, who has yet to learn the lessons that freedom and the responsibilities that come with it, incur. “Oh we went through that too ...” I often hear, before being educated about the history of this particular country or that on the continent. Most often I am ignorant of their histories. All I know is our own. I am not uncommon in this. South Africa is a self-obsessed, self-referential nation; it was cut off from the continent for too long to truly comprehend its sense of belonging within it.

We struggle with our African identity despite our professed Pan-Africanism. We are a contradiction. We stand both with and against our African kin; we are simultaneously of Africa and apart from it. We desperately want to be a part of it, but we do not want it to be part of us. We are the prodigal nation of Africa, and while it celebrated our return to it, we bore menace upon those who came across the borders to settle with us; we hacked them to pieces, burnt and stabbed them to death, plundering and raping without pause for thought.

Our Afro-phobia is inescapable; we do not kill Europeans and Americans, we kill those who mirror us the most. Their dark skins, their desperate escapes from tyranny and war, their poverty and suffering do not move us. What is missing in us that we turn to violence against those who we should be longing to rejoin with? Where did the struggle die, and our freedom become cause for a viciousness and callousness that our conquerors once wielded over us? Where did we go wrong?

Perhaps we should have slowed it all down further than we did. Perhaps we should have transferred power to a socialist government who would have taken care of all, and gradually migrated society to a greater equality. Perhaps we should have done as China did. Perhaps we should have kept our heads down and plotted a more gradual, sensible way forward ... and forced the system to yield a more equitable and fair society. Perhaps then we would not be so resentful of our African brothers and sisters living amongst us, who spend their time eking out a living, staying below the radar of the increasingly paranoid and xenophobic South African state. Perhaps, perhaps not ... who knows? We are here now.

We are adrift in the new democratic dispensation. We have scarcely an understanding of what it means to act in accordance with democratic principles. Neither do we comprehend what changes need to be made in our society and its institutions in order to actualise democratic governance and order.

To be sure we are not alone in this. Many countries around the world are suffering the same ignorance and despair at their democratic conditions. Yet what is particularly disturbing is that our democracy is premised on one of the most progressive constitutions in the world. Surely our democratic project deserves more than just polarising rhetoric, populist promises, un-principled power-brokers acting as though they are above the law, and dumb silence where clear violations of ethics, principles and the law are identified?

We are now reaping what we sowed early on in our democracy. The ‘honeymoon’ period – and the euphoria of new freedoms – blinded us to the future we were making. Our aspirations to modernity left us hankering after a kind of life we had only witnessed on television screens and in the movies. We had no idea what we were ushering in to our society. And we have lost the fundamental threads that held us together as a society as a result. Trust has evaporated, and we have no social contract left to speak of, except that which services our own self-interest.

Without a healthy society democracy becomes very difficult to enact faithfully. Democracy becomes a house without foundations, devoid of principles, ethics and accountability. It becomes mere bureaucracy at best, or it becomes ochlocracy (mob rule) or oligarchy (elite rule) at worst; where Machiavellian power dominates societal and political activity, further eroding the very basis of democratic leadership and governance. Real-politik, it its worst, serves more to undermine democracy than to uphold it. It breeds distrust, provokes intrigue and in reality promotes duplicity, where what is professed goes contrary to how one acts.

When hypocrisy reigns in the public realm, you can be sure that the private realm becomes a safe-haven for many. Yet it is precisely this retreat into the private realm that catalyses the rise of the superficial in the public realm. Without genuine engagement in the public realm, without real transparency and accountability, what hope is there for a public realm that can effectively regulate power, politicians and elites?    

Awakening Democracy: Enacting Freedoms

So what is left to us? It is rather simple. It is to actively engage in the public realm with whatever is at our disposal to do so with. It is to enact our freedoms. As Hannah Arendt puts it,

“Men are free - as distinguished from their possessing the gift for freedom - as long as they act, neither before nor after; for to be free and to act are the same.”

Hannah Arendt, What is Freedom? Between Past and Future

Whether on a large scale or a small scale we can all make our voices heard, and make our contributions to ensuring a healthy society. We can all endeavour to service our social contracts; simple things like keeping our word, servicing our obligations and agreements, helping out where we can, and raising our voices when clear wrongs are committed. We can also organise ourselves into small groups, even large groups, to raise our voices up loudly and clearly so that the powerful cannot ignore us.

We can also stand with and by those who are wronged. We can get out in our numbers and make our support unequivocal and difficult to ignore. We can make a stand against those who sweep things under the carpet and hold them to account. We can give of our time and money in service of good causes that enhance society’s capacity to absorb social ills and turn them around. We can find a way to look beyond our personal lives and securities, and act within society itself to safeguard it against abuses of power.

If this is too much for us to do, then we must reconcile ourselves to being effectively powerless in the face of the myriad abuses of power that our absence from the public realm creates room for. There is no way around this central reality. It is not just the price we pay for a healthy democracy; it is the right and privilege – or entitlement – that democracy affords us. It gives us the power to engage, take action and change the things we are unhappy with. In short, our engagement in the public realm entitles us to power, and what greater freedom do we enjoy than the exercise of power, especially in light of how long and hard the fight for it was?

Saturday, 10 March 2018

Ramaphoria and the South African ‘Shock Doctrine’: A New Future, or More of the Same?

Leadership in a Divided Society

The new president of South Africa and the African National Congress, Cyril Ramaphosa, has a difficult leadership challenge on his hands. He has inherited a divided ANC, an at-times dysfunctional government and state, a polarised polis and a largely disgruntled society. Perhaps it is precisely because of these tensions that his leadership has appeared contradictory.

On the one hand, President Ramaphosa has courted the private sector and middle classes and won their trust and affection. On the other hand he is pandering to the proponents of radical economic transformation and sent the middle classes and elites into a panic by embracing the call for the expropriation of land without compensation. In doing so, he is pandering to those who remain marginal in South African society, both in terms of societal power, as well as in terms of massive and deeply entrenched inequality. Inequality, one might add, that hails from an unquestionably long history of theft, exploitation and injustice.

According to the World Bank, South Africa’s levels of inequality are the highest in the world. So when President Ramaphosa plays to both sides of the gallery – so to speak – he is playing to audiences that are relative extremes in relation to each other. On the one hand, the comfortably ensconced middle and upper middle classes enjoy first world levels of quality of life. On the other hand, the working classes and the poor essentially suffer the precarity and insecurity that is typical of developing world existence. South Africa is, and remains, a tale of two societies.

So while President Ramaphosa has echoed the anti-corruption, good governance and pro-economic growth sentiments that remain the central issues of concern for the middle classes, he has also sought to harness the current of deep dissatisfaction with the status quo that has emerged and intensified among the working classes and the poor over the past decade. Yet, there exist key differences between those who occupy these ‘two societies’.

On the one hand, the middle classes largely believe that the status quo is working for the country, and that all that is required is a return to the policies and practises of the early democratic government under Presidents Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki. While a strong sense of the need for social welfare styled service provision and so forth is acknowledged as necessary in South Africa, there is also a streak of meritocratic bias in the values that persist within the middle classes and the elite. That is, the belief that South African society provides ample opportunity for anybody who is willing to work hard enough to be able to enter the middle classes and enjoy a relatively high quality of life.

On the other hand, the working classes and the poor – who have seen large increases in socio-economic inequality unfold in the democratic dispensation, and their incomes stagnate while prices have increased – have come to fundamentally question the status quo of South African society. Their plight is characterised by service delivery failures, lack of socio-economic mobility and high levels of local corruption, poverty and unemployment.

There is a pervasive sense that poverty and debt traps have become entrenched, while policies such as affirmative action and land reclamation have failed to deliver the upward social mobility that many dreamed would become a reality in the new post-Apartheid society. Instead of the intergenerational upward mobility that was promised to those who were oppressed under Apartheid, it is poverty, inadequate service delivery, crime, corruption and all manner of social ills that is being transferred – and even intensified – from one generation to the next. Hope is fast becoming a fool’s promise.

To be fair, reconciling and bridging the great divide between these two ‘sides’ of South African society presents a vastly difficult leadership challenge for whomever occupies power in South Africa. It is plainly impossible to court both with the same levels of devotion. Bridging the divide necessitates a fair amount of give and take. Compromise and negotiation is necessary to chart a way forward that all of society is generally comfortable with.

Reconciling the Great Divide

However, there is a limit to what can be reconciled. Reconciliation requires that some middle ground can be brokered over a set of competing perspectives and beliefs. It becomes far more difficult to negotiate compromise when the views that are in opposition reside at the extremes. And in this case, that is what President Cyril Ramaphosa is attempting to do; he is attempting to broker a shared understanding between sectors of society that hold extreme, opposite views. He is attempting to create a complex duality out of a stark dualism.

The middle class view that the status quo is adequate and that all that is needed is more of the same neoliberal oriented economic growth to put the country on the right track is an extreme view. The fact that neoliberalism has become the status quo over the past three or four decades should not detract from the fact that over the past two centuries or so neoliberalism, historically; remains a predominantly out-rider philosophy. Moreover, the notion that the current status quo is adequate is a deeply disturbing one. How can a country with South Africa’s history pander to a status quo that has reinforced and entrenched – in many ways – the racial and class inequality that was cultivated under colonialism and Apartheid?

Moreover, when we consider the push for radical economic transformation, it is clear that it also hosts some deeply questionable and extreme positions. Its first major proposition is to grow black inclusion in the productive economy through the creation of “100 black industrialists” by prioritising the reallocation of state procurement funds to the tune of ZAR 500Bn/year. This approach is problematic, in that it functions on more of the same neoliberal logic and closely mirrors Apartheid era strategies for growing white Afrikaner capital. It may well serve only to reinforce the black elite rather than uplifting the marginalised majority. It may also ultimately degrade the ability of the government and state to deliver on its mandate effectively and reliably. Moreover, it also stands a good chance of failing outright, and compromising the very basis of South Africa’s stability and success as a transitional economy.

The second major proposition that falls under the umbrella of radical economic transformation is the expropriation of land without compensation. It has been widely sold as requiring a majority parliamentary vote to change the constitution. The push for land expropriation without compensation is a rather cynical one. As explained by Prof Steven Friedman, the constitutional provisions for land expropriation without compensation already exist. The narrative that has emerged, and been seized upon by the ANC (who previously always argued against it), is a far more cynical political ruse to shore up the support of its frustrated support base in the run-up to the 2019 national elections. It is a narrative that enables the poor and marginal to express their dissatisfaction with the status quo, and to draw attention to the wounds of the past that continue to haunt the vast majority of South African society.

Crisis and Compromise: South Africa’s Very Own ‘Shock Doctrine’

Professor Friedman explains that South Africa has a long history of ‘creating a crisis’ and then ‘standing by to negotiate a way out of it’ in order to bring about economic change. It is true that this approach characterises how change has historically been brokered in South African society.

Forcing crisis remains the central strategy of local ‘service delivery’ protests in poor municipalities that have escalated drastically over the past ten years. It is also the logic behind the brutal attacks that have been meted out to foreign shop owners and the illegal settlements that have been imposed on them. Some civil society and political actors have also embraced crisis as a catalyst for change. Crisis draws attention to matters that would otherwise go unaddressed or ignored, and elevates an agenda to the highest levels of government and society.

Yet the question remains, can President Ramaphosa and his leadership successfully chart a way towards compromise, given the current state of division in the nation, as well as within parliament and the African National Congress itself?

In a society where the middle classes and the poor and working classes have been talking past each other for most of the past decade, is the strategy of creating a crisis to expedite compromise a wise one? First, will it work or will it only deepen polarisation and division? Second, do we want to perpetuate a politics that is stuck in the crisis-compromise mode of operation?

In respect of the former question, it is important to question whether a deeply divided and fractured ANC leadership that is largely incapable of compromise itself, can in fact lead the country down the road to a mutually agreeable way forward? When the positions are so far apart, what kind of compromise is actually possible? Under President Jacob Zuma, democratic rule was largely viewed as a “winner takes all” one. What has changed within the ANC that provides sufficient cause to believe that this view has changed?

I would argue that very little cause for hope exists in this respect. There is very little reason to believe that the ANC is capable of conducting honest introspection into its shortcomings by itself, let alone those of the country. The ANC is duplicitous, self-referential, bellicose and allergic to an honest appreciation of its own flaws. It can’t even openly admit what its flaws are.

In respect of the latter question, it is imperative at this critical juncture in the relatively short history of South African democracy, to ask whether we should uncritically perpetuate the politics of desperation that seeded under colonialism, escalated under Apartheid, and reproduced itself in the democratic dispensation. Surely it must be acknowledged that one of the main motivations behind the anti-Apartheid struggle was to break with the destructive and divisive cycles of the past? What does it mean when we diagnose the ‘crisis-compromise’ doctrine as part of the ‘DNA’ of South African politics and uncritically embrace and perpetuate it? Even if it is true that we have endured our very own political ‘shock-doctrine’, so to speak, is that what we want? And if the answer is ‘no’, then should we not be expecting far more of our leadership than simply more of the same?

This South African variation on the ‘shock doctrine’ – one where crises are falsely created, allowing for a leadership (or “big leader”) to take the gap and cast themselves in heroic terms – has already emerged as a destructive form of politics that has taken hold in many parts of the world. Whether we look to the US President Donald Trump, the Phillipino President Rodrigo Duterte, Indian President Narendra Modi, or the emergence of anti-multiculturalism and anti-immigration right in Europe and the UK, it cannot be ignored that a socially divisive and polarising rhetoric has fuelled their political discourse. Simply put, they scare people so they can manipulate them into acting from their worst fears and impulses.

In this sense, the kind of visionary leadership and emancipatory politics that South Africa now requires is a far cry from what we are seeing emerge under President Cyril Ramaphosa. The moment that he helped create – by riding the wave created by the opposition, civil society and many concerned and outraged citizens – is being lost in this latter day ‘gameification’ of the South African political realm. We need sincere leadership that is deeply committed to actualising a better society than we are; not leadership that merely works within the current and historical constraints that have held South African society back.

The Path to a New Future: Breaking the Cycles of the Past!

The main task of leadership in the democratic dispensation is – and remains – to break with the past. And while there are many threads of the past that need still need to be broken, the question of whether we are actually breaking with the past, or merely reproducing it, needs to be closely scrutinised. Many nations have only reinforced the conditions they have sought to undo by unconsciously adopting the political strategies, tactics and rhetoric that hold them back.

An appropriate analogy here is the United States of America’s inability to tackle its gun violence problem; precisely because its fallback position – and indeed its ‘land of the free’ identity – has become entangled with the rhetoric that the solution to gun violence is “more guns in society” (i.e. if more people had guns they would be more empowered to stop mass shooters from carrying out attacks). The fact of America’s relationship to guns is that gun sales surge after every new mass shooting. America’s addiction to guns has proven very difficult to break, and crisis only reinforces it. The crisis is inverted; it is not the proliferation of guns, but the lack of it, that is the problem.

When a false crisis is precipitated to force a compromise, that compromise is then a product of manipulation, and not a genuine compromise that emerges from real reconciliation of differing perspectives and desires. It is, in many ways, a strategy employed by cynical political operators who view society as ‘children’ to be manipulated into doing ‘what is good for them’. The problem with this approach is that it perpetuates the kind of leadership and governance that negates the evolution of society towards greater freedoms.

Instead, society lurches from crisis to crisis, from one adrenalin rush to another, and it is never able to settle and stabilise. Instead of a more predictable society, politics and economy we end up with more uncertainty and surprise by going down this road. The illusion of momentary ‘reconciliations’ is cast as progress, when in reality we remain stuck in cycles that, over time, tighten like a noose around the neck of the nation, strangling the possibility of change, and of a new future.

The famous saying, “give me liberty, or give me death” has some relevance in this respect. Instead of moving towards a future of greater freedom we are slowly strangling ourselves with the cycles of the past, inching towards our inevitable political death. As a nation that is constitutionally founded on the hope of actualising a new future, we are enjoined by an aspiration to establish a new kind of society. It is high time that our leaders and politicians began to act like it again. We have had enough of cheap tactics and staid rhetoric. We need to build a compelling vision for how to actualise the new future we fought so hard for.

Saturday, 17 February 2018

The Politics of Omission: The Good, The Bad and the Unsaid

“Much unhappiness has come into the world because of bewilderment and things left unsaid.”
Fyodor Dostoevsky

The Silence of the Wolves

In politics, what isn’t said out loud is often more important than what is. This has certainly been the case with the African National Congress’s recall of the president of the Republic, Jacob Zuma. It may seem incredible, but the entire recall process occurred without the ANC actually stating what President Zuma had done to provoke such a drastic action. The new ANC Secretary General Ace Magashule – a Zuma loyalist – went so far as to say that President Zuma did nothing wrong at all! Not to be outdone, President Zuma himself also took to the microphone, stating – in a television interview designed to reach his base – that he had not been given any reasons for his recall.

The reality of course is that there are many clear and indisputable reasons for recalling President Zuma. The Constitutional Court found that he had violated his oath of office when he refused to abide by the binding recommendations of the Public Protector over upgrades to his homestead. He has 783 charges pending related to his involvement in the arms deal of the early 2000s. He – and his son – have been implicated in “state capture” activities, along with a network of private sector, intelligence, government and state actors. Under his leadership, parliament and government have been hamstrung by protest. The state is failing badly in many areas. ‘Service delivery’ protests skyrocketed under his leadership, and a culture of disruptive, often violent protests have seeded in communities who feel that they only way they can draw attention to matters that plague them is by taking direct action. Political assassinations, intimidation and corruption have spread at the local level.

For all intents and purposes, Jacob Zuma should have exited power a long time ago. It was the ANC that kept him in power, refusing to act upon his many transgressions, scuppering all attempts to depose him. Many who were calling for his removal now were deeply in bed with him and his cronies and enthusiastically enjoyed the spoils of his wayward leadership. And so it was, that even when they decided it was time for him to go, they could not bring themselves to speak out loud the many and varied transgressions and failures of his leadership and his government. It is ironic, but in keeping with the tradition of duplicity, rhetoric and double-speak that became entrenched under his leadership. That is, to say one thing and do another.

Yet, in order to heal an illness, is it not true that it must be diagnosed? That it must be named? The refusal to publicly acknowledge and take responsibility for the disastrous situation the ANC created, simply means that it cannot enter into an honest period of self-reflection, healing and renewal. It is still stuck deep in the mud left behind by its own floodwaters; the waters that broke when the dam wall that was supposed to hold power in check and to account was summarily detonated under Jacob Zuma’s leadership. It will take government and the state a long time to recover. Yet it will not recover until the truth is spoken out loud and acknowledged, and those who allowed this mess to occur take responsibility for their ill-advised actions. Blind loyalty and self-interest, when combined, has proved to be a disastrous model for the exercise of power in South Africa.

The grave danger that the state of the ANC places the country in should not be underestimated. The spectacular unravelling of the ANC’s tripartite alliance, and its descent into factionalism and discord, should concern every South African. By standing by Jacob Zuma through all his misadventures, the ANC dragged itself, the government, the state and the country into a lengthy period of decline.

Yet, whenever the ANC was previously called to act upon Jacob Zuma’s misdeeds they resisted. They argued that a ‘second recall would fatally wound the ANC’. In reality, this second recall has proved quite the opposite; it has resulted in widespread jubilation and celebration (even if premature at this stage), and has proved rejuvenating and hope inspiring for the majority of South Africans. The ANC threw South Africans under the bus when they needed to put the country first and self-correct from within. They simply cannot be trusted just because one leadership position has changed.

The ANC’s refusal to acknowledge the reasons why Jacob Zuma’s leadership was a failure is telling. It tells us that it is incapable of conducting an honest dialogue with itself, let alone with the rest of the country. Simply translated, this means it is incapable of self-correcting in an open, transparent manner. Instead, behind the scenes Machiavellian power will be exercised to purge undesirables, and these undesirables will be determined by those who hold the most power. It tells us that we can expect more of the same type of leadership from the ANC, that is, a leadership that makes decisions and takes actions behind closed doors and pulls strings behind the scenes to retain power; a top-down elitist model of leadership where rhetoric reigns supreme but decisions are made according to the prescripts of a cold and calculating ‘realpolitik’.

What We Don’t Want?

The question South Africans need to ask is simply whether this is the kind of democracy we want? To celebrate Cyril Ramaphosa as the ‘hero’ who has come to rescue us from the villain, is to perpetuate the very same ‘big man’ leadership model that created the room for Jacob Zuma to abuse his power. Surely this isn’t the road we should be going down again? Surely we should be going back to the drawing board and examining how power, elite networks, institutions and government functions operate? Surely if we speak of radical change then it must be deep rooted, and not merely superficial? Yet the politics of omission is the very definition of keeping things superficial, vague and non-committal. We already know what this produces. And it is up to us to prevent it from happening again.

To be sure, a purge of the ANC’s ranks is necessary, but it is unlikely. The need to ensure unity within the ANC will likely take precedence, and a fine balancing act will ensue. The technocrats will take charge again and there will be no end of great strategies and plans for a great future. However, without critical insight into the systemic and embedded fault lines within the government and state, ensuring robust and resilient progress in the long term will prove difficult. Deep reflection is required.

South Africans have had their fill of inspiring visions. What we need now are reliable, accountable implementation agencies that do not squander state funds in meandering bureaucratic processes and half-baked plans that ultimately entrench maladministration and corruption. The South African state is unique among countries of its ilk because it collects its taxes successfully, and consequently has a significant fiscal basis from which to carry out its mandate. The steady erosion of the state’s capacity to deliver on its mandate, and government’s ability to function coherently, has left the country wounded. As it limps on into this next phase, let us not fall prey to the same euphoric guff that created the space for Jacob Zuma’s leadership to lead the country astray in 2007. That is, let us not see only our hopes, dreams and desires into this situation. Let us see it for what it is; a difficult new beginning that must be closely guarded and monitored. We should not entrust power without safeguards. To do so would be to ‘do the same thing again and hope for a different result’, the very definition of insanity.

Where To From Here?

Political analysts have been swept up by the moment, making all kinds of proclamations about a new era of transparency, accountability and visionary leadership that returns South Africa to the international prominence it once enjoyed under presidents Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki. Of course it is only natural that the public would want to enjoy the cathartic release of seeing president Zuma go, and to begin to hope and dream again, but it is quite another thing when political analysts begin feeding sentiment rather than providing sober analysis.

This is without doubt a critical moment. However, pretending that all it takes is this moment to turn the country around is deeply disturbing. Much more is required to turn the ship around, to get it back onto the right course. A great deal of damage has been done, internally and externally. It is not simply a matter of getting the economics right; it is a matter of doing the hard work of transforming institutions so that they cannot easily be hijacked or ‘captured’ again. It is about addressing the key systemic deficiencies of the South African state, government and economy. It is about rebuilding society’s confidence in a broken body politic. It is also about awakening the South African polis.

Instead of losing ourselves in premature celebration we need to exhale for a moment – and indeed enjoy it – but then move quickly to ensure that the pressure that existed before Jacob Zuma departed from office is still being exerted. This necessitates challenging, at every opportunity, the ANC leadership’s inability to admit to and acknowledge its deep internal troubles and problems, and how these have manifested in patently disastrous outcomes for the country. Skirting around this central reality is – in my view – not political diplomacy, but duplicity. Good leadership acknowledges, confronts and deals with its central challenges; it does not speak with two tongues but provides clear explanation of what is wrong and what needs to be done about it.

By speaking out loud what the ANC refuses to, we can force them to acknowledge the great distance between the reality they profess, and what we know to be true. And as this distance grows, like a wedge between the ANC and the people of South Africa, they will eventually be forced to humble themselves before us and confess what they know to be true in their hearts; that they are no longer an organisation that serves the people but an elite of self-serving opportunists (with some exceptions) who take power for granted. While we celebrate the possibility of change, we should not forget how we ended up here. We must consolidate our will and action to guarantee that the future we desire and deserve comes to fruition. And the first step in that direction is to air out loud the good, the bad and the unsaid.

Thursday, 1 February 2018

All The President’s Men!

Some interesting developments are unfolding since the election of Deputy President of the country, Cyril Ramaphosa, to the presidency of the ANC. Two key contradictions have emerged in the wake of Ramaphosa's ascendancy to power; (1) contradictions within the ANC and (2) contradictions in the public discourse. The former is more obvious and has been readily picked up by the media and those who are politically engaged, while the latter is much less obvious and appears to have gone unnoticed for the most part.

The Obvious Contradiction

First, let’s account for the obvious contradiction; the one that everyone has been focused on. It is not the main subject of this piece, but it provides a useful background to the discussion that follows, especially for readers who may not be entirely familiar with recent events in South African politics.

The sitting president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, is approximately a year away from the end of his second term, after which he will have to depart from office. However, there is a precedent that the ANC set when Jacob Zuma was elected as ANC president while the sitting president Thabo Mbeki still held office. When Jacob Zuma ascended to the presidency of the ANC the National Executive Committee (NEC) of the ANC argued that it was untenable to maintain “two centres of power”. Thabo Mbeki had to go, and they eventually recalled him in what was widely regarded – across the Continent and the world – as a deep humiliation. Indeed, his departure speech, which was televised to the nation, although dignified, betrayed a deep hurt at the way in which he had been treated. He was proud, educated and highly literate leader who was booted out of office despite having served the ANC for 50 odd years of his life at that time. Yet the ANC NEC insisted that it would work against the ANC and the country’s interests to maintain “two centres of power”.

All that appears to have been forgotten now that Cyril Ramaphosa has been elected president of the ANC while the embattled, lame duck president Jacob Zuma still holds high office. Indeed, it has been a lesson in political spin to watch ANC leaders find creative ways of explaining to the public why the same treatment shouldn’t be dealt out to Jacob Zuma. The most bizarre explanation is that they are trying to find a way of ensuring his exit without humiliating him. The irony of this is that President Jacob Zuma has proved largely immune to any form of humiliation; his presidency has been deeply controversial. He is accused of corruption[1], involvement in “state capture”[2] as well as violating his oath of office[3]. The reality is overwhelmingly converse; Jacob Zuma’s presidency has humiliated the ANC and him and his cronies should have unceremoniously been shown the door a long time ago.

The media and political commentators have been quick to identify the “two centres of power” contradiction that the ANC now finds itself in. It has taken a particularly cynical joy in drawing ANC politicians out and challenging them for their duplicity. It’s all a bit of a song and dance, a predictable routine that the media go through with the ANC leadership; baiting them into difficult corners and watching them weasel themselves out of them.

The Less Obvious Contradiction

Yet this blatant duplicity is not the strangest phenomenon emerging in the South African political realm. Indeed, there is a much deeper and more disturbing pattern emerging, one that reveals a particularly undesirable continuity between the presidency of Jacob Zuma and that of his successor Cyril Ramaphosa. In my estimation it is a deep problem, one which warrants attention. I won’t pretend to understand exactly why it exists, so I will simply diagnose it and guard against the dangers of it.

When Cyril Ramaphosa was elected ANC president recently in December of 2017 many South Africans, loyal ANC members and stalwarts, private sector actors and the intelligentsia celebrated it enthusiastically. Confidence in the ANC, which had been at an all-time low, began to surge again. Cyril Ramaphosa is widely being touted as the person who will save the ANC and turn it around. There are very many reasons why this is debatable, but nonetheless, South Africans – who have been living with political and economic uncertainty, and a president who has roundly embarrassed and humiliated them – desperately needed cause for hope.

Cyril Ramaphosa’s election to the presidency of the ANC has undoubtedly provided that hope. Many in the public and private sector have rallied around him, and he has received endorsements from many commentators, ANC leaders and stalwarts, as well as private sector moguls and big-shots. Yet although this booming hope in Cyril Ramaphosa’s abilities are not without merit, the truth is that he faces an extremely difficult challenge. The ANC NEC and the top six are still divided – almost fifty-fifty – between his slate and that which supported Jacob Zuma’s candidate (i.e. his ex-wife Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma). The forces of internal factionalism within the ANC are still playing out, and he has a very tough challenge on his hands (indeed, some view them as near insurmountable).

The internal friction between camps is playing out in spectacular fashion now that Ramaphosa has been elected president. After years of inaction the National Prosecution Authority (NPA) has sprung into action and appears to finally be acting on corruption matters that it has long ignored. The NPA sunk so low as to allow itself to be used as a political pawn to harass and intimidate Jacob Zuma’s detractors and accusers. The bogus cases against the South African Revenue Services (SARS) “rogue unit” (a special investigation unit that looks into financial crimes at the highest level) and the ex-Minister of Finance and ex head of SARS Pravin Gordhan are cases in point. There were many others as well, too many to go into here.

Now, suddenly, it appears as though the NPA is ready and in position to take action against those who have been widely accused , even by the ex-Public Protector, of being engaged in “state capture” (i.e. influencing and rigging state tenders and deals for the gain of a network of politically connected private sector actors). Headlines have rung out with huge muster and bluster that those engaged in corruption will now face the music and have to answer the charges against them.

And the strangest thing of all is that Cyril Ramaphosa is being enthusiastically credited with the new surge to ensure accountability in the political realm and private sector in South Africa. “Cyril is making things happen!” his supporters gleefully exclaim. It is indeed more than strange, particularly because agencies such as the NPA and the Public Protector’s Office are supposed to act “without fear, favour or prejudice” and service the constitution. As such they are not supposed to be unduly influenced by any political leader or government in their decision-making.

Indeed, in the case of the Public Protector’s Office, it is a Chapter 9 institution. The first and foremost responsibility of Chapter 9 institutions is to the constitution and the public of South Africa. They are subject only to the Constitution and the law, and answer to the National Assembly, not the President. In the case of the NPA its mission is similarly defined, although it is not a Chapter 9 institution, that is;

“Guided by the Constitution, we in the National Prosecuting Authority ensure justice for the victims of crime by prosecuting without fear, favour and prejudice and by working with our partners and the public to solve and prevent crime.”

The fact that Cyril Ramaphosa’s election to the presidency of the ANC is being credited with these recent but long-overdue actions is truly bizarre. The fact is that they should have been doing their jobs all along, as they are sworn to do. Who is in power should not matter at all! Indeed, it is deeply worrying, because all it means is that should we – for whatever reason – end up with a new leader who exerts undue influence on them to delay or ignore certain cases, it is highly likely that they will yet again be placed on the back-burner or even scrapped entirely. In short, we should not be celebrating the idea that it is Cyril Ramaphosa’s influence that has enabled them to take actions that should be taken without fear or favour in any event.

Celebrating Ramaphosa as an agent of change within the ANC, and possibly within government, is one thing. Celebrating him as an agent of change in respect of constitutionally independent functions of the state is quite another! We should not be celebrating these recent developments uncritically as it means that instead of bringing about systemic changes in the way our state functions – especially those functions and powers that are independent of government – we are merely feeding into the same destructive “follow the leader” phenomenon that landed the ANC and the country in this mess in the first place.

The Importance of Systemic Change

In the clear light of day, the entire state cannot be regarded as “all the president’s men”. The ANC perhaps can play ‘follow the leader’ as much as it desires, but certainly not the state in its entirety. Separation of powers has – in reality – proved to be the last resort for those who sought to ensure that justice is served in respect of government and private sector corruption (and especially that where the president and his network of operators are concerned). It is the courts, leading all the way up to the Constitutional Court, that opposition parties and civil society groups have had to go to in order to ensure that justice is served and that constitutionality is upheld. It is the Public Protector’s Office – under its previous leader Thuli Madonsela – who fearlessly spoke truth to power and held the powerful to account as equals before the law.

The valorisation of leaders in South Africa – and on the continent as a whole – is one of the largest obstacles to actualising true democracy. Yet it is a difficult mind-set to shake. Indeed, even the ANC’s mantra that “no single person is above the ANC” went out the window in the case of Jacob Zuma. And now, some of us are celebrating Ramaphosa’s ability to wheel and deal and manipulate matters of state behind the scenes (allegedly, I should add). This is antidemocratic in its essence. When constitutionality is sacrificed for ‘political pragmatism’ and ‘realpolitik’ in this manner, we open the door to the forces that undermine constitutionality and democratic process. In order to hold power to account, we cannot – and should not – elevate our leaders above the law and the constitution.

There are those, some masquerading as “saviours of our democracy”, who would sacrifice principle and constitutionality to ‘hold those who threaten the integrity of state’ to account. This kind of change is ridiculously shallow and difficult to sustain. What we need is deep-rooted systemic and structural change that helps ensure that the processes by which the state is run and governed can effectively mitigate abuse of power. We are a relatively young democracy. As such we have to interrogate the system we have and make changes that can improve it over time. Superficial change that is merely the product of a change of leadership is hardly the route to a resilient democratic state that – along with an active citizenry – can self-organise and self-regulate power on its own terms, independent of this or that leader or leadership.

This should not be difficult to understand. The long struggle against the authoritarian Apartheid state was precisely geared towards empowering the people and the state to hold power to account. All that has become blurred now, and our focus is on larger-than-life leaders and their particular qualities. The era of new populism that has taken hold across the world has elevated “the big man” instead of levelling the scales between those in power and those who elect them. While it is easy to understand the enthusiasm behind the notion that “Cyril is getting things moving now”, it is an enthusiasm that loses sight of the basis of our democracy and the long hard-fought struggle to actualise it.

If we are serious about making lasting political changes that can strengthen our democracy we need to go beyond quick fixes and dig deep into the systems that reproduce the conditions for those who would abuse power to do so willy-nilly and get away with it. We need to interrogate the bureaucracies and the processes and principles by which they function, and make the changes that are necessary to ensure that good governance is ensured – and where failures occur, that they are quickly corrected.

Accountability, transparency, sound principles and rule of law cannot ever be replaced by the election of a benevolent leader, no matter how good or trustworthy that leader is. The real test of a democratic state is how well it is able to cope with a variety of potential leaders, good or bad, and ensure that all types are held to account when it becomes necessary. That, more than anything else, should remain front and centre of our efforts to build a real, lasting democracy. But we’re all too busy celebrating the first mile of the marathon without pause for thought that there are many more to go.

The danger in allowing our polis to evolve in this piecemeal, superficial fashion is that the effectiveness of the state will vary, and remain dependent on whether good and bad leader and leaderships are in power. Having never bothered to address the fundamental structural and systemic factors that reproduce undesirable leaders and leaderships we are bound to relive them and suffer their main effects. That is, keeping us in the doldrums of progress towards real democracy, as has been the case with much of the rest of the continent.

[1][1] i.e. 783 charges in the arms deal of the early 2000s
[2] i.e. a facilitator of “state capture” by private business interests to whom his son is intimately linked
[3] As per the Constitutional Court judgement on his handling of the Public Protector’s findings on illegal upgrading to his rural homestead, Nkandla.