Friday, 31 March 2017

United We Stand, Divided We Fall!

It’s up to ordinary citizens. That is the key message coming out of all quarters of South African society. Whether they be anti-Zuma civil society organisations such as Save South Africa, opposition politicians, or the now famously fired Minister of Finance Pravin Gordhan, the message is clear. Organise amongst yourselves and act if you want South Africa to change course.

That should be obvious, but South Africa is a long way from its heydays of civil society in the 1980s and early 1990s where rolling mass action brought together vast and diverse swathes of society against the Apartheid government. There is a longing for that kind of action in South Africa, but there is a distinct hesitancy about how to throw oneself into political action amongst ordinary citizens. They have become so reliant on power, in that they have given politicians and administrators/civil servants complete power over their futures.

And naturally, it has been abused, as it was given too trustingly, and with a sense of inferiority towards those who occupy the seats of power in the government and the state. The challenge for South Africa today is how to reconstitute their sense of civic responsibility and their power to hold government and the state to account. There is a sense of waiting to see who will act first, and who will fill the large leadership vacuum that exists where the need for unifying and mobilising civil society is at its height. Whether on social media, or in the flurry of phone calls and inter-personal interactions people are having, the big question is, “who is leading us on this?”

This leadership vacuum presents perhaps the largest opportunity to turn the national South African project around and guide it towards safer waters. Who will take up the challenge remains to be seen. Who will carry it through successfully is also an open question. What is certain, however, is that a consensus is emerging – especially amongst middle class South Africans – that the need to take direct action has never been clearer.

Indeed, ‘pivotal’ moments have come and gone for Jacob Zuma without serious consequence until now, but there is a distinct possibility that the fight may now descend into the trenches prepared to fight to the last. If that is the case, then South Africa will undoubtedly be able to exert the kind of pressure on government that is necessary to recall President Zuma, impeach him, or convince him to resign from his position. But it will take sustained effort, and it remains to be seen whether ordinary South Africans are willing to devote themselves to what has become perhaps the largest post-Apartheid challenge in South Africa since the HIV Aids epidemic tightened its deathly grip on it.

I was surprised – and somewhat amused – therefore, to see the leader of the most successful post-Apartheid civil society based protest group’s ex-leader Zachie Achmat state on Facebook that he was ready to hit the streets, but wanted to know who was going to lead them? It startled me, as it revealed the extent to which nobody knows who to turn to for leadership, even the leaders themselves. It is a worrying situation, but it is not – by any means – a situation that cannot be remedied with effort.

I’m unsure what the timelines may be before such mobilisation becomes effective enough to bring about change, but my intuition is that it will take more than an explosive show of people power that lasts a day or two to turn government around. It will require sustained protest action that brings activities in major cities to a halt. In order for government to feel the hurt, we as ordinary citizens will need to be prepared to feel some of the hurt too.

There is a need, in my view, for at least two types of action. Immediate, regular and/or sustained protest action that occurs in extremely large numbers; where entire cities or at least part of them are brought to a standstill. At the same time, and parallel to the protest action, there needs to be a serious process of movement building that spans across different sectors of society, political parties, civil society organisations, institutions and the private sector. Hence what South Africa needs now, are people – i.e. ordinary citizens – as well as political leaders, who can step into this vacuum and put in the effort to build a citizen base from which civil action can be effectively mobilised on a large scale.

It does not need to be ideological, and neither should it be. It should be issue-based, so that the various and fragmented sectors of society can come together without all the pesky ideological wrangling that dogs the South African polis and sets it back whenever any form of unified action is required from it. South African society remains divided and conquered, unable to mount an offensive and exert power on the government and state and hold it to account. It does not need an overly ideologically driven social movement for change, it needs one that can capture everyday ordinary citizens and help them make themselves effective in the space of political action.

What South Africans need most, is a vessel under which they can come together and feel legitimate within its ranks. That is they need to know that they are standing alongside legitimate political leaders and actors in society, so that they can know and trust that their own actions are legitimate as well. They need to be convinced and given the courage to make the effort to leave their homes and places of work to put a greater cause – i.e. the future stability of the country – ahead of their personal needs. That is difficult to request of anybody, but if the leaders who request it are known for their integrity, for their consistency and incorruptibility, then people will make the effort to stand alongside them in defiance.

I am not talking about the kind of leader who wins elections, I am talking about the kind of leaders who win hearts and minds over with ease because they are honest, whose credibility is unquestionable because their track records are clean and transparent, and whose willingness to go all the way is indisputable. So I am not talking about those who would use this movement and the unfortunate events that have led to this moment in history for party political gain, but those whom society knows stands with them unconditionally, because they are concerned about all who live in South Africa.

When I was a young child I loved getting my hands on the big silver one rand coin that was in circulation then. It had a very simple but effective saying on it, “united we stand, divided we fall”, and over the years growing up I secretly held on to that saying as a source of strength to endure the struggle against Apartheid. Even though that coin was minted and circulated by the South African Apartheid government itself, I, within myself, had appropriated this saying for my own cause. When the UDF was formed and began its campaign that was the way I understood it as a late child and early teenager, that it was about sowing an unbreakable unity; one that no regime could survive because it faced a tsunami, an unprecedented force for change.

That is what South Africa needs now. It needs it, because the South African national project is in dire jeopardy. It stands at a precipice, and we are now looking over the abyss. We are no longer merely looking at it from a safe distance, we have been pushed to the edge to see how we will respond. Will we remain cowered and divided, as we have been for too long now, or will we give life to our freedom by exercising it, by taking power back from the powerful, by holding them to account at every turn and forcing them to look us in the eye when they speak to us? Because only we can do that, and we have to do it for ourselves and we cannot do it without each other. So we better find ways to make unity possible, and fast, because it will only take another push or two for us to plunge into the abyss.

When Nenegate (or 9/12) happened, and the President was forced to make a quick turn-around, the message that our leadership sent out to society was, “let them try that again”, that we could rely on our institutions and society to curb the President’s antics and hold him to account. That the ‘checks and balances’ were robust in our democracy. Well, here it is again my fellow countrymen; this is more of the same. The question is, what are you going to do about it this time round? Wait for the same old processes to grind themselves out and dissipate, or take direct action and bring a serious grassroots based challenge to the doorsteps of power? The choice is yours, and so are the consequences.

South Africa: Markets Reel, South Africans Grin and Bear It!

Embattled President Jacob Zuma waited until just before midnight to make his most unpopular decision ever in the history of democratic South African presidencies. This morning, the nation awoke to the news that the president had fired Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan and his deputy Mcebisi Jonas, the Minister of Tourism Derek Hanekom. These are the most important actions, as these individuals were central to the opposition to President Jacob Zuma’s presidency and will no longer be part of government.

The cabinet reshuffle also saw the ministers of Energy, Police and Public Works, Sports and Recreation, Communications, Home Affairs, and Public Service and Administration changed (some moved, some replaced), along with their deputies.  Yet these do not constitute cause for concern. In all likelihood these changes have been made in order to convince the public that the cabinet reshuffle is just business as usual, since Zuma allies and supporters have also been reshuffled along with his key dissenters.

Perhaps most surprising of all, the Minister of Social Development (leader of the ANC Women’s League and staunch supporter of the President) was not fired, despite a constitutional court ruling against her regarding the failure to roll-out South Africa’s extensive social grant scheme, upon which more than fifty per cent of the poor rely for stable – even if small – incomes. In addition, Minister of Communications Faith Muthambi has been retained, despite the long running debacle that has unfolded during her watch at the national broadcaster, the South African Broadcasting Service (SABC).

South Africa’s currency – the Rand – is reeling from the impact, and the nation, which has narrowly avoided an international ratings downgrade to junk status for the past two years, is now likely to be downgraded. The national budget, as well as business, industry and finance, is bound to suffer the ill effects of these developments, as it is not immediately foreseeable that an end to the crisis is at hand. Were this just a temporary crisis, foreign investment might have actually increased, but there is plainly too much uncertainty to bet against in this case.

What is certain, is that the Russian nuclear deal – announced after a meeting between President Zuma and Vladimir Putin – is likely to be pushed through. Estimated at 1 Trillion Rands, it has faced concerted opposition both from the public and within government itself. The vast majority of energy researchers and experts see no need for the deal, and it is widely viewed as a patronage deal that will enrich Zuma’s supporters. While a lot has been made of the President’s close relationship with an Indian born business family – the Gupta’s – with whom the President’s son has very close business ties, little mention has been made of Russia and its role in the deal (the President’s close relationship with the Gupta family is derogatively referred to as “Zupta” by opposition politicians and the press).

The clear signal that the nuclear deal is priority number one in this reshuffle is the firing of Pravin Gordhan and his replacement by Zuma loyalist Malusi Gigaba, as well as the replacement of Energy Minister Tina Joematt-Petterson with one of Zuma’s most loyal followers Mmamoloko ‘Nkhensani’ Kubayi into the portfolio.

As the nation awakes to the news, many calls for public action have been made on social media, namely by the Save South Africa campaign, who are calling for people in Pretoria to converge upon Church Square outside the office of the Treasury, which is widely viewed as being under attack from the presidency for resisting the deal. There are bound to be other calls for action as well, emanating from political parties as well as civil society.

If the show of state security power at last year’s State of the Nation Address in Cape Town is anything to go by, it is likely that the government would have put the police and other arms of state security on stand-by to deal with any potential mass protests. They will be keen to quell them quickly and decisively before they can grow into anything significant.

Notwithstanding the mobilisation of security forces, the likelihood that South Africans will take concerted action is likely still minimal. South Africa is a divided society. It is divided along race and class lines, and the gaps between different groups are largely irreconcilable. Even if they do come together it is difficult to imagine that they can hold any kind of centre together for a long enough period to force the ANC to recall President Zuma. One scenario that may see this play out is if Parliament is suspended and the nation’s government grinds to a halt.

Given the long history of inaction of the South African public to President Jacob Zuma’s myriad scandals, debacles and self-induced crises, it is difficult to imagine that concerted and clear action will be taken now, when he is effectively an outgoing president who will exit the presidency in 2019. The reason for last night’s actions is simply because he wants to push through the nuclear deal before his party holds its party presidential elections at the end of this year. This year is hence the year to tie down all loose ends.

It is still possible that he may be re-elected president of the ANC, which is split into pro and anti-Zuma factions, possibly splitting the ANC for good from its tripartite partners (the Council for South African Trade Unions and the South African Communist Party), and it may be his intention to do so purely to avoid prosecution down the line for his misdeeds as president. President Jacob Zuma has over 700 charges of corruption pending against him, which the National Prosecuting Authority has been slow to act on. Should the ANC lose power down the line to an opposition-led coalition, it is possible that the long arm of the law may eventually reign him in and call him to account. But the opposition is polarised and ideologically at odds with each other; the only factor that binds them together is their opposition to Jacob Zuma. After 2019, without him in power, it may well be the case that their cause for unity is no more and their divisions take precedence over unity.

Both within the ANC, as well as in the ranks of the opposition, how they make their next moves, and what signals they sound out, will hence prove crucial to rescuing both the South African fiscus, as well as the government and the state, which has descended into a state of entrenched corruption under the leadership of President Jacob Zuma. Divisive and fragmented leadership will prevent any chance of unified action emerging from all sectors of society, and it will be left to those within the internal structures of the ANC to take action. So far, they have failed to budge the President and his followers and all attempts to remove him has resulted in them digging their heels in deeper.

Some commentators will say that South Africa is at a pivotal moment. The truth is that many ‘pivotal’ moments have come and gone, and no tangible gains have been made in the quest to rid the country of its compromised leadership. It should come as no surprise, as despite the many liberation tales that are told about the struggle against Apartheid, South Africans were notoriously slow to take action against the Apartheid government. We are in fact a nation that is easily cowered and slow to act.

With the unions in relative disarray, and civil society fragmented and piecemeal, it is difficult to envisage the levels of mass action that emerged during the 1980s taking root again. With the greater majority of society successfully individuated, having retreated into the private realm working day to day just to keep their household budgets afloat, the vagaries of power may not seem immediate enough to get South Africans out into the streets. Despite all the rhetoric of struggle, South Africans are not in reality predisposed to civil action, except at local levels, and over local issues. This is bound to grow as the working poor and working class are increasingly squeezed, and may eventually result in widespread mass action, but currently, it seems more likely that that will happen after President Zuma has vacated the presidency i.e. when the real impacts of recession, maladministration, corruption and the debt-inducing nuclear deal filters down to society. That is, it will be somebody else’s problem by then.

Moreover, the main opposition party – the Democratic Alliance – seems to be at ease with a strategy of allowing the ANC to unravel, so that it can capitalise on its failures at the 2019 national election polls. It has made symbolic gestures of protest, but has not as yet taken serious, concerted action within government to bring the crisis to a head. Simply put, it makes symbolic protests but sits on its hands when it comes to taking meaningful action. Its gamble is for power, hence its efforts are not focused on bringing about change in the short term, or stemming the wildly irresponsible actions of the ANC leadership. Its strategy appears to be focused on exposing the ANC, dogging it at every turn with criticism and rhetoric i.e. it is a strategy aimed at voters and not the government itself. In terms of political action none has emerged from the DA, it is merely chronicling the ANC’s failures to the nation.

The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), a political party that splintered from the ANC after the expulsion of the ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema, has been far more active in terms of taking real protest action, challenging the ANC in the courts, making some spectacular wins along the way (e.g. such as the Constitutional Court ruling that found that the president effectively violated his oath of office). Yet, with around 8 per cent of the vote they are merely kingmakers in the opposition ranks; their only hope of attaining power is by re-joining the ANC and putting it through a ‘reformation’ of sorts. Without the removal of President Zuma it is difficult to envisage this happening in the short term. They have gambled strongly on his removal as the victory that will pave the way for them to re-join the ANC ranks.

In the meantime, markets will tumble and fall, and the middle classes will be making plans to emigrate. Economic growth, already slowed to all but a halt, will likely retreat into recession in the short term. Ordinary South Africans will scramble to survive a worsening economy that offers little chance of growth and new employment. If the economic crisis spirals deeply enough, however, layoffs on a large scale may result, and foreign investors may pull out. If government grinds to a halt, and unemployment shocks resonate throughout society, it may provide the fuel to the anti-Zuma public fire to grow into a significant enough mass to remove him. But hope has proven to be misplaced amidst the fractured polis of South Africa.

Yet action is desperately needed in order to ensure safety and stability, so South Africans need to find ways to keep hope alive, despite the many and varied obstacles that lie across the path to unity. They need to act, as no amount of opposition politics or court actions can provide the impetus for political change (indeed, separation of powers ensures that the courts cannot take political actions). One cause for hope is that the fired ministers will now be able to mobilise from within the ANC National Executive Committee (on which they still sit as elected members), and will also be free to join with civil society groups such as Save South Africa to build and organise within society. The challenge is that it takes time, effort and finances to mobilise effectively, and simply joining hands in opposition to a single president is not enough to hold it together.

What is needed is to take the long view and build up a coherent force for social change that can bring pressure on government, not just for a moment of victory (i.e. getting rid of the president), but one that can sustain its momentum into the long term, holding each and every successive government to account at every turn. It is only that kind of mobilisation that will ensure that government, the state and the broader polis is effectively held to account and regulated by the electorate. The nation has been all but begging for concerted leadership for an unbearably long time, but for now, South Africans will likely have to just grin and bear it!

Monday, 27 March 2017

The Helen Zille Twitter Controversy: Oh The Irony!

Helen Zille’s latest twitter comments, and her subsequent Daily Maverick article, both waxed lyrical about the ‘benefits’ of colonial infrastructure and services (e.g. medicine) to the colonies. Predictably, her comments have invoked widespread outrage in South Africa, a country that is still grappling with its colonial and Apartheid past that saw white supremacy entrenched in every aspect of daily life. 

Notwithstanding that her comments were historically inaccurate, in that the legacy of colonialism is overwhelmingly one of legalised dispossession, theft, extraction and slavery, the legacy of colonialism that is with us today is the legacy of profound underdevelopment. It has left us with extractive economies that have not industrialised or diversified because the colonies were not included in the industrial revolution except as sources of raw materials and markets for cheap goods. It has left us with the far-reaching intergenerational impacts of slavery and forced labour, under-education and illiteracy. It left many colonies so poor that they were easy targets for outsourced cheap labour in the global neoliberal economy.

Colonialism left most postcolonial dispensations with a desperate lack of infrastructure and commensurate service provisions. That is because infrastructures such as roads and rail were only put in place to aid extraction of raw materials, and the transportation of raw materials and labour. The legacy of slums and informal settlements in urban settlements across the Global South is testament to this. Colonialism is solely responsible for pervasive dual formal and informal systems (i.e. such as economies, land, service provision and housing). It engaged in the wholesale theft of children and separation from their parents (such as the aboriginal children in Australia). It forced indigenous peoples off their land into labour on farms, mines and in industries, obliterating traditional family life and society in the process. In many places it all but destroyed local customs, traditions and cultures.

Simply put, the extent of colonial damage runs so deep in the postcolonial dispensations that it is patently ridiculously na├»ve to invoke examples of the benefits or benevolence of colonialism against the backdrop of these impacts, which would be regarded as crimes against humanity today. 

Postcolonial interference in the colonies – for the express purpose of ensuring supply of raw materials to the industrialised world – created monstrous dictatorships, propped up with Western support, hampered development and denied many countries of their preferred and elected leaders. Today, postcolonial African debt and land grabs across Africa threaten to ensure the continued underdevelopment of African economies, and their express over-dependence on their ex-colonial masters. The legacy of colonialism is a patently and undeniably destructive one for those who have suffered for over 400 years under the jackboot of colonial empires.

Within this context, a short anecdote is instructive of why Helen Zille’s comments are nonsensical at best. Imagine that you owned a double storey house, and kept all your valuables on the top floor so that it would be more difficult to steal. Along comes a thief who ingeniously nails a rope-ladder to the side of your house, climbs up, steals all your valuables and disappears down the rope-ladder into the night. You call the police, they manage to apprehend the thief a few months later, but he has already spent his ill-gotten gains from the theft on himself. When you confront him in court, he says to you, “at least you now have a rope-ladder that reaches up to your window that can double as a fire escape”. That is the extent of the hypocrisy and ludicrous logic of Helen Zille’s comments. It denies the theft. It denies that your rights were violated. It does not seek to make reparations and neither does it seek to apologise. It infers that you should actually be grateful for the minor gain you made amidst major losses.

To understand why Helen Zille has largely gone unchallenged by the current leadership of the DA, one has to acknowledge the extraordinary power she wields over the DA’s membership and support base. She grew the party from single to double digit percentages during her leadership, and it is now the official opposition in South Africa. She has an unprecedentedly large following on twitter, boasting 1 million followers and 55 thousand tweets. By comparison, the current black leader of the DA has 500 thousand followers and 12 thousand tweets. The president Jacob Zuma has 420 thousand followers (100 tweets) and the ruling party’s twitter account @myANC has 360k followers.

Helen Zille’s twitter account has had the effect of building a personality cult around her, and by her own admission she finds it both empowering and useful. She enjoys it, and despite many calls for her to abandon it entirely, she persists in her social media activities; which have morphed into a parallel campaign of sorts, one that distracts significantly from the core messaging of the new DA leadership simply because her echo-chamber (much like Donald Trump’s) is so much larger and self-reinforcing. As an experiment for the reader, try to confront her on her opinions on twitter. Not only will she deny the validity of your views, her followers will descend upon you and troll you out of the space. Her twitter-verse is not a diverse one; it largely consists of like-minded conservatives who really believe that she is representing their views accurately and consistently. That is, her most recent statements were not a mistake. Rather it is consistent with the narrative that she is putting out.

This would be okay if she were the leader of the DA. However, having passed the reigns on to a new black leader and his leadership, it creates confusion and an unnecessary distraction from the party’s core message. It has come to represent a “good-cop, bad-cop” act, with Mmusi Maimane presenting a unifying vision for the country, one that is more social democratic in orientation, and Helen Zille feeding the very polarisation in the South African polis that Maimane’s leadership is seeking to overcome. Simply put, his efforts seem focused on bringing South Africans together in a manner that they can better understand each other and celebrate their diversity and address their historical injustices, while her statements are simply divisive and feed into the narrative that the EFF, BLF and the ANC leadership (who are under immense threat) are putting out.

In short, this is potentially disastrous for the DA. The DA now looks like when push comes to shove it is equally incapable as the ANC is of acting decisively on bad leadership involving questionable statements and actions. Her constant intrusions overwhelm the DA’s messaging to black South Africans, whose votes they desperately require in order to come close to governing. And it is a wholly unnecessary distraction that is all Helen Zille’s making. It is not accidental. There is an agenda and definite purpose behind her statements.

It is clear – or it should be clear – that Helen Zille’s twitter statements are not aimed at the broad majority of South Africans. Rather, they target the conservative core of the DA that was inherited from the collapse of the National Party. She is not a liberal. She is a classic neoconservative. She is anti-BEE and pro free market styled “meritocracy”. In a country with the highest inequality in the world, and history of dispossession, forced removals, labour exploitation and disenfranchisement talk of meritocracy is simply ideological lunacy. Yet she is desperately trying to keep the conservative political caucus alive and thriving within the DA’s ranks and South African society.

She has a very large echo-chamber on twitter.  By repeatedly sending out and reinforcing the same messages she ensures that her leadership priorities for the DA are kept alive and amplified. The danger is that the more she reinforces this effect, the more likely the potential for that echo-chamber to begin to resonate strongly and destabilise the DA from within. That is, her constant drumming out of the same message threatens to serve as a potent agitation within the DA, one that could lead to conflict and division as a leadership gap emerges within the party.

One only has to look to Brexit, or to Donald Trump’s victory, to realise what pandering to extreme conservative, right wing tea-party styled caucus’ can result in. Zille is playing with fire. She is feeding the very identity politics that she claims to refute, and in doing so it can destabilise and polarise society. Her constant pandering to ultra-conservative sentiment may blow things out of control; she may not expect or foresee it, but it can happen, much as it has happened now. Yet she proceeds regardless, impervious to all criticism and advice, along a path of destruction that may leave the DA floundering in its wake.

Since last year, Helen Zille has dismissed all criticism of her twitter outbursts as “manufactured outrage”. The sad truth is that she alone has created all the noise that has served as a profound distraction from the messaging of the DA leadership. Due to her immense popularity amongst her followers, and the fascination with her personality as archetypal and representative of themselves, her messaging has significantly overshadowed that of the new black leadership of the party. As a thought experiment, the reader should try to remember what the last message the leader of the DA put out. Most likely, it is his reaction to her tweets on colonialism. Instead of getting insight into how the DA plans to create employment, rid government of corruption, transform and diversify the economy, reduce poverty, reduce crime and so forth, the DA has been drawn into a whirlpool of Zille’s making.

As a seasoned politician and journalist she should know better. She is not Donald Trump, who has no experience of politics or governance. Rather, she has governed and led the DA from relative insignificance to being the main opposition. She simply must have a political agenda; her actions are not mistakes, they are deliberate. That is why there should be consequences for her actions. Her comments were not misconstrued, and neither were they mistaken. There is a clear pattern of such outbursts from Helen Zille that goes back all the way to the change of leadership of the DA from Tony Leon to Helen Zille. She may have underestimated how badly wrong it can go, but it is indisputable that there is an agenda behind her proclamations. She has been consistent in her statements, and that should constitute sufficient proof that her most recent foray into the public sphere is no exception.

By far, the most apt way of characterising Helen Zille’s agenda is that it draws on “white fragility” in the post-Apartheid dispensation. After twenty odd years of democracy, the white minority no longer have automatic authority in this society. They can be challenged vociferously, shouted down and held to account as much as anyone else. No longer are their opinions elevated above that of others purely because they are assumed to be better educated, more knowledge-able and capable. They are no longer awarded the mantle of superior judgement and objective insight. Rather, what lies behind their opinions is being confronted and challenged both within her party and without.

So when Helen Zille feigns objectivity, when she berates “critical race theorists”, the student movement and those who support the decolonisation agenda, she is being called out on the patent subjectivity of her views. That is, she is not an historian, and neither is she an objective scientist or social scientist who observes and analyses a topic dispassionately before making a judgement upon it. Rather, she is a politician who seeks to influence the political discourse, one who is neither objective nor expert in her opinions. In reality, her statements pander to the identity crisis that conservative white South Africa is undergoing. She is feeding the unacknowledged politics of post-Apartheid white identity that wracks conservative white South Africans in particular. She has, in this way, come to mirror the very “African racial-nationalist propaganda” that she disparages. It is profoundly ironic, but no surprise. Good leadership rises above its opposition, it does not mirror it; and her inability to take the high road has, in the end, proved to be Helen Zille’s most telling failure as a politician and leader. 

Friday, 24 March 2017

Globalisation and Dislocation: The Marginal, Youthful Majorities of Urban Africa

Urban growth has exploded in African cities. While the national levels of urbanisation in Africa are relatively low in comparison to the rest of the world, city growth rates in Africa are the highest in the world. The vast majority of African cities are characterised by poverty, inequality and extensive slums and informal settlements which sprawl outward from the inner cities to the peripheries. These ‘peripheral’ low income and informal settlements, as well as inner city slums, host the marginalised majorities of African cities. On average, 62 per cent of Africans live in slums. According to the Global Urban Indicators Database[i], in East, Central and West Africa, urban slum populations can be well over 80 per cent. In Southern Africa it is generally lower - at around 20-30 per cent in the case of South African cities, but with the exception of the urban populations of both Angola and Mozambique which are constituted of around 80 per cent slums.

The rapid growth of African cities is by and large occurring in slums and informal settlements, as African cities are inadequately prepared for what this African wave of urbanisation has ‘landed’ upon its urban shores. It is a movement of gargantuan proportions; a tsunami of people who seek out urban life in order to escape conflict and natural disasters such as floods and drought,  as well as people seeking out opportunities for employment, trade, skills development and improved access to services. As deeply fraught with problems as African cities are, they offer disproportionately better levels of access to services than most rural municipalities are capable of. Moreover, the city hosts potentials that give hope to Africans. In the cities opportunities exist purely because of their high urban populations; a large market exists and these needs have to be met, whether it involves the provision of produce, goods or services. There is always a niche to fill in the city.

UN-Habitat’s “State of the World Cities Report 2010/11: The Urban Divide”, drew attention to the global prevalence of the ‘urban divide’ within cities; whether ethnic, religious, wealth and class driven, or otherwise, the fragmentation of urban society and increased potential for conflict and contestation – both overt and covert – results in the urban socio-political fabric. The vastly sprawled cities of Africa are fuelled by informal expansion of slums and informal settlements towards the peripheries; as they absorb the lion’s share of the growth of these cities.

The large majority of urban Africans are employed in the informal sector, and acquire land and housing through informal and customary arrangements, often settling on land that is uninhabitable; in low lying coastal, estuarine and wetland systems for example; which are vulnerable to flooding from riparian systems (examples of this can be found in Central Africa, where the vast majority of cities are located within the flood plains of the vast river systems such as the Congo River that dominate the regions geography). Moreover, low-lying coastal settlements are particularly vulnerable to storm surges, coastal erosion and sea-level rise. In West Africa, it has been estimated that up to 75 000 people may perish in a single storm surge event in densely populated coastal informal settlements. If one considers the effects of the recent ‘super-storm’ on New York – a city that has arguably one of the best disaster preparedness and response capabilities – the gravity of the vulnerability of these dislocated  and marginal urban settlements becomes apparent.

Yet these ‘forgotten zones’ have severe and entrenched social vulnerabilities, which although not as evident and direct as natural disasters, constitute a deeper malignance; a turbulence that ignored, is likely to grow and build amongst the populous youth of the continent, until it erupts into social disorder, or finds focus and becomes a driving force for change. There is nothing romantic about the conditions under which the peripherals and the marginal’s live. They are cut off from opportunities to grow and develop at the same pace as the urban elites and they do not participate in the world of the wealthy and globalised except as labourers and menial workers. The peripheral slums and informal settlements of African cities often host the most turbulent and potentially destructive elements of African urban society, as they exist largely outside of formal systems of urban management and governance, often developing their own systems of regulation and control. Consequently, they are referred to as “autonomous zones”; self governing zones that are constituted by customary, consensus and ad-hoc arrangements over self-governance. They can also be highly organised, and well-regulated, in cooperation with local authorities in the city, and can vary considerably in age of settlement (such as the oldest ‘musseques’ in Luanda).

Informality does not automatically mean disorder; informal systems largely ensure the day to day survival of African urban societies, and they must be credited in that sense. However, where the rules break down, the outcomes can be devastating. This is especially the case when urban youth disengage entirely from traditional and cultural identities, and develop complex multi-layered identities that assimilate trans-national identities – whether religious, as in the case of transnational Christianity and Islam, or as manifested in the clothing, music and values of youth gangs in Africa. All over Africa, youth gangs display a keenness for Western values and clothing, adopting old-school gangster hip-hop as a proxy ‘voice’ for their social condition and most often the music of rap artists such as Tupac Shakur;  whose articulation of the social condition of marginalised urban dwellers in the United States of America has found global appeal in ghettoes all over the world; from the USA to Latin America, Africa, Europe and Asia and the Far East. To youthful RUF rebels in Sierra Leone, Tupac’s influence took on cult-like proportions, who scrawled lyrics across their vehicles and donned Tupac paraphernalia before going into battle, and blaring his music during breaks in the fighting[ii].

This transnational adoption of artistic expression and cultural narratives is not new in Africa. African jazz of the 1950s was already appropriating and remaking American sub-culture, and especially into African urban contexts. A glance through drum magazine hints at this past in the South African ghettoes of Sophiatown; which was well known for both its nightlife and its American styled gangsters. What is new, however, is that while there is still an appropriation of Western sub-culture at work in the popular culture of African urban youth, there is also a significant dislocation unfolding; resulting from the breakdown of long-standing community, extended family and nuclear family structures that has accompanied the rapid growth of cities in Africa.

In a sense, there is a vacuum of values, and it is being filled with what the youth can grasp hold and make sense of in a rapidly changing global world, and a stagnant local condition. That is, they are making it up as they go along, and are not nearly as coordinated and organised, in a broader sense, to find appropriate representation within governance; either at municipal, city or national levels. They are cut off, and make up their own reality in the absence of any avenues for growth within the city. They cease to be participants in the city proper, and lapse into self-generated modes of survival and self-governance. Where conflict and war has ravaged African countries, they have often ravaged the youth with them. Child soldiers, in particular, are indoctrinated into destructive and anti-social modes of behaviour, often from a young age. Re-entering post conflict society is very difficult for them, whether as children or adults, and they are rendered fundamentally marginal as a result.

The malaise and decay of the marginal can take on particularly disturbing forms where the African ‘youth bulge’ proliferates. In Central Africa, around 40 per cent of the population are under the age of 15, while only about three per cent of the population are over the age of 65. With majority populations under the age of 35, and the proliferation of youth unemployment and lack of access to opportunities, youth are left with two choices; either to migrate, or to embed oneself within their dysfunctional socio-economic contexts and eke out a living from opportunities that are opened up through multi-layered networks of kinship, community, religious networks and so forth; in order to access opportunities in the informal sector. Partial employment, partial skills development and partial survival are the outcomes of existing within informal systems, where exploitation is rife, and where international criminal networks have taken hold in order to facilitate the trafficking of human beings, drugs, contraband and so forth. Curiously, the Somali extremist group “El-Shabaab” translates into “the boys”, indicating the youthful nature of this identity transition and generational break from previous generations and traditional (often ethnic) identities.

Urban development responses in Africa largely do not cater for the marginal ‘majorities’. They cater for the wealthy urban dwellers, who increasingly hive themselves off from the realities of their cities within gentrified enclaves that emulate the ‘world class cities’ to which their occupants aspire. However, that aspiration is not limited to the wealth. As De Boeck points out in “The Modern Titanic: Urban Planning and Everyday Life in Kinshasa” even the displaced and marginal poor aspire to the grand visions of urban life that are enjoyed in ‘world class’ cities in the developed world. The aspiration is to be ‘just like them’. 

Yet the transition towards this new urban African reality is fraught with fragmented and often dysfunctional movements within the process of urbanisation that is unfolding in African cities. The skewed and exclusive growth and development patterns that are unfolding within African cities are producing, on its fringes; a marginal majority that remains largely ignored and un-included in the ‘great period of African economic growth’ that is unfolding in spite of the financial crisis. Perhaps, their centrality will ultimately come to the centre of life in urban Africa, one way or another, and broader social change will come about, but until then, the majority remain behind a looking glass, for the privileged to peer at and consider for a while, until its discomfort, it’s jilting, forces it back out of view, and into invisibility, scattered on the peripheries.

***Note: This piece was originally written in December 2012, was lost and consequently recovered. Nonetheless it remains a relevant perspective.


[i] Global Urban Indicators (GUI) (2009). Global Urban Indicators – Selected Statistics: Monitoring the Habitat Agenda and the Millennium Development Goals, Global Urban Observatory, November 2009.
[ii] Source: Sommers, M. (2003). “Urbanization, War and Africa’s Youth at Risk. Towards Understanding and Addressing Future Challenges”, Basic Education and Policy Support (BEPS), United States Agency for International Development.

The Urban Sustainability Challenge in Africa

According to the revised World Urbanisation Prospects data in 2011[i], the average national level of urbanisation in Africa is projected to reach 47.7% by 2030. By 2050, it will reach around 57.7%,  and will still lag behind the average urbanisation levels that exist in developed countries today (e.g. Europe is 72.7% urbanised). Notwithstanding Africa’s lower overall urbanisation levels, African cities are currently the fastest growing in the world. The growing number of urbanised Africans are set to constitute an important new global consumer market, which will require large-scale infrastructure development to meet their needs. According to a 2010 McKinsey report[ii] entitled “Lions on the move”, Africa’s middle class (which constitutes earnings between $4 - $20 per day) will rise from its 2010 value of 355 million people to 1.1 billion in 2010, by then overtaking both China and India’s middle class. Africa’s current youth bulge, will translate into a significant consumer and labour market in the medium term. By 2030 alone, Africa’s wealthiest cities are projected to have a combined spending power of $1.3 trillion. Moreover, the demand for infrastructure, technologies, services, goods, housing and land is high in African cities, due to their largely defunct infrastructures, which cater to wealthy elites while the majority of urban dwellers (i.e. 61.5% in 2010) reside in informal settlements and slums.

Consequently, Africa has attracted the attention of a wide range of international investors, businesses and service providers. Between 2004 and 2008 the return on investment in Africa was four times higher than anywhere else in the world[iii]. According to the African Development Banks “Africa in 50 Year’s Time” report, Africa’s real GDP is projected to rise from a 2008 value of $1.6 trillion to $2.6 trillion by 2020. Both existing and newly emerging African cities are major attractors for development opportunities, where both state-led and private sector driven agencies find themselves operating amidst a milieu of competing and coalescing agendas. Consumer goods and services such as telecoms and banking are projected to constitute more than half of Africa’s GDP growth between 2008 and 2010. Infrastructure development is projected to grow the fastest, with annual growth of 9 per cent between 2008 and 2020. These constitute major opportunities for developers and technology and infrastructure suppliers, as it is a market that has global significance. While some scepticism in the private sector exists in respect of the “New Scramble for Africa”, there is growing and widespread acknowledgement of the relevance of the rapidly growing cities of Africa. China has been quick to seize opportunities for infrastructure development in Africa.

Yet the question of how sustainable the growth of the key urban engines that are driving economic growth in Africa, that is; in social, economic, ecological, physical[iv]  and political terms remains largely unanswered[v]. That is, how sustainable is the socio-cultural and political urban fabric of African cities, as well as the ecological and physical technological and infrastructure development trajectories that are currently being adopted, and what is required to realise urban sustainability in Africa in the long term? African cities are where the challenges of integrating socio-political, economic and ecological development agendas are most deeply and directly manifested. Consequently, the 21st Century African urban sustainability challenge arguably provides the greatest test of the notion of sustainable development itself as an integrative development philosophy.

This piece argues that realising urban sustainability in Africa is more than just a technological and technocratic affair. Rather, when taking into account the high levels of socio-cultural and economic dysfunction in African cities (i.e. segregation, poverty, inequality and informality), it is clear that realising socio-cultural and political stability is perhaps the most important dimension of the African urban sustainability challenge. However, the social dimension is often the most neglected dimension in urban planning and development[vi], and physical urban development in Africa (i.e. spatial development and infrastructure and technology deployment) largely proceeds in an uneven, skewed and piecemeal manner.

In cities such as Johannesburg and Cape Town in South Africa, which are transitional – in the sense that they are mostly formalised, and exhibit strong, diversified economic growth – ironically, the highest levels of inequality in the world prevails. Africa is also characterised by a majority young population, large portions of which remain illiterate, unskilled or semi-skilled, and unemployed and destitute, with little or no avenues for improving their livelihoods. Moreover, urban development agendas are often driven by private interests at the cost of the public good, and result in piecemeal urban development that does little to reverse or improve the conditions under which large, often majority, sections of the urban citizenry live. Economic growth, that was brought about by trade liberalisation and de-regulation measures that were insisted upon by global institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF, has not brought about the greater levels of socio-economic and political stability that were anticipated, and instead, public protests in informal and low-income neighbourhoods over lack of service delivery and improvements in access to employment and opportunities for growth have escalated in African cities over the past decade.

In terms of sustainable political stability, African countries and cities still face major challenges. The socio-economic and political sustainability of African cities (and countries) is endangered by the persistent internal and regional drivers of instability  in Africa, which includes; poverty, inequality, slums and informality, social fragmentation, marginalisation of the poor, corruption, bribery, nepotism, lack of transparent governance, crime, the activities of international criminal organisations, to wars and radicalisation. These challenges require that empowered democratic political constituency is engendered. Yet, it is most likely that the foundation for this democratic transition will be laid in African cities, as cities are where the majority of Africans will live, and where the major political changes of 21st Century Africa will likely be generated as a result. Hence the importance of cities in determining the future political sustainability of Africa is evident, and they will likely play a key role in determining what kind of democracy emerges in African countries and regions in the future.

This piece does not argue that technological and infrastructural should be neglected. To the contrary, the material and physical sustainability of African cities in a largely resource-scarce global future warrants close attention. The mutual social, economic, ecological, physical and political sustainability of African cities will likely be determined by the patterns of urbanisation that take hold due to large and small-scale infrastructure decisions that are made today and in the near future. The type of development that takes place in African cities today, whether within existing cities or completely new cities, will determine urban patterns of consumption and waste and the competitiveness of urban production and services activities in Africa. In this respect, both large and small scale infrastructure choices are important for the future material and economic sustainability of future African cities and economies. However, large-scale infrastructure choices are more difficult to reverse or change, and lock urban populations into patterns of behaviour for many decades; hence they must be considered more carefully. Hence, the future sustainability of African cities requires close scrutiny of decisions over infrastructure and planning that are made today.

However, the models of urban planning and governance that have been adopted in African cities,  which has historically been heavily dependent on centralized master planning, requires revision; as pointed out by numerous contemporary African authors. In general, a push towards decentralised governance has prevailed through the majority of the literature on African cities. It is an argument with some merit, as centralised systems of governance have proven largely incapable of meeting the urban development challenges of African cities. Yet decentralisation of authorities without adequate fiscal decentralisation has ensued, and decentralised authority is sometimes easily captured by local elites.  Amidst the ongoing developmental debate on decentralisation, the sustainability agenda has only recently entered the discourse on the governance of African cities.  

Yet, what is a ‘sustainable African city’? Indeed, is it even possible to define a thing such as ‘the sustainable African city’ in empirical terms? African cities occupy a diverse range of local, national and regional spatial, socio-cultural and economic realities. They are also subject to diverse local pressures within the urban fabric - i.e. such as corrupt and failed institutions, poverty, inequality, informality, conflict and segregation. These local pressures may sometimes outweigh global pressures that result from climate change and instability in the global economy and its production systems because they restrict adaptive capacity and negate diversity, and socio-economic improvements are made at grassroots levels in spite of state and government institutions rather than because of them.

Ultimately, the stability - and hence sustainability - of African cities in the long term will depend upon the extent to which political constituency is engendered over time, and to what extent it is cultivated and improved by development strategies, planning and agendas in Africa cities. That is, the extent to which development is implemented for the benefit of societies and communities that live in African cities, and the extent to which development is inclusive of the urban poor and socially marginalised. At the same time, the future basic costs to households, as well as industry, trade and other sectors, will rely on the infrastructure decisions that are made today. The more resource efficiency these infrastructures introduce, the lower the future costs of households are likely to be in respect of food, water, energy and transport costs. These costs currently dominate poor urban African household expenditures, and they often pay far more for services than their wealthy counterparts. For example, in some slums and informal settlements where water is bought from private vendors the poor have been known to pay many times more for water than their wealthy counterparts. 

Moreover, as the processes of urbanisation intensifies, so too does contestation, conflict and negotiation; firstly as a result of the greater population pressures and corresponding demand for goods, services, employment and opportunities for establishing personal livelihoods and growth, and secondly as a consequence of the pluralism and diversity of urban environments. Lastly, the transition to urban sustainability will rely critically on the ability of urban development plans to engage across both the formal and informal sectors in African cities, and enhance their integration. African urban environments are largely characterised by higher levels of informal than formal systems of governance, land and housing acquisition, trade, employment and political action. Transitioning to sustainability requires that these informal systems are adequately and appropriately accommodated in future policy and governance frameworks.

Given this worrying backdrop of seemingly intractable developmental challenges, how should the notion of sustainable development be taken up in African cities? Venturing a description of the ‘sustainable African city of the future’ is difficult. However, it is clear that socio-political sustainability will lie at the heart of continued, uninterrupted growth and stability. Long term sustainability requires that socio-political stability is engendered at diverse scales, and across different sectors of the African urban citizenry. This in turn, is not a logical outcome of industrial transformation, although structural changes in African economies may be necessary. It is an outcome of concerted political leadership that acts effectively across all sectors, and at all scales in society, engendering the greater participation of communities in their own developmental agendas and plans.

This negotiation is itself a subject for long-term consideration, and the strategic frameworks that may appropriately accommodate this dual transition are yet to be formulated and tested. What is required now, is a commitment to achieving sustainable growth, and sets of actions that will set the processes of transitioning to sustainability in motion - as well as mechanisms for learning, adaptation and continuous improvement of these mechanisms within a developmental framework that itself remains open to change and adaptation through bottom-up feedback processes. Development agendas, if intelligently conceptualised, can play a strong role in building local capacity for inclusive, participatory governance and locality-specific reform strategies and plans. Urban material sustainability alone will not bring about the socio-economic and political stability that lies at the heart of the challenge to transform the African continent and bring about the much touted ‘African Renaissance’ of the 21st Century. Until political stability accompanies economic growth in Africa, long-term stable growth on the continent will remain questionable.

There are no one-size fits all solutions to the challenges of sustainable African urban growth and development, as Africa is characterised by heterogeneity and unique continental and local scale features and characteristics that defy ‘blueprint’ solutions. Exclusively top-down master planning systems and processes may fit the needs of cities of the developed, industrial cities, but in the case of African cities, development agenda’s and planning will have to be co-constructed with the people who are most affected by them. Hence, the question of voice and agency lies at the heart of the development challenge that characterises African cities and their rapidly evolving human and spatial change effects. The need to establish material and physical sustainability, although critical to the sustainability agenda of African cities, only deals with ‘half the problem’. African societies will remain vulnerable to socio-political instability should the critical socio-cultural and political factors that govern African socio-political systems remain unaddressed.

***Note: This piece was originally written in December 2012, was lost, and has consequently been recovered. Some factors may have changed since then but the piece remains instructive in many ways.

[i] World Urbanisation Prospects (2011). “World urbanisation prospects: the 2011 revision”, United Nations Departments of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, April 2011.
[ii] McKinsey (2010). “Lions on the Move: The Progress and Potential of African Economies”, McKinsey Global Institute.
[iii] Pieterse, E. (2011). “Recasting Urban Sustainability in the South”, Development, 54, 3, 309-316.
[iv] Where “physical” refers to material, spatial, infrastructural and technological sustainability, and could include ecological infrastructures such as ecosystems.
[v] Pieterse, E. (2011). “Recasting Urban Sustainability in the South”, Development, 54, 3, 309-316.
[vi] Pieterse, E. (2011). “Recasting Urban Sustainability in the South”, Development, 54, 3, 309-316.

Friday, 17 March 2017

Re-Thinking Trump: What’s Left?

Revelling in Contradictions

There are many on the left who are of the view that Donald Trump is merely a distraction from the real political challenges facing the left and liberals; that he is merely a stage-act who may make a few loud noises, but will ultimately prove largely ineffective and harmless in the end, that he will be reined in by the same systemic constraints that – for example – rendered Obama’s promises of change ultimately ineffectual and timid.

Indeed it is true that the problems and challenges facing society are systemic. However, systemic solutions will only be arrived at in the long-term, while in the short-term Trump’s leadership threatens to set the planet back – in real terms – by decades. In particular, reflect on the potential impacts of; climate change denialism, bringing back fossil fuels, smashing environmental regulations, protectionism, isolationism, alienating NATO allies, drawing China into open confrontation, destabilising Mexico and relations with South America, reinforcing Islamophobia and normalising it, the sheer idiocy of committing to move the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and encouraging the break-up of the European Union. These are not trivial matters that can be put aside in the quest to resolve systemic issues in the long term. There may not be a long term to speak of should this combination of interventions go awry, and there is every likelihood that they will unleash a fair measure of uncertainty and chaos on the world in both the short and medium terms.

Moreover, Trump is the embodiment of the neoliberal consensus; he is – rightly – the focus of attention because his life, character, demeanour and lifestyle epitomises self-interest, self-centredness, the accumulation of wealth, a willingness to bully and walk over people to get his way (i.e. ‘gritty ambition’), as well as a complete and utter disregard for rules, conventions and any form of diplomacy and etiquette.

He is a walking contradiction. He inherited his wealth, yet masquerades as a self-made man, a businessman who built an empire using his own wit and deal-making ability. He is oversensitive to criticism, yet unleashes unrestrained criticism to all and sundry. He spouts bigotry, yet claims to be the least bigoted person of all time. He is clearly sexist and misogynistic yet claims to be the opposite. He represents everything that is wrong about the neoliberal consensus and is a benefactor of it, yet claims to be its greatest detractor; the messiah who will unravel it to the common man’s benefit. Despite his promises to take on the banks that brought on the 2008 financial crisis he has largely staffed his leadership with traditional Wall Street bankers. Despite his promise to bring back the ‘good old days’, when America was great, and the world took its cues from US leadership, the reality is that he is weakening NATO, rubbing allies noses in the dirt, yet currying favour with Russia and its leader Vladimir Putin.

Contradictions follow Trump wherever he goes, and it works to his advantage. He specialises in grey areas. He can say one thing to one audience, and something completely different to another. He can turn any fact on its head. When challenged, all he has to do is wave his hands and create uncertainty about the source, or disparage the source, and he gets away with it. We are his fools, because he has fooled us not once, or twice, but many, many times over. He is an expert charlatan, we are so enamoured, amused and absorbed by his act that we become certain that there must be more to him; that all this cannot merely be the product of an unhinged, incoherent mind; that it is in reality the product of a shrewd genius who never shows his cards until playing the winning hand. Our faith in Trump, is the faith we place in gamblers with a good poker face.

The Power of Disbelief

Trump’s leadership is in part facilitated by a strong sense of disbelief – i.e. amongst his followers, as well as sympathisers – that that his leadership could backfire spectacularly resulting in widespread uncertainty and discontent, not just within the US’s borders but beyond it as well. This sense of disbelief is due to both a reflexive denial of the fears that are generated by uncertainty, as well as a misplaced faith in the prevailing systems of governance.

When fear manifests, it is experienced as an existential threat; one that ushers in the possibility of loss. Different people react differently to fear and uncertainty. Some become paralysed and are rendered incapable of action. Others exert control in order to cope with their feelings of vulnerability in the face of the prospect of emergence. Yet others spiral into neurosis and become paranoid and suspicious. Many turn to metaphysical and esoteric pursuits in order to navigate through the ‘valley of the shadow’ that inevitably arises on everybody’s journey through life. Some, however, enter into a state of denial, and cannot bring themselves to accept that the ground is moving beneath their feet.

Moreover, when the status quo appears so firmly entrenched that no memory of the norm existing as anything other than stable persists, it becomes difficult for people to envision radical change to it. When society ceases to be able to envision itself functioning in any other way than the way it is, and has been for a while, the persistence of normativity takes on all-pervasive proportions. Omnipotence, is not reserved for the Gods and demi-Gods; it is the reality behind every civilisation. It becomes unquestioned, the basis for everything that people experience as their societal reality (i.e. in social, economic and ecological terms). Our place in the world, and the societies we live out our existences in, become irrevocably shaped by it. That is why when change beckons, and becomes imminent, society is often caught unawares and is found wanting in its responses to it.

In simple terms it is the power of disbelief. I think it is more powerful than most human dispositions and reactions in the face of uncertainty, especially when uncertainty is introduced into a system that has been – or appears to have been – stable for long enough for it to be regarded as normative. I’m not sure how many generations it takes for this to consolidate, but it is undeniable that society enters periods of stability that come to govern its notions of what it essentially is and consists of, and what shape and form it takes.

This sense of disbelief is characteristic of our age, and has become a default reaction to the drastic changes and challenges that are unfolding across the globe today. Whether we consider global climate change, global economic uncertainty, global environmental degradation, or the rate and nature of change in technology such as robotics and artificial intelligence and new service offerings; it is clear that society’s reactions to uncertainty are mixed. Both excitement and fear prevail, depending on whether these changes are potentially useful or harmful. Uncertainty may open up opportunities for innovation, but it also introduces a fair amount of fear to society.

Likewise, there are many in the US who have great difficulty living in the world they live in today. Irreversibly globalised, cosmopolitan and interconnected, and with structural changes affecting how power is distributed and wielded in society, the 21st Century world undermines the very basis of their existence. They are unable to connect with the very same societies that they once were themselves normative within, when people in society thought like them, spoke like them and acted like them. They were validated by the communities and societies they lived in because it mirrored their values, belief systems, norms and lifestyles to a great extent. Increased diversity and globalisation – i.e. social, economic and cultural – manifests in all spheres of life, affecting jobs, family life, religion, community identity and individual identity. It has destabilised their worlds. And such is the power of disbelief that they believe they can reverse it and return to the status quo of old. Such a complex thing as society and its globalisation, however, cannot be reversed, no matter how strong the sentiment or nostalgia for mid to late 20th Century norms may be. Even if societies were ethnically ‘cleansed’ of minorities and different cultural groups, it cannot return to a by-gone age that was defined by a completely different set of local and global circumstances.

They may be under the misconception that stripping the political realm of the liberal consensus that supposedly serves as the enabler and engine of globalisation, will magically return society to its former state. Both this ‘former state’ and the ‘liberal consensus’ are ill-defined in this imaginary, however, as they have to be in order to render the fantastical plausible. To be clear, there is no going back. There is no return to a world of old. Rather, a new reality is being ushered in, and that is what is not being acknowledged.

How Trump Supporters View Trump

In the US, the choice of conservative candidate and now president Donald Trump, caught the majority of commentators and pundits by surprise. They are still in shock, struggling to understand how what appeared to be an outlandish fantasy has now become daily reality. Why did Trump supporters buy his act? Why did they look past his complete lack of political acumen; his wear-it-on-your-sleeve misogyny, racism and xenophobia; his refusal to make his tax returns public in full; his blatant exaggeration about his abilities as a businessperson; his contradictory statements and lies; his narcissism and sociopathic tendencies, and his patent inability to articulate a coherent paragraph when asked to speak off-the-cuff?

Indeed, how did Trump attract voters who had once voted for Barack Obama? How did he convinced them that the “change has come to America” slogan would actually be realised under his leadership? What on earth did they see that others didn’t?

To his supporters, Trump is a survivor, and that – in my view – is what holds more water and captures more sentiment, than purely viewing his life and himself as a symbol of success. And they attribute his tenacity and success as a survivor to his unique ability to read and understand people. He is thought of as being able to read the people around or across the table from him, and as person who possesses a strong intuition for how to gauge peoples’ intentions, and get his way with them.

The Art of the Deal – Trump’s official ‘autobiography’ (it was ghost-written) – created the sense of mystique around Donald Trump’s unique abilities. It set the tone for his appearance and success on reality television show ‘The Apprentice’. As an entertainer, he is a natural, and possesses the ability to insert theatrics into any scenario.

When it comes to Trump, it is not about what he is, but about what he represents in the deeper psyche of society. He is a strong-man, but business-styled. This captures the imagination of traditional communities and society and gives him legitimacy. The self-styled deal-maker who drives a hard bargain, and isn’t afraid to bull-doze over people for entertainment (albeit entertainment that masquerades as business) represents, first and foremost, a continuity with the past, in particular; the past of the late 20th Century. His supporters support him – in part – because they wish to establish an old world order; one that mirrors the period spanning the 1950’s to the 1990’s.

This is what links social conservatives that reside within both the left and the right, and possesses a message that can stir them into action in the political realm. Left and conservative/right wing views of economics are also similar. They have both become critical of “unfettered capitalism” – the belief that free markets self-regulate to yield the best outcomes for society as a whole (i.e. social, economic, environmental) – and they have both become critical of big government.

Profound disillusionment with the practical outcomes of centrist governments, which tend to produce the similar outcomes for their citizenry, has in part contributed to the polarisation between left and right, despite the shared profound political terrain they mutually occupy. Moreover, the increasing uncertainty – in terms of work, security and the future value of society as a human project; one that, in the 21st Century, spans from the globe from the community to the global – has resulted in a crisis that manifests primarily in the private realm, irrespective of their political orientation or ideology.

Trump, however, is bringing back the unfettered capitalism of the pre-2008 era. He is likely to de-regulate controls over businesses more drastically than ever before. He is also a bully who easily takes offense, and cannot stand to be seen to be weakened in any way. He walks all over conventions with contempt. He has blatantly disregarded all diplomatic norms, and thumbs his nose at any expectation of etiquette. He attacks when cornered, and spares nobody his wrath whom he feels has wronged him; he does not rise above any slight, no matter how insignificant. He now has command of the largest and most powerful military and nuclear arsenal in the world.

Yet the power of disbelief, fuelled by our preoccupation with the spectacle that Donald Trump’s politics is constituted of, renders us incapable of picturing how desperately badly his presidency may ultimately turn out. What is certain is that Donald Trump will be running for president while he is president, on every platform, at every turn, relentlessly and unreservedly, with vigour and relish … because that’s what he does best and about all he can do. He is, by his own admission, not a politician. He’s not actually interested in being a president. It’s just not that exciting. When he’s done he’ll move on to another reality TV show and will be ensured the highest television ratings – an issue that he seems to be obsessed with – and leave the mess behind for everyone else to clear up.

A Contradictory Politics

What we are currently left with, however, is a contradictory politics; one that has significant broader implications for the world. Those who have grown weary of the impacts of the 21st Century upon their lives are turning to unconventional leaders who have profoundly different messages for the public than the leaders who have come before them in respect of; immigrants, those of different religions and cultures, as well as the prevailing political establishment. Although they sometimes rail against global capitalism, it is unclear whether they will indeed fundamentally reshape it. That territory traditionally belongs to the left, and while there is significant discontent on the left, and a rejuvenation of sorts in the making, it is indisputably the right who have made the most drastic moves (here I am referring to Brexit, a possible ‘Frexit’ and other EU country departures from the EU, and the US pulling out of regional and global trade agreements under Donald Trump).

So it appears, that while the left have been making loud anti-globalisation noises for a while now, ironically it is the right who appear to be taking action against it. Ironic, because the current project of economic globalisation – in particular – is a project that was initiated by the right. It was Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan who ushered in a new global consensus and took actions locally (e.g. smashing to unions) to ensure that it would flourish. The impression we are left with is that the right takes action while the left talks about it endlessly. Indeed, the right are attacking their own project with more vigour than the left, seeking to dismantle it in the same blunt fashion that they constructed it. This, it appears, is what constitutes progress to the right.

What is unclear, however, is whether the leaders on the right are merely paying lip-service to the concerns of their constituencies, or whether they intend to take meaningful action to resolve them. Trump’s actions thus far, proves confusing in this regard. His Wall Street friendly appointments, consisting largely of the prevailing elite, make it difficult to believe that he will bring about the kinds of changes (i.e. to the economy, welfare services, medical care, etc.) that ordinary working people desperately need in order to stabilise their household budgets. His isolationism, which promises a full retreat from the US’s international responsibilities, involving budgetary cuts on foreign spending, threatens to feed and catalyse the very same global terrorist forces that the US is so deeply concerned about. Moreover, his protectionist warnings towards US allies weakens NATO in the face of Russian military expansion, North Korean belligerence and ISIS and Al-Qaeda expansion. Short term exhibitionism and the projection of hard power, it seems, trumps the need to ensure long term stability around the world. It is entirely unclear who the winners and losers will be under the Trump administration; instead of increased reliability and stability, daily uncertainty reigns over what the US president will do next, and why.

Meanwhile, on the left there is confusion and a profound tension between old and new left thinking; one that mirrors the generational divide and their respective priorities closely. Old left, traditionally well-organised, drawing on a strong trade union base, exists in a state of tension with respect to emerging new left priorities such as identity (e.g. gender, race, sexual orientation), radical new models of democratic organisation and participation, environmental degradation and climate change, as well as new economic models for society and new conceptions of the nation state. While the struggle for the heart of the left ensues, the right has captured the profound vacuum that exists in the space of action. The question is, for how long?

‘Democrazy’, it seems, has become a reality, but it’s the best we have for now. It is a system that allows for equally radical changes to occur on the right as on the left, as it is primarily about allowing power to change hands peacefully. Donald Trump may currently be the arch-nemesis of the left and the liberal centre, for all that he stands for and represents, but his success at the polls should provide serious food for thought for them. It should not be brushed aside as anomalous or trivial. Right wing populism is enjoying a global resurgence both in the East (e.g. India, Philippines) as well as in the West (e.g. Western Europe, the UK and the US). The long-term implications of this resurgence remains unclear.

The notion that what is occurring is merely a correction or a swing of the pendulum from one side to the other is undermined by a single critical factor; that the leaders that have emerged in these spaces share similar traits as insensitive, opportunistic, can-do hard-cases that are willing to flout all conventions, norms, and even laws, in order to create influence and secure power. Donald Trump is simply the most powerful of these leaders, and it is sure to embolden other leaders of a similar ilk. It might be that there is further replication of the Trump phenomenon across the world. And it is not just the ‘liberal consensus’ that is under threat. The left may soon be facing an all-out onslaught if it isn’t able to adequately grasp why a leader like Donald Trump was elected. The rules of the game may be changing more rapidly than it appreciates and it may come undone by seeking out simple diagnoses and prescriptions for its current set-backs. The fragmented left needs to consolidate, reflect deeply and innovate in order to counter the global swing to the right. What’s left (pun intended) after Trump, may ultimately prove more important than ever for the trajectory that the 21st Century world takes.