Thursday, 26 July 2018

The Politics of Despair: South Africa's Deepening Polycrisis

A Democracy Gone Awry: South Africa's Polycrisis

There is a distinct sense of déjà-vu mounting in the current South African spectrum of daily life. To anybody who lived through the 1980s there is an unmistakable sense that South Africans are again living through a period of profound transition; one that is balanced on a knife edge. Some may argue that there is always an intensification of tensions, contestations and conflicts in the run-up to a national election (due sometime in the first half of 2019), but to do so would be to ignore the developments that have been steadily mounting post-2008. 

The politics of disruption is nothing new in the South African spectrum. Indeed, it has a long history and a rightful place in South African politics. However, disruptive political activities have been escalating along a variety of key vectors, indicating that the conditions for sea-change are once again emerging, and in significant measure. The politics of despair has taken hold as South Africans have steadily lost confidence in their political establishment. Many are turning elsewhere in the search for leadership, and the vacuum is being exploited by thoughtless and reckless radicals, as well as opportunistic actors. In this piece, I explore the multiple dimensions of South Africa’s current ‘polycrisis’ and its implications.

Local protests and dissatisfaction with local authorities:

Unrest in local communities has been growing steadily over the past decade in South Africa, often finding expression in protest actions, many of which turn violent or become disruptive. Inaccurately termed “service delivery protests” – because they reflect dissatisfaction with a lot more than inadequate service delivery – local protest action has reached proportions not experienced since the 1980s. To illustrate; in 2004 major service delivery protests (i.e. those that turned violent and disruptive) across the country amounted to around 14. By 2009 they were in excess of 100, and by 2013 or so had risen to over 400 for that year. This is a strong indicator of the emergence of disruptive politics as a new norm in communities across the country, one that finds expression with startling and troubling frequency and intensity. In many cases, it is simply a case of the wheel that squeaks the loudest getting the most grease. People – especially the poor and marginal – feel that the only way to draw attention to their pressing needs is to disrupt daily activities and bring their localities to a standstill. Threats, intimidation, incendiary rhetoric, public violence and xenophobia have become the norm. It is a form of civic brinkmanship that has escalated simply because irate and fed-up communities and their leaders have come to view such drastic action as the most viable route through which to get authorities to act on matters that are affecting the communities they are responsible for governing.

Inter and intra-party contestation and strife:

Inter- and intra-party strife has intensified in the South African political landscape. Both the ruling party – the ANC – and its opposition – the DA – are fraught with embarrassing internal tensions, humiliating public disputes and contestations of power both within and between parties. At the highest levels, the ANC is split along its tripartite alliance lines (i.e. the ANC, the SACP and COSATU), as well as along factional lines (i.e. the old Zuma-faction and the new Ramaphosa faction). Moreover, at lower levels the ANC is split at provincial levels (most worryingly in KwaZulu-Natal) all the way down to branch levels, where contestation for power has taken dangerous turns in many cases. Violence, intimidation and political assassinations have spiked, while the nature of the incidents are often difficult to adequately discern as criminality and criminal agendas are also playing a role (i.e. they are not purely political contestations in some cases).  

Political alliances between parties, as well as governing coalitions have been coming undone in spectacularly bitter and acrimonious fashion, and the public have been caught in a no-man’s-land of inadequate governance and leadership as a result. Their public representatives seem unable to put their personal differences aside for the sake of ensuring good governance and accountability. Instead, grandstanding and open conflict has become the norm as public representatives trade insults in person and on social media. In some cases, blows have been traded, and chairs, water jugs and tables have been flung at each other.

Parliament has all but come to a standstill over the past few years as inter-party wrangling and disputes have combined with disruptive politicking to foster a profound lack of cooperation between parties. Parliament’s ability to legislate intelligently has been severely affected. In addition, parties have increasingly sought to contest their positions outside of parliament and legal disputes have escalated as a result. Parties have sought to both mobilize their bases, as well as to approach the courts to resolve matters that ordinarily would be resolved through political channels.

In part, it was the disruptive political style of the then-new radical-left styled EFF that introduced disruptive parliamentary politics to the South African parliament, and it was extremely successful at the outset. It drew public attention to parliamentary matters and processes and parliament TV’s viewership shot up to over 3 million. However, with the usually sober and more formally politically oriented DA now following suit, it is difficult to avoid coming to the conclusion that parliament has become somewhat of a messy affair and the public are more disillusioned than ever with their representatives in it. Hence, other avenues are emerging through which dissatisfaction is finding political expression in the public realm.

A crisis in leadership:

A leadership vacuum has arisen in South Africa, where leaders that would ordinarily be regarded as stable and reliable are now regarded as weak, ineffective and floundering. The new leader of the ANC  and the country (Cyril Ramaphosa) as well as the leader of the opposition party (Mmusi Maimane); have both been severely compromised by the lack of coherence and unity in the top leadership structures that support them, as well as in the ranks of their respective parties. The ANC is split along its tripartite alliance lines (i.e. ANC, SACP and COSATU) as well as along the different factions that have arisen as power struggles have escalated. The DA’s new social democrat oriented black leadership is at odds with its traditionally liberal base, and the conservative base it acquired when the National Party disbanded. Both parties are experiencing deep internal turmoil, which translates badly into the public realm, as it reinforces the perception that political leaders are inconsistent, often corrupt and self-interested, and cannot be trusted.

Yet the lack of leadership is not restricted to the top levels of political parties, the government or the state; it extends all the way down to the local levels. To some degree the upcoming 2019 elections has no doubt prompted a lot of jostling and contestation for power as party lists are being prepared, but the profound absence of leadership at local levels is not new. Many local councilors have been hounded out of their own communities and their houses burnt in their wake as local communities frustration with their lack of delivery, corrupt practices and self-aggrandizement grew intolerable.

That result of the erosion of reliable leadership at all levels of political power and representation is that the political ‘establishment’ in South Africa today is under intense scrutiny and mistrust. This has opened up the space for radical and/or strongman-styled actors to garner support and accrue power by offering up simplistic solutions that often play on prejudices that South African groups are predisposed towards.

Emergence of right wing groups:

While right-wing activity in South Africa has always existed, especially within the ranks of the old conservative white right, a new kind of right-wing sentiment has grown and manifested in recent times, one that is more in keeping with the global rise of the alt-right than the old mainly white right wing of the past. Organisations such as “Gatvol Capetonians” and the “Cape Party” – that purport to ‘speak the truth that everyone is afraid to’ – have quickly gained public prominence. So have white Afrikaner right-oriented organizations such as those who perpetuate the notion that a “white genocide” is unfolding in South Africa, and that white South African farmers – in particular – are being exterminated.

Gatvol Capetonians (“gatvol” means “fed up” in Afrikaans) argue that anybody who was not born in Cape Town pre-1994 should leave sell their properties and leave the province. This, despite the fact that the majority of migrants into Cape Town are black and hail from the Eastern Cape, and do not own property. Racial tensions are being actively fostered by this emerging rhetoric. The problems that people face on the Cape Flats are very real, but the solutions being posed are outlandish (for example, calls for secession of the Cape from the rest of South Africa).

Whether it is Gatvol Capetonians, the EFF, BFLF or Afriforum’s representative Ernst Roets, the common thread running through their radical views is that they not based on any critical thought or comprehensive evidence. Rather, they cherry pick statistics and evidence to construct arguments that they are already predisposed towards i.e. they ‘fit’ whatever evidence they can find that furthers their own agenda. They do not debate; the spout outlandish opinions in quick succession and there is great difficulty in countering their unrelenting hogwash because it quickly becomes a game of catch up. Much like the rapid fire nonsense that Donald Trump spouts, it outruns attempts to ground them and hold them up in the clear light of day. They bamboozle, they do not debate.

The discursive orientation of these organizations is nothing new, but what is alarming is the extensive support they are receiving from the public as the leadership vacuum from formal organizations and institutions has grown. Moreover, while it is often speculated that their outrageous claims and opinions are merely attention seeking efforts to gain support and power, the reality is that when they obtain power they then come under pressure to deliver on the mandates they forcefully proposed. Both Brexit and Donald Trump come to mind here; it is not enough to simply gain power through radicalization; one’s radical agenda has to be fulfilled. The notion that what they say will be different from what they do when they govern has not been borne out.

Ethnic and insider-outsider tensions:

Ethnic tensions have always simmered in the background of South African political affairs, rising up every so often when dissatisfaction with one group or another is perceived as securing, guarding and consolidating power along ethnic lines. Under the presidency’s of Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki (both ethnically Xhosa), accusations of Xhosa dominance in government and the state ran rampant, sometimes not without good reason. Disgruntlements over the ‘disproportionate’ representation of South Africans of Indian ethnic origins have also arisen from time to time, and have recently intensified as firebrand leaders such as Julius Malema and Floyd Shivambu have tendered accusations of an Indian “cabal” operating behind the scenes in government, orchestrating political witch-hunts and the like. This anti-Indian rhetoric has a long history in South Africa, yet it is nonetheless surprising to witness the ferocity of the attacks that have been mounted by Julius Malema in particular; his recent speeches in Kwazulu-Natal touched on pertinent issues but they were presented in a style that was suited to cheap electioneering, and exhibited no genuine commitment to resolving them.

Zulu secessionism was once strongly motivated for in KwaZulu-Natal (where at the time violent conflict raged) and some measure of Zulu ethno-nationalism persists to this day. The recent utterances of the Zulu Monarch, King Goodwill Zwelethini – where the term “war” has been repeatedly used to describe the need to defend the land that falls under the stewardship of the King and his traditional leaders – is cause for considerable concern. As the most populous ethnic province in the country, it constitutes both a key voting bloc as well as rallying point for Zulu ethno-nationalism. While South Africa is very ethnically diverse (with over eleven official languages and more ethnic and other groups to boot), political power typically resides in a majority within the Zulu and Xhosa speaking ethnic groups and open contestation between them often rises up. Bear in mind that Zulu secessionist rhetoric has a long history and is far more deep rooted than the knee-jerk secessionist rhetoric of groups such as Gatvol Capetonians.

Xenophobia has also arisen, as it tends to with regularity in the South African socio-political spectrum. South Africans are not just xenophobic; they are afro-phobic in particular and foreign migrants, refugees and asylum seekers have increasingly come under – often unfair and prejudiced – scrutiny by prominent leaders, academics, civil society organisations and common every citizens alike. Often their utterances – that claim that foreigners are engaged in illegal trade, criminal and illicit activities, human trafficking and ‘stealing jobs’ – are completely unfounded and are in stark contrast to studies that delve into the actual evidence. Foreign migrants bring both much-needed skills into the country and create employment for South Africans through their own entrepreneurship and resourcefulness.

This xenophobic discourse is mirrored by groups such as the aforementioned Gatvol Capetonians. It draws on the same sentiment that Donald Trump rose to power on with his “America First” slogan. It speaks to the notion that there are insiders who belong and outsiders who do not; a notion that is increasingly untenable in a world where globalization is deeply entrenched and is for the most part simply irreversible.

The land question:

The slow pace of land reform has been a concern for many years in the new democratic dispensation. One of the major undertakings of the new democratic ANC government was to guarantee that land reform and restitution would be a priority. The memory of dispossession and forced removals under the Apartheid government strike a particularly significant chord within the hearts of most black and brown South Africans, so it is not without surprise that when the question of how to speed up land reform took the form of a call to amend the constitution so that land could be expropriated without compensation – by the state – it quickly became a hot issue. It is predominantly a political ruse, however, as the provisions for expropriation of land without compensation are already provided for within the ambit of the constitution.

Local participatory gatherings are currently being held in communities across the country to allow the citizenry to air their views on the matter. What has fast become clear, however, is that the way in which the citizenry understand and interpret the land question has quickly snowballed, and often bears little resemblance to the original question that has been put to them. The land question is essentially a proxy question; one that revolves around the notion of justice. Dispossessed people are demanding justice, and in many cases have taken the law into their own hands. The uptick in land invasions, and a close look at how new invaded land is being named (e.g. “Ramaphosaville”) indicate that government and leaders have quickly lost control of the narrative. It is quickly snowballing and becoming more nebulous; used as a proxy debate for a wide range of issues that previously disadvantaged and oppressed peoples in the country are fulminating over.

In a country where many black South Africans still lack housing and land tenure (and these issues are closely linked), and are still excluded from living in areas that provide better access to services, opportunities and quality of life – especially in the urban metropolitan areas – the profound sense of injustice that has arisen is wholly unsurprising. Current day spatial inequality mirrors  and reproduces Apartheid spatiality so closely that it is no surprise that it is experienced as the continuation of a historical injustice that has become intolerable over two decades into democracy. The land question is a readily exploitable issue for those who are clamoring for political power. This, combined with its resonance within the public as key contestation point of historical injustice, has quickly elevated the issue beyond the control of any one leader, party, political grouping or the like. The land question, so to speak, has left the building and is growing in and of its own accord. It has now become a matter that is escalating rapidly as a proxy agenda for broader scale justice and restitution.

Youth bulge and inter-generational contestation:

A younger, more educated, globalised and mobile generation now exists as a significantly large demographic in South Africa. The youth faces many challenges, not least of which are; high levels of youth unemployment, lack of access to opportunities for self-improvement and advancement, race and class barriers to socio-economic mobility, a cultural and political generation gap between themselves and older generations who lived under Apartheid, poverty and precarity, as well as the lack of transformation of the organizations and sectors that make up South African society. 

Social grant system uncertainty: 

The South African Social Security Agency has been embattled by a series of delivery problems and challenges that have raised the ire of grant recipients, who typically depend heavily on state security to make it through each month. Problems with a service provider CPS (Cash Paymaster Services) – that was found by the constitutional court to have been illegally contracted, and was also ordered to pay back R316m in revenue that it should never have been paid – as well as recent problems with a new ICT and card system, have hit grant recipients hard. Accusations of corruption and incompetence have arisen, with the then Minister of Social Development Bathabile Dlamini coming under fire from opposition parties and the media. Also head of the ANC Women’s League, she is famous for her acknowledgement that all ANC National Executive Committee politicians have “’smallanyana’ skeletons”, which if revealed, “all hell would break loose”. 

Parallel state actors/agencies:

Parallel state organizations such as the ANC Youth League, the ANC Women’s League, the Umkhonto Wesizwe Military Veterans Association (MKMVA), Black First Land First (BFLF[1]) have been agitating against the political enemies of their parent bodies, targeting them wherever they may be; whether they are in government, the state, civil society, the media, academia, the private sector or elsewhere. Some of these organizations have longevity, while others seemed to have popped up overnight with the precise aim of spinning an opposing narrative to that of long established and trusted institutions and organizations. They tend to spin out opposing narratives and hurl abuse at independent state organizations such as chapter nine institutions, the Public Protector’s Office, the National Prosecuting Authority, research councils and so forth, as well as civil society organizations such as the South African Council of Churches. In the case of recently formed organizations such as MKMVA (its constitution was adopted in 2012) and National Interfaith Council of Churches (NICSA; a pro-Zuma faith organization formed in 2011) they clearly mirror longstanding organizations such as the ANC Veterans League and South African Council of Churches (SACC). Many of these recently formed and constituted organizations defended Jacob Zuma and his presidency vociferously, and seem to have emerged precisely to defend him, his presidency and his network. What they succeeded in then, was being able to introduce so much noise into the public discourse that issues were easily obfuscated and confused; spin, counter-spin and counter-counter spin constitutes the endless cycle that they engage in and what is most concerning is that they will surely continue to do so, having already reaped a great deal of success from doing so in the recent past.

Misinformation, fake news and incendiary rhetoric on social media:

The recent, largely successful deployments of misinformation, fake news, incendiary and polarizing rhetoric, hate speech and intimidation in South Africa – i.e. due to direct and deliberate interference by internal and external agencies on South African media and social media – are cause for great concern. The relative speed with which the now-exposed Bell-Pottinger was able to seed and amplify divisive and polarizing rhetoric, and quickly fast-track terms such as “White Monopoly Capital” into the public discourse, is in part due to the prevalence of such glaring fissures in South African society. These fissures are fueled by the profound injustices that persist in South African society today, many of which links directly to the injustices of the past. Poverty, inequality, lack of access to services, spatial exclusion, class exclusion, the failure of transformation, and so forth, are all viewed – by those who suffer the consequences of them – as inherited diseases that have persisted from the past into the present. They are hence easy issues to exploit within South African society, and national narratives can be easily manipulated by unscrupulous and power-mongering actors and agencies that seek to further their own agendas by playing on these differences. The threat from social media and internet based misinformation, fake news and the like are especially dangerous when viewed in light of the critical upcoming 2019 national election.

A gutted State Security Agency:

The path towards decline of the ability of the State Security Agency to gather, interpret and act on intelligence in an efficient and effective manner is described in some detail Jacque Pauw’s book, “The President’s Keepers”. The gutting of State Security is one of the embattled previous President’s (i.e. Jacob Zuma’s) ‘finest achievements’, in the sense that it was effectively incapacitated to deal with the political and criminal matters that adversely affect local and national security. The upshot of the decline of capacity within the state security is that they are no longer able to adequately monitor trends and acquire critical information about activities that may threaten local stability, and to act to thwart them effectively.     

Expansion of organized crime:

The creep of organized crime into other sectors has steadily advanced over the past decade or so in South Africa. No longer is organized crime content to control the drug trade and other patently illegal activities, they have now sought to infiltrate politics and business. Trafficking in cigarettes, the mini-bus taxi industry, local politics and even high level provincial and national politicians have come under the influence of underworld characters who seek to advance their own interests through accessing the patronage networks that exist around the powerful and wealthy elites (i.e. whether political or other). These are not new developments in South Africa’s history (e.g. Brett Kebble’s legacy), but they appear to have intensified and entrenched themselves more deeply than before.

Endemic and systemic corruption:

While corruption is nothing new in the South African societal landscape, the extent to which corrupt government officials, business-people, police, officers of the court, criminal actors and others have become emboldened to commit corruption within South African society reflects that systemic corruption is deepening and intensifying. Ordinary working class citizens know exactly how corrupt South African society is and are hardly surprised when corruption scandals break. Middle class citizens are often shielded from the realities of corruption in South Africa because they live chaperoned existences and remain disconnected from the realities that the majority of citizens endure. Nonetheless, they are not above corrupt practices themselves, and they exhibit a large amount of cognitive dissonance when it comes to making the links between their corruption and that of those in power. It is, however, indisputably all part of the same continuum.  Those in power simply believe that it is not corruption when they are doing it.

What Are The Implications? Polycrisis and the Potential for Collapse

The factors accounted for in the previous section are disruptive in the pejorative sense of being corrosive and destructive movements, all of which are occurring along multiple lines or vectors. These are evolving in parallel, and are also inter-linked. Moreover, the backdrop to the emergence of these vectors is high inequality, severe unemployment, poverty, and lack of adequate service delivery, housing and land tenure among the poor. Taken together these indicate that an unholy brew is bubbling up; one that has the potential to wreak havoc on the South African political landscape. When polycrisis takes root, it opens up significant spaces in the leadership vacuum that can easily be hijacked by populists and/or strongman leaders who give the impression that they have (or are) the answer (or solution) to the massive uncertainties that have descended upon the lives of ordinary people. Failures and loss of faith in established leaders and political groups increases the likelihood that unscrupulous and opportunistic actors and agencies will gain support and consolidate power.

Polycrisis can also render the social, economic and governmental systems of a country unstable and prone to collapse. This collapse may well be emergent, in that it may be unpredictable. If a combination of inter-linked factors combines in a particularly unfavourable context a ‘perfect storm’ may ensue and collapse may unfold entirely without any means to foresee or prevent it. That is, the risk of sailing too close to the wind and hoping for the best when you are unsure of how well your rig will stand up to it. Yet that is exactly the trajectory that South Africa is on after two terms of Jacob Zuma’s leadership. It is a veritable mess, and it is entirely likely that whoever plays a role in cleaning up the mess will likely be severely under-appreciated for their role in doing so.

This is not an attempt to be alarmist or to blow matters out of proportion. It is merely to take an objective look at what is transpiring in South Africa and what undesirable outcomes may result from it. It is important to engage in this kind of analysis, as without it we tend to focus on single-issue politics, or pet issues, and quickly grow incapable of seeing ‘the big picture’ as such. Some positives no doubt do exist in South Africa (e.g. strong civil society, independent judiciary, corruption prosecutions, new leadership orientation in the ANC, etc.); but a weakened government, state, local politics, regulatory and legal environment make it difficult to believe that a positive trajectory is unfolding.

An intense brew of factors is currently bubbling up in the socio-political cauldron of South Africa and there is little clarity on what will emerge from it. It is simply to fast-moving and turbulent to tell. It is certain that the ingredients for breakdown and possibly collapse are present, but that does not mean that they will occur. In respect of what is needed to move beyond the current reality in South Africa, there is a clear need for a new national consensus. However, if that can be brokered in a manner that empowers ordinary people, improves representation of their issues and revives government so that it acts in a responsive, accountable and transparent manner, then there will be hope for a positive future emerging from this period of uncertainty. What cannot be ignored, however, is that with such an unpredictable mixture, and such a great amount of turbulence, that great uncertainty persists and that it is entirely possible that South Africa may descend into collapse of one kind or another.  

[1]  Even though the BFLF is technically a political party it behaves like a parallel state organization rather than an actual political party.

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