Some of the things we think we know about revolts and revolutions – but that do not always apply:

  • Where there are adequate elective processes dissatisfied people believe they can influence outcomes through voting and therefore are unlikely to make the sacrifices required of a revolution.
  • Revolts are generally lead and organised by the middle classes – a degree of education is required – thus where the middle class is linked to the ruling elite through patronage or ethnicity, its members are less likely to lead a revolution.
  • Societies where a middle class is non-existent (where the division in the society is a simple one between the rulers and the people) can be surprisingly stable and enduring.
  • Poverty and unemployment tend, on their own, not to be strong predictors of unrest and revolt – it is often a necessary condition that these two social ills exists alongside visible inequality.
  • Ethnic exclusion from government or the economy is a powerful driver of unrest and revolt – colonialists loved to place favoured ethnic minorities to rule over less favoured ethnic majorities – a recipe for revolt and, depending on the relative size of the groups, civil war.
  • Revolts tend not to happen in situations or countries where the condition is continuously and steadfastly awful. Revolts happen when expectations begin to rise amongst “the people” – in response to improving social, economic, political or cultural conditions.  US sociologist James C Davies turned the simple observation that expectations rise faster than improvements in the underlying conditions and further that the system can cope with the disconnect only until conditions continue to improve (the Davies J-curve). I discuss the usefulness of this formulation in relation to South Africa’s ongoing service delivery protests here, a blog post that could have been written … almost word for word … today, but was, in fact, written in March last year.

With those meagre points acting as a theoretical background here then are my thoughts on the forces working for and against revolt in the South African context. It is not as simple a matter as putting some things in one column and others in another. Many of the protective factors are also depth charges seeding our future with hazards, but I will do my best to make it as simple as possible.

Why we are less revolting than we might be

  1. The first and most obvious reason is unlike many of the Middle East North Africa countries (from now on written as MENA, following a financial market convention) South Africa is a fully functional democracy where citizens have several opportunities to vote for and against parties that run their lives at a local, provincial and national level.
  2. The Ruling ANC is still seen by much of the electorate as the party led and staffed and supported by those who fought apartheid and those whose lives have improved because of that system’s demise. Whatever it might be in the future, right now the ANC still has enormous reserves of goodwill based on the fact that it is the premier liberation movement (still) led by the heroes of the struggle.
  3. The ANC government pays just under 40 percent of consolidated non-interest expenditure (that’s  R314 billion up from R156 billion five years ago) on the public sector wage bill and a further 20 percent to the poorest South Africans in the form of social grants. These are crucial constituencies to get to buy into stability – and a large part of the nation’s wealth is doing just that:  providing jobs for the emerging middle classes and  poverty alleviation for those who would otherwise be without hope.
  4. Add into the stability mix the fact that the ANC has managed to dispense a huge degree of patronage to the most aspirant and powerful of its leaders, members and constituents through the legal and regulatory regime of Black Economic Empowerment and the application of employment equity laws especially in the parastatals.
  5. Finally, whatever the criticisms, this government has built more houses for the poor, paved township roads, established sewerage and water connections, and provided the poorest South Africans with private and public goods on a scale unimagined under the previous dispensation of the Apartheid rulers.

Why we might be more revolting than we think

  1. Firstly, the obvious threat to stability is fiscal. Can we afford to meet the ever growing needs of the poorest as well as the growing middle class? At some impossible to predict moment in the future a force (a Maggie Thatcher type force) will arise within government and attempt to get our financial house in order. The first cuts will be in the fattest areas: social grants and public sector wage bill. I have no doubt an even slightly popular government could weather the resulting storm, but it will be a weather phenomenon that will be spoken of for many years.
  2. Secondly, failure to meet the fiscal challenge has its own terrifying dangers. In fact, this is precisely what happened in Zimbabwe. The leaders of Zanu-PF ransacked the war veterans pension fund which caused ex-combatants to begin militantly to threaten Mugabe and Zanu-PF.  The pension fund was recapitalised to the tune of $2bn in the late 90′s and the rest, as some are wont to say, is history. Spending $2bn they didn’t have led directly to hyperinflation, food riots and the formation of the MDC. With no largesse left to dispense the white owned farms were next on Zanu-PF’s attempts to stave off revolt and the last titbits of that economy are currently being pissed up against the wall with the same objective but in the name of “indiginisation”. Of course, Zimbabwe hasn’t revolted, but the price the politicians have made that country pay for stability has left Zimbabweans worse off than even the most cataclysmic revolution might have done.
  3. If  a greedy, rent seeking, corrupt, politically powerful and unaccountable elite is what fuelled revolt in MENA, then we are in all kinds of trouble. “Elite Theory” is a branch of sociology that argues that the economic and political elite make up an informal network that is the actual source and exercise of power – not “the people” through elections and parliament.  At an obvious level the theory applies to us: a publicly unaccountable elite within the ANC deploys loyalists to key institutions throughout the state and economy so as better to control the shape and direction of society. But with such a dominant and popular ruling party, such practices are unlikely to lead directly to revolt. However, beyond the formal exercise of the policy of “cadre deployment” we have an elite almost identical to those in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and a host other MENA countries. These are the grand political families that thrive on tenders won from the state and bribes won from global corporates attempting to secure lucrative deals here. These are the groups and individuals that have turned some of our provinces, town and cities into gangster fiefdoms ruled by fear, patronage and manipulation.

On Balance?

We are still well within the safety zone and the system seems to have the flexibility and resources to withstand firm assaults in the future.

The obvious danger is the parasitic elite that honeycombs the upper echelons of our politics and economy. Many who participated in the Polokwane Putsch understood themselves to be cleansing the ANC and government of such an elite.

Unfortunately they failed to notice that their principal allies were the second -rankers and blatant criminals that Mbeki had managed to keep away from the trough.

If this elite manages (as it constantly strives to do) to divert the resources our society has available for economic growth, employment, poverty alleviation, infrastructure development, public health and education (you name the social good, it is threatened by the elite’s rent seeking activities) then we will have to reassess.

While people like  Willie Hofmeyr are still loyal ANC members and in place as senior state officials there is hope. Yes it is horrifying that he estimates that his Special Investigative Unit will scrutinise R20bn of tender fraud in this financial year (read about that here) but the real trouble arrives when people like him throw up their hands in disgust and head for the private sector.

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