Annus horribilis

This has undoubtedly been the worst year for South Africa – at too many levels to name – since 1994. There is much I have wanted to say here but couldn’t find the time.  So I am going to rapidly fire off a series of posts, as my professional duties tail off towards the end of the year.

That probably means potential readers will soon be on holiday and lounging on a beach somewhere.

So let me be cheery to start:

I am positive about South Africa in the medium to long-term … but it’s complicated

My first-case long-term view on South Africa is somewhere between hopeful and good. I don’t think societal outcomes are primarily about the choices made by politicians and their parties – if they (societal outcomes) were (dependent on the choices made by politicians), my view would be significantly more negative.

Instead I think societies change in response to shifts of deep structural features – in themselves and in the ‘global world’ within which the society and country exists. South  Africa – its institutions, politics and economy – is being buffeted by the flood emanating from the unwinding of the distortions of the past, interacting with the ‘flooding-in’ of elements of the global society and economy previously locked out … or previously just less ‘globalised’  as was the case in the world of the 80′s and before.

The most obvious domestic feature of this is the rapid growth of a class of South Africans who have ‘emerged’, settled and accumulated assets. They have done this because they can i.e. as a result of the removal of political and legislative obstacles created by Apartheid. Alternatively they have emerged because such settled and skilled groups are a requirement of newly globally integrated labour and consumer goods’ markets. It works both ways – one as a push the other as a pull. Either way the black middle class is growing and on the move to become the prime determinant of much of what lies ahead for South Africa.

The overwhelming numeric majority of this class is a normal middle-class (public and private sector workers, teachers, artisans, skilled workers and other professionals) previously denied by law and repression the chance of improving their lot (to accumulate assets and get ahead). But along with this classic middle-class has come a slurry of individuals and groups who have more specifically seized the opportunities to extract a rent, opportunities created by the legal and political imperative to transform patterns of ownership and control.  Again, most of these are rational individuals who have seized the legal opportunities that the imperatives for transition have presented them with. However, and this is the important bit, a very large (in terms of accumulated assets and power) part of this group includes those who have successfully harnessed political power with the specific intentions of diverting public resources and/or other resources available for redistribution (the assets of private companies, for example) into their own hands.

The point of all of this is that once through the door, once securely established, that elite, its children, its family networks will attempt to re-establish the basic economic rules that allow for the formal and ordered regulation of property, the appropriate separation between the public and the private and the establishment of the rule of law – an imperative that already characterises the ‘classic middle-class’ that has emerged alongside this elite. In short, once inside the enclosure, the new elite will attempt to lock the door and secure the perimeters. It’s part of normal capitalist development and we will get through it in about 10 – 20 years. Meanwhile we are going through what Karl Marx would have called a form of “primitive accumulation” – with all the attendant threat and chaos.

Once this class has formed, emerged and assumed its central place in South African society – and Census 2012 suggests this is in process – our politics, parties, structures of governance will be forced to adapt to the imperatives of the new underlying configuration. This is the kind of tectonic force that effortlessly shuffles and cuts and pastes our politics and our parties to suit itself.

In 12 years’ time we are going to look around and remark at how surprising it is that South Africa has settled down and become such a productive and cooking hub, that corruption and nepotism has retreated so far and so quickly, that the political certainties of the past have so quickly and radically changed for the better.

Or that’s the outcome I have bet my meager resources on …. and before you follow my lead, remember; there is a reason those resources are as meager as they are.

I am positive about South Africa (or at least about reduced volatility) in the immediate post-Mangaung period

Once the political contest for the presidency is resolved and once the platinum sector strikes settle, the deep uncertainties driven by these interacting cycles will recede.

But that is enough sunshine for now  … because what has driven the intensity of those cycles is still very much present and will feature prominently in the South African investment and operating environment in the next 5 – 10 years, revealing itself in crises at least as serious and awful as the Marikana Massacre and the Mangaung contest. (Much of this will be the subject of the next few “deep blue thoughts” posts.)

Motlanthe or Ramaphosa?

At Mangaung the presidency issue is settled and the only interesting bit (as far as the electoral process is concerned) is the election of the deputy presidency and in the general balance that is achieved within the NEC.

I will leave the NEC for a later discussion.

I think the Zuma camp is entirely in control of the president/deputy choice, so when we analyse what might happen we have to ask: what is the imperative of the Zuma camp?

Well, that’s an easy one: stay out of prison after you have left office and keep your loot forever. That’s the thing and the whole of the thing.

So which deputy choice could better ensure this outcome?

Would a President Ramaphosa eventually, following the logic of the Constitution and the law, and impelled by some hope for his own legacy, end up allowing Zuma to be sent to prison?

Would Motlanthe?

I think Ramaphosa might. I would have trusted the younger version to do the right thing a lot more than I do this older one. This man has done a lot of complex dealing with “the cold realities”, he has supped with with a Dark Lord or two along the way  … and I would not feel entirely confident that the Zuma camp could not construct a deal that keeps him (Ramaphosa) beholden until long after Nkandla Incorporated has broken free of the threat of justice and been laundered till it shines like a blue chip.

And Motlanthe?  I am grinding my way through “Kgalema Motlanthe: A Political Biography” by Ebrahim Harvey (there’s more than one medicine measure of hagiography in there, but despite that I am starting to believe that KM might just be a seriously good person). However, I don’t think that means he would send Zuma to jail. He seems like a man who hates having to take decisions that “divide the house”. Taking down Nkandla is going to require something even more invasive and destructive than Polokwane. I cannot see Motlanthe as the author of such a story.

It would be a relatively easy matter for the Zuma camp to claim the imperative of unity, and decide to accept Motlanthe back into the fold – instead of Ramaphosa – and therefore as the successor president in 2017.

Enough for now.

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