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Imagine you are the producer of a major and successful television soap-opera.

Gradually, for reasons that are not immediately apparent, market research begins to indicate your share of the prime-time television audience is diminishing – and, further, that the declines are accelerating.

I suspect what you do is try to work out whether the viewers are being tempted away by a better soap, whether the quality of your show is slipping and/or whether your product is losing its appeal because the ‘demographic’ that follows your production is shrinking … or some combination of those.

Perhaps you try to adapt your trashy product to follow the shifting demographic; change the time-slot, perhaps kill off the older actors … have the Elizabethan extended family that has been the central theme be infiltrated by shape-shifting aliens who teleport the stately manor out of the English countryside and into a future post-apocalyptic New York … change the name to Downtown Abyss? Ok, maybe not.

Or you do a serious quality overhaul of your existing production, get better writers and introduce more popular and skilled actors, win back the defecting viewers … stick to your knitting, trust the product … and all those other management-speak exhortations.

I think the ANC is facing a crisis similar to that faced by the producers of this imaginary soap-opera. I suspect that the ANC, Agang and the DA do market research that is indicating and projecting significant voter swings away from the ANC . But I have nothing firmly in my hands other than rumours, leaks and hints.

So forgive me if I float an untested (and untestable at this time) hypothesis; one we are all going to hear bruted about soon: that it is ‘true’ that on current trends the ANC will get less than 59 percent of the vote next year but more than 52 percent, and further, that the ANC will receive less than 50 percent of the vote in 2019 (thumbsuck alerts all round).

The assumption is untestable (by me) because I don’t have the bespoke polling data and (by anybody else, in my opinion) because such data do not take adequately into account the myriad subjective and objective factors that might  impact on the trend.

But among the reasons I take seriously the possibility that this is, in fact, the trend is, for example, the rapid growth of Amcu and the concomitant shrinking of  Num. Another is this public domain ranking of Zuma’s approval rating amongst urban Africans by TNS Research published in the Sunday Times on 12/03/13:

%

Apr

‘09

Jun

‘09

Sep

‘09

Nov

‘09

Feb

‘10

May

‘10

Sep

‘10

Nov

‘10

Feb

‘11

Mar

‘11

Sep

‘11

O/N

‘11

Feb

‘12

Apr

‘12

Aug

‘12

Feb

‘13

Approve

52

57

53

58

43

51

42

49

49

48

45

55

55

46

48

41

Disapprove

29

13

19

23

41

33

44

34

35

38

41

38

35

46

44

51

Don’t know

19

31

28

12

17

16

15

17

16

14

14

14

10

8

8

9

Net positives

+23

+24

+34

+35

+2

+18

+2

+18

+2

+15

+14

+1

+20

0

+4

-10

 

… and updated by TNS this Monday (1/7/13) indicating a slight improvement in favour of Zuma (read from the top: 42, 50, 9 and -8). The point is there is a significant drop in Zuma’s approval ratings and concomitant rise in his disapproval ratings from February last year. It is reasonable to consider the possibility that this applies to the ANC (although, again, and at the risk of being pedantic, there is no established corollary between Zuma’s ratings and the ANC’s … but as a personal aside, I would imagine he must represent a specific liability.)

When I think of Mandela’s ill health and what I see as signs of how destabilising for the ANC his passing be may be (although the opposite could also be true), when I consider the anti-Zuma noises coming from Winnie Mandela and the frisson of mischievous excitement around Julius Malema’s proposed Economic Freedom Fighters … and when I put a whole mess of hints, trends, rumours and suppositions together with other metaphorical canaries that I use and which are dying around me like flies, I feel confident, for the first time since 1994, to at least consider how things might be when and if the ANC is clinging to an electoral majority, or perhaps even losing one.

As I begun to consider this (and helped along by a good and irritatingly insistent friend) I discovered that I still, subconsciously, conduct my professional duties under the burden of a normative (as in relating to an ‘ideal standard or model’)  assumption that has remained unchanged and largely unexamined since about 1994.

This normative assumption goes, roughly, something like this:

South African society is shaped by irresolvable contradictions. Most obviously between the poor, largely African, majority and the propertied white minority. Only an African National Congress, held comfortably in power by the trust and momentum established by its role and identity as leader of the liberation struggle, and by its clearly ‘African-led’ character, could possibly negotiate the perilous path between the imperative to deliver radical redress to the African majority and the absolute requirements to operate within the disciplines of global capital markets and to keep whites engaged and invested.

There are so many assumptions – and slippery phrases – in that statement, that I am not sure where to begin.

But briefly (in as far as that is possible):

Firstly I am implicitly using a (somewhat antiquated) theoretical model of society that is based on the idea that the competition between  groups with closely aligned economic interests acts as some kind of driver that interacts with and shapes other features of society, including the state and formal party political contests. This is a (hopefully sophisticated) version of the base/superstructure model of Marxist theory. As a rough, working model, I will continue to employ this system in political analysis – even if it is purely as a way of organising my thoughts. It is an elaboration of the injunction to follow the money which I consistently find the most useful hand-axe in the tool kit I use to help me work out, to my own satisfaction if no-one else’s, what the hell is going on.

Secondly, I am weighting the racial divide, its historical features, its ideological characteristics, the materiality of its ongoing consequences – including the radical disparity in wealth and income – more heavily than any other feature of South African society. ‘Politics’ occurs around such contradictions and our politics remains overdetermined by this structural feature. I think this remains true – but less true than it was 18 years ago. Primarily because class development, including the development of a black wealthy/property-owning class, a black middle-class and a sophisticated and slightly wealthier working class (driven by the changing character and function of labour processes and the relative growth of the services sector) dilutes the central contradiction and adds competing fissures.

Thirdly, I continue to assume it is imperative to keep whites “on board”… and that we have to keep within the discipline of global capital markets. I am also assuming (or perhaps estimating that on balance) the ANC still sees these as fundamental constraints. Those are brave (wild?) assumptions, I know, but I do not have all night. So moving swiftly along …

Finally, the aspect of my normative assumption about which I am most uncertain is the central one. Who says the ANC cannot fall below 50 percent, that an alliance of opposition parties will not get above 50 percent? And that if both those bridges are crossed we are into the game mode where  “(o)nly (the) African National Congress  … could possibly negotiate the perilous path”. Which means?

I  appear to be saying that in the event that those barriers are crossed we will fail to negotiate that path.

That we collapse in a heap? That the ANC morphs into Zanu-PF – but with even scarier tribalist and repressive features – to recapture the political initiative? That the ANC embarks on an ever more expansive looting of private and public assets to feed a patronage system that comes to replace all other mechanism that establish stability, but a system that is absolutely limited by the availability of such lootable assets? Or perhaps that our future will look something like what (might be) happening in Cairo tonight? … I will get to that as soon as I hit “publish”.

If a democratic election goes against the ANC why am I so uncertain that the party or party’s that the same election goes in favour of will be unable to govern?

I suspect I actually believe that without the ANC in a comfortable majority that things fall apart, that the centre cannot hold, that

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed*

Thus, this is little more that my personal failure to imagine a future significantly different from the present, yes?

It appears that I am constrained by my own habits of thought and prejudices. Now there’s a big surprise.

So, back to the soap opera.

If the ANC is slipping in the ratings, it can chase the shifting demographic by attempting to spread its skirts ever more widely – although I think it is already beyond the limits of the possible with that indecorous exercise.

… or it can do the political equivalent of the narrative device of having space aliens infiltrate the family (hmm, that might have happened already – ed).  I am not sure what a radical discontinuity in the ANC’s brand might look like – I think it could go one of two general directions, but I would imagine that the ANC strategists defining ‘the message’ for the upcoming elections must envy the clean simplicity of the Economic Freedom Fighters emerging platform.

… or the ANC could improve its character and performance by sticking to its knitting: cleaning up its leadership and improving its governance performance and winning back the trust of its purportedly defecting support. My impression is the ANC is going in precisely the opposite direction, but who’s to say they wont turn it around in response to a mild shock in 2014?

I  do not hold to the popular notion that “anything is possible”, but I am prepared to accept that a lot more things will come to pass than I have been able to imagine.

* As always, the best poetic accompaniment to fretting about the future of our politics is William Butler YeatsThe Second Coming … catch the incomparable poem here.

I am in Serbia on a social visit and I thought I would record here some of my initial observations about stuff we might learn from this country about some aspects of SA politics and culture.

Cultural Betrayal

Firstly, I am in Belgrade – a city of 1.6 million people built on the confluence of the Danube and the Sava – and a peculiar mixture of modern flash, Soviet-era bland and medieval tatty. The scars of the Nato bombings are still dramatically evident in a sort of carefully preserved tableau, a series of monuments to that seminal betrayal, that you can’t miss on your way in from the airport

Serbian/Yugoslav Army HQ? Taken a few minutes ago (thanks Jaimo) – I will double-check what the building’s original function was … before it (and a few of its neighbours) were bombed on May 1 1999, becoming (permanent?) monuments to Western perfidy

Why betrayal? Because everyone my age here has the same (as me)  … memealogy? (okay, I made it up – memes are cultural genes and you can work it backwards from genealogy). The cultural literacy is all Rolling Stones, Sam Peckinpah, Bruce Springsteen, Warren Zevon, The Alien, Bob Dylan, The Beatles and Billy Joel (you dredge up the cultural icon from the 60s, 70’s and 80’s and I bet I share it with Serbians of an appropriate age – except they are more culturally literate. Interestingly, just like in Yugoslavia, in SA we got this stuff a few years late – in SA because of apartheid and National Party awfulness, in Yugoslavia because of a slightly different set of transgressions.)

… and then one day their beloved Americans and English cultural tutors bombed them and killed the firemen trying to save people from the buildings – ostensibly to stop some new, particularly ugly, transgressions. Oh the treachery, the faithlessness …

Ethnic uniformity

The second thing that strikes me is the populace is ethnically identical. They are all white. There are no black people, no Arabic looking people; no any kind of people who are in any way different looking from what I think of as Slavic – which is just a minute variation on your bog standard white person – the men with chiseled features and the women with unusually long legs and everyone with white skin … not olive or dusky or anything, but white – in the old Apartheid conception of the skin colour.

“The city was more cosmopolitan”, my Serbian friend tells me, “before the disaster of Slobodan Milošević – before then you could see more  Croats, Bosnians, Macedonians, Montenegrins, Muslims, Slovaks …”

We are wandering down a medieval street crammed with crowds of handsome young people. I ask him to show me some individual examples of these groups that survived the virtual and literal ethnic cleansing that accompanied the collapse of Yugoslavia.

His attempt seems half-hearted, even dispirited.

“Hmm maybe she is Croat,” he says indicating a woman flicking through some blouses at a street kiosk. She is one of the tall, long-legged, light-brown haired, chiseled cheek-boned and haughty beauties that shoal in these alleys, as ubiquitous as sardines at the right time in Durban.

“Ok, maybe not” he shrugs as I frown at him in confusion.

We finally manage to agree that “those gypsies” selling knock-off Ray-Bans look ethnically dissimilar to the majority. But to me  it’s a margin call – any one of them could have been my old ‘Leb’ Catholic chinas in the Johannesburg of my youth; definitely ‘white’ under apartheid’s racial taxonomy.

Remember it took the terror of ethnic cleansing to create this level of uniformity, but even before that, in the old Yugoslavia, the full range of ethnic diversity could have been encompassed by the differences between, say Rafael Nadel and Charlize Theron …

Let’s compare monstrous barbarisms

Everyone here above a certain age seems haunted by what happened after the collapse of Yugoslavia. You would think that this lot would be immunised to bombs, betrayals, racial and religious purging and radical disjuncture in their social organisation.

It started with the Celts invading  the “Paleo-Balkan tribes” in 50 000 BCE  (okay, I’m exaggerating) who in their turn were replaced by an endless Roman occupation; sacked by Attila the Hun in 442 and then one thousand five hundred years of bloody, impossible to follow conquest, resistance, sacking, rapine, pillage … I could go on and on. It was the Byzantines, the Franks, the Bulgarians, the Kingdom of Hungary, the Crusades, the Serbian Empire (briefly) the Hungarians again, the Ottomans (for five hundred years! … and yes, they did persecute the Christians but not half as badly as the Christians did to almost anyone of any other faith during the Crusades … and there are a whole lot of beautiful and ancient churches that the Ottoman-Turk conquerors and rulers left standing) and the Austrians.

And of course, that is only before the First World War, and as you know all the important stuff happened since then.

I know our African and South African histories are important and it is appropriate that we wrestle as long as it takes – which will be forever, obviously – with the ongoing consequences of slavery, colonialism and apartheid.

But being here does tempt me to wish my countrymen and women had a slightly less myopic view of our own trials and tribulations.  I read this morning that Belgrade is trying to scrape together the finances to build a memorial to Judenlager Semlin, the largest German-run concentration camp in Southeast Europe where in May 1942 the Nazi’s proudly announced one of their first major European campaign successes: Serbia was “Judenfrei”. The men had been executed earlier, but the last 7000 Jewish women and children were killed in the camp in the first few months of 1942.

By May Serbia was Judenfrei.

And this is not a The Holocaust trumps all kind of statement – I just mention it  in the context of the previous 2000 years of European history. The Germans might have achieved a unique scale with their technological and organisational excellence, but the great rivers of cruelty and tears are old, deep and cold here and they flow through every valley of this geography – and not only to and from the mighty lake that was The Holocaust.

The Economy and the European Debt Crisis

The Serbian economy has hit the wall and the government is trying to decide on a balance between cutting public sector wages and salaries by about 6% and increasing VAT to about 22%. The options are limited and there is an absolute consensus that extremely hard times have arrived. This is the European debt crises writ slightly smaller – because Serbia is not part of the European Union.

But what I see are people eating and drinking in restaurants – and partying as hard and as healthily as it gets.

There are almost no beggars – and those that there are are obviously professionals with studied acts:

  • the near-sighted (with ridiculously cute thick glasses) slightly retarded child playing – very badly – the violin, every item of clothing and scuff on his thick medical black shoes a carefully choreographed act that everyone consents to and ignores.
  • An old hunched-backed crone, her nose not six inches from the floor, tapping along on a short, gnarled staff, an arthritis crippled hand held out blindly above her … I am convinced she is a 22-year-old actress who couldn’t find a waitressing job.

The point is there are none of the streams of dead-eyed, exhausted people searching and researching the refuse; people you will find in any South African city. There is a medieval character to Belgrade, which means there are a million nooks and crannies and little hollows in ancient buildings and monuments everywhere. In South Africa those would all be occupied – where they were fenced, the fences would be broken and tunneled under – there would be evidence that someone was eking out an existence in every hollow, in every gap.

But here, nothing.

Sure, there is an occasional drunk sleeping on a park bench, but that is pretty much as bad as it gets. I have absolutely no doubt that I am not seeing the whole picture and certainly there are large areas of the city with awful Soviet-era council housing-type tenements, covered for 10 metres from street level with graffiti that looks to me just like Cape Town’s gang signs.

In South Africa we feel like we are bursting out of our seams, with the poor competing intensely for the leavings of the rich and thereby driving some kind of desperate but highly energetic economy. Here it feels older and emptier, certainly dowdy in places, but calm and stoic.

Everyone has time for a coffee and a rakia.

Don’t get me wrong. These people descend from women who have thrown their babies onto invader’s spears; their forefathers and mothers have eaten dogs and rats and stones to stave off the inevitable rape and slaughter that awaits the fall of the castle walls; they have catapulted the last live chickens at their enemies who have besieged them for years, and successfully convinced the invaders to just give up and go home.

So I  am not exactly saying that this is tired old Europe with nothing left to do but casually sip a coffee in the shade, sneering at the inevitable heat death that comes with impossible debt, dipping personal income and stagnant growth – of the economy and the population.

I am also not exactly saying that we are fresh and chaotic and ready to burst onto the global stage with the vigour and desperate energy of youth.

But there’s something in there, some little kernel or nugget – maybe a hope that I haven’t quite allowed myself to feel yet …

But it’s mid-afternoon and so hot that it is impossible to process this any further. Time for my first rakia and 4th double espresso – I’ll think about this tomorrow.

I am an independent political analyst focusing on Southern Africa and I specialise in examining political and policy risks for financial markets.

A significant portion of my income is currently derived from BNP Paribas Cadiz Securities (Pty) Ltd.

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