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I intend, in the near future, to dust off my Marxist theory.*

I am going to need a framework through which to express my growing conviction that much of our politics can be understood as a function of the collapse of the alliance of classes that underlay the national democratic revolution – and the African National Congress.

The big driver is the strongly emergent black middle class – or perhaps competing versions of that class. In the background is a sort of bad kung fu movie fight scene involving the industrial working class, various parasitic elites within the state and party, a comprador bourgeoisie and a whole mess of tribalists, proto-fascists, landless peasants and  lumpen proletarians of various stripe.

(The camera occasionally flicks across the deeper shadow behind, where we almost catch a glimpse of Moeletsi Mbeki’s lurking oligarchs, watching us.)

It’s my job to have some kind of understanding of what is going on … and I will need all the help I can get theory-wise.

In the last week the ANC has given strong hints that the Labour Relations Act amendments are being held up because government wants balloting prior to strikes and a ‘forced mediation’ strike-breaking mechanism. (See here.)

Also we have the astonishing re-emergence of the (excellent) idea that we should break up Eskom and sell off some of  the bits and get the private sector to build other bits. (See here  … and btw I can’t help but notice how much interesting news is written by Carol Paton of Business Day.)

What’s going on?

Well, one things is government is facing further downgrades because it can’t pay its bills.

The biggest bill of all is public sector wages, which will be renegotiated before  the current wage agreement expires in March 2015.

That bill will represent above 35% of non-interest government spending and the wage level the employer and the employee eventually agree upon and the degree of disruption that accompanies the bargaining is extraordinarily important for South Africa and therefore for the stability of the governing party.

Also government is burning due to its apparent inability to get the endlessly promised infrastructure built. At least part of the reason is the constant labour stoppages, for example at Kusile and Medupi.

Having lost much revenue (and political support) during the recent strikes led by Amcu and Numsa, the ANC government is forced to find a way to rewrite the terms of engagement between employer and employee.

Also Eskom is bleeding … or potentially bleeding … government dry.

The case for privatisation is threefold: you get money from the asset sale to pay your debts, you don’t have to keep bailing out the loss-making enterprise and you get the ‘efficiencies’ (the removal of structural impediments to growth) that supposedly come from the private sector running the enterprise.

(As an aside: privatisation seldom works quite like that. This government, and the people of South Africa, have barely recovered from the the drubbing we received from the ‘private sector’ following the partial privatisation of Telkom in the 90’s.  But desperate times, desperate measures … and all of that.)

The groups that traditionally oppose these policies are in disarray. Cosatu has essentially collapsed in a heap – and the most energetic sections of organised labour are actively hostile to government/ANC anyway and no longer require wooing … or rather, following Marikana and various statements of outright hostility by the ANC and government leaders, are no longer susceptible to those old sweet lies.

The forces that shaped our labour market are profoundly changed.

A growing mystery to me is where the SACP is in all of this?

So its all: hello 1996-class project, we who threw you out with the bathwater at Polokwane in December 2007 would like to apologise and welcome you back. Don’t worry, the communist are in China learning how to deal with corruption and with the labour force … you can chat to them if they ever come home.

So meanwhile here is a sort of ancestor to my questioning the ‘class character’ of the moment; a column I wrote for the Compliance Institute of South Africa in November last year:

Is this Jacob Zuma’s Maggie Thatcher moment?

I admit that on the face of it the comparison seems something of a stretch.

For example I can’t think of an ‘Nkandla’ equivalent in Baroness Thatcher’s world – although her son seemed to benefit from parental political power in much the same way as Jacob Zuma’s myriad offspring seem to be enjoying.

Maggie1

The point, though, is Thatcher came to power with the reforming mission to roll-back back the influence of organised labour and to make labour markets more flexible– all as part of her attempt to stop an on-going recession, bring summer to the ‘Winter of discontent’ (paralysing wage strikes by public sector unions in Britain in 1978-1979) and increase employment and economic growth.

(‘Thatcherism’ as a political-economic ideology is also considered to include attempts to keep inflation low, shrink the state – by privatising state owned enterprises – and keep a tight rein on money supply … (and is not famously concerned about employment – Ed) … but let’s leave those details aside and stick with the matter of organised labour.)

Much to my surprise there is growing evidence Jacob Zuma is forcing a showdown within the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) – and between the members of the ruling alliance (the ANC, the SACP and Cosatu).

Since 1994 it has been a good bet that tensions in the ruling alliance would flare up and then subside – but that the constituent ideological factions and organisations would always back off from a real split.

The ruling alliance has always seemed to me like a vaguely unhappy marriage that none of the parties have the resources or discipline to leave.

I have been covering South African politics and financial markets since 1997 and in 1999 I commissioned this cartoon :

Maggie2

 

The original caption read: ‘She means nothing to me’, he pleaded unconvincingly. ‘You’re the one I will always love’.

The report that accompanied the cartoon – which I originally published for the then stockbroker Simpson Mckie James Capel – made it clear that the man in the middle represented the ANC and his entreaties were addressed to Cosatu and the SACP … while his real passion (and the furtive fumbling behind his back) was for business, global and domestic. (Cathy Quickfall drew the cartoon and did a better job than I could have hoped for: the Cosatu/SACP figure’s naive and hurt innocence, still wanting to trust Mr ANC; business in a sharp suit, her disdainful look into the distance with just the busy hand behind her back revealing her urgent and furtive intent.)

It has looked for many years as if the dysfunctional relationship would continue for ever – that the parties involved (both the institutions of the ANC, the SACP and Cosatu but also the myriad ideological factions that exist across those organisations) have more to gain from being inside and more to lose from being outside.

But, surprisingly, it appears that the ruling faction within the ANC (the incumbent leadership, represented by Jacob Zuma) appears to have finally drawn some kind of line in the sand with the ‘left’ unions within Cosatu, most obviously the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa.

The first signs that this was happening appeared when evidence surfaced that Jacob Zuma’s allies within Cosatu were moving against Zwelinzima Vavi, the now suspended secretary general and strident ‘left’ critic of corruption in the ANC and critic of the slightly more business-friendly economic policy (particularly the National Development Plan) of the Zuma government … (remembering that this was written late last year and Vavi has now been reinistated … sort of – Ed).

At first it appeared that Vavi would be got rid of by being accused of corruption or some form of financial mismanagement related to the sale of Cosatu House for a price less than it was worth. While that investigation was still on-going, Vavi handed his enemies a perfect excuse to suspend him by having sex with a junior employee in the Cosatu head-office earlier this year (last year – Ed).

Since the suspension of Vavi his allies in Cosatu, especially the biggest affiliate (the 350 000 member Numsa) has been on a collision course with both Cosatu itself and with the ANC.

The conflict is likely to come to a head at the Numsa special congress to be held on December 13 – 16.

Why do I see this as, partly, Zuma’s Maggie Thatcher moment?

Well, Vavi’s suspension is only the proximate cause of the impending collision. The ‘real’ or ‘underlying’ causes are what are important.

Vavi, Numsa secretary general Irwin Jim, his deputy Karl Cloete – and probably a majority of Numsa leaders and shop stewards … and several other groups and leaders within Cosatu) appear increasingly of the opinion:

  • that Cosatu has been bullied by the Zuma leadership into accepting policy positions with which it (generally) disagrees
  • that the ANC under Zuma has attempted to turn Cosatu into a ‘labour desk’ of the ANC and the alliance summits have become nothing but a ‘toy telephone’ rather than a real joint decision making forum for the ANC/Cosatu/SACP alliance
  • the policy positions with which this group disagrees are, particularly, the National Development Plan, but also e-tolling, the Youth Wage Subsidy and the ANC government’s failure to ban labour brokers. (The reasons why this ‘left’ group opposes these policy measure are crucial: they oppose the NDP because it is seen as ‘neo-liberal’ and anti-socialist; e-tolling because it is seen as covert privatisation of public infrastructure; the youth wage subsidy because it segments the labour market, threatening Cosatu’s monopoly and potentially exposing ‘protected’ Cosatu members to competition from ‘unprotected’ youth workers; and the failure to ban labour brokers because those institutions are also anathema to Cosatu’s monopoly.)
  • that the ANC under Zuma has been captured by a crony-capitalist regionally based (possibly ethnic) elite bent on looting the state
  • that the gamble to back Zuma against Mbeki has badly misfired

 

There is widespread press and analyst speculation that the tensions within Cosatu could lead to the federation splitting – and in some way or another the more specifically ‘socialist’ pro-Vavi, Numsa-based group leading Cosatu – or a piece of Cosatu – out of the ruling alliance.

In what way is this ‘Zuma doing a Maggie’?

Well, because the disgruntlements of the Vavi/Numsa group (described above) are real and represent significant shifts against organised labour by the Zuma government.

If we add to the youth wage subsidy, the NDP, the failure to ban labour brokers, e-tolling in Gauteng to the very tight budgeting for public sector wage increases mentioned in my October column I think we have a strong circumstantial case that Zuma’s ANC has moved decisively to roll-back the power of organised labour.

Maggie3

 

Why Jacob Zuma and his allies might have done this is revealed clearly in the anaemic Q3 GDP growth figures of 0.7 per cent compared to the previous quarter, or 1.8 per cent on a year-on-year basis . Almost across the board analysts and economists have ascribed most of the weakness to labour unrest, particularly in the motor vehicle sector – where the recent strikes were organised by Numsa! (Again, remember that this was written in November last year … just imagine how many exclamation marks he would have used if he had written that sentence today? -Ed)

Numsa has also helped plague Eskom’s flagship Medupi project – and has undoubtedly contributed to government’s infrastructure plans looking shaky.

The ANC’s motivation is not purely an attempt to fix economic growth – and bring to an end our own ‘Winter of Discontent’. Vavi and his allies in Numsa have harried and harassed the ANC leadership over corruption – and particularly the upgrade to Nkandla – and this has clearly helped force the hand of the Zuma ANC to drawn a line in the sand with the left-wing of Cosatu – especially as the ANC enters an election and struggles to cope with this level of internal dissent and criticism.

The resignation earlier this week of Numsa president Cedric Gina (who, unlike the majority of his Numsa colleagues, is close to the current ANC leadership: his wife is an ANC MP and he probably has similar ambitions himself) is probably an indication that the Zuma/ANC allies intend contesting Numsa’s direction in the lead-up to the Numsa special congress in December. The ANC leadership has probably decided to fight it out in Numsa – and Cosatu more generally – making sure that if/when a split occurs the faction that sticks with the ANC/Zuma/SACP is as large as possible and the faction that defects is as small as possible.

The big risk for investors and financial markets associated with a possible split in Cosatu is that Vavi/Jim group is likely to contest with unions within Cosatu that currently support the ANC and Zuma’s leadership – most obviously and most unsettlingly –  with the National Union of Mineworkers which has complained repeatedly that Numsa is poaching its membership. This potential for a widespread contestation of each workplace and each economic sector between a new ‘Cosatu’ and an old ‘Cosatu’ is probably the most important threat represented by the unfolding crisis.

Politically the Vavi/Jim group will likely be campaigning against the NDP, the youth wage subsidy, e-tolling and Nkandla-style corruption just as the ANC’s election campaign peaks early next year. I do not think a split in Cosatu will translate automatically into specific electoral declines for the ANC – it is possible and even likely that Numsa members who support a split could still vote for the ANC.

However, one of the big unanswered questions is whether the defecting faction has any possibility of linking up politically with the EFF. Up until now the defecting faction linked to Vavi and Jim have unequivocally rejected the EFF on the grounds that its (the EFF’s) leadership are ‘tenderpreneurs’ (much like the Nkandla faction of the ANC) who just happen to be out in the cold.

However, the EFF’s support for nationalisation of mines and expropriation of white owned farms with or without compensation does dovetail with aspects of the Vavi/Jim faction’s essentially socialist ideology.

My own view is that in the event of a split it is possible that the Vavi/Jim faction forms a ‘labour party’ which could only feasibly contest elections in 2019.

The motivation for Thatcher moving against the unions was as much about weakening the Labour Party as it was about repairing the economy – so we shouldn’t dismiss the Zuma/Thatcher comparison purely because his motivations are mixed.

If Zuma and the ANC succeed in reducing the militancy and power of organised labour it is possible that they will have contributed in a small way to laying the grounds for an improvement in public education, for a period of recovery and even extended economic growth.

It’s a risky – and complicated – business, but it was for Baroness Thatcher as well.

 

* It was, in our eyes,  a fine hat and we cocked it jauntily. And thus attired, and to our very great satisfaction, we successfully answered all the important epistemological questions of the day. We let the  cowards flinch and traitors sneer as they boastfully proclaimed the end of history. We were history … or at least, through the complex functioning of the intelligentsia in Marxist Leninist theory … we were history’s engine made flesh. And the race wasn’t over … we were merely getting our breath back.

(Part of this is from a news update I published for the clients of BNP Paribas Cadiz Securities on Monday – 07/04/2014. Thanks as always to them for allowing me to republish here a few days later. None of opinions expressed here are those of BNP Paribas Cadiz Securities.)

  • Nigeria’s GDP rebasing is normal and welcome – for South Africans as well as foreign investors. Reading some of the media coverage, however, one might have thought a grave threat to South Africa’s sovereign interests had suddenly arisen somewhere in the north on Sunday morning
  • HIV infection rates are up and caution and prevention are down in South Africa – a more serious matter than how Nigeria estimates the size of its economy
  • Cosatu and Vavi’s brief reprise will both be threatened at this week’s Central Executive Committee meeting. The quicker and more fundamental the impending split, the better
  • Noisy nation – Nkandla is actually most relevant for the “screaming and shouting at the powers that be” and is a sign of rude health – John Carlin in City Press (06/04/2014)
  • South African’s irritating sense of ‘exceptionalism’

Nigeria’s rebased GDP sets off anxious (and defensive) flutters and finger wagging at SA from global and domestic media outfits

The issue that made the biggest media impact on the weekend happened on Sunday, too late for the main weeklies. Nigeria’s Bureau of Statistics announced that the country’s GDP for 2013 was 80.22 trillion naira (between $509.9 billion and $477.98 billion depending on what value you give to the naira) and not the 42.3 trillion naira previously estimated. Nigeria had last assessed the size of its economy in1990 and has long realised it needed to add previously uncounted industries like telecommunications, IT, banking, insurance, music, airlines, online retail and the vibrant Nollywood film industry.

So what?

Not unexpectedly the announcement set off a flood of global media commentary (and local hand-wringing and defensiveness) about the sad state of the South African economy, which prior to the announcement ‘had’ Africa’s largest GDP at about $353 billion.

The Wall Street Journal Online (06/04/2014) probably had the most representative coverage:

“Nigeria’s ascendance marks a validation for foreign companies diving into Africa’s riskier markets, where populations are young and growing fast.”

“For South Africa, losing its status as Africa’s top economy is more than a symbolic blow. Pretoria has used its position on the continent to argue for inclusion at the table of the world’s most powerful nations. It joined the G-20 in 1999 and the “Brics”—Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa—in 2010. It has also campaigned for a U.N. Security Council seat.”

The article discusses Nkandla and South Africa’s anaemic growth (and Eskom’s wet coal) but also points out that South Africa has the continent’s best infrastructure and that it produces 10 times more electricity than Nigeria for a population one third the size.

A more salient point came from several Al-Jazeera interviews with Nigerians, best summarised by Bismarck Rewane, CEO of Lagos-based consultancy Financial Derivatives: “Is the money in your bank account more on Sunday than it was on Saturday? If you had no job yesterday, are you going to have a job today? If the answer  … is ‘no’, then this is an exercise in vanity.”

Equally, the myriad problems in the South African economy were no worse on Sunday than they were on Saturday. Will Nigeria’s rebasing create more urgency amongst South African policy makers? I doubt it.

HSRC update on HIV/AIDS in South Africa is concerning

The Human Sciences Research Council has released research that indicates that the proportion of South Africans infected with HIV has increased from 10.6% in 2008 to 12.2% in 2012 and that the total number of infected South Africans now stands at 6.4 million, 1.2 million more than in 2008.

The table below indicates HIV prevalence in females (a) and males (b) by age in South Africa in 2008 and in 2012 (South African National HIV Prevalence, Incidence and Behaviour Survey, 2012 – xxvi of the Executive Summary):

HIV

Provincially, KwaZulu-Natal has the highest HIV prevalence (16.9%) and the Western Cape the lowest (5%). There were 469 000 new infections in the country in 2012.

So what?

HIV/AIDS was a significant area of risk associated with investing in South Africa in the late 90’s and early 2000’s and the disease radically lowered life expectancy in the country (from 62 years in 1990 to 50 years in 2007 – StatsSA). The impacts on consumption, the price of labour and pressures on social infrastructure were endlessly explored in research reports, also by this analyst.

There have been admirable increases in treatment levels (especially by government, but supported by non-governmental organisations) but significant declines in condom use and knowledge about the disease (particularly amongst young people) and recent increases in infection rates imply that the availability of treatment might be leading to complacency and a reversal of some of those gains. Watch this space.

Cosatu has a week of the long knives ahead – which is mostly a good thing

As it happens there was a considerable amount of drawing-back-from-the-edge this week raising interesting questions about the role of Ramaphosa and of Vavi … but I will explore that next week. Meanwhile here is the Monday comment, without retractions:

On Friday the South Gauteng High Court set aside Cosatu suspension of its general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi on technical grounds. “While the CEC of Cosatu was authorised to suspend Vavi” said Deputy Judge President Phineas Mojapelo, “it failed to comply with the constitution of Cosatu in that they did not vote whereas the constitution expressly called for a vote.”

This is obviously not a crushing victory in Vavi’s favour, but it does lay the grounds for some sort of final showdown at Cosatu’s Central Executive Committee meeting that starts tomorrow morning. (It would be a relatively simple matter for the CEC to vote to suspend Vavi … and it might do this and add suspending or expelling Numsa into the bargain.)

So what?

Cosatu is fundamentally split between two broad factions.

One faction, centred around Vavi, Irvin Jim and the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, oppose key elements of ANC economic policy on the grounds that the policy (particularly the NDP) is ‘pro-business’ and fails to adequately address the needs of workers and the poor. Further, this faction has expressed itself in very clear language against what it sees as the abuse of public resources for personal gain by key ANC and government leaders, including Jacob Zuma. This faction wants a formal Cosatu break with the ruling alliance and has hinted at its intention to establish a socialist workers party at some time in the future.

The other faction – essentially the incumbent Cosatu leadership including its president S’dumo Dlamini – is attempting to keep as much of Cosatu as possible within the alliance with the ANC and is, essentially, loyal to the incumbent leadership of the ANC.

The tensions that are expressed in this split have been present since Cosatu’s formation in Durban in 1986. The fact that the underlying political and ideological divisions are coming to a head now is not primarily because the ANC or government leadership is more corrupt that previously and certainly not because ANC economic policy is more pro-business than previously. The ANC and government’s adoption of the National Development Plan (as well as government’s promulgation of both the youth wage subsidy and Gauteng e-tolling, against Cosatu’s explicit and bitter opposition) has forced the underlying division into the light but the division was eventually going to be exposed anyway, as the sentimental glue of ‘the struggle’ gradually dissolved through exposure to the (famous) ‘ravages of time’ and the accumulation of normal, difficult, choices all governments must make between ‘national’ as opposed to ‘sectional’ interests.

(Gosh, that is a long sentence – Ed)

The bright light that Vavi and Numsa shine on corruption is welcome (but not untainted by other political considerations) and a healthy part of our democracy. This faction heading into the wilderness to set up a ‘left’ or socialist party would also be an expression of maturity – as well as a welcome release of the ANC from the tiresome shackles of its increasing anachronistic alliance with a trade union federation.

Nkandla in perspective

The Sunday papers are invariably a tiresome chore to read with only a handful of articles making it worth the effort. This week John Carlin (best known for his excellent writing about politics and soccer) dealt with the Nkandla scandal in a manner that brought some blessed relief.

In an article entitled “Noisy Nation” he delightfully describes the health of the South African democracy thusly: “The amount of screaming, shouting and booing at the powers that be, the furious debates between political parties and old and new trade unions, the daily revelations in the press, the hyperventilating opinion columns: it is all music to the ears, a sign of political health – just as a new born baby’s screaming is a sign of physical health.”

Among the welcome reminders he brings is that South Africa is a new democracy with regard to peer comparisons and that freedom of expression and levels of public debate compare very favourably:

“At 20 years old, it (South Africa) has barely emerged from adolescence and is still seeking its identity, finding its bearings in the world. The parents, by which I mean (stretching the metaphor a bit) successive ANC governments, are not a model of maturity themselves, but they have had the wisdom and moral coherence not to do as governments have done in other countries that arrived at democracy at roughly the same time, such as Russia. They have not locked up political opponents or murdered overinquisitive members of the press.”

Well, not yet and not that we know of, but the point is well made and well taken.

An aside on our irritating exceptionalism

(Not published as part of the original note.)

In addition to the wonderful ‘noisy, healthy nation’ point, Carlin takes a carefully balanced and nuanced shot at South Africans’s tendency to believe both that we are uniquely victimised by a history and that we were miraculously saved by rare and unusually heroic individuals.

I would much prefer you to read the whole of Carlin’s article as it appears on City Press’s website – here is a link – but for those who are unable to do this I am going to take the liberty of publishing the introductory paragraphs to the article – so that some of Carlin’s nuances are preserved:

A South African lawyer was in New York in the late 1980s to deliver a paper on apartheid’s crimes.

Before his turn came, he heard speakers from Latin America tell their tales of horror and realised, with a sinking feeling, that he could not compete.

The man from Argentina spoke about the torture and disappearance of 15 000 people, most of them grabbed from their homes.

The one from El Salvador spoke about the 30 000 killed by the state death squads at the rate of 1 000 a month.

Worst of all, the one from Guatemala shared similarly prolific rates of assassination, plus army units that routinely burnt entire villages to the ground.

Yes, in South Africa you had death squads killings, but not on an industrial scale.

Yes, when I arrived in South Africa in 1989 you had some 30 000 activists detained without charge.

But as I pointed out to the lawyer, in El Salvador those 30 000 would have been dead.

As for Nelson Mandela, the notion that his equivalent in Guatemala would have been tried in court and then spared the hangman’s noose was, in a grim sort of way, laughable.

I knew about these things. I had spent from 1979 to 1989 in South and Central America.

By contrast, South Africa’s political climate struck me as mild; the space for political expression, relatively free.

From the day I arrived in South Africa, I never came across a black person afraid to express his or her view.

I am not being frivolous about the suffering black South Africans endured under apartheid.

It was, as Mandela once said, “a moral genocide”, an attempt to systematically exterminate an entire people’s self-respect.

It was also a brazen affirmative action programme for white people, the inevitable downside of which was that those born with darker skins were condemned to lives deprived of economic opportunity.

It was uniquely evil. Well, almost.

In Guatemala, the 75% of the population who were of Mayan origin, were treated with at least equal contempt by the rich and powerful, who then dispatched battalions of Eugene de Kocks to terrorise them into submission.

I was struck in a similar way when I visit Serbia some time ago. This is what I said, also about South African ‘exeptionalism’, at the time (here for the original post)

It (the suffering in the region) started with the Celts invading  the “Paleo-Balkan tribes” … 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 … (and you do – Ed.)

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.

At an earlier time I discussed our (equally irritating) ‘leadership exceptionalism’ (here for original post) where I said:

… this country has developed a habit, possibly a mythology, of what I term “leadership exceptionalism”. In short this refers to the belief, erroneous or otherwise, that South Africa has achieved an unlikely stability primarily through the exceptional quality of leaders throughout the society – including on both sides of the Apartheid fence and in the churches, trade unions and business.

This is a quick  aside before getting onto the more riveting topics of the May 7 elections, service delivery protests (and their search for a Gene Sharp handbook as well as the predictions of the Davies J-curve), the platinum strike, Julius Malema’s sequestration hearing in the North Gauteng High Court this morning (and the pressing matter of whether this could bar him from becoming a member of parliament in terms of section 47c of the Constitution) and the truly interesting Ipsos comparisons of the demographic characteristics of supporters of the ANC, the DA and the EFF.

Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings**

Over the weekend a young, close relative of mine wondered aloud why South Africans continued to vote for the ANC.

The child explained to me late on Saturday night that the ruling party was an institution so obviously bereft of redeeming features that only a person on drugs could possibly continue to vote for it.

“Why don’t they vote for another party?” asked the child in exasperation.

I have to admit that while I recognised the opportunity was begging for a cautious and loving Socratic exchange, I couldn’t raise the enthusiasm to give more than an exhausted ‘who’s they‘, followed by a quick retreat and request a continuation in the morning.

The next day, having completed the obligatory 52 hours (I think that’s about how long it takes?) of newspaper reading, I found myself sitting beside the same child watching Adventure Time on television.

When the charming, nuanced, off-beat and deeply intelligent (in comparison to other media I had been consuming that morning) cartoon was over, the child switched off the television, turned his angelic face towards me and asked: “so, about the ANC …?”

I cleared my throat and gathered my thoughts.

“White settlers from Holland” I began, gazing into the middle distance with a faintly sad expression on my face, as if watching the mournful parade of our history playing out in my mind, “first came to South Africa in 1652 and many bitter struggles were fought over land and cattle.”

Jumping ahead somewhat I went straight to the nub: “On January 8th 1912, chiefs, representatives of people`s and church organisations, and other prominent individuals gathered in Bloemfontein and formed the African National Congress. The ANC declared its aim to bring all Africans together as one people to defend their rights and freedoms.”

Okay, I’m messing with you … that’s a cut-and-paste from ‘a brief history of the ANC’ on the organisation’s website.

However, I find it significant that I had to open the web page and read some of the highlights from there. Somehow the essential story, the glorious history of the glorious struggle for freedom and democracy, the dead heroes, the banners, the flags and the songs, sounded tired and clichéd and faintly hackneyed as I ran through it without much real enthusiasm.

But I still argued the toss. It was not surprising that most black South Africans who were registered to vote would still be voting for the ANC (and, btw, ‘most black South Africans registered to vote’ was still probably ‘most South Africans of voting age’ given both our demographics and our 77% voter registration). The ANC led the fight against Apartheid. The ANC has presided over massive and ongoing redress in favour of black South Africans since 1994! A few bad eggs in the leadership do not change that.

The child raised a litany of objections: ‘Zuma’, ‘Nkandla’, ‘the arms deal’, ‘police violence’, ‘judicial – and other – appointments’, ‘the diversion of billions of rand into the coffers of fat cats and the party itself’, ‘governance failures’, ‘the Traditional Courts Bill’, ‘borderline homophobia’, ‘the impending Zuma/Putin nuclear caper’, ‘growing intra-ANC violence in contestation for increasingly lucrative political jobs’ and ‘increasing state sanctioned violence’ – duh! 

(I suspect the ‘child’ is imaginary, a clunky rhetorical device … also, ‘duh’ means ‘give me a break’, or ‘don’t waste my time with the stupid and obvious’ – Ed)

 The child’s arguments asserting the extremely putrid state of the ruling party became louder as did my insistence that the majority of voters were not brain-dead zombies acting out a destructive and unconscious impulse.

From the vantage point of this Monday afternoon I worry that I sounded a little like a master of ANC Apologetics ; but the child, delightfully, sounded like a shorter, skinnier, cleverer and more charming Wilmot James

I obviously didn’t answer the question why do the majority of South Africans still vote for the ANC? to the satisfaction of he who asked it – although I am equally satisfied that I can understand why a majority of normal, sane black South Africans, acting in their enlightened self-interest, might vote for the ANC.

However what I didn’t say in the argument with the child is that I am also sure that along the path down which the ANC is currently travelling, with Nkandla (the political/economic/security faction rather than the homestead) leading the way, awaits a place or a moment at which the ANC will lose the support of the majority of free thinking, free voting* South Africans. Of this I am convinced. I think that moment is some distance ahead – only conceivably first appearing in 2019.

But who walks blindly towards catastrophe, when it is visible, predicted by one’s own forecasting, evident in every stumble along the deteriorating path?

Think about the ANC as having a brand value. Think about the forces that operate within the ANC as a kind of political market. I am hopefully expectant that that market will automatically self-correct … that the  brand is so valuable that the threat of its loss will trigger a protective impulse, will mobilise the many who have much to lose if their asset continues to be led and used in the manner it is being led and used by its incumbent central leadership.

Obviously the incumbent leaders of the ANC will not willingly lose control. The consequences for this particular crew would be more negative and profound than, for example, a similar loss of control was for Thabo Mbeki. Also the incumbent leadership has a security/intelligence/street-fighter thing going that could make it a vicious and dangerous opponent of any serious movement for renewal within the party.

Finally, I imagine that the fewer votes the ANC receives in the May 7 election (which I don’t see being fewer than 60% of the total) the more likely and vigorous will be an attempt to change the organisation’s current trajectory and leadership.

(I am not going to run all of that passed the aforementioned child – he will, with some justification, roll his eyes and say whatever.)

* I use the “free thinking, free voting” qualification because it is not an eternal given that we will remain, as we have been (only briefly, since 1994) free, or relatively so, to think and vote as we please.

**’Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings’ comes from Matthew (21:16) recalling the words of Jesus, who was in turn referring to Psalm 8 –  from the King James Version, a widely admired (for its literary value) English translation of the Christian Bible … that’s for any readers in a geographical, cultural and/or technological location so remote that even Google cannot help them as it has helped me fake that I knew the full origin of the phrase before I sat down to write this morning.

(This is part of a brief note I sent out to clients this morning)

Nelson Rolihlahla Dalibunga Mandela,  95, died last night on Thursday December 5 2013.

  • There may be short-swings in some South African financial instruments but it is unlikely that this will be a longer term driver of the markets. Nelson Mandela has been ill for some time and has not played a role in South African politics since the late 90’s.
  • There will be intense world focus on the country – and much of that focus is likely to negatively compare the current crop of leaders with Nelson Mandela (but the martyred and canonised version of the man). It should be noted that investors in South African equities and bonds appear increasingly bleak about the environment (labour unrest, labour productivity, uncertain mining legislation – as well as uncertainty about a host of other regulatory and legislative interventions by the government –  corruption and cover-up around the President’s Nkandla residence, the use of state security apparatuses to advance certain interests of politicians, uncertainty about the infrastructure build programme, the difficulties in achieving fiscal consolidation and the possibility of further ratings downgrades). Those uncertainties will increase with Mandela’s death, although his passing is unlikely to impact significantly on the real situation.
  • The country will be crawling with celebrities and senior politicians from other countries (including as many as 5 current and former US presidents) – which will be highly disruptive in a number of different ways. There is also likely to be a period of formal national mourning, which could feed through into already anaemic GDP growth numbers for the 4th quarter.
  • For the African National Congress the opportunity emerges for the ruling party to run an election campaign centred around the great and popular ex-president – and we should expect Nelson Mandela to be alongside Jacob Zuma in many posters and promotional material. Of course the risk is that this makes the comparison more obviously unfavourable for the incumbent. But on the whole we think the ANC election campaign will benefit from foregrounding the key role played by Nelson Mandela at all times casting himself as a loyal member and leader of the ANC.
  • As I say in the final paragraph below: the financial market is unlikely to react wildly or in a sustained manner to this single event … but then the financial markets do not list the price of everything that is important.

Here is an updated version of some comments I have made on previous occasions (including here) when his death seemed imminent:

The country will initially be bathed in a blinding light and then buried in mountains of obscuring verbiage taller and wider than the verbiage that covers the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Centre, the US invasions of Iraq and Global Warming combined.

It is only the usually skittish financial markets that I expect  to take the old man’s passing with equanimity.

For those who comment on South African financial markets, Nelson Mandela’s death should be considered “investment neutral” – but in an investment environment that looks anything but neutral from a political risk perspective.

But there are more important meanings than prices in financial markets.

Nelson Mandela is the last symbolic link to the full ambit of the struggle of all Africans, but black South Africans in particular, to free themselves from colonialism, Apartheid and slavery.

Crucially, he is also the symbolic representative of the compromises and tolerance that characterised the negotiations from 1990 and the election in 1994.

If that was not enough for the symbol to carry, Nelson Mandela’s 27 years in prison and his calm forbearance have come to represent for many throughout the world the manifestation of the human spirit in its best possible form.

His passing will give focus to the anxieties many feel about  South Africa’s future – but also to anxieties about the world, about the predation of humans on each other and on the planet. He was, after all, as much a global symbol and leader as a South African one.

Our feelings about the lives and deaths of “great” men and women allow us an emotional link to the grand scope of the history we live in and through.  The death of Pope John Paul II and of Diana Spencer gave a sense of how, in the age of celebrity, the so-called ‘general public’ becomes emotionally connected to the grand human drama that can usually only be understood a long time afterwards and at many degrees of abstraction.

Nelson Mandela’s death will be such a moment for humanity, because it will represent the drawing together of important threads of the last several hundred years of human history.

The point, however, for South African financial markets is that little will change in South Africa with the passing of the man. The real running of the country and the dealing in the compromises between the old South Africa and the new, has long moved on from Nelson Mandela.

It has now become a truism that even in his last years as president Nelson Mandela was already more important as a symbol than as a politician and statesman.

There is real and visceral grief from comrades, friends and citizens who have participated with him in the struggles for African liberation. I imagine too, that throughout the world there will be an unprecedented outpouring of emotion that will elevate the symbol even higher than the man.

South Africa, for one last time, will be bathed in light and the centre of puzzled global attention – as it often has been since the formal beginnings of Grand Apartheid in the late 40′s and early 50′s.

But  South African financial markets – the currency, the equities, the bonds and products that derive from these – are unlikely to falter.

But that only tells us one thing: that the ticker tape does not list the price of every important thing.

Niccolo MachiavelliJacob Zuma has forced me to reread Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli’s The Prince, published 500 years ago this year.

He (Jacob Zuma) didn’t threaten me with the red lightsaber or catch me in a honey trap. My natterings, fortunately, are not impactful enough to draw the attentions of the Dark Lord (Darth Vader, dah! – ed) or his stormtroopers.

The compulsion comes from watching, slack-jawed, as Jacob Zuma skips happily across the backs of starving crocodiles – on his way, off towards the welcoming horizon.

Surely the world was an intrinsically hostile place for a black baby boy, born to a single-parent mother (who was also a domestic worker) in the South Africa of 1942? Surely when he received no formal education any chance of success in life would have become vanishingly small – in the estimation of a wandering actuarial statistician, perhaps?

When Jacob Zuma went to prison and then later was repeatedly caught with his hands in all sorts of cookie jars I imagine the hypothetical actuary would have confidently predicted a life of ignominy and poverty.

But instead Jacob Zuma is picking up an honorary Doctorate of Leadership from the Limkokwing University of Creative Technolog(who writes the script of the world? … no ordinary mortal would dare make this shit up – ed) and rubbing shoulders with the great and the good and undoubtedly stashing bits of his loot in safe houses in Malaysia.

My second post on this website in mid-2009 titled The Accidental President (catch that here) argued that Zuma’s rise was pure chance and contingency. But when the same random set of things happens over-and-over (Jacob Zuma escapes danger with a sack full of cash) you have to start questioning whether this is purely the shambolic interactions of events, people, history and the world.

Politics is about power (yes, I know, we have heard that somewhere before). Power is agency, the ability to make stuff happen, to make people do your bidding and to make situations turn out in a particular way. Political analysis is the analysis of how (and why) power is exercised.

Which brings me back to Machiavelli.

I read The Prince when I was about 17 and, clearly, I didn’t understand a bleeding word.

I vaguely remember being outraged and confused by the book.  Bertrand Russell is widely quoted as having said The Prince is a handbook for gangsters (which is a great line but there is much debate as to whether the great logician himself actually said it).

However, I am now kicking myself that I haven’t been reading and rereading The Prince every year – and in the flush of my transient enthusiasm, I promise myself I will do so from now on until I die … or perhaps I will stop a little before.

(As an aside: I was halfway through the book when the Syrian nerve gas story broke. I was glad to have Machiavelli as a companion to think about how those with agency might cause, or allow, such things to happen and why they might do so.)

So, anyway … Jacob Zuma is the Prince and I doubt he ever needed a Machiavelli to tell him how to be what he is and how to do what he does.

Here is the opening dedication. It’s quite compellingly mysterious to those among us who are a little thin on our Florence-during- the-Renaissance, but it is also a good explanation of the work that follows:

Dedication: To the Magnificent Lorenzo Di Piero De’ Medici

It is customary for such as seek a Prince’s favour, to present themselves before him with those things of theirs which they themselves most value, or in which they perceive him chiefly to delight. Accordingly, we often see horses, armour, cloth of gold, precious stones, and the like costly gifts, offered to Princes as worthy of their greatness. Desiring in like manner to approach your Magnificence with some token of my devotion, I have found among my possessions none that I so much prize and esteem as a knowledge of the actions of great men, acquired in the course of a long experience of modern affairs and a continual study of antiquity. Which knowledge most carefully and patiently pondered over and sifted by me, and now reduced into this little book, I send to your Magnificence. And though I deem the work unworthy of your greatness, yet am I bold enough to hope that your courtesy will dispose you to accept it, considering that I can offer you no better gift than the means of mastering in a very brief time, all that in the course of so many years, and at the cost of so many hardships and dangers, I have learned, and know.

This work I have not adorned or amplified with rounded periods, swelling and high-flown language, or any other of those extrinsic attractions and allurements wherewith many authors are wont to set off and grace their writings; since it is my desire that it should either pass wholly unhonoured, or that the truth of its matter and the importance of its subject should alone recommend it.

Nor would I have it thought presumption that a person of very mean and humble station should venture to discourse and lay down rules concerning the government of Princes. For as those who make maps of countries place themselves low down in the plains to study the character of mountains and elevated lands, and place themselves high up on the mountains to get a better view of the plains, so in like manner to understand the People a man should be a Prince, and to have a clear notion of Princes he should belong to the People.

Let your Magnificence, then, accept this little gift in the spirit in which I offer it; wherein, if you diligently read and study it, you will recognize my extreme desire that you should attain to that eminence which Fortune and your own merits promise you. Should you from the height of your greatness some time turn your eyes to these humble regions, you will become aware how undeservedly I have to endure the keen and unremitting malignity of Fortune.
Niccolò Machiavelli

……………………………………………………………..

I know how Niccolò feels. Sometimes these humble regions are just that little too humble. However, I would have been more cautious about calling for the Prince’s attention if I was Machiavelli. If the Prince read the little book, then the Prince would know that Machiavelli had the Prince’s number and that Machiavelli had rewritten the handbook. Which I can’t imagine would have charmed the Prince.

I will attempt a ‘highlights package’ of The Prince and possibly some learned comments (which are unlikely to be as good as you will find in this interesting article and interview). For the keenest among you, there are several places on the internet where The Prince is downloadable for no charge – I am sure the copyright has long expired … or rather I hope so. My copy, which is in electronic form on my laptop, originates at: http://www.feedbooks.com.

Finally, Jacob Zuma still has a few crocodiles to hop on before he reaches safety. I still think that the odds are against him, but I am not an actuarial statistician, wandering or otherwise . I draw comfort purely from the certainty that no-one, ultimately, gets out of this alive.

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.

Preface 

I wrote what follows in July 1990 immediately after returning from a two week trip to Moscow. I was part of a group with the now sadly departed Institute for a Democratic Alternative for South Africa (Idasa). The original was published in Democracy In Action, the institute’s monthly newsletter. I had looked for a copy for years and Paul Graham the last executive director of  Idasa, and a man for whom I have the highest regard, went to considerable trouble to find the article for me as he was closing up shop. I am republishing it here exactly as it originally appeared, although I have to sit on my hands to stop myself stripping out much of the sentiment and youthful taking-of-oneself-too-seriously – and thereby cutting two thirds of the length. (I would also quite like not to admit to some of the things I once believed which I admit to in the article … and I would love to add a bit of irony … but it is all too late for that now.)

Why am I bothering – I am not unaware that this was not exactly seminal?  No special reason, except my desire that it form ‘part of the record’. I wanted it “out there” in the electronic universe to remind myself of the precise moment I stopped being a confused socialist and carried on with being just confused, an altogether less satisfying state than I had experienced previously. It was  bitter-sweet for me, this moment, and I have never entirely resolved the conflicted feelings that it evokes in me. I don’t promise that what follows will be madly interesting to anyone but myself and perhaps some others directly involved in the events I describe. So, if for no other reasons than the much vaunted record, complete and unexpurgated, here is:

Ten days that shook my world

Standing on the Leningradsky Prospect – the “straight way” to Leningrad – just outside Moscow I was filled with an unhappy mixture of dismay and despair.

I had reached an unbearably poignant shrine. In heroic proportions and cut deep into huge blocks of concrete was the visage of the Soviet version of the Unknown Soldier. The young interpreter translated the script alongside that  haunting face in hushed tones. “It says that, ‘the defenders of Moscow defend here forever’. Here they fought an important battle in the Great Patriotic War. Many people died. But for us this is very sad.”

Twenty million Soviet citizens died in that war. more than all the other deaths put together. The German army failed to take Moscow or Leningrad and eventually broke its back on a bitterly defended Stalingrad and the even more bitter Soviet winter.

Standing at that memorial I felt dismay at the enormity of suffering the people of this country had experienced in the last 100 years. I felt despair because by that stage of the trip I already sensed than another tragedy was befalling this oft punished country.

How do  you record a credible impression of a country with 290  million inhabitant and more mutually unintelligible languages than anywhere else in the world after a brief two weeks spent in one city – albeit Moscow?

The answer is you probably can’t.

It was sunny mid-June and I was part of an Idasa delegation of “young researchers” on a fact-finding mission hosted by a group called the Committee of Youth Organisations. For me personally the visit was of particular importance.

The Soviet Union was the land of milk and honey for many of us who grew up politically in the student movement in the late 70s and early 80s. This was the flagship of a growing fleet that would rid our world of the uncaring and greedy imperative of profiteering capitalism and the misery it had brought our country.

We could quote chapter and verse of statistics that demonstrated the availability of basic goods and services to all Soviet people. We could parade the achievements of Eastern bloc socialism – in the production of iron and steel, in the eradication of illiteracy, in culture, the arts and in sports.

In response to perestroika and glasnost we had all reformulated our ideas and I wanted to discover two things: the soul of the Soviet people and  whether the red flag was still flying. We were not able to answer any of these questions conclusively and were left with a series of often unconnected impressions.

I was quite unprepared for what I found in Moscow.

We sat in a meeting with the editor of the Moscow Communist Youth Organisation (Komsomol) daily newspaper. The paper has a subscriber list of one and a half million and is delivered daily. This man was a political appointee yet he harangued us for over an hour about the evils and absolute unworkability of socialism.

We didn’t understand. Here was a powerful and influential communist, picking up a glass on the table and asking, “Who does this belong to? To the state, or the people, or some vague body? I don’t care about this glass,” and he made as if to throw it out of the window.

In an intense and growing fury he took a Parker pen from the inside pocket of his coat. “This is my pen! If this man (pointing at his second in command) breaks this pen, I will beat him,” he said, shaking his fist angrily.

Reaching some kind of climax, the editor rose to his feet and shouted pointing out of the window at the inevitable queue at a shop across the road: “Those people are queuing for children’s slippers. This is not how people should live! This is not even how animals should live!”

The sentiments behind these ragings were expressed by everyone we met – more cautiously only by the most senior members of the Communist Party.

The economy has clearly failed to meet the requirements of the population and the list of reasons they give reads like a tirade from the New Right.

Here is a selection of rough quotes as I jotted them down in my notebook or remember them now:

“The authoritarian, bureaucratic, administrative command system has created impossibly skewed production priorities.”

“Why work hard, or with any care and attention to detail if you are going to get your 300 roubles a month no matter what and anyway, you are not going to be able to buy anything with it? We have created workers who don’t know how to work.”

“Goods are expensive and if they are made here they are of inferior quality. It is very difficult to get imported goods and usually these are impossibly expensive.”

“I have lived here all my life. Now it is worse than anyone can remember. There are just no goods in the shops and for the first time we are really worried about hunger.”

Almost without exception the people we spoke to blamed socialism for their ills. When those of us with deep philosophical and political roots in the South African socialist movement protested that it wasn’t socialism per se that was the problem, but rather the errors committed in the building of the society and economy of the Soviet Union specifically, we were laughed out of court.

“It is the ideas themselves. 1917 was a disaster for us. We need the market economy,” was the refrain we heard time and again.

There seems no doubt that there is a developing  consensus amongst the intelligentsia in Moscow at any rate, that the “free market” is the panacea to many of their ills. It would have been impossible, and extremely presumptuous of us to lecture them on the evils of rampant capitalism. They want it and they want it now.

When Germany and Japan start buying up state enterprises for a pittance and fill the shops with goods that only a few can afford; when unemployment and lack of housing becomes a problem for the previously protected underclass and when access to a whole lot of goods ans services becomes determined by income, they may change their minds, but I wouldn’t bet my life on it.

The citizens of Moscow (a relatively wealthy city) are struggling, increasingly despairingly, to survive. At first I was tempted to argue that they are better off than the unemployed in the First World, but it just doesn’t appear to be true, especially as far as countries with social welfare systems are concerned.

The problem, of course, is that the capitalism that will be built in the Soviet Union will be a mean and half-starved animal.

The Soviet people look at the highly developed capitalist economies of the West for a vision of their own future. The truth is that they can expect only the vicious and exploitative versions of the system that exist on the periphery in the Third World.  The creation of that system is going to be extremely painful.

The other element of the unfolding drama in the Soviet Union is the collapse of the political entity itself.

The republics are finally starting to be flung off the edges of the vortex of rapid political change. Long repressed nationalism, often highly chauvinistic, is emerging everywhere and Gorbachev is finding it almost impossible to hold the show on the road.

The dark spectre of the Soviet Union’s collapse into 15 disgruntled, warring, potentially economically unviable Third World states with terrifying military resources at their disposal is starting to haunt the wold.

And what about the Russian people?

We were all astounded at the depth of education and cultural and philosophical literacy in the wide cross-section of people we met. A deep abhorrence of war and commitment to peaceful change was the characteristic feature. In response to the question “what do you want, or see as an alternative?”, the most common phrase was, “respect for universal human values.”.

We asked many young people if they were proud of any of their national achievements – the beautiful, cheap and efficient Moscow underground, the low price and ready availability of books and records and the level of literacy and education.

We were told (variously): “The Soviet Union is not a country, we have no national achievements”; “how can we be proud if it takes all our effort and time just to buy a loaf of bread in a shop”.

Almost every young person we met had a burning desire to leave the country. The most popular movie on the circuit is a “documentary” comparison of life in the Soviet Union versus life in the West.

Apparently this films looks at the worst of Soviet life compared to the best in the West. It sounds like the worst kind of anti-communist, American ultra-right chauvinism –  except it was made by a Soviet film producer. What is more, the public swallow every last detail in an orgy of masochistic self-hatred.

Media freedom

One thing we found interesting and encouraging was freedom and vibrancy of the media.

Organised political opposition to the Communist Party is weak (outside of the national movements in the republics) and many of the new parties have no real experience at mobilising the population. However, the press and television are filled with debate and exploration of new ideas and harsh examinations of social problems ranging from alcoholism through to child abuse.

By the end of the 10 days, the six of us were punch-drunk and exhausted. We spoke together for hours trying, unsuccessfully, to draw out the essence of the experience. We all had the sense of being in an important place at an important time. This was the exact point where a grand enterprise had come off the rails.

The resounding shock waves of that catastrophe have changed the whole world, not least of all our own country. We struggled with the enormity of it and the sense of hopelessness we were left with.

As the last day of the visit dawned, I spoke to a wise and gentle man about my confusion and disappointment. He said: “Yes, this is a tragedy of unimaginable proportions, but you are wrong to say our people are hopeless or despairing. They have spirit and humanity. We will win through in some way.”

(I was accompanied on that trip by Ian Liebenberg, Hermien Kotze, Zorah Ebrahim, Khehla Shubane and Mark Swilling – and I wish them well wherever they may be.)

In high anxiety at my failure to publish here for several weeks (what with 12 days visiting fund managers in the UK and Europe and new commitments to the Daily Maverick – see here and here for the first two of those) I have decided to again post a modified version of my usually bespoke  ‘SA Political news commentary’ … to show willing; to demonstrate that I am not entirely unembarrassed that my last post, which was also a news commentary, was on March 18.

Perhaps I am edging towards closing down this blog … but I am not quite done yet, and for those who have stuck with me this long, I thank you.

So here,  written to a deadline of 06h30 yesterday, slightly modified for my hanging-by-a-thread website:

SA Political News update 23/04/2013

Cosatu and the ruling alliance: corruption claims and counterclaims

According to the Mail & Guardian (April 19-25), the battle for control of Cosatu is becoming ever more vicious. The article states that behind the noise is an apparent attempt by the ANC to close down a powerful left faction in Cosatu that has been critical of both corruption and the alleged adoption of ‘pro-business’ policies by the ANC and government. The main issues over which the battle is playing out are:

  • Allegations made (according to the M&G) by “an informal caucus … of senior leaders from Nehawu, the NUM, Popcru, Sadtu, Cepawu [they mean CEPPWAWU, I think – ed], the SACP and the ANC[1]” that Zwelinzima Vavi, the popular Cosatu Secretary General, has engaged in corrupt activity and is disloyal to the ANC-led alliance, including by failing to adequately support Jacob Zuma for re-election at Mangaung.
  • A flood of accusations made through the Cosatu linked NGO Corruption Watch that many of the leaders of unions involved in attacking Vavi are themselves corrupt – Mail & Guardian in a story that works more by insinuation rather than actual content – see here  for the story that was later denied by Corruption watch here).
  • The proposal made by Fawu (Food and Allied Workers Union) for a special Cosatu congress to resolve this issue, opposed by the group named in the first bullet, but supported by Numsa, Samwu and several smaller unions[2].
  • Support for and against the National Development Plan.

So what?

Business might be tempted to fold its arms and sit back and delight that the old ‘thorn in the side’ Cosatu is being riven by tension. However, it is worth recalling that some industrial relations consultants also delighted in the emergence of Amcu in the platinum sector as a counter to Num for similar reasons – and look how that played out. The serious political conflict in Cosatu could as easily result in higher levels of labour unrest, with higher levels of unpredictability, in a wide variety of industries than in a generally more compliant labour movement. Several multi-year wage agreements are coming up for review before the end of this year (including in the automobile, chemical, gold mining, coal mining, retail motor industry and tyre sectors – which historically have been trendsetters – Business Times). Add to this my uncertainty as to whether the tight three-year public sector wage agreement set last year will hold under strain caused by a combination of:

  • the (welcome) reforming zeal of Public Service and Administration Minister Lindiwe Sisulu,
  • government’s apparent attempt to roll back the power of the South African Democratic Teachers Union, and
  • the generally difficult economic circumstances for union members,
  • the successes of the wildcat strikes, particularly in the platinum sector last year, perhaps having established a new baseline for increase expectation throughout the economy

and it is not inconceivable that we could have another year of potentially devastating labour unrest.

If the government’s (and the ANC’s) intention was to have a showdown with organised labour over economic growth and stability that would be one thing. But I suspect that the evident intervention in Cosatu is based on the sectarian interests at the ruling faction of the alliance rather than in any real desire to pursue the national good. If that faction faction successfully expels Vavi they might precipitate a split in Cosatu and the long awaited formation of a new ‘left’ political formation … and just by the act of pushing, through what appears to be a dirty tricks campaign, for this outcome the ruling faction risks rapidly escalating labour unrest.

The DA and the ANC try on their best dresses (or maybe not)  for Election 2014

The DA has launched a campaign attempting to burnish its anti-apartheid credentials, including publishing a pamphlet with a picture of Nelson Mandela embracing deceased party stalwart Helen Suzman under the caption: “We played our part in opposing apartheid”.

At the same time, the Mail & Guardian has published excerpts of what it calls ‘draft DA election material’ which explicitly compares the ANC to the National Party. The M&G’s quotes from the draft document include the arguments that under Zuma’s ANC there is a “rise of Zulu nationalism and racist rhetoric” and “as was the case with apartheid, the ANC is using the police to suppress criticism of its government”.

In the City Press and Sunday Independent, the ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe has separate opinion pieces that argue that the DA’s attempt to appropriate Nelson Mandela is “an abuse of the human and humble character of this icon”. He adds that the DA “remains a brazen advocate for white domination and privilege, and for elaborate schemes for its retention in the guise of liberal policies”.

So what?

The general election next year is likely to be messy and disruptive – sustaining the apparently endless flow of unsettling news coming out of South Africa. From this far out it appears possible that the ANC will be arguing that the electoral issues are essentially identical to what they were in 1994 (white domination and the legacy of apartheid) and that the DA will be arguing that that is just an excuse for delivery failure – it would be difficult to conjure up a more divisive and unhelpful framing of the issues 20 years after the first democratic election.

The unravelling of the Mandela legacy

The weeklies have a flood of stories that pick away at the fabric of the Mandela story. A reality TV show “Being Mandela” is reviewed in the Sunday Times under the heading “Opening up the canned Mandelas – comic kugels[3] help deflate the myth”. The show “unveils the vacuous, pampered lives of two of Nelson Mandela’s grand-daughters, Zaziwe Dlamini-Manaway and Swati Dlamini” – Sunday Times.

The Sunday Independent leads with a review of “struggle stalwart” Amina Cachalia’s new book “When Hope and History Rhyme” in which, among many other matters, she reveals aspects of her own alleged romantic relationship with Nelson Mandela post his marriage to Graça Machel.

All of this comes as a bitter fight among Mandela’s children (with, among others, Nelson Mandela nominees George Bizos and Tokyo Sexwale) for control of various trusts that Nelson Mandela set up on his children’s behalf comes to a head in the Johannesburg High Court – The Sunday Tribune.

So what?

There may be some inherent advantages to the exposing of myths and legends as … myths and legends – but there really appears to be no upside to this depressing deflation. None of these stories changes the reality of the 94 year old South African former president’s contribution to the South African democracy and state-craft in general, but the incessant exposure does add to the gathering gloom around the South African story.

Bits and pieces

  • The Youth Employment Accord has finally been signed after three years of squabbling in the National Economic Development and Labour council (Nedlac). Not unexpectedly, it does not include a youth wage subsidy in the form of a tax-break for companies employing first time youth workers. Frankly, at first glance, the accord, as reported in the Sunday Independent, Sunday Times and City Press appears vague enough to leave some confusion as to how it might result in its proposed creation of 5 million jobs for youth by 2020. No real surprises there.
  • The weeklies were full of scholarly – and not so scholarly – debate about the resignation of Judicial Services Council member Izak Smuts. The debate boils down to whether there is a tension between the quality of judicial appointments and the need to make the judiciary more demographically representative. This is an intrinsically South African debate that cuts across every sector of society and will likely be with us for many years to come – for better or for worse.
  • ANC MP, Ben Turok, explains in the Sunday Times the terms of reference and limitation of the nine member “inquisitorial” panel appointed by parliament to investigate the “ethical conduct and conflicts of interest, potential or otherwise” of Communications Minister Dina Pule with regard to the various allegations that she has allowed her romantic partner to make significant capital out of her ministerial post. That parliament is investigating this matter can only be a good – albeit long overdue – thing.

[1] In order in which it appears in the quote, and supposedly constituting an anti-Vavi, pro-NDP, pro Zuma  faction: the National Education Health and Allied Workers’ Union, the National Union of Mineworkers, the Police and Prison Civil Rights Union, the Chemical Energy Paper Printing Wood and Allied Workers Union, the South African Communist Party and the African National Congress

[2] And this group, supposedly constituting the pro-Vavi, anti-NDP faction, anti Zuma faction: National Union of Metal Workers of South Africa and the South African Municipal Workers Union (plus a host of smaller unions including the Food and Allied Workers union).

(Note for both footnotes 1 and 2 – it is undoubtedly more complicated than this, but we need to start somewhere to attempt to make sense of the chaos.)

[3] Wikipedia (accessed 22/04/2013) explains the use of this term in South African slang as follows: “Amongst South African Jews, the word “kugel” was used by the elder generation as a term for a young Jewish woman who forsook traditional Jewish dress values in favour of those of the ostentatiously wealthy, becoming overly materialistic and over groomed, the kugel being a plain pudding garnished as a delicacy. The women thus described made light of the term and it has since become an amusing rather than derogatory slang term in South African English, referring to a materialistic young woman.”

First off, let me admit, that I have no choice but to believe that the answer to the question in the title is: yes.

It’s an article of faith.

Who can live in a world where the bullies and thugs, the greedy and manipulative, the powerful and the arrogant have won so decisively that it is pointless to hope – and perhaps work – for an alternative?

Who would dare raise children in such a world?

Or bother to get up in the morning?

In a post titled “A church so broad belief is optional” I two years ago argued that the ANC’s huge electoral support and attempt to straddle every social divide had an upside (as well as several downsides).

Here’s a (slightly edited) quote from that post:

Our society has a number of real and urgent fault-lines along which clashing currents are difficult to manage:

  • White versus black (versus Indian versus Coloured)
  • poor versus rich;
  • the employed versus the unemployed;
  • Zulu versus Xhosa versus Pedi versus Ndebele versus Sotho versus Tswana versus Venda;
  • Western versus African;
  • Urban, modern and fast versus rural, traditional and conservative.

The fact of the matter is that these divisions are not adequately represented in the formal political processes of parliament and government. There is no one party on one side of any of these divisions and mostly no one party on the other.

We are a society in which the formal institutions of democracy are new and tentative – and the divisions are threatening and profound. As many groups and interests as possible need to find expression in the national political debate – and the formal institutions do not yet adequately represent them.

As a second prize, an overwhelmingly dominant ruling party that attempts to play the role of a parliament of all the people, that attempts to speak with the cacophony of the thousand arguing tongues, is not all bad.

It’s just loud, noisy, confusing and unsettling.

This argument came to mind as I picked through the weekly English language press (Mail & Guardian, City Press, Sunday Independent and the Sunday Times) this morning.

I do an exhaustive/exhausting reading of the English language weeklies every Sunday afternoon/night to produce a summary analysis for my main clients by Monday morning. It is an extremely painful task and I am always tempted to quote that famous Punch magazine cartoon from November 9 1895 by George du Maurier to describe what I really think of these newspapers. A bishop is dining, in a formal setting, with a junior curate:

Bishop: “I’m afraid you’ve got a bad egg, Mr Jones”;

Curate: “Oh, no, my Lord, I assure you that parts of it are excellent!”  

But I never actually say that, because there are always a few articles, features and editorials in all four of these newspapers that are truly excellent: well researched, well written and insightful; and it would be untrue and unjust – and a little arrogant – for me to suggest they all stink by virtue of being surrounded, as they are,  by rotten, ill-informed and sensationalist rubbish.

So back to the title question.*

The Sunday Times has Motlanthe rejecting Zuma’s deal of the deputy presidency in exchange for him (Motlanthe) not standing in the presidential race.

It’s a particularly poorly structured story (trying to get away with suggesting a whole range of things without actually saying any of them) although it is full of tantalising tidbits.

So lets take the hints (from all four of the mentioned newspapers) as real possibilities:

  • Motlanthe stands against Zuma;
  • Unraveling patronage networks, especially in eThikwine, open(s?) the possibility of driving a wedge in Zuma’s Kwazulu-Natal support base;
  • To strengthen his ticket against Motlanthe, Zuma offers Cyril Ramaphosa the deputy presidency;
  • Gauteng suggests Joel Netshitenzhe as part of the Motlanthe challenge – essentially to stand against Gwede Mantashe (who’s a cornerstone of the SACP support for Zuma);
  • Winnie Madikizela-Mandela comes out more explicitly anti-Zuma (especially of his handling of Julius Malema) and supportive of  the putative Motlanthe challenge.

So what do we have there?

A Zuma, Ramaphosa, SACP ticket versus a Motlanthe, Netshitenzhe, Winnie, Malema ticket?

Oh Lord, give me strength.

Can’t we have a Joel Neshitenzhe, Cyril Ramaphosa ticket supported by Motlanthe and opposed by the ANC Youth League, Winnie Mandela and an unholy alliance of the Kwazulu-Natal and Mpumalanga patronage networks? (I have written previously about Joel on this website here,  here and here.)

That desire is the moral and intellectual equivalent of arm-chair sports selecting. It would be nice … as would a leadership consisting of a young and vigorous Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu …

So quickly, before I go back to picking my way through the odorous wreckage of the four weeklies spread out on my table and floor (the soul-crushing banality of etv’s Sunday afternoon offering in the background and the Cape Town winter sun finally beckoning outside):

What happens at Mangaung will not decisively determine the character of the ANC.

Polokwane was billed as a major rescue attempt – saving the ANC from the dead hand of Mbeki and rolling back the power of the narrow BEE elite which was allied to the most predatory forms of global monopoly capitalism.

Polokwane was going to reinstill the movement with idealism, energy and enthusiasm and channel it into ‘a pro-poor strategy’.

Well, we know how that played out.

Mangaung, like Polokwane, was a result of a complex interplay of forces and contests that go deep into South Africa’s past.

I cannot honestly argue that Jacob Zuma is a better or worse candidate for the ANC or the South African presidency than Kgalema Motlanthe – although I accept that some people can and do (with a lot of enthusiasm).

However, politics is a matter of contingency. It really is the art of the possible … in this sense it is full of difficult compromises.

Any individual who finds him or her self in an ANC branch or region or leadership position, will be faced with choices that, when aggregated, will shape the future of the ANC and, quite possibly, the country. (The same is, of course, true for any South African, inside or outside the ANC.)

Those choices might be circumscribed – by history, by existing power structures and alliances, by the momentum invested by those who control the patronage networks and by wherever it is that the individual finds him or her self.

But if you are not going to throw up your hands in despair and retreat to your bed forever, if you are unable to cut and run, then you have an obligation to make some kind of decision and choice.

I do believe that what the ANC becomes matters – although what it becomes is not going to be determined at Mangaung or as a result of it being led by Kgalema Motlanthe or by Jacob Zuma.

(Note added a few hours later. On reflection, I might have empasised that the cartoon is even more apt for the ANC than it is for the English language SA weeklies … it was meant to be suggested, almost by my omission … but on reflection, I think I will spell it out … which I have now done.)

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.

After last week’s Cosatu strike against labour brokers and e-tolling the question of the future of the relationship between the Cosatu and the ANC has again consumed public debate.

I have quickly jotted down some of the issues as I see them and how I think the situation might play out in the longer term (and apologies for scruffiness – I am under the whip):

It is necessary to understand what these organisations are and how they differ – before we think about what they might do

Cosatu is a federation of trade unions (trades union, actually … but that always sounds a little pompous) and therefore represents employed workers while the ANC is currently the ruling political party in this country and as such represents a much broader set of interests, especially, in this case, the unemployed and business – and is additionally obliged to balance these interests against each other.

It is obvious why Cosatu must oppose labour brokers. Cosatu has spent considerable energy in influencing the ANC to structure the labour market in a way that strengthens it’s cartel-like hold on the supply of labour. Labour brokers are a way in which the unemployed and potential employers can circumvent some of the strictures of the regulatory environment. Labour brokers have helped create a shadow duality in the market – and have thus caused Cosatu to lose some control over supply.

Another way of saying this …. If you have one set of workers that are employed with the full  protections and benefits afforded them by legal and regulatory structuring of the labour market and another set who are essentially desperate enough to work for less money and with less job security, then those who cannot find a place in the first set have the option of joining the second set – and employers who cannot afford to shop in the first set will shop in the second … meaning Cosatu loses control over supply.

Cosatu argues that if you make the existence of the ‘second set’ illegal it will force employers to shop in the ‘first set’ – thereby creating permanent ‘quality jobs’.

The eternal wrangle is that most economists and several ANC thinkers believe that what actually would happen (and is happening) is employers, at some difficult to determine point, decide that the costs and hassles of only having the ‘first set’ to shop in incentivises them to “shop elsewhere” – shift parts of the labour process to other countries where labour protections are less onerous on the employer, or they mechanise the labour process – hence the structural nature of our unemployment.

The ANC, on the other hand, is under the whip to create more employment – and that pressure comes directly from the unemployed. The youth wage subsidy scheme was correctly understood by Cosatu to be seen as a threatening – to its interests – attempt to create duality through the back door. The ANC agrees with Cosatu that many labour brokers are guilty of the worst excesses of free market exploitation, but propose to remedy the situation by regulating the labour brokers more carefully … not removing them completely from the market.

But what about the e-tolling?

Essentially the e-tolling issue was serendipitous timing for Cosatu. Completely separate disputes occurred in Nedlac over e-tolling and labour brokers so Cosatu had the right to declare protest strikes and marches under section 77 (1) (d) of the Labour Relations Act against either, neither or both issues – they did both. Essentially the melding of the actions allowed Cosatu to win a few class allies to its cause of opposing labour brokers. Not that e-tolling is not genuinely hated by Cosatu and the federation believes that its members will be worst effected … which should give you an insight into just who Cosatu’s members are and the difference between them and the marginalised and unemployed majority who would invariably use un-tolled public transport (mostly taxis) or travel on shank’s marewhich takes another kind of toll entirely.

Cosatu and Zuma

Cosatu clearly backed Zuma against Mbeki because it believed either that Zuma would be beholden to it and therefore allow it more policy access (which I think has essentially been true) … or just that Mbeki was a more dangerous enemy of Cosatu’s narrow agenda (something I also believe was true). There can be no argument that Zuma was more likely to hold ideological or policy agendas that were essentially closer to Cosatu’s. To my mind Cosatu was opportunistic and unprincipled – whichever way you spin it – in backing someone so clearly hell-bent on extending his control over patronage networks and making his family and friends fabulously wealthy.

One way to understand what is happening in Cosatu now is that one faction is trying to withdraw from the strategy because the Nkandla chickens are coming home to roosts, while the other faction is sticking to its guns.

I think, however, that both factions have realised that they have put too much energy into influencing national politics in the ANC and not enough energy into building up the federation’s grass-roots and factory-floor structures, membership and leadership. Trade unionism is on retreat globally – because of the globalisation of the labour market – and Cosatu is worried about not having stuck to its knitting (sorry for all the awful clichés here, but I am in something of a hurry.)

Cosatu has always had an ambiguous relationship with the ‘political movements’ – be those the United Democratic Front, Azapo or the ANC … perhaps even Inkatha should be included here. When Cosatu was established in 1985 out of the unions that had made up Fosatu (the Federation of South African Trade Unions) it immediately inherited the main debates and factions that had characterised trade unionism for years in South Africa.

The divisions centred around:

  1. whether to register and thereby co-operate with the Apartheid state
  2. whether white workers could be organised into progressive unions
  3. the desirability of general unions versus industry based unions
  4. ‘workerists’ versus ‘populists’ – which boiled down to a debate about whether unions should be involved in national politics and be in a formal relationship with the national political movements; whether they would be sucked into the agenda of those political movements and should therefore focus instead on ‘shop floor’ issues and maximum worker unity.

From the start the National Union of Mineworkers was a pro-ANC/SACP bastion within Cosatu and the National Union of Metal Workers of South Africa, formed out of at least 6 other unions, came to represent a position more cautious and suspicious of the political movements.

Thus we have an emerging consensus in the press that Zwelinzima Vavi, Irvin Jim and the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) have upped the ante against Zuma and ‘corrupt ANC leaders” while an SACP aligned faction including Cosatu president Sidumo Dlamini and the powerful National Union of Mineworkers is firmly behind Zuma.

Currently Cosatu seems – to my mind – to have finessed an internal agreement between its factions to back Zuma for re-election at Mangaung in exchange for a more vigorous opposition to corruption generally in the ANC and to campaign for a more worker friendly ANC NEC to emerge out of Mangaung.

Ahead  … (remember ‘tomorrow’ is the country from which no-one has ever returned … so take this all with the appropriate pinch of salt):
  1. The struggle will continue. Cosatu has fought with the ANC since 1994 and strong suspicions existed between much of the trade union movement and the ANC before that. This is normal, natural and appropriate given the diverging interests of the people represented by each organisation. The relationship has always contained the seeds of its future breakdown.
  2. Zwelinzima Vavi’s faction is most similar to a combination of European social democrats, labour parties and green parties. It is radical and anti-capitalist, but it is also modern, deeply opposed to corruption and authoritarianism, has consistently taken the right line on Zimbabwe and HIV/AIDS, is protective of the constitution and freedom of speech and is most likely to seek alliances with anti-ANC ‘civil society’ groups over single issue campaigns (right to know, freedom of speech, corruption, HIV/AIDS etc.)
  3. The tension is inbuilt … the ANC will never give into Cosatu’s full set of demands – if anything it will go the other way – and Cosatu will  never stop making the demands, louder and louder.
  4. At some future time – probably way down the road –  the Numsa faction will ally itself with those attempting to organise the constituency the ANC Youth League aspires to represent and break out of the ruling alliance to form a new left opposition. For the foreseeable future (and remember none of the future is actually foreseeable) the advantages of staying in the alliance with the ANC outwieghs the losses and gains that would be realised by setting off on their own.
  5. The SACP will increasingly concern itself with trying to mediate the relationship between Cosatu and the ANC – which effectively means it will support the Num faction or tendency in Cosatu. This is not a basis upon which a political party can sustain itself. The SACP would have to split from the ANC and fight elections on its own – essentially capture the space that a Numsa/ANCYL type breakaway might have occupied – if it was to grow and prosper. I don’t think this will happen and therefore I think the SACP will be gradually squeezed into irrelevance.

Once a week I take my mother to an audio book library.

My car radio only picks up SAFM and because the dreary worthiness of our national broadcaster occasionally tempts me into driving my car off a cliff, I sometimes pick something out for myself.

I have recently finished listening to (over and over again – at least eight times in a row) “About the Size Of It – the Common Sense Approach to Measuring Things” by Warwick Cairns.

Aside from being a charming, old-school, discourse on how our bodies and what we do with them have determined the various measuring systems humans have adopted, the book hints, to my mind, at deeper philosophical insights into the nature of society and history … and, ultimately, our evolving humanity.

The flow of “About The Size Of It” traces the use of feet, hands and thumbs in determining the measures that humans have used throughout Europe and Asia – right back to the builders of Stonehenge who appear to have used a “megalithic foot” as the basic unit of construction – i.e. one about as long as a man’s foot wrapped in a leather slipper, as opposed to the later “foot” of European and US measurement which is about as long as a workman’s boot.

Warwick Cairns sounds like an amiable old duffer – which is not entirely due to the fact that my consumption of the text was via the reading by clearly ‘amiable old duffer’ Christian Rodska. But you will see below that if anything Cairns looks like a young and clever Hobbit.

The charm of the book lies in its gentle admonishment of endless attempts to impose measuring systems (especially the metric system) on humans who inevitably revert back to methods and units that suit them and that are practically based on hands, feet, thumbs, how far we – and our horse or ox –  can plough in one day, the amount of liquid we can comfortably drink (or hold in our bladders) and the weight of small rocks we can easily hold in each hand and compare.

The “deeper” implications of the book are revealed in a quaint cascading explanation that I had actually come across before in one of those awful “Isn’t this Amazing – PASS IT ON!!!” emails.

It goes something like this: the size of the rocket boosters on the space-shuttle are ultimately determined by the width of two horses’ backsides. The sweet – but I suspect not entirely accurate – explanation consists of describing the link between the rail system that carries the boosters, the carriage axle-makers who made the first axles for locomotives, the fact that their machinery was set up for horse carriages and that carriage tracks throughout Europe and the USA were precisely the width of two horses side-by-side … because that is the optimal configuration for drawing a carriage.

I am less interested in the accuracy of this illustrative example than I am in the idea that the structure and technology of our society – the momentum and trajectory of the complex system of human history – might be shaped by basic and natural limitations and potentials.

Jared Diamond’s 1997 “Guns, Germs and Steel – a short history of everybody for the last 13000 years” explores this matter more directly, although in a more difficult and in-depth way.

Diamond’s book deserves a full review of it’s own – it is a complex and extremely wide ranging explanation of why societies throughout the world had differential success – particularly competitively. He explores how climate and geography – down to the detail of which plants and animals where available for domestication – and how, for example, advantages get locked in through early urbanisation leading to the spread, and therefore growing immunity, to certain diseases – which in turn has led to the domination of some societies over others.

Both these books explore how our society and history is rooted in our nature and the nature of the physical world – and also how the momentum of our society and history resists change.

For me what is interesting is how our technologies are pushing at the boundary of the limitations imposed by our physical and natural being and by the complex ordering of our societies’ development – holding out the promise and threat that these might no longer determine what we could become.

It’s tempting to focus on the ANC as if its history and prospects are a proxy for the history and prospects of the country as a whole.

The party’s centenary celebrations this week will strengthen the sense that this is indeed the case.

The last hundred years of South African history has been about the formal subjugation of the black inhabitants of the country by European colonial powers and settler groups; the fight for national liberation and self-determination; the victory and then seventeen years of the complex process of democratic rule.

Running like a spine through that body of history is the African National Congress –  which not without some legitimacy claims to be the organised expression of black people’s struggle to be free of colonial and then apartheid oppression and exclusion.

Then in the same way that the back bone’s connected to the … neck bone it follows naturally that post-1994, given the ANC’s overwhelming dominance at the polls, the party can legitimately be seen as the ongoing expression of black South African’s attempts to govern themselves and use the state to redress the inequalities and distortions caused by that apartheid and colonial past.

So this week the ANC celebrates its 100th anniversary, kicking off with a centenary golf day (for only the luckiest of revellers) and including gala dinners, interdenominational church services and culminating in a public rally in Bloemfontein (Mangaung) on Sunday January 8.

The sense that the ANC is a proxy for the country itself is strengthened by the fact that this year will culminate in and ANC national conference electing a leadership that will, almost automatically, become the leadership of government after the general elections in 2014 – again, given the ANC’s electoral dominance.

Additionally an ANC policy conference in July will pronounce upon a range of  matters concerning the role of the state in the economy and it promises to make policy on (amongst other matters) the nationalisation of mines and the expropriation of white owned farm land – with or without compensation.

But hang on a moment …

One of the key tasks of political parties in their struggle to become or remain the party of government is to present their agenda as identical to the national agenda, their leadership as automatically the national leadership and their interests identical to the national interest.

The ANC can legitimately point to how central it is to South Africa’s political and cultural life, but as we wilter this week under the the searing overstatement of that message it is useful to bring a few proviso’s to the front of mind.

We are a country with a small, open economy nestled in the most depressed region of a world overwhelmingly interconnected and subject to monumental forces that grind their way irresistibly through the Ozymandian vanities of governments significantly more powerful than ours.

The more we learn about the world and the history of human societies the more apparent it is that we have been hopelessly overoptimistic about our ability to understand let alone predict how the complex systems of our economies, national entities, ecological systems and cities function, evolve, collapse and change.

I am sure that this week newspapers will be full of huffy assertions that the ANC does not represent “the nation” and therefore treating its centenary as if it was a sacred ritual akin to Fourth of July in the United States (which celebrates independence from Great Britain in 1776) is a travesty.

Quite right too. The ANC has diverted significant national resources to traditional US style pork belly politics  but has also made itself guilty of more overt Angolan style looting. All that combines to makes its claim to represent the “national interest” an insulting insinuation about “the nation”.

Also new political forces are emerging and growing – most obviously Cosatu and the Democratic Alliance – that will further erode such ANC claims in future – as will the shifting ethnic bases of parties and groups that contest in the political arena of South Africa.

However, these were not the points I wanted to make – and I am sure they are going to be done to death in the next few days.

My point is that sovereignty itself – and certainly who the ANC elects as leaders and what the party decides vis-a-vis nationalisation of mines and expropriation of land without compensation – will have much less force and effect in determining South Africa’s political and economic future that we might imagine.

Economic policy, laws governing ownership and general “good behaviour” around fiscal and monetary policy are rigidly constrained both by the discipline of global capital markets and by a myriad bilateral and multilateral agreements between countries and blocks of countries.

As I said to clients earlier this week (concerning the ANC centenary):

“Obviously we must continue to watch the ANC as carefully as always in 2012 – but this small open country and economy will continue to be tossed on the currents of the global economy and the various geopolitical, technological, cultural and environmental forces that shape the world. We might miss a trick or two if we lull ourselves into believing the myth that the ANC is a kind of metaphor for the country as a whole.

The déjà vu is washing over me like the phantom symptoms of a late winter bout of hypochondria.

I remember the lead-up to Polokwane.

The thuggish crowds outside Jacob Zuma’s court appearances.

The man we had known was in Shaik’s pockets since 1993, he who famously couldn’t keep it in his pants, the rape accused shower-after-baby-oil-sex to fend off HIV/AIDs who had only been doing his Zulu man duty by her, Umshini wami mshini wam …  it was entirely impossible that my ANC would ever allow this man to rise to the venerable chambers previously occupied by heroes of the stature of Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela … and kept lukewarm by Mbeki’s occasional visits.

And my paying clients insisting I make a call: will he become president?

Well, say I, Mbeki only appointed him deputy because he needed to fend off the challenge from Winnie a-fate-too-awful-to-be-contemplated-by-the-financial-markets Madikizela-Mandela. He had a certain ethnic appeal, so to speak, in the Inkatha heartlands of Kwazulu-Natal but Mbeki knew no-one would ever seriously propose him as president!

And as I knew, you don’t bet against Thabo Mbeki, the master of palace politics …

… and now here we are again.

The weekend the charges against Malema were announced, SARS, the Public Protector and the Hawks were reportedly deep into investigations of their own.

How could Malema hope to sell himself as a victim just as his lifestyle and his predation on the public purse became the subject of such intense scrutiny?

Can the man whose clothes and accoutrement cost the annual income of any twenty of the youths he hopes to represent … represent them or gain their sympathy?

Yes! I need to shout in my own ear. Yes they can … they have … they will again.

Maybe not this time.

This situation has its own dynamics and there is no point in second guessing what the ANC Disciplinary Committee might decide after it finishes meetings this week – but we mustn’t pretend to ourselves or anyone else that we can tell the future.

Will Malema’s minions brute about the streets wearing 100% Juju t-shirts and threatening to fight to the death for their … leader?

Will this sway the process?

Where is the unswayed process going anyway?

There are only two things I know for sure.

The first is that I do not know what the future holds for Julius Malema. He could be banished from the ANC. His disciplining might  provoke a backlash that conceivably could lead to Zuma’s downfall and to Mangaung being an even more corroding rerun of Polokwane. He might disappear into obscurity in the wasteland that (until very recently) has been politics outside of the ANC. He might spend a few years in the wilderness and return chastened and wiser and work his way back to becoming the coming man.

The second thing I know for sure is that my desire for particular outcomes is a serious barrier to me thinking sensibly about which outcomes are most likely.

I know this is not a great and profound insight – nor am I here on the road to Damascus or any particular destination; intellectual, metaphorical or spiritual.

I do hear the breathless clamour of the prediction and analysis industry prophesying the best and the worst of all possible worlds – depending on the emotional predisposition of their target market.

Predicting the worst is often a mistaken attempt to warn against a particular course of action … it’s a political act and an act of propaganda.

Predicting the best is often a semi-religious act, a sort of shamanistic incantation, willing a particular future into the present.

For me, I admonish myself daily:

It is okay to hope the ANC will rediscover its soul and its leaders their long-lost spines. But hoping for a thing does not make it more probable. No-one knows what is going to happen with Malema. So sit on your hands and wait like the rest of us.

Following a previous post: The Limits of Politics I want to argue that what the ANC is becoming is less a function of the failings of its leadership and more a consequence of the titanic forces of social change.

The past and present history of the African National Congress could be characterised (in shorthand) like this:

National Liberation Movement

The ANC arose out of the fact of the prolatarianisation of an African peasantry and the deepening national oppression of all black South Africans – only codified in Grand Apartheid in 1948 but stretching back much further.

What the ANC was was a natural expression of the changing pattern of the oppression of Africans (and other black South Africans)  between 1912 and 1994. One way of understanding the shape, raison d’être, policies and leadership of the ANC during this period is to trace the history of the strategy and tactics of the pre-Apartheid and Apartheid states.

Each phase of ANC resistance to colonisation and apartheid – from the initial polite depositions of the early years, to the militancy in the 50’s, the banning in 1960, the crushing of the organisation’s internal structures, the launch of the ‘armed struggle’, the imprisonment and exile of its leadership, the playing catch-up after the 1976 explosion, the United Democratic Front as an internal wing to prevent Coloured and Indians being won over to a National Party strategy leading up to mass protests, negotiation – was mirrored in the changing structure of the society.

This is not to say the ANC was a perfect expression of all aspects of African resistance or that, in turn, such resistance was a perfect response to national oppression. The shape that all things assume is always a complicated expression of subjective and objective factors and this is true too for the African National Congress.

The forces that ended Apartheid

Of course the struggle for freedom of South African people and their organisations (and their allies around the world) is one way of understanding what brought about the end of Apartheid.

But another is to ask: what was Apartheid trying to control, for what end – and why did it fail?

Apartheid was ultimately a system of law, repression and inducements designed to deflect African’s economic and political aspirations away from white owned and controlled South Africa – for the purpose of securing white economic power and security.

It ultimately failed because Africans “voted with their feet”. The National Party was trying to legislate (and police) against the collective desires and actions of millions of people. But Africans would not have their aspirations diverted to the geographical or the political Bantustans. In the face of fines and brute force Africans kept coming back to the cities, the bright lights, the markets, the chance of work and the chance to do business.

To avoid complicating this further, let me say my own shorthand understanding of what was happening (and the timing of what was happening) is the South African and global economy were growing in ways that required an educated and settled workforce and this in turn raised for African South Africans the realistic possibility of being ‘settled’, ‘educated’ and, ultimately, of achieving a better life.

Apartheid and National Party rule constituted a barrier to the swelling aspiration of African South Africans – particularly for property, assets, homes and the right to work and live where they pleased.

The ending of Apartheid and National Party rule was the bursting of the dam.

1994 and beyond – the time of the flood

The African National Congress had always been forced to root itself in a marginalised African population and this meant it faced most forms of power in the society as the challenger and the outsider.

The ANC was able to ride the wave of rising African aspirations in the 70’s and 80’s – but there was no expectation that it meet those aspirations.

Everything changed of 1994.

The government’s of Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki had a mandate and responsibility to use the winning of the ‘political kingdom’ to seek the economic one. What followed was a two-pronged approached to empowering the ‘previously disadvantaged”:

  • take the state bureaucracy out of white hands and put it into black ones;
  • encourage transformation of ownership and control of the private sector through employment equity laws and regulations and through the development of a black economic empowerment  regime.

The process very quickly assumed its own momentum and the first stratum of individuals who were sucked into the maelstrom was the political class … the senior members of the ANC and government.

Once you have begun to use the state as a lever to gain economic power it is difficult to stop.

But by the time Thabo Mbeki’s government attempted to formalise, control and broaden the process with the Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment Act of 2003 it was out of control – and engulfing large sections of the ruling party and the senior levels of the state bureaucracy.

… and the point?

The point is not to exonerate the ANC or government or individual leaders who have become tenderpreneurs or crony capitalists. It is not even to excuse government (particularly Thabo Mbeki’s) for making specific errors in structuring the process  … there were others paths that could have been taken that might have made a difference.

But the reason I suggest this vantage point or approach is because I think the hope that this process could ever have been calm or orderly is based on misunderstanding the deep, structural and historical nature of what is happening.

A flood of wealth and power is moving from the old order to the new and has blurred the boundaries between the public and private sector and is threatening to overwhelm government and the ruling party. Once the waters have achieved a new equilibrium it may be possible to re-establish a separation and rebuild the laws.

But it is going to be close.

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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