Here is something I wrote during the April general election – with a few minor edits. It is becoming increasingly relevant, as “the left” is backed into a corner and the Malema style populists seem to hold sway.

Bread and Circuses

Opinion polls indicate that the ruling African National Congress will shrug off five years of bitter leadership struggles and a sea of bad news to emerge from the election with a close to two-thirds majority.

But what it has cost for the ANC to turn the headwinds into tailwinds will be a hard price to pay.

The view divides neatly and sharply between the shorter term and the medium-to-longer term.


For some time South African political risk has been elevated due to a number of factors associated with the rise of a political faction around current ANC president and erstwhile country president, Jacob Zuma. The concerns have included:

  1. Corruption and racketeering charges against Jacob Zuma have raised questions about the probity of the candidate and his supporters as well as elevated a damaging conflict between the rule of law and the ruling party;
  2. The stability and predictability of macro-economic policy has been in question because of the centrality of the support of the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the South African Communist Party.

In the short-term, Zuma’s legal travails have disappeared because his defence team has convinced the National Prosecuting Authority to drop charges. Intelligence monitoring tapes produced by Zuma’s defence team clearly showed that the timing of the investigation and formulation of charges against Zuma were significantly influenced by supporters of Thabo Mbeki to the detriment of Zuma’s candidacy for president of the ANC and the country. While questions about the probity of Zuma will remain, the overhang of an instability provoking trial is now gone, as is the conflict between the ruling party and the justice system.

Additionally, the flow of information from key decision making forums within the African National Congress and ‘The Alliance’ (forums consisting of the ANC, Cosatu and the SACP) have started to indicate that a previously resurgent left wing is now facing headwinds on both policy and representivity fronts. The proposal for a ‘super cabinet’ that would essentially be a central planning commission has been significantly downgraded as have proposals to change monetary policy (away from inflation targeting) and to massively increase the already extensive social grant system. In addition, it appears increasingly unlikely that key communists and worker leaders will occupy the most important cabinet positions in the new government.

Thus, on the face of it and in the short term, South African politics and political risk should not remain a major concern in the aftermath of this week’s election. But delving deeper, and over a longer term – and perhaps with a longer investment horizon – I am not quite as sanguine.


While my general view of South Africa is improved by these positive outcomes, I believe it is prudent to flag one aspect, a potentially central aspect,  of risk in the longer term.

Under Thabo Mbeki and Nelson Mandela politics and leadership within the African National Congress and South Africa were exercised in a deliberately sober and cautious manner. Anti-populism and concerns to downplay any ‘cult of the personality’ were always high on the agenda.

These were hidden virtues that only become apparent now, in the moment of crescendo of the new ANC’s campaign of evangelical political razzmatazz focussed on the rural poor. Faced with opposition from the Congress of the People Party – formed in response to the purge of Mbeki from government and his supporters from the ANC leadership structures –  the ANC has thrust downwards and outwards for new areas of support.  While the ANC has not abandoned its urban, sophisticated working class support it has definitely set a ‘bread and circuses’ caravan amongst the unemployed and rural poor.

The combination of the ANC’s appeals to ethnic Zulus, various illiberal hints about the death penalty and gays, a strong push to be identified with the evangelical churches, a focus on tribal traditionalism epitomised by Zuma’s polygamy and traditional dress and the espousal – at a rhetorical level anyway – of economic populism is an all too familiar post-colonial African recipe. There has been a raft of implicitly and explicitly negative international news coverage about Jacob Zuma and the ANC’s election campaign – epitomised by this week’s “Africa’s next Big Man” cover story in The Economist. While some of the more virulent attacks on Zuma’s ethnic Zulu traditionalism are clearly racist or xenophobic a real and legitimate concern seems to permeate the coverage and market concerns: is this ethnic and economic populism newly espoused by the ANC different from that espoused thirty years ago in Congo and more recently in Zimbabwe?

The traditional logic of the ANC’s alliance with the South African Communist Party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions is the belief that they protect each other from the worst excesses of their individual character and constitution. The undesirability of a total victory of either the communists or organised labour is perhaps more obvious than that of the African National Congress. The multi-class and  multiethnic nature of the African National Congress national liberation movement has always made it vulnerable to populism and hijack by opportunists primarily interested in their own ability to accumulate wealth. The SACP and Cosatu have claimed the Polokwane victory as the moment they took back control of the revolution from the 1996 hijack by “monopoly capital in alliance with the comprador bourgeoisie” (translation: foreign investors and emerging black business). However, it seems to me that what actually happened at Polokwane was a victory of a rickety alliance between those left wing elements and aspects of aspirant and emergent domestic business who had somehow failed under Mandela and Mbeki to accumulate adequately and conservative Africanists within the ANC.

The left has profoundly miscalculated it’s strength in this alliance. They thought they were riding the other interests to victory, but I think they, in their turn, were being ridden by something altogether more unsettling.