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Some of the things we think we know about revolts and revolutions – but that do not always apply:
- Where there are adequate elective processes dissatisfied people believe they can influence outcomes through voting and therefore are unlikely to make the sacrifices required of a revolution.
- Revolts are generally lead and organised by the middle classes – a degree of education is required – thus where the middle class is linked to the ruling elite through patronage or ethnicity, its members are less likely to lead a revolution.
- Societies where a middle class is non-existent (where the division in the society is a simple one between the rulers and the people) can be surprisingly stable and enduring.
- Poverty and unemployment tend, on their own, not to be strong predictors of unrest and revolt – it is often a necessary condition that these two social ills exists alongside visible inequality.
- Ethnic exclusion from government or the economy is a powerful driver of unrest and revolt – colonialists loved to place favoured ethnic minorities to rule over less favoured ethnic majorities – a recipe for revolt and, depending on the relative size of the groups, civil war.
- Revolts tend not to happen in situations or countries where the condition is continuously and steadfastly awful. Revolts happen when expectations begin to rise amongst “the people” – in response to improving social, economic, political or cultural conditions. US sociologist James C Davies turned the simple observation that expectations rise faster than improvements in the underlying conditions and further that the system can cope with the disconnect only until conditions continue to improve (the Davies J-curve). I discuss the usefulness of this formulation in relation to South Africa’s ongoing service delivery protests here, a blog post that could have been written … almost word for word … today, but was, in fact, written in March last year.
With those meagre points acting as a theoretical background here then are my thoughts on the forces working for and against revolt in the South African context. It is not as simple a matter as putting some things in one column and others in another. Many of the protective factors are also depth charges seeding our future with hazards, but I will do my best to make it as simple as possible.
Why we are less revolting than we might be
- The first and most obvious reason is unlike many of the Middle East North Africa countries (from now on written as MENA, following a financial market convention) South Africa is a fully functional democracy where citizens have several opportunities to vote for and against parties that run their lives at a local, provincial and national level.
- The Ruling ANC is still seen by much of the electorate as the party led and staffed and supported by those who fought apartheid and those whose lives have improved because of that system’s demise. Whatever it might be in the future, right now the ANC still has enormous reserves of goodwill based on the fact that it is the premier liberation movement (still) led by the heroes of the struggle.
- The ANC government pays just under 40 percent of consolidated non-interest expenditure (that’s R314 billion up from R156 billion five years ago) on the public sector wage bill and a further 20 percent to the poorest South Africans in the form of social grants. These are crucial constituencies to get to buy into stability – and a large part of the nation’s wealth is doing just that: providing jobs for the emerging middle classes and poverty alleviation for those who would otherwise be without hope.
- Add into the stability mix the fact that the ANC has managed to dispense a huge degree of patronage to the most aspirant and powerful of its leaders, members and constituents through the legal and regulatory regime of Black Economic Empowerment and the application of employment equity laws especially in the parastatals.
- Finally, whatever the criticisms, this government has built more houses for the poor, paved township roads, established sewerage and water connections, and provided the poorest South Africans with private and public goods on a scale unimagined under the previous dispensation of the Apartheid rulers.
Why we might be more revolting than we think
- Firstly, the obvious threat to stability is fiscal. Can we afford to meet the ever growing needs of the poorest as well as the growing middle class? At some impossible to predict moment in the future a force (a Maggie Thatcher type force) will arise within government and attempt to get our financial house in order. The first cuts will be in the fattest areas: social grants and public sector wage bill. I have no doubt an even slightly popular government could weather the resulting storm, but it will be a weather phenomenon that will be spoken of for many years.
- Secondly, failure to meet the fiscal challenge has its own terrifying dangers. In fact, this is precisely what happened in Zimbabwe. The leaders of Zanu-PF ransacked the war veterans pension fund which caused ex-combatants to begin militantly to threaten Mugabe and Zanu-PF. The pension fund was recapitalised to the tune of $2bn in the late 90’s and the rest, as some are wont to say, is history. Spending $2bn they didn’t have led directly to hyperinflation, food riots and the formation of the MDC. With no largesse left to dispense the white owned farms were next on Zanu-PF’s attempts to stave off revolt and the last titbits of that economy are currently being pissed up against the wall with the same objective but in the name of “indiginisation”. Of course, Zimbabwe hasn’t revolted, but the price the politicians have made that country pay for stability has left Zimbabweans worse off than even the most cataclysmic revolution might have done.
- If a greedy, rent seeking, corrupt, politically powerful and unaccountable elite is what fuelled revolt in MENA, then we are in all kinds of trouble. “Elite Theory” is a branch of sociology that argues that the economic and political elite make up an informal network that is the actual source and exercise of power – not “the people” through elections and parliament. At an obvious level the theory applies to us: a publicly unaccountable elite within the ANC deploys loyalists to key institutions throughout the state and economy so as better to control the shape and direction of society. But with such a dominant and popular ruling party, such practices are unlikely to lead directly to revolt. However, beyond the formal exercise of the policy of “cadre deployment” we have an elite almost identical to those in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and a host other MENA countries. These are the grand political families that thrive on tenders won from the state and bribes won from global corporates attempting to secure lucrative deals here. These are the groups and individuals that have turned some of our provinces, town and cities into gangster fiefdoms ruled by fear, patronage and manipulation.
We are still well within the safety zone and the system seems to have the flexibility and resources to withstand firm assaults in the future.
The obvious danger is the parasitic elite that honeycombs the upper echelons of our politics and economy. Many who participated in the Polokwane Putsch understood themselves to be cleansing the ANC and government of such an elite.
Unfortunately they failed to notice that their principal allies were the second -rankers and blatant criminals that Mbeki had managed to keep away from the trough.
If this elite manages (as it constantly strives to do) to divert the resources our society has available for economic growth, employment, poverty alleviation, infrastructure development, public health and education (you name the social good, it is threatened by the elite’s rent seeking activities) then we will have to reassess.
While people like Willie Hofmeyr are still loyal ANC members and in place as senior state officials there is hope. Yes it is horrifying that he estimates that his Special Investigative Unit will scrutinise R20bn of tender fraud in this financial year (read about that here) but the real trouble arrives when people like him throw up their hands in disgust and head for the private sector.
The 2008 global debt crisis, Eyjafjallajökull (pronunciation fun here), Haiti and New Zealand Earthquake, China drought, Queensland floods the political crises in Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and the Japanese earthquake/tsunami/nuclear disasters seem to prove that it is not the mundane everyday that shapes the world but rather high impact and extremely rare events.
The moment has rather given credence to Nicholas Taleb’s assertion in his book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable that outlier probabilities are what shape our world and not the day-to-day numbers.
The point about black swan events is that they are highly unpredictable. Sitting there in January we did have a sense that we were in the midst of shocks and the consequences of shocks: we were finally recovering from the mortgage linked debt crises and appeared be entering a new and threatening terrain associated with sovereign debt worries in Europe – and beyond.
That wasn’t all good, but it was part of the “known known” and we had a general sense of where to look for the things we didn’t know (the known unknowns – for a useful breakdown of Donald Rumsfeld’s discussion about certainty and unpredictability and Slavoj Žižek’s caustic reply see here.)
Two months later the world is a markedly different place and I have found it useful to use the Japanese earthquake and linked disasters as well as the political instability in MENA (Middle East North Africa) to ask the big and scary questions about South Africa.
Usefully, Moeletsi Mbeki has written an article predicting South Africa’s Tunisia Day for some time in about 2020.
Catch the Business Day article here and see my review of his book Architects of Poverty on which that Business Day article is extensively based here. (Afterthought note: the Business Day article is “extensively based” on Architects of Poverty not on my review.)
The long and the short of Mbeki’s argument is that the primary resource intensive phase of Chinese growth will be concluded by 2020 (and therefore the commodity supercycle will come to an end) and the ANC government will run out of money to keep paying the social grants bribe to the poorest South Africans – which in turn will lead to revolt and rebellion.
He takes it a lot further – instead of growing our competitive advantage while the commodity bonanza is with us, the ANC has instituted another system of bribes to its own leaders and supporters (Black Economic Empowerment) which consists of getting wodges of the non-essential parts of existing business and turning those into consumption fuel. Thus fat cat politicians and their families act as representatives of the cheap-labour and primary-resource-addicted conglomerates in exchange for the mess of pottage and extreme ostentatious consumption.
And waiting in their future, according to Mbeki’s argument, is a Tunisia style revolt.
So that’s the layout of the argument.
I think it is timely and provocative and interesting, but I do not think it is meant – or should be taken seriously – as a real prediction. It is polemic that warns about the excesses the new elite is indulging in.
I am in the middle of a road show where I ask the big questions about South Africa’s future stability.
I finish this evening and will then be in a position to summarise my own view; looking at the factors that lead towards instability and revolt and the factors that act to keep them at bay, asking how these balance in South Africa today.
The one thing the last few weeks have taught us is that the world is complex and interlinked in ways that make it extremely difficult to predict outcomes. With this proviso, I do not think we realistically can suggest that there are processes operative in our society that lead, in a linear fashion, to a Tunisia Day in the next ten years of our history … but it is a close call and I will examine some of that tonight and tomorrow morning.
The raging race debate forces me to think about how we become culpable.
I came across an obscene argument the other day. Perhaps you have seen something similar?
It went like this: the Japanese are reaping what they have sown; the earthquake, the tsunamis, the nuclear threat and the unseasonal blizzards in the north are a karmic balancing for the killing of whales and the popularity of whale meat amongst the Japanese citizenry.
Think about this.
But first control for the sentimentalised ranking of some mammals over others in the general lovability stakes.
So consider countries that kill and eat stinky old cows (instead of noble and graceful whales) in the mass-produced beef industry.
Would anyone suggest that tragedies involving suffering and death of the citizens in countries that eat a lot of McDonald’s hamburgers (we could have spun this differently and made it KFC’s horrifyingly produced raw material) are somehow the just desserts of those people who form part of the relevant consumer demographic?
The idea is outrageous and its reasoning as deeply flawed as it is repulsive.
There are extraordinary and moving photographs of stoic Japanese citizens being rescued or tested for radiation as they are being evacuated from near Fukushima. Here’s one – and I hesitate to do this – and not only because it is not my property. The main reason is I do not want to be too manipulative:
I do not want to go further down this path.
Only those whose lives revolve around sinister religious fairytales could believe any version of the idea that what has happened in Japan is some form of divine retribution.
I am more interested in the underlying fallacy that is much more common and certainly prevalent in our political discourse: collective guilt and the appropriateness of collective punishment – or at least collective responsibility.
Are whites the culpable beneficiaries of Apartheid? Do their children inherit this culpability and therefore the responsibility for redress? Are blacks (and, to a lesser degree) Coloureds and Indians victims of Apartheid? Are their children the inheritors of this disadvantage?
These issues are deeply unresolved in our political life – and, I believe, they are deeply unresolved in our law and in our minds.
Two startling contributions to the raging race debate – from below and slightly behind, so to speak.
White (male) drivers
The first is a letter to the editor of the increasingly excellent Business Day from one Oscar Mosito in Rosslyn
His issue is with white male drivers.
What is most endearing about Mr Mosito’s letter is his calm restraint that profoundly fails to hide his seething stew of road rage with a racial twist (or perhaps race rage on the twisted road – or twisted rage in the race … no, that’s enough … sorry.)
“For years since the dawn of democracy,” Oscar calmly begins “I have observed the behaviour of white (male) drivers on our roads, particularly on the freeway.”
“I am not sure if I should call it frustration by white people and their difficulty in accepting that black people are in power,” he continues “… or whether it is caused by the fact the Democratic Alliance is not opposition enough to defeat the African National Congress in elections, but there is a lot of frustration in most white male drivers. It is directed towards taxi drivers or our leaders …”
There follows a delightfully unconscious diatribe against white male (drivers) not respecting black political leadership, driving in the yellow line to prevent noble taxi drivers getting past on the inside lane (?) and continuously showing disrespect to “ministers, MECs, the deputy president or the president himself.”
I have even noticed that every time they see a black person driving a luxury car, they give him a certain kind of look, but when the same black person is in a taxi, they hardly look. So, it is my plea for all white drivers who do not want to accept change to respect our leaders, whether on the road, boardroom or in sports. It’s time you accepted change … I just hope that next time you see a convoy of BMWs, you give way and know that those are your leaders … Please set a good example for your innocent children.
It is so perfect I fear to say anything more in case I break its spell. Let’s just point out the innocence of the “convoy of BMWs” … which made me think for a while that it was a DA hoax, but then the rest convinced me otherwise … but maybe it’s still a hoax … I dunno? Maybe I am naive, maybe I am too hopeful …
In the hope that this is not a hoax (and that Oscar is a real black man and not a clever white racist trying to cause trouble) I would just like to take this opportunity to agree with him.
The white male drivers that I encounter on the roads of Cape Town are ignorant, unreasonable, arrogant, entitled oafs that I feel deeply homicidal towards.
But then so are the white women.
And the coloured men? Don’t even start me.
Oh, yeah and the black men and the coloured women and the black women … I told you, don’t get me started!
And the occasional Indians – of all genders – that mistakenly find their way here … where did they buy their licences, I ask you?
Okay, there – I feel better now.
Cape Town drivers are enough to get the blood pumping. They are a wonderful example of multi-ethnic unity – they all drive like Oscar’s very own vision of white males.
Catch the full text of Oscar’s spirited letter here.
The other example is even more delightful.
“Do not be friends with white people – they will Satinise you”
(My spell check keeps trying to change that to “Sanitise” – which is a racist little wordplay joke in itself.)
But anyway …
Stalwart Sadtu (South African Democratic Teachers Union) Chairperson Moss Senye who is also the principal of Meadowlands High, addressing 1000 teachers in Soweto in the lead-up to his trial for assaulting a 17 year old pupil said (and I pull it all out of this Sowetan article but I indicate how I have stitched it together with the dot … dot … dot):
Whether Barbara (Creecy) likes it or not, we will have our meetings. Despite Barbara, we will vote for the ANC during the elections and they will remove her. Let us not embrace satanic people. Down with Satanism. You cannot be friends with white people, they will Satanise you …The bank called and asked when I would pay for my car. I cannot pay and I do not care. They can repossess it. We must show strength as a region. Barbara is trying to destroy us. Angie (Motshekga tried and now she is gone. Mary (Metcalfe) tried and now she has vanished. People have tried to destroy the union and failed. At no stage should you be friends with white people, they will satanise you … Our region has 10,000 members and only 75 of them are white. This is a non-racial union. We welcome everyone. We have never had a problem with Indian teachers. They have always been our members. There are two white learners at Meadowlands High. Barbara is not happy about this. She wants them to go to Parktown and other schools in the suburbs.
Again, what could I add to that that would make it any more hilarious and horrifying than it already is?
Apologies for this purely administrative post … and I will probably be mentioning this again in general posts over the next few weeks.
We all used to love google because it was sparky and feisty and seemed to be fighting the deathly old Goliath Microsoft.
Well that was then.
The new Goliath google has messed up the details on my feedburner (email subscription) application and despite going to the ends of the Earth (and lots of begging and pleading) there seems to be no way for me to access the account and administer (or even have any knowledge of) the list of subscribers to my blog.
I have therefore decided to change to the WordPress feedburner widget which will now appear on the left of the headline on the front page of my blog looking like this:
If you are receiving my blog by email – and want to continue doing so – please subscribe using the new WordPress email subscription button and not the google subscription button that will still appear immediately below the new button and will look like this:
After subscribing by clicking the new, and unfortunately perky: “Sign me up!” button you will get an email from WordPress asking you to confirm that you want to subscribe and when and how often you would like to receive updates from the blog.
After a while and if all goes according to plan you will notice that you are receiving two emails from my blog with the same content, one from “firstname.lastname@example.org” and one from “email@example.com”.
When this starts to bother you ask to be usubscribed from the google feed.
If everything continues to go according to plan I should then have a subscription list that I can monitor and control and you can specify when and what sorts of updates (including updates of comments) you want to receive from my blog.
If you choose not to do anything I am not certain you will continue to get the email from my blog after I delete the google email feedburner…
… I don’t know why it’s called that either.
Thank you for your patience.
I’ve been itching to get in my two cents worth about Jimmy Manyi’s various comments concerning ethnic minorities (here for his original statement on YouTube, here for Trevor Manuel’s robust criticism, here for the ANCYL’s counter-attack on Manuel and defence of Manyi, here for ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe’s implicit criticism of Manuel … “we won’t get in the mud with him”. Here‘s Cosatu joining the attack on Manyi and here‘s the SACP criticising Manyi but warning not to become part of the agenda of Afriforum and Solidarity – probably implying that Manuel has become part of that agenda.)
So much for curating the spat … now I want to say something about it.
I’ve written about Jimmy Manyi and the various endeavours by both the Black Management Forum and the ANC Youth League to gouge economic advantage out of transformation – catch that here and here for how that agenda was expressed as support for Eskom’s Jacob Maroga.
Jimmy Manyi’s comments about Coloured people must be understood in the context of the interests of the constituency he represents.
Jimmy Manyi is the quintessential spokesman of those who have got rich (or hope to get rich) through Black Economic Empowerment – including racially weighted tendering procedures – and Employment Equity regulations.
Those who define themselves as the beneficiaries of these processes are encouraged to express themselves in ever more racially chauvinistic and exclusive terms.
These Black Management Forum and the ANC Youth League leaders increasingly draw a distinction between themselves and any other ethnic group that also might have suffered under Apartheid i.e. they need to argue that they suffered the most, that everyone else was a relative beneficiary of the oppression of Africans.
The moral high ground of “non-racialism” was built and defended at great cost and effort by the ANC and its allies during the struggle against Apartheid. Apartheid planners and architects did everything they could to emphasise differences and spread fear and hatred betwixt and between as many ethnic identities as possible. This is one of the most important keys to understanding how and why that system worked and survived as long as it did.
Which is precisely why the ANC always understood its main ideological task as combating these attempts.
This is the reason Trever Manuel quotes that famous and moving last paragraph of Mandela’s speech from the dock in 1964:
During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.
The Jimmy Manyi’s and Julius Malema’s are a post 1994 phenomenon not contemplated by the great men and women who sacrificed so much in the struggle against Aparthied.
They are parasites of transformation, emphasising and nurturing an exclusive African racial identity because it benefits their imperative to extract a rent out of the economy.