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Has the South African state become an instrument in the hands of the class of predators that dominate our politics?

Think a crowbar or a 9mm automatic and think of the Nkandla or Limpopo crews using that tool to rip or rob huge sections of  provincial and national budgets.

Cosatu is clearly suspicious of the ANC dominated state, but believes that the struggle is not over.

Corruption Watch, launched by Zwelinzima Vavi Thursday last week is premised on, and shaped by, the assumption that the state is contested terrain; that if you put enough pressure on it you can slow the process of it becoming an “instrument” or a “tool” in the hands of the bad guys .. and perhaps reverse that process.

On the same day that Cosatu launched its initiative – Thursday last week –  the SACP journal Umsebenzi Online published a “Red Alert” by deputy secretary general Jeremy Cronin critiquing

the liberal notion of society as being constituted by two realms – the “state” on the one hand, and a distinct “civil society”, on the other.

and, in particular

This anti-majoritarian liberalism (that) treats rights almost entirely as rights of citizens/civil society AGAINST the state – and not, for instance, the right of a democratic state (and the right of a democratic majority to actively HELP that state) to vigorously implement an electoral mandate in the face of equally vigorous opposition from powerful class forces lurking behind the fig-leave (obviously he means “leaf” – NB)  of “civil society”.

Thus the SACP is deeply and supportively engaged with government and the state – indeed Jeremy Cronin is Deputy Minister of Transport – and appears to be directly backing Jacob Zuma for re-election at Mangaung in December. Clearly the SACP has made a practical estimation that Zuma is the better of some bad options.

Cosatu is also, ultimately, engaged with the state and government – and appears to have also given support to Zuma’s re-election – but in a far more conditional and ambiguous way than the more open-ended support offered by the communists.

Corruption Watch is indelibly stamped as a ‘civil society’ initiative – and one that has individuals in its leadership that skirt close to Cronin’s faintly Stalinist definition of “anti-majoritarian liberalism (that) treats rights almost entirely as rights of citizens/civil society AGAINST the state.”

Explore Corruption Watch’s website here  – and decide if you are going to sign the pledge.

The Executive Director is David Lewis – ex-independent trade union movement in the 1970’s, constructor of SA’s competition framework and until recently chairperson of the Competition Tribunal.

The Chairperson Vuyiseka Dubula is also the Secretary General of that bastion of civil society and thorn in the ANC government’s flesh, the Treatment Action Campaign.  She is  also Chairperson of the board of directors in the AIDS Law Project.

Vuyiseka Dubula - civil society multitasker and luminary: TAC Chairperson; Corruption Watch Secretary General and Chairperson of the board of the AIDS Law Project

The list of board members includes Bobby Godsell, Mary Metcalfe Supreme Court judge Kate O’Regan and Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane – just to give a sense that the initiative is likely to be a constant source of criticism of the spread of corruption in the ANC and government.

Cronin directly warns against some of the features of Cosatu’s previous “civil society” conference that caused so much anxiety in the ANC and the SACP last year (and I put the quote in full here because it speaks to the heart of the differences of emphasis between Cosatu and the SACP):

Obviously, the SACP expressed support for COSATU`s right to convene a conference that mobilized a range of social movements and NGOs to address, amongst other things, corruption in the state. However, we believed then, and we still believe now, that it was a mistake to exclude COSATU`s own party political alliance partners – as if there were something inherently pure about supposedly non-political “civil society” formations, and something inherently predatory about those more directly engaged with the state. It was a confusion that reflects the hegemony within our society of the liberal “civil society vs. the state” paradigm.

It is probably useful to read the full text of Cronin’s intervention, which you can see here.

As it happens ANC heavyweight and Minister of Justice Jeff Radebe spoke at the launch of Corruption Watch alongside thorn-in-the-ANC’s-flesh Public Protector Thuli Madonsela – thus tentatively addressing some of Jeremy Cronin’s and the SACP’s insecurity about Cosatu taking more and more oppositional stances in relation to the ANC and government.

The two main organisations within the ruling alliance to the left of the ANC appear to be launching something of a rescue bid to stop the ruling party slipping more unambiguously into the hands of a predatory political elite – although the SACP appears more concerned that the rescue bid stays out of the hands of “anti-majoritarian liberals” than it does about the success or otherwise of the endeavour.

Cosatu is the “bad cop” and the SACP is the “good cop” (vis-à-vis the ANC) but they are both operating under the assumption that there is something still worth saving in the state and the ruling party.

If the rescue bid fails and the ANC and government pass some abstract point of no return Cosatu is poised to give up on them first.

The SACP is likely to stick with its ally to the bitter and awful end.

In a Woolworths queue in the Gardens Centre yesterday evening I idly picked up the Cape Argus.

It’s the only time I actually read anything in that newspaper.

I like to casually glance at its headlines during my journey from the beginning of the endless tunnel of sweats sweets (damn morning rush) and magazines. I then stash it amongst the heap of chocolate boats stuffed with Smarties right before the tills.

I commit two very mild acts of corporate activism when I do this.

I admonish The Argus for plastering Cape Town with interesting and clever billboards that inevitably refer to puerile and ridiculously provincial – and badly written – stories.

And I wrist-slap Woolworths for having made me carry my then small children through that tunnel after a long day of shopping – an experience that  still makes me shudder.

Okay, these are not very militant acts; more mild criticism of two old and venerable institutions that I feel great affection for but believe would benefit from the occasional slap.

Anyway, the cover story on The Argus shocked me rigid – such that I barely noticed the passing array of Magnum Ice-creams and left-over chocolate father Christmases calling out to me and the small squalling children being pushed by their exhausted mothers through Infanticide Row.

Government is proposing to fine South Africans who give unsanctioned weather and pollution warnings –  ten years in jail or a R10 million fine (catch the full text of the South African Weather Service Amendment Bill here.)

I got it immediately.

You can’t have amateur forecasters spreading panic and despair because they had seen fluctuations in their crystals and spirit catchers … or because choppy surf with a curling left-break at Glen Beach means Durbs is gonna be hit by cyclones, dude … or whatever.

But as I was passing the tubs of sour worms it dawned on me that all forecasting should be controlled. You can’t have every blogger and his parrot predicting the unfolding sovereign debt crises in Europe, the US presidential elections, the possibility of a US/Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities, whether Germany and France will eventually let Greece sink without a trace, whether the Euro will be history this time next year …. the list is endless.

The pronouncements of economists and political analysts and talking heads of all kinds should come with health warnings. Who’s to say they know anything more than anyone else about anything?

But they get asked by television and radio stations and newspapers and they set up blogs …

Oops …

I dawned on me, but only after a surprisingly long time; somewhere between the sacks of chewy white milky cars and deep piles of You Magazines.

I am a forecaster. I have been quite specific about what I think will happen in the ANC’s debate about mine nationalisation. I have been fairly specific about succession issues in the ANC – both at Polokwane (where I was mostly wrong) and Mangaung (where I will be mostly right) ….

Excuse me? Did you really just say what I think you said?

No. No but seriously – the South African Weather Bureau has scientists with balloons and mysterious beeping machines in places like the Antarctic and Gough Island and a billion information feeds and huge computer models that attempt to get closer and closer to emulating the storm systems driving across from south of South America … and they still fail because they forgot about the butterfly flapping its mysterious wings in Peru.

By the time I punitively stashed The Argus amongst the chocolate tugs stuffed with brightly coloured beads just before the serene Woolworths teller lady I was having a minor existential crisis.

Admittedly not a completely new one – once you have been fairly sure that the ANC would not slip into the hands of the Nkandla Crew at Polokwane you are forever chastened and humbled by the knowledge that the future really is an ever unfolding mystery.

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.

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

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