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Greeting … and compliments of the season to you all.

I was too busy to post here during the last few months of 2014.

I had been writing and then road showing (here and abroad) an argument that suggested pressures acting on the ANC might, ultimately, save the organisation from its slow-motion collapse into what can best be described as a kind of criminal conspiracy.

On the whole, as they say, it was a deliberately positive counter to the life draining wails of despair that were starting to keep me from my sleep.

In the ANC there are thousands of pockets of resistance, but the overall character of the organisation and the way it has embedded itself with the state is deeply reminiscent of a huge wasp I watched yesterday stun an even bigger spider, implant it’s eggs in the juicy arachnid abdomen, stuff the bundle in a piece of dry cane, where the baby wasps will soon hatch and begin eating the spider in a precises way that keeps the host alive long enough for the new crop of wasps to fly off to carry on the business for which they were born. I believe some of such wasps are able to mess with the spider’s DNA in such a way that the spider will spend its last dying moments protecting the baby spiders.

This is an almost perfect metaphor for the behaviour of the hijacked centre of the ANC.

But I don’t think that is the whole – or even main – story, and below is the introduction to a longish report I wrote in October last year with my colleagues, Joan Tshivhinda (quantitative analyst) and Jeff Schultz (economist), that argues we have a better than even chance of being in a much improved situation by …. about 2020. That the pressures acting on the ANC could powerfully reshape the organisation for the better.

This is purely the introduction to the document. Joan did lots of quantitative work on the 2014 elections and Jeff did the same for the definition and class structure of SA society – so I think I am going to need more direct permission from BNP Paribas Cadiz Securities to publish the whole thing, but I hope to do so soon.

But for now:

Introduction – Against a Dark Background

(That title was made up purely for the blog post … the original title was “SA Political, Quantitative & Economic Research – emerging middle class lights up the gloom.)

There are significantly more important forces shaping our politics than the bad behaviour of our politicians.

  • Deep within the electorate a rapidly growing black African middle class is beginning to shape political and economic outcomes more profoundly than the size of the group implies.
  • We believe this group will determine many major outcomes for our politics and economics in the next few years.
  • Emerging from our analysis is a first (and best) case scenario in which the ANC goes through a process of renewal and recalibration over the next few years, powerfully reclaiming the defecting black African middle class and rolling out economic policies that will be optimum for financial markets and business.
  • However, we also describe several significantly threatening alternative scenarios, including further splits in the ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC) slipping below 50% of the national vote and losing the major metropolitan areas, the centre of opposition shifting toward some combination of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and the emergent socialist party… and even more gloomy potential paths we could, with a low probability, travel down.

Many institutions of political representation in South Africa (most obviously political parties and trade unions) are undergoing turmoil – within themselves, in competition with each other and in rapidly changing levels of popularity.

here are various methods we can use to seek to explain the turmoil. Much of the mass media focus has been on the character and integrity of the President (of the ANC and the country) Jacob Zuma, and his allies – and we attribute much of the turmoil to the Zuma camp’s alleged attempts to capture a lion’s share of available rents and patronage – and to keep their principal out of the courts. While we do not deny the role of individuals (as heroes or villains) in shaping history, we think it obligatory to examine changes in the deep structural features of society, especially in processes of class formation, and the changing needs of production, to seek explanations for the changing face of our politics.

Our basic premise is that ‘class formation’ among black Africans was held back by apartheid, and the legislation and state that defined that system. But in the 1960s and 1970s the global economy began to shift in its character, and in its requirements of the function of labour, goods and capital markets. In South Africa the economy shifts toward services and manufacturing and requires a more settled, urban, educated workforce, the members of which are able to purchase the goods and services being produced by the new economy.

For the first time in almost 100 years, black South Africans could realistically aspire to be urbanised, settled, housed, better educated and able to afford the goods and services of the new economy. And this set the emerging class powerfully against the political system of apartheid that understood its survival and the survival of white dominance depended on the defeat or diversion of these aspirations.

It is more useful and has more explanatory power, to understand that underlying the campaigns of resistance and repression and the attempts by the apartheid government to rejig its systems that controlled the movement, work prospects and political aspirations of black people were the reasons for the inexorable rise of the black African middle class.The 1976 uprising, the formation of the UDF in 1983, the formation of Cosatu in 1986 and its clear alignment with the still banned ‘Congress Movement’, the strikes, the school boycotts, the growing campaign for international isolation, the rapid reappearance of ANC symbols, leaders and flags in South Africa in the mid-1980s, the escalation of the ‘armed struggle’ and then the unbanning of the liberation movements, the release of leaders, the tricky negotiations at Codessa (Convention for a Democratic South Africa) 1 and 2 and finally the first democratic election in 1994 – could be seen to have been caused, orchestrated and guided by wise leaders and clever tacticians from both sides. And we don’t believe that statement is wrong, but we do think it misses the main point.

The apartheid state tried everything to head off the rise of the Africa middle class:

  1. the ‘hearts and minds’ campaigns in black communities – which only at its most trite consisted of giving out copious amounts of sweets and propaganda from the top of armoured vehicles;
  2. the attempt to establish a Tricameral Parliament to give political representation to Coloureds and Indians and the vigorous attempts to build the Bantustan[1] administrations and promote the system of local black councils[2] – attempting to ensure that ‘the oppressed’ would not find unity in opposing the regime – and ensuring that black African aspirations were diverted to stony ground and
  3. the campaigns of repression, including raids into neighbouring states, troops deployed into townships and state-funded assassinations squads and other ‘dirty tricks’ campaigns.

The not so subtle point we are trying to make was this was all actually driven by the African middle classes struggling to come into being (led and ridden by various political formations) and held back by the apartheid state and legislative regime. Thus, the emerging black middle class was both the engine and the prize of the contest between the liberation movement and the apartheid regime.

We draw theoretically on both the Weberian and Marxist definitions of class. With the defeat of the apartheid state, long suppressed class formation and differentiation has exploded in black communities. We attempt to describe and characterise the black African middle class (possibly classes) using a mixture of methods:

  1. Our classification has a minimum per capita income threshold which will be significantly above the middle of the income distribution for black South Africans;
  • We will show the group is the fastest growing segment of the Living Standards Measures (LSMs) table since 1994 and we will argue that it is politically influential and powerful beyond its numbers, consumption power and voting preferences;
  • Finally our definition will include the fact that members of the group will be more likely to have tertiary education (or professional or technical qualifications) and be more likely to live in Gauteng.

If we conceive of our political parties, electorate and the interplay of powerful other interests as part of a complex ecology with eco-niches and selective Darwinian pressures, then much of the turmoil in the ecosystem (the formation of the EFF, the torturous debates about affirmative action in the Democratic Alliance (DA), the splitting off from Cosatu of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) and the formation of some form of socialist alliance, the details in the drop in support for the ANC in this last election, the extreme anger about Jacob Zuma’s alleged diversion of public assets, his attempts to avoid the law and avoid various forms of constitutional curtailment) can best be explained by the growing assertiveness of the class we describe.

We overlay these categorisations with a close examination of the fact that the African National Congress lost approximately 11% of the national votes it won previously from across the geography of the urban black African areas of South African industrial heartland of Gauteng in the May 2014 general elections. We point out that in areas that were more representative of the middle class we defined above, these losses were greater.

We conclude that the pressures being brought to bear

  • could split the ANC further;
  • could drive the party further toward its flirtation with a sort of rural populism driven by patronage and traditional patriarchal authority;
  • could drive the party further into the hands of the South African Communist Party which has been the main beneficiary of the rise of Jacob Zuma; and
  • could provide space for the EFF, the DA and Numsa’s in potentia socialist party to grow to the point that the ANC drops below 50% vote.

We hope/predict that the middle classes and the Gauteng ANC, as the part of the party most exposed to the middle classes to which we refer, is already in the process of preparing to draw the party back from the brink it is approaching. The Zuma faction is entrenched, but it is our belief that the brand value being lost under his leadership will inevitably lead to a correction.

In general, our conclusion will be that the negative political consensus about South Africa is overdone, because attention is not being given to the deep, underlying structural drivers of change in the country, namely the coming into its own of the black African middle classes.

How history works – the origins of the black African middle class and what really caused apartheid to fall

Change in the structure, priorities and labour processes of the global economy began to accelerate in the 1960s and 1970s with a relative shrinking of primary resource extraction and heavy industry. South Africa, like much of the rest of the world, experienced relative growth in the manufacturing and services sector.

Nicslondonslides2

Thus the economy began to require a settled, better educated and skilled labour force, and one that could procure the goods and services produced by the new economy.

Black South Africans could, for the first time, realistically aspire, as a group, to be more settled, housed, better educated and be the consumers of certain goods and services to which their parents had had no possible access. Thus their interests melded with the similar interests of the already existing black African middle class that had managed to take root in the stony apartheid ground.

This nascent middle class had long been deliberately stunted by the apartheid state – and certainly segregated – to keep it from competing with its white counterparts, but in the views of Nzimande[3] (yes the very same one[4]) quoted in Southall[5], the group could be broken down into the following categories:

  1. The bureaucratic petty bourgeoisie – basically officials tied closely to the central apartheid state, but also town and city administrators and in the Bantustans (reliable allies of the apartheid state in Nzimande’s view);
  2. The civil petty bourgeoisie – civil servants and state employees like teachers, nurses and clerks – and from whose ranks Nzimande argues was drawn much of the leadership of the national liberation movement (clearly entirely unlike the bureaucratic types mentioned above);
  • The trading petty African bourgeoisie – which Nzimande eccentrically orders into several groups based on their ability to align with the liberation movement, but concluding that those belonging to the National African Federated Chamber of Commerce (NAFCOC), while clearly pro-capitalist, were useful allies to the liberation movement.
  1. The corporate petty bourgeoisie – basically black employees in major companies which, since the early 1970s, had “sought to legitimise capitalism through the discourse of the ‘free enterprise system”. In Nzimande’s views (as summarised by Southall) this group was “simultaneously hugely frustrated by limited opportunity and white managerial racism, uneasily situated as it was between capital’s attempts to create a black middle class and white management’s defence of its own class interests”.

The point of all of this is that almost all academic research agrees that there had been an “enormous increase in the African middle class between 1960 and 1970” Harold Wolpe in Southall 1977) “indicating the growing upward mobility of blacks into clerical, technical and non-manual jobs and of Africans into skilled employment”. (Southall) [6]

There are two observations that are worth making:

  1. The group definitions in the literature do not distinguish between skilled and upwardly mobile workers and the classes of traders and small business owners and civil servants.
  2. Because the definition is loose the group appeared almost impossible to count, with Samuel Nolutshungu (1983) estimating 121,948 members of the black middle class by 1970 and Wolpe (1974) putting the number at 1,315,800 for roughly the same time.

However, for our purposes here these are not problems because our argument is that, under the heel of apartheid, was growing a class of people whose expectations were realistically rising and this led to rapidly heightening political resistance.

At the height of apartheid, the oppression faced by all black South Africans, and especially Africans, was the political basis for downplaying growing class differences and it appears to us that the sense that change was possible, that the aspirations were realisable, was a multiclass phenomenon among all black South Africans.

It would be equally difficult to describe the sophistication, brutality; or give a proper timeline of the apartheid state’s attempt to survive the onslaught – and the consequences of its failure to do so.It would be impossible here to adequately describe the growth and momentum of resistance in the 1970s and 1980s. From the massive strikes in Durban in 1973 through the 1976 uprising, the campaign to defeat the Tricameral Parliament from 1983, the strikes, the bombs, the stay-aways, the States of Emergency from July 1985 and the growing criminalisation of any form of opposition – the profound growth of international solidarity for South Africans who were living under apartheid – and rising costs of resisting and defending the system.

However, for our purposes, it is interesting to examine one aspect of the state’s reaction when it realised how rapidly and powerfully black expectations were rising in the 1970s with the changing requirements of the domestic and global economy.

The Wiehahn Commission submitted an interim report to Parliament in May 1979 which recommended:Under pressure from South African and global businesses, especially after the Durban strikes in 1973 and the uprising in 1976, the National Party government made a serious attempt to reform the industrial relations system and the linked system that governed the rights of black Africans to move from place to place (influx control).

  1. Legal recognition of Black trade unions and migrant workers
  2. Abolition of statutory job reservation
  3. Retention of the closed shop bargaining system
  4. The creation of a National Manpower Commission, and
  5. The introduction of an Industrial Court to resolve industrial litigation[7]

The Riekert Commission reported at about the same time and recommended:

  1. Black workers already in urban areas with the ‘requisite permission’ to be there should receive ‘preferential treatment’ in finding employment – and thus create a stable labour force and encourage a “Black urban middle class”[8]
  2. Other Black workers could be removed after 72 hours of looking for work in an urban area and influx control would be tightened.

It is not our purpose and beyond our ability to explain the complex mechanism by which the apartheid legislative regime and its state pursued its ends but what is noteworthy for our purposes here is that National Party strategist and securocrats understood what was happening and they attempted to accommodate and divert the force that was coming at them, namely a rapidly growing group of politically marginalised, controlled and subjugated people who had seen the possibility of a better life and were prepared to struggle for it.

What happened in the 1970s and 1980s and in South Africa would have been strongly predicted in a piece of academic work presented by US sociologist James C. Davies in 1962: Toward a Theory of Revolution” in the American Sociological Review, (27)1 5-9.

We have deliberately left out the role played by individuals, organisations and leaders in building political and military resistance, in mobilising the majority into defiance and then in skilfully negotiating a peace, a new constitution and democratic country.Simply put Davies argues that in societies where expectations of improvement in the conditions of life begin to rise, they inevitably outstrip the real improvement. Finally daring to hope for the removal of influx control and the right to live and work where they chose, black South Africans instead got the mean-spirited liberalisations of the Wiehann and Ricket commissions – and the revolts driven by an unacceptable gap between expectations and reality followed as night follows day.

Nicslondonslides

It is our contention that what broke apartheid, with its laws, its state, its political parties, its cultural institutions, its security apparatus and its ideology was precisely its attempt to dam the flow of people’s rising aspirations – and we are still in the catastrophic flood of that dam having burst.We have done this because we want to emphasise that the deep and powerful historical forces of class formation and economic change tend to drive politics, not the other way around. The best politicians are those who realise these limits, who really understand that their profession is the art of the possible. One may slightly divert and shape the torrent but one’s power is strictly limited.

The Black African middle classes today – an introduction

In this sense the pressures that built up against the apartheid edifice are the same, and the same energy is driving South Africa into the future. It is the long suppressed black African middle class, having steamrolled apartheid out-of-the-way and now moving through our politics and economy with the same irresistible power… and its expectations continue to rise.But again, while we think these programmes have obviously had a major impact – and are likely to be tightened up – the real ‘explosion’ and driving force have been the aspirations of ordinary people who have long been denied the opportunity to seek to the good life, to educate their children to higher levels than was open to them and to accumulate assets. The ANC government has opened the doors, but it is impossible for those doors to be opened wide enough and it is essentially a market force that causes people to push, shove, clump and burst through the crumbling entrance as fast and as far as possible.The formal removal of apartheid legislation in the 1990s, the deliberate and vigorous and largely successful attempts to change the demographics of the state and civil service, including that of the major parastatals, a host of legislation designed to pressure private companies to put equity in black hands and to appoint black senior managers, the use of licensing in the minerals sector and, importantly, the use of state expenditure to promote black entrepreneurial activity have been important pillars of government policy and have undoubtedly been major forces in promoting a black African middle class.

Apartheid, among its myriad impacts on the shape of South African society, suppressed ‘normal’ class formation and segmentation among the black population. It was, in fact, and for a long time, a systematic attempt to do just that – so as to protect whites from the competition.

We have described in the previous section how various black African middle-classes as well as upwardly mobile sections of the working class emerged despite the best efforts of the apartheid system.

[1] A Bantustan was the cornerstone of the system: black people were allocated (often arbitrarily) to one of 10 territories where they would live and be politically represented. The idea was to concentrate members of particular language or ‘ethnic’ groups in these places and black people would eventually only be in ‘South Africa’ as migrant workers from these homelands. Four of the homelands, Transkei, Bophuthatswana, Venda and Ciskei were declared independent, but this was never recognised outside South Africa.We concluded, however, that the apartheid system was destined to fail as soon as the economy required something different from black South Africans and black South Africans could therefore realistically aspire to something different.

[2] A major social project defined in the Black Administration Act 38 of 1927 – endlessly amended to promote the co-optation of influential individuals in the black community – that in turn led to the burnings and killing of such councillors, most notably through the infamous ‘necklacing’ (placing a burning tyre around the victim’s neck).

[3] Nzimande, B. (1990). ‘Class, National Oppression and the African Petty Bourgeoisie: The Case of African Traders’, in Robin Cohen, Yvonne Muthien and Abebe Zegeye (Eds), Repression and Resistance: Insider Accounts of Apartheid. London; Melbourne; Munich; New York. Hans Zell Publishers: 165-210.

[4] Blade Nzimande is General Secretary of the South African Communist Party and has been since 1998.

[5] The ANC and Black Capitalism in South  Africa, Prof. Roger Southall, Democracy and Governance, Human Sciences Research Council Seminar 2003/23

[6] The ANC and Black Capitalism in South  Africa, Prof. Roger Southall, Democracy and Governance, Human Sciences Research Council Seminar 2003/23

[7] From the excellent South African History Online, a non-profit resource: http://www.sahistory.org.za/dated-event/wiehahn-commission-report-tabled-parliament (accessed 10/24/2014 19h54)

[8] http://www.sahistory.org.za/dated-event/recommendations-riekert-commission-investigate-employment-conditions-black-workers-are-t (accessed 10/24/2014 19h54)

By the way “deep blue” in the headline was not meant to be a riff on IBM’s chess playing supercomputer.

Rereading Part 1  I can see how someone might accuse me of being a little too certain about the shape of the future.  I am not running “deep blue” regressions and algorithms, modelling South Africa and the world, generating predictions x of y % accuracy with z % error margins … South … Africa … will … be … peachy … in …2021 … bidledeebidledee beep.

I have no real idea of what is going to happen in the future – and only the bare bones of an idea of the internal processes I go through to develop the views I advance here.

From time to time I investigate how we predict outcomes, and how we asses risks. I am interested in how our evolved systems (honed against sabre-toothed tigers and uncertain rainfall patterns, for example) apply in the kind of technology driven mega-societies we now inhabit – or, specifically, don’t apply i.e. that our ‘instinctive systems’ need to be suppressed or countermanded if we hope to get it right in certain situations. But that is not what I am doing in these quick pre-Mangaung notes.

The “deep blue” of the headline was actually a reference to being bleak, sad, cold and lonely.

Which leads me to:

Who are the demagogic populist, proto-fascists* now?

DancingANC

The ANC will (initially) combat the threat of losing support by becoming more ‘demagogic populist’, rural conservative and based in the lumpen classes – basically, by drifting to the right

In December 2010 I wrote an article in GQ Magazine under the headline: “Can you hear the drums?” with a concluding paragraph that read:

In the year 2010, anger and resentment … bubbled over  … The winners still have their stuff, but they are clutching it more tightly to their chests, and for the first time in 16 years they are straining for the hint, a sound or a smell, of what might be coming for them out of the night.

Read the whole story here.

Two ‘crises’ (or warnings) that occured this year are the equivalent of the scary sound of drums in the night for the incumbent ANC elite. The first warning is Marikana and the second, linked, warning is the traction Julius Malema’s manipulative populism was able to achieve amongst some sections of the disenfranchised youth.

I made some of these links in my coverage of Marikana here.

I think the ANC will ride out the gradually escalating social and industrial unrest by becoming the “proto-fascist” and “demogogic populist” movement that Zuma’s SACP ally accuses Malema of representing (here for the context of that). This ANC, under this president is being drawn inexorably, by the logic of its own politics, into the territory of rural patriarchy with its natural links to the fear and hatred of education and any form of gender equality. (I am not going to argue this out here … just take a glance at the saga around The Spear, the Traditional Leaders Courts Bill and various comments about women and about “clever blacks” and appeals to African ways of doing things over foreign ways of the same – see TrustLaw’s Katy Migiro’s excellent takes here  and here.)

Thus (forgive the leap) the ANC begins to lose the urban industrial working class (on the road to becoming much more like a classic middle class and deeply opposed to the looting of the state),  the professional classes (already at that destination), the productive and rule based businesses, local and global, and it eventually begins to lose the pirates looking to launder their money and ‘go straight’ (as I argued in Part 1).

This leaves the ANC with the rural poor, the marginalised unemployed, a bureaucratic elite within the state (those last three dependent on state spending through the public sector wage bill and social grants) and global resource privateers who powerfully thrive in countries like this with leaders like these.

Initially the ANC might get even higher turnout at its rallies (especially with free food and t-shirts and sexy young people dancing between the rabble-rousing and the singing of Umshini wami). But eventually the class and demographic changes of the society impact upon the party – reformat it, split it, renew it … change the political ecology in which it moves and feeds.

You will see from my next post that I do not only think the ANC is a useless bubble of foul smelling gas buffeted on the sea of history. The ANC, in my analysis, has become a most significant and material influence for and against my upbeat scenario … a sort of deranged midwife at the happy birth.

* The term “demagogic populists, proto-fascist” is from various SACP documents and was code for Julius Malema (and, I suspect, in slightly early versions, a code for Tokyo Sexwale). This is what the SACP had to say about it:

The “new tendency”

It was the SACP at the 2009 Special National Congress that first identified clearly the ideological and underlying class character of what we called the “new tendency”. We described it as a populist, bourgeois nationalist ideological tendency, with deeply worrying demagogic, proto-fascist features. It was the SACP that pointed out the connections between the public face and pseudo-militant rhetoric of this tendency and its behind-the-scenes class backing. It was a tendency funded and resourced by narrow BEE elements still involved in a rabid primitive accumulation process, based on a parasitic access to state power. It was a bourgeois nationalist tendency that sought to mobilize a populist mass base, particularly amongst a disaffected youth, to act as the shock troops to advance personal accumulation agendas.

The SACP must feel free to pat itself on the back, but the reality is that party took on the straw man of  Kebble/Malema/Sexwale and backed – to the hilt – the real demagogic, proto-fascist tendency – the one with real power … and the one with real patronage to dispense. (That last bit explaining why this SACP has backed the Nkandla Crew)

That SACP quote is from here. For my explanation of how that all fits together with the nationalisation of mines call and host of other issues here (again) .

Think of the various interests of classes and groups in our society as constituting an ecology in which political parties and organisations find niches to graze, hunt and be sustained.

The system can change and niches shift, narrow or broaden –  and in response the denizens that live in each niche must adapt or become extinct.

Alternatively, major fauna can begin to change for other systemic (or extra-systemic?) reasons and new spaces and niches close or open in response.

And a shockwave goes through the ecosystem and a number of species appear and/or rabidly (oops) rapidly evolve, while others disappear.

Like all metaphors this one is going to break down the closer it gets to the real world, but I think something like this is happening to our political ecosystem – as the ANC’s DNA drifts towards the lumbering, complacent and patronage-networked side of the spectrum.

The gaps that are opening are in the middle classes, in the cities and amongst urban professionals – niches which (that?) are being vacated by the ANC as it settles its rump into the comfort of a sort of conservative, patriarchal, kleptocratic, bureaucratic and ethnic politico-ecological pouf-cushion.

I make  this observation as I watch (on eNews channel) the DA marching on Cosatu’s head-office in Johannesburg in a historical reversal of roles that I am struggling to get my head around.

I saw a Twitter post from Ranjeni Munusamy last night in which she said: “After the #DAmarch tomorrow, maybe nuclear powers will march to Greenpeace offices. Will make just as much sense”.

I get her dismay completely, but I suspect that is just my old assumptions about the shape of our political ecology dominating my brain.

Why shouldn’t the DA be going up directly against Cosatu?

They are, increasingly, competing for exactly the same constituency – the constituency recently, in effect, vacated by the ANC.

That is what all this business about Zille attempting to recruit Vavi into the DA has been about.

They have been flirting – because they feel how close they are to each other – and now they are fighting, for exactly the same reasons.

On Sunday Ferial Haffajee wrote an extremely interesting piece in her City Press, pointing out that Cosatu is increasingly dominated by public sector unions  – and therefore increasingly represents “a middle”, rather than “a working” class.

The story uses this graphic:

… which I think comes from a Uasa Federation study by economist Mike Schussler that points out that the employed in south Africa enjoy relatively good living conditions with an average salary of R13 200 and further that public sector workers are significantly better off than their private sector counterparts.

Haffajee writes:

Cosatu has created a middle class where one did not exist in the 18 years of democracy. That it is funded by the public purse (funded in turn by you and I, the taxpayers) is neither here nor there. What is remarkable is how a federation that started as decidedly blue collar has altered the identity and social position of its members so quickly and so effectively that it could turn the public policy of tolling on its head.

So what is happening right now?

There is an inevitable frisson in the relationship between Cosatu and the DA.

Cosatu and the Democratic Alliance border the niches vacated by the ANC, namely the unemployed and the middle classes. (The unemployed and the middle classes, perhaps more than any other groups, have  the most to lose from the ANC’s, at best squandering, at worst looting, of societal resources available for growth and relief.)

As the opposing crowds gather in the streets of Johannesburg, the blue DA marchers versus the red Cosatu defenders – those for the youth wage subsidy and those against it – we might be expected to conclude that these are bitter class enemies.

I still think not – to my eyes I cannot distinguish them ethnically or class-wise … (but I accept that I might just not have cracked those codes).

The ANC – as well as agents of the state, I think – will strive mightily to prevent Cosatu from finding the DA – and vice versa.

As romantic literature suggests, love and hate lie alongside each other like geological strata – always in the process of metamorphosing, one into the other.

(Note – I think my various metaphors here don’t adequately take account of the differences in Cosatu – and ultimately break down on that point. I do think the public sector side of the federation is more middle-class and the private sector side more radical and competitive. However it is easier for the ANC to keep the public sector unions – the DA’s natural allies in class terms – on side because, ultimately, those unions are dependent on the state budget over which the ANC has control. Obviously there is a cost involved in the ANC buying off those middle class unions, and it is a cost ultimately borne by the unemployed … but that is an argument for another post. I am not sure if the DA will be able to capitalise on this contradiction, but it is not impossible that is precisely what the party is trying to do in Johannesburg as I write this.)

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.

I think both the DA and the ANC might be on the verge of an evolutionary spurt that will change what they are and thus see them shifting into new ecological  niches in our political landscape.

I also think that the landscape itself changes much slower than we think or hope.

Voluntarism is a term for a species of political error – and I dredge this up from the gleaming days of my youthful involvement in the ‘mass democratic movement’ in South Africa. The taxonomic system we developed for naming and defining ‘mistaken beliefs’ was tiresomely thorough and self-righteous, but I have to confess that I still dip into that frame of reference and find there useful analogies and ways of understanding the world.

Voluntarism  means believing that through pure force of will, cleverness of organisation, brilliance of strategy, accuracy of tactics and shear hope, anything could be achieved no matter what the inherent conditions.

I am convinced that the Democratic Alliance foray into the townships and squatter camps is either a form of voluntarism or it will result in the DA becoming something else entirely – and ultimately something very similar to what the ANC has become.

This somewhat pessimistic view of politics is based on the assumption that politicians and political parties do not have a free hand to sell what they like to whoever (whomever?) they like.

The racial divide in South Africa and the racial solidarity of the groups which face each other across that divide is a deep structural phenomenon and not a casual consumer preference.

When Julius Malema talks about “the Madam and her tea girl” referring to DA chief Helen Zille and the DA MP and national spokesperson Lindiwe Mazibuko he finds a resonance.

This ‘resonance’ is not something created by clever marketing and it is also not something that can be got rid of like Vodacom changing its colours from blue to red.

Groups of people, their ideology, culture and attitudes can be changed – particularly in the powerfully denaturing environment of modern industrial cities. This is how an African peasantry became  the urban proletariat of South Africa’s modern capitalism. And it was this process that created the possibility of an ANC that represented all black Africans in the country and not just specific tribal groups.

But do not overestimate the power and speed of this process. Think of the ethnic boroughs in New York; think of the Xhosa/Zulu tussle in the ANC and think of the unbridgeable divide between the black and white experience in South Africa.

South Africa’s history, including colonialism and Apartheid, has a powerful momentum in our lives today. I think this means that the hope that the DA with more black faces and branches (but essentially the same ideology , structure and principles) could make a serious electoral challenge will remain just that – a hope.

A party still called the Democratic Alliance could displace the ANC, but only by becoming something very similar to its foe i.e. led by black people with a history of opposition to Apartheid and primarily about redressing the past,  directing state resources to benefit black people and  channelling wealth towards the emerging black elite.

The “rump” of the DA are good old white liberals (in the best sense of the word) who have their ideological roots in the closing years of Apartheid.

A party with such a “rump” will never (in any time frame that could be relevant to us) represent a majority of black South Africans – even urban professionals, even a significant minority. To represent those people the DA would have to be of those people, run by those people and be an instrument to further the interests of those people.

I do think urban African professionals are in the process of defecting, with disgust, from the ANC.

But I will be looking for a Movement for Democratic Change lookalike (to the ANC’s ZANU-PF) to emerge from the South African political dynamic.

That ultimately means I am still looking for an organised defection by the industrial working class and their middle class allies that will emerge from a split in the Ruling Alliance – that would probably put Cosatu on one side and the ANC on another.

On this basis the ANC could lose control of the cities to a political formation like the MDC –  although not one that could be portrayed, as the MDC has been by ZANU-PF and by the ANC (which can already sense the threat), as having been funded and set up by white farmers and other ‘enemies of national liberation’.

There is a part of me that hopes I am wrong … that we have it within ourselves to escape the awful gravity of our history; that we really are free to choose our future.

My view, however, is that the choices we do have are all within a narrow band of possibilities confined by the deep structural features of our past and present.

Thus the ecology of our society and our politics remains the same – or at least changes extremely slowly – but the creatures that inhabit the landscape are modified by natural selection and drift and displace each other in the niches that are available to them.

(My next post will deal with the question of what the ANC is becoming as it changes its niche as the party narrows and shifts – geographically, ideologically and socially.)

This added after publication:

The über-troll of South African political analysis R.W. Johnson added this gentle corrective to the version of the above article published on Politicsweb: “Am I the only person astonished by the fact that Mr Borain can’t spell voluntarism ?” He’s quite right about this – as he is about so much – although he is usually also interesting. He was, appropriately, hanging out with the racist bullies in Politicsweb’s comments section, so I shouldn’t be terribly surprised at his sneering tone.

The word is voluntarism (not volunterism, as I originally had it … I got it wrong because I mistakenly thought ‘we’  had made it up and I could therefore spell it as I pleased) and it means: “any theory that regards will as the fundamental agency or principle, in metaphysics, epistemology, or psychology”  – from Dictionary.com.

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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