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OP-EDS

A crisis not to waste

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South Africa has survived an insurrection, if President Cyril Ramaphosa is to be believed. This is no laughing matter. The extent and context of the violence unleashed within KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng last week should leave many unsettled and insecure about the state’s ability to provide security in the short term and stability in the medium term.

There should be little real surprise at the turn of events. It was, indeed, a perfect storm across a number of indicators. Primarily, the looting and pillaging was a function of the confluence of both political instability and economic stress. They came together in a toxic cocktail that has left well in excess of 200 people dead, thousands without jobs, and an economic bill likely to run in excess of R100 billion with a possible 0.5% drop in gross domestic product just as a result of the violence of a fateful 72-hour period.

The protests began just hours after former President Jacob Zuma reported to prison on contempt of court charges. The effects of the Zuma presidency on the country are now well-documented. But, the ascent to power of Ramaphosa upset the existing patronage networks established under Zuma, some of which form part of the state capture enquiry while others represent a crony capitalism and clientelism which favoured connected elites and individuals with lucrative contracts and access to state tenders.

The switch to Ramaphosa was a signal that these murky relationships were likely to be investigated and upended. Ramaphosa, for all his detractors, has been a reformer within the African National Congress (ANC). And, reformers who disrupt cosy established networks run major personal risks themselves.

With the Zondo Commission breathing down the necks of Zuma as well as ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule, amongst others, it was always going to be a risky period for the governing party.

Political factionalism and in-fighting occur in a variety of state quarters, with the mistrust and malfeasance involved stretching across a swathe of state-owned enterprises. This level of political decline has been evident for many years. And the ANC’s own debilitating moral decline has served to undermine authority and credibility. With the conflation of party and state in the country, the ANC’s problems have spilled over into South Africa’s problems – as witnessed last week.

The problem for Ramaphosa is that he himself is a fragile leader elected with a super-slender majority within his own party. Although he allowed the legal consequences of the Zondo Commission (ironically established by Zuma himself) to weaken his political enemies, his own insecurities resulted in a broader state apparatus bloated with former Zuma acolytes.

Similarly, Ramaphosa’s desire to balance the various ANC constituent forces resulted in the appointment of an executive (cabinet) that prioritised ANC unity over that of efficiency, expertise, and political reliability. From a leadership perspective, Ramaphosa’s choices in the security cluster have been particularly problematic and given the events of this last week, a failure.

While issues will still be clarified in ensuing months, the president has been sorely embarrassed by the lack of adequate intelligence as well as a police ministry clearly incapable of a semblance of public-order policing.

Of course, the catalyst for the unrest was Zuma. He was the fuse that lit the spark. And it was a spark that became a fire on the back of an economically deprived and stressed populace who, when faced with the prospects of looting without any consequences, resorted to a mass criminal event.

South Africa has a long history of political protest linked to the destabilisation of the country. And this was yet another chapter. Instigators used criminal elements to assist, and the sabotaging of schools, theft from blood banks and ammunition supplies, water plants, and cell phone masts showed an intent well beyond the criminal hysteria visible.

Ultimately, insurrection often occurs in a weak state – and for sure, this was the ticket that allowed the devastation to ensue.

Those participating in the free-for-all looting spree themselves have been victim of the broad failure of economic policy over the past decade to pursue growth-oriented policies.

The ANC has largely concentrated on redistributive policies seemingly unable to overcome ideological constraints to deregulate our economy and embrace the private sector in partnership with the state. Add COVID-19 to this mix, and the instigators keen to weaken the Ramaphosa presidency found a ready-made army even if many of those unwittingly just took advantage of the complete state of anarchy.

With unemployment at more than 40% for all adults and more than 65% for those under 25 years, economic policy hasn’t worked. Rising poverty levels and inequality have been a feature of the country for the past five years. There is, frankly, nothing new about the inadequacy of state policy. Analysts have warned about the consequences of failed strategies and non-existent implementation for years.

In the end, South Africa faces some major hurdles should we begin to move away from the highly dangerous atmosphere prevailing. The violence at hand is a direct consequence of ANC politics and policies. While we can – and should – rebuild the physical and social damage caused, it’s the ANC that needs an internal flush-out.

The only way to pressurise the ANC is via enhancing a competitive democracy that begins to threaten the governing party at the polls. In mature democracies, it’s only the fear of being booted out of office that gets governments to act. It’s a pity in South Africa’s case that the opposition continues to be fragmented and perhaps requires an “alliance for change” umbrella to reduce intra-party sniping.

Secondly, South Africans have appeased this decline for too long. Pressure has to be brought to bear from our powerful business community who have often sought to cosy-up to government in exchange for contracts rather than speak their mind. There is little room for mealy-mouthed expressions of concern in the current environment, which threatens physical infrastructure as well as lives and livelihoods.

Thirdly, South Africa needs an economic re-boot. It’s clear that the damning statistical decline of our indicators requires new thinking. And for that to happen, political pressure has to be brought to bear to end the ideological myopia that has held us back. We need a modern, market friendly, and socially responsible environment without the dictates of an interfering state.

While we can join hands around an “ubuntu” renewal and a basic income grant, it’s a deeper structural problem in our political make-up that requires a shift. If this shocking week of violence assists with that in any way, maybe then it will be a crisis we won’t waste.

  • Daniel Silke is a political-economy analyst and keynote speaker based in Cape Town. Follow him on Twitter @DanielSilke and view his website at www.danielsilkeglobal.com

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