Twice this past week, in publications that could never be accused of being opponents of the African National Congress (ANC), direct comparisons were made between the shaky state of South Africa in 2020 and the beginning-of-the-end crisis confronting the apartheid state in the 1980s.
Corruption – deceptively, to be sure, for the rot is actually ideological – is the central theme of these reflections of cynicism, anger and frustration.
In a fascinating full-page feature on South Africa’s 1986, the Mail & Guardian wrote of the cracks in the apartheid edifice being ‘very clear’ that year, a time that might seem entirely incomparable with our present.
But three times in its 141-word summary of the gist of events of 1986, the newspaper used the words ‘much like now’ to signal then-and-now deficiencies in the education of the poor, the woeful inadequacy of basic services such as the provision of clean water and working sanitation, and ‘rife’ corruption and unemployment. They were bad, then … much like now.
On Friday, the Daily Maverick featured a strongly worded piece by Sello Lediga, a social commentator, author and CEO of the Patriotic Movement, ‘a civil society organisation that promotes patriotism in SA’.
Under the unambiguous headline, The Second Liberation: Covid-19 corruption triggers UDF moment in South Africa, Lediga wrote with refreshing directness: ‘The ANC of today finds itself where the National Party was in the early 1980s. In the same way the NP was synonymous with apartheid, so the ANC is synonymous with corruption. The racist monster that confronted the people under apartheid has morphed into a corruption monster.’
He went on: ‘What is the difference between the racist regime of the 1980s and the corruption regime of 2020? For the people, the academic difference is immaterial. Those who were poor and marginalised under apartheid find themselves in a similar, if not worse, situation.’
Now, he urged, was ‘(the) time for the people to defend themselves against the state’, for ‘all societal formations [to] rally around civil society for their second liberation’.
The ground, he said, was fertile: ‘the state is arrogant, and the people are angry’.
Incidentally, Lediga drew attention to the Kathrada Foundation’s ‘first virtual protest rally’ on Friday against Covid-19 corruption.
It would, of course, be wise not to get too excited; the ‘angry’ voting public in South Africa doesn’t have a great record, as columnist Gareth van Onselen reminded us this week.
‘ANC voters,’ he wrote, ‘… delivered unto us not once, but twice a Jacob Zuma-led administration. … Even if you were to ignore the first Zuma administration as the consequence of some wild fervour, the second was literally elected to office in 2014 on the back of the public protector’s Nkandla report.’
He went on: ‘It was hilarious to hear Jackson Mthembu, after the ANC fell to 54% in 2016, say the ANC had lost contact with the people. No it didn’t. What happened was, you said, “Look, public, your president and his cabinet effectively stole R200m and spent it on his private property. Then, to a man, defended this and tried to cover it up.” And what 10 million members of the public said was, “Sure, no problem, here, have another majority.”’
This is what worries people – however bad things get, however obvious it is who is to blame, the voters, and perhaps especially the ones who have it worst, keep backing the delinquents.
But despair is not entirely justified. As Van Onselen points out, having got 10 million votes in a country of 60 million people in the 2019 election, ‘the ANC is a minority stakeholder’.
And there are signs that more people are waking up to the truth about the source of their problems, and are recognising that the country is back in the struggle space.
Not that there’s any reason to anticipate a revolution; South Africa is among the least revolutionary countries on the planet. The greater risk is that we acquiesce in the face of what seem daunting obstacles and just muddle along in ill temper.
Commentator Steven Friedman wrote last week that while ‘Covid-19 shows how badly the country needs to avoid going back to normal … saying that is easier than imagining how it might happen’.
‘The problem with pointing out how much needs to change is that the problem may seem so big that solutions are not possible.’
Yet, politically challenging though they may be, the solutions are relatively straightforward, practicable and inexpensive, and with obvious benefits not just for the country, but even for the ruling ANC itself.
We can turn our fortunes around
Angry South Africans owe it to themselves to digest last week’s report – Growth & Recovery: A Strategy to #GetSAWorking – by my senior colleague, IRR chief of staff John Endres, and make it part of their contribution to the debate about why we don’t need to put up with accelerating failure and decline, and – more especially – how we can turn our fortunes around.
It makes a powerful case, arguing that, with dwindling resources and narrowing scope for borrowing or growing tax income, South Africa cannot spend its way out of trouble without deepening the crisis – but that it can go for growth, if it is willing unleash enterprise, and free the economy from impediments to investment and jobs.
Endres writes: ‘The idea underlying all the elements of this plan is that what South Africa needs, more than anything else, is economic growth. Growth offers the only way to get people working and allow them to lift themselves out of poverty.’
Spurring growth would depend on four elements: attracting direct investment; maintaining and expanding infrastructure; creating a climate favourable to job creation; and implementing a programme of widespread economic empowerment instead of elite enrichment.
‘We expect there to be widespread consensus on these four measures. However, we add three necessary conditions which we believe are indispensable for the four policy proposals to work.
● a firm commitment to property rights, implying abandoning plans such as expropriation without compensation, prescribed assets and the monopolistic nationalisation of the healthcare system;
● an end to race-based policies, including Black Economic Empowerment and affirmative action, and their replacement with meritocratic and race-neutral policies like Economic Empowerment for the Disadvantaged (EED);
● and wide-ranging liberalisation of the labour market that removes barriers to entry for young and low-skilled individuals especially.
‘If implemented, these proposals would give South Africans the opportunities they crave: real socio-economic empowerment and sustainable progress.’
Endres is candid about the trouble we are in.
‘South Africa,’ he writes, ‘is now in serious economic trouble. Ratings downgrades to sub-investment levels, combined with mountainous debt levels, a growing sense of disillusionment, falling trust in the government, increasing lawlessness and low investment levels have worsened our economic position and made it much more difficult to stage a recovery after the 2020 Covid-19 crisis.’
Even so, he explains, there are no grounds for giving up hope.
‘Policymakers may be ideologically reluctant to embrace the reforms we propose,’ he acknowledges. ‘However, much of what we describe is drawn from the successes achieved by Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore in the 1950s and 1960s, which in turn helped inspire the reforms driven by Deng Xiaoping in China in the 1970s and 1980s. Both these men were nationalist leaders who dramatically changed the fortunes of their countries and turned them into influential global economic powerhouses. Their extraordinary successes, based on pragmatic policies, show how much can be achieved and should put paid to any notion that South Africa cannot also become prosperous and influential.’
Adopting better policies would ‘provide the foundation for sustainable growth rates of 7% of GDP within a decade …. This will allow South Africa to combat unemployment, poverty and inequality, live up to its great potential, and emerge as a prosperous middle-income economy by the 2030s.’
This is the thinking that ought to be front and centre of the public conversation about the point we have reached. The opportunity would be wasted if we imagined our 1980s moment was limited to the costs, political and economic, of corruption alone. The options for clinging to the status quo have dwindled away and a much more fundamental alteration is our only hope.
It is very like the moment in 1985 when Gavin Relly, chairman of Anglo-American Corporation – described at the time by the Washington Post as ‘the giant South African conglomerate that owns or controls 70 percent of the companies listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange’ – defied the government of the day in leading exploratory talks with the exiled ANC in Zambia.
Tinkering reforms at home that overlooked the fundamental question of establishing a democracy had become irrelevant. In answer to P W Botha’s furious repudiation, Relly commented drily: ‘I would have thought that for South Africans of whatever persuasion to come together to discuss the future of their country was a perfectly legitimate occupation.’
This was the clearest sign that South African society was ahead of its political leadership. Today, once more, it is time for society to take the lead.