This is the second of a five-part series setting out why South Africa blew up a week ago, arguing that the blow-up was not due to a planned insurrection, that the experience will not see the government change tack and reform, and that the country will destabilise further, and suggesting what you should consider doing to survive the consequences. The analysis is based on our initial thoughts, read against our long-standing advice. We will add to it, and so improve it, over time, but are confident that the bones of it are right and will hold up to future critical scrutiny.

The response of the government to events of the past ten days has been to raise the idea that it was the victim of grand conspiracy or attempted insurrection. 

We think this is a device, in the main, to shield itself from fallout about the state of the prairie and to pin the whole episode on Jacob Zuma via what I will go on to explain as a neat conspiracy theory.

Addressing that in Business Day last week, I wrote:

‘We are ever more certain that the past week’s events…arose from stagnating living standards… Our read of the relationship between living standards and protest action…informed our warnings to clients…that this blow-up was coming. Not one of those warnings was prompted by information that something was being planned. The police…did not identify the alleged conspiracy in advance, because there was nothing to identify. When the 12 “conspirators” are arrested, if they are, you will be struck…that these are…low-level hacks whose…elevation to masters of the dark arts of “regime change” will surprise none more than themselves…That such a force could have nudged SA’s socio-economic circumstances into such disorder means it is there, in the socio economics, that we must seek the explanation for what occurred…The enthusiasm for a neat conspiracy to explain all of the above, and pin it on Zuma, is an attempt to shield the current administration and organised business from culpability for the real problem, which is the absence of reforms and that life is not getting any better. Until this changes, the past week’s events will recur.’

Subsequently, Moeletsi Mbeki went on to tell Alec Hogg: ‘What is very clear is that the strategy of the government is to tell the population that this is a conspiracy. It is not because of poverty. This is an old trick the National Party used to use. The National Party used to say our blacks are happy, it is the communists who are creating trouble. The ANC is saying our blacks are happy. It’s either the Zulus or – then they realise that’s not quite kosher (the Zulu thing) – they say, “oh, it’s insurrectionists” … In my view, Cyril was targeting the whites, the white prejudices, let me say. He wanted to tell the whites that they are these Zulu bloodthirsty savages, but he’s going to deal with them using the army and the police. That was his strategy for allaying the white fears. Of course, the whites believed that they are Zulu bloodthirsty savages who have to be dealt with [by deploying] the army…Cyril knows how to manipulate the white population. He plays on their prejudices. He manipulates the black population as well.’  

We are, of course, aware that there are people who tweeted notes of incitement, that anarchic arrangements circulated on social media, and that meetings were held. We know that the storming of shopping centres was well planned and that armed men participated in some of those raids and moved from target to target. We know that ATM machines were expertly disabled and relieved of their contents and that fire equipment was disabled before some buildings were burned. 

But such things are part and parcel of most of the run-of-the-mill protest incidents, cash-in-transit heists, xenophobic eruptions, and ATM bombings that plague South Africa week in and week out. To the uninitiated they might seem like evidence of a grand conspiracy to overthrow the government, but it is pretty much par for the course stuff that has accompanied the rising tide of protests that I flagged in the charts in the first part of this series. 

Equally, there is probably some stirring of the institutional memory of people’s war (click on the link to find the seminal work on this) that caused such havoc pre-1994. That institutional memory will not have been lost on South African society, which explains why seemingly large groups were able to act with such apparent co-ordination. This was not our first rodeo. But none of this introduced a new factor into our politics and the ANC itself has used such tactics for much of the past 20 years to denigrate the opposition, incite racial animus against critics, and destabilise the Western Cape.

What I think will also become significant in dismantling the coup argument is that in totting up the infrastructure looted and damaged through the course of the riots you will see that buildings containing consumer goods and consumer durables, food and alcohol were targeted disproportionately relative to other infrastructure. If a coup was at play, such looting would be incidental to the interruption of the country’s communications, water, and electricity infrastructure, which would be necessary to sow sufficient chaos to remove the government and would therefore have been the primary target of the instigators.

There must be no doubt that there are trained people in our midst who know how to plan and execute coups, because they were trained in East Germany long ago. That throughout the events of a week ago the lights stayed on and so did the cell phones, whilst – for all the guns in evidence – there were few shooting battles with the army and the police, or the militia who stepped in in their stead, is to suggest that those people were not the instigators. 

Hence, we maintain that what we saw were the sparks that Mao had warned of and that those sparks are less important than the prairie. Sparks such as poverty will always be with us until a policy reformation delivers a growth recovery. Eliminating the sparks as long as the ANC governs South Africa, given the ideological influences on the party, is about as likely as the policies flowing from that ideology succeeding in their avowed ambitions – expropriation raising investment levels, increased labour market regulation eliminating unemployment, more state interference fixing schools, and race-based empowerment eliminating poverty.

Regrettably, the evidence of the past week is that not only the government but also much of the mainstream media, organised business, and civil society are going to try and cover their arses for having endorsed the Ramaphosa ‘reform’ narrative by playing up the insurrection thesis in order to claim that reform was well under way until Mr Ramaphosa’s adversaries and opponents stymied it via a coup attempt.

These are often the same people who tried to convince you that ‘state capture’ was the primary impediment to South Africa’s progress (when left-wing ideology in its government deserves an equal portion of the blame), or that things would get better if you ‘voted for Cyril’ (even though you could not vote for him but only for a very corrupt political party), and that he needed a ‘mandate threshold’ to deliver reforms (even though his party already commanded a sufficient majority to introduce all needed reforms), and then, until ten days ago, that a ‘rebirth’ and ‘recovery’ was under way (even though many economic and political markers have worsened under his tenure). It is not only the planners of coups who were trained in East Germany.

Our call is quite different and remains that there never has been a reform agenda. Writing on News24 last week and the Daily Friend on Sunday, I argued that ‘(we) remain prominent sceptics of Mr Ramaphosa’s reform credentials, whilst his government is in any event incapable of accepting, let along implementing, the deep and sweeping reform agenda that would be necessary to see the ANC replicate its earlier successes. Instead, as happened to those of the 1970s and 1980s, we see the present administration trapped in a fundamental contradiction; this time, between the need to grow the economy whilst at the same time affording considerable prominence to policies of expropriation and race-based edicts that serve as a brake on the investment to spur that growth’.

In a Centre for Risk Analysis note to clients this week we went on to explain that the primary opponents of reform are Mr Ramaphosa and his own government, writing that ‘(while) we are at it let us dismiss the idea that there are cunning influential opponents of reform who have to date prevented Mr Ramaphosa and his Cabinet from adopting the labour, education, and empowerment policy reforms, amongst others, that are necessary to improve socio-economic circumstances. We stake our reputation on there being no such persons outside of the Cabinet he appointed and his own political support base. His is not, in the main, a reformist government and its response to the blow-up is the starkest evidence yet that this will not change.’

In time, blame for what transpired a week ago will be apportioned. It is our strong sense that the coup or insurrection narrative was crafted to get Mr Ramaphosa and his government out of the way so that the blame did not land on their stunted reform efforts and lockdown decisions, and was instead neatly packaged, parcelled, addressed and dispatched to the erstwhile occupant of Nkandla.

  • Read part 3 of the series on what the government should be doing to head off the risk of a series of riots sweeping the country in the Daily Friend tomorrow.

[Image: Suhas RawoolChickenonline from Pixabay]

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Frans Cronje was educated at St John’s College in Houghton and holds a PHD in scenario planning. He has been at the IRR for 15 years and established its Centre for Risk Analysis as a scenario focused research unit servicing the strategic intelligence needs of corporate and government clients. It uses deep-dive data analysis and first hand political and policy information to advise groups with interests in South Africa on the likely long term economic, social, and political evolution of the country. He has advised several hundred South African corporations, foreign investors, and policy shapers. He is the author of two books on South Africa’s future and scenarios from those books have been presented to an estimated 30 000 people. He writes a weekly column for Rapport and teaches scenario based strategy at the business school of the University of the Free State.