It’s uncontroversial to say these days that South Africa is in the grip of a collective sense of doom.
It seems that the only piece of good news we’ve heard in the last 17 months came our way thanks to Tatjana Schoenmaker. For the rest, it’s a bleak picture, even by South African expectations, so diminished by corrosive decline and decay over the past decade.
Yet amidst this fog of worry, I cannot help but be moved to frustration by the defeatism that permeates the country – especially among freedom-minded people who believe in the core tenets of classical liberalism: property rights, free markets, and freedom of speech.
This was to me most tellingly betrayed at a recent webinar, where a man whose ideas have more often than not been sound and clear suggested as a grand solution to the country’s woes the idea of a Government of National Healing (GNH) – a rainbow government in which all political parties exercise governance in some way, and work together to solve everything. In essence, a kumbaya government.
This is not the first time this sort of idea has been floated as a solution to South Africa’s dysfunctional body politic. Time and time again, well-meaning but naïve individuals float political and constitutional gimmicks aimed at getting folks to ‘just work together’ as the great vaccination against the South African disease. Consensus and collaboration between disparate entities are presented as some sort of silver bullet for the plague of ills that have led South Africans into despair, desperation and deprivation.
But let’s unpack this idea of a kumbaya government by looking at its fundamental failings.
First, we must acknowledge the incapacitating impracticality of this sort of gimmick.
The closest South Africa has come to an arrangement of this kind was the Government of National Unity (GNU) that lasted from 1994 to 1997.
It is tempting to look back at this period as some sort of golden age of governance, and there might be some merit to this. But to do this without seeing the GNU’s culmination in, if not failure, then irrelevance, would be shortsighted. The GNU, for all its shine and sparkle, was dominated by the ANC and could, for all practical purposes, be considered an ANC government. True, it was a relatively moderate and even pragmatic ANC government, but it’s hard to look back and see it as anything other than a temporary stopgap aimed at reassuring the hesitant and the doubtful that constitutional democracy could replace apartheid’s grand collapse with some measure of stability.
The GNU, far from including opposition parties in the exercise of power, essentially achieved a convenient political victory for the ANC by excluding opposition parties from actually being in opposition. It was arguably the absurd political gymnastics of trying to both serve in government and be the parliamentary opposition that sank the rebranded and re-blanded National Party in 1999. If one’s objective is to irrevocably sink the already dodgy notion of political opposition in South Africa, a low-budget rerun of the GNU in the form of some sort of GNH is most definitely the way to go.
Second, we must consider the ideological wishful thinking in these notions of governments of national hand-holding.
In Parliament, we have parties that want the government to spend more, and parties that want the government to spend less; parties that want the government to protect property rights, and parties that want the government to suspend them; parties that want the government to actively impose apartheid-era racism on the country, and parties that want to see the non-racialism of our Constitution made manifest; parties that want an expanded role for the state, and parties that want a restricted role for the state. I could go on.
At irreconcilable odds
The point is that, as should be the case in any democracy, there are political ideologies and ideas at irreconcilable odds with each other. While common ground on some areas might be found on an ad hoc basis – as should in reality happen in mature representative democracies in the passage of legislation – it is farcical to imagine a unitarian government of clashing party colours lasting for any sensible length of time while sliced every which way with the blade of ideological opposition. Surely, it is not too much to ask that governments should at the very least strive for ideological coherence and a raison d’être, the pursuit of a feasible-sounding programme of government. To imagine that a kumbaya government of gimmickry could even rise to the dignity of succeeding in papering over ideological cracks is delusional. We’re not dealing with cracks and paper here, but with chasms and wet tissue.
This leads me into the third point of weakness of kumbayaism: its utter pointlessness.
A living baby cannot be chopped up and divided between two mothers without the fundamental characteristic of the living baby being annulled. If there’s no point in having a child halved, what on earth could be the point in having a government sliced into more slices than an ANC birthday cake?
Government of national blah-blah
What would be the point of this government of national blah-blah? What is the problem to which this Frankenstein’s monster politic could possibly offer anything resembling a solution? Is the problem the stagnant economy? If so, how can a schizophrenic government put forward an economic policy that coheres enough to reverse the decline we’ve seen over the last almost two decades? Is the problem endemic corruption? If so, how can the Jekylls and the Hydes of Covid looting, VBS, state capture, all the descendant brats of Mbeki’s arms deal, possibly be a solution? Is the problem societal or racial disunity? If so, how can people who represent the boer and those who want to kill him find Kumbaya Camelot?
Beyond the political and ideological non-starter-ness of this sort of idea, there hangs a cosmic, existential, Solomonic ‘why the…?’ over the whole thing.
I can genuinely appreciate the goodwill of the proponents of political and constitutional kumbaya gimmicks, but these ideas betray something more fundamentally troubling than both the state of the country and the vacuity of kumbayaism – they betray the extent to which people who should know better have simply given up.
If the South African disease is, as I have long held, political apathy, then political fatalism is the HIV to apathy’s AIDS.
From the playground to Parliament and politics, it is too often telling that those who want to change the rules to suit themselves are the ones who know they cannot win the game. A superficial glance at the state of affairs might lead one to conclude that political kumbayaism is the best way to moderate the effects of the NDR in its fullest, scythe-like swing. The totted-up 2019 vote share of the ANC and EFF, after all, amounts to a percentage similar to that of the ANC’s vote share in 1994. Disastrous policies dominate the political debate – from NHI to expropriation without compensation. Parliament has become a circus and news reporting on politics conveys almost nothing but horror for anyone interested in a functioning, non-racial, free South Africa.
Let’s get real
But let’s get real about what’s going on in the country. Let’s seriously test whether South Africa is truly ANCEFF-land.
The vote share of the ANC in 1994 represented a majority of South Africans of voting age. The 57% of the vote the ANC achieved in 2019 represents less than 30% of the votes of South Africans of voting age. Out of the roughly 36 million people who could have voted in 2019, fewer than 12 million people cast their votes for the ANC/EFF. When I usually raise these data points to illustrate the fact that South Africa is not the fertile ground for radical, racist, socialist policies that too many think it is, the retort is that I don’t know the political or even ideological persuasion of the growing number of non-voting adults in South Africa. This is true, but only to an extent.
Whether you look at Gallup data, IRR data, data from polling commissioned by RW Johnson or even the ANC’s own internal polling data prior to the 2019 elections, a clear picture emerges of a country that can be saved.
A majority of South Africans remain in favour of free market economics. A majority of South Africans buy into non-racialism. A majority of South Africans see jobs, education, housing, and a victory in the battle against crime as the pressing priorities of our country. The moderate middle, to use that staple phrase, exists quite clearly. The precise size of this grouping of sensible, moderate, reasonable ordinary South Africans might be up for debate, but that it represents a number sufficiently large to turn the tide were its members to re-engage politically, is beyond dispute.
Both John Kane-Berman and Frans Cronje have always maintained that the people of South Africa are a countervailing force to the dangers of the two fires of race nationalism and a socialist NDR state. The data suggests even today that they are right and have been right all along.
While it is lamentable that a significant chunk of South Africans have disengaged politically and electorally, it should be seen as a motivator to all those who seek sustainable, feasible solutions that the political and democratic chaos we’re experiencing does not fundamentally reflect the will, hopes or ambitions of the majority of South Africa’s people.
While this doesn’t tell us that all is well and that we can hashtag our country into shape, it does, or at least should, ram the point home that the game is not yet up. While we might ‘looks at the scoreboard’ and see a slim chance of victory for freedom, we fall into the nonsense of kumbayaism only if we forget that we’re trying to play a game without our star players on the field. There’s only one way to turn the tide and to have South Africa achieve its potential: to abandon the gimmicks of kumbaya politics, and to get real about engaging ordinary people in the battle of ideas.
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