On the Quality of South Africa's Democracy

timthumbNow that the dust has settled on the 2011 local government elections and the frenzied one-upmanship of the leading political parties has momentarily calmed down, its time to take a long hard look at the results of the South African people’s most recent exercise in democracy.

Much has been made of the gains that the Democratic Alliance (DA) made on the African National Congress (ANC), but the ANC still won the election and continues to govern all the major cities except for Cape Town.

The latest salvo in the debate on local government elections is President Jacob Zuma’s announcement, during his budget vote in the National Assembly on 14 June 2011, that government is exploring the idea of a single election for national, provincial and local government. This idea has of course raised the displeasure of opposition parties who hold more sway at the local level and perceive the recent shift in voting patterns as evidence of a vote of no confidence in the ANC.

In the media and amongst election commentators the focus has mostly been on the fact that the DA won many votes amongst the black middle classes. These commentators argue that the success of the DA is a good thing because having a strong opposition is good for democracy. They also say that people are beginning to vote outside of racial and tribal affiliations (Of course it’s not clear why black people voting for a white party is “good for democracy” and evidence of voting on “non-tribal lines,” while white people voting for a black party isn’t).

Somewhere in all of this is the great liberal hope for a historical trajectory – one often articulated by Helen Zille – that in time the ANC will split into its liberal and nationalist-communist wings and that the ANC liberals will make common cause with the DA and we will have a kind of triumph of the liberal project.

The DA has long trumpeted South Africa’s Constitution and the current order, the separation of executive from the judiciary, the rule of law and so on, as liberal triumphs at the negotiations which took place from 1989 to 1994. In this view, South Africa has been a bit of an anomaly: a liberal dispensation presided over by a nationalist-communist alliance. So the DA’s performance in 2011 is the first rung in the ladder of this anticipated trajectory and thus cause for celebration.

From the side of the ANC, interestingly enough, despite the decline in votes, the elections are also cause for celebration.            

The ANC achieved more than 63% of the votes, only slightly down on the 66% it achieved at the last local government elections in 2006. The ANC claimed that the significance of the victory was that it was achieved despite the media being pro-DA or the fact that “minorities” didn’t vote for it.

These celebratory exercises, by both the current governing party and the aspirant one, show that there is a great deal of convergence between the ANC and the DA. 

Of course they compete, sometimes stridently and passionately, the way Manchester United and Barcelona do, but the rules are laid out and respected and the outcome is accepted without question by both sides.

The ANC’s role in achieving this state of existence cannot be underestimated and it has every right to be upset that its credentials to preside over this order - rather than the DA for instance - is so under-recognised by the media and the predominantly white middle classes.

Indeed, how much the ANC has transformed itself in the service of solving the great South African conundrum is remarkably unappreciated.

How is it possible to deliver (largely) white entitlement, wealth and security in a sea of (mostly) black poverty, and still emerge with political credibility and stability?

What commentators in 1994 used to call the South African “miracle” – the peaceful settlement to a seemingly intractable problem – lives on today in the form of apartheid ghettos, 40% unemployment and the extreme wealth and success of corporate South Africa.

In response to this potential powder keg, the ANC has successfully managed to keep the institutions of the current order intact and functional.

How could it do so?

Precisely because it still carries the legitimacy of having been a liberation movement.

As such, the ANC is the “broad church” from Nelson Mandela to Tokyo Sexwale and Pravin Gordhan to Julius Malema. The ANC’s qualification to manage the new South Africa is precisely that it can take along with it, COSATU, the SACP and the angry, frustrated black middle classes. It can provide a home for these elements, rely on the ongoing votes of the working class and poor (a constituency that it has long abandoned) and yet deliver a balanced budget, a strong Rand, and membership of the BRICS.

The ANC has never canvassed elections on the basis of reminding whites of their own complicity in apartheid’s savagery. In both provinces where they had to contend with the possibilities of regional challenges, the Western Cape and Kwazulu Natal, they did not expose the role of Buthelezi’s IFP in killing thousands of activists or the Nationalist Party in forced removals. Instead, they placed reconciliation above settling scores.

The ANC has tried so desperately to be the “great South African party,” the natural party of governance, technically competent and showing statesmanlike qualities. The latter includes the CODESA negotiations, the sunset clauses, the concessions to white capital, the merging with the Nats, including “Die Stem” in the national anthem, sending Tony Leon to Argentina as ambassador, giving a Deputy Minister position to the Freedom Front’s Pieter Mulder, committing to consultation on everything, supporting the Springboks…the list goes on.

This was not just, as some would claim, a “Mandela Project.” Remember he always said that he was just a “disciplined member of the ANC.”

To stand back and reflect on this phenomenon a little more globally, this is what political parties, now referred to as the “centre left,” with historically plebeian electoral support, are so ideally suited for. They have the necessary political credibility to carry out unpopular programmes. Who is carrying out the most far-reaching austerity programme in Spain today? The Socialist Party. Who is knuckling down to carrying out the IMF’s demand that everything must be privatised in Greece? Why, PASOK, the Greek Socialist Party, of course.

Who had the moral authority to implement GEAR, to help the South African monopolies go global, to cut corporate tax and yet preside over a country with the highest inequality in the world without unleashing a revolution? Why, the ANC, of course.

Remember when white people hoarded candles and tins of baked beans in preparation for the 1994 elections? Well the collapse didn’t come.

Remember the doomsday books written about what would happen “when Mandela goes?” Well he went and the whites continued to do very nicely, thank you very much.

Remember when the much-maligned “cold” Mbeki (but at least he’s one of us and speaks good English) was being kicked out by the frightening Zuma of the “bring me my machine gun” fame? Well, Mbeki was kicked out and Zuma smoothed himself out. Okay, so he still has too many wives and girlfriends, but he appointed the highly professional, Pravin Gordhan as Finance Minister, Trevor Manuel as Planning Minister and the Freedom Front’s Pieter Mulder into the cabinet -- and it was business as usual.

The ANC has delivered every time.

So you might have to put up with being insulted by Julius Malema and cringe at the boorish manners of the nouveau riche, Kenneth Kunene. But, as they say, “Africa is not for sissies.” Surely it’s a small price to pay for that holiday home in Plet?

Of course this is not a project of liberation or social justice (the historical mandate of the ANC when it was still a liberation movement). It is a project in which all the institutions of the current order are respected and taken as a point of departure even for those in opposition to the ANC. Economic policy is not even debated by the political parties in parliament (what is the DA’s economic policy anyway?).

On the issue of macro economic policy, all accept GEAR and its neo-liberal prescriptions as inviolate. This consensus extends beyond the ANC and the DA. It includes the succession debates within the ANC and the various contenders for leadership within the party.

And the service delivery issue? Well the ANC says that’s not about policy or resources. That’s just about getting counsellors to sign performance contracts and knuckle down and do the job. The DA also says that the policies are fine and that the resources are there. It’s just that the ANC appoints the wrong people for the job because of “cadre deployment.”

This is not to suggest that the ANC entered this scenario wilfully and with full knowledge of its responsibility to keep the old order intact. No, the ANC made its choices between 1989 and 1994 on a much simpler objective: compromise now to get political power and then use the political spaces to build a broader transformation.

Its strategy was to use the institutions of the state and complement these by reaching out to a broader “South Africanism” to ensure that everyone accepted their credentials as the party, which could be trusted with the new order.

But the ANC underestimated the stranglehold of South Africa’s monopolies and white intransigence, as well as the neo-liberal ethos dominating the world today. And it underestimated how morally corrosive the trappings of power would be, and how much a class of beneficiaries would emerge for which political power is not a vehicle for social transformation but for personal enrichment and aggrandisement.

The transformation of the ANC is now complete.

How have the beneficiaries responded?

White monopoly capital takes an extremely anti-developmental approach, while the white middle classes find the ANC’s lack of sophistication intolerable despite enjoying the best living standards in the world. And the black born-frees? Well, they’ve got the same benefits as their white counterparts and they share the same concerns – so it’s the DA for them.

But what does this say about the quality of our democracy?

What this says is that our democracy has been reduced to a choice between rival technocrats rather than contesting different policies though mobilisation and campaigning. This is called taking the politics out of politics.

But outside this politics of consensus, of the crowded middle, something else is happening.

What the elections reveal, is a declining sense of expectation amongst working class people that things will change. In their estimation political power is about little more than corruption and patronage. Despite improved voter turnout, the overall large election stay-away speaks to this disillusionment, rather than the development of any revolutionary consciousness amongst the poor.

Where the working class votes, it votes in the main for the only party where there is any hope of gaining anything immediate, not as a class, but as individuals or individual communities wanting very basic things, such as a plot of ground to build a shack, water connections or a social grant.

And that is what the ANC can provide. This is the ANC where the counsellor will put in a good word about a house, or follow up on a request for a plot of serviced land. This is not the ANC of liberation or something grand.

Just 17 years after the people first won the right to vote, after almost a century of struggling for the franchise, this is the most damning comment on the current neo-liberal order in South Africa.

This article was first published online here: http://www.sacsis.org.za/site/article/689.1

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