Who Rules South Africa? by BBC World Service Africa Editor Martin Plaut and researcher and analyst Paul Holden is an up-to-date survey of the South African political landscape whose launch coincides with the two important landmarks for South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC). 2012 marks not only the organisation’s centenary year but also its five-yearly leadership contest which will be held in Mangaung this December.
After one hundred years, the ANC is exhausted and its dynamic reputation as a party of the people is being challenged by its inability to maintain internal cohesion whilst simultaneously having to straddle the interests of its myriad stakeholders and political creditors. But while Who Rules South Africa? is very much a story about the ANC and the situation in which it now finds itself, it is also a story about the challenges to its legitimacy as a party of the people given its failure to deliver services and economically liberate the poorest South Africans. This increasingly sticky inequality may yet prove to be the biggest threat to South Africa’s peace and prosperity.
Plaut and Holden conclude that while it is obvious that the ANC rules South Africa, there are many forces acting on it that make the question ‘who rules South Africa?’ a complex one to answer. The most important of these factors is its longstanding and increasingly fragile tri-partite alliance with the South African Communist Party (SACP) and South Africa's largest trade union federation COSATU. In addition, the ANC is facing a downward spiral into endemic corruption, the dark spectre of organised crime, unresolved kickbacks from the arms deal, political debts to the oligarchs of Black Economic Empowerment policies, and increasing resistance from civil society.
Think Africa Press asked the authors to elaborate on the complex question of who rules South Africa.
Plaut: Clearly the country is run by the ANC, but through an alliance with the Communist Party and the trade unions. But there are also other influences that work upon it such as powerful, organised crime and corruption that erodes the ability of any government to act.
[Service delivery] is the biggest problem for both the ANC and the people of South Africa. Another problem is the proportional representation system, which means you don’t have MPs representing a town or a village. It dilutes responsibility to the people. MPs are responsible to the party and the party bosses.
Also, if you look at the treatment of Andrew Feinstein [who resigned from the ANC in 2001 after the party rejected his calls for an investigation in South Africa’s arms deals], it is clear what will happen if you do not follow the party line.
In retrospect, my main criticism of the book is that we did not look at the old white business elite. This is a key issue we failed to mention – the dog that doesn’t bark. They are much quieter than they have been in the past, but they still wield a lot of influence and have access to the ANC. But they don’t bark.
Holden: There is an additional element at play. That is, a poor, largely unemployed underclass that is dominated by young, politically-active individuals, who have been at the forefront of service delivery protests. The chapter on service delivery highlights the sheer extent of service delivery protests – two million people were participating in these, year on year, from at least 2008 onwards. This is a very significant section of the population who have engaged in frontline activism.
Plaut and Holden’s book is a thorough survey of South African politics and the history of the alliance in particular. It could benefit from being cut down at least 100 pages, however, and instead of offering original food for thought, it mainly presents issues from the existing "canon" of South African political analysis with sprinklings of new insights and perspectives. The book overall relies strongly on South African journalism. While this is a testimony to the quality of investigative journalism that still exists in the country, many sections could have benefited from more primary interviews rather than extracts from secondary sources.
Think Africa Press asked the authors about their use of sources, their decisions regarding the structure of the book and what new perspective they hoped to highlight?
Plaut: We thought about who the audience would be. For the South African audience, it helps them remember what actually happened and how to situate it. As regards journalism in South Africa, it is really fantastic, but you know when you’re journalist it’s like wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am, you don’t have time to situate it in broader historical trends. Also, many other [non-South African] audiences have never seen this kind of information.
Holden: I can't talk to Martin's research methods, but I generally agree that the text could have been enlivened with more primary interviews. The difficulty I faced is that, in at least three of my chapters, getting quotes from primary sources was nearly impossible. Would the Arms Deal chapter be better with Chippy Shaik's input? Definitely! Is that likely to happen? Not until hell freezes over!
We might be covering ground or referencing material [the academic reader] has already encountered. Our intended audience, however, was not the academic community (or certainly not exclusively), but all South Africans with an interest in the political economy of their country.
While the historical sections of the book may be familiar territory to some, the succeeding sections – ‘The Way In: Money, Money Money’ and ‘New Centres of Power, New Contests’ – do well to scrutinise the ANC’s structures of party funding and assess its bankrolling by despots such as Indonesia’s Suharto and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. These chapters also assess the depressing fact that “black economic empowerment” policies have further oppressed working class and poor South Africans by creating a black oligarch class that tries to socialise losses and privatise profits. Plaut’s section on the failure of land reform and Holden’s section on service delivery protests furthermore introduce fresh perspectives on the complexity of South Africa’s challenges.
One leaves this book with a heavy sigh of pessimism after the relentless battering of gruesome scandals and statistics around the arms deal, misuse of intelligence and judiciary, the encroachment on press freedom, and grinding poverty. Apart from the silver lining of rising civil society and the development of a functioning opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, the book mostly paints a picture of doom and gloom.
Think Africa Press asked Plaut and Holden whether it they believed it would be justifiable to label their outlook as pessimistic.
Plaut: I am neither an optimist nor a pessimist. I report on things as they are. The ANC itself has acknowledged that 90% of its land reform has failed. Education is worse than it was under apartheid. That is just atrocious. You don’t have to be a pessimist to object that a known drug dealer could have such access to the chief of police.
The strength of South Africa’s constitution is something to be proud about, as is the role of the media. Ultimately the measure is what you can report about the election. In a functioning democracy the politicians should be scared and the voters should feel strong. Unfortunately in South Africa, voters are feeling increasingly powerless. But I remain positive about South Africa – it has this amazing ability to always come back from the edge.
Holden: Are we overly pessimistic and is that pessimism self-fulfilling? I would argue no. The book is about power, and that means a large focus on South Africa's political class. And, unfortunately, South Africa's political class is far from impressive – in fact, they are distressing, particularly in relation to their limited appreciation of democratic niceties, the rule of law and penchant for corrupt accumulation. Am I cynical about this class? Definitely. Does that mean I'm pessimistic about South Africa? Absolutely not.
The book, I believe, shows that there are fantastically smart, capable and committed democrats in civil society, the media, the law profession – in fact, almost everywhere you look – and that most South Africans are not only highly politically-literate but committed to democratic governance. Much of South Africa's recent political history has been about the confrontation between these democrats and the current political class, and I still believe that despite the depredations of that political class, there are limits to its powers of accumulation and dismemberment. That much is clear from the fact that the Secrecy Bill has been so effectively resisted despite the considerable resources of the state and its intelligence agencies being deployed to ensure that it passes.
Asked for predictions around the Manguang contest and whether President Jacob Zuma would prevail, both authors answered only with the caveat that accurately predicting the future is not a skill they possess.
Plaut: I think Zuma has been underestimated, and he is extremely shrewd. For example, nobody knows what he was doing during exile.
Holden: I do think that the odds are currently stacked in Jacob Zuma's favour. Not only is he the incumbent, and thus able to leverage patronage and resources not available to other contenders, but he is perhaps the finest politician in South Africa's recent history. Consider that in 2005 he was released from his position as Deputy President, facing a raft of corruption [and later rape] charges and reportedly financially strained. Within four years, he headed the ANC, had his corruption charges overthrown, and was clearly able to secure the financial backing of a number of powerful people. That is the stuff of a masterful political player, and not one to be trifled with.
[Regarding the tri-partite alliance] there are many variables at play, not least what the outcome of Mangaung 2012 will be. If Zuma emerges as the winner, it is easy to foresee a deepening of the divisions between COSATU and the ANC, although it seems that by bringing both Blade Nzimande and Jeremy Cronin [General-Secretary and Deputy General-Secretary of the South African Communist Party (SACP) respectively] into the fold of government, Zuma has ensured that the SACP is generally on side. It is certainly less vituperative in its criticism of the ANC under Zuma than it was when Mbeki was in power.
If Zuma is not re-elected at Mangaung, the situation is equally fluid, although it seems that the coalition that would bring Zuma's opponent to power [reportedly centred on the Youth League and its more traditionally Africanist elements] may sit awkwardly with COSATU once more. Then there is the role of Zwelinzima Vavi [General-Secretary of COSATU] himself, and the question as to whether he will be able to retain his position at COSATU. The simple truth is that the tripartite alliance, for all its historic achievements and power, is an alliance that is seething with contradictions and discontinuities.
"Who Rules South Africa?" by Martin Plaut and Paul Holden was published on August 2, 2012, by Biteback Publishing.
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