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Editor's Q & A: Ramphele Launches Party and South Africa's Political Economy

Think Africa Press' editor answers your questions about South Africa's structural challenges, the ANC's dominance, and the significance of Ramphele and Ramaphosa.
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A dust cloud envelopes part of Johannesburg after a building is destroyed to make way for the Gautrain railway line. Photograph by Roger Gordon.

Mamphela Ramphele, former anti-apartheid activist, academic and businesswoman, launched a new party political platform to contest the 2014 elects today. What is the significance of this move and how successful could her party be?

Mamphela Ramphele’s foray into politics is more significant at demonstrating the cleavages in South African politics than for any eventual success it may have.

Her party, even if in an electoral alliance with all other opposition parties, will not challenge the ruling African National Congress (ANC) at the 2014 election. Despite the weight of criticism levelled at the ANC in 2012, its centenary year, there is little doubt that it will maintain its political dominance – the party won 66% of the vote in 2009 – come 2014.

Indeed, Ramphele must demonstrate that her new political force will primarily gain support from non-voters and ANC supporters rather than from the other opposition parties. Based on what her platform appears to be – the party is still in the consultative phase – it is likely to energise sections of the non-politically connected black middle classes, but will struggle to make serious inroads into the organised working class – which, in general, is firmly allied to the ANC – or the excluded townships. Ramphele is hoping to galvanise some rural support, especially in the Eastern Cape, correctly pointing out that its population has been disproportionately left behind in post-apartheid South Africa. However, the less densely populated and poorer provinces, like Limpopo and Mpumalanga, are impenetrable ANC strongholds – the ruling party has received over 80% of the vote in both provinces in every election since 1994.

One further obstacle to the party’s success could be its largest asset: Ramphele herself. Whilst she is an impressive speaker with an enviable CV, she might have a problem communicating in simple terms. In her party launch, she failed to put the main simple message up front – that she is starting a political party that will compete in the 2014 general elections. This should have been message number one. Instead, journalists covering the event were left wondering what a “party political platform” was and whether it would run in the elections until Ramphele clarified it later on. This inability to talk straightforwardly may lead to voters being unsure of what she stands for and means when she talks of developing a “South African consciousness”.

Ramphele’s party, called Agang (“Build” in SeSotho), could be more significant over the long-term in reshaping the political opposition to the ANC. Other than the Zulu nationalist Inkatha Freedom Party, which appears to be less significant every year, South Africa’s opposition has either been too splintered or too white to succeed. The main opposition party, The Democratic Alliance (DA), has made real efforts to broaden its appeal outside white and minority voters, but they are yet to make significant inroads into the black vote, which represents the overwhelming majority. Today, Ramphele spoke about bringing the opposition together. This means some form of relationship with the DA, which previously made efforts to get Ramphele to join the party in a senior position, and also with COPE, a splinter from the ANC, formed after President Jacob Zuma’s ascendancy over former president Thabo Mbeki at the 2007 party conference in Polokwane.

Like Ramphele’s Agang, COPE was warmly welcomed by critics of the ANC who realised that while the DA might increase its vote, it would never be a majority party in its current form. COPE performed adequately in the 2009 election, winning nearly 8% of the vote, but has since become increasingly insignificant as leadership struggles and a lack of ideological coherence eat away at support. If Ramphele can forge an alliance with the DA, COPE and an array of smaller parties, whilst bringing on board other critics of the ANC – such as Thabo Mbeki’s brother Moeletsi, former minister under Nelson Mandela and trade unionist Jay Naidoo, or HIV activist Zackie Achmat – then the ANC will find itself faced with an opposition it cannot simply dismiss.

After 2014, this united or semi-united opposition may be able to influence political discourse with single issue campaigns around corruption and constitutionalism. Ramphele has already signalled her desire to campaign after 2014 to change the electoral system from party list proportional representation to first-past-the-post. The success of this opposition, it seems, will primarily be about what it manages to get the ANC to do or not do in government.

Whilst the ANC is an extremely broad church, it is unlikely an opposition alliance of all those critical of the ANC would be able to form a similarly coherent government. For example, regarding state involvement in the economy, Ramphele seems to take a pragmatic stance – she has called for less state intervention in the mining industry as a form of opposition to ANC control over the sector and as a criticism of Black Economic Empowerment (BEE), but has actively called for state intervention in other circumstances, for example, in rural development in the Eastern Cape. On the other hand, the DA’s neo-classical approach leads them to suggest that any state intervention in the economy distorts economic equilibria. While they can both talk about wanting a high skills economy and the importance of supporting entrepreneurs when in opposition, the kind of radical overhaul of South Africa’s political economy implied by Ramphela’s thorough-going critique of ANC rule would lead to impossible differences in government.

Cyril Ramaphosa, one of South Africa’s richest men, was elected to the position of ANC deputy president in December. Is this an indication that the party is increasingly pro-market?

It really depends what you mean by pro-market. Ramaphosa has no particular strong commitment to market liberalism. The cleavages within the ANC do not stem from conflicting views about the morality or efficacy of “market forces” over “state-intervention”. Ramaphosa is seen as being pro-business, but this does not necessarily reflect liberal economic viewpoints. Indeed, Ramaphosa did not get rich through open market competition of the sort theorised by Adam Smith. He predominantly made his money through his political connectivity, which you could categorise as being anti-market. Viewing him as either pro-market or anti-market, or the ANC as a whole in that light, fails to understand what has happened in post-apartheid political economy.

Ramaphosa, and the ANC as a whole, has been generally pro-business since 1994 although in differing ways and not really for deep-seated market liberal beliefs.

During transition, the ANC pursued policies which were extremely friendly to white and international economic interests. They did this for two main reasons. Firstly, the ANC was aware of the carnage that international markets could wreak if they did not follow neoliberal strictures – this was, after all, the height of shock therapy economic theory for ‘transition economies’ – and it did not know how to combat this. Secondly, if the government did not ease the fears of white elites, there was a very real risk of a white minority coup or broader civil strife. The ANC’s abandonment of a social democratic development model for a neoliberal one represented its acceptance of an ongoing economically dominant role for white elites and the belief this was necessary to secure a peaceful political transition.

Since transition, the ANC has also pursued pro-business policies out of self-interest. It formed companies to fund itself, like Chancellor House. This, along with the elevation of senior party cadres to the ranks of millionaires via BEE, has inherently tied ANC policy to the economic interests of its senior members and main funders – many of whom make their money from state contracts, connections, or are the black junior partner for larger white businesses.

Ramaphosa, then, is part of one elite pact which has developed out of the original pact between white elites and senior ANC figures at transition. He represents the links between the business interests of a new black elite and that group’s support from the upper reaches of the ANC and trade union movement. Ramaphosa is, in fact, almost the preeminent example of this. He was Secretary-General of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), Secretary-General of the ANC, then became a Rand billionaire and shareholder in the mining sector, including the Lonmin mine where the Marikana massacre took place last year, and now is the best placed person to succeed Jacob Zuma.

Ramaphosa’s elevation doesn’t make the ANC any more pro-market or ideologically more pro-private-sector-led rather than state-led development. It is simply a stark example of the interests at play within the ANC.

How resilient is the ruling tripartite alliance of the ANC, South Africa Communist Party (SACP) and Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU)? What could lead to its collapse?

The tripartite alliance is resilient due to the strong institutional links between the three elements. Whilst many members of COSATU and SACP are intensely critical of the policies of the ANC-led government, this alone does not represent a threat to the alliance. The SACP is run with strong internal party discipline and has been described as Stalinist. Its leadership is firmly tied into Zuma’s government – SACP leader Blade Nzimande sits in the cabinet – and these bonds are not breaking.

COSATU’s internal politics pose more of a threat to the alliance. Many trade unionists are desperate for a change in policy direction and COSATU’s secretary-general Zwelinzima Vavi is an outspoken critic of the government. However, the largest union in COSATU, the NUM, is firmly allied to Jacob Zuma.

Whilst the three parts of the alliance have different interests and the differences between them are clear, at the level of leadership they are too close to fall apart. The figure of Gwede Mantashe perfectly illustrates this point. He is the current Secretary-General of the ANC, he was until last year the chairperson of the SACP, and was previously Secretary-General of the NUM. As long as figures like Mantashe are at the top of the alliance it will not break apart.

Indeed, any weakness in the alliance comes more from within its constituent elements than between them. We are already seeing a crisis in the NUM which was exposed by the Marikana massacre. It is possible that a shop floor led revolt against union leaders, and therefore the ANC, could still shake up the alliance from the left, especially if that movement teamed up with other activist groupings which sit outside the ANC on the left, such as the Shack Dwellers movement Abahlali baseMjondolo. 

Will the government’s proposed $112 billion infrastructure spending solve the country’s economic woes? Should the government be focussing more on the private sector?

Infrastructure spending is a key part of South Africa’s National Development Plan (NDP), which will now be the focus of government policy. The plan’s aim is to radically reduce poverty and inequality by 2030. It broadly falls within the ANC’s concept of a second transition. The first was in 1994 and was political; the second will be social and economic and is to be achieved by 2030.

South Africa needs to upgrade its infrastructure – not only because of its hoped for multiplier effects, the fact it could kick-start an up-skilling of the labour force, and the social and economic returns on investment it should create – but because South Africa’s current infrastructure is a brutal daily reminder of the physical geography of the oppression of apartheid. South Africa’s population distribution, transportation network, geographic patterns of employment, urban planning, waste disposal systems and distribution of industry still follow the purposefully exclusionary patterns of apartheid. These long lasting physical manifestations are grossly unjust and inefficient for South Africa’s economic and development needs.

There have been some legitimate fears that the government’s infrastructure spending will be plagued by corruption and mismanagement, with ‘tenderpreneurs’ winning contracts and failing to deliver. But infrastructural renewal is too important to be ignored because of the possibility of corruption. It is up to civil society organisations, the media and the citizenry in general to police this key plank of South Africa’s development model from corruption.

A less legitimate criticism has been that the focus on state infrastructure crowds out private sector businesses. This critique fails for four reasons. Firstly and simply, the NDP does not only focus on infrastructure but also on private sector growth. Secondly, the private sector will be developed through the infrastructure spending. Businesses who work in this and associated sectors will now be able to invest in increasing their capacities, machinery and skills of their workforce, safe in the knowledge that demand for their goods and services will be strong from now until 2030. Thirdly, while shocking numbers of South Africans are out of work, vacancies go unfilled. This huge government spending will increase employment, providing important experience and training for many who are unemployed. This should help alleviate one of the main gripes South African employers have about South African workers – that they are under-skilled. Fourthly, the sheer scale of the infrastructural challenge cannot be completed by non-coordinated private action alone. South Africa’s infrastructural problems were created by the apartheid state to create a small successful economy, surrounded by a large poor one which would feed the former. To too much of an extent, South Africa’s economy hasn’t covered over this split. South Africa will not engage in broad-based development if these fundamental structural issues are not dealt with. And many of these fundamental structural issues are physical, require radical infrastructural change and only the state has the ability and perhaps legitimacy to make these changes.

Development of South Africa's physical infrastructure alone will not end South Africa's economic difficulties. Social infrastructure, especially education, needs to be prioritised. South Africa's education system performs appallingly in international rankings and is not equipping enough of the population with the requisite skills, knowledge and empowerment to drive the country forwards. Without real and dramatic improvements in this sector, whose weakness is in large part a legacy of Apartheid's Bantu education system, improvements to the country's physical infrastructure will not be enough.

There are often calls for South Africa’s assets to be nationalised. Is this likely to happen?

South Africa's mines will not be nationalised. Jacob Zuma's State of the Nation Address last week made that clear. It is opposed by business, which is a powerful force in South African politics as discussed above, and also by the left of the alliance.

Business' opposition to mine nationalisation needs little explanation. It is felt that mine nationalisation would set a dangerous precedent for the power of the state over the power of private property (which is enshrined in the constitution), that it would lead to a less efficiently run sector, and that it would discourage foreign investment.

The alliance left's opposition requires a little more explanation. The ANC’s left, whilst generally sympathetic to arguments that South Africa’s vast mineral resources should be put to work in the service of the broad mass of the population, oppose nationalisation for four reasons. Firstly, they worry that nationalisation is simply a front by BEE mining magnates who wish to socialise their loses and then take senior management positions in the new state owned enterprises. Secondly, several of South Africa’s mines are sacking workers. This follows the global pattern of mining becoming less labour intensive and more capital intensive. The alliance does not want to be in the position of management in an industry where many see job losses as inevitable. Thirdly, the NUM hierarchy is seen to have a very cosy relationship with current owners and management. It is possible that those at the top of the NUM do not want to jeopardise this closeness by coming out in favour of nationalisation. Fourthly, knowing the industry’s structural problems as many on the left do, some are in favour of expending political capital on increasing the amount of value-added production inside South Africa rather than owning the first step of the mining chain.

Wholesale mine nationalisation is unlikely to happen. However, this does not mean that the political issue of mining is going to go away. Every job cut and strike now has great political importance after Marikana, not to mention that the sector is South Africa’s most dominant. Nationalisation will continue to play a significant role in South Africa’s political debate although it will never come about. Every time something happens in South Africa’s troubled and crucial mining industry, whether good or bad, the question of nationalisation will raise its head, exciting some and worrying others.

If you have any further questions you would like our editor-in-chief to answer or suggest issues for future Q & As, you can tweetfacebook or email us your questions at editor@thinkafricapress.com.

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