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  1. The Weekend Report
18 May 2024

The future starts in South Africa

The country’s political disintegration offers a glimpse into how Western democracies could fail.

By Benjamin Fogel

In Cape Town on 2 January 2022, a mysterious fire broke out in South Africa’s parliament. According to the subsequent testimony by Zandile Christmas Mafe, the man accused of torching the National Assembly, he said that he started the fire to prevent President Cyril Ramaphosa from delivering his State of the Nation address. A psychiatric evaluation diagnosed Christmas Mafe with schizophrenia.

More than two years on, parliament remains a burned-out ruin; repairs have yet to commence and there is still no satisfactory explanation of what happened to the seat of South African democracy. There is perhaps no better metaphor for the state of the nation as it goes to the polls on 29 May than the unrepaired ruins of parliament, destroyed in an arson attack with no real explanation of how and why.

South African political writing tends to overindulge in sentimentality. Talk of miracles and redemption overshadows more concrete questions of political economy. Exceptionalism is the starting point, both by those who celebrate and those who reject “rainbow nationalism”: South Africa as the miracle nation that peacefully overcame apartheid and built a multiracial democracy in its place. Even the standard critiques of South African exceptionalism reproduce it by asserting that the failures or betrayals of the post-apartheid settlement were uniquely evil or utterly disastrous. Everything is unique, historically significant, and the points of comparison are not the mundane experiences of other countries plagued by socio-economic inequality or have already experienced decolonisation and its disappointments. But South Africa is not unique or an exception, it provides a window into possible futures.

Thirty years after South Africa’s first democratic election, the country is on the verge of the most important ballot since the end of apartheid. The ruling African National Congress (ANC), which has won every election since 1994, is confronting the prospect of losing its 50 per cent majority for the first time. This would mean that the country may be governed by a coalition. This is concerning. The coalition governments that have governed many of the country’s largest cities over the last five years or so, such as Johannesburg and Durban, have proved largely calamitous because coalitions have tended to focus on dividing the spoils at the expense of governance. The result has been the collapse of basic services in these places.

In 2018, Ramaphosa, a trade-unionist-turned-billionaire, came to power promising national renewal after the “nine wasted years” of his predecessor Jacob Zuma. The ANC, Ramaphosa promised, would remove “the bad apple” and get its house in order to deliver a better future for all. Six years later, the best that can be said about his tenure is that things could have been worse. Systemic corruption, state incapacity and dismal economic performance have endured, and in some cases worsened. Given the array of morbid symptoms in South Africa it is not hard to understand why the ANC can no longer take a commanding victory for granted. The unemployment rate hovers dangerously close to a third of the population and there is a murder rate of 45 per 100,000 persons (significantly higher than Colombia and Mexico). There are scheduled blackouts dubbed “load shedding” that can last up to 12 hours a day, as well as weeks-long water outages in major cities. South Africa is one of a handful of countries along with the United Kingdom that is significantly poorer than it was a decade ago: its GDP per capita has declined from $8,800 in 2012 to $6,190 in 2023. An incredible 47 per cent of South Africans rely on social grants as their primary source of income, a measure of both the relative success of the government’s welfare programme and the economic disasters of the past decade.

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Perhaps more shockingly, given this state of affairs, is the absence of any energised opposition parties to the ANC. Polling is still an inexact science in South Africa, but there seem to be several clear trends emerging. The largest opposition party, the centre-right Democratic Alliance (DA), is predicted to win somewhere between 20 and 25 per cent of the vote – roughly the same as in the previous election in 2019. The second-largest opposition party is the radical nationalist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), which is made up of expelled leaders of the ANC’s Youth League and is best thought of as a faction of the ANC in exile rather than a true opposition party. Polling suggests that it is likely to get somewhere between 10 and 15 per cent of the vote.

The old political order may be unravelling, but nothing new will replace it. Spectres from the past are instead returning as political alternatives in the form of ethno-nationalism, apartheid nostalgia and the romanticisation of the darker moments of the anti-apartheid struggle. A host of new ethno-nationalist parties are coming back to life, including the Patriotic Alliance, which was formed by a former convict and dubious tycoon known as the “sushi king”, and which seeks to “build a wall” to keep foreigners out. There is also former president Jacob Zuma’s uMkhonto we Sizwe party (MK Party), which means Spear of the Nation, named after the armed wing of the ANC during the anti-apartheid struggle. Older ethno-nationalist parties such as the Afrikaner nationalist VF+ (Freedom Front Plus) and Zulu nationalist IFP (Inkatha Freedom Party) are re-emerging from their relatively moribund status.

According to recent polling, Zuma’s MK Party could receive somewhere between 8 and 18 per cent of the vote and may even be the largest party in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa’s second-most populous province. Zuma has shaped the trajectory of post-apartheid South African politics. After being removed from office in 2018 after allegations of corruption, Zuma was imprisoned in 2021 by the Constitutional Court for contempt of court. His supporters were outraged. What followed was the single worst incidence of political violence since the end of apartheid as coordinated mass rioting, attacks on infrastructure and mass looting took place in KwaZulu-Natal and parts of Gauteng province. This left 350 dead and billions of dollars in economic damage. The violence mobilised disgruntled truck drivers, migrant workers and former and current security service personnel across three provinces. The worst-affected areas have yet to recover, and the masterminds have never been identified or held accountable. The mass unrest coincided with a cyberattack on the port of Durban. As the author Jonny Steinberg has pointed out with respect to the origins of the MK Party, the “violence of July 2021 has enormous significance, for it left a memory trace and a set of networked connections. Who would have thought that these connections would be remobilised, not for another round of violence but to form a political party?”

MK’s platform is a mix of Zuma’s sense of personal victimhood, Zulu nationalism, opposition to constitutional rule, nationalising strategic industries, ending South Africa’s green energy policies, the creation of a new upper house for indigenous kings and queens (a decolonial House of Lords), as well as the expropriation of all land without compensation by the state and for it to be under the custody of traditional leaders. MK Party leaders have also repeatedly threatened armed insurrection if they do not win the election. This has so far proved effective in terms of intimidating the judiciary, who have on several occasions been shy to rule against MK Party, fearing a repeat of the July 2021 riots.

While most political parties have condemned threats of armed insurrection if the elections do not go their way, there is one thing that unites parties across the spectrum – xenophobia. Immigrants from other African states and South Asia are scapegoated for South Africa’s various economic and social ills, from unemployment to criminality. This is partly because increasing numbers of people find it easier to imagine deporting millions of immigrants than the creation of a state capable of improving their lives. With the occasional exception of the EFF, every major South African party deploys xenophobic rhetoric to varying degrees of depravity.

However, South Africa’s election represents more than a watershed moment for Africa’s most industrialised economy or a depressing referendum on the state of its democracy: it provides a case study in the politics of de-development, a phenomenon hardly confined to the tip of Africa.

[See also: How apartheid shaped classical music]

Across the world, there is an emerging politics of decreasing expectations, a result of economic stagnation, the decline of secure well-paying employment and the lowering of the quality of life for the majority. De-development refers to the process when countries, rather than experiencing economic growth, improving living standards, better infrastructure and the emergence of a more cohesive society, regress and become poorer, less educated and more insecure, measured in the relative decline of basic services and quality of life. This does not only mean declining material conditions. Following the Indian philosopher-economist Amartya Sen’s notion that development involves “expanding the real freedoms that people enjoy”, de-development also leads to the diminishing of freedoms.

When it gained traction after the end of the Second World War, development was a truly liberatory idea for the Global South. Mass politics and democracy emerged in times of increased expectations, which was produced by industrialisation, new technologies, the expansion of civil society and the notion that things could be better if the people were to have a say in how they were governed. The politics of de-development move in the opposite direction. As the economist Albert O Hirschman argued in Shifting Involvements (1982), dissatisfaction with public affairs turns into a retreat towards private interest, hope gives way to fear, and individuals’ goal becomes to secure the least bad future for yourself, often at the expense of others. When people no longer believe that political and social change is possible through the state, they embrace corruption – the use of public office for private gain – more readily as a means of material enrichment and private satisfaction. The prospects and spaces for collective action for a better future radically diminish.

The politics of de-development tends towards strategies that ensure access to a diminishing pool of resources through exclusion by racial, ethnic or other forms of group identification. This is the politics of the new right in Europe – the politics of securing what is left of social democracy through the exclusion of others, in which the extension of rights to some is perceived as a loss of privileges for others. At a time when politics lacks energy and ideas, and has become increasingly cynical, highly vocal minorities tend to mobilise around particular issues, while the majority of disillusioned voters cast their ballot with an air of resignation, if at all.

De-development produces a Hobbesian world, a war of all against all, competing for dwindling opportunities and resources that in more advanced stages becomes the war between armed actors, the cartel, the mafia and paramilitary groups. New political actors – evangelical churches promising wealth through worship, scammers, and political movements that promise a return to an imagined past – emerge to take advantage of the drift towards cynicism. All of this is on display in the South African election.

De-development in South Africa is no accident; it is the result of a political project. This project is known as state capture, meaning the outsourcing of public policy to private interests, particularly under Zuma’s presidency. The most infamous of these private interests were those of the Guptas, an Indian business clan that, due to its relationship with Zuma and other ANC leaders, was accused of being able to dictate policy to the point of appointing cabinet ministers from their compound in Saxonwold, a leafy affluent suburb of Johannesburg. As revealed by the commission into state capture led by the current chief justice Raymond Zondo, the result was the transfer of billions of dollars meant to modernise the country’s infrastructure, reinvigorate a declining manufacturing sector, and deliver a “developmental state” into private offshore bank accounts.

The ANC has reached the point where its failures have undermined its own achievements in power, and it may no longer have the vision or capacity to improve matters. The ANC of 2024 has devolved into an array of mafia-like factions that strive to turn political power into profit. The type of corruption that predominates in South Africa is not, as they say in Brazil, that of “rouba mas faz” (“he robs but gets things done”) that at least provides some developmental and redistributive benefits. It is the type of parasite that destroys the body of the host. While the ANC and most other political parties have a vision of a state that is capable of delivering growth and redistribution, the reality is that state capacity has reached a point in which even the most basic tasks of governance – providing water, electricity, public transport and a modicum of public security – cannot be achieved.

The fixes to the problem of state incapacity proposed are either “good ethical leadership” or technocratic fixes, neither of which confront the fundamental political realities of South Africa. As the political scientist Ryan Brunette puts it, “The central fact of contemporary South African politics is the emergence within it of a nationwide and mass-based patronage system,” which is mobilised through claims to the common interest. In other words, mafias have a political base and claim to represent a common interest, in redistribution of the country’s wealth in favour of the black majority. Confronting the politics of de-development as such requires dealing with an embedded set of criminal interests inside and outside the state that claim to act in defence of the black majority.

As Tembeka Ngcukaitobi, a legal scholar and one of the lawyers representing South Africa during its recent genocide case against Israel at the International Court of Justice, told the Financial Times, “When people say we are witnessing the last days of the ANC, who is going to champion these pillars of non-tribalism, non-racialism, Pan-Africanism and internationalism? What kind of society do we have in mind if we don’t have anyone to defend these values?”

If, as JG Ballard was once supposed to have said, “the periphery is where the future reveals itself”, then South Africa may present a vision of the West’s future. The morbid symptoms that define the country today are present across the world, if in incipient form and on a less dramatic scale, from the sewage pumped into the Thames to the normalisation of sordid influence trading under the moniker of “lobbying” in the US. There is a general feeling that things are getting worse; climate crisis, economic crisis, war, impoverishment and daily humiliation are the realities, but effective political responses are beyond the intellectual capacities of the political classes and actually existing state capacities.

The state’s inability to resolve problems has become common sense; it can at best only mitigate the damage. Absent a collective belief in a more hopeful future, the retreat to private interests only reinforces an elite that is manifestly incapable of either intellectually or politically responding to crisis. The hawking off of state assets to the private sector, transport, health and education has not only proved disastrous for the quality and price of basic services but drained the capacity of the state to effectively respond to major crises. The result is a type of a political version of Groundhog Day, with the same solutions offered again and again despite their poor track record. It is only by understanding this process that the possibility of moving beyond these horizons can be imagined again.

[See also: The rise of the new tech right]

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