Political Watch

South Africa at crossroads as it enters a new transition

Mac Maharaj (80) – new generation moving in
Mac Maharaj.jpeg

South Africa has moved into a phase of profound changes on a multitude of political, economic, labour and social fronts as a number of eras in its history are drawing to a close.

Next year it will be 40 years since the student uprising of 1976 which, in many ways, marked the beginning of the end of the apartheid dispensation. This year marks thirty years since the consolidation of the trade union movement with the establishment of

Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) a year after the formation of the United Democratic Front (UDF).

It is also 21 years since the dawn of the ‘new’ democratic South Africa in a spirit of reconciliation as personified by its first president, M. Nelson Mandela.

Of these historic events and movements the UDF probably had the most profound influence on the post-1994 South Africa. It was the forerunner of, and largely laid the foundation of, what became known as the African National Congress’ ‘broad church’ governing alliance which has ruled the country the past 21 years as effectively a coalition government.

As the years moved on, the interest of the constituent parts of the ‘broad church’ started to diverge, and competing centres of power with associated material benefits developed. We are now witnessing the broad church coming apart as the glue of a common enemy has disappeared.

The starkest manifestation this ongoing process has been the recent breakup of  COSATU, mainly along opposing ideological lines. Like we have seen happening with the National Party (NP) in the transition years away from stark apartheid, the ANC has also already seen some splintering off taking place.

First there was the formation of the less militant Congress of the People (COPE), mirrored by the formation of the NP-split-off Conservative Party in the early 1980s. And then there is the radical and militant Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), mirrored by the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) from the days of NP rule.

New generation of leaders

The high school students of 1976’s uprising are now moving into their fifties, the age at which typically leadership begins to mature and are taking over the batons.

As the generation of top leaders at the height of the freedom struggle starts disappearing, to some extent symbolised by the just-announced retirement of Mac Maharaj at age 80, a new generation of leaders is in the process of taking over.

Maybe due in part to this, but probably more under the pressure of the militancy of the EFF and the political force developing to the left of the ANC out of the breakup of COSATU, the glue of Mandela’s reconciliatory spirit is also fast crumbling.

The nature of the constitutional dispensation forged in the 1999s, with among other things proportional representation in legislators, accommodates radical fringe groups much more prominently than was the case before with groups like the AWB. 

Fact is that the era of “project reconciliation” has largely come to an end, as the present furore over statues and monuments

This does not mean that the dream of a ‘rainbow nation’ is dead, although the tone of public discourse is presently dominated by this noise caused by radical speak and actions like land invasions. Below this noise, as we reported in our Let’s Think column last week, there are also those who are working on a shared heritage.

Crumbling ‘broad church’

The crumbling of the ANC’s ‘broad church’, once in government, was to be expected and predicted. No government or political party can successfully be all things to all people in a country with such widely divergent peoples and interest groups as South Africa.

This was realised by former President Thabo Mbeki when he started consolidating the moderate middle ground and ditching the SA Communist Party (SACP) in what the latter has since termed the “class project of 1996”. It cost him his presidency, but the process of realignment started around 2007.

As the tensions in the alliance increase, the disintegration foreshadowed by the COSATU-breakup can be expected to gain momentum and new political contestants to appear on the scene.

Numerous fault lines have developed throughout the ANC and the alliance, with tensions over multiple issues often causing serious disruptions. The election of a new regional chairman at the violent and previously postponed ANC Durban 6th regional conference recently where disparate factions were pitted against each other, is one case in point out of many.

How this process plays out in the end will impact on, among other things:

  • The direction of macroeconomic policy – for one in the mix between government interventionism and free market force;
  • A meritocratic approach as opposed to cronyism and entitlement; and
  • The role that parliament and other, supposed to be independent, state institution are allowed to play.

Time of transition

The ANC’s hegemony, its political programmes, its dominance and its leading role in the South African political landscape are being seriously challenged on numerous fronts like never before.

While its ‘broad church’ alliance cannot practically survive, its haphazard breaking up is leaving a void in the absence of strong leadership that can only produce more political instability.

It is likely to feed the rise of radical splinter groups such as the EFF and the new NUMSA-created political-labour movement.

All-in-all, it is clear that South Africa has entered a new phase of post-liberation political transition.

It is not likely to happen overnight, is likely to be complicated and messy at times and not on a straight predictable line.

It is further complicated by huge uncertainties in the global economic and geopolitical environment.

In short, South Africa finds itself on many fronts at crossroads in its development as a post-liberation and still democratising country. The challenge to leadership on all fronts is to manage this transition and not allow it to tip into a revolution dominated by extremists.

by Piet Coetzer & Stef Terblanche

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