Political Watch

South Africa at a crossroads – where to next?


South Africa is experiencing a confluence of crises on a number of fronts, putting its future stability at risk. It could, however, also tip the other way as positives start emerging.

Recently, many reports, analysts and commentators, including us, have warned that the crisis atmosphere in the country is building up to a crossroads situation where a single event could become a ‘tipping point’ into chaotic disintegration.

Mostly, these reports, analyses and commentaries concentrated on the negative, warning about so-called low-road scenarios.

A ‘tipping point’, as described by Malcolm Gladwell in his celebrated book by that title, can just as often go in the direction of the positive and be a turning point towards a ‘high road’.

The famous American president J.F. Kennedy once remarked: “The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis’. One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger – but recognize the opportunity.”
Indeed, based on ‘rational pragmatism’, there is also much in South Africa to be positive about, as Marius Oosthuizen points out in an article carried elsewhere on our site.

And another article carried by Moneyweb last week reports that investment banking firm Goldman Sachs remains bullish on South Africa, with its CEO and chairman, Lloyd Blankfein, saying the country has been a “spectacular success”, should one take a longer-term view, and is doing better than a lot of places. 

The present crisis situation in South Africa has not nearly turned the corner and is immensely complex. It would be expecting too much, and probably dangerously naive, to think that there won’t still be serious bumps ahead. But to only expect the worst could become a self-fulfilling scenario.

There are, indeed, some hopeful signs that some of the present crises could turn out to be tipping points for the better, including:

The xenophobic wave:

  • Judged by the reaction of the broad South African community, in a wide range of its formations, it might just tip the country into re-inventing itself into a truly rainbow nation;
  • It seems to have finally shaken President Jacob Zuma out of his leadership slumber in the wake of the ‘Nkandla affair’. Suddenly he is seen to take some proactive initiatives to come to grips with the epidemic of multiple crises – including interdepartmental coordination and a shaping-up of intelligence functions; and
  • It might just, possibly in conjunction with the report of the Farlam commission on the Marikana events of 2012, bring programmes by both government and big corporate institutions to deal with the legacy of migrant labour and the hostel accommodation that goes with it.

Eskom crisis:

  • While threatening action against local authorities not paying their debts to Eskom, brought to light the danger of it becoming a tipping point into a wide-ranging rebellion, and there now is concerted focus on the management of government funding being channelled to municipalities;
  • The immediate positive results of the appointment of a new CEO to Eskom, based on a proven track record and merit, might just bring a re-evaluation of the system of cadre deployment and political-connectedness; and
  • There are signs of greater private sector involvement in electricity provision, which could alleviate the dangers associated with a state-owned monopoly.

Labour unrest:

  • The ongoing break-up of COSATU has brought greater competition to the organised labour sphere which is set to bring healthier competition on the political terrain as well; and
  • The present deadlock between government as employer and Cosatu-affiliated civil service unions, might see – despite the likely disruptions – a break-up of the unhealthy relationship between government and labour inherent in Cosatu being a member of the governing alliance. This might speed up the process towards more balanced political competition.

To the crises dealt with here, a number of others can be added, like the wave of vandalism of statues. But even in that instance there is the positive of having triggered a healthy debate and dialogue about how we can and should deal with the symbols from a divided past. Some possible initiatives are already emerging.

And even the seemingly radicalising issue of land redistribution has now seen white commercial farmers and Economic Freedom Fighters’ leader, Julius Malema, meeting face-to-face. Getting antagonists talking to one another is always the first step in resolving potential conflict.

There are indeed signs that South Africa might be edging closer to becoming a truly democratic community in which the ANC-led alliance might see its monopoly on power withered away. It will not do so without a fight and it is a road strewn with hazards.

But to give up hope is to give up on the future. And, as Columbia University’s political science professor Andrew J. Nathan in his book China at the tipping point? Foreseeing the unforeseeable, writes: “Regime transitions belong to that paradoxical class of events which are inevitable but not predictable. .... Such events seem to come closer and closer but do not occur, even when all the conditions are ripe — until suddenly they do.”

by Piet Coetzer

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