Political Watch

SA post-liberation stress syndrome at fever pitch

Politics take to the streets

As South Africans increasingly take to the streets in mass marches, a turbulent and murky political environment lies ahead in the run-up to the local government elections in 2016.

All the signs are there that, as the country has entered its third decade of full democracy, what can be described as ‘post-liberation stress syndrome’, is reaching fever pitch.

The African National Congress’s ability to make the transition from liberation movement to a full-fledged political party, as the “liberation dividend”, is facing its final test.  

How the developing drama plays out over the coming months until the municipal elections and then the run-up to the next national general elections of 2019, will be crucial to the future stability of the country as a democracy.

And, in-between, there is the build-up to the ANC’s leadership elections of 2017, already showing the stresses of the transition process.

Africa’s post-liberation history

If the general history of post-colonial Africa, thoroughly analysed in a November 2012 discussion paper, From Liberation Movement to Government, by the Brenthurst Foundation, is anything to go by, there is not much reason for optimism.

“It is almost inevitable that many of the unreasonably high popular expectations associated with victory, which members of the movement will have genuinely shared, will be disappointed by the realities of its performance in office, and the sheer impossibility of bringing about the level of transformation that had been promised,” the paper states.

Some of the factors playing a role in causing the disappointment that the paper identified and that are clearly present in South Africa, just more than two decades after a historic settlement in the country, and as “the memory of that magic moment fades into the distance”, include:

  • The challenge to retain as much as possible of the popular support that greeted it when it came into power, while coming to terms with the day-to-day demands of running an effective state;
  • It is almost inevitable that many of the unreasonably high popular expectations associated with victory will be disappointed by the realities of its performance in office, and the sheer impossibility of bringing about the level of transformation that had been promised;
  • Controlling the apparatus of state power brings a powerful temptation to repress forms of dissent which, given the sense of legitimacy and entitlement conferred by the struggle, are assumed to have no genuine popular base;
  • The critical need to develop mechanisms through which popular voices can still be heard, even when these run counter to the attitudes of the liberation leaders now in office. This need is all the greater, given the rapid generational change underway in African societies;
  • The post-liberation situation is so different that the regime has to look to the delivery of tangible material benefits, instead of the symbolic and aspirational goals of liberation – the complex needs of development and peacetime governance;
  • The immediate need was to build alliances between the liberation movement and established interests – notably in the bureaucracy and the economy, to ensure a smooth handover and a productive base for delivery, but as time goes by, the danger arises that these alliances may become too strong, rather than too weak;
  • Post-liberation regimes very readily transform themselves into corporate states, in which a cadre of former senior fighters join with other established interests to constitute a monolithic power block, essentially serving its own members and deaf to the needs and demands of ordinary people excluded from it;
  • Leadership change is made difficult, not only by the emphasis placed on the role of the ‘hero leader’ by the circumstances of the struggle and the construct created for extracting benefits for members of the ‘movement’. Rare indeed is the leader who voluntarily relinquishes power after just one or two terms at the top. The only such case to come to mind, Nelson Mandela in South Africa; and
  • Multiple ‘enemies of choice’ are presented as the contemporary reincarnation of past evils. Under President Zuma’s rule these have included the judiciary and public institutions such as the public protector, said Susan Booysen (professor at the Wits School of Governance) at the European Conference on African Studies in November 2012.

The precise forms through which governing elites extract resources from the economy vary from case to case and include:

  • Straightforward personal corruption – always a very sensitive indicator of the extent to which a former liberation movement has remained faithful to its original ideals;
  • Former fighters establishing own businesses in sectors sensitive to political favours or being co-opted by existing companies for smoothing relations with the regime;
  • Nationalised industries and parastatal enterprises run by former liberation leaders; and
  • Enterprises owned and run by the ruling party, enjoying considerable advantages due to their closeness to the government.

As independent writer, researcher, lecturer and political activist, Dale T. McKinley wrote last week on Pambazuka News: “it’s all about power and money.”

South African situation

Examples of the presence of factors and practices listed above in present-day South Africa are available in abundance. From the disappointment of large sections of the population, as illustrated by the proliferation of mass protest marches, taking politics to the streets, to a myriad of corruption scandals and resultant court cases and reports by the public protector.

But South Africa also has much going for it that might still see it escape the trends in post-liberation societies, not only in Africa, but across the globe.

For one, the fact that there can be official investigations by independent watchdog institutions and open court cases, is the legacy of a negotiated settlement, resulting in a vibrant constitution.

For all its ills the apartheid regime left the ‘new South Africa’ with a sophisticated public service infrastructure, a vibrant modern economy and a strong judicial system, and the country has a strong and vigorous network of civil society organisations.

But, as the Brenthurst Foundation-paper puts it: “… the liberation credit is a finite one, and is characteristically exhausted in the minds of much of the population much sooner than leaders recognise. The moment soon arrives when the regime is judged not by its promises, but by its performance, and if it has merely entrenched itself in positions of privilege reminiscent of its ousted predecessor … that judgement is likely to be a harsh one. The recent wave of labour unrest in South Africa, especially the tragic events at Marikana … may well be regarded as trumpeting such a moment of truth for the ANC.”

As we reported in November last year: “Neither the widespread discontent with the ANC government nor the paralysing ideological divisions within the governing alliance should come as a surprise.”

The final outcome of the unfolding political drama will largely depend on efforts such as the discussions across the country, organised by the Centre for Conflict Resolution (CCR) we referred to in that report, to forge a new vision for the country as part of the unfinished work of the negotiated political settlement during the early 1990s.

by Piet Coetzer

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