Revolution Watch

South Africa at a turning point - but which way?

Marikana on-a-larger-scale possible

Will the collective leadership of South African society get their act together in time to avoid a major crisis that could turn into full-scale revolutionary chaos?

In April this year political economist Moeletsi Mbeki said: “South Africa is a bomb waiting to explode, all it needs is a little match to spark it and it will go up in flames.”

Presently, fears are mounting that the Unite Against Corruption coalition’s planned march of 100 000 people on the Union Buildings in Tshwane, with similar events in Polokwane, Durban, Grahamstown, and Cape Town next week Wednesday, just might provide that ‘spark’.

Just imagine what can happen if a confrontation between the marchers and members of the police develops. The events at Marikana might look like a Sunday school picnic in comparison. 

The mere fact that some 350 organisations, representing a spectrum ranging from the South African Christian Leadership Initiative to the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce, are involved speaks of the depths of the despondency present in South African society.

There are, however, also plenty symptoms of dangerous anger simmering over frustrated expectations more than twenty years after the advent of democracy in the country. This anger is often channelled in unexpected ways at local level.

Only last week the Pietersburg-Noord primary school in Limpopo was attacked by pupils of the Luthuli Park Combined School in Seshego after their repeated appeals over a long time to the Limpopo department of education for tables and chairs have gone unheeded.

These kinds of incidents are becoming a proxy for the dynamic that, in the words of Mbeki “… drives the growing conflicts between the haves and the have-nots in the country”.

In a recent article consulting economist Cees Bruggemans and Professor Willie Esterhuyse, warn that the ANC elite bask in destructive transformation as African Spring looms.”

“There is a deep commitment to address the iniquities of the past, but this is done in ways that appear to do yet more damage. This is not acknowledged. Instead, specific ideals and populism are adhered to, often at whatever cost,” they write and conclude:

      “It certainly remains early days, given the daily assessment dispensed with great conviction by those ruling us, with          apparently not the slightest indication of budging, indeed the very opposite (digging in, with supposedly no end in            sight until the Second Coming?). But their logic harvests its own results, and these are not getting better. As a                    consequence, the unease in the ranks keeps growing, because where is this supposed to lead?

     "This is a historic clash. Its resolution, one way or the other, will determine our future for generations to come. There          is no certainty on this score, only fear and unease, and a growing clash of wills across many fronts in society.”

Visiting professor at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research, Jonny Steinberg, in an article in Business Day, last week wrote: “Until now, at any rate, the poor have in the main remained loyal to the African National Congress. Everyone, even those in the remotest villages, has seen someone they know rise. The politics of the poor has been suffused with hope.”

But there are increasing signs that after twenty years of frustrated expectations they are starting to give up hope. The fact that a former liberation movement commands 62% of the vote is no measure of how long its support might last.

History tells us it can turn in a flash and become a social tsunami and usually, like a tsunami in the natural world, it can become very destructive and almost impossible to manage, with reconstruction afterwards then the only option.

Shared responsibility

To manage the building storm is, however, not only the responsibility of the governing elite. The private sector equally has an interest in social stability, as do organised labour.

None of the sectors – government, business and labour – can afford to operate in either isolation or in ideological silos. A business/management approach in business, for instance, that operates in isolation or ignorance of sociological and psychological factors can hardly expect a stable business/operational environment in the long run.

For business to remain neutral at best, as is evident from the fact that South African corporations are sitting on a cash mountain of R689.4 billion on deposit in South African banks, according to data compiled by Stanlib, is not good enough. And, when they do invest, their money goes abroad to environments that offer greater certainty.

This situation, however, also speaks to the trust deficit between the government/public sector and the private sector that is in need of urgent repair instead of them increasingly becoming adversaries rather than social partners, not listening to one another while the country and its people are suffering.

Meanwhile there is likely to be long-term damage in lost opportunities as, for instance, the just announced decision by global trading and distribution company Tata International to relocate some key staff from its African headquarters in Johannesburg to Tanzania because of South African visa delays.

Hopeful signs/positives versus bad habits

In recent times there have also been hopeful signs that the tone of communication between business, labour and government are improving on some fronts. This was illustrated by constructive cooperation surrounding steel imports, the challenges faced by the mining industry and the troubles surrounding annual assessment tests in primary education.

There is also evidence of remaining positives that can be built on, like a report that international companies are still looking at South Africa as a base for their expansion plans into the rest of Africa.

Some other positives are, however, of the mixed blessing variety, like the fact that the narrowing of the current account deficit in the second quarter of the year is mostly a reflection of the weakening of the rand.

On the other side of the coin, public discourse seems to have fallen into the bad habit of following a confrontational style.

Within the same week that the Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga, and trade unions got everybody’s hopes up with an announcement of the postponement until next February of the disputed Annual National Assessments (ANAs), she and the provincial education MECs reneged on the agreement. They decided to draw the proverbial line in the sand, saying they were determined to stop the union’s “inappropriate influence” on the education system.

Feeding into what has become a culture of confrontation politics, Annette Lovemore of the official opposition (Democratic Alliance) in a statement welcomed the minister’s about-face as “a step in the right direction …”

Ironically, Minister Motshekga’s about-face and the resumption of the war between her and the unions came on the same day that her colleague, the Minister of Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation, Jeff Radebe, claimed progress with government’s Medium-Term Strategic Framework, telling the media “government and labour are committed to strengthening ANA and teacher development”.

Confusion as Rome burns

The picture emerging is one of confusion, breeding fear among many South Africans who are sure they are smelling the smoke of Rome burning while the “historic clash” Bruggemans and Esterhuyse write about, plays itself out.

by Piet Coetzer

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