Conflicted and furious: South Africa votes in post-Mandela world – By Desné Masie

desne_bwJust prior to the 2014 elections, we asked our regular writer on South Africa, Desné Masie, to reflect on the political atmosphere surrounding these polls.

A few days after the death of Nelson Mandela, I landed in Johannesburg’s international airport via Zurich, London and Edinburgh. Throughout my long journey home there was a sense of solidarity with fellow South African travellers, and an outpouring of love and support from all nationalities expressing their high regard for Mandela.

Prior to my flight home, I had received several invitations to comment about Mandela on television and radio during his long illness, and especially when he finally reached the end of his life. I felt too uncomfortable at the time to join the media frenzy at its zenith. I had not yet processed how, or indeed, if I wanted to join in on this commentary for two reasons. First, I felt that anything I said at the time would get lost in that moment of over-analysis and media saturation, and more poignantly, because Madiba’s illness and passing had begun to affect me with an unexpected intensity. I was absolutely disconsolate when I received the news, even though it had been coming for months.

Mandela’s death was one of those seismic moments, like 9-11, where we all remember exactly where we were at the time. I was writing in my office, when I received a text from a friend. I immediately broke down in tears. And then I watched the footage of Nelson and Winnie Mandela on his release from prison in Robben Island in February 1990, giving black-power salutes. This transported me to the same moment when I saw this footage for the first time as a young girl, sitting around the television with my parents. More than 20 years later, this footage still strikes me with its deep significance.

I am of the generation sandwiched between the so-called “˜born-frees’ (those born after apartheid) and the disenfranchised born during apartheid. To see your parents vote for the first time, to see a whole nation gain suffrage is a profound experience that cannot easily be put into words. This is why, until now, as a young black South African, I was unable to talk about Mandela’s death, and what his legacy means to me, and to South Africa: liberation through education and self-belief; his strength; his defiance; and his willingness to die for his principles and for my political freedom. While I feel so grateful to Mandela and everyone in the ANC who participated in the Struggle against apartheid, at the same time, I am conflicted, and I am furious.

I am angry with the ANC because when, as a young girl, I looked at the footage of Mandela walking out of Robben Island raising his fist in triumph, I believed at that moment that I could do anything, be anything, and moreover, I felt like there was nothing I would not do for South Africa. I wanted to be an active part of this rainbow miracle, for if we as a nation could overcome apartheid, anything was possible. But the ANC has neutered the political and economic legacy of Mandela, and wasted the global goodwill towards post-apartheid South Africa over the past 20 years.

Part of what I cried about the night Mandela died was my abject disappointment at the ANC’s failure of the people. Socio-economic inequality and poverty has left black people stuck in a different kind of apartheid, and South Africa should be ashamed of having the world’s largest Gini co-efficient – at a ludicrous 0.7. This number, though it may seem an abstract economic measure of income inequality, shames the ANC because it undermines the hard-won political freedoms of the Struggle. There is no country in the world where social cohesion and long-term prosperity are not underpinned by economic freedom.

So while South Africa in December was a country united in grief for Tata Madiba who was being remembered as the patron saint of liberation and forgiveness, incumbent president Jacob Zuma was simultaneously being asked to resign by struggle elder Barney Pityana. The contrast between the dearth of character in Zuma and the strength of character in Mandela was a stark reminder of our loss.

Ever the political Lazarus, Zuma has survived a rape trial, avoided indictment in the arms deal and thus far batted away other allegations of corruption, but much of the public has run out of patience with him. The President is repeatedly booed at election rallies and other public events. He seems to have met his Waterloo through his profligate expenditure of over £13m in public funds at his personal residence Nkandla – the final straw for many South Africans. His conspicuous consumption and reluctance to accept personal accountability is especially offensive given the levels of poverty and inequality in South Africa.

It would, however, be injudicious to say the ANC has done nothing to improve the lives of the poor or contribute towards economic growth and development in South Africa. The ANC inherited an indebted and protectionist economy from the apartheid government. When it came to power, it had to arbitrage the demands of international capital on the newly open economy by lowering inflation and the deficit against borrowing sufficiently for infrastructural development. The economy has doubled since 2000 with consistent economic growth, and a social benefits system that is commensurate with the ANC’s social democratic, non-racial and non-sexist stance. The government has also formulated a National Development Plan (NDP) to deliver jobs growth and economic development and lower inequality.

However, every time I go home to visit Johannesburg, I am conflicted by my feelings of seething anger seeing that government has not done nearly enough to change the lives of people in the townships, and the gulf in reality between the poor and the cognoscenti noveau riche and stealthy old money which continues to exert its significant power over the economy. This dichotomy is the root of the country’s high crime rate and the violence which simmers under the surface waiting to erupt into wild-cat strikes, protests and carjackings. Its nadir was the mining strike in 2012 at Lonmin’s Marikana platinum mine during which 34 miners were shot and killed by the police. Marikana traumatised South African society and spooked its foreign investors. If the ANC does not substantially tackle poverty, the anger of the underclass will bring the country to its knees.

L’economiste-du-jour, Thomas Piketty, who studies the evolution of wealth income and inequality, talks about the Marikana massacre  at the start of his blockbuster “˜Capital in the Twenty-First Century’. Piketty makes a couple of interesting (and important) observations which, to my mind, lead to some important take-aways. First, the top 3 executives at Lonmin earned as much as all 3,000 striking Marikana miners put together. Second, “South African capitalism became one of the most highly concentrated and conglomerated forms of capitalism” exemplified through the immense power accumulated by the mining houses in the 1950s and 1960s as the economist Alan Hirsch (2005: 156) writes. According to Hirsch, the miners “simply bought up most of the rest of the economy when gold prospects started to dim” with the result that “[i]n the 1980s when companies from the United States, Europe and the United Kingdom disinvested their South Africa holdings, the only available buyers were the already huge South African financial/mining house conglomerates”.

Inequality in South Africa is thus historical and structural – this may be why, notwithstanding the contradictions and macro-economic policy incoherence of the ANC, the problems in South Africa may actually be reflective of an inflection point in an economy buckling under pre-existing social forces. One of the ANC’s main motivations for South Africa’s  current competition policy has therefore been to tackle the mining oligopolies. Yet, the party has failed dismally at its own election manifesto to create a better life for all, and in protagonists like ANC president-in-waiting, Cyril Ramaphosa, whose Shanduka Group owned a stake in LonPlats (Lonmin), a new black oligarchy exemplifies that life has gotten much better, but only for some.

South Africa has since been warned by the international ratings agencies to take action on socio-economic inequality, or face further downgrading of its sovereign debt. At the same time, these ratings agencies, and the international investors whose opinions they distil, want the country to create amicable conditions for the financialisation of the economy; they complain that South Africa’s labour laws and high wages are uncompetitive. In addition, South Africa has been overtaken by Nigeria as the largest African economy and is losing its geopolitical clout on the world stage despite having recently been invited to join the influential economic bloc of BRICS Nations. The IMF has cut SA’s growth rate to 2.3% for 2014, this is less than half the Sub-Saharan average of 5%. National debt has also reached around 47% of GDP under Zuma, and currency volatility remains a concern. Now that the Mandela dividend has been frittered away by the ANC, and poverty and joblessness seem intractable, what will happen in the election?

I am not in the business of forecasting, but I am prepared to say that disenchantment with the ANC will see its vote share decline to around 60%, with the DA increasing its share to about 20%, possibly 25%. The dark horse of this election is undoubtedly the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) under the controversial firebrand politician, Julius Malema, which will become a significant minority political force with around 5%-10% of the vote. The EFF had been previously discounted by South Africa’s largely elite corps of political analysts, who have only just realised that socio-economic inequality in South Africa means Malema is pointedly on message for the voiceless, whatever international investors may make of their leftist braggadocio. The hopeful challenge represented by Dr Mamphele Ramphele’s Agang disappointingly disintegrated into a political farce as Dr Ramphele’s coalition with the DA was on-again-off-again and then permanently off.

While the opposition is by no means perfect, the good news is that South Africa’s non-ANC politicians are beginning to provide real alternatives to the grip the party has on the country’s politics.  This will hopefully serve to galvanise its leaders out of complacency and into action. Some commentators such as John Cassidy writing here in the New Yorker, believe that history should not judge Mandela too harshly on this mixed economic legacy – pulling off a peaceful transition to democracy was a miracle enough by any measure. The ANC should seek to honour these hard won political freedoms and expedite economic liberation too.

Desné Masie

If you enjoyed this post, please consider leaving a comment or subscribing to the RSS feed to have future articles delivered to your feed reader.

4 thoughts on “Conflicted and furious: South Africa votes in post-Mandela world – By Desné Masie

  1. I hate to be picky but how does an expert make the mistake of saying Mandela was released from Robben Island in 1990? He was released from Victor Verster Prison which is on the mainland.

  2. And no mention of the fact here that the EFF want to emulate Mugabe – despite the fact the he (Mugabe) had to steal three elections to achieve economic ‘freedom’.

  3. I am sure there are details in this piece that can be questioned. Yet I think Desne Masie has captured what many feel – that we are caught between appalling inequality which the corrupt ANC government has brought us to in 2014, and the hate-filled rhetoric of Malema. We need someone with vision to show us the way through this. South Africa is capable of better – as Madiba proved.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.