The latest wave of ‘Free Jacob Zuma’ protests (FZP) forms part of the complex democracy that is South Africa. This was not a service delivery protest, neither was it related to the fallist campaigns which raised legitimate concerns on high university fees. The call to Free Jacob Zuma is understandable and should form part of the expression of democratic rights for every concerned citizen. He is a former president, and there are supporters who genuinely believe that his arrest is a political move. It does of course raise an important question as to what the ruling political class would gain by imprisoning former president Jacob Zuma. There are probably more losses than gains, as far as the Ramaphosa faction is concerned.
Be that as it may, public reaction was largely political and by no means proportional to Mr Zuma’s imprisonment. The judiciary should have provided sufficient rational answers to the public. Protestors however were not interested in judicial rationale. Burning of resources does form part of the tragedies of protests, but South Africa has not experienced such magnitude as seen in the Free Zuma protests. The torching of thousands of shops and hundreds of shopping malls was accompanied by mass looting, also part of the strategy to try and free Mr Jacob Zuma. Typically, looting occurs when criminals infiltrate protest campaigns, and the leaders of these protests make efforts to distance themselves from those who would undermine their otherwise noble cause. This was not the case for the FZP. Looting was part of the strategy. So was burning of resources. And then, as if to camouflage self-interest with some form of tokenistic legitimacy, there were ideological residues, if we consider that the targets of sabotage (in theory at least) included the assets owned by so called White Monopoly Capital (WMC). Race based violence added to the scorched earth strategy of the FZP organizers. They employed social media, which is technically part of the so called WMC to organize the deadly protests.
A state ill prepared for political crisis
When the protests started, very little was known of the twists and turns these protests would make. President Ramaphosa inserted anecdotal warning of what he termed as ethnic mobilization, in his regular umpteenth updates on Covid-19 to the nation. At first, Mr Ramaphosa appealed to the conscience of these ethnic mobilizers as he called them, anticipating that they would respond to a moral call. He would later provide a more accurate assessment of what exactly was going on, more confidently, more firmly and more decisively calling out the protests as organized and well-orchestrated campaign to destabilize the state. To the frustration of most South Africans, Mr Ramaphosa also admitted that the state was ill prepared for such unprecedented political (which quickly became socio-economic) crisis. It is this admission which I argue, poses the greatest danger in modern South Africa.
The task of governing is complex, particularly because there is no human society which is homogeneous. Thus the French historian and political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville understood democracy as nothing more than the tyranny of the majority. When a political administration is given legitimacy by majority of the population to govern, it is by default mandated to govern all constituencies of the society. Under the current political model in South Africa, Mr Ramaphosa’s administration is legitimized by the majority and therefore mandated to govern all of society. Except that the unpreparedness for political crisis fails the basic test of a government fit to govern any society. There is a texture to such conclusion.
The fault line of a soft state
Since 1994, the South African state has followed a model of what Gunnar Myrdal labelled as a soft state, one which seems unable to contain ill-social discipline among its citizens, and as a consequence it is incapable of effective enforcement of the law. In his analysis of Asian states in the 1970s, Myrdal defined most of them as ‘soft states’, by which he meant that they presided over
“various types of social indiscipline which manifest themselves by deficiencies in legislation and, in particular, law observance and enforcement, a widespread disobedience by public officials and, often, their collusion with powerful persons and groups … whose conduct they should regulate. Within the concept of the soft states belongs also corruption (Myrdal,1970:208).
I have laboured in other platforms to insist that for the most part, politics in South Africa is almost exclusively organized around a particular constituency, namely, the poor black section of the population. Unfortunately, so is the state. The state views itself as functional (and efficient) if it is delivering basic services to the poor ; water, electricity and housing. Granted, this is a noble objective for any state, much more for the South African state which must address the brutal socio-economic legacies of apartheid. But delivering basic services to the poor is not what the state is all about. It exists to defend the constitutional rights (political, social and economic) of all constituencies within its geographical scope; and that is the poor, the working class, the middle classes, and even upper classes. This also includes all races within the country, all nationalities and all age groups. What this also means is that the state should be prepared for emergencies and disasters, whether human or natural, which might affect any strata of society at any time.
The fantasy of South African exceptionalism
For almost three decades, the South African state has entertained the false notion of South African exceptionalism; that unlike other societies, South Africans are peaceful, resilient, patient, and much else along these lines. This thesis is advanced on the back of the so called 1994 miracle, and the assumption that South Africans will always act as they did in 1994. President Ramaphosa invoked this notion more than twice in his subsequent speeches to calm protestors.
This notion, which pervades almost all state institutions, is responsible obsessive focus on delivery of basic services and consequently complacency in other roles of the state. This idea is sanctioned by glaring ignorance of other dangers which not only threaten most South African citizens, but also the state itself. As a consequence of this major blind spot, the state had no available intelligence to contain the FZP mayhem before it occurred, notwithstanding that most of the planning was done through social media. Private security provided the buffer to help the state contain public unrest. It was painful to watch cabinet ministers scramble to express themselves to the public, some making appealing to protestors to consider that their actions were devastating black businesses ; as if it was acceptable to attack any other business. Others made reference to the fact that blocking the N3 was a serious threat to food supply in mainland South Africa, as if food supply was the main outcome of the burning of over 35 trucks and blockading of the highway. Both the above articulations are of course better than silence. They however reflect linear (and simplistic) views of the role of the state and the catastrophic scale of damage to the economy as a whole, thanks to the failure of the state.
What is more, if the state was ill prepared for mass looting and burning of resources, it does not require a rocket scientist to imagine how prepared the state is for an attempted coup d’état or sudden military invasion by a foreign power. Social science literature has a lot of historical examples of the consequences of ill preparedness of soft states. There is little doubt that if such a crisis would occur, most citizens would be casualties of state obsession with a single constitutional role, at the expense of others.
Deriving meaning from the recent protests
What the unpreparedness should mean to the state is that the ongoing state reform should seek to achieve more than prosecution of corrupt kleptocrats. It should involve building of a constitutional institution, with clear and relentless pursuit of constitutional functions and objectives. The danger of maintaining the current soft state model is that soft states easily become paranoid, and cease to operate on the basis of empirical evidence. Given that they are ill equipped to gather intelligence, they resort to defending themselves through inuendoes and propagandas. This is because a soft state views its survival as depended on silencing all opposition, because this is the only way it can keep ‘bad’ elements of the opposition in check.
After independence, most African regimes went through the cycle of relative political stability, and only adopted dictatorial tendencies to make up for their deficiency in gathering of intelligence. All is not for the South African state. But neither does it have unlimited time to wakeup and commit to fulfilling its constitutional duties. The FZP should serve to clarify that the 1994 miracle is well in the rear view mirror, and, the notion of South African exceptionalism is a fantasy. South Africans are part of ordinary human society; heterogeneous, complex, and with vested self-interests. The state should re-imagine its scope to include more than basic delivery of services in its commitments to citizens. The task of managing any type of crisis in society is not an extension of state service, it is part of why the state exists in the first place.
Dr. Jason Musyoka is the Chief Executive Officer of The Frontline Group, and a Senior Researcher at the Department of Political Science, University of Pretoria.