The mayhem, destruction and looting that stunned South Africa and the world, appears to be over for now, but it could very easily happen again. Much continues to simmer and stir below the surface, which constitutes a threat to the future of our democracy.
As we look back and search for answers regarding the causes and triggers of this destructive event, and analyse and criticise or praise the government and state’s responses to it, the big questions we should be asking ourselves are, how do we restore the damage done on all levels? How do we prevent it from happening ever again? But most importantly, how do we safeguard a prosperous democracy for all in the long term, the only insurance against such events?
For this has surely been a tipping point and we cannot simply proceed as before.
However, the job of correcting mistakes, restoration and rebuilding for a sound future, may be too big for any one political party, or any one leader. Especially in a society as culturally, politically and economically diverse as South Africa, where so many different expectations, beliefs, interests and demands have to be satisfied under one single political roof. It’s time for another major national conversation involving all stakeholders…a second CODESA.
Even prior to the recent mayhem, the time had already been well overdue for another major national conversation and a second social compact, this time to plot our economic transition to lift millions of our citizens from poverty, unemployment and inequality. But events in the meantime overtook us, to which I will return in a moment.
Almost three decades ago South Africans peacefully negotiated the widely hailed democratic “miracle” of 1994 at a national convention known by its abbreviation CODESA, followed by a period of a multiparty government of national unity and an assembly that created our new democratic constitution. That was the political settlement that introduced our transition to a new democratic order based on the supremacy of the new constitution and the rule of law.
However, since that great achievement many developments and forces have steadily been chipping away to erode this exemplary foundation. To list but a few:
The deployment of ANC cadres across the entire public sector to gain control of all the levers of state power in furtherance of the ANC’s National Democratic Revolution (NDR), at the expense of efficiency, independent professionalism and delivery.
The 2007/08 removal of former President Thabo Mbeki by the SA Communist Party (SACP), COSATU and various co-conspirators in the ANC, because they feared that his neo-liberal policies which they termed the “1996 class project” and included his GEAR economic strategy, would prevent completion of the NDR and their planned transition to socialism.
Mbeki’s eventual replacement by Jacob Zuma, which led to state capture, widespread corruption, and the steady deterioration of a once strong economy, and which gave rise to the later destructive factional battles in the ANC.
The ascendency of radical populist policies in the governing ANC, including “radical economic transformation” (RET) and property expropriation without compensation (EWC), which could yet theoretically or possibly lead to all land being nationalised as things stand at the moment, plus property rights -a fundamental constitutional guarantee – being arguably undermined with likely destructive economic consequences.
And finally, against this background, the governing ANC’s failure to address worsening poverty, unemployment, and inequality through sensible investment-attracting, employment-creating, growth-focused, developmental economic policies, a failure worsened by the devastation of Covid-19 and a series of sometimes ill-considered lockdowns and regulations, and which became a huge contributing factor in the mayhem, rioting, looting and destruction in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.
Now we are doing the post-mortems, contemplating how much of the recent mayhem, destruction and looting was a spontaneous revolt against hunger, poverty, unemployment, and inequality; how much was sheer criminality exploiting what started as a political protest; or how much of it was a planned insurrection coordinated allegedly by a small group of treasonous saboteurs with shadowy political aims. Or how much of it resulted from an unfortunate and tragic confluence of all these and various other factors. I believe it will prove to be the latter.
While there appears by no means to be full consensus within President Cyril Ramaphosa’s cabinet about the reasons for the recent mayhem, nor within the ANC, a narrative has been actively promoted that deflects most of the blame away from the government and state institutions to a sinister third force of insurrectionist conspirators. A handful of individuals have been arrested but it’s unlikely the prosecution will find more than just individuals using social media to fan the unrest in support of their own political beliefs – not a carefully planned and coordinated plot to overthrow the government.
It is important to mention this, because in this context, disappearing into the background, is the biggest driver by far of the recent unrest and looting – poverty, inequality, unemployment and hunger. We would overlook it once again at our own peril, and that of our democracy.
So how do we address all of this?
Prior to the riots, a few minor suggestions and attempts were made to arrive at a new economic strategy to try and meet these challenges. They were either scuttled or never got off the ground. Besides, none really gave much hope of making a real difference. Sitting in a closet gathering dust was one document that did provide a sound basis for economic transformation… the unimplemented decade-old National Development Plan (NDP).
So, the ANC’s solution prior to the recent riots, with significant pressure and interventions from its allies COSATU and the SACP, and from its own radical populist wing, was to try and foist on all South Africans narrowly constructed, but broadly populist radical policies like RET and EWC. These concepts quickly also became a football in the debilitating competition between the warring ANC factions and between the different ideological strands in the alliance.
But in a country as culturally, racially, ethnically, economically, politically and ideologically diverse as South Africa, for one party to impose its own narrow “solutions” and restrictive policies on the entire body politic, could never work. History had taught us that once before. It would only widen existing socio-economic and political fissures and create new ones, along with new tensions that would eventually reach breaking point once again and lead to events like we have just seen.
What was needed instead of the ANC/SACP/COSATU alliance unilaterally embarking on the imposition of RET – the second or economic leg of the NDR – or on fallacy-based propositions like EWC, was a national conversation on the way forward to reach growth and prosperity… an economic CODESA. A national conversation to find the most suitable economic model for the country that could truly work and would include everyone.
Only if there was broad consensus and buy-in and all sectors of society felt they had a stake in it, could it result in an economic social compact that could work harmoniously. One that could start growing the economy, creating jobs, narrowing inequality and eradicating poverty. Done timeously enough, it may well have prevented the social eruption we just witnessed and the small sideshow of a political protest at Nkandla would have remained just that.
Instead of focusing on ideological distortions and social and economic experiments already widely discredited over the last 50 years or so, new business models that focussed on SMMEs and township and rural economies for instance, should have been pursued. Or new cooperative and mentoring relations between existing commercial farmers and emerging new ones underpinned by dynamic financial and practical state support, without anyone’s rights taken away. Instead, if anything, the underlying, constitutionally guaranteed rights should have been strengthened and protected.
But then events overtook us as the social and economic disruption in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng occurred, and now the problems and challenges have multiplied overnight. Numerous institutions failed us, and the weight of poverty threatened to crush us. A tipping point had indeed been reached.
The last time we saw such destruction and mayhem was in the 1980s when the ANC and UDF imposed upon the townships their strategy of making South Africa ungovernable as part of the liberation struggle, followed by the low-key civil war between Inkatha and the ANC/UDF, then also occurring mostly in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.
That was followed by CODESA, the 1994 democratic elections and the adoption of a constitution hailed around the world as one of the best ever. But all of that has now been driven to the edge of destruction because we failed to achieve a timeous economic social compact, like our political one.
The widespread mayhem and the character it took on, brought into sharp focus through a single prism, all the many socio-economic and political challenges and weaknesses we face. Probing questions are now being asked about our political leadership, about the functioning and preparedness of vital organs of state, and other matters that suddenly came under the spotlight. The centre has been badly fractured but is still holding, but only just. It could give way unless we do the right thing.
Now, perhaps more than ever, the country needs a second CODESA, or a national conversation of all stakeholders, but no longer just an economic one. Recent events mean it will now require a convention and a social compact that is focused wider than just the economy, that it must also include where politically we have gone wrong, and how to rebuild the country after the recent destruction. We need to return to the political and constitutional fundamentals, the rule of law, and broad social and political cooperation with the goal of finding an economic as well as a restorative socio-political strategy that enjoy broad consensus and social buy-in. This, as I said above, may be a task too big for a single political party or leader.
To fix the problems, pressures and harmful developments that preceded the recent riots over a decade or more, and to repair the economic, social and psychological damage left in their wake, we may well also again need a government of national unity, one that brings together the best in leadership talent and capabilities.
The spirit of voluntary cooperation that emerged across many communities during and after the recent riots, shows it is possible for South Africans to work and solve problems together as they did in 1994. And it may be the only viable way to ensure that we never return to this low and frightening point and that our democracy is safe, secure and prosperous for everyone.
Stef Terblanche is an independent Cape Town-based political analyst/consultant and journalist.