South Africa: A Socialist Dictatorship?

In a series of articles I have expressed great concern for the economic and political future of South Africa. My interest in this nation on the southern tip of the African continent is founded in the events that took place two decades ago, when Apartheid fell and South Africa rose on a wave of hope as the ANC formed a new government. All over the world people had high, but realistic expectations: the movement that had prevailed over institutionalized racism would unify the country and lead it into a peaceful, prosperous future.

Freedom and democracy would celebrate another triumph over divisiveness and totalitarianism.

Sadly, those expectations have fallen flat to the ground. The hope that millions of South Africans had has been shattered by an economic and social crisis that only seems to deepen by the day. Unemployment numbers are horrifying, crime and corruption threaten the very stability of society and the vast majority of the black population are living under conditions that have not improved at all since Apartheid ended.

What does the ANC do to respond to this? Part of the answer is in a thoughtful op-ed for Business Day, a premier daily South African publication. Two researchers from the Socioeconomic Rights Institute, Michael Clark and Jackie Dugard, present a very interesting analysis of the deterioration of the ANC regime. Their analysis has general applications to other countries, far beyond South Africa’s borders:

In his state of the nation address on February 14, President Jacob Zuma said there were important lessons to be learnt from the Marikana tragedy. Skipping over what many may view as the most important lesson about the South African Police Service’s tragic use of lethal force, Zuma drew attention instead to the issue of violent protestors. Calling on South Africans to exercise their constitutionally protected right to protest in a peaceful manner, Zuma pointed out that protests that were not “peaceful” were “unacceptable”. He said he had empowered the justice, crime prevention and security cluster to put measures in place to ensure that violent protests are dealt with appropriately, that arrests are made and that speedy and effective prosecutions occur.

Before we continue, for the sake of context, here is a presentation of the institute where the two op-ed authors work:

The Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa (SERI) is a non-profit organisation providing professional, dedicated and expert socio-economic rights assistance to individuals, communities and social movements in South Africa. SERI conducts applied research, engages with government, advocates for policy and legal reform, facilitates civil society coordination and mobilisation, and litigates in the public interest (the SERI Law Clinic is registered as a public interest law centre).

In an American context they are a mixture of a 501c3 and a PAC. More importantly, though, they are a kind of “foot soldier” movement carrying the idealistic torch of the ANC-led anti-apartheid revolution into the communities of today’s South Africa.

It is helpful to keep this in mind as we return to the op-ed in Business Day:

In addition, Zuma explained that specialised courts would be allocated to give priority to protest cases. Some have criticised this stance, arguing that similar measures have not been implemented in relation to a number of other pressing societal issues, such as rising inequality, violence against women and corruption. Later in the same week, Justice Minister Jeff Radebe further elaborated on Zuma’s comments, saying in relation to protests that the state had to “exercise its authority” in order to maintain peace and security.

There are two reasons for this. Either the ANC leadership has lost track of what their revolution was all about, or they never intended to build a lasting democratic state in the first place. Given that the early leaders of the ANC were schooled by radical Swedish socialists like Olof Palme and Pierre Schori, it is entirely possible that the organization has always viewed parliamentary democracy as a shell game. But regardless of whether authoritarianism has always been their intention or if it is the result of power intoxication over the past two decades, the desire of the ANC leadership to continue to lead, at increasing cost, is now on full display.

By prioritizing enforcement against desperate protesters over empowerment of the desperately poor, the ANC regime is choosing power over democracy.

Clark and Dugard ask why the ANC government is so much more preoccupied “with crowd control” than with increasingly urgent socio-economic problems:

The answer seems to emerge from the protests themselves. Since 2004, and gaining momentum over the past few years, there has been a huge surge in the number of popular protests that occur in poor communities, causing some commentators to suggest that SA is facing a mushrooming rebellion. While undoubtedly related to socioeconomic conditions such as chronic unemployment and inequality, and often referred to as being about “service delivery”, the protests are also about poor communities’ desires to meaningfully participate and influence the decisions that affect their daily lives: protests signal communities’ frustration with being excluded from decision-making processes by officials who either fail to engage with them or unilaterally convey government decisions that have already been taken on their behalf.

As I explained in August last year, there is no doubt whatsoever that the ANC government is turning a blind eye to South Africa’s mounting problems with poverty, unemployment and crime. Their lack of interest in, and inability to deal with these problems were further highlighted in the ANC’s “National Development Plan”, which could just as well have been written by a group of young teenage socialists trying to sound like they know what the world needs.

Then Clark and Dugard make a chilling observation:

With formal avenues for contest and dissent blocked off, communities resort to a more visible expression of their discontent in protest actions. Protests thus expose the failure of formal democratic processes, which may explain the government’s profound discomfort in responding to public gatherings. Indeed, it seems it is the visible dissent and not necessarily the threat of violence that has spurred the government towards this repressive stance.

This could have been written during the Apartheid regime, which raises the question how far it is from Sharpeville to Marikana. The comparison is admittedly a bit provocative, but there is no doubt that the ANC government is on a sliding scale from the moral high ground it held in 1994 into the muddy waters of corruption and authoritarianism.

[The] protests represent an increasingly visible failure on the part of the government to advance an inclusive democracy. The state’s response is to attempt to suppress the rising tide of dissatisfaction by repressive means if necessary. This is apparent in the conduct of the police at public gatherings. … as any community attempting to protest will attest, in case after case, the authorities unreasonably delay processes and the police regularly label ensuing protests “illegal”, using this terminology to unlawfully disperse legitimate protests or intimidate and threaten demonstrators. The police have also been criticised for their increased brutality and heavy-handedness. This ruthless attitude was recently highlighted in the shocking video footage of a taxi driver … who was viciously assaulted by police and dragged behind a police vehicle. The taxi driver later died, while being held in police custody. This incident speaks to a culture of violence that is being left unchecked.

One might also ask if there is a re-emerging culture of violence, one that the ANC is fostering because its leadership feels its grip on power over the past 19 years may not last forever. While formally, by the letter of the law, maintaining that life as the South Africans have known it for two decades is unchanged, they can easily make de facto changes to how they treat people.

Most governments with an authoritarian slant enter the ugly shadow world of totalitarianism in this very way. It does not take a violent overthrow of democracy and freedom. All it takes is the intoxication of power and the addiction to ruling, and leaders who came into office on high moral credentials will descend to just another power grabber. As the protests emerge, what better way to close the ranks than to command a sizable police force?

Or, as Clark and Dugard put it…

…mere tolerance of such unchecked violence indirectly serves to undermine dissent. At protests, police often use teargas, rubber bullets and even live ammunition for crowd management. … This reactionary violence is then employed by the police to justify the use of excessive force. The same criticism can be launched at the criminal justice system in general, where the arrest, detention and prosecution of demonstrators occurs regularly, often on trumped-up charges, in an attempt to intimidate, threaten or destabilise community-based movements. These actions are generally targeted at community activists who are depicted as “troublemakers” and “criminals”.

This is to a large degree how Hugo Chavez turned Venezuela from a functioning parliamentary democracy into his own totalitarian backyard empire. And just like he dismissed protesters and legitimate questions regarding his way of governing…

…labelling allows the government to disregard underlying concerns instead of meaningfully engaging with the protesters and incorporating these concerns into formal democratic processes.

This is a divisive form of governing. Political leaders choose to use it not because they are unaware of its consequences, but because they have an interest in a confrontational form of government. The similarities between the ANC regime, the “bolivarians” in Venezuela and other socialist authoritarians, like Cristina Kirchner in Argentina and to some degree president Obama, are centered around precisely that: confrontation instead of cooperation, personal attacks and labeling of political opponents even at the expense of the democratic process of government.

Any politician who governs divisively instead of inclusively reveals his or her true colors: that person has no true interest in allowing the will of the people to lead the country into the future.

Clark and Dugard say it well:

With each new protest, the government’s failure to meaningfully include the majority of South Africans in the benefits of our democracy is more evident. However, instead of recognising our failures and encouraging participation at the formal and informal levels, the government appears to be going all out to clamp down on protests and suppress growing popular dissent. This is a very worrying trend that should concern us all.

Let us hope South Africa can save its democracy. And let us keep the words of these two thoughtful researchers in mind. Their analysis of what the ANC is up to has much broader application than to just their country.

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