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Future of South Africa Discussed at November 19 Luncheon

South Africa was the focus of PDAA’s Nov. 19, 2018, luncheon discussion. The rule of law, the future of the African National Congress, and “state capture” under the Jacob Zuma régime were among the topics covered. The speakers were  sociologist Fran Buntman, who teaches Criminal Justice, Law, and the politics of South Africa at George Washington University and Sherwin Bryce-Pease, UN Bureau Chief of South Africa Broadcasting Corporation News. The discussion was led by Witney Schneidman, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs in the Obama administration.

Photo of panelists at Nov. 19 PDAA event

Sherwin Bryce-Pease, UN Bureau Chief of South Africa Broadcasting Corporation News; former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Witney Schneidman; and GWU Assistant Professor Fran Buntman at the Nov. 19 PDAA discussion on South Africa. (Photo courtesy of Alan Kotok)

 

Photo of Sherwin Bryce-Pease

Sherwin Bryce-Pease is UN Bureau Chief of South Africa Broadcasting Corporation News. (Alan Kotok)

Bryce-Pease’s remarks follow:

The topic today is Nelson Mandela’s legacy and the prospects for the Ramaphosa administration, and I see my role as a journalist to present you with a summary of some of the current developments there and then we can discuss later.

Madiba is an important part of South Africa’s democratic consciousness: he was the unifier when we needed one desperately, he was the glue that surprisingly held us together in a country that today still remains largely racially and spacially divided. I have lived in the US for over ten years now and it’s amazing that when I go home one can still go to a restaurant with only white patrons and black staff serving. And yes, this is clearly changing over time but there are definitely legacy issues that visibly remind us of where we have come from and the road that lies ahead.

So while Nelson Mandela’s example of reconciliation is something many in South Africa feel they have a responsibility to emulate, there are very hard questions of historic redress that will test our constitutional democracy moving forward.

I think there is broad consensus that South Africa’s trajectory post-1994 has been mediocre. It remains one of if not the most unequal societies in the world. The official unemployment rate is at around 27% currently, while youth unemployment is at an astonishing 57%. The economy is in a technical recession and current estimates have the economy growing at 0.7% this year – way below the five percent – at a minimum – required to tackle this massive problem.

Corruption became endemic under the administration of Jacob Zuma, who was finally ousted by the African National Congress earlier this year, but many would argue that the damage was already done and that the ANC was complicit in the actions of the executive. This was clear when the ANC’s hegemony on power was challenged during the 2016 local government elections, when for the first time since democracy they lost power not only in Cape Town, which has been a traditional stronghold of the opposition Democratic Alliance, but also in the economic centre Johannesburg, the capital Pretoria and the largest city in the Eastern Cape Province, Port Elizabeth –which woke the ANC up to what might lie down the road at the provisional and national levels in 2019.

The election in parliament of Cyril Ramaphosa and his first State of the Nation address soon thereafter gave many South Africans an injection of optimism and euphoria about the future. That was to be short-lived due to the confluence of bad news about the levels of corruption across various sectors that continue to emerge. The momentum he is trying to build is happening at a time when factional battles are being waged in the ruling party, with a strong Zuma faction still wielding some power within the structures of the organisation. After all, Ramaphosa won by just 179 votes over Zuma’s preferred candidate. More on that in a bit.

The term State Capture is what the Zuma Presidency will be remembered for – and his family’s close relationship with the wealthy Indian Gupta family that appears to have wielded undue influence over government ministers, their departments and State Owned Enterprises – the subject of which is now being probed by a Commission of Inquiry which President Zuma was forced to establish by South Africa’s former public protector, Thuli Madonsela – who is regarded as a rockstar anti-corruption crusader in South Africa . That commission is now hearing testimony from a variety of actors, former government officials, ministers, who paint a bleak picture of how decisions were arrived at, how tenders were awarded, how cabinet ministers were appointed or fired.

South Africa’s Reserve Bank Governor recently told an audience of investors in New York that one of the primary causes of weak growth in the country has been the severe decline in South African governance in recent years – a period of political decay which according to him is “only now coming to an end.” Quote: “This episode known throughout South Africa as ‘state capture involved a hollowing out of institutions and, in many cases, the looting of public resources for private gain. One of its many consequences was a large decline in business and consumer confidence. This, in turn, has contributed to investment stagnating over the past five years” – close quotes. In short, State Capture burdened the Government with fruitless and wasteful expenditure and undermined the capacity of the government to deliver services to the most vulnerable in that society.

President Ramaphosa and several of the ANC’s leaders, who now talk about a new page in South Africa, cannot quite shake their complicity in the extent of the corruption. After all, as deputy President to Zuma, Ramaphosa had a seat at the table even though he has denied that he was aware of the extent of state capture. Some would argue it happened on his watch right, under his nose. He was there when Ministers were removed without proper explanation, without due process being followed even though this was the President’s prerogative, much as it is in the United States. (There are many Jeff Sessions types walking about South Africa today.)

The ANC also largely shielded the Zuma administration from the oversight that parliament for example was meant to exercise over the Executive, and several opposition-led processes to remove the President were blocked by the ANC majority despite the evidence of malfeasance piling up. The argument now becomes “well, look at what we are doing now,” but the opposition is saying, “what took you so long?” We’ll see how that plays out in the months ahead and to what extent the ANCs liberation credentials and its new President can still engender a sense of loyalty among the voting majority. It’s also worth noting that Ramaphosa faces very much a balancing act within the ANC – factional issues are real and there are some views that the ANC might break up as a result of these ideological differences within this big tent. A former leader of the official opposition this weekend wrote that Ramaphosa moves with a chameleonic caution against the worst and most corrupt elements of both his party and the state. There’s no question that he’s walking a tightrope.

A big bone of contention in the current political dynamics in the country is the question of land and its expropriation without compensation and what that would mean for the property rights clause entrenched in the constitution. This has been an albatross around the neck of the new administration as they are being outflanked on this issue by the emergent Economic Freedom Fighters – a small but vocal opposition party under the leadership of Julius Malema, ousted from the ruling party for indiscipline a few years ago and who refers to himself as the Commander in Chief of the Organisation.

They have a larger role in determining the political narrative in the country than their 6% national support in the last election would suggest. They have made the land question and its expropriation without compensation a central issue in their push for political power – and a parliamentary committee has just voted to change the country’s constitution to make more explicit the ability to do just that – something that will now be debated in the national assembly and the national council of provinces before a final vote on amending the constitution is taken – but like so many things in South Africa, this too will eventually end up in the country’s constitutional court. The President has been at pains to make this process transparent, he has said that land is one of apartheid’s legacy issues that must be addressed to give the majority of black South Africans some redress. He has also said there would be no Zimbabwe-type land invasions, that this would be an orderly process within the confines of the rule of law, that property rights would be respected. With all that said, it does give those looking in from afar some pause.

Some of the issues that confront the split-personality of the ANC are questions like the independence of the Reserve Bank (there is a group within the ANC that believes the bank should be nationalised and there is actually and ANC resolution to that effect adopted at the last national conference). Other ANC resolutions call for the withdrawal from the ICC and closing down the country’s embassy to Israel.

My SA colleague journalist Stephen Grootes recently pointed out that there are trends to watch out for in South Africa – which I feel are worth repeating here. One, a weakening of the ethos of non-racialism – a fundamental tenet of the Mandela years: could we see this principle begin to unravel with an accompanying rise in ethnic chauvinism, particularly from groups like the EFF? Second,a sustained tolerance for immoral or even criminal behaviour by politicians: state capture didn’t happen overnight. And thirdly, the widening of and still racialised inequality in South Africa. By and large, the face of poverty in South Africa is black: where will this growing impatience with poverty/inequality/corruption lead us to?

Ok, so that was some of the negative stuff, but what else are we observing in this 24-year-old democracy? (1) A strong and independent media and publishing industry that have been absolutely crucial in exposing the bad stuff that was happening in South Africa. (2) The media has largely stood tall in its investigative work and in exposing the levels of state capture. (3) Joined by civil society, and the independence of the country’s judiciary and its chapter 9 institutions like the public protector, the auditor general, the independent electoral commission, the Human Rights Commission – these pillars of the country’s democracy are what made the difference in steering the ship in a different direction. And effectively changed the posture of the country’s parliament that has finally assumed its oversight responsibilities with greater vigour.

Recent polling suggests the ANC will win a majority in parliament but could dip below 60% for the first time since 1994, possibly even below 50%, which means coalition government could be the future for the country. The Democratic Alliance, which won above 22% in the last national poll, is struggling to shake the label that it remains a white party and needs to attract a broader segment of the black majority if it is going to grow. Certain comments by its former leader and premier in the Western Cape that colonialism wasn’t all bad didn’t play well with the black majority in the country. They have also been accused of racism for the recent incompetent ousting of Cape Town Mayor Patricia de Lille over yet untested corruption charges. She has subsequently, yesterday to be precise, announced that she would be launching a new political party to contest the next election.

The DA’s first black leader Mmusi Maimane is accused of being a front for white control of the party, and he’s struggled to assert himself in a party that has strong white support and influence but one that needs to unshackle itself by appealing to a broader segment of the country if it is really serious about governing nationally. South Africans face a dilemma in that there is nothing priggish about all of their options heading into 2019 and will be faced with the question – what’s my best worst option?

So I think that while its fair for me to say that the future of the country is at best uncertain, we still have the bedrock that is this wondrous constitution that secured marriage equality, ensured wider distribution of ARVs to combat HIV during the intransigence of the Mbeki administration, a constitutional court that held President Zuma liable for costs incurred to upgrade his private residence and ordered the president to implement the rulings of the public protector, which included establishing the commission looking into state capture. This is a court that ruled that political parties should make their funding sources accessible to the public and dismissed Oscar Pistorius’ appeals for the murderer that he is – and the list goes on. This some would argue is democracy in action, and while some of the levies might have broken, the pillars that define any democracy – freedom of expression, association, independent courts, independent, boisterous civil society and so on — have, at the end, made all the difference.

Zuma for all his faults has never disobeyed a court ruling. Long delayed corruption charges have been reinstated against him while dubious appointees at the National Prosecuting Authority, at the SA Revenue Services on boards of state-owned enterprises, have been or are in the process of being removed. Cyril Ramaphosa is seen as better than his predecessor, but the jury is out on how quickly he can clean up government, SOEs like Eskom, Transnet and so on, whether he can infuse mission impossible with a bit of Madiba Magic that many yearn for. The Ramaphosa effect on the ANC’s election prospects shall be tested next May. Having Zuma gone doesn’t help the opposition. But he also now faces questions about a half a million rand payment to election campaign by a company linked to corruption, particularly dirty bribes for government tenders. He has promised to pay back the money but at what cost politically we don’t know.

To conclude, I believe South Africa is entering a phase where the pillars of our democracy will be severely tested but there is no evidence yet that attempts to erode it have actually collapsed those pillars. And despite all of this, there is no question that South Africa today is a much more open, progressive, transparent society than it was 25 years ago. The test is whether it can hold onto those gains while ensuring greater equity in a prudent and timely fashion.

I will end with this quote from our Reserve Bank Governor Lesetja Kganyago speaking in New York earlier this month: “As you all know, forecasting economic events is hard, but predicting the interactions between political and economic events is all but impossible. Once something has already happened, we are all quite good at stitching together a causal narrative that makes that outcome seem inevitable. Sadly, our ability to explain the past is much stronger than our capacity to prophesy the future.” I have no doubt those words very much apply here today.

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1 comment to Future of South Africa Discussed at November 19 Luncheon

  • Pat Goosen

    Thank you so much Sherwin for sharing this insightful picture of our beloved South Africa. Your wide but well written presentation gives a fair sometimes somber and yet hopeful reflection of the situation in our country. Sad because so many are suffering because of the lack of service delivery while all the attention is focussed on all the commisions of enquiries on corruption, state capture and the once acclaimed constitution is in the process of being changed which will lead to further instability. Yet we are also blessed with a freer press with excellent journalists like yourself being able to share your stories without fear or favour. Well done@