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Four South African Futures: Where To After The ANC Conference?

The ANC conference will not on its own predetermine what might appear to be the obvious shape of things to come.

29/11/2017 09:12 SAST | Updated 29/11/2017 09:12 SAST
Siphiwe Sibeko / Reuters
A boy holds a flag as South Africa's President Jacob Zuma addresses the National Youth Day commemoration, under the theme "The Year of OR Tambo: Advancing Youth Economic Empowerment", in Ventersdorp, South Africa June 16, 2017.

In the countdown to next month's elective conference, South Africans might well recognise the dynamics of the ANC's internal contest in Philip Larkin's sketch from another time of the oddly benign mechanics of wrestling bouts at a country fair being "not so much fights as long immobile strainings that end in unbalance".

But if what many fear is the "immobile strainings" of a status quo that doesn't really offer much in the way of markedly improved prospects – and thus the fated uncertainty of continuing "unbalance" – it could be that we run the risk of misjudging the larger picture and the possibility of a future quite different from the one suggested by the obvious and the immediately visible.

This much emerges from presentations to business leaders and others this month by leading political analyst Justice Malala and scenario planner Frans Cronje, chief executive of the South African Institute of Race Relations.

Popular sentiment, for one, should not, in Malala's estimation, be mistaken for a fixed – or fatalistic – quantity.

"Ordinary people," he said, "can do extraordinary things."

Civil society was not to be trifled with, and if "state capture" continued, he predicted, "people will do things to stop it" and a time would come when South Africa's institutions "will be forced to take action".

Speaking at the second of two "State of the Nation" presentations organised by Decision Makers and hosted by business journalist Bruce Whitfield of Talk Radio 702's Money Show, Malala observed that where once the ruling ANC had been a "monolithic presence", this was changing.

The leaders of a future South Africa would have to reckon with a civil society that "is a much greater voice than before".

How this and other dynamics might influence the country's trajectory was at the core of Cronje's presentation.

He offered the wry vignette of a man on the lawns of Washington at the heady moment of Yes-we-can Barack Obama's second-term victory just five years ago turning to a mate and saying: "Well, it sounds great... but I think the next guy to be standing there will be Donald Trump."

It was a salutary caution against the assumed certainties of rational analysis, and its reach into even the not distant future.

Trump, of course, was not the focus of attention, but South Africa's – seeming – date with destiny just a few weeks from today, when ANC delegates from around the country gather to elect a new party leader.

If, indeed, the conference goes ahead – this being one of the cautionary notes sounded in the two-hour presentation, Malala advising that "anything can happen", with the ruling party being "in a mess", and politics being so fluid that "you can't take a nap" without missing something.

But Cronje pointed to the risk of missing what was actual enough, yet hard to see, or, perhaps, hard to accept.

Trump's ascendancy – like the rude Brexit shock – illustrated the weakness of analysis by those in the intelligentsia who rejected outcomes they did not like and so refused to believe would happen.

In South Africa's recent history, he said, the near future would have been inconceivable to the 1985 National Party audience that applauded (though some were appalled) P W Botha's Rubicon speech, in which he defiantly declared that he was "not prepared to lead white South Africans... on a road to abdication and suicide".

None among them would have foreseen that within just over a decade "the last NP leader would be the tourism minister in an ANC cabinet that would cut interest rates in half, produce the GEAR policy and take the economic growth rate back to 5%".

And, so, to December 2017.

If untested data emerging from the ANC electoral process suggested that the corruption-tainted camp of Jacob Zuma and its candidate Nkosasana Dlamini-Zuma had appeared to lose ground to Cyril Ramaphosa's counter charge, extreme caution – both Malala and Cronje stressed – was called for in prejudging the outcome.

A key risk was misappreciating Jacob Zuma's skill and resolve in acting in his own political interest, a quality often obscured by the caricaturing of a political leader who is routinely made the butt of jokes, but who "keeps on winning", as Malala put it.

In Cronje's judgement, Zuma was "an amazingly capable and ruthless strategist", whose willingness to act had long been sorely underestimated.

Both agreed Zuma's moves in the weeks to come could lead to a rupture in the ruling party.

The consequences could include new political formations – a potential ANC split in Malala's view, or, in Cronje's, the emergence of an ANC "clone" (a breakaway group grasping the brand of the pre-2007 ANC, and possibly incorporating the EFF, DA dissidents and others) – which would open the space for what Malala called more "varied" politics in which the ANC "is not the only conversation in town".

This, coupled with a palpably more vigorous civil society, offered some hope.

"I still think we have a chance to be a great country," Malala said, even if clawing back from Zuma-era declines and abuses would be hard going.

RODGER BOSCH/AFP/Getty Images
People walk past the billboard of the South African flag, newly set up on the building in the trendy Long Street area, where a billboard saying 'Zuma must fall' was set up some days earlier, and then destroyed, on January 22 2016, in Cape Town. The original billboard referred to South African president, and African National Congress(ANC) president, Jacob Zuma.

Yet, the shape of things to come, in Cronje's calculation, must be guided not by short-term trends which appear obvious in pointing the country in one direction or another, but longer term patterns and dynamics that will impinge on the choices and room for manoeuvre of whoever emerges as ANC leader next month, or later, and the government he or she might lead.

These include:

  • credible polling showing South Africans are more inclined to moderate middle-of-the-road opinions rather than economic and political populism and racial nationalism;
  • popular confidence in the country being a function of the wellbeing of families and households (jobs, income and so on) rather than perceptions of political failings, corruption or headlines about state capture;
  • high expectations founded on the genuine improvements in the lives of people post-1994 leading to a rising sense of grievance (and protest) because, following government and economic failures after 2008, these expectations have not been met, and
  • the inescapable truth that such expectations cannot be met without structural reforms to trigger investment-led growth, and, among other things, fix the broken education system that presently condemns millions of poorly educated young South Africans to joblessness in an increasingly high-skills economy.

Against these variables, and the country's unprecedented political tensions, Cronje offered a range of four scenarios to suggest what South Africa's next decade might look like. Each of them, he argued, is in play.

The first, The Rise of the Right, is of an authoritarian structural reformation in the pursuit of massive capital inflows and delivers 5%+ GDP growth by the mid-2020s and a commensurate increase in living standards that will deliver a high measure of political stability.

The Tyranny of the Left will see populist momentum pull South Africa into a decade-deep recession amidst massive capital flight as civil rights and constitutional safeguards are destroyed.

The Rise of the Rainbow describes a new 2019 coalition government that unites around the importance of structural reform as GDP growth levels recover to 3% by the early-to-mid-2020s amidst great political volatility.

The Break-Up of South Africa describes the emergence of robust and globally networked middle-class enclaves against the context of much political infighting, social instability, and near complete ideological incohesion.

South Africans, Cronje advises, must steel themselves – like the man on the lawns of Washington at Obama's re-election – to try to imagine the unthinkable rather than discount outcomes they can't believe might occur.

The ANC's elective conference – the fate of it, or its outcome - will be a key moment along the path to a hard-to-picture future, he and Malala argue, but will not on its own predetermine what might appear to be the obvious shape of things to come.

Being alert to the risks, Whitfield implied in his closing remarks, was not the same as losing heart. There was reason enough, he suggested, to keep in mind the sanguine outlook of hotel manager Patel in the film, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, who assured panicky guests: "Everything will be all right in the end. If it's not all right, it is not yet the end."

Morris is head of media at the IRR, a liberal think tank that promotes political and economic freedom.