Political analyst David Maimela looks back on the year that was in South African politics and draws on five key factors for the highs and lows we have experienced as a nation

The biggest political problem facing South Africa today is poverty. And because of poverty, even the little progress made since 1994 diminishes in the eyes of the majority which sees the state, institutions, and the entire political system as illegitimate.

Despite creating the so-called ‘black middle-class’, improving working conditions, introducing social protection schemes, and, for some time, creating jobs, the democratic story is severely undermined by an economy that is problematic and unsustainable in many ways.

The political space is increasingly becoming toxic and desperate. Poverty, patronage, and inequality combine to create an untenable political climate where access to political office means upward social mobility and a matter of life or death.

Like all the years before, 2021 has been an eventful year of highs and lows, twists and turns. At least five political events defined 2021, namely, the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, poor economic performance, the July Moment, the height of the Zondo Commission, and the local government elections. Although all five are important, the focus of this review is on the last four, with COVID-19 implied in the poor performance of the economy.

The political story of 2021 is a continuation of the efforts to build a new South Africa—what Mandela called, the ‘long walk to freedom’, away from the colonial and apartheid past. Whereas 2021 had its unique dramatic events, our historical social formation trends have their imprints in the political theatre of the day. To ignore the long stretch of history into present day South Africa, will be an exercise too fanciful for serious political analysis.

Poor economic performance and politics

The economy is basically about the allocation of resources in society. And it is assumed that political parties vie for power as a means to control the state and therefore influence the allocation of resources.

The failure for the economy to allocate resources fairly and efficiently, is the undoing of any political project or party in power. And what follows is unhappiness and declining levels of trust in economic, formal, and legal institutions.

The economic outlook is an oxymoron—optimistic pessimism. The economy is expected to grow by 5% in 2021 and 1.7% in the next three years. However, the reality is that we are moving from a low base owing to stagnation, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the ongoing power crisis. Long before the pandemic hit us, more people were joining the labour market annually than the economy could meet the demand.

The pandemic worsened an already bad economic situation in the country. It added lockdowns to blackouts, or loadshedding as the government prefers it. Gross national fixed investment by both the private and public sectors has not been improving in the last ten years, despite the commitments of more infrastructure, investment, and, lately, the economic recovery programme. Investors are looking for security of supply of electricity and Eskom has effectively been a sovereign risk for fifteen years.

From a jobs and incomes perspective, this has meant that the conditions of the working population at various levels, has either become worse or precarious. In the public service, a shrinking fiscus has meant an almost no salary adjustment for 2021 and some State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs) have had to retrench workers or struggle to pay salaries. Even if the so-called ‘state capture’ was not a factor in terms of economic performance and confidence building, the economy would still be on a low or even negative growth trajectory.

Most of the indications from both local and international agencies, and government and non-governmental entities, project that most of the National Development Plan (NDP) targets will not be met and instead, the country may be headed towards a ‘failed state’ of sorts. The latter sentiment is largely held outside government circles.

For this reason, too, it is important that political analysis should not just look at the events of the day and not understand patterns of history and the stated objectives of the government of the day.

The latest multi-stakeholder scenarios, the Indlulamithi 2030 Scenarios aptly captures the South African problem and the choices we can make. We can choose to be a nation in step with itself and do Nayi le Walk or keep the status quo of Ibhujwa and consequently slide into the untenable Gwara Gwara scenario. It is entirely up to us!

The Zondo Commission

This year we saw the conclusion of the Zondo Commission’s work—one of the longest judicial commissions since 1994. With more high-ranking politicians, executives, and bureaucrats—including the President, appearing before Judge Zondo, the stakes could never have been so high.

In a way, the fact that you could have some Chapter 9 institutions, the rule of law and civil society working together to pull us back from the brink of the total collapse of governance, is in itself a laudable achievement for our young democracy.

In the public’s imagination, the testimonies of these powerful actors represented the decline of state, values, and the betrayal of the 1994 promise. But it could be argued too that the testimonies—as inconclusive and untested as they may be, also created a sense of doubt about the entire political system. Because the assumption was that the relationship between the state and private interests was mitigated by clear rules of engagement in terms of the law, codes, and, more importantly, higher values and ethics as espoused in the Constitution.

On the contrary, the revelations showed that no matter how good the rule of law can be on paper, parochial actors and sectional interests can undo the building of a fair and democratic political order. And that nothing must be taken for granted. On this score, South Africa needs to rethink its system of checks and balances but, more importantly, there is a need to look at how fair the allocation of resources is, from a process and systems point of view. It is one thing to have a rent-seeking stratum and yet another to have a rising ‘deep state’.

Many think that the revelations at the commission are merely a bad reflection on the governing party. Yes, that is partially true. However, the picture is more nuanced and complex than just saying the party has lost its way.

In the theatre of revelations, several storylines have been laid bare:

  • Firstly, the very idea of ‘state capture’ is a contested one;
  • Secondly, it is clear that ‘state capture’ is a multifaceted and multilayered phenomenon which is facilitated by various actors in the government, business, and political circles for common agendas; and
  • Thirdly, where the economic base narrows, the political space becomes the easiest route to personal accumulation and social mobility.

We should not be too optimistic about ending the so-called ‘state capture’. Capitalists exist to capture the state anyway. We should focus more on building a robust developmental state with an insulated bureaucracy—what Peter Evans calls, “embedded autonomy of the state”.

As the work ends, South Africans should be cautious that ‘state capture’ does not serve as a mere political instrument in the hands of competing interests whose endgame is not the defeat of capture, but political displacement for more capture!

The July Moment

The July Moment—the wanton looting in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, was the externalisation of intra-party factional battles in the African National Congress (ANC). It certainly was not a popular uprising, although popular grievances of people were used as cover for what was effectively an act of economic sabotage aimed at delegitimising the Ramaphosa faction.

What is more concerning is the extent to which political actors could dare to test the limits of the law and the coercive power of the state—more like the sabotage of Boeremag two decades earlier. The July Moment tested the strength of our political order—the very idea of South Africa and its unity assumptions.

The whole episode revealed our relative state of fragility and vulnerability. The restraint of the people and the skillful avoidance of another Marikana, is what saved the day. Otherwise, escalation was possible, and it could have been messier and untenable at an unimaginable scale.

Although people paid with their lives and the economy lay in deeper ruins, the choice to combine political tact with the so-called ‘soft security’ approach, made things easier. The big lesson here is that popular grievances can be exploited by political entrepreneurs and other rogues for selfish and destructive ends. And their geography or nationality does not matter, the ground is fertile either way.

The LGE2021

The 2021 local government elections were a watershed moment for South Africa for two reasons: firstly, the governing ANC fell below 50% for the first time since 1994. It garnered only 45.6% of the vote nationally. Secondly, voters of the ANC repeated the same message as in 2016: although they decided not to choose the ANC again, they also do not see an alternative to the ANC yet. This means that the stage is set for a high stakes political contest in 2024.

Whereas we have a multi-party system with many small parties at national assembly and local government levels, there is yet to be an opposition party with an alternative policy platform to upset the status quo.

It seems like any party or coalition can win and lead South Africa any time soon. But the question remains: will the changes in political guard translate into the resolution of the poverty problem? This question goes back to the issue of allocation of resources. No party or political system can claim legitimacy without addressing this problem.

Can we overcome our difficulties and win again?

It is not all doom and gloom. We can win again.

It was in this tumultuous political year that we pulled back from the precipice of governance failure, managed a volatile July Moment, and delivered another peaceful and successful election. So, there is hope, ingenuity, and agency.

The idea of a prosperous South Africa must still be led by a progressive set of ideas, a visionary leadership, and a sense of consensus and compromise. The agency of the vast black population, especially the youth and women, must not be lost to the reconstruction effort.

At a political level, we need the revival of the liberation political project which appears to be floundering in the hands of the African National Congress (ANC). Central to the political project is the resolution of the biggest problem, poverty! By resolving this problem, we are likely to see the improvement of many other development indicators, including the toxicity of our politics.

At an economic level, unless a revolution takes place, new coalitions are needed to replace the old ones. In typical South African parlance, they are called ‘social compacts’ which often include elite pacts. The new coalitions must agree on a development agenda.

If the 2021 elections are anything to go by, the country is heading towards a national coalition government in 2024. And it will be interesting to see how that pans out given the slow pace of change and the quality thereof which seems to fizzle out!