Who Rules South Africa?

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Who Rules South Africa?

Some members of the ANC believe they will rule until the second coming of Christ. In 2008, Milton Morema, the mayor of Bushbuckridge, told an ANC-SACP rally that “the ANC will rule this country until Jesus Christ comes back home”. But, despite such confidence, a new book shows that the ANC does not have such absolute power in South Africa; it has other alternative centres of power to contend with.

This December, South Africa’s ruling party, the ANC, will meet in the city once called Blomfontein (now called Manguang) in a centenary conference which will decide who becomes the next president of the ruling party, a position that automatically gives the holder access to the state presidency. The last such meeting in 2007 at Polokwane (once called Pietersburg) saw the incumbent ANC and national president Thabo Mbeki, defeated. Will Manguang follow suit and become the Waterloo of the current ANC and state president, Jacob Zuma?

This vital question, and other such crucial ones, is the subject of a brand new book, Who Rules South Africa?, to be released on 2 August, written by Martin Plaut, the BBC Africa editor, and Paul Holden, famous for his other book on South Africa, The Arms Deal in Your Pocket. From what the authors have meticulously documented, Manguang promises to be the conference everyone must attend. They estimate that the ANC may spend as much as R100m on the festivities at Manguang, yet it will not be a joyful celebration as the election of the party’s next president is sure to be very bruising.

“Senior party officials have been confessing since as early as October 2009 that the party is wracked by internal conflicts,” Plaut and Holden report. “According to a cable released by Wikileaks, the ANC’s Gauteng spokesman, Dumisa Ntuli, told a US diplomat that the party was deeply divided not only between supporters of President Jacob Zuma and former President Thabo Mbeki, but ‘along multiple other lines’: ‘There are die-hard Zuma supporters, the pro-labour people, the communists, the pro-Mbeki people, and no one speaks for the same things.’

“Another leaked cable has the ANC treasurer, Matthews Phosa, telling the Americans: ‘Everyone talks about 2012’. According to him, Manguang would be ‘worse than Polokwane’ in 2007, when Zuma and his allies ousted Mbeki, convulsing the political system.”

This leads Plaut and Holden to say: “It is obvious that South Africa’s future holds another bruising contest of political heavyweights in 2012, although it remains unclear as to which parties will emerge victorious and whether it will be a first-round knockout or a decision on points”.

Continuing the boxing metaphor, the authors tell how Manguang is likely to go. “The ANC Youth League and its allies (the would-be kingmakers), have all the speed and unpredictability of a rookie heavyweight, devastating in short bursts and at close range, but they have been dealt a stiff uppercut with the disciplining of Youth League president Julius Malema.

“Their likely opponent, a motley semi-leftist spy-heavy grouping around Zuma, may move slowly but has extensive reach, experience, and the proven stamina to go the long rounds – and, if worst comes to worst, the referee in its pocket.

“To further balance the scales, both fighters will have remarkably similar men (and women) in their corners – different typologies of the Black Economic Empowerment millionaire – and both will bus in supporters from provincial hinterlands to sway the emotions of the judges. Organised labour will most likely shake their heads over what has happened to the nobility of the sport and bemoan the paucity of fighting spirit.”

Who will win?

According to the authors, an accurate prediction of the victor at Manguang, and the length and impact of his or her reign, depends on a simple question: “Who rules South Africa?” Apparently this short question is so difficult to answer, even though on the face of it, everyone knows that it is the ANC which is in power. But to Plaut and Holden, “there is no straightforward reply”, and despite having the luxury of 420 pages of their book to interrogate the subject, they still do not give a straightforward answer to the question.

“Part of the complexity,” they admit, “is owing to the slipperiness of the concept of power itself. Power is amorphous; often invisible or disguised; relevant or ‘activated’ in certain contexts and meaningless in others; differentiated by type (economic, political, cultural, social or a combination of these); and, most importantly, diffuse.

“In a complex and contested country like South Africa, locating [the] holders [of power] is even more difficult. A formal democracy suggests a democratic distribution of power, when, in fact, power is most frequently wielded outside democratic structures – and, more recently, in defiance of them.”

This makes it “difficult, if nigh impossible, to interrogate who rules South Africa without understanding a related corollary: how power is held and what has been done with it,” the authors say.

“What is clear, from our examination,” they continue, “is that the ANC has, by means that offend corruption investigators and political analysts alike, secured a stable and secure source of funds that dwarfs that available to opposition parties.

“This, perhaps, more than any other development, has placed the ANC in a position where it can be confident of ruling for a considerable period of time. That this has reduced the reliance of the ANC on Cosatu and the SACP [South African Communist Party], and the resources these organisations mobilise, has created its own tensions.”

In short, the authors concede that though the ANC is in power, there are alternative centres of power and pressures that affect the politics of South Africa.

These centres include the “new Randlords” or the small black elite made rich by the ANC’s Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) policy. They also include the intelligence and security establishment; the trade unions; white business and foreign capital; the judiciary; the reinvigorated Democratic Alliance opposition party; the media; the farming lobby; the black middle class; and the masses.

The complexity arising from this cacophony of voices and pressures makes South Africa’s air of a well-governed liberal democracy beguiling. “To tourists and businesspeople spilling out of its sparkling new airports and gliding away on smooth highways, everything exudes confidence and prosperity,” say Plaut and Holden.

“Men and women go about their daily business untroubled by the wars and rebellions that so disfigure the rest of the continent. Why then the unease that pervades so much of the South African debate? Change has arrived, apartheid has been abolished and the country has moved on to happier times.

“[Yet] more than two decades after Nelson Mandela’s release, South Africa is still a troubled nation. Racism, no longer so overt, still plagues relations between its peoples.

“A sea of poverty and unemployment laps around the fortresses of wealth and privilege. The small, but growing, black elite that has gained a foothold on the ladder of advantage appears on the whole little concerned by the plight of the majority. A sense of fear and distrust pervades luxury shopping malls and tin shack informal settlements alike.”

The BEE elite

Of all the alternative centres of power, the story of the “new Randlords”, the small band of millionaires created by the ANC’s Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) policy, is the most depressing.

Before Mandela came into office in 1994, the white establishment, forever far-seeing and wanting to preserve white economic domination, contrived to give the ANC, whose critical weakness at the time was the lack of a stake in the economy, a piece of the economic pie.

According to the men who know about this part of the BEE story (quoted by Plaut and Holden), the aim of the white establishment was to co-opt the emerging black rulers in the narrow circle of wealth and power in the country, in order to dissipate the anger of the black masses and their leadership, and leave the domination of the economy still in white hands. This turned out to be the early beginnings of what later became known in ANC core policy as BEE.

And so it happened that in 1992, two full years before Mandela became president, the white establishment used the Afrikaans-run insurance firm, Sanlam (which, in 1963, had diversified into industry and mining) to offload 10% of its holdings in Metropolitan Life to a flagship black empowerment consortium, New African Investments Ltd, led by Nthato Motlana, Mandela’s former doctor.

Other such deals soon followed, including Real African Investment Ltd, sponsored by Anglo American. Here the authors add a caveat: “This version of events,” they write, “is by no means universally accepted, since there were groups, like the Black Management Forum, that had pressed for a greater role for black business since their formation in 1976.”

But, they continue, “whatever the origins of the ANC’s BEE policy, there was a determination to widen the share of black business. Perhaps the emblematic deal of the post-apartheid era was the sale of Johannesburg Consolidated Investments [JCI, also called Johnnies], one of the country’s most venerable mining houses.

“In 1996, with the ANC in power, Johnnies was sold to a consortium led by Mzi Khumalo, who thus came to own South Africa’s fourth largest gold producer, becoming the first black person to take control of a mining house.

“Khumalo and Motlana were not alone; soon others in the leadership of the ANC and the wider Alliance followed in their footsteps. The ANC former secretary general, Cyril Ramaphosa, went on to make a fortune in business. So did the Black Consciousness activist and ANC guerrilla fighter, Tokyo Sexwale. Both managed to straddle the worlds of politics and finance.”

By August 2011, the authors show, about three-quarters of the ANC cabinet’s 35 members were found to have financial interests outside their main occupations. So did 59% of the country’s 400 MPs. The co-option of the black leadership had become complete. As Plaut and Holden put it: “The firebrands of the union movement and the heroes of the township resistance had put on suits and ties and adopted a new lifestyle.”

No white plot?

But the authors add that the new deal that took place in the years following the fall of apartheid was no white plot or right- wing conspiracy. “It was a simple survival strategy by [white] business, determined to bind a segment of the newly emerging black elite to the existing structures of wealth and influence. Room was made at the top table for a restricted section of black society, who were only too willing to be wooed.

“At the same time, little more than crumbs from the top table fell to the majority of the population. Indeed, South Africa is today a more unequal society than it was at the end of apartheid.”

The story is told of how the ANC later made BEE its cornerstone policy, as a means of social transformation and the eradication of poverty via the creation of a black middle class, or a “patriotic bourgeoisie”.

While in office, President Mbeki sang the merits of BEE. In an address to the Black Management Forum in 1999, he insisted that “…We must work to ensure that there emerges a black bourgeoisie, whose presence within our economy and society will be part of the process of the deracialisation of the economy and society.”

He thus encouraged the ANC and its Alliance partners not to be ashamed of creating BEE millionaires who would be the bedrock of the party’s poverty eradication policy. For a while, it worked.

For example, in 1994, black investors owned only 0.5% of the shares on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE). By 1998, thanks to the BEE policy, this had reached 20%.

“At its highest point in 1995,” Plaut and Holden show, “BEE deals accounted for 38.7% of the total value of all transactions on the JSE (although it had dropped to 10.8% by 1999).”

The three years between 2003 and 2006 saw an average of 222 BEE transactions take place every year. At its height, in 2004, 243 deals were completed, with a total value of R204.3 billion (then worth around $56 billion), nearly R70 billion ($19.2bn) more than all deals that had taken place in the previous nine years.

“From a figure of only 12 black directors in 1992,” write Plaut and Holden, “the JSE now boasts a total of 770 black directors, 526 of them men and 224 women. At the highest level of influence, there are, as of October 2011, 157 black executive directors serving on the boards of JSE-listed companies. The growth in black directors has been particularly strong over the last three years – between 2008 and 2010, the number of black directors on the JSE increased by 58% from 487 to 770.”

Sadly, despite all the effort put into their creation by the state and the ruling party, the BEE moguls, or most of them, have not behaved like the “patriotic bourgeoisie” expected of them. This is exemplified by a remark made by one of them: “We are here to run a business. I’m not for any of this brotherhood stuff.”

By 2006, the betrayal had become so depressing that a disgusted President Mbeki had to take back the fulsome  support he had given BEE in 1999.

Slamming the “get rich! get rich!” mentality of some of the BEE moguls, he said he was ashamed that “the meaning of freedom has come to be defined not by the seemingly ethereal and therefore intangible gift of liberty, but by the designer labels on the clothes we wear, the cars we drive, the spaciousness of our houses and our yards, their geographic location, the company we keep, and what we do as part of that company”.

As such, for most of the poor masses in the country, the BEE elite has become a travesty, a betrayal of the struggle. But others see them as role models, the respected face of an aggressive African nationalism that revelled in the fruits of freedom.

So who rules SA?

After considering the strengths and weaknesses of all the alternative centres of power, Plaut and Holden stated the following: “South Africa remains what it has been since 1948: a one-party state, with democratic trimmings. None of the country’s leaders has had to worry about being voted out of office by an electorate still dominated by concerns about race. Internal party machinations have been far more troubling to South African prime ministers and presidents than any criticism from the opposition.

“On the face of it, the answer to the question of who rules South Africa is self-evident: it is the ANC. But the ANC does not rule alone or untrammelled. [It] wields this power within a broader Alliance.”

Even more importantly, the authors say, “the ANC is no longer the movement it was during the fight against apartheid … the ANC has, over 100 years, moved through a radical arc and returned to its roots… It has become an increasingly conservative force, representing an aspiring black middle class.” The movement that was born of a black elite, led by tribal chiefs and religous leaders, is increasingly under the sway of a similar stratum, only this time they are the new moguls of Black Economic Empowerment.

“In 1943, Nelson Mandela described the party’s leadership as ‘a tired, unmilitant, privileged African elite more concerned with protecting their own rights than those of the masses’. Is this a label that can be applied to the party once more?”

Plaut and Holden do not give a direct answer, but go on to show how the ANC’s current right-wing trajectory leaves its left-wing partners in the SACP and Cosatu with a dilemma. Should they continue to tie themselves to this party, or move away?

“At key junctures,” the authors show, “the policies of the unions and the communists have been ignored [by the ANC]. In economic policy, in particular, the left has little real sway.”

So if the left have had little say in ruling South Africa, who does? This is how Plaut and Holden answer it: “Simply, the most powerful political (but not necessarily economic) players are those BEE moguls, senior security advisers and pliant intelligence officers who have coalesced around the presidency of Jacob Zuma.”

The final analysis

In the end, according to the authors, the question: who rules South Africa, “can only be answered today if one takes account of all of these forces, not forgetting to factor in the fluidity of the country’s politics and power more generally.

“White business and foreign capital still have a major say in society, but have to play their cards carefully. Organised labour flexes its muscles, and threatens to withdraw its support from the ANC, but fears it would be left in the wilderness. The poor masses clamour for their voices to be heard, but have, so far, had little hold over the mighty.”

All this, however, could change if a new social movement, or grand corruption scandal, or greater electoral success by the opposition Democratic Alliance, could dramatically influence the balance of power, the authors warn.

And this, they add, should give a clue to why South Africans should be optimistic about their future. “For, unlike much of the rest of Africa, the country has a powerful, well-developed civil society. And, after centuries of colonialism and decades of apartheid, South Africans have developed a seemingly inexhaustible but vital resource: the will to fight for their rights, to question authority and to shape their own destinies.”

(Who Rules South Africa? by Martin Plaut and Paul Holden is published by Jonathan Ball Publishers, SA; and Biteback Publishing, UK. 420 pages. £14.99).

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