South Africa

OPINIONISTA: Senekal divisions highlight the urgent need for a new social compact in South Africa

South Africa’s democracy has weathered many crises, among them the firing of Thabo Mbeki and then Nhlanhla Nene, Marikana and the ruinous Zuma years. In Senekal in the Free State, we have witnessed the unfolding of a new crisis that highlights the urgency of finding a new social compact for the country.

Looking at Senekal, it is clear to me that it is merely a microcosm of the proverbial elephant in the room insofar as South African politics is concerned, that being, racism. 

Why is it so difficult to rid ourselves of this social construct, is it because it is too embedded in our psyche and history? Who constitutes the South African nation? How does a certain section of our society in this day and age get together, pray, and then proceed to sing Die Stem (the old apartheid national anthem). What message are the farmers attempting to communicate? That life was much better under apartheid, or that our law enforcement agencies had a better handle on crime in those bad days? 

If that’s the message, they best be thinking again because it’s simply not true. Thinkers and scholars trying to make sense of all this understand that as a country we have to verify and/falsify a number of hypotheses.  

Enver Motala, in a 2013 Mail & Guardian article, writes about the late Neville Alexander and his famous adage, “enough is as good as a feast”. Motala states that: “we have to interrogate perspectives focusing on ‘the national question’, ‘education and liberation’, ‘language, identity and culture’, and as the final theme – ‘ethics, morality and values in revolutionary practice’ in post-apartheid South Africa. These were inevitably related to how the struggle against apartheid was conceptualised, giving rise to strong historical debates about how the relationships between ‘race’ and class as well as democracy and capitalism were understood.”

Neville Alexander, Motala writes, understood “that fundamental to such arguments was the view that the construction of a truly democratic South Africa was inseparable from an examination of its political economy – that issues about the resolution of the ‘national question’ were fundamentally about the nature of the post-apartheid state and its orientation to capitalism”.

So too can one so easily include the emotive issue of land and land dispossession in the South African context.

Motala continues: “Alexander preferred to describe South Africa’s social formation as racial capitalism. His approach to the national question was a refutation of the ‘bogus nationalisms’ that intended to dilute the force of class struggle and to ‘illuminate the character of the real socioeconomic basis of inequality’ and its ideological forms. For him the nation consists of all the people who are prepared to throw off the yoke of capitalist exploitation and racist oppression. It involves a determined and uncompromising struggle against all attempts to divide the population on the basis of language, religion, tribe or caste.”

These are but a few of the complex considerations we must engage in if we are to develop as a nation.

Coupled with these complex issues are also the political realities over the last two decades which also present us with further complications. A dear friend of mine, Oyama Mabandla, in wanting to get to grips with the current political environment shared some notes with me recently in which he argues that “we are in the vortex of our fourth crisis in the democratic era. It is a crisis of a deadly pandemic, economic ruination, and above all for what I intend to examine, a crisis of faith in the efficacy of politics and voting as an instrument for transformative change.”

One of the features of this current crisis, he continues, “is the increasing autonomy if not alienation, of the electorate from political parties”. But, he says, “this phenomenon could potentially be problematic, in an environment where this autonomous electorate is denuded of political choices. Four years ago, when these voters rebelled against Zuma’s misrule, they voted the ANC out of power in the three key metros of Johannesburg, Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay, inaugurating a new model of coalition politics, a staple of the European political scene, which had hitherto been alien in this country.

“But four years later that experiment with coalition politics lies in smouldering ruins as the EFF has morphed into an unedifying proto-fascist assemblage and the DA has retreated into the cocoon of white racial politics. Both have become increasingly unattractive to the young black professional class that had powered this political realignment.”

He is convinced that “these ingredients of political malaise, alienation and generalised disaffection with political choices, especially among the young, were the kindle to the Arab Spring explosion. Could similar lineaments in our political environment trigger a similar outcome? Or worse, an orgy of wanton criminality, vigilantism, nihilism and anarchy? When politics loses its attraction and the state its hegemony, violence and mayhem become the answer.” 

As we are indeed observing now in Senekal where people want to take the law into their own hands. This makes the call for a broad and all-encompassing social compact that much more urgent.

Contextually, there were three other crises which illustrate the differential response from the electorate:

The first crisis of the democratic era was the recall of President Thabo Mbeki by his party, eight months before the end of his term of office. This was quite a seismic development for a young republic, leading to a huge market sell off of stocks and the rand, following mass resignations by key members of his Cabinet, including Finance Minister Trevor Manuel. Calm only returned to the markets after it was announced that the finance minister had rescinded his resignation. There was also an exodus by many of Mbeki’s supporters from the ANC, led by the former Defence Minister, Mosiuoa Lekota, and the Premier of Gauteng, Mbhazima Shilowa, to form the Congress of the People (Cope).

Ramaphosa, unlike his predecessor, is acutely responsive to public sentiment, as evinced by his recent letter to ANC members where he admitted that the ANC was corruption accused number one in the public imagination, to the chagrin of the revanchist camp in the ANC that pivots around Ace Magashule.

But apart from these ructions in the governing party, the electorate seemed to have shrugged off this seismic development as an internal ANC affair.

The next crisis would be Marikana, where the democratic government’s police opened fire on striking mine workers, killing 34 of them, many of whom were shot in the back, in a shocking incident that recalled the Sharpeville massacre. A commission of inquiry was set up, and there was massive condemnation in the media. But apart from the award-winning documentary, Miners Shot Down, by Rehad Desai, and the EFF, which used this incident as a rallying cry, the electorate seems to have once again, shrugged off this incident, shocking as it was, as an aberration.

This would change by the third crisis of our democracy, a day dubbed 9/12, on 9 December 2015, when Jacob Zuma fired his highly regarded Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene, replacing him with a little-known backbencher called Des van Rooyen. This time around, there was a massive backlash from the population at large, the markets and a hitherto quiescent business community. Zuma was uncharacteristically  forced to retreat within four days, grudgingly acquiescing to pressure from both ANC barons and an energised business lobby, replacing Van Rooyen with the trusted Pravin Gordhan.

To suggest that by this third crisis Zuma and his confederates had eviscerated much of the ANC’s hard-won hegemony, would be to state the obvious. You will recall that nine months after the Marikana debacle, Zuma’s friends, the odious Gupta family, in a shocking violation of our sovereignty, landed a plane from India filled with guests attending a family wedding at Sun City at the Waterkloof military base, whence they were accompanied by a massive police escort to Sun City itself. This incident broadcast to a shocked nation the existence of a shadow state.

Again, in December of that year at President Nelson Mandela’s funeral, Zuma was heckled and his speech drowned out with cat calls in front of the largest assemblage of heads of state in South African history and with millions tuning in from across the globe.

And a few months before 9/12, Thuli Madonsela had released her much-anticipated report on the Nkandla boondoggle, which made adverse findings against Zuma.

A few weeks after that, the Constitutional Court rendered its judgment on the Nkandla matter which found the president to have violated the Constitution he took an oath to uphold and defend.

It was a bombshell judgment that led to marches across the nation with the public demanding Zuma’s resignation. In August of that year, the ANC lost its majorities in key metros as I highlighted above.

And a few weeks later at Makhenkesi Stofile’s funeral, ANC veteran Sipho Pityana would issue an impassioned call for the ANC to junk Jacob Zuma on pain of being exiled from political power, a possibility prefigured by the local government elections. The ANC found itself for the first time in our democracy genuinely fearing loss of power.

ANC veterans responded to Pityana’s clarion call, organising themselves into a lobby called “101 Veterans and Stalwarts” that called for a consultative conference to fix a wayward ANC. And in November of that year, in an unprecedented break with tradition, a vote of no confidence was proposed against Zuma inside the ANC’s own highest decision-making body, the NEC.

I’m taking us down this memory lane simply to illustrate that besides the critical philosophical issues with which we have to contend, there also remain the contemporary political considerations. 

Oyama Mabandla further suggests that the massive backlash engendered by the third crisis was correctly construed by the wise in the ANC as a potentially fatal loss of hegemony that required a fundamental overhaul, the better to align the party with public sentiment. It was this recognition that led to President Cyril Ramaphosa squeaking through at Nasrec.

Ramaphosa, unlike his predecessor, is acutely responsive to public sentiment, as evinced by his recent letter to ANC members where he admitted that the ANC was corruption accused number one in the public imagination, to the chagrin of the revanchist camp in the ANC that pivots around Ace Magashule.

But unlike 2016, where the electorate had options, those options have since evaporated because of the current state of the EFF and DA. What does this portend for our country when a majority of eligible voters, especially the young, are disenchanted with the direction of the country, but are alienated from the voting process after only 25 years of democracy, in the middle of a gigantic political, social and economic crisis?

Taking all of the above into consideration – the critical issues of race and class, democracy and capitalism, our current political trajectory, the state of our economy and the devastating effects of the Covid-19 pandemic – will we as a nation be able to find and recognise each other?

It seems the call for a broad and all-encompassing social compact is much more urgent than previously thought. DM

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