This time there’s no light in the tunnel ahead


This time there’s no light in the tunnel ahead

MAX DU PREEZ believes South Africa is entering the darkest hour of its history and is concerned about next year's general election.


OVER my more than four decades in the front seats of political journalism in South Africa, I have reported and analysed the lowest points and most dangerous moments of my country and society. I was invariably more optimistic than most other analysts that South Africa would be able to survive these crises in one piece. The worst never happens in South Africa, I’ve said over and over again.

I've also ventured to other conflict countries as a journalist: the then East Germany, Bosnia/Herzegovina, Serbia, Kosovo, Northern Ireland, Cuba, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Angola and Rwanda.

I came back each time and declared enthusiastically that our institutions and our democratic culture, our people's well-being and sense of nationhood, were, by comparison, strong enough to overcome our problems.

Today, on 3 March 2023, I’m not so sure any more.

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All hyperbole aside, today I have a feeling South Africa is facing its most dangerous moment since becoming a state in 1910.

I was in Soweto on 16 June 1976 when the first young protesters were shot dead by the police, and I reported on the rioting in townships and its harsh repression over the following months.

It was a dangerous, traumatic time.

I was in the field as a reporter in the decade up to 1994: violent strikes, weekly “rolling mass action", bombings, states of emergency, thousands of people in detention without trial, “moordbendes" in the police and military, Third Force activities,  massacres in KwaZulu-Natal and the East Rand.

South Africa was close to the abyss. But the overwhelming majority of its people, and the rest of the world, knew that apartheid was a crime against humanity; that the violence of the 1980s would inevitably be the prelude to the end of apartheid.

All hyperbole aside: today I have a feeling that South Africa is now facing its most dangerous moment since becoming a state in 1910.

We knew the apartheid government and its armed forces were the enemy that needed to be fought. Most of us also knew the white ruling establishment was sensitive about the economy and that strong voices in Afrikanerdom, in particular, were rising and arguing for an end to the injustice.

South Africans knew Nelson Mandela was about to be released and that a negotiated settlement was inevitable. There was anger and trauma, but they were outgunned by the dream of freedom and democracy.

As tumultuous as those times were, “voor in die wapad brand 'n lig" — there was always hope.

Today, that very same “national liberation movement” is the architect of the ravaging of those dreams, while still the majority party that runs this country.

This time there is no light at the end of the tunnel, no inevitability that we will be pulled back from the abyss at the last moment.

Cyril Ramaphosa is, as most of us South Africans believe, the best leader the ANC has to guide us through the crises. He was the dynamic intellectualist/revolutionary who built the trade union movement in the 1980s; who stood next to Nelson Mandela on the balcony of Cape Town City Hall on 11 February 1990 when the future president made his maiden speech as a free man; the key player in the negotiated settlement of 1994 and the constitution of 1996; the man who would rescue us from Jacob Zuma's clutches.

But since his administration began on 15 February 2018, our problems have become much more acute, and there is no indication that he is about to take more decisive action as a leader.

The cumulative effect of the Zuma era's abuses and culture of thuggery on the one hand, and Ramaphosa's paralysis on the other, has now struck us.

Cyril Ramaphosa.
Cyril Ramaphosa.

In March 2023, it is  no longer just wild rhetoric to describe South Africa as a racketeering state; a lawless country where organised crime is rampant; where corruption is institutionalised and endemic from the lowest to the highest levels of government; where assassinations with political and economic motives have become almost commonplace; where the rich take care of themselves while the poor are left to perish;  where no citizen's life is safe.

We are now in the same company as so-called mafia states such as Venezuela, Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador and Colombia. The state is being looted, there is little law and order, the criminal justice system is not working effectively, poverty and unemployment are on the rise.

South Africa and Türkiye are the only members of the G20 that have been greylisted by the Financial Action Task Force for not doing enough to combat organised crime.

The latest Global Initiative Against Transnational Crime report says South Africa's infrastructure is the victim of sustained and organised theft that hampers the state's ability to deliver essential services.

We’re at the point where a few simultaneous triggers can unleash a broad instability that's going to be hard to bring under control. The chaos and divisions in the intelligence services and the absolute inability (and unwillingness?) of the police and the military to control the anarchy and looting in KZN in July 2021 do not bode well.

I think we’re at the point where a few simultaneous triggers can unleash a broad instability that's going to be hard to bring under control.

A collapse of the power grid, which could engulf the entire country and most economic activity for up to two weeks, may be one such trigger. This is no longer just a theoretical possibility.

Many South Africans, perhaps most of us, hope the next general election, which should take place between May and October next year, will be the moment when the ANC will be dethroned and proper government restored.

We must cling to this hope, but we must be mindful that elements in the ANC and its many criminal syndicates and vested interests do not want to see a fair and peaceful election and may not accept defeat. They have too much to lose. (The ANC’s antics to stay in power in Johannesburg, Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay are a bad omen.)

Civil society organisations and opposition parties need to ensure that the people and systems of the Electoral Commission of SA will guarantee a fair election — and perhaps it is also time to bring in a strong contingent of international election monitors, as is the case in other problem countries.

Perhaps it is being too cynical, but it might well be that the corruption and theft will become more frantic as the election approaches; the last chance to steal to your heart's content.

How did South Africa, Africa's model state in the Mandela era, get to this point?

It's a long story, but for now suffice to say that there was always a dark side to the ANC in exile. Under the leadership of Mandela and Thabo Mbeki it was mostly held under control. When Zuma became president in May 2009, the dark side began to thrive and the floodgates of patronage, corruption, fraud and indeed state capture were opened while the dividing line between state and party was erased. Race and tribal politics and cheap populism were thrust into the mainstream.

The ANC stood by Zuma to the end. Had it not been for David Mabuza's scheming and ambitions, Ramaphosa would not have been elected over Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma in 2017 — and in the end he won by only a handful of votes.

There was once an impression that  the Gupta brothers were the only state capturers.  This is far from the truth. Corruption, tender fraud, bribery and self-enrichment were no longer taboo under Zuma. Ramaphosa failed to stem the tide.

Ramaphosa loves money and he may well be careless with it, but he is not corrupt. He tried to plug the leaks every now and then, but it was too little, too late. He never had the courage to halt the corruption and abuse of power in the ANC because he wanted to maintain a semblance of party unity at all costs. 

(An analogy: There were always right-wing madmen and white racists in the US, but Donald Trump legitimised them and put them in the mainstream when he became president. Joe Biden has so far failed to reverse that trend.)

André de Ruyter.
André de Ruyter.

I think we should be careful not to equate the severe electricity shortage with the stumbling state. We must concede that we would not have thought the crisis was so severe had it not been for load-shedding.

On the other hand, it is a reality that Eskom's collapse is a metaphor for years of ANC mismanagement and corruption. And the attempted poisoning of former CEO André de Ruyter fits into this picture.

De Ruyter says Eskom loses about R1-billion a month to theft and corruption. He claims a senior government member is central to this corruption and that another minister is also involved. His contention that at least four crime syndicates in Mpumalanga, David Mabuza's home province, are feeding off Eskom, is based on a group of private investigators' intelligence, parts of which were shared with the media this week.

The same patterns are repeated in other sectors of the economy. A construction syndicate is trying to hijack the building of infrastructure, some syndicates focus on the theft of copper cables, others on fuel theft or the hijacking of trucks and the smuggling of drugs and illegal cigarettes. Then there’s the unregulated taxi industry, which has ties to many of these crime syndicates. The intelligence reports on Eskom indicate there is active political participation.

Prof Sandy Africa of the University of Pretoria's political science department says there is no longer any doubt that “a growing ecosystem of organised crime [is] overwhelming the state and public life". 

“A growing ecosystem of organised crime [is] overwhelming the state and public life in the country".  

If the formal sector is called the first economy, and the informal sector the second economy, says Africa, then a third economy should be added: the illicit economy. “If the crime-politics nexus is being deliberately sustained through the collusion of influential actors within the state, then it is going to be much harder to dismantle."

There is another ingredient to this recipe for catastrophe: the laxity, incongruity and mismanagement by ministers and officials, and the ANC's acceptance of this as normal. For example, the minister who for the last few years has overseen the collapse of rail freight and passenger trains was triumphantly promoted to secretary-general of the ANC in December.

For the past decade, I have consistently refused to accept the prediction that South Africa was about to experience its own Arab Spring. After all, we have an elected parliament, an open society, freedom of speech, a strong constitution and an independent judiciary, none of which were present in the Arab states in 2011 and beyond.

That argument still applies. And no matter how badly the state teeters, our private sector and civil society remain healthy to the core. I don't think we’re on the verge of a bloody national uprising, or a coup or a civil war.

But there are dark forces at work that we could not have foreseen; that stalked us when we were concerned only about Zuma and the Guptas. More instability and periodic uprisings lie in wait.

Jacob Zuma.
Jacob Zuma.

Researchers on the failure of states, such as Daron Acemoglu and James A Robinson in Why Nations Fail, make the point that basic law and order, the rule of law, the separation between state and the ruling elite, and inclusive economic institutions that allow most people to participate in the economy, are insurance policies against a complete breakdown.

We don't have those assurances right now. The best among our ruling elite are either paralysed or rent seekers themselves, while the worst rage on unperturbed.

The struggle against apartheid and white minority rule was tough, but relatively simple.

This time, it's not. For how do we fight against a mafia state run by a government that was democratically elected?

♦ VWB ♦

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