Carol Paton Deputy editor
Moeletsi Mbeki. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Moeletsi Mbeki. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

The wonderful and interesting thing about Moeletsi Mbeki’s work is how he places our situation within the broad sweep of history, avoiding the tendency of so many political commentators to attribute a disproportionate significance to current political events.

Mbeki likes to analyse politics and the economy in an epochal way. It is what makes his work valuable, but also a little abstract and difficult to translate into what it might mean for you, me and President Jacob Zuma, for example, in the next year or two.

His latest book, co-written with his niece, Nobantu Mbeki, is an attempt to extract from historical experience a practical call to action “to save SA”.

In A Manifesto for Social Change, the Mbekis set out to make the case for how SA can be diverted from the path on which it is set: a violent showdown between the black poor and the government, in which the state will grow increasingly repressive as the governing elite seek to hold onto power.

Most reviews of the book focus on the conclusion: what is required to avert this outcome is a new political coalition between the black poor, who have an interest in a growing and job-creating economy; sections of the middle-class, such as independent professionals, who are interested in the same; and the capitalist class, whose key concern is to regain access to the state to achieve long-term stability and security, which has been lost. Cut out of the equation are the African nationalists (or ANC), whose “self-serving obscurantism of the so-called champions of the poor amounts to a thinly veiled excuse to ascend to the reins of power and untold riches … in a morally bankrupt system of governance that lacks credible checks and balances”.

It is a conclusion that seems abstract and even far-fetched when viewed in the straitjacket of SA’s political party set-up, of an African nationalist governing party kept in power by the loyalty of masses of the poor; an alliance of minorities and capital, banded together in the DA; and the small radical-populist EFF.

In this set-up, where is change to come from? The ANC, lacking any real opposition on the left, is in a long, slow decline; the EFF, many believe, has hit the ceiling of its support, as radicalism has limited appeal to SA’s large conservative population; and the DA is up against its limits, being of the old establishment.

Mbeki did not arrive at his proposed “manifesto for social change” from an analysis of the current political set-up, but rather through an analysis of the historical social structure and what has propelled the transfer of power between elites through history.

SA is not a classic capitalist society, but a stunted one with an economy unable to absorb half of its working-age population in productive activity. This underclass keeps the ANC in power, with the welfare system playing a crucial role in the co-option.

Due to deindustrialisation, the blue-collar working class that in the postdemocracy period shared state power with the African nationalists, is demobilised and marginalised, and no longer the force for change it once was.

The property-owning class, which held state power during both the eras of British colonial rule and Afrikaner nationalism, has lost its grip on the state and is increasingly insecure. As a result, it cannot plan and will not invest, with the stunted economy consequently in structural decline.

The African nationalists are the first political elite not to own property and have no option other than to finance its own consumption and accumulation of assets from state revenues.

This set of dynamics – an economy in structural decline; a large, jobless underclass and a political elite that cannot afford to give up state power – sets the stage for an inevitable and violent conflict between the underclass and the state, which will be met with repression.

SA can break out of this cycle, says Mbeki, if an alliance of social classes turns against the venal political elite. But for this to happen, an appropriate economic offering – or set of reforms or changes that promote job creation and arrest the decline of the economy – that can win the support of the underclass needs to be put on the table.

The book, a short one of only 120 pages, does not take us there. Neither does it take us to the next logical step of who could put such an offering together.

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