Johannesburg Mayor Herman Mashaba. Picture: ALON SKUY​​
Johannesburg Mayor Herman Mashaba. Picture: ALON SKUY​​

Politically, SA has been heading down a path towards state-led socialism. This is why we have retained ownership of the large and largely bankrupt state-owned enterprises (SOEs), such as SAA, Eskom and Denel. The assumption is, from a socialist point of view, that the state should be the arbiter of socioeconomic progress.

It is also why we have an ever-expanding social support programme, in the form of social grants, housing provision, free primary education, heavily subsidised tertiary education and perhaps soon, national health insurance (NHI).

For the millions of poor or unemployed South Africans, one can imagine this direction of travel seems attractive: the promise that the state will provide some better future than the one we will have if the status quo remains. By most measures, the lives of previously disadvantaged citizens have improved significantly. Access to housing, water, sanitation and disposable income have skyrocketed in the last two decades, off a painfully low base.

However, to evaluate whether the lives of South Africans are on the whole getting better, we have to move away from the perspective of a single citizen, and look at the family of 57-million South Africans as a whole. In that frame, the picture is bleak.

As the Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE) recently showed in a report entitled “Running out of road: SA's public finances and what is to be done”, indicated that our public debt has grown to R3.1-trillion, and that according to this year's budget estimate, in future, the “government and major state-owned companies would borrow R2.2-trillion-R1bn a day, every day, for seven years.”

As Margaret Thatcher is quoted to have said, “the problem with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people's money”. That is not to say that the simplistically understood opposite, of neoliberal capitalism, is the solution. Rather that the current path will have to be adjusted, radically and rapidly, to avoid a debt and currency crisis.

Enter state left, Herman Mashaba. A relative newcomer to SA politics, Mashaba is a proven businessman and apparent pragmatist. He is straight-talking, undeterred by criticism and willing to work with partners from across the political spectrum. Accused of xenophobia, he criticises the government of the day for allowing our borders to become porous and simultaneously allows for the insourcing of hundreds of low-skilled workers in Johannesburg. Combining conservative notions of the rule of law, with overtly socialist allowances for public spending, the man seems to be navigating the complexity of our coalition politics just fine.

SA needs a dose of Mashaba-pragmatism, and might just get some in 2023. Unbeknown to the fat cats in positions of power at present, the stars might be aligning to catapult Mashaba to a position of national prominence, not because the DA is strong or preferred to the ANC, neither of which is the case, but because the blinkers of self-interest and utopian socialism that blinds our policymakers at present are perpetuating a direction of travel for the country that will precipitate a political realignment in the next three years.

Here are the drivers of change:

1. Our state has run out of money and must restructure its debt, but the ANC can't do so for political reasons.

2. Our SOEs are failing and must be rationalised and partially privatised, but the ANC can't do so for political reasons.

3. Our economy is stagnant and needs business confidence to attract domestic and foreign investment, but the ANC can't do so for political reasons.

4. Our young people are getting poor education outcomes and need systemic education reform, but the ANC can't do so for political reasons.

5. Our highways and inner-cities are being militarised by criminal elements and need to be secured, but the ANC cannot do so for political reasons.

6. Our resources and industrial sectors are hampered by syndicates of rent-seekers and can't grow, but the ANC can't liberate them for political reasons.

7. Our national policy discourse is disjointed and contradictory, but the ANC can't streamline it for political reasons.

The only areas where the ANC seems to be making progress is abroad and at the African Union, because there they don't have to contend with local and provincial counterparts in their own alliance movement, with whom they can't deal decisively, for political reasons.

When the anthill, the precarious superstructure of neo-patrimonial inbreeding that is now embodied in our political elite finally comes apart, as it inevitably will during a debt and currency crisis, the political landscape will be rebalanced like a huge pile of building sand that collapses off the back of a tip-truck.

In the fallout the likes of Irvin Jim and Zwelinzima Vavi, who are already out in the cold on the left of the ANC, will be joined by the remnants of Cosatu, and the Zuma loyalists will retreat into their provincial fiefdoms to there fight a more parochial battle for state resources. They won't resign themselves to exclusion in perpetuity, but dream of a future time where they can again exact an internal party coup, mistaking the ANC as the centre of power in the country.

Rather, there will be many new centres of power, one of which will be the major cities and provinces, which in economic terms define the character of our networked city-state nation called SA.

In this scenario the black middle class, angered by the spiralling tax burden and loss of savings endured in the spirit of social solidarity, will vote decisively against more of the same. If by this time the DA has fully distanced themselves from the heroism of Helen Zille, and perhaps undergone its own palace coup wherein the Gauteng crew usurped the reins from the Western Cape crew, they might just win the allegiance of a frustrated black middle class.

The likelihood is that a new-look DA will compete in a field of new start-up parties headed by the likes of Gwen Ngwenya and peers, who seem to want liberalism and capitalism with a developmental bent. Insiders in the current administration are likely to hope that the New Dawn succeeds sufficiently in economic terms to mask all of the above in a hue of hope.

Perhaps they will succeed. If they don't, they might find themselves negotiating with Mashaba for a coalition in which he is likely to demand the deputy presidency. Of course, the incumbent is unlikely go quietly into the night, opening a new front of political intrigue instead.

Ultimately, SA will only be able to escape the win-lose cycle of socialist-patrimony if the economy grows rapidly. Only in such an environment can meritocracy coupled with inclusionary policies overcome the underlying clientelism that has captured our state.

• Oosthuizen teaches scenario planning at GIBS, and writes in his own capacity.