President Jacob Zuma. Picture: GCIS
President Jacob Zuma. Picture: GCIS

It is ironic that in the same week that commemorates the murder of Chris Hani 23 years ago, South Africa once again has returned to an uncertain and potentially highly divisive period in its political development.

Hani’s assassination came close to not only undermining the CODESA negotiations at the time, but threatened to heighten racial tensions and scar the society in the process.

Ultimately, it was outstanding leadership that brought South Africa back from the precipice – and given the seminal role of the ANC during this period, it was precisely ANC leadership that preserved the democratic process.

Two decades later, South Africa faces another crisis. You can blame every external force you want, but poor policy formulation, execution and a debilitating adherence to ideological myopia has resulted in our economy underperforming. Frankly, with a 36% unemployment rate (extended figures) and with levels at over 50% among our youth, the situation will eventually place untenable pressure on our social and political fabric.

You may not like GDP as an assessment of social progress, but our inability to grow over the period has clearly had an effect. Levels of poverty and inequality remain high, educational outcomes and skills development are poor and opportunities for growth stunted. And, our nation has become riddled with dependency on government handouts and grants – locking millions into an unhealthy and unproductive relationship with the State.

You would therefore imagine, that solutions should be readily available in a world of research, economic modelling, case studies and our ability to pick and choose global best practice. But somehow that logic evades us. Instead, power politics takes centre stage to the extreme detriment of those who need help the most.

Most disturbingly perhaps is that current leadership seeks not to unite the country in the face of challenge but to exacerbate divisions in society. A lamentable, yet predictable refrain sewing racial divisions to divert attention from poor governance and the serious social deficiencies that we experience has become the ‘new normal’.

In the days after Hani’s assassination, such a discourse would’ve undermined our democratic project but the Mandela leadership at the time deftly avoided this. Twenty-three years later, with different leadership and circumstance, racial baiting now threatens to do so.

Racial invective has now become sanctioned from the top down. It undermines the already strained notion of a ‘rainbow nation’ and can unleash untold damage on a society that will continue to need quality inclusive leadership for many years to come. It is simply irresponsible of those directing this new ‘populist’ narrative and it needs to be exposed for what it is.

And what it is is simply an effort to divide and rule and stay in power for as long as possible. It’s all been tried before – usually with devastating consequences.

In the 1970’s as the Apartheid State began to feel internal and external pressure, it resorted to the crude and fake ‘Swart Gevaar’ and ‘Rooi Gevaar’ tactics to maintain its support levels from a propaganda-infused and fearful white electorate.

In 2017, the ANC faces similar internal pressures from its electorate. Its answer is to question the motives of White South Africans. Whilst not yet ‘Wit Gevaar’ in the old National Party sense, it increasingly treads a fine line of deteriorating into this deeply disturbing discourse.

When PW Botha wagged his finger at the outside world in 1985 blaming them for the all that was wrong, it’s not that dissimilar to the disdain for global financial institutions and the ratings agencies who have just downgraded us. After all, it’s always someone else’s fault, isn’t it?

The ‘communists’ who sought to undermine the old White regime are really not that different to the ‘white monopoly capitalists’ of today in terms of the use of propaganda rhetoric.

Just as the old National Party crudely tried to exploit fears and prejudice amongst its flagging white electorate, so does a faction of the ANC seek to do the same as they move into a much more uncertain election in 2019.

The ANC has had a choice. It could have shunned this type of deeply divisive politicking and instead concentrated on building alliances with political parties committed to growth like the Democratic Alliance.

Indeed, Maimane’s more ‘transformed’ DA has much more in common with a moderate ANC wing than ever before. Clearly, the message from President Zuma and his backers is to take the fight to the DA and undermine its philosophy in every way. And, perhaps the DA should’ve done a lot more to lobby the ANC rather than seek short-term gain from an expedient agreement with the EFF.

Instead, the prevailing faction has chosen an alternative route to keeping power – a more populist route that will inevitably attempt to reel in (or co-opt) the EFF to keep their support base above 60%. And with a battle for scarce resources amongst an increasingly frustrated populace, the cause for a more market-friendly set of rescue measures becomes even more distant day by day.

It is precisely this strategic choice that is playing itself out right now. The ANC is in a battle for political survival. And, power is a very potent aphrodisiac even for those in the ANC unnerved by the populist drift. Putting this discourse in place ahead of the elective conference was crucial to direct the narrative over the next 8 months.

If the ANC is unable to kick-start growth – which has now been sabotaged by a ratings downgrade - it is only the redistribute aspect of the economy that can provide until such a time as the coffers of the state run dry. 

“Radical Economic Transformation’ therefore will offer no growth potential – but it can redistribute what’s left of the country’s diminishing resources. This is simply a short-term strategy to get the party over the 2019 hurdle with scant regard for much else beyond that.

For all said and done about economic policy distress, irreparable damage to the country can be done by the exploitation of prejudice and fear.

For this reason, leadership is now critical. South Africans are much more united than their current leaders suggest. And, they will work together to right the ship. But, they will rightly demand inclusive, credible and authentic leaders in the process.

And this is the core challenge the ANC faces. If it’s new leadership is perceived as ‘compromised’ it will continue to shed support at the polls. The ANC also must choose what is electorally expedient – risking a further urban backlash in favour of a more rural and rent-seeking power-base.

The window for a new South African leadership (and political) renaissance is closing. as we move towards the ANC’s elective conference where decisions made will have lasting consequences. Time – seriously - is of the essence.

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