Monday, 25 February 2013

Agang: a new direction for South Africa?

In the wake of the announcement by activist and business leader Mamphela Ramphele that she is working on launching a new party called Agang in South Africa, my worry is that most of the emphasis is on where the ruling ANC is going wrong.
That’s not enough. We need a positive principled alternative. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, politics in many countries has become a principle-free zone, as the space for alternatives on the left has closed off, and the mythology that the Soviet Union collapsed because robber baron capitalism is the best system has taken hold. The reasons for the collapse of the Soviet Union are another whole discussion: the worldwide economic downturn in 2008 is evidence that we have not arrived at an alternative that represents perfection.

In essence, the major western economies have become trapped in the Reagan-era mindset of greed is good, and seem unable to deal with the obvious fall out from the failure of deregulated economics. A big part of the problem is that once you enter a principle-free zone, the temptation is to follow the line of least resistance: say or do whatever plays well to polls and focus groups.

What we need is a new set of principles that has a practical base, yet takes us beyond doing whatever seems expedient.

My aim here is to get the discussion started; I welcome other views on the principles that could be the basis for a new movement.

I like the pillars of Green politics, which I like to summarize as:

  1. grassroots democracy
  2. environmental and economic sustainability
  3. economic and social justice
  4. nonviolence

There are many variations on these principles; you may notice I put the word “economic” in two of them. That’s not because I place the economy ahead of everything else, but because we need to consider the economy in the context of both sustainability and social justice. An increasing number of economists capture this concept in the notion of a triple bottom line, the idea that you cannot express economic wellbeing by a single number reflecting financial well-being but you also need to consider whether your economic policies are working for the environment and for social goals.

Let’s look at these principles in detail and see how they apply to South Africa.

Grassroots democracy
Much of the “better life for all” promise of the ANC has been subverted to a better life for a few. We need to take back the instruments of policy that have been subverted to the interests of a small group, and place the well-being of the country as a whole back at the centre of policy-making. To do this, we need accountability, which is not achievable with a Chinese-style top-down interpretation of democracy, where the only election that counts is the selection of the leader of the ruling party.

Grassroots democracy does not mean every issue is decided by popular vote, but rather that when decisions are taken, the whole population’s views are taken into account, and decisions are taken after real consultation, not the fake kind where the outcome is predetermined, and public participation cannot change it.

In a political movement, all positions should be elected, and policy should be an outcome of open internal debate, not a fake consensus imposed from above. In government, a ruling party has to compromise to some extent because those in charge must make decisions on day to day running of the country, which most citizens lack the time to keep up with. The corrective here is maximum transparency: doing away with relics of the apartheid security state that make it possible to hide behind fake secrecy requirements, for example.

Environmental and Economic Sustainability
A crucial series of questions to ask is:

  • Is what we are doing still going to work for future generations?
  • Are we stealing from our children and grandchildren?
  • Are we consuming resources that will never exist again, with no thought of what will replace them?

If we do not ask these questions, and provide satisfactory answers, the promise of a better life for all is a hollow sham. The apartheid regime only tried to service 10% of the population. Since 1994, that 10% has not expanded in a meaningful way. While school attendance has increased, many resources to pull students out of disadvantage have been squandered or misapplied. There has been no serious attempt at building an affordable public transport network, or encouraging use of low-cost modes of transport like bicycles, leaving the poor at the mercy of commercial operators (taxis and long-haul buses), which operate at their convenience not that of their passengers. Unemployment remains stubbornly high.

We also are moving at glacial pace to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. If we cannot transition to energy sources with a long-term future, much of our population will remain excluded from a modern economy. Oil, coal and gas are depleting commodities, and will become ever-more expensive. The price gap between renewables and fossil fuels is closing fast, and we are not positioning ourselves to take advantage when the gap closes fully and renewables start to become cheaper. We have some of the best solar energy resources in the world, and are making scant use of them.

A greener economy in the short term is more labour-intensive because of the new infrastructure needed. So why are we waiting?

Economic and Social Justice
In the apartheid era, the economy was radically skewed to support the White population, and the rest of the population were excluded from the economy by a variety of measures, including limited land ownership, limited opportunities to own business, deliberately sub-standard education and limited access to better-paying jobs.

While some of these limits eased in later apartheid years (e.g., the dropping of job reservation and group areas), we have a long-term legacy of the majority of the population lacking a quality education and a capital base from which to grow.

Black economic empowerment (BEE) under the ANC has been a system of riches for the few, while leaving the majority with little or no opportunity for betterment. We need a change in emphasis to make the benefits more widespread. That has to include:

  • systematic reform of education – noting that some of the country’s worst-resourced schools produce creditable results
    • there has to be a management problem that makes so many others perform so poorly
    • the huge disparity in performance by province also indicates a management problem
  • professionalising the public service – the public service first and foremost is the engine of delivery of government services, not a job-creation programme. Placing services that are critical to opening up economic opportunity in the hands of the politically connected rather than those best qualified to provide those services is not BEE, it’s corruption

None of this precludes affirmative action in government employment, but that affirmative action cannot take the form of cadre deployment with no consideration for competence.

Non-Violence is not just about conducting peaceful protest (Ghandi-style). It is also about a public discourse that steers away from unnecessary confrontation.

Politics in a principle-free zone has increasingly become personalised. While anyone in the public space whose private life is indefensible has set themselves up for unwanted scrutiny, that should never be the sole basis for evaluating political leadership. That reduces political discourse to gossip, and turns leadership into a cult of personality (or lack thereof).

Nor should we be using war talk as routine campaign language. And a party of government should not be building up military capability to be in a position to engage in wars of aggression.

A country like ours with a violent past and a legacy of a police state that valued the lives of some far less than others needs to put strong emphasis on the equal value of every life, and that precludes policies and rhetoric like “shoot to kill”, a mentality that the police showed can have disastrous consequences at Marikana in August 2012.

A country’s military should primarily be an emergency force able to respond on short notice to disasters, with the potential to take part in genuine peace-keeping and democracy-building interventions.

We all need to work to undo the culture of violence with deep roots in colonialism and apartheid. We cannot point fingers back to the cause and fail to address in ourselves an inability to move on.

Where does this take us?
Let’s start talking what we want, not just what we are against, then we have a movement.

COPE was essentially only about where the ANC had gone wrong, and look how that ended.


CT Career Services said...

Quite a good article with concrete ideas. I'm of the opinion that throuh what we do not desire we also recognise our desires...

Philip Machanick said...


The risk with only talking what we don’t want is we end up with what happened in Egypt, where street protests overthrew the Mubarak regime, with no alternative in place. The result was ongoing street protests even after a democratic election.

kambing said...

maybe sometimes.. everything will change..