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Could we be heading towards ​a​ ‘Mzansi Spring’?

The present political and socioeconomic instability of South Africa, with rolling blackouts and rising costs, as we come to a time of national elections, has got Mphuthumi Ntabeni asking if we’re on the verge of a South African citizens’ uprising. It may, he suggests, not be unlike the violent rebellions that broke out in Middle Eastern countries in late 2010.

Why do most African countries still struggle to have reasonably effective and uncorrupted governments even after gaining independence? 

I’m no longer interested in excuses; colonialism apartheid and such. At the risk of sounding like Helen Zille, there are many countries who were colonised, particularly in Asia. And, their governments have overcome clientelism, corruption, poor performance and low levels of public trust. 

In The Political Order and Political Decay: From The Industrial Revolution To The Globalization Of Democracy, Francis Fukuyama reminds us:

“All modern societies began with what Weber called patrimonial states, governments that were staffed with the friends and family of the ruler, or those of the elites who dominated the society. These states limited access to both political power and economic opportunity to individuals favoured by the ruler; there was little effort to treat citizens impersonally, on the basis of universally applied rules. Modern government—that is, a state bureaucracy that is impersonal and universal—develops only over time, and in many cases fails to develop at all.”

So, why is it that in Africa ‘modern governments’ almost always fail to develop?

We seem plagued by a patrimonial system constructed on the building blocks of African culture. Our human sociability and a biological inclination towards tradition, compel us to favour family and friends, clan and tribe — with whom we must exchange reciprocal favours. 

Perhaps, this is what makes it so difficult to develop “a state bureaucracy that is impersonal and universal”. 

During the presidency of Jacob Zuma, an uber-traditionalist patrimony became not just a reciprocal system but almost a parallel political economy. ‘State Capture’, as it has become known, raised an elite class who built their power managing the state’s patronage in their favour. 

Patronage chains are means and ways through which state clientelism thrives and are at the centre of our political factions. 

Everyone has to follow patrons, pursuing individual reward at the expense of the common good. This is why it will be difficult to eradicate corruption in the ruling party and advance the common good — through state development programmes — regardless of the changes that have been or will be made to their leadership.  A change of power means only that someone else is first-in-line to the feeding trough. 

Added to the patronage problem, we have persistent and deep socio-economic contradictions. 

Our market system is not designed to benefit a black majority population. It still operates on apartheid imperatives that favour big white businesses. Together with the stillborn attempts by government to create a black capitalist class, this is the major reason why stubborn socioeconomic apartheid structures persist.

We must agree that the creation of a black middle class is crucial; not only for the economic development of our country but also for the change from a patrimonial system into a universal impersonal one serving the common good. For, those not beholden to a patronage system will be able to behave and vote impartially, on a values-based political system. 

The creation of a black business class not dependent on state tenders is vital. Even now, this class still sees itself indebted to an unpatriotic white business class that drives the economy. But, with the socioeconomic imperatives of apartheid at play, much-needed black industrialisation won’t take place, preventing any meaningful use or change in the informal sector.

These internal contradictions result in the coining of popular phrases like ‘radical economic transformation’ and ‘appropriation of land’. When these are really being employed for political gain, furthering corruption. Still, they have buy-in from the aspirant black business and middle class, who stand to benefit. And this is why the EFF, despite its neofascist tendencies, is popular among a black middle class. 

The trick, though, is to find ways and means of making sure that this talk is exposed for what it is; and the subsequent proceeds don’t end up in the pockets of the corrupt elites where they’re siphoned off to sustain patronal factions, as they did in the case of VBS bank.

The DA appears not to be trusted by the majority-black middle class and is seen as their political cypher. However, the UDM could shift us out of a political stalemate; since it is founded on an anti-corruption stance. 

I am a member of the UDM running for office in the Western Cape at the forthcoming elections, and often wonder why the UDM doesn’t own the public voice when it comes to radical economic redistribution and productive investment in the black middle class. After all, we played a crucial role in exposing corruption and ‘clientelism’ at the PIC.

Fukuyama defines clientelism as “the trading of votes and political support for individual benefits rather than programmatic policies.”  He distinguishes this from “elite patronage systems in which the scope of clientelist recruitment is far more limited and less well organised.”  

He maintains that “clientelism is an efficient form of political mobilisation in societies with low levels of income and education and is therefore best understood as an early form of democracy.” 

It seems to me that this is an apt description of our South African society.

But, on Fukuyama’s understanding, there must be a coalition of social groups if we are to have a government that serves the common good. Such a coalition only comes through “socioeconomic modernisation”. In South Africa, this must necessarily include and involve a black-majority population — it is our only saving grace. 

If Fukuyama is right, this will bring economic growth, realising “social mobilisation through an expanding division of labour”, also known as industrialization.

“Industrialisation leads to urbanisation, requirements for higher levels of education, occupational specialisation, and a host of other changes that produce new social actors.” 

Applied in our context, such a process could lead to a significant black manufacturing class. And Fukuyama says: 

“these actors have no strong stake in the existing patrimonial system; they can either be co-opted by the system, or they can organise an external coalition to change the rules by which the system operates.”

Still, the weak formation of black entrepreneurs is a real liability when it comes to transforming our political culture— which prevents us havinga strong industrial policy that fosters the development of a black manufacturing class.

Factional exchanges of political power in the current political period will bring multiple contestations over the state’s material goods. Our democratic system is in shambles; given symbolic token representation which doesn’t invite participation nor empower citizens. 

When enough instability is generated and public despair is reached, political volatility will worsen giving rise to violence. And, we may find ourselves with a ‘Mzansi Spring’ on our hands.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.