Through William Gumede’s eyes
Our Rainbow Nation is fed up with the status quo. Events such as the massacre at Lonmin’s Marikana mine in North West should serve as a warning sign for Government and civil society alike. This is the view of political commentator and writer William Gumede, who launched his latest book, Restless Nation – Making Sense of the World in Troubled Times. He answered Liesl Peyper’s questions about the state of South Africa and what we need to do to fix what is broken.
1. Has SA become a failed state?
No! To say we’re a failed state is too over-simplistic. We have a state that has pockets of excellence and a state is not only Government, but beyond that – the other stakeholders of society such as business, civil society, and so on. A better way of explaining where we are is we have a state where we have pockets of excellence and pockets of appalling poor performance. And that is a mixed bag. The challenge is how one brings the part that is failing up to the level of the part that is doing well. We have excellent, world-class companies, universities that are pockets of excellence, civil society that is informed. We also have participatory and active citizens – the Mamphela Ramphelas – and some very assertive trade unions. Even in government – our finance ministry and the auditor-general’s office is working well. On the other hand, local Government is in an appalling state. But many of our problems are really just functional. We have widespread, endemic corruption. So, it’s a mixed bag. We don’t want to have that mixed bag. We have the talent, the resources. We needn’t be here.
There are a lot of opportunities for us. If you look at how other countries have used their opportunities – Australia is doing very well and using the opportunities in the aftermath of the financial crises in the eurozone. Look at China, Brazil and India. Even African countries, like Nigeria, are growing at a rate of 5% plus per year. If we get our leadership right and are determined enough, South Africa could turn out to become the factory for this rising Africa. We could tap into the growth in other emerging economies, such as Turkey, Brazil, China and India, if we are focused and we’ve got top quality leadership and if we are genuinely serious about growing the economy. We also have collective talent in this country, so to talk about a failed state? We are using our individual and collective talent that we have in this country, but unfortunately the talent goes to waste. A person like Mamphela Ramphele should be in cabinet. A person like Steve Booysen, the former Absa CEO, he should be heading one of the State-owned enterprises (SOEs). We’re also wasting massive other talents such as that of unemployed, black South Africans.
2. How close are we to a revolution, given the violence at the Marikana mine?
Marikana is essentially a warning sign for us, because the gap between those who have and those who don’t have is so wide now that it will come to an explosion of social upheavals. If we don’t address it we may not be able to manage and then you down the route of social upheavals that can turn into a tsunami. For us – if Marikana can break the sense of complacency, then, sad as it is, something good can come out of it. If people – and Government – are not looking for scapegoats and rather accept responsibility and deal with problems in an honest way…
For the last couple of years we’ve had a sense of Government leaders not taking responsibility for things and if there’s a problem they point fingers and blame someone else. Blaming makes us complacent. In SA we had apartheid – one group of people benefited – and now we’ve got a new society that we want to rebuild. So, if things go wrong under the new democratic Government it’s the easiest thing to blame the old ones. But if we keep on doing that we’re not focusing on the problem and we’re not taking the responsibility for our own mishaps and mismanagement. We’re in that space now and thus we can’t focus on reconstruction and turning the country around.
3. Do you foresee that the violence and strikes will spread to other mines/industries?
There’s a systemic feeling of unfairness among black people in the country that they’re not benefiting from this new SA. Say, you live around the Marikana mine – you look at your former comrades and they’re now the Government, or business people who are very well off. They look at the old regime – the whites – and they seem to be doing very well also. If you’re an ordinary mineworker and you see former mineworkers who are now either part of business, like Cyril Ramaphosa, and they’re still struggling to get a wage increase and wondering how they’re going to feed their kids and look after their families. Now coming into that mix they look at the union leaders, thinking they’ve also become rich and become part of the establishment and the political leaders in the ANC are the same. They feel nobody’s really caring for them and there’s no one they can put their trust in and there’s no one who listen to – not government, neither democratic institutions like the unions. This happens across the country – not only at Marikana. One sees spontaneous protests throughout South Africa. People feel the only way Government will take notice of them is when they turn violent. And when they think about the future it seems equally bleak. The combination of these things makes for a very toxic environment.
4. Has Cosatu lost face and legitimacy among its members?
With the eurozone crisis we’ve seen a lot of retrenchments across various industries, including the mining industry. If the ordinary mineworker or textile worker – there’s a fear among people that if you lose your job now you may never get a job again. We’ve seen people being unemployed now for almost generations – some of them since the Eighties. Losing a job, or getting a raise has now become a life and death situations. What does that mean for Cosatu? There’s a lot of pressure on unions at the moment. For the ordinary mineworker it means your union who represents you is affiliated with Cosatu and part of the ANC tripartite alliance. Yet, every day you see your comrades losing their jobs. The pressure comes from the ordinary union members who fear for losing their jobs and at the same time they’re wondering why Cosatu is such an integral part of this Government. What are they getting out of it? The real danger for the unions is that there will increasingly be splinter groups, breaking away because they are desperate to protect their jobs. Yes, Cosatu is supposed to be the privileged alliance, but it holds no benefit, except being elected to top positions in the ANC.
5. What are your thoughts on the National Development Plan? Is it workable or a pie in the sky?
Successful developing countries all have long-term plans that are realistic. Sadly, in our country we’ve often had a lot of pie-in-the-sky-plans since 1994, which were far removed from reality. The lessons we have to learn from other countries are to have pragmatic policies – not ones that are over-ideological. Common-sense policies is what are needed. It’s good that we now have a long-term plan, but it has taken us 18 years since 1994 to get that plan. That in itself says a lot. But in SA it seems our plan does not have the legitimacy in the ANC and that’s a problem, because it will bring us nowhere. It’s not going to be implemented because the ANC seems to have not bought into the plan. Ideally this plan should have been discussed at the ANC’s policy conference and should be the main point on the agenda at the ANC’s national conference in Mangaung at the end of the year. But I don’t think the ANC is serious about this plan.
My other question is – what about all these other plans we’ve had so far? Aren’t we a country that is just coming up with plans and plans and plans, but we’re going nowhere beyond them and there is no implementation? The real danger is it’s a lot of huff and puff. The post-1994 culture is not to deal with our problems but just to devise more plans. We’re not courageous enough to face our challenges.
6. How do you see the future of opposition parties in SA’s political landscape?
This should be the moment for opposition parties. The ANC leadership is complacent because there’s no apparent and relevant alternative to the ruling party. They think the masses will always vote for them because who else are they going to vote for. A couple of things need to happen: opposition parties need to become more relevant to those ANC members who are disillusioned. The DA, for example, is entering a scary phase. If they move dramatically into a different direction they may lose a lot of their traditional support base in order to get new voters and they may not be certain of the new voters. The DA has that dilemma now. Do they enter into the dark, transform dramatically, get those ANC members, and run the risk of losing their traditional membership? Will they even get those ANC members?
A lot of the changes in the DA are really only cosmetic changes, even having Lindiwe Mazibuko as parliamentary leader, that’s a cosmetic change. That kind of educated black individuals in the DA – they don’t have to be targeted because they already make up their own minds in any case about how to vote. What they need to get is a different kind of voter who will be emotionally unable to make a rational decision. If you’re black and living in an informal settlement, even if you’re unhappy with the ANC and feel it is losing direction, the party still appears to be speaking to the problems of a black, poor person. The DA is not speaking that language. The DA has lashed out at Cosatu and trade unions, for example. But in the black political culture the trade union is seen as very important and the protector of jobs and a representative of the vulnerable. If you want to be the party in government you have to change to the way the electorate is. You can’t expect the electorate to change for you. The party must change. All the political parties in the world that are now in government have changed in order to get in the right position to attract voters. If you’re just going to remain the same and only change artificially you won’t get far.
Cope was an opportunity to reconfigure SA’s political space, but because Cope hasn’t worked, ANC members will be very reluctant to back any breakaway from the ANC. They’ll say the last breakaway turned out to be useless. I think most breakaways in the years to come will be small splinter breaks like with some of the unions. There won’t be a big bang break. At the moment there is a fragmentation in our politics, but opposition parties should actually come together – I mean, they’re all the same in any case.
The ANC is seen by its supporters as big and they believe it will always rule; there’s another perception that opposition parties will never win. The other perception is that that we’ve turned into a country of patronage politics; you vote for the ANC and there’s the potential of patronage and if you don’t vote for the ANC you won’t get patronage and you may be even more marginalised. But if opposition parties all pull together as one giant political party it may change the political landscape of South Africa. Currently, they’re in their own comfort zones, too scared to move away, wanting to protect their turf rather than moving into the unknown. The unknown is where the voters are.