Reflections on a new activism to challenge a State comprador elite

Last week I was invited to a gathering on the state of our democracy and what to do about it. Attended by activists from within the ANC and outside of it, struggle luminaries and veterans, new generation activists, civil society and business leaders, politicians, judges and civil servants, the gathering reflected an astounding level of consensus. Almost all recognized that South Africa was immersed in a multifaceted economic, political and social crisis in which trust had broken down between much of the citizenry and the state political elite. There was a recognition that the courts had played a valiant role in holding the state political elite to account, but that this was not sustainable in the long term. And there was a recognition that activists, old and new, had to return to the streets to reinvigorate democracy and chart a new path to realizing a clean and accountable government.

The conversation was bold but thoughtful, frank but respectful. There was none of the bluster that often accompanies the politics that is supportive or critical of the president. Radical politics was not confused with disrespectfulness, rudeness and spectacle. This is not to suggest that the president escaped critique. On the contrary, almost all recognized that his incompetent and kleptomaniac rule had much to do with immersing South Africa in the crisis, but there was an honest reflection on how we got here and our own collective complicity in enabling his rule for so long.

The recognition of the need for a new activism was accompanied by a realization that while it was necessary, it was not a sufficient condition for entrenching a new accountable and democratic politics. This new activism had to be accompanied by at least three developments.

First, there is an urgent need to establish a political and socio-economic agenda that addresses inequality in our society. Since 1994, and inclusive of the period of the Zuma presidency, inequality has grown every single year. It is true that much has been delivered – electricity, water, sanitation, social support grants – and poverty rates have declined in certain years of the post-apartheid era. This is what many young activists are oblivious of. But these very same activists are correct when they suggest that it does not feel as if things are getting better. This is because inequality has increased despite the fact that absolute poverty may have decreased. The net effect is that ordinary citizens’ sense of satisfaction has declined, especially as they observe the corruption and gluttonous consumption of economic elites and those politicians who claim to represent them.

This now has to change. If a new activism is to be real and win the support of ordinary citizens, it must incorporate an agenda that has inclusive development at its core. This means an explicit rejection of a ‘growth focused trickled down’ economic strategy. Growth is necessary, but it is not sufficient for inclusive development. A new activist agenda requires a recognition that regulation is also essential in order to channel resources to education, health care, infrastructure and small business development. None of this is going to happen without a reconsideration of tax rates, remuneration caps, more measured profitability and longer term investment horizons, measures that mainstream business has for so long opposed. Only then when people feel that they have a true stake in South Africa’s future can one avoid a scenario where ethnic entrepreneurs and avaricious politicians manipulate real socio-economic grievances for their own personal enrichment.

But mainstream business is not the only stakeholder that is going to have to make sacrifices. Progressives activists are also going to have to be willing to consider trade-offs. Even if addressing inequality were to become part of a new activist agenda, it cannot be realized overnight. A more measured time-line of socio-economic achievements has to be developed, and a balance between investing in competing priorities may have to be struck. This may seem obvious, but we ignore it at our peril. Too often, political, social and student activists, trade unionists, and even radical academics and progressive lawyers, enthused and inflamed by their social justice agendas, find it difficult to understand and accept that compromises are required in the messy art of deploying limited resources to competing social priorities. Of course, they have reason to be skeptical, for too often patience has been used as an excuse to subvert social justice and demand sacrifices of the poor. But this needs to be managed by keeping stakeholders accountable, rather than by preventing necessary trade-offs from being realized.

Secondly, this new activism would require out of the box thinking and imaginative solutions to contemporary social challenges. Again this seems obvious, but we ignore it at our peril. Too often progressive activists trot out old, ideologically laden formulas that were developed in other eras and contexts, and apply it uncritically to our own challenges. But the world has changed as have the social forces within it. The world is diverse and application from other contexts requires thoughtfulness, otherwise it may generate perverse outcomes. Think simply of outcomes based education and its consequences for poor communities in South Africa.

Let me use examples from my own experience. One of the biggest challenges at universities is a shortage of accommodation for students. Demand in this regard is unlikely to be fully addressed by universities, not only because of the billions of rands that would be required, but also because of the timelines involved in building residences. Our challenge is how to go to scale within a short time frame and with limited resources. One way this could be done is with corporates through public-private partnerships on the provision of student residences. It is true that the quality of services is often not the same, but this could be addressed through regulation and the management of service contracts. Yet this strategy would make many student activists, academics and even ministers uncomfortable, for it requires a recalibration of our own ideological predispositions.

Similarly, our single biggest challenge in higher education is the demand for free education. The challenge has emerged because government subsidy has lagged inflation in a context of massification. The net effect was a decline in the per capita subsidy which universities compensated for with above-inflation fee increases. The student protests brought this university financing regime to an end, and we are currently in the midst of finding a new regime. The demand from student activists is for free higher education, the costs of which would need to be borne by the state. The cost for tuition alone would be an additional R25 billion per annum, and if we were to include accommodation and subsistence the total cost would be R50 billion per annum. Even if these monies were to be found, there would be a strategic question around investing an additional R50 billion per annum in just over a million students in higher education, when there are more than four times this number of young people who are unemployed and not in post-secondary education.

But the scale of the problem would be significantly different if we thought through the challenge in a different way. If our interest is to support the poor, why should we treat all of our universities in the same manner? Why not focus free education immediately at the universities with the largest number of poor students, and enable other universities to continue to charge fees which could be supported by a loan system, again established with the private sector? The danger of this would be that we could create a two tier university system with poor students in one strand, and richer students in another. But again, regulation could mitigate this if the university system were differentiated, universities were defined with distinct mandates, mobility was enshrined in the system, and it were made mandatory for universities to take students across the racial and class divides. Moreover, this arrangement could be part of a progressive realization of free education which is tied to the expansion of the economy and a widening of the tax base.

Again, this strategy seems sensible in an unequal environment where public resources are limited and private funds may in some cases be in abundance. But this would require political and student activists, higher education executives and government ministers to treat the universities in a differentiated manner. It would also require a willingness to recognize that as a result of apartheid, our historically white universities are well-endowed and may very well need to be given different mandates, at least initially. This makes many uncomfortable and requires a recalibration of our political sensibilities. But this recalibration is impossible as long as we treat our ideological frameworks similarly to our religious beliefs; incapable of reform and re-imagination to apply to our immediate contextual realities.

The final conundrum that we need to address in framing this new activism is how to manage the palpable anger that exists among our citizenry, especially among the young. The anger is necessary to generate the momentum to transform society, but this anger cannot be allowed to define who we are and how we conduct our struggle. If this were to happen, as so often seems to be the case in struggles in our universities, workplaces and communities, then the anger would envelop us, fracture our communities and pervert the outcomes of our struggles. But if we are able to channel the anger, then progressive change of society becomes a real possibility.

Such channelling, however, requires a political centre which no longer exists. Until very recently, that political centre resided within the ANC, but the blunders of the Zuma administration, its patronage, corruption and incompetence, have brought this to an end. There are some within the ANC – veterans, ministers and activists – who hope to turn the tide and re-establish the hegemony of the party. But they have their work cut out because most of the party’s branches are in chaos, patronage constrains its members, and the Zuma faction holds sway over large swathes of the organization.

There are others outside the ANC who believe that the political centre can be constructed among the opposition, but none of the individual organizations have sufficient electoral sway or political support to constitute it on their own. Recognizing this, the opposition has increasingly begun to cooperate. But if the cooperation between the DA and EFF is to evolve into a political centre capable of channelling societal anger towards progressive change, it will require them and their respective leaders, Musi Maimane and Julius Malema, to put aside their individual ambitions. It would also require the DA to moderate some elements of its market essentialism and the EFF to be more measured in its socio-economic demands and advocacy. All parties would need to engage in a thoughtful activism that understands the need for trade-offs in fashioning a broader alliance among disparate social forces. None of this is impossible, but it requires imaginative political leadership that has been missing from South Africa for more than a decade.

For now, it is probably prudent to enable the new activism to be fashioned within both the ANC and the opposition. Yet, it is also important that channels are established, conversations happen, and collaboration be sought and emerge between both cohorts of activists. Ultimately, the establishment of the new activism, and the comprehensive challenge to the comprador elements of the state elite, will only truly be successfully realized through an alliance of political forces both within the ruling party and outside of it. Both share the agenda to categorically defeat the compradors, and each needs the other to effect their part in this political drama. In effect, they come together today so that each may live to fight another day.

It is impossible to predict where all of this will end up. It depends on the political maturity of the activists within both the ANC and the opposition, their respective behaviors, and the consequences thereof. The only certainty we have is that if we collectively succeed, tomorrow will at least be different to today.

The article was originally published in the Sunday Times on 7 May 2017.