The future shape of South African politics

Alex | Oct 02, 2009
Hermann Giliomee and Charles Simkins discuss the tension that exists between dominant-party rule and democracy.

In the final analysis democracy rests on countervailing power able to check tendencies toward authoritarian domination. The best counter is undoubtedly the presence of a strong opposition party that can guard against the erosion of the autonomy of democratic institutions and can replace a governing party that has outstayed its welcome. The development of an opposition has traditionally been associated with the rise of a middle class. By contrast, the transitions to democracy of the past two decades has been associated with the role of trade unions. Generally unions have assisted in hastening the departure of authoritarian regimes, but have been less successful in helping to sustain a competitive democracy.

Taiwan bears out the approach, which emphasises broad-based socio-economic development as a prerequisite for the maintenance of democracy. An assertive, independent middle class and the narrowing of economic inequalities to the lowest in the semi-industrialised world formed the background to the country’s steady progress away from a quasi-Leninist party-state through a dominant-party system to the approximation of a competitive, liberal democracy. However, as Malaysia and Singapore demonstrate, socio-economic development does not generate an inexorable movement towards democracy. While the middle class in Malaysia during the 1970s and 1980s increased by half, the democratic system deteriorated to a point where domination rather than democracy is being consolidated. The main reasons are the dependence of the Malay middle class on the state and the lack of international incentives rewarding democracy. Such incentives have spurred the Taiwanese in their quest for diplomatic recognition. In Singapore the one-party state is maintained despite the absence of a fundamental need for it on the part of any fraction of the bourgeoisie or middle class. The government’s criticism of “Western-style” democracy shows the importance of the leadership variable in the process that leads to the bedding down of a democracy.

In the past decade here has a strong focus on pacts between leading class actors in the transition to a democracy. It is suggested that the mode of transition to a large extent shapes the type of democracy that is subsequently established. Taiwan illustrates the point that the prospects for a competitive system are best when a democracy is the result of transition through government-led transformation. South Africa, however, can be considered as a potentially contrary case. The Government of National Unity that flowed from the political pact between the ANC and National Party fell apart sooner than most observers expected.

Our argument is that it is not so much the mode of transition but the realignment of forces after a new democratic government has established itself in office that determines kind of democracy a society will have. Pacts that made the transition possible are not necessarily the same as those that sustain a new government; they are merely the means towards institutionalising a democracy. Whether they emerge or hold depends largely on whether socio-economic conditions are such that a fragile democracy can take root and grow. The countries on South Africa’s border vividly demonstrate that without vigorous economic growth producing rising per capita incomes it is unlikely that the socio-economic conditions would arise where democratic structures will be effective.

Just before the transition started in 1990 South Africa had a per capita GNP of US$ 2,290, which groups it with the upper-middle-income Latin American countries and an Eastern European country like Hungary. At a superficial glance it looks well within the per capita zone where transitions to democracy could be expected. However, if one focuses on the disenfranchised, namely the African population, one found a per capita income of only US$ 670, that is far below the economic zone where democratic transitions are likely, and the virtual absence of a property owning middle class. There were in South Africa two communities — a white community well above that economic zone and an African community well below it.

In these unpropitious conditions there are two pacts to consider: the first was between the white and black political elites, based on a white and a black dominant party respectively, to make possible the founding of a democracy. After the elections this was replaced by a second pact, between an African elite and the downtrodden African masses. It has two projects: to establish an African middle class mainly through the occupancy of senior positions in the civil service and state contracts to African suppliers, and to entrench a black labour aristocracy. The pre-April 1994 pact and the post-April 1994 pact are quite different and it was not possible to predict purely on the basis of the first pact what type of democracy was to be expected. What was predictable was that big business would quickly switch from the erstwhile dominant party to meet the demands of the new one. It is sponsoring the enrichment of a small African elite, accepting labour legislation that only the bigger companies can afford and is not opposing affirmative action.

Where there is mass demand for redress and empowerment there is little to prompt black voters to vote for opposition parties, a sentiment which the dominant party, of course, encourages. Thus the vital elements of democracy — genuine competition and uncertainty in electoral outcomes — are removed. The process of entrenching dominance is underpinned by the steady elimination of the dividing line between the ruling party and the state, so that the ruling party comes to be seen as the state rather than the temporary government. This in turn steadily erodes the capacity of any class or ethnic group to retain a sufficient degree of autonomy to develop a party that could form the basis of a competitive system. The dominant party’s sheer preponderance of political power leads to unilateral, and even arbitrary, decision-making that undermines the integrity of democratic institutions, particularly that of the legislature and its ability to check the executive. Finally, the ruling party abuses the advantages of incumbency and the state media to get re-elected time and again.

The key is that in less advanced and highly unequal societies, a capitalist state has great difficulty establishing any real autonomy from the capitalist interests on which it is dependent for investment decisions. Forced to maintain friendly relations with the business sector that it long considered an enemy, the dominant party is compelled to shed its radical populism at an early stage. To be able to “afford” this fateful compromise the party establishes a mass base which encapsulates and captures all the popular sectors. It does offer concessions, particularly to organised labour, but the price for labour is its political emasculation. This attracts big business to the ruling party for as long as the integrative coalition provides stability. In societies with deep ethnic divisions, such as South Africa and Malaysia, this popular base is at the same time a racial or ethnic one. While ethnic or racial solidarity provides no clear basis for political action in a capitalist system premised on competitiveness, a party is increasingly forced to rely on ethnic or racial appeals, particularly when both growth and redistribution are modest. Given the superiority of appeals to identity over appeals to class, an alternation in government is much more unlikely in South Africa and Malaysia than in Mexico or Taiwan.

For quite some time the ANC will have to live with the economic domination of whites and of the corporate world by a few large companies controlled by whites. As a result of sanctions the share of multinationals in the economy has been disproportionally reduced. That means there cannot be the Malaysian pattern of redistribution: in the period 1971-90 the Malay share of equity increased to 20 per cent while the foreign share of equity dropped from 62 to 25 per cent. The liberal macroeconomics of the 1990s puts severe limits on government intervention in the private sector or on using state corporations to expand the share of African equity holding.

Compared to the dominant parties in Mexico, Malaysia and Taiwan, the ANC’s success in establishing itself as a coalition that transcends both ethnic groups and classes has been much more modest. Its project of building a “rainbow nation” in which everyone can find a place remains vague and riddled with contradictions. Severe budget constraints and an inefficient civil service make it unlikely that its 2-3 per cent electoral support among whites will improve. While the ANC has done well to keep populist tendencies in check, its leadership is showing growing irritation with what it terms reactionary elements of the old regime. It is directed at the press and white-led opposition parties for their lack of support for “nation-building” and constant criticism.
As a result the ANC has increasingly abandoned its 1994 election appeal of non-racism for an explicit call to African solidarity.

While mocking the “Mickey Mouse white parties”, Mandela calls on all predominantly black parties to unite. The superior pressure of the black middle class and labour aristocracy in this racial alliance ensures that their interests take precedence at the expense of the non-unionised and unemployed blacks. This is taking place particularly in two areas. The unionised work force enjoys a degree of statutory protection — in certain areas of labour legislation approaching that of Scandinavian countries. Such policies make it very difficult for the large army of unemployed to get into the labour market. Furthermore, with very little job creation in the economy the competition for employment between whites and blacks will increasingly take on a zero-sum quality. This stands in sharp contrast to Malaysia, where despite preferential policies favouring Malays, labour force growth in the manufacturing sector has been high enough also to absorb Chinese as well as Malay entrants. Finally, any policy that interferes too much with the competitiveness of firms will have a negative impact on the balance of payments.

The ANC will be forced to straddle seemingly impossible contradictions in its attempts to reconcile the majority and minorities. Apart from the “broad church” and populist character of the party there are two other factors to take into account. The ANC’s dominance of the political system is heavily qualified by forces outside the area of formal politics which it does not control, such as organised business, the international financial community, and the courts whose benches are still staffed by whites. Although weak, the minority parties have put up stiff fights in the areas of health and education policy. The result is compromises that increasingly strain the coherence of the party, without really threatening to split it. As in the case of Malaysia, another deeply divided society, dominant-party rule of South Africa has give rise to a “syncretic state”. This is a state with a remarkable ability to combine a mix of ideological approaches, allowing the leadership to blur the lines between state and society. Thus South Africa has seen a bewildering mix of clashing commitments: colour-blind merit and affirmative action rules of ethnic preferment, non-racism and Africanisation, free market acceptance and tight regulation of the labour market, state patronage for African contractors and near-monopolies for large white-controlled corporations, and so on.

Largely to contain the pressures which managing the syncretic state produces, the ANC leadership has tended to concentrate as much power as possible in its own hands both in its control of the party and at governmental level. The party hierarchy has tried to impose its choice on virtually every leadership vacancy or intra-party feud at the provincial level. At the same time central government has refused to share any power with the provinces by devolving a meaningful measure of discretion in the vital areas of policing, health care and education. While this route will, for the present, yield success at the polls, the costs will be increasing organisational decay of the party and racial polarisation. It could put South Africa on the same road as Zimbabwe where dominance and corruption have produced such cynicism and apathy that elections are a travesty of democracy.

Three responses towards one-party domination have emerged in the ranks of liberal democrats. The first is the expectation in classic liberal mould that race-based voting which ensures ANC dominance is a temporary phenomenon. Voters are expected to become policy and issue oriented as they pursue their different material aspirations and shed their racial or ethnic concerns. In a recent statement, the chairman of the largest conglomerate, Anglo American Corporation, expressed the view that too many critics are “pessimistic” about the democratic prospects of South Africa. He believes there to be sufficient democratic checks and balances, while the development of a market economy will bring about a political realignment with both the ruling party and opposition “more accurately reflecting values and interests”.

Our evidence is that such an expectation is not realistic. As in the case of the Malays and the Afrikaners in pre-1994 South Africa, the state explicitly favours black South Africans. Ethnic patronage in the form of favouritism in bureaucratic appointments and state contracts awarded to businessmen produces a state-sponsored middle class whose commitment to the dominant party outweighs that to a neutral state or the need for opposition politics. South Africa’s electoral system enables the black elite to mobilise the mass of blacks behind it, a task made easier by the known fact that wealth is still concentrated among whites and that the system does not offer rewards for racial moderation. While this is the case election results are likely to continue to resemble a racial census.

The second interpretation, which is favoured by Steven Friedman, is to put South Africa in the category of liberal democracies, although it concedes that minority parties are quite possibly doomed by racial cleavages to remain so. This interpretation employs a dichotomy: either dominance is achieved by partly or wholly undemocratic means as in Mexico and Singapore; or dominance is an expression of the will of the electorate and the success of the dominant party in appealing to it. Putting South Africa in the second category, he sees ANC dominance as a democratic achievement. But Friedman implicitly argues that South Africa’s classification as a liberal democracy will only hold if the ANC maintains an “internal pluralism”. It must allow every faction in the party to win at least some battles and keep its hold over the greater part of civil society, a part that is proving fractious and difficult to control. At the same time South Africa must sustain an “external pluralism” of opposition parties able to represent significant constituencies.

The basis of Friedman’s cautious optimism, then, is that political competition is the central issue for liberal democracy and that South Africa has such competition. The trouble with this approach is its sharp distinction between democratic and authoritarian politics when in fact there is a continuum of possibilities. One cannot make sense of the Taiwanese experience over the past decade without thinking of movement along a continuum in a liberal democratic direction. Nor can one explore South African issues without taking into account that democratic practices are not yet well enough established to use the notion of competition without some qualifications. For instance, the white-led opposition parties were prevented from campaigning in black townships where the ANC swept the floor in the 1994 election. If this happens again the notion of competition will be severely compromised. A dichotomous approach also does not take into account that matters could get worse by degrees (as happened in South Africa after 1960) as well as better by degrees.

More importantly Friedman relies too much on the model of dominant parties in advanced industrialised societies such as Sweden, Italy and Japan where the socio-economic conditions for democratic competition are much better realised and where there are no deep ethnic cleavages which correspond with socio-economic inequalities. Also the dominant parties in these cases did not originate in a crisis that gripped the entire society but more mildly when the opportunity arose for fundamentally reshaping political alignments.

The third interpretation is favoured by Heribert Adam and elaborated in the study Comrades in Business: post-liberation politics in South Africa (Tafelberg, 1997) that he co-authored with Kogila Moodley and Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert. The central thrust is to see South Africa as an increasingly homogeneous society while the ANC is depicted as an upper-middle-income country version of a social democratic party in government, but one severely compromised by its dependence on business. It argues that the ANC is the only party that can guarantee democracy and stabilise the new order.

This study is in rather sharp contrast with our interpretation and concerns. While recognising the stabilising capacity of a dominant party we see equal, if not greater, dangers in its rule. We believe that dominant parties may both reflect and cause suppression of political competition. On the one hand there is the behaviour of the electorate which returns the same party again and again to a position of dominance; on the other hand there is the ability of a dominant party to close out opposition in a number of possible ways. The latter include entrenching permanent minorities, eroding the conditions for competition by muzzling or intimidating the press, taking administrative action against opponents, allowing or encouraging no-go areas during election campaigns (as happened on a wide scale in 1994) and stealing elections.

Comrades in Business latches onto corporatism as some kind of panacea to the uneven and polarising distribution of income, but the authors’ interpretation becomes a roller coaster of contradictory moods and perspectives. A calmer perspective on South Africa’s future is needed, one that focuses on higher economic growth and broader-based development as prerequisites for democratic consolidation. It is important not to overlook historical continuities amid all the policy fanfares of the dominant party. In 1990, John Kane-Berman, director of the South African Institute of Race Relations, which published an exhaustive annual survey of life under apartheid, stated that in the preceding 15 to 20 years the country had undergone a “silent revolution”. Urban blacks undramatically but purposefully not only broke down much of apartheid, but also advanced their position through their own efforts of organisation. They did the latter despite the relative absence of government intervention on their behalf and even government curbs. Unrealistic campaign promises by the dominant party have stifled some of the remarkable efforts of the poor to take their fate in their own hands.

The second point to make is that nothing suggests that the potential South African growth rate is high. It will take time to eliminate the lag between the development of its human capital and its relatively sophisticated physical capital. Conflicts over claims to current output are high with a consequent adverse impact on savings and investment. The state’s ability to support private enterprise without appropriate infrastructure is limited, and is not helped by the ANC’s frequent opting for complicated, rather than the simplest possible programmes and procedures.

To question the ability of the ANC to manage both the state apparatus and intra-ethnic conflict is not to subscribe to the “racist assumption that blacks in charge will fail sooner or later. Rather it is to assert the limits of managerial expertise presently available in government and to make the point that a certain type of “strong man” politics, characteristic of developing countries, serves to vitiate rather than build up, developmental capacity. On the positive side of the South African balance sheet are declining fertility and slowing population growth which, with a given economic growth rate means rising living standards. It will be through the steady efforts of millions of South Africans that economic growth and democracy will be slowly realised. In many areas it will be despite, rather than because of, the policies of the dominant party.