Africa Brief 29 January 2017
The Old Order dissolves
Winning a game-changer election is one thing, a point in time. The changes following in its wake take time to crystalise. So with Trump, where we are barely a week into his Presidency (though already three months into his new reality). The outline of big coming changes have been sketched, but the implementation will take time and run a mostly uncertain course. Meanwhile markets this week resumed their bullish mood of pre-Christmas, sensing great things ahead.
South Africa had its latest game-changer election already 23 years ago, with the period of major changes already stretching over 35 years. The outline of its new dispensation is by now much advanced, though the biggest changes probably still lie ahead.
One should of course not compare a modern revolutionary experience by a country such as America with one in South Africa. The issues, frankly, are of different dimensions, and come over different time periods. Arguably.
America’s modern makeover, and Europe’s, have their origin in events of the past generation (30 years?). These focus on technological change, rapid trade globalisation, the ruthlessness of market capitalism and the structural rigidities of many modern institutions, politics and populations.
In South Africa, on the other hand, we can easily see the outline of 400 years of history shining through, where apartheid was only a recent evil, structuring society one-sidedly, but where the roots go much deeper, to colonialism and imperialism on the one hand, and the inability of the indigenous population to offer adequate responses to these foreign invasions over time, until only comparatively recently (it is barely 50 years since the Rivonia Trial, half that period since Mandela’s release, and less still since the historic 1994 election that changed everything).
In the US and Europe, there likely will be changes in the political top in coming years, not unlike we are accustomed to with each election, though this time the nature of the key individual changes can be more radical, at least in places. It is happening in the US, it didn't quite happen in Britain (yet) and key parts of the European Continent (France, Germany, Italy, Holland) must show this year where they are heading.
But the remainder of their social orders are unlikely to be fundamentally touched, even though some parts could be favoured while others are made to pay. These, though, are more likely to be in the nature of internal shifts, not the equivalent of the radical 1640s in England, 1789 in France, 1917 in Russia, 1933 in Germany or 1949 in China.
In South Africa, however, there is a far more fundamental dissolving of the old order under way than currently in America and Europe, even if it is progressing gradually. The leading White presence of centuries is steadily being whittled away in favour of other race groups. Not through much faster economic development and the inescapable transformation accompanying it, but through diktat (central political prescription) in an era of relative economic stagnation.
So far this process is perhaps not as far advanced as sometimes imagined, as aspects (such as ownership) remain heavily skewed. But probably a quarter to a third of the White population may have emigrated by now (taking note of all demographic changes), and the formal labour force of 11 million today has changed considerably in make-up, overwhelmingly in the public sector but noticeably too in the private sector.
Have such changes been for the better or worse? Public sector delivery could have been a lot better and its support for society and economy much more advanced. Losing highly trained, skilled, experienced cadres to other countries isn't necessarily clever from one’s own development point of view. And our economic development could have been much more advanced (by a factor of 50%, favouring all groups in society) if we had used a more inclusive approach rather that the forced diktats undermining confidence and participation.
What lies ahead?
In the case of SA clearly more transformation involving further dissolving of the old order in favour of a new dispensation. But the main question remains by which road?
Political populists, apparently including Zuma, are actively promoting more redistribution of land and other assets. In this view, the economic power of the old order needs to be overcome in favour of Black people. Fast economic development would in any case do so, and probably more progressively, but that doesn't appear to be the way ahead.
Instead, there is the choice later this year about yet deeper rejection of western ways, rules and techniques, in which patronage and corruption may dictate a further forced dismantling of the old order even as our economic stagnation deepens due to a widening trust deficit within society.
Alternatively, a more inclusive outcome may still win through, which would still seek transformation and retribution, but along different, arguably far more productive routes.
It isn't clear at this stage which of these extreme voices will have the majority vote within the leading party, granting it the privilege to take us forward.
Perhaps too many elements of the old order still believe in miracles or magic, even though stark reality has been shining through for many years in which political marginalization became a fact and social-economic marginalization a burning fuse.
The country has indeed various choices open to it. Democratic majority vote within the leading party will determine the way for the time being. Major tests lie ahead, probably on a far grander scale in our small enclave that in continental America or Europe.
Cees Bruggemans Prof Willie Esterhuyse
Bruggemans & Associates Political analyst