Leadership in a Divided Society
The new president of South Africa and the African National Congress, Cyril Ramaphosa, has a difficult leadership challenge on his hands. He has inherited a divided ANC, an at-times dysfunctional government and state, a polarised polis and a largely disgruntled society. Perhaps it is precisely because of these tensions that his leadership has appeared contradictory.
On the one hand, President Ramaphosa has courted the private sector and middle classes and won their trust and affection. On the other hand he is pandering to the proponents of radical economic transformation and sent the middle classes and elites into a panic by embracing the call for the expropriation of land without compensation. In doing so, he is pandering to those who remain marginal in South African society, both in terms of societal power, as well as in terms of massive and deeply entrenched inequality. Inequality, one might add, that hails from an unquestionably long history of theft, exploitation and injustice.
According to the World Bank, South Africa’s levels of inequality are the highest in the world. So when President Ramaphosa plays to both sides of the gallery – so to speak – he is playing to audiences that are relative extremes in relation to each other. On the one hand, the comfortably ensconced middle and upper middle classes enjoy first world levels of quality of life. On the other hand, the working classes and the poor essentially suffer the precarity and insecurity that is typical of developing world existence. South Africa is, and remains, a tale of two societies.
So while President Ramaphosa has echoed the anti-corruption, good governance and pro-economic growth sentiments that remain the central issues of concern for the middle classes, he has also sought to harness the current of deep dissatisfaction with the status quo that has emerged and intensified among the working classes and the poor over the past decade. Yet, there exist key differences between those who occupy these ‘two societies’.
On the one hand, the middle classes largely believe that the status quo is working for the country, and that all that is required is a return to the policies and practises of the early democratic government under Presidents Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki. While a strong sense of the need for social welfare styled service provision and so forth is acknowledged as necessary in South Africa, there is also a streak of meritocratic bias in the values that persist within the middle classes and the elite. That is, the belief that South African society provides ample opportunity for anybody who is willing to work hard enough to be able to enter the middle classes and enjoy a relatively high quality of life.
On the other hand, the working classes and the poor – who have seen large increases in socio-economic inequality unfold in the democratic dispensation, and their incomes stagnate while prices have increased – have come to fundamentally question the status quo of South African society. Their plight is characterised by service delivery failures, lack of socio-economic mobility and high levels of local corruption, poverty and unemployment.
There is a pervasive sense that poverty and debt traps have become entrenched, while policies such as affirmative action and land reclamation have failed to deliver the upward social mobility that many dreamed would become a reality in the new post-Apartheid society. Instead of the intergenerational upward mobility that was promised to those who were oppressed under Apartheid, it is poverty, inadequate service delivery, crime, corruption and all manner of social ills that is being transferred – and even intensified – from one generation to the next. Hope is fast becoming a fool’s promise.
To be fair, reconciling and bridging the great divide between these two ‘sides’ of South African society presents a vastly difficult leadership challenge for whomever occupies power in South Africa. It is plainly impossible to court both with the same levels of devotion. Bridging the divide necessitates a fair amount of give and take. Compromise and negotiation is necessary to chart a way forward that all of society is generally comfortable with.
Reconciling the Great Divide
However, there is a limit to what can be reconciled. Reconciliation requires that some middle ground can be brokered over a set of competing perspectives and beliefs. It becomes far more difficult to negotiate compromise when the views that are in opposition reside at the extremes. And in this case, that is what President Cyril Ramaphosa is attempting to do; he is attempting to broker a shared understanding between sectors of society that hold extreme, opposite views. He is attempting to create a complex duality out of a stark dualism.
The middle class view that the status quo is adequate and that all that is needed is more of the same neoliberal oriented economic growth to put the country on the right track is an extreme view. The fact that neoliberalism has become the status quo over the past three or four decades should not detract from the fact that over the past two centuries or so neoliberalism, historically; remains a predominantly out-rider philosophy. Moreover, the notion that the current status quo is adequate is a deeply disturbing one. How can a country with South Africa’s history pander to a status quo that has reinforced and entrenched – in many ways – the racial and class inequality that was cultivated under colonialism and Apartheid?
Moreover, when we consider the push for radical economic transformation, it is clear that it also hosts some deeply questionable and extreme positions. Its first major proposition is to grow black inclusion in the productive economy through the creation of “100 black industrialists” by prioritising the reallocation of state procurement funds to the tune of ZAR 500Bn/year. This approach is problematic, in that it functions on more of the same neoliberal logic and closely mirrors Apartheid era strategies for growing white Afrikaner capital. It may well serve only to reinforce the black elite rather than uplifting the marginalised majority. It may also ultimately degrade the ability of the government and state to deliver on its mandate effectively and reliably. Moreover, it also stands a good chance of failing outright, and compromising the very basis of South Africa’s stability and success as a transitional economy.
The second major proposition that falls under the umbrella of radical economic transformation is the expropriation of land without compensation. It has been widely sold as requiring a majority parliamentary vote to change the constitution. The push for land expropriation without compensation is a rather cynical one. As explained by Prof Steven Friedman, the constitutional provisions for land expropriation without compensation already exist. The narrative that has emerged, and been seized upon by the ANC (who previously always argued against it), is a far more cynical political ruse to shore up the support of its frustrated support base in the run-up to the 2019 national elections. It is a narrative that enables the poor and marginal to express their dissatisfaction with the status quo, and to draw attention to the wounds of the past that continue to haunt the vast majority of South African society.
Crisis and Compromise: South Africa’s Very Own ‘Shock Doctrine’
Professor Friedman explains that South Africa has a long history of ‘creating a crisis’ and then ‘standing by to negotiate a way out of it’ in order to bring about economic change. It is true that this approach characterises how change has historically been brokered in South African society.
Forcing crisis remains the central strategy of local ‘service delivery’ protests in poor municipalities that have escalated drastically over the past ten years. It is also the logic behind the brutal attacks that have been meted out to foreign shop owners and the illegal settlements that have been imposed on them. Some civil society and political actors have also embraced crisis as a catalyst for change. Crisis draws attention to matters that would otherwise go unaddressed or ignored, and elevates an agenda to the highest levels of government and society.
Yet the question remains, can President Ramaphosa and his leadership successfully chart a way towards compromise, given the current state of division in the nation, as well as within parliament and the African National Congress itself?
In a society where the middle classes and the poor and working classes have been talking past each other for most of the past decade, is the strategy of creating a crisis to expedite compromise a wise one? First, will it work or will it only deepen polarisation and division? Second, do we want to perpetuate a politics that is stuck in the crisis-compromise mode of operation?
In respect of the former question, it is important to question whether a deeply divided and fractured ANC leadership that is largely incapable of compromise itself, can in fact lead the country down the road to a mutually agreeable way forward? When the positions are so far apart, what kind of compromise is actually possible? Under President Jacob Zuma, democratic rule was largely viewed as a “winner takes all” one. What has changed within the ANC that provides sufficient cause to believe that this view has changed?
I would argue that very little cause for hope exists in this respect. There is very little reason to believe that the ANC is capable of conducting honest introspection into its shortcomings by itself, let alone those of the country. The ANC is duplicitous, self-referential, bellicose and allergic to an honest appreciation of its own flaws. It can’t even openly admit what its flaws are.
In respect of the latter question, it is imperative at this critical juncture in the relatively short history of South African democracy, to ask whether we should uncritically perpetuate the politics of desperation that seeded under colonialism, escalated under Apartheid, and reproduced itself in the democratic dispensation. Surely it must be acknowledged that one of the main motivations behind the anti-Apartheid struggle was to break with the destructive and divisive cycles of the past? What does it mean when we diagnose the ‘crisis-compromise’ doctrine as part of the ‘DNA’ of South African politics and uncritically embrace and perpetuate it? Even if it is true that we have endured our very own political ‘shock-doctrine’, so to speak, is that what we want? And if the answer is ‘no’, then should we not be expecting far more of our leadership than simply more of the same?
This South African variation on the ‘shock doctrine’ – one where crises are falsely created, allowing for a leadership (or “big leader”) to take the gap and cast themselves in heroic terms – has already emerged as a destructive form of politics that has taken hold in many parts of the world. Whether we look to the US President Donald Trump, the Phillipino President Rodrigo Duterte, Indian President Narendra Modi, or the emergence of anti-multiculturalism and anti-immigration right in Europe and the UK, it cannot be ignored that a socially divisive and polarising rhetoric has fuelled their political discourse. Simply put, they scare people so they can manipulate them into acting from their worst fears and impulses.
In this sense, the kind of visionary leadership and emancipatory politics that South Africa now requires is a far cry from what we are seeing emerge under President Cyril Ramaphosa. The moment that he helped create – by riding the wave created by the opposition, civil society and many concerned and outraged citizens – is being lost in this latter day ‘gameification’ of the South African political realm. We need sincere leadership that is deeply committed to actualising a better society than we are; not leadership that merely works within the current and historical constraints that have held South African society back.
The Path to a New Future: Breaking the Cycles of the Past!
The main task of leadership in the democratic dispensation is – and remains – to break with the past. And while there are many threads of the past that need still need to be broken, the question of whether we are actually breaking with the past, or merely reproducing it, needs to be closely scrutinised. Many nations have only reinforced the conditions they have sought to undo by unconsciously adopting the political strategies, tactics and rhetoric that hold them back.
An appropriate analogy here is the United States of America’s inability to tackle its gun violence problem; precisely because its fallback position – and indeed its ‘land of the free’ identity – has become entangled with the rhetoric that the solution to gun violence is “more guns in society” (i.e. if more people had guns they would be more empowered to stop mass shooters from carrying out attacks). The fact of America’s relationship to guns is that gun sales surge after every new mass shooting. America’s addiction to guns has proven very difficult to break, and crisis only reinforces it. The crisis is inverted; it is not the proliferation of guns, but the lack of it, that is the problem.
When a false crisis is precipitated to force a compromise, that compromise is then a product of manipulation, and not a genuine compromise that emerges from real reconciliation of differing perspectives and desires. It is, in many ways, a strategy employed by cynical political operators who view society as ‘children’ to be manipulated into doing ‘what is good for them’. The problem with this approach is that it perpetuates the kind of leadership and governance that negates the evolution of society towards greater freedoms.
Instead, society lurches from crisis to crisis, from one adrenalin rush to another, and it is never able to settle and stabilise. Instead of a more predictable society, politics and economy we end up with more uncertainty and surprise by going down this road. The illusion of momentary ‘reconciliations’ is cast as progress, when in reality we remain stuck in cycles that, over time, tighten like a noose around the neck of the nation, strangling the possibility of change, and of a new future.
The famous saying, “give me liberty, or give me death” has some relevance in this respect. Instead of moving towards a future of greater freedom we are slowly strangling ourselves with the cycles of the past, inching towards our inevitable political death. As a nation that is constitutionally founded on the hope of actualising a new future, we are enjoined by an aspiration to establish a new kind of society. It is high time that our leaders and politicians began to act like it again. We have had enough of cheap tactics and staid rhetoric. We need to build a compelling vision for how to actualise the new future we fought so hard for.