Saturday, 10 March 2018

Ramaphoria and the South African ‘Shock Doctrine’: A New Future, or More of the Same?

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.

Saturday, 17 February 2018

The Politics of Omission: The Good, The Bad and the Unsaid

“Much unhappiness has come into the world because of bewilderment and things left unsaid.”
Fyodor Dostoevsky

The Silence of the Wolves

In politics, what isn’t said out loud is often more important than what is. This has certainly been the case with the African National Congress’s recall of the president of the Republic, Jacob Zuma. It may seem incredible, but the entire recall process occurred without the ANC actually stating what President Zuma had done to provoke such a drastic action. The new ANC Secretary General Ace Magashule – a Zuma loyalist – went so far as to say that President Zuma did nothing wrong at all! Not to be outdone, President Zuma himself also took to the microphone, stating – in a television interview designed to reach his base – that he had not been given any reasons for his recall.

The reality of course is that there are many clear and indisputable reasons for recalling President Zuma. The Constitutional Court found that he had violated his oath of office when he refused to abide by the binding recommendations of the Public Protector over upgrades to his homestead. He has 783 charges pending related to his involvement in the arms deal of the early 2000s. He – and his son – have been implicated in “state capture” activities, along with a network of private sector, intelligence, government and state actors. Under his leadership, parliament and government have been hamstrung by protest. The state is failing badly in many areas. ‘Service delivery’ protests skyrocketed under his leadership, and a culture of disruptive, often violent protests have seeded in communities who feel that they only way they can draw attention to matters that plague them is by taking direct action. Political assassinations, intimidation and corruption have spread at the local level.

For all intents and purposes, Jacob Zuma should have exited power a long time ago. It was the ANC that kept him in power, refusing to act upon his many transgressions, scuppering all attempts to depose him. Many who were calling for his removal now were deeply in bed with him and his cronies and enthusiastically enjoyed the spoils of his wayward leadership. And so it was, that even when they decided it was time for him to go, they could not bring themselves to speak out loud the many and varied transgressions and failures of his leadership and his government. It is ironic, but in keeping with the tradition of duplicity, rhetoric and double-speak that became entrenched under his leadership. That is, to say one thing and do another.

Yet, in order to heal an illness, is it not true that it must be diagnosed? That it must be named? The refusal to publicly acknowledge and take responsibility for the disastrous situation the ANC created, simply means that it cannot enter into an honest period of self-reflection, healing and renewal. It is still stuck deep in the mud left behind by its own floodwaters; the waters that broke when the dam wall that was supposed to hold power in check and to account was summarily detonated under Jacob Zuma’s leadership. It will take government and the state a long time to recover. Yet it will not recover until the truth is spoken out loud and acknowledged, and those who allowed this mess to occur take responsibility for their ill-advised actions. Blind loyalty and self-interest, when combined, has proved to be a disastrous model for the exercise of power in South Africa.

The grave danger that the state of the ANC places the country in should not be underestimated. The spectacular unravelling of the ANC’s tripartite alliance, and its descent into factionalism and discord, should concern every South African. By standing by Jacob Zuma through all his misadventures, the ANC dragged itself, the government, the state and the country into a lengthy period of decline.

Yet, whenever the ANC was previously called to act upon Jacob Zuma’s misdeeds they resisted. They argued that a ‘second recall would fatally wound the ANC’. In reality, this second recall has proved quite the opposite; it has resulted in widespread jubilation and celebration (even if premature at this stage), and has proved rejuvenating and hope inspiring for the majority of South Africans. The ANC threw South Africans under the bus when they needed to put the country first and self-correct from within. They simply cannot be trusted just because one leadership position has changed.

The ANC’s refusal to acknowledge the reasons why Jacob Zuma’s leadership was a failure is telling. It tells us that it is incapable of conducting an honest dialogue with itself, let alone with the rest of the country. Simply translated, this means it is incapable of self-correcting in an open, transparent manner. Instead, behind the scenes Machiavellian power will be exercised to purge undesirables, and these undesirables will be determined by those who hold the most power. It tells us that we can expect more of the same type of leadership from the ANC, that is, a leadership that makes decisions and takes actions behind closed doors and pulls strings behind the scenes to retain power; a top-down elitist model of leadership where rhetoric reigns supreme but decisions are made according to the prescripts of a cold and calculating ‘realpolitik’.

What We Don’t Want?

The question South Africans need to ask is simply whether this is the kind of democracy we want? To celebrate Cyril Ramaphosa as the ‘hero’ who has come to rescue us from the villain, is to perpetuate the very same ‘big man’ leadership model that created the room for Jacob Zuma to abuse his power. Surely this isn’t the road we should be going down again? Surely we should be going back to the drawing board and examining how power, elite networks, institutions and government functions operate? Surely if we speak of radical change then it must be deep rooted, and not merely superficial? Yet the politics of omission is the very definition of keeping things superficial, vague and non-committal. We already know what this produces. And it is up to us to prevent it from happening again.

To be sure, a purge of the ANC’s ranks is necessary, but it is unlikely. The need to ensure unity within the ANC will likely take precedence, and a fine balancing act will ensue. The technocrats will take charge again and there will be no end of great strategies and plans for a great future. However, without critical insight into the systemic and embedded fault lines within the government and state, ensuring robust and resilient progress in the long term will prove difficult. Deep reflection is required.

South Africans have had their fill of inspiring visions. What we need now are reliable, accountable implementation agencies that do not squander state funds in meandering bureaucratic processes and half-baked plans that ultimately entrench maladministration and corruption. The South African state is unique among countries of its ilk because it collects its taxes successfully, and consequently has a significant fiscal basis from which to carry out its mandate. The steady erosion of the state’s capacity to deliver on its mandate, and government’s ability to function coherently, has left the country wounded. As it limps on into this next phase, let us not fall prey to the same euphoric guff that created the space for Jacob Zuma’s leadership to lead the country astray in 2007. That is, let us not see only our hopes, dreams and desires into this situation. Let us see it for what it is; a difficult new beginning that must be closely guarded and monitored. We should not entrust power without safeguards. To do so would be to ‘do the same thing again and hope for a different result’, the very definition of insanity.

Where To From Here?

Political analysts have been swept up by the moment, making all kinds of proclamations about a new era of transparency, accountability and visionary leadership that returns South Africa to the international prominence it once enjoyed under presidents Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki. Of course it is only natural that the public would want to enjoy the cathartic release of seeing president Zuma go, and to begin to hope and dream again, but it is quite another thing when political analysts begin feeding sentiment rather than providing sober analysis.

This is without doubt a critical moment. However, pretending that all it takes is this moment to turn the country around is deeply disturbing. Much more is required to turn the ship around, to get it back onto the right course. A great deal of damage has been done, internally and externally. It is not simply a matter of getting the economics right; it is a matter of doing the hard work of transforming institutions so that they cannot easily be hijacked or ‘captured’ again. It is about addressing the key systemic deficiencies of the South African state, government and economy. It is about rebuilding society’s confidence in a broken body politic. It is also about awakening the South African polis.

Instead of losing ourselves in premature celebration we need to exhale for a moment – and indeed enjoy it – but then move quickly to ensure that the pressure that existed before Jacob Zuma departed from office is still being exerted. This necessitates challenging, at every opportunity, the ANC leadership’s inability to admit to and acknowledge its deep internal troubles and problems, and how these have manifested in patently disastrous outcomes for the country. Skirting around this central reality is – in my view – not political diplomacy, but duplicity. Good leadership acknowledges, confronts and deals with its central challenges; it does not speak with two tongues but provides clear explanation of what is wrong and what needs to be done about it.

By speaking out loud what the ANC refuses to, we can force them to acknowledge the great distance between the reality they profess, and what we know to be true. And as this distance grows, like a wedge between the ANC and the people of South Africa, they will eventually be forced to humble themselves before us and confess what they know to be true in their hearts; that they are no longer an organisation that serves the people but an elite of self-serving opportunists (with some exceptions) who take power for granted. While we celebrate the possibility of change, we should not forget how we ended up here. We must consolidate our will and action to guarantee that the future we desire and deserve comes to fruition. And the first step in that direction is to air out loud the good, the bad and the unsaid.

Thursday, 1 February 2018

All The President’s Men!

Some interesting developments are unfolding since the election of Deputy President of the country, Cyril Ramaphosa, to the presidency of the ANC. Two key contradictions have emerged in the wake of Ramaphosa's ascendancy to power; (1) contradictions within the ANC and (2) contradictions in the public discourse. The former is more obvious and has been readily picked up by the media and those who are politically engaged, while the latter is much less obvious and appears to have gone unnoticed for the most part.

The Obvious Contradiction

First, let’s account for the obvious contradiction; the one that everyone has been focused on. It is not the main subject of this piece, but it provides a useful background to the discussion that follows, especially for readers who may not be entirely familiar with recent events in South African politics.

The sitting president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, is approximately a year away from the end of his second term, after which he will have to depart from office. However, there is a precedent that the ANC set when Jacob Zuma was elected as ANC president while the sitting president Thabo Mbeki still held office. When Jacob Zuma ascended to the presidency of the ANC the National Executive Committee (NEC) of the ANC argued that it was untenable to maintain “two centres of power”. Thabo Mbeki had to go, and they eventually recalled him in what was widely regarded – across the Continent and the world – as a deep humiliation. Indeed, his departure speech, which was televised to the nation, although dignified, betrayed a deep hurt at the way in which he had been treated. He was proud, educated and highly literate leader who was booted out of office despite having served the ANC for 50 odd years of his life at that time. Yet the ANC NEC insisted that it would work against the ANC and the country’s interests to maintain “two centres of power”.

All that appears to have been forgotten now that Cyril Ramaphosa has been elected president of the ANC while the embattled, lame duck president Jacob Zuma still holds high office. Indeed, it has been a lesson in political spin to watch ANC leaders find creative ways of explaining to the public why the same treatment shouldn’t be dealt out to Jacob Zuma. The most bizarre explanation is that they are trying to find a way of ensuring his exit without humiliating him. The irony of this is that President Jacob Zuma has proved largely immune to any form of humiliation; his presidency has been deeply controversial. He is accused of corruption[1], involvement in “state capture”[2] as well as violating his oath of office[3]. The reality is overwhelmingly converse; Jacob Zuma’s presidency has humiliated the ANC and him and his cronies should have unceremoniously been shown the door a long time ago.

The media and political commentators have been quick to identify the “two centres of power” contradiction that the ANC now finds itself in. It has taken a particularly cynical joy in drawing ANC politicians out and challenging them for their duplicity. It’s all a bit of a song and dance, a predictable routine that the media go through with the ANC leadership; baiting them into difficult corners and watching them weasel themselves out of them.

The Less Obvious Contradiction

Yet this blatant duplicity is not the strangest phenomenon emerging in the South African political realm. Indeed, there is a much deeper and more disturbing pattern emerging, one that reveals a particularly undesirable continuity between the presidency of Jacob Zuma and that of his successor Cyril Ramaphosa. In my estimation it is a deep problem, one which warrants attention. I won’t pretend to understand exactly why it exists, so I will simply diagnose it and guard against the dangers of it.

When Cyril Ramaphosa was elected ANC president recently in December of 2017 many South Africans, loyal ANC members and stalwarts, private sector actors and the intelligentsia celebrated it enthusiastically. Confidence in the ANC, which had been at an all-time low, began to surge again. Cyril Ramaphosa is widely being touted as the person who will save the ANC and turn it around. There are very many reasons why this is debatable, but nonetheless, South Africans – who have been living with political and economic uncertainty, and a president who has roundly embarrassed and humiliated them – desperately needed cause for hope.

Cyril Ramaphosa’s election to the presidency of the ANC has undoubtedly provided that hope. Many in the public and private sector have rallied around him, and he has received endorsements from many commentators, ANC leaders and stalwarts, as well as private sector moguls and big-shots. Yet although this booming hope in Cyril Ramaphosa’s abilities are not without merit, the truth is that he faces an extremely difficult challenge. The ANC NEC and the top six are still divided – almost fifty-fifty – between his slate and that which supported Jacob Zuma’s candidate (i.e. his ex-wife Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma). The forces of internal factionalism within the ANC are still playing out, and he has a very tough challenge on his hands (indeed, some view them as near insurmountable).

The internal friction between camps is playing out in spectacular fashion now that Ramaphosa has been elected president. After years of inaction the National Prosecution Authority (NPA) has sprung into action and appears to finally be acting on corruption matters that it has long ignored. The NPA sunk so low as to allow itself to be used as a political pawn to harass and intimidate Jacob Zuma’s detractors and accusers. The bogus cases against the South African Revenue Services (SARS) “rogue unit” (a special investigation unit that looks into financial crimes at the highest level) and the ex-Minister of Finance and ex head of SARS Pravin Gordhan are cases in point. There were many others as well, too many to go into here.

Now, suddenly, it appears as though the NPA is ready and in position to take action against those who have been widely accused , even by the ex-Public Protector, of being engaged in “state capture” (i.e. influencing and rigging state tenders and deals for the gain of a network of politically connected private sector actors). Headlines have rung out with huge muster and bluster that those engaged in corruption will now face the music and have to answer the charges against them.

And the strangest thing of all is that Cyril Ramaphosa is being enthusiastically credited with the new surge to ensure accountability in the political realm and private sector in South Africa. “Cyril is making things happen!” his supporters gleefully exclaim. It is indeed more than strange, particularly because agencies such as the NPA and the Public Protector’s Office are supposed to act “without fear, favour or prejudice” and service the constitution. As such they are not supposed to be unduly influenced by any political leader or government in their decision-making.

Indeed, in the case of the Public Protector’s Office, it is a Chapter 9 institution. The first and foremost responsibility of Chapter 9 institutions is to the constitution and the public of South Africa. They are subject only to the Constitution and the law, and answer to the National Assembly, not the President. In the case of the NPA its mission is similarly defined, although it is not a Chapter 9 institution, that is;

“Guided by the Constitution, we in the National Prosecuting Authority ensure justice for the victims of crime by prosecuting without fear, favour and prejudice and by working with our partners and the public to solve and prevent crime.”

The fact that Cyril Ramaphosa’s election to the presidency of the ANC is being credited with these recent but long-overdue actions is truly bizarre. The fact is that they should have been doing their jobs all along, as they are sworn to do. Who is in power should not matter at all! Indeed, it is deeply worrying, because all it means is that should we – for whatever reason – end up with a new leader who exerts undue influence on them to delay or ignore certain cases, it is highly likely that they will yet again be placed on the back-burner or even scrapped entirely. In short, we should not be celebrating the idea that it is Cyril Ramaphosa’s influence that has enabled them to take actions that should be taken without fear or favour in any event.

Celebrating Ramaphosa as an agent of change within the ANC, and possibly within government, is one thing. Celebrating him as an agent of change in respect of constitutionally independent functions of the state is quite another! We should not be celebrating these recent developments uncritically as it means that instead of bringing about systemic changes in the way our state functions – especially those functions and powers that are independent of government – we are merely feeding into the same destructive “follow the leader” phenomenon that landed the ANC and the country in this mess in the first place.

The Importance of Systemic Change

In the clear light of day, the entire state cannot be regarded as “all the president’s men”. The ANC perhaps can play ‘follow the leader’ as much as it desires, but certainly not the state in its entirety. Separation of powers has – in reality – proved to be the last resort for those who sought to ensure that justice is served in respect of government and private sector corruption (and especially that where the president and his network of operators are concerned). It is the courts, leading all the way up to the Constitutional Court, that opposition parties and civil society groups have had to go to in order to ensure that justice is served and that constitutionality is upheld. It is the Public Protector’s Office – under its previous leader Thuli Madonsela – who fearlessly spoke truth to power and held the powerful to account as equals before the law.

The valorisation of leaders in South Africa – and on the continent as a whole – is one of the largest obstacles to actualising true democracy. Yet it is a difficult mind-set to shake. Indeed, even the ANC’s mantra that “no single person is above the ANC” went out the window in the case of Jacob Zuma. And now, some of us are celebrating Ramaphosa’s ability to wheel and deal and manipulate matters of state behind the scenes (allegedly, I should add). This is antidemocratic in its essence. When constitutionality is sacrificed for ‘political pragmatism’ and ‘realpolitik’ in this manner, we open the door to the forces that undermine constitutionality and democratic process. In order to hold power to account, we cannot – and should not – elevate our leaders above the law and the constitution.

There are those, some masquerading as “saviours of our democracy”, who would sacrifice principle and constitutionality to ‘hold those who threaten the integrity of state’ to account. This kind of change is ridiculously shallow and difficult to sustain. What we need is deep-rooted systemic and structural change that helps ensure that the processes by which the state is run and governed can effectively mitigate abuse of power. We are a relatively young democracy. As such we have to interrogate the system we have and make changes that can improve it over time. Superficial change that is merely the product of a change of leadership is hardly the route to a resilient democratic state that – along with an active citizenry – can self-organise and self-regulate power on its own terms, independent of this or that leader or leadership.

This should not be difficult to understand. The long struggle against the authoritarian Apartheid state was precisely geared towards empowering the people and the state to hold power to account. All that has become blurred now, and our focus is on larger-than-life leaders and their particular qualities. The era of new populism that has taken hold across the world has elevated “the big man” instead of levelling the scales between those in power and those who elect them. While it is easy to understand the enthusiasm behind the notion that “Cyril is getting things moving now”, it is an enthusiasm that loses sight of the basis of our democracy and the long hard-fought struggle to actualise it.

If we are serious about making lasting political changes that can strengthen our democracy we need to go beyond quick fixes and dig deep into the systems that reproduce the conditions for those who would abuse power to do so willy-nilly and get away with it. We need to interrogate the bureaucracies and the processes and principles by which they function, and make the changes that are necessary to ensure that good governance is ensured – and where failures occur, that they are quickly corrected.

Accountability, transparency, sound principles and rule of law cannot ever be replaced by the election of a benevolent leader, no matter how good or trustworthy that leader is. The real test of a democratic state is how well it is able to cope with a variety of potential leaders, good or bad, and ensure that all types are held to account when it becomes necessary. That, more than anything else, should remain front and centre of our efforts to build a real, lasting democracy. But we’re all too busy celebrating the first mile of the marathon without pause for thought that there are many more to go.

The danger in allowing our polis to evolve in this piecemeal, superficial fashion is that the effectiveness of the state will vary, and remain dependent on whether good and bad leader and leaderships are in power. Having never bothered to address the fundamental structural and systemic factors that reproduce undesirable leaders and leaderships we are bound to relive them and suffer their main effects. That is, keeping us in the doldrums of progress towards real democracy, as has been the case with much of the rest of the continent.

[1][1] i.e. 783 charges in the arms deal of the early 2000s
[2] i.e. a facilitator of “state capture” by private business interests to whom his son is intimately linked
[3] As per the Constitutional Court judgement on his handling of the Public Protector’s findings on illegal upgrading to his rural homestead, Nkandla.

Friday, 26 January 2018

Obsessing Over Day Zero

"Merely thinking about what the world wants gets you nowhere: you have to think about what the world ought to want, and just doesn’t know yet that it can’t live without."
Theodore Gray 

After three years of drought, Cape Town’s taps are set to run dry within the next few months. “Day zero”, as it has been termed, is ostensibly approaching unless some kind of “miracle” occurs. It is with great curiosity that I have been observing the prevailing obsession with “day zero”, which has quickly become the centre-piece of social media, news media and social conversations.  The only other topic that is receiving as much airtime is the ‘who is to blame?’ brigade, that has gradually grown in chorus as middle class outrage has grown.

Cape Town’s middle classes are used to living in a relatively well-run city, and apart from electrical blackouts and load-shedding that occurred years ago, and the avalanche of summer fires that spark up every summer, there has been little that directly affects their lives in a debilitating way. Of course, the same is not true for the poor and working classes, who struggle with service delivery, affordability and access to infrastructures. The lives of those living in informal and semi-informal settlements are undoubtedly worlds apart from their middle class counterparts; temporary outdoor sanitation, shared water standpipes, illegal electricity connections, shack-fires and un-managed waste, pollution and drainage plague their daily lives. You won’t hear much about that however. Instead, as journalist Chris Bateman put it (somewhat hyperbolically),

“The indigent, who’ve always collected water from communal taps – might finally have something we don’t – running water”.

Yet while the plight of the poor evokes sympathy from the middle classes, it rarely evokes the same levels of outrage that have unfolded at the imaginary of day zero as it quickly approaches. Images of Armageddon scale end-of-days disaster scenarios unfolding are heatedly aired and rapidly amplified on social media. Everything will grind to a halt, we are told. The city’s economy will implode. Do we know what we are in for?

Well prepare for long-queues of outraged residents jostling, fighting and spitting bile, an unholy urban mess requiring martial law style intervention by the military to contain. Prepare for the death of tourism, agriculture, industry, schooling and the closure of all official local government offices and businesses. Prepare for serious damage that will be done to bulk water infrastructures as water pressure and regular supply are denied, destabilising infrastructure due to irregular flows passing through the system (this concern is entirely valid and foreseeable).

Cape Town’s middle classes, who are typically unschooled and inexperienced in undertaking efforts that necessitate collective action are falling over themselves, spluttering with prescient rage  at the denial of their ‘basic human rights’. There is even a petition to the United Nations that has done the rounds on social media; a truly ironic and self-centred undertaking given the patent invisibility of the plight of the poor and marginal in the city. In a spectacular act of real-time revisionism of history in the making, we are reminded, more than anything, of the particular middle class predisposition to render themselves ‘more equal than others’. First among equals so to speak.

In my daydreams I picture the middle classes rising up, appropriating Ses'khona’s “poo-protests” and laying waste to City Government buildings with mountains of portaloo poo that has gone uncollected for too long. Perhaps the DA will move Herman Mashaba down to run Cape Town in the wake of Mayor Patricia de Lille’s soon-to-be departure. Anything’s possible it seems, when a city runs out of water.

I am labouring the point, but it is particularly bizarre to observe how the discourse over day zero has emerged. Day zero is being treated as an end-point, an insurmountable eventuality that will cripple all the key functions of life, work and service provision in the city.

The reality, however, is that this drought has been three years in the making, and for many years now, those who understand that the climate is changing, and that the Western half of the country is steadily drying, have been making the case for adaptation. For over a decade many of us have been actively engaged in educating and informing leaders, policy-makers and planners that there is a pressing need to begin preparing for water-scarcity conditions to unfold in the city (i.e. whether they occur gradually or abruptly). The need to adapt to the new reality has been made abundantly clear, not just to those in power, but also to the very same middle class citizenry who now appear to be caught totally unawares in the cross-fire of the impacts of a severe, long-term drought.

The issue that should be provoking outrage is the slow progress of efforts towards adaptation. We know what is happening with the climate in the Western Cape. Why have we been so slow to prepare for it? And yes, the bulk of the blame should be going towards local and provincial government for their lack of preparation and their inadequate communication and planning for adaptation. However, middle class ignorance must also be taken to task in this respect, as an active, educated citizenry who are themselves pushing for adaptation and embracing behavioural change would go a long way towards speeding up the transition to a more water resilient city and province. This is a fact, it is not speculative. We’ve been slow to act and we’re paying the price.

I for one am glad that day zero has sparked up the fears and imaginations of the city’s middle class residents (as well as businesses and industries they own and/or work in). This is simply because the greatest difference in potable water consumption and sanitation can be made through their actions and forward-looking investment in water efficiency measures. It is they who – with the support of local and provincial government – can make the largest difference in ensuring the long-term sustainability and resilience of the city and provinces water supply. Yes it is true that industry and agriculture are the largest consumers of water overall, but there is a lot that can be done simply by adapting middle class households and residential properties, as well as businesses, to the realities of water scarcity.

If day zero is the tipping point that will help catalyse this transition then it would have served a good purpose. However, if it turns out that day zero comes and goes within a month or two - and private sector water providers spring up and take the gap (which is a high likelihood) - then it is likely that all the hype around it would have proven largely ineffective, as the middle class citizenry return to ‘business as usual’ yielding little long-term behavioural, infrastructural and systemic changes to speak of. It would all have merely been another storm in a teacup and it might even result in a push-back and distrust of ‘disaster narratives’ that emerge in the future. The upshot of ‘crying wolf’ may be an even more disengaged and apathetic citizenry, who have many other pressing concerns in their daily lives to attend to.

We have the attention of the broader citizenry right now. It is worth making strategic and visionary use of it to seed and catalyse the transition to a new understanding of climate change, resource scarcity and the need for adaptation in the city and province. It is worth capitalising on the attention that is being drawn to the issue to stimulate broader engagement and involvement of the citizenry, business, industry and agriculture in the processes of planning and development in the city and province.

This is a key moment for the city. It can unlock a wholly new, constructive trajectory for the city and its residents. It is an opportunity to increase mutual understanding and dialogue, and forge unity in the citizenry and the various sectors of society in the Western Cape. We can begin learning how to work together, and to actively take control of the processes of preparing for the future. We can become more engaged and socially cohesive at the local level, and learn to work together to safeguard our communities and work-places from the eventualities of the 21st Century. Ultimately, we can strengthen local democratic practises through this crisis.

The problem with how the day zero narrative has been unfolding is that it has been bereft of stabilising, visionary leadership. Rather, the city and province miscommunicated the extent of the crisis for a few years in the run-up to day zero in order not to ‘panic’ the citizenry and the various sectors of the economy. Moreover, there were some industry and business actors who simply refused to believe local government’s projections, relying instead on their own internal experts who made false assumptions and made incorrect calculations as a result. I recently spoke to a senior official in government who was exasperated at having to wade through bogus calculations and correct them. There are even industry players that decided to escalate production, in a ‘tragedy of the commons’ styled set of logics. There is little doubt that strong, concerted leadership could have diminished these challenges and helped to forge a broader consensus on how to mitigate water scarcity.

While the proverbial glass may not be half-full in reality, it is worth considering what can be gained through this crisis. It may well not last much longer, but it will undoubtedly revisit us because we live in a province that is extremely sensitive to climate change impacts. 

The Western Cape Premier’s Helen Zille’s very latest piece was all scare tactics and alarmist bluster, sounding the alarm about the great emergency that has descended upon the city as if we didn’t know it was coming for ages. It was absolute guff, and for more reasons than I can deal with here! The fact is that these ‘crises’ and ‘anarchy is on the horizon’ narratives are part of the problem. Calm down, plan and do your job. Moreover, do what you should have been doing ages ago when you learned that climate change would ultimately impact the Western Cape severely, even if there wasn’t a clear idea of when exactly each crisis would take place. It is not only disingenuous; it is blatant lies to suggest that this crisis somehow ‘crept up’ on officials (as she puts it “Suddenly, after months of coaxing”). The truth is that there have been very many studies and documents that have warned of the eventuality of drought and water scarcity in the Western Cape. And all this has been written about and communicated many years ago when Helen Zille herself was Mayor of Cape Town.

Yet for all the 'coaxing' (and now the turn towards punitive measures), the average citizen has precious little at their disposal to meet the city’s new 50 litres per person per day limit (i.e. now reduced from 87 litres), simply because the tools to monitor, adapt and limit usage have not been put in place. Indeed, how does an average citizen actually know how much water they are using, and simply at the household level at that? Many are already making courageous efforts to save water, but what enables them to know how much they are using? How much does a dishwasher use? How much does a washing machine use? How much water does a shower or a bath use up? What about cooking, making tea and coffee? How do you calculate your usage; does it include the flushes at work, or the teas and coffees you purchase. How much double accounting is going on? How much is being left out that should be counted? Is there an app that one can use to get an estimate at the very least? If these tools exist, why are they not widely publicised?

Placing the blame on a confused citizenry that has been misled about the real nature of this crisis in the run-up to the crunch point is – simply put – ridiculously poor leadership. It appears that even when we are deep in substantive crisis, our politicians are more likely to think about how it affects their votes, and as befits them, put their effort into scripting a narrative that conveniently casts them in heroic terms. The average citizen should, at this point, feel fully justified in telling them to take a hike. They screwed it up; they should rather be honest about it, humbly beg forgiveness and get on with the job of fixing things. And to be sure, the fixes need to be constituted of more than just short-term disaster risk management planning and implementation; it needs to be constituted of a clear set of actions that will help build resilience of the city and province into the long term.

Failure to take actions, implement plans and put the tools in place to reduce water usage, have more accurate monitoring and evaluation, and significantly transition our bulk and local water infrastructures to high-efficiency recycling and reuse will – in short – be a charade of leadership designed to cope with short-term crises and not addressing long term systemic vulnerability. This failure would essentially mean that while the middle classes invest in boosting their resilience (and as private sector water services expand), the real crisis that is building – where the poor and marginal are increasingly squeezed by higher tariffs and service delivery failures, ultimately leading to outbreaks of disease, deaths and unconscionable and inhuman living conditions – will largely remain unaddressed. In the end, a lack of long-term planning may mean that “let them drink wine!” might well end up being the only recourse the middle class takes in respect of the poor and marginal in this city, as has been the historical tradition in the Western Cape. 

P.S. After posting this blog on 26/1/2018 the City of Cape Town has put out a guideline to how to achieve 50 litres per person per day in the form of the infographic below. Better late than never they say, but this piece argues otherwise ... nonetheless, please share it widely, even if you're not in Cape Town!

Saturday, 13 January 2018

On Practice: Ritual and its Benefits

In August 1996 the Dalai Lama visited South Africa. I was twenty-two years old at the time, studying for my honours in physics. When I heard that he would be speaking at a local university – then called the University of Durban-Westville – I knew I couldn’t miss it. Buddhism had intrigued me since the age of 14, and I felt compelled to hear him speak first hand. It was, as it turned out, an opportunity of a lifetime; one that has never happened again.

The lecture hall was packed to the rafters. He entered, dressed in maroon and yellow robes, accompanied by a small entourage of monks and organisers. He looked healthy, his skin shone, and when he spoke we were all captivated. He was very pragmatic in his speech, and nothing he spoke of seemed far-fetched or esoteric. His magnetism was undeniable; one could sense his clarity and essential good-heartedness. He laughed easily and possessed a cheerful disposition.

Earlier, the master of ceremonies – a monk – had asked the audience to write down any questions they may have for the Dalai Lama. These would be collected, and some would be selected for the Dalai Lama to answer. I had a burning question; one that I had been contemplating for a relatively long time in my short life. It was a simple question, but I did not know the answer. I wrote it down and sent it along with all the others. The question was,

“What is the role of ritual in religion?”

When the question-and-answer session arrived I listened closely, hoping that my question would be fished out of the lot somewhere along the way, but it was not to be. The question was never asked, and my 21 year younger self didn’t enjoy the good fortune of having his burning question answered by a luminary whose opinion could be trusted and respected.

Yet, all these years later, I am coming to an understanding of what the answer to my years-old question is. And it has surprised me, as it seems the answer was there all along. I just didn’t have the lived experience to discern it. The answer, it appears, lies in understanding the nature of practice. It is an ironic discovery, as it is in my nature to take to disciplined practice with relish. When I enjoy something, and get drawn into it, practice comes without much effort. When I establish a routine it generally sticks. I may waver from it occasionally, but I inevitably return to it.

I have practiced martial arts since I was a child. I’ve always loved it. I enjoy the movement, the strengthening of spirit, and the clarity of mind I acquire through practicing martial arts. I’ve changed what and how I practice, moving from Karate in my early years, to full contact Kung Fu for the majority of my teens and early twenties, to boxing, to Tai Chi and Chi Gung in my later years.

About twelve years ago I began running long distances. I was never a good long distance runner, but after I began to understand it better I became hooked. I still run, and although I vary the distances I run, I still run pretty regularly. Between 2005 and 2010 I threw myself into Tai Chi and Chi Gung training, but I have to admit that I found it very challenging. I had to undo a lot of the external martial arts training that I had worked so hard over the years to programme into my neural system and psychology.

Tai Chi, in particular, required a sensitivity that just did not exist in the hard martial arts realm in which I had been trained. It went against all my previous training; in Tai Chi one had to engage in push-hands without trying to win ... suspending that will to win proved very difficult for me. I had been trained to think that the psychology of winning was critical for victory in the martial arts. Now I was being asked to let go of that and it proved very difficult for me to get my head around.

To add to this, I discovered, while studying Tai Chi, that despite my ability to generate powerful and speedy strikes, with both my hands and legs – both of which I thought required extremely good balance – that my understanding of balance and movement in Tai Chi was that of a novice. I felt hopelessly ill-equipped; and I could tell that my master could sense how much I was straining to find the movements and perform them effortlessly, so that they flowed from me.

I fared better at Chi Gung, and I could feel that I took to it more naturally. I had not had any previous experience of being trained at meditation, so I embraced it without any preconceptions. As a result, my Chi Gung training proceeded a lot better than my Tai Chi training. I felt the benefits of both, although I have to admit that I felt a bit inadequate in my Tai Chi training; as though I would never really understand it properly.

After five years of training I quit classes to focus on completing my PhD studies. I continued with my Chi Gung meditations at home, but my Tai Chi training was on and off. I would train every now and again, usually over holidays, to remind myself of the Tai Chi short form, and would abandon it for long periods. Nonetheless, I would return to it occasionally; something about the practice of it had made it a part of me.

My master was – and is – an exceptional individual. He is the only true martial arts master (i.e. in all senses of the word) that I have had the pleasure of training under. He would tell us not to worry about how good or bad we were; but just to keep training. One day, if we were lucky, all the training would sink in. One day if we trained hard enough the “chi” would “come”. It can take 10 or 15 years, he would tell us. He was asking us to put our faith in practice; that mastering Tai Chi was a matter of doing, not of thinking or understanding.

My uncle is a jazz musician. Since I was young he would compare my martial arts training to that of a musician’s. “You have to practice your chops,” he would say. You learn one move – or chord – then you learn another, you practice them over and over, then you string them together – practice that over and over – and what emerges is a song. Harmony is not just a matter of chance; it is a matter of practice.

My grandfather turned 90 recently. He has been a South Indian classical musician since he was a teenager. His instrument is the clarinet. About a decade ago I bumped into him by chance at an airport. He had just returned from a trip to Australia to visit my uncle. We had an amazing conversation. He told me that after many decades of playing the clarinet his playing had gone to a new level. I cannot do justice to what he was describing; but he was essentially saying that he could now move fluidly between the masculine and the feminine; that there was a continuity and harmony between the voices he played – alto and soprano – that he had now mastered after many years of playing.

This conversation with my grandfather gave me the strength to continue writing; at the time I was writing a lot but I was struggling to break through a find my own voice as a writer. This chat with my grandfather was, in retrospect, an early indication of the value of practice. That devoting oneself to practice is the key to unlocking one’s own voice.     

It is only recently however, that I’ve come to a new understanding of the value of practice, and how intimately tied practice is to ritual. Indeed, practice – in order to be regular – becomes ritualised to some degree. Whether I think of long-distance running, martial arts, music, art or writing, regular practice becomes ritualistic in nature. Ritualising an activity makes its practice more entrenched, a part of everyday life; you begin to live with your practice instead of trying to figure it out.

In June last year I suffered a terrible shock. A long-term work relationship that I had thought was beyond question became very questionable very quickly, and it became very clear to me that I was not valued in the manner I thought I was. Accepting this was difficult. Letting go was even harder. My anxieties arose and I automatically began to train Tai Chi every morning. It helped a great deal. It lifted my spirits and gave me a sense of clarity. It strengthened my spirit. I needed no further justification to engage in regular practice; every morning I awoke and after a cup of tea or coffee, I would immerse myself in the Tai Chi short form.

My Tai Chi practice became a ritual. The more I practiced the more I reaped its benefits. For the first time in my training I began to feel rooted and my movements became effortless. Each movement emerged of its own accord. There was no forcing it. One movement flowed into the next without effort. There was a natural line of movement that the body takes through the form that I had not been able to find for years. Now – seemingly all of a sudden – I had found that line and it made all the difference. No matter how I felt before training, after thirty minutes of training I would begin to feel the natural flow of the movements of the form. After training my body felt released from all the middle-aged aches and pains it carries, my body felt light and my mind was calm but focused.

The act of ritualising my Tai Chi practice transferred into my other daily activities. Everything from the way I cooked, to the way I worked and drove around the city changed. Daily practice of this kind allowed for an awareness to emerge; one that enabled me to navigate the anxiety and uncertainty of change in a manner that I had been unable to before. Whenever I felt the walls closing in or my thoughts running astray I immersed myself in the ritual of Tai Chi practice and emerged level headed, released from reliving the senseless chatter of the mind.

So I’m finally beginning to understand why so many religions embrace ritual. I wasn’t able to understand it before because I was focused on the symbolic acts of ritual and their meaning, and not what their practice entailed. I thought ritual was just mind-numbing, symbolic devotional routine. I failed to understand that ritual entrenches practice. It is about doing; embedding oneself in practice and not philosophising about it. Ritualising activities takes one deeper into practice and yields a deeper awareness. This enables meaning to emerge from practice; meaning that goes far beyond the symbolism of ritual. Rather, meaning emerges from devotion to practice, taking the form of a new awareness; a way of being in and with the world that is not a product of the agitated mental gymnastics of philosophical introspection but a product of letting go of thought and immersing oneself in doing.