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.

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

The Politics of Short-Term Gratification: All Eyes on the ANC!

More Hype, Less Media!

Media, media everywhere, and not a thought in sight!

The ANC is firmly back in the spotlight, commanding centre-stage as the most important act on the South African political stage today, whether for the right or wrong reasons. However, much like the eclectic US President Trump, it is working to the ANC’s advantage. The extent of media coverage that the ANC is currently receiving effectively blocks out other political actors and groups and reinforces the notion that the ANC alone is the sole political force through which South African politics and economics is brokered. Indeed, this is what ANC spokespersons tell us all the time. It is what they would like us to believe.

It is hence thoroughly in the ANC’s interest to continue occupying the media spotlight, and with the next national election due for April 2019, keeping the focus on the internal dynamics of the ANC – however tumultuous and dramatic – will likely serve to reinforce the idea that the ANC alone is the key political force in South Africa and that votes for opposition parties are essentially wasted on the vain hope that power will change hands one day. Opposition votes will continue to be viewed as symbolic expressions of disillusionment with the ANC rather than what they are becoming, that is; a growing force that is increasingly able to effect political change at the highest levels in the country (albeit through coalitions).

In this sense, the media itself has fallen hook, line and sinker for the ANC’s crude gambit. In their exuberant attempts to secure ratings through continuous live coverage and play the role of 'watchdog' they have effectively granted the ANC the kind of media primacy that US President Donald Trump enjoys. Secrecy, controversy and intrigue can work wonders on an unsuspecting and ill-informed public, and it is the media’s job to remain critical – not just of its targets – but also its own coverage. It is incumbent on the media to have a sense for what impact its coverage ultimately has. There is a point at which continuous, repetitive and unenlightened coverage – replete with long, hypothetical discussions based on gossip and hearsay – begins to resemble mere hype rather than cogent political opinion and analysis. 

December 2017 ANC Conference: Turning Point or More of the Same?

In December 2017 the ANC’s internal party presidential, top-six leadership and National Executive Committee elections were held at the 54th National Conference of the ANC. The dynamics that played out put the ANC squarely back in the public spotlight, as the country hankered after news that trickled out from the conference. The media were denied full access to the conference, and kept separated from delegates by a fortress of temporary fencing. This lack of access worked wonders, as intrigue, speculation, debate and titbits of gossip dominated the media panels that sought to provide all-hours coverage of the event. 

Dramatic changes unfolded with the changing of the guard, with the Deputy President of the country – Cyril Ramaphosa – emerging victorious as the new ANC President. Yet the drama was not because sweeping changes came about in the leadership composition, but rather that the two competing slates were so close, yielding an almost equal mix of each in the final results. These results mean that the ANC is likely continue limping along as a divided house, with internal conflicts and Machiavellian skulduggery dominating its politics.

Embattled, outgoing ANC president (and President of South Africa), Jacob Zuma, supported the slate headed by his ex-wife Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma. The opposition slate was headed by Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, the current Deputy President of South Africa.

The core campaign message behind Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s campaign was that the ANC and the country were long overdue for a female president, and she enjoyed strong support from both the ANC Women’s League and the ‘Zuma faction’ as it has become known. Detractors of Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma saw her bid as compromised by her ex-husband’s alleged involvement in widespread corruption and “state capture”. In short, her ascendancy to the presidency of the ANC, and soon the country, would ensure that the sitting president is protected from being held to account for his alleged misdeeds.

Cyril Ramaphosa’s main campaign message revolved around saving the ANC from corruption, healing the deep divides (nay, fractures) within it, and revitalising the economy. His detractors point to his great wealth (he is a billionaire) as a compromising factor (he is favoured by the private sector), as well as his involvement in the Marikana massacre, which led to the death of 34 miners who were fired upon by the police (78 were seriously injured). Although he has apologised for his role in the events that led to the massacre, his detractors see it as just a ‘band-aid’ attempt to regain public trust and rise to power. He is nonetheless, widely respected across society, and critically, he commands the respect and trust of the private sector.

Both candidates have paid lip service to the ANC’s new political vision of radical socio-economic transformation, although it is unclear to what extent their proposals are radical in the sense of being deeply rooted in the quest for structural and systemic change. My view is that both candidates would service the status quo while shoring up support (for the 2019 election) through heightened rhetoric rather than radical action. Neither candidate is in any sense truly radical.

Ramaphosa is a former trade unionist who has extensive experience in managing divisions. He was a key in formulating the constitution, and enjoys the faith and respect of the private sector. Dlamini-Zuma was once Minister of Health, represented South Africa faithfully at the UN and more recently was the head of the African Union. Neither candidate would likely have shaken up South African politics and economics to the extent that the rhetoric of "radical socio-economic transformation" would imply.

Cyril Ramaphosa’s election to the presidency of the ANC is no doubt a result of the ANC’s very genuine concerns that its electoral support base is set to decline significantly in the upcoming 2019 elections. They need to stay in power, and to retain a majority; Cyril Ramaphosa was the only candidate that could effectively ‘guarantee’ these outcomes.

Yet, with a middle-of-the-road presidential candidate, a split-slate top-six leadership and NEC, more of the same is likely to unfold. So why all the attention, and to what end?

The Dangers of Continuous, Unfettered Coverage

The problem is that the ANC’s internal politics are largely becoming more important than the democratic, constitutional parliamentary processes through which political change should be administered in South Africa. Instead, parliamentary actions are increasingly fought through the courts, and the ANC’s internal politics, processes and interests take precedence over that of government.

All eyes remain fixed on the ANC and opposition parties and other political actors – such as civil society organisations and foundations – appear to be a secondary feature of the political realm. They are hardly receiving any media coverage at present, and when they do it is as though they are an afterthought or sideshow to the ANC’s publicly unfolding political soap opera. Both the fiery Economic Freedom Fighters and the litigious Democratic Party appear to have receded into the background as the ANC’s internal processes have taken centre-stage in the public eye. This is damaging – in my view – for many reasons.

Firstly, instead of the embattled, split ANC being held to account for its refusal to act upon corruption and constitutional violations by the president over the past 8 years, it is now being viewed as the great hope for renewal of the South African polity. All reasonable indications are, however, that the ANC’s infighting, lack of accountability and poor transparency is set to deepen and that the internal splits within the ANC will continue to render it effectively dysfunctional as a governing party. The ANC is being rewarded, instead of penalised, for failing the South African people.

Moreover, the relevance and importance of opposition parties and opposition politics is being diminished. They are simply becoming increasingly viewed as secondary to the ANC’s internal politics and processes. This, in effect, renders parliament and constitutional processes secondary. The ANC as a political party has effectively usurped its role. And it has unfolded with precious little critique of this ‘switch’ from political analysts and commentators. With the exception of very few analysts (e.g. Angelo Fick comes to mind, as his analysis always links back to constitutionality and parliamentary process) the majority have uncritically reinforced the notion that the ANC’s internal politics are paramount.

The narrative typically unfolds in the following manner, that change can "only be administered from within the ANC" and that one has to "look to the ANC’s internal processes and political dynamics" to understand what is transpiring in South African politics (e.g. with respect to recalling Jacob Zuma and countering government corruption). Analysts relish in having inside information from within the ranks of the ANC as to what is transpiring at any given moment in time. They hang on every word that comes out of the ANC leadership, interpreting and reinterpreting their utterances ad-nauseam. It is as if only the ANC exists in the South African political spectrum. Everyone else is irrelevant.

It smacks of the same empty celebrations that accompanied Zanu-PF’s recent removal of its long-term president Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, in what was effectively a palace coup. Should the ANC finally take long overdue action to remove President Jacob Zuma it would effectively amount to the same thing; that it took a palace coup within the ANC to remove a president that was found by the constitutional court to have violated his oath of office, a president who is widely implicated in a network of unscrupulous business and political operators who have engaged in corruption on a grand scale, and a president who the courts have ordered should answer for 783 charges of corruption brought against him for his alleged wrongdoings in the now-infamous arms deal of the early 2000s.

When celebrating political action, it is important to understand what one is celebrating. In my view, the celebrations that are unfolding in South Africa early in 2018 are premature and misleading. We are not celebrating true democratic action and transparent, responsible governance. Instead, we are celebrating the desperate actions of a deeply compromised majority ruling party that – until now – was facing the prospect of severe losses in the upcoming national elections in 2019.

We are also celebrating the irrelevance of opposition party and civil society politics and ignoring the massive efforts they have made to shift the ANC onto a more responsible political trajectory. The ANC are not our saviours. They have not self-corrected, despite having had many opportunities to do so. They have merely changed tact in order to ensure their own survival. We would be fools to believe otherwise; the proverbial proof of change must surely lie in real, meaningful actions to effect change and not in symbolic transfers of power.

The upshot of all of this is that the ANC is back in the spotlight and is being presented by the media (albeit unwittingly or uncritically) as the key mover and shaker of South African politics (or as the ANC labels themselves; the "centre of power" in South Africa). It’s every move and utterance is being slavishly amplified through the media, without thought for the displacement of other political actors and groups that have fought tooth and nail to counter-act the effects of the decline of the ANC. The ANC is no doubt celebrating because in the run-up to the 2019 elections they loom so large in the public imagination that it is likely to translate into continued support from the electorate.

Simply put, if the over-riding narrative (or implication) is that the country’s woes can only be fixed from “within the ANC” then voters get the impression that there are no alternatives that they can look to through which they can effect meaningful change. Reinforcing this notion by treating the ANC’s internal politics as all-important and all-powerful in South African politics is short sighted and – in my view – inaccurate.

The ANC is beset by deep internal turmoil and in-fighting. It is no longer the ANC that possessed a coherence that justified its large electoral majority. In a short-term perspective it is true that what transpires within the ANC is bound to have a great impact upon the country, but treating the ANC as though it is the be-all and end-all of South African politics is mistaken. The ANC’s politics and coherence has declined while the opposition has gained ground and is on the ascent. This is not just an empirical fact; it is the objective reality.

The ANC long ago became an unsustainable and untenable alliance of ill-fitting partners; it simply cannot survive in its current form and remain useful to the South African people. Continued unchallenged political power will likely remain useful only to the ANC itself, and the private sector cronies that line up to oil the hinges of the revolving door between politics and business that has become central to the ANC’s administration of its political power.

The Politics of the Short-Term: An Uninformed Public and Political Realm

Today, the ANC’s National Executive Committee (NEC) is convening, yet again, without direct press access. It is a matter of great interest, as President Jacob Zuma’s future will likely be discussed. Rumours that he will step down are already doing the rounds, as they always do in the run-up to these large ANC NEC gatherings. The press has taken the bait. To be fair, coverage of discussions around impeachment that are unfolding in parliament is also being given airtime, but the end result is that it simply juxtaposes ANC internal processes against parliamentary processes. If the ANC NEC decides – in a large majority – to retain Jacob Zuma as President of South Africa it is unlikely that any parliamentary motion for impeachment will be successfully passed.

Yet again the nation is being held hostage to internal ANC processes and dynamics. We are all watching and waiting to see how divided the NEC is over Jacob Zuma’s leadership, and if it could feasibly translate into enough ANC members siding with the opposition to remove Jacob Zuma in an impeachment attempt. If this feels like déjà-vu, it is. We’ve been here before. The question, “where to from here?” has receded into the background of affairs as we all watch and wait to see what the next big announcement will be; glued to screens in anticipation.

This ‘politics in real time’ is, in many ways, killing off the politics of the long-term. That is; the politics that is essential to providing vision, promoting national unity and stimulating public dialogue and debate on matters that are critical to socio-economic well-being and sustainability are taking a back seat to soap opera styled politics a la Trump. Will he be there today, tomorrow, or the next day? Ooh, the anticipation! Cue the next rapid-fire panel discussing speculative hype, replete with constant downward eye glances at their mobile phones so that they can catch the next tasty morsel as it hits the twitter-sphere and WhatsApp groups.

To be sure, there are those who will justify all this by emphasizing that a ‘new way’ is emerging amidst the broader changes that the media are subject to and that they need to remain current. I for one don’t buy it and will continue to cast a wary (at times weary) eye over it all as it unfolds, ad nauseam, into infinity, with no clear end in sight. In this day and age it is becoming increasingly important to separate the signal from the noise, and it appears that all the benefits of technological and online development are merely translating into more noise than signal. And even the media ‘watchdogs’ appear not to be keeping watch on this!

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

The ‘Thief-in-Chief’: Searching for the Roots

Grand Theft Corruption

The narrative is clear. The president of South Africa sits at the centre of a ring of operators – clandestine, criminal and official – that are abusing their power and ruining vital state institutions so that they can enrich themselves without facing any consequences. Circumstantially, it is only logical to conclude that this unsavoury network is linked to the president in one way or another. The overlaps and points of connection are too many and too precise to merely qualify as coincidence. The same characters appear in multiple scandals, and the overlap between them – i.e. being in business together, or being related or connected to each other in one way or another – is undeniable. The network that converges around the president is just too densely interconnected and interdependent to be regarded as coincidentally linked to him.

But this does not mean that direct proof of the President’s guilt (of criminal activities) beyond reasonable doubt has been provided. Perhaps it will in the future, but as yet no clear, undeniable proof of the president’s misdeeds has been made public. Perhaps there is someone, or a few people out there, who could provide damning, incontrovertible evidence of the president’s guilt; evidence of direct involvement beyond any reasonable doubt – a video or audio recording, a full money laundering trail from source to sink, a hidden treasure trove, or any other clear, undeniable offence – but until now all we have are the whistleblowing of good people to rely on.

Those who are party to corruption and really know how deep the rabbit hole goes are keeping mum, making active efforts to thwart attempts to hold the corrupt to account. It appears that numerous active cover-ups have been undertaken to ensure that no such “smoking gun” ever emerges to see the light of day.

In a functional democracy such clear, indisputable proof (i.e. a “smoking gun”) would be unnecessary. The mere suggestion of guilt of corruption of a sitting president would be enough to warrant stepping down in order to protect the integrity of high office. The fact that the constitutional court found that he had violated his oath of office should have been enough. But we live in fraught and conflicted times. Crass, unethical and polarizing (even unconstitutional) leadership is fast becoming normalised, not only within South Africa but in other parts of the world as well.

Yet, as the drip-drip of allegations has turned to a flood of corruption expose’s and scandals, hope that the guilty will be held accountable for their actions has ebbed. South Africans are inundated with bad news. Each event settles only briefly in the collective consciousness of the nation before another wave crashes, pushing each previous event to the peripheries where it dwindles, eventually dissipating into the great ocean of misdeeds. It is no longer a question of whether South Africans believe that corruption on a grand scale is unfolding within its leadership and state institutions. The real question is, “so what?”

The majority of South Africans know very well what it feels like to be stolen from. They have endured wholesale theft for many centuries; a theft that consolidated and entrenched itself under the Apartheid regime. Corrupt government and local officials, abuse of power and institutions, unfair practices, exclusivity and clandestine networks, and myriad other ills have long been resident in South African society. South Africans know full well how the powerful can act with impunity and escape accountability. Elites have run South Africa for a long time, and they are above the law. Whether through the power of being connected or the power of wealth, by being able to out-endure and strangle official processes, they float above the laws and regulations that bind the average citizen.

Corruption at the highest levels in South African society is nothing new. Unholy alliances between government, business and organised crime are a recurring feature of the South African political landscape. It wasn’t long ago that Brett Kebble, the youth league and organised crime figures dealt shock blows to the nation. Members of the ANC youth league acquired shares in gold while Kebble got on with racking up billions of Rands in unpaid taxes, organising hits on foes and non-compliant officials and creating a labyrinth of front companies and other financial mechanisms through which money could be laundered, hidden and channelled to exert power. This has happened before. What has changed in recent times is that; (1) these destructive arrangements have now moved up to occupy the highest levels of power, and (2) a powerful network has escalated the program of extraction from the state.

Exposes, Analyses and Opinions: Big on Narrative, Short on Analysis!

So when the author of the recently released “The President’s Keepers”, Jacques Pauw – a widely renowned and respected long-term political and investigative journalist – states that “South Africans are gatvol ... South Africans have had enough!” one has to ask the question; who exactly is he referring to? If it is truly the case that the majority of South Africans are so fed up with corruption that they have reached their collective limit, then where is the mass public outcry? Where is the broad-based mass action that should follow from having reached such a limit?

The answer to this question is that while South Africans may be fed up with corruption in the halls of power, the reality is that the situation is way more complicated than the reductive narrative of the ‘thief-in-chief’ can adequately portray. Thus far, South Africans have been inundated with highly detailed exposes and scandals, yet there is precious little detailed analysis to accompany it. As a result, there is no clear understanding of why such corruption on a grand scale could so easily become entrenched, and why it was able to escalate so quickly during President Zuma’s second term. Rather, the focus of most investigative journalism accounts and intellectual opinions and analyses has been squarely on how we have arrived at this point.

Post 1994, South Africa was upheld as a symbol of good governance and robust democratic institutions. So what went wrong? What went wrong is that the myth that was central to the construction of South Africa’s new democratic dispensation imploded in dramatic fashion. The latent but ever-resident vulnerabilities of the South African state and society were successfully activated by those who understood the difference between the mythical construction of the new, democratic South Africa and the reality of how it has historically functioned for the majority of those who live within it. Ones propensity to believe this myth depends, in large part, on where one sits in South African society and how deeply one understands the daily, lived experiences of the marginal majority.

There is also no clear understanding of how to reform the institutions of the state, business and politics – and perhaps even our political system – in order put in the checks and balances that will prevent such breakdown from occurring again. The assumption that we already have all the right checks and balances, and all that is needed are good, trustworthy leaders, is a deeply flawed one. It should be self-evident that these checks and balances have failed us and are hence likely to again. All it would require is a similar network of unscrupulous power-mongers and greedy feeders to establish and entrench themselves with power and there would be a quick return to an unsavoury ‘business-as-usual’.

There is plenty of historical evidence to suggest that the likelihood of such networks re-establishing or reproducing themselves again over time is high. South Africa has some deep historical flaws; systemic vulnerabilities that were created and maintained over the many hundreds of years over which South Africa was constituted as a nation. These flaws are so entrenched that they are woven into the nation’s DNA, so to speak. They cannot easily be overcome; they will adapt and find ways to make a return.

Historically, we live in a fundamentally corrupt society. When Jacques Pauw states that “the South Africa that Zuma has created has rendered sleazebags blameless, guiltless and even righteous” in the concluding paragraphs of his book he is engaging in a spectacular act of selective amnesia. We have whitewashed evil-doers and exonerated them before in our history, as recently as during the transition to the new dispensation.

This is not to detract from the value of the book Jacques Pauw has written. He does a remarkable job of identifying the parallel intelligence networks that facilitate “state capture” and scripting understandable narratives that put into perspective how different actors and events are linked. However, it is misguided to diagnose our current crisis as a nation purely in terms of the two terms that Zuma has served. The South Africa we are now faced with has not been “created” by Jacob Zuma. It has always been there; his leadership merely brought it to the surface.

It is hence folly to think of our current situation as merely the product of the wayward activities of the ‘thief-in-chief’ and his merry band of plunderers. No matter how attractive, sensationalist and absorbing the myriad exposes of corruption are, we should keep do our best to remain focused on the systemic weaknesses that allow for such a dangerous network to rise to power. To become too easily blinded by the ‘thief-in-chief’ narrative, would be not to see the woods for the trees.

I am arguing that it is not useful or strictly speaking correct to think of the current situation as purely a product of recent history; that it is in fact a product of deeper historical forces that have entrenched themselves and become systemic in South African society and its political realm over a longer period of time. The corruption that we are witnessing today has deep historical roots, roots that reside in the deep state, as well as in broader South African society. To make any analysis of the current situation without acknowledging this history is farcical. There are no quick fixes for the problems we are currently experiencing. Removing the president and all his ‘men’ would only give the nation temporary reprieve; it will not prevent the rot from sinking in again.

As a nation, we cannot out-legislate or out-run this reality. We have to undergo a serious self-analysis. We have to be willing to dig deep into our historical and current realities and identify what systemic traits undermine our best efforts to rise above our history.
Machiavellian Survivalism: A Response to Oppression

I have already dealt with the role of the deep state in a previous piece. The question I am concerned with in this piece is why corruption is – in many ways – regarded as normal in broader South African society? The propensity for Machiavellianism is high in South African society. The capacity for clandestine, illegal and unethical practices is a direct product of oppressive practises and unfair social arrangements that have historically prevailed in South Africa. When the law is illegal or unfair, and when those in power act unjustly, society finds ways around formal systems and establish parallel mechanisms for satisfying – even mundane, daily – needs and desires. Dual realities have hence always prevailed in this nation.

When I was growing up, our first recourse over theft or conflict was not to report it to the police; it was to work through informal networks – which included criminal elements, friends, family, etc. – to attempt to find resolution to the matter. We all knew who the thieves were in our neighbourhood, and there was a tacit agreement that their activities were to be conducted outside of it. When thefts did occur we consulted with them first about who the likely perpetrator was, and often requested them to attempt to reclaim our property for us as they knew who the likely fences for particular things were (e.g. for jewellery, car radios, televisions, etc.).

It was also well-known and understood that school principals sometimes accepted bribes in order to give a child with wealthy parents a place in their school (in my school these were known as “donations to the library”). Parents paid bribes to get their children into universities. We also knew that obtaining a car license was far easier if you had a driving instructor who was sufficiently connected and could ensure that a bribe was received by the examining officer. You could get a docket to disappear if you were up on charges. You could also find people who were willing to perpetrate ill-deeds on your behalf, or provide you with protection, if you were willing to pay for their ‘services’.

Bribery and corruption at local levels is nothing new in South Africa. It is also nothing new at the highest levels of power. A familiar South African refrain goes something like, “don’t you know how things really work around here?” It is only within a society as fundamentally schizophrenic as ours, where one’s ‘reality’ can prove so fundamentally different from others –  where altruistic naivety can coexist alongside shrewd Machiavellianism – that enlightened values and virtues can be espoused as normative while devious operators play puppet-master behind the scenes.

That our country has historically suffered a profound schizophrenia of parallel lived realities is indisputable. Is it any wonder that this dual reality has now manifested at the highest levels of power? Indeed, has it not done so before?

To speak of a ‘shadow government’ without acknowledging that we live in an inherently corrupt, dual society to begin with; replete with parallel systems of justice, trade, employment, service provision and so forth – is disingenuous. What we are currently experiencing is a product of our central condition as a nation. We are a country of parallel realities, and what we are now witnessing is that our demons are surfacing. What has long been resident within South African society, always just beneath the surface, is now rearing its ugly head in dramatic fashion. If we are brave enough to confront this central truth, then perhaps our current “state of capture” may yet be turned into an opportunity for an exorcism.  

There is a particularly privileged class – mostly middle class and suburban – in South Africa who, it would seem, live under the impression that their experience of South Africa[1] is shared by all South Africans. This misconception is a product of living within a reserved and inward bubble, of having very little contact with the majority of South Africans who endure a completely different reality. Spatial and economic segregation reinforces this effect, yet because of their relative privilege and power the middle classes are able to assert their views as though they are normative.

This is not to suggest that the suburban middle classes have no role in repairing our broken politics and society. To the contrary, they have a critical role to play. They can only play a useful and effective role, however, if they are able to stop speaking for the majority of South Africans and start listening to them instead. Instead of going in to poor and low income communities solely with the purpose of mobilising them behind a middle class agenda, it would be truly transformative if they invested the time and patient listening that is required to orient them to the daily struggles of their less privileged fellow South Africans.

The marginal majority endure daily realities of living with poverty, extreme vulnerability to violence and crime, exploitation by corrupt officials, police and councillors, lack of access to services and low social mobility. Violence against women and children is at an all time high in some areas. It is clear that old community structures and regulatory networks and institutions have broken down. We have more civil society organisations than ever before, but they are seldom rooted in communities playing valuable roles in ensuring that every-day grassroots struggles of ordinary people are adequately mitigated.

A Crisis of Representation

There is a crisis of representation in South African society that mirrors the polarisation in power at the highest levels of South Africa. This crisis of representation is a product of social ignorance; a complete misunderstanding of the vastly different realities that South Africans from different backgrounds experience. The middle classes have the majority voice in South Africa, that is, through the media, institutions, organisations and business. Yet they are hopelessly out of touch with the daily lived realities of the majority of poor, low-income communities. Hence their protestations against the ‘thief-in-chief’, while legitimate, comes across as mainly driven by their own self-interest, and not out of genuine concern for the broader citizenry and the welfare of the country. They want things to go back to ‘normal’. The problem is that, that ‘normal’ is not working out so well for everyone.

The middle class also tend to suppress or ignore racial tensions that have emerged within the middle class itself. They talk past each other and not to each other. They are themselves divided and trust across racial boundaries is deficient. There are no quick and easy fixes for the deep dislocations that lie at the heart of South African society. It will require time and effort to build a coherent broad-based coalition that can represent the broader majority of society. When recently asked about the dearth of broad-based civic action in South Africa, trade unionist and struggle stalwart Jay Naidoo replied that it was because, “it is hard work”. This is the central truth that South Africans need to wake up to; that there are no quick fixes for the problems we are currently enduring.

We need a new national dialogue, consensus and vision that all South Africans can get behind in the main. We will never have complete agreement over everything, but there are definitely fundamental objectives that we can agree on and work towards. Our success as a nation – or national project – will depend heavily on how hard we work to build and sustain democratic governance in South Africa; governance that is regulated from the bottom-up. We need to go beyond the ‘winner takes all’ politics that has dominated the post-1994 democratic dispensation and build the cross-race and class linkages from which broader consensus can emerge. Only then can we act coherently as a broader public or polis.

While it is no doubt critical and necessary to expose the wrongdoings of those in power, it should by now be self-evident that ramping up the expose count is unlikely to provide the impetus to provide the sustained momentum that is necessary to stop the rot in South African politics and build towards a better future. A parallel process needs to take root; one that is clearly non-partisan, one that brings people together and can facilitate sincere and beneficial interaction between South Africans from all walks of life. We need to begin building the base for sustained, democratic action within society itself now. Yes, it will require hard work, but it is only through this that the long-term benefits of an active citizenry and a healthy democracy can be achieved, and the ghosts of our past left behind.

[1] That is; of well policed and well run neighbourhoods, good living conditions and privileged access to justice, services, finance and so forth.

Thursday, 26 October 2017

The Politics of Patronage: Rents, Power and Transformation

What is Developmental Neopatrimonialism?

The African political condition has a label. Neopatrimonialism, as it is termed, refers to a system of rule by an individual and/or political party that where loyalty is predicated on the distribution of economic rents to ‘clients’. These are individuals, groups, networks and organisations that are linked in some way or another, that is; through kinship, common purpose or agendas, social networks, and so forth. 

Those in power and those within the patronage networks are informally linked, even though the distribution of rents may occur through the formal bureaucratic systems of the state. Hence, states where neopatrimonialism is prevalent are considered hybrid systems, where formal and informal networks operate to secure power and access to rents and resources. While neopatrimonialism has taken root in many different parts of the world, postcolonial African states are – by and large – regarded as typified by neopatrimonialism.

In classical economics and politics, neopatrimonialism is frowned upon. It is regarded as symptomatic of bad governance, misallocation of resources, maladministration, corruption and other ills that plague dysfunctional states. This is especially the case where Africa is concerned. Debates rage, however, on everything from the developmental utility of neopatrimonialism, to the precise definitions and typologies that the deployment of the term should be restricted to (based on empirical evidence).

As recently as 2011, Tim Kelsall argued[1] that under certain conditions neo-patrimonialism can yield positive economic growth and commensurate developmental outcomes, stating that, “crucial to making neopatrimonialism work for development in Africa has been a system for centralising economic rents and gearing their management to the long term”. Kelsall, cautions, however, that “developmental patrimonialism has a limited shelf life and will not be appropriate everywhere” and stresses that it is not a “’one-size fits all’ solution”.

He list three reasons why. First, that neopatrimonialism seems to work best in the least developed countries where “relatively simple economic structures are more responsive to relationship-based governance”. Second, that it is unlikely to work in all political systems, and that in countries with regular democratic change rent administration will likely be oriented towards short-term outcomes and that centralisation of rents in these cases “would be likely to prove very controversial and damaging”. Third, that the centralisation of rents in countries where a few large “ethnic groups” compete for power would likely prove “exceedingly difficult”.

The view that neopatrimonial developmentalism may yield positive developmental outcomes is regarded as a heterodox economics view (i.e. opposed to classical economics). It is important to acknowledge that developmental neopatrimonialism is, in reality, a diagnosis and not an approach. It is a phenomenon that economists are in the process of understanding, and not a theoretical prescription for how states should function. That is, it is not normative in its orientation. That is the reason why Kelsall cautions so strongly against its use as a prescription beyond strictly bounded conditions.

Neopatrimonialsim: A Prescription for South Africa?

Where South Africa is concerned the deployment of developmental neopatrimonialism as both a diagnostic framework, as well as a prescriptive framework, should be undertaken with great caution. There are many reasons why South Africa cannot be understood or classified in terms of developmental patrimonialism.

It should be self-evident that in the case of South Africa does not meet the criteria for neopatrimonial developmentalism even though traces of neopatrimonialism do inhabit the political and business realms. South Africa is; (1) is relatively highly developed in relation to the rest of Africa (indeed, it is regarded as a transitional economy alongside countries such as Brazil), (2) has strong democratic processes and independent state institutions, and (3) is ethnically, racially diverse and relatively class diverse, and cosmopolitan. These attributes place it outside of the neopatrimonial state that Tim Kelsall writes about.

Yet, there is an emerging current that seeks to justify neopatrimonial developmentalism as a legitimate framework for the transformative agenda that the ANC seeks to achieve. This relies on the assumption that the ANC, with its electoral dominance, may serve as a centralised administrator of rents in service of a transformative agenda, led by a strong, uncompromising leader or leadership.

It is true that the electoral dominance of the African National Congress, which has ruled since the advent of democracy in 1994, may offer some hope of centralised administration of rents into the long term as a developmental strategy for the future. However, given the fragmented and fractured internal politics of the ANC it is a vain hope to imagine that the ANC would continue ruling unchallenged and without significant internal splitting in the medium to long terms. Indeed, open dissent and threats of imminent split from the ANC tripartite alliance are now common, everyday occurrences, with both the Council of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and the South African Communist Party (SACP) expressing daily outrage at the status quo of the ANC’s current leadership. The ANC may have ruled for twenty-two years, but it will not likely rule for as long moving forward.

Moreover, the developmental utility of neopatrimonialism is largely gauged and assessed in economic terms.  The limitations of adopting an economic worldview on what is a profoundly social and political matter must be made clear and reconciled if any kind of neopatrimonial developmental state is to be socially and politically transformative in the true sense i.e. enabling the destabilisation and reconfiguration of inherited hierarchies, power imbalances and structural inequalities that prevail in South Africa.

Should the neopatrimonial developmental state merely reinforce and/or recreate similar hierarchical disparities (i.e. in terms of power, wealth, inequality, access, mobility, etc.) then it remains largely a political ruse that in reality masks a program that reproduces the status quo. And it is clear in South Africa right now that the status quo is untenable. Twenty-two years into the ‘new’ democratic dispensation, social and political fragmentation and national disunity prevail alongside deep political turmoil and uncertainty. The state and polis have become stuck. Concerned politicians are looking outward to society for the solution to the political crisis. They want a revival of 1980’s style rolling mass action to place pressure on the ANC leadership. Thus far, nothing has yielded significant results. The long road, it is evident, has become the priority. Clearing up the mess, however, will likely take a long time.

The ever present danger of a shape-shifting state is an important and critical factor to account for in any conception of South Africa as a neopatrimonial developmental state. South Africa is historically characterised by high levels of structural inequality that delineates along unmistakeably racial lines today. South Africa today still displays its apartheid inheritance in patterns of wealth, poverty, spatial segregation, land and housing ownership, access, mobility and drastic socio-economic inequality.

Indeed, the postcolonial Apartheid state relied on the administration of rents to maintain minority rule, and to maintain economic dominance of the white settler minority. Rents were administered in service of lifting poor whites out of poverty and into stable, relatively middle class livelihoods and incomes. Rents were also administered to create and maintain the Afrikaans private sector. Race-based laws and ideologies were instrumental in ensuring that both the state and the private sector reinforced and reproduced this program of white power. This entrenched structural race-based inequality in South Africa both socially and economically.

While the Apartheid state did not strictly fit the mould of developmental neopatrimonialism, it did administer rents as a transformative socio-political and developmental agenda. It appears as though, the same logic is being applied to actualise the transformative agenda that the ANC seeks to bring about today i.e. ‘radical economic transformation’. Radical economic transformation seeks to create a new black industrial class (i.e. “100 black industrialists”) through administering the R500Bn state procurement budget preferentially to black business. This agenda seeks to take black economic empowerment beyond mere ownership in the financial economy, to full participation in the productive economy of South Africa. 

The agenda to increase black ownership of the productive economy of South Africa is not, in itself, problematic. What is problematic is the notion that this will automatically alleviate the suffering of the majority of poor black people in South Africa; that their lives will be transformed through this agenda. Moreover, it is also problematic to embrace a neopatrimonial model, in which rents are administered through a small power-elite, led by a ‘strongman’ styled ruler. In my view, this perspective is disastrous and anti-democratic. Real radical transformation would strengthen both the political and economic processes through which South African democracy is administered and not treat them as trade-offs.

That is, we would not seek to weaken the political realm in order to strengthen black economic participation. We are being presented with a false binary here. We should be seeking to strengthen both bottom-up, grassroots participation in political decision-making and governance, and boost economic inclusion at the same time. That is what would constitute a truly transformative agenda.

Developmental patrimonialism is a poor diagnostic and prescriptive framework for South Africa. It is a diagnosed phenomenon. It is not visionary, and is not – in any sense – new. It is merely newly diagnosed and appraised. It is, in many ways, a 20th Century framework, one that is an extremely poor normative framework for where we should be headed in the 21st Century. The danger in adopting it as a prescriptive framework – in any measure – is that it may reproduce more of the same while promising a different result.

To get something new, you have to think and act anew. Developmental neopatrimonialism, as a prescriptive framework, is an idea that is hopelessly out of touch with the 21st Century; its movements (i.e. political, technological, social, cultural, etc.) and its potentials. The neglected direction is simply asking; what kind of democracy is desirable and possible in South Africa that can ensure a better future for all who live within it given the potentials afforded by 21st Century developments? It is asking how democracy can evolve to hold power to account, and ensure that power and wealth is more fairly and evenly distributed throughout society.

The means to hold power to account, being active in the space of power, and thereby revitalising the polis are emerging in the 21st Century. Liquid democracy, radical municipalism and other visions for enhanced local power, and inclusive participatory-based developmentalism and governance are some examples. In these new forms of democracy, power is increasingly decentralised and distributed. Developmental and political visions are to be informed and regulated by new forms of grassroots power and not merely acquiescent to the state and elected government. They are attempts at finding the means to overcome the failures of representative democracy and the difficulties of direct democracy. They are attempts to move democracy beyond the status of the “best-worst system” as it is regularly referred to as these days.

It is perhaps worth reminding ourselves that South Africa has one of the most progressive constitutions in the world. In this spirit, it is time to take up a new challenge; that of evolving our democracy into a system that is truly progressive in how it allocates and administers power and decision-making. Democracy in South Africa needs to be closer to the people, and in order for this to become a reality that goes beyond merely holding local Indaba’s and conducting formulating Integrated Development Plans. 21st Century ideas, technologies and systems need to be embraced.

We are increasingly living in a world where new possibilities are emerging and will inevitably impact the norms that prevailed in the 20th Century. True leadership, that is in touch with and acutely aware of the changes that are unfolding in this century and their vast implications, would recognise that need to begin testing and building the mechanisms that will enable democracy to evolve and meet the needs of the 21st Century. While the benefits of neopatrimonial developmentalism are acknowledged as actualisable only under very specific – and limited – conditions, the possibilities that the 21st Century offers to improve democratic processes and practises are many and varied. Surely this warrants closer attention, scrutiny and consideration? We cannot merely consider old prescriptions when facing a fundamentally new future. Surely our innovative and creative capacity should be put to work in service of what the future offers rather than the past.

[1] Kelsall, T. (2011). Developmental Patrimonialism? Rethinking Business and Politics in Africa, Africa Power and Politics, Policy Brief 02, June 2011.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

South Africa: Learning from Failure, Building a New Future!

The recent parliamentary vote of no confidence in the President of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, failed – albeit narrowly – to yield enough votes to remove him from office. Even though 35 ANC members voted for his removal – in a hotly debated secret ballot – in the end it was not enough to shake the proverbial tree. There have been many attempts to remove the President from power, both within Parliament and the ruling party itself, but all have failed. The ANC, in its current form, closes ranks around President Zuma, for better or for worse.

It is perhaps understandable that such a vote would be hotly contested and debated in parliament, and would prove difficult to pass. Parliamentarians number 400 in the South African parliament, and their world is a small but powerful microcosm in the greater scheme of things. It is primarily in the interests of both the ruling party and the opposition for the President to remain in place.  Parliamentarians whose jobs and networked capabilities depend on the President’s patronage, as well as those who depend on the ruling party remaining in power, have all the incentive to fend off efforts to remove him (even though this will likely have deleterious effects on the ANC as a whole). Opposition parties know full well that the President is their greatest asset in their quest to eventually win national power from the ANC.

Yet what has proved more puzzling, especially to the middle class citizenry, is why the public have still not as yet come out in staggering numbers to protest the very many transgressions and failings of President Zuma, his leadership and their extended elite network of power. When the public come out in protest they do not do so in the numbers that can be said to represent an overwhelming majority. So what is it that is preventing the broader citizenry from pushing for much needed change in South Africa? Is it apathy; some combination of discontent and disengagement? Is it race or class difference? Is it that people are too busy with the affairs of everyday life? Is it that they are confused, with no clear signals upon which to act?

Until now, the prevailing assumption has been that when South Africans are presented with clear evidence of wrongdoing, they will be spurred to action. Yet wave after wave of leaked evidence and information of wrongdoing has broken upon the shores of the national conscience only to dissipate into its steep gradient and disappear beneath the sand. What has become clear is that the notion that providing the public with the information and knowledge that they require to be spurred into action is itself flawed. No amount of information, whistleblowers, leaks, expert reports and the like is likely to propel the South African public into action.

To the middle and upper middle classes in particular, there is a deep frustration with the lack of unified protest to what they have come to view as the central challenge facing South Africa right now, that is; a crisis of governance characterised by corruption, maladministration, nepotism and cronyism that all centres on the leadership of the president and his network(s). Yet what they fail to appreciate is that this perspective – even if valid – remains a partial perspective. It does not accurately reflect the concerns of the diverse South African populace as a whole.

If one takes the time to speak to the different groups that constitute South African society it quickly becomes evident that there are deep divisions over what the central South African condition is thought to be, and what remedies the nation should adopt. This, in my view, lies at the heart of the deadlock over the fate of President Zuma. It is a matter of agreement over what the central concerns of the nation are and how to deal with them.

Even though South Africa enjoys a progressive, enlightened constitutional framework, it remains a fraught society in many ways. A cursory mapping of the plethora of issues that dominate the South African political spectrum is – in this respect – instructive. While concerns over corruption, ‘state capture’, and lack of service delivery do cut across race and class in South Africa other issues rise to prominence depending on whom one listens to. Issues such as spatial, social and economic exclusion, deep and entrenched inequality, the slow pace of land reform, high levels of unemployment (especially among the youth), high levels of crime and violence (particularly violence against women, children and immigrants), institutional racism and the need for decolonisation, lack of transparency and accountability, healthcare, education, rising food insecurity, resource crises (e.g. food, water, energy), lack of access to infrastructure and commensurate service provisions,  national disunity and polarisation along race and class lines, and a stagnant economy in which youth face dim future prospects; all appear to feature somewhat differently in the hierarchy of concerns that South Africans construct in their personal spaces and groupings.

Moreover, the fact that each concern that is mentioned in this in-exhaustive list could realistically be regarded as a matter that is of crisis proportions, means that South Africans are not incorrect in their respective diagnoses. They are presumably merely selecting the issues that impact on them, and their immediate communities, the most. The fact that they exclude others in their priorities is simply because they may not feel that they are as immediately impacted by them.

In simpler terms, South Africa is in the midst of what can be characterised as a ‘polycrisis’. There is a relative smorgasbord of crises that proliferate in the different spaces, demographics and groups that constitute the nation. This polycrisis also enables another, more nefarious capacity, that is; it allows for the exploitation of one or more of a matrix of issues, which can be harnessed to spin counter-narratives. Raise one issue and there are simultaneously more than ten other issues that can be raised to counter it, or drown it out, deposing it from its supposed prominence in the hierarchy of critical issues facing the country.

For every allegation, every expose and every scandal there exists a set of potential pivots that can be harnessed to obfuscate, distract from, nullify and/or drown out the original issue. It allows for the proliferation of noise in response to any signal that attempts to propagate through the socio-political ether of the country. It explains why Bell-Pottinger was able to so easily find traction with its Gupta-funded divisive messaging.

This is not just a feature that has come to govern the South African polis and societal realm, but exists in other countries as well. In the post-2008 world, even developed nations are facing more challenges than they did in the post-war 20th Century. It explains how climate change denialism perpetuates in developed nations such as the USA and Australia, despite clear scientific evidence to the contrary. It also explains how President Trump’s various cock-ups and scandals consistently fail to result in any meaningful corrections on his part or the Republican Party’s. The world, it seems, has entered a new phase – a ‘post-literate’, ‘post-truth’ phase – in which moral equivalence can be invoked with impunity to muddy the waters – so to speak – to make them appear deep.

And so the quest for emancipatory political moments, where tipping points are breached and leaders deposed by the will of the people, or where parliamentarians rise up in revolt against their elected leader, has proved difficult to bring about in South Africa. And this should, at this stage, come as no surprise to anybody. To expect anything else would be to be profoundly hopeful or naive, or perhaps both.

The reality is that South Africa has reached a much deeper tipping point than simply desiring the removal of the sitting president. The tipping point that South Africa is now at is that it is embroiled in a national crisis of identity. After twenty-two years of existing on the rainbow nation vision, one that prioritised constitutionality over radical material societal transformation and upheld ‘nation-building’ as its primary project, South Africa is ready for renewal. And it is no coincidence that the readiness for renewal has been accompanied by a profound breakdown within South African society, one that has seen deep polarisation and contestation emerge in the polis.

Such a crisis requires, first and foremost, that it be recognised as such. We cannot act thoughtfully upon our current condition without first acknowledging it in its entirety. Once we have accepted the new reality, the next commitment we require is to move beyond the desire for short-term change – however critical those changes may be in the short term – and to accept that a longer term view needs to be taken on how the next phase of national unity should be approached.

While it remains a political and moral imperative to challenge the leadership of President Zuma, and to seek his removal from office, this action alone will not bring any sense of comfort or relief to the majority of South Africans. Indeed, it may even give the middle classes in particular, a false sense of security and allow them to lapse into apathy once again.

The reality is that if we are to bring about a new unity amongst South Africans, it needs to be behind a shared vision of who we are and what we want to be as a society. Building this new vision requires an opening up of spaces in which broader, more diverse expression and exchange around what is important (and to whom) in our society, can occur.

In my estimation, two elements are key to this process, namely; (1) building a national consensus through a series of prolonged engagements that range from the grassroots all the way to the upper echelons of power, and (2) stimulating active citizenry at the community level so that grassroots engagement with political power enters a new heightened phase i.e. stimulating town hall styled politics and civic engagement across a variety of existing and new platforms.

This requires taking a medium to long-term view towards steering South Africa onto a new national developmental and socio-political trajectory. It requires an investment in communities, civic organisations, civil society and the varieties of interest groups that need to be boosted in order to ensure that their voices are heard through a process of continual bottom-up regulation of political and economic power, rather than simply expressing themselves every four years at the ballot box. That is, it requires building the complex social machinery within South African society that can produce a healthy democracy for all who live in it.

It also requires the kind of visionary, committed leadership that South Africa was fortunate to enjoy in its transition out of Apartheid and into the new democratic dispensation. It requires a complete revision of what it means to be a public servant, and how the public service and political power is viewed in society. It requires all sectors to commit to and embrace a new national transition – to engage with new ideas such as ‘radical economic transformation’ and help put flesh on the bones of the ideas that underpin it – and for the middle classes in particular to recognise and acknowledge that their lived reality is vastly different from that which the majority of South Africans endure on a day to day basis. It is lunacy to expect people who are unemployed or under-employed, and who are preoccupied with day-to-day matters of survival, to prioritise the deposal of the sitting president as the most important factor in their lives because it simply isn’t.

President Zuma is almost into the last year of his presidency, yet the calls for him to be removed, or to step down, continue unabated. This is understandable, but in reality it is too late in his presidency to make any substantive difference to the damage that the nation has endured under it. At this stage it is only a moral matter; one of setting an example so that others do not follow in his footsteps, one of demonstrating that democratic ‘checks and balances’ do function in the South African political spectrum. Removing him will not automatically set the nation upon a trajectory towards a better future; neither will it yield any substantive change where it is most needed in South African society.

At this stage, the inescapable reality is that a broader, more prolonged phase of engagement and building democratic power from the bottom-up is necessary. If those who are out marching in the streets (I was one of them) are committed to bringing about meaningful change in South Africa they need to embrace the reality that it will take more than protest actions – undertaken every few weeks or months – to convert the current mess that the nation is in by steering it into a positive period of reflection and growth. Simply put, we need to roll up our sleeves, dig in our heels, and commit to building the kind of democracy that can go the distance. It’s time to recognise that we are entering a new phase, and the crisis we are in runs deep. It will require dedicated social activism from the broader citizenry, and building bridges across the diverse South African socio-political and cultural landscape, to adequately address. We need to be in it for the long haul. There simply is no way around it!