Occupy Pretoria: author Brent Meersman

‘Occupy Pretoria’

Brent Meersman, author of the fictional-reality books “Reports Before Daybreak” and “Primary Coloured“, sets out the seven urgent democratic reforms South Africa needs… right now!


“The ANC will spend it ways to power using the billion generated from Chancellor House to fund sophisticated election campaigns – run by American strategists…”

He writes: Nov 20 2011 –The ANC will not take South Africa down Zimbabwe’s road. It will be something more subtle. Stuffing ballot boxes and beating up opponents (at least not on television) isn’t quite the ANC’s style, even if Julius Malema has the training kits and instruction DVDs for Mugabe’s Green Bomber state terror squads in his luggage.
    The ANC, always a modernizer, won’t emulate the clownish tyrants of Africa, rather it will spend its way to power, American style, using the billion it generates from vehicles such as Chancellor House to fund sophisticated election campaigns (already for years run by American strategists). After all, it doesn’t actually cost them anything; the money is simply skimmed off other people’s production.
Malema’s mistake was to believe the ANC’s bullshit. By bullshit, for I do not wish to put too fine a point on it, I mean the National Democratic Revolution. Malema took Zuma, the champion of the Polokwane resolutions, at his word, only to find out that the ANC is a populist party in rhetoric only.
    Whatever its bluster, the ANC is at bottom a culturally conservative, politically centre right, economically neoliberal party. Given the likes of Malema as an alternative, many might be saying long may it stay that way, but they would be wrong. The social problems won’t go away until the ANC changes fundamentally.
    Meanwhile, the self-proclaimed “left” who think they are in “a battle for the soul of the ANC”, who might even believe they have won ground now that they find themselves sitting in a few cabinet posts, are delusional; the alleged aberration of the Blairite Mbeki years was not a deviation. Today’s ANC elite are about power and wealth for themselves first; the welfare of the people is at best second; ideology, a distant third.
    The “broad church of the ANC” (the religious metaphor is apt, since belief in the ANC is an act of faith over evidence) made sense as a strategy to unite disparate and incompatible ideological positions against the common enemy of apartheid. The alliance after liberation was a naive strategy to align as many “progressive forces” in the country as possible against “reactionary power” (capitalists, right-wing militants, the IMF and so on) and other “counter-revolutionary” forces (i.e. any political opposition whatsoever).  As a political strategy for the ANC it has been unbeatable; for the “left” it is self-mutilating; as a basis for government it is a disaster.
    The road to Manguang/Bloemfontein (the ANC’s next elective conference) reveals this factionalised underbelly. Based on the shambles of Polokwane, even the kindergarten now think they can have a turn at the helm of the ANC ship, apparently as unsinkable as the Titanic.
    At Polokwane/Pietersburg, a shabby Mbeki was made the scapegoat of the collective leadership. They blamed him for all their faults. To give just one example of this hypocrisy: Zuma was head of the ANC’s AIDS council through all those years of Mbeki’s denialism. They all kept quiet. They all collaborated in the genocide of the sick. The country will bear the scars of Mbekistan just as long as it suffers the legacy for apartheid.
   Mbeki had hoped to make Zuma the straw man of the left. Once his rivals had invested all their resources in Zuma, Mbeki planned to flick him off the table at the last minute (using corruption charges and other machinations) leaving the left, COSATU and the SACP without a candidate, headless and in disarray. As usual, Mbeki overplayed his hand.
     But the miscalculation was not only on his side. What passes for the “left” in South Africa had crowbarred in a man of the centre right as their candidate. As Oscar Wilde observed: “The proper basis for marriage is mutual misunderstanding“. And Zuma is not only a polygamist in bed, he carries it through in his politics. His political wives in the alliance have yet to receive their lobola (bride’s wealth), and they are too vain to admit they have been co-opted and neutralized for the past 17 years.
    No one has more thoroughly muddied the ideological waters than the ANC Youth League leadership, a coterie of narcissistic designer revolutionaries (brand consciousness was always most manifest among those with low self-esteem) with mindsets more Fascist than Stalinist. They are the tinpot, dinky toy version of the current ANC elite, alerting us to both where the party has failed its constituents, and where it is headed if the rot continues.
    COSATU and the SACP’s unholy alliance with a centre right nationalist party has created a vacuum in the left today in danger of being filled by African National Socialists posing as the champions of the underclass, comparable with other racist right wing parties on the resurgence across Europe.
With their superannuated boilerplate rhetoric, COSATU and the SACP have failed to capture the imagination of the new generation. Even the Democratic Alliance seems to be having more success at capturing youth aspirations. The youth wage subsidy has come in as a handy wedge against COSATU and the SACP.
     Brother of Thabo – Moeletsi Mbeki — has said that South Africa “is the one country in sub-Saharan Africa that is most likely to experience what has happened in North Africa”. By this he means large scale social protest that will topple the regime. But that is where the similarity stops. Quite unlike the drivers of the Arab spring, Malema Inc is not interested in more democracy, but more demagoguery.

     They see the Bill of Rights as “the bill for whites” and the Constitution as some kind of international conspiracy.
The Alliance’s window dressing of the economy (BEE, BB-BEE, with or without Chinese descent, affirmative action-as-it-has-been-implemented) has so far failed.

    It is a placebo regime; you think you’re getting treatment therefore you feel better, but it is only a psychological effect with no physiological benefit. For example, it used to be enough for its politicians to pop up every five years and promise a million jobs. Now they have to promise 11 million jobs. ANC electoralism will not do.
    South Africa needs to make a profound structural break with its authoritarian past. There is little sign that the ANC is willing to lead this. Instead, when it comes to democracy, the ANC is increasingly antithetical.
    Challenges to party authority are met with a retreat into a mindset that belongs with the apartheid era, with a past way of thinking: racial quotas, “zero tolerance” and “shoot to kill” militarization of the police, a media tribunal, a secrecy bill, blurring state and party, fudging the separation of powers, paranoid intelligence services, calling civil society movements foreign provocateurs, more powers to traditional leaders, suing cartoonists, pledges of allegiance, millenarian fantasies (the ANC will rule “till Jesus comes”) etcetera. South Africans recognize this bag of tricks for what it is.
     What is playing out is the tension between a regime run on arrogance, by people of a conservative, statist mindset, and a social democratic constitution with all its demands for transparency, freedom of information, noisy speech, genuine public participation, protection of whistle-blowers, and the rational demand that government officials actually apply their minds.
     The global public awakening – from Wikileaks to street protests – we are currently witnessing will have a profound effect on future governance. The ANC (which seems to have forgotten it is a servant of the people) will find it is not as immune as it thinks to the massive social upheavals and ideological wars sweeping the world.
   The old order is collapsing. The exercise of democratic rights in the West was meant to keep the worst excesses of capitalist exploitation (indentured service, hazardous and polluted working conditions, child labour (within living memory my grandfather worked as a child miner in the Belgian coal mines)) in check (at least within their own democracies, but in fact transferred these exploitative practices to the developing world).
    Anyone who has studied the history of the labour movement in the USA can see how liberal bourgeois democracy allowed for a steady pace of appeasement, just enough to keep the economic and the political elite rich and safe. Each capitalist crisis was met with a few democratic concessions. In the end, what passed for democracy was so much better than what had preceded it that people mistook it for the real thing. But a new aristocracy with less crude exploitative practices was in fact in power, one which allowed just enough class mobility (in the USA) and social security (in Europe) to keep up the appearances of legitimacy.
     In the USA a crisis point was reached under Bush’s wholesale mismanagement of that economy. The white American middleclass, finding themselves unable to afford their mortgages, educate their kids, fix their teeth and pay their medical bills, were in danger of revolt, of breaching the cultural wars (abortion, gay marriage, Darwin, gun ownership, legalized marijuana etc) that have suppressed their class interests. Serious appeasement was required and the system acquiesced, allowing the unprecedented: the first black American president into the White House. Obama’s political entry even saw an increase in voter registration among hopeful South Africans.
     I’m not sure that our Polokwane “revolution” was that much different; the ‘system’ had become intolerable under Mbeki. But both Obama and Zuma (if we believe they ever really wanted to) have been unable to do much except patch up a system in crisis and renege on the promise of their campaigns.
     The mask is now slipping. Both capitalism and democracy are collapsing. The political classes of Europe and the USA have lost contact with the people; they no longer seem to even need them. Voter turnout is pathetic. Belgium (where they had to make it an offence not to vote) has been without a government for well over a year. Technocrats have taken over Italy and Greece. We had our own version of this under Mbeki and his mandarins. (One wonders how long it will be before we hand governments over to computers).
     In South Africa we have no significant, co-ordinated movement yet but brief, constant explosions at grassroots’ level – the so-called “popcorn protests”.  America has the Occupy protest movement fighting the hold of corporate monopoly over US democracy, and the Tea Party protesting against the alleged unfair hold government has over business.
    The Americans look to the Europeans and say: you have bankrupted yourselves with your idiotic utopian socialist beneficence. Meanwhile, Europeans blame rampant speculative capitalist greed and American led algorithmic financialisation of the global economy for the current economic mess.
    Whatever the merit of these positions or whether too little good regulation or too many bad regulations are to blame, in the end the financial market has become one big Enron, a matrix of digital blips on screens. There are no factories, no production, no realizable underlying assets, let alone jobs. This is why a billion dollar company like Lehman Brothers could overnight be worth nothing more than the market price of its empty office building in Manhattan.
South Africa has made itself vulnerable by financialising its economy especially over the past decade. Moodys has now for the second time in a row downgraded South Africa’s credit rating and placed the nation’s top five banks under review. We have the same sickness, it just hasn’t yet been diagnosed; when it is, the fever will strike. The government should be urgently looking into the safety of ordinary deposit holders’ bank accounts and the pension funds of its citizens (not at bailing out the fat cats).
    It gets worse; whereas the United States has its military-industrial complex, South Africa has its mining-energy complex (operating in cahoots with the political elite).
    The South African consumer has according to Minister Trevor Manuel already spent all of next year’s earnings. (*And this year, there are only 3-million taxpayers left…)
    Capitalism was meant to deliver economic freedom and democracy political freedom. During its political transition, South Africa chose to pursue both simultaneously. This put it in the category of an experimental state.
       Left-wing economists blame the neoliberal elite pact; right-wing economists blame the strangulation of the capitalist engine by over-regulation and ideological impositions from the state. Both agree that something is going seriously wrong in South Africa.
     What is required? A renegotiation of the elite compromise of the transition period, for sure. (A late convert, Minister Manuel, suggested as much to the Mail & Guardian – 21 November 2011.)

     But even more fundamental is that we need urgent democratic reforms before it is too late. And I do not mean the Democratic Alliance’s vision of a two-party state that would result in the straightjacket of UK and USA politics.

1. ANC-SACP-COSATU alliance needs to break up. The current hegemony attempts to advance ideological positions (with little success) at the expense of democracy.

2. The debates happening inside the ANC palace need to happen in parliament where there is greater transparency, proper rules of debate, checks and balances. Blatant totalitarian statements by members of the ANC that Luthuli House governs South Africa not parliament and that Polokwane was the true parliament of South Africa make a mockery of the liberation struggle.
Damning proof of how dangerous it is to leave policy arguments to the ANC’s internal debates was demonstrated concretely by Mbeki’s AIDS denialism and the entire leadership’s complicity in the genocide of the sick. It would not have happened in a vital (as opposed to a managed) democracy. It was left to civil society in the form of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) to save the day. Mbeki was able to use a toxic mix of rhetoric around race, historical grievances, African victimhood, and exploit paranoid notions about imperialists and Big Pharma (ignoring the fact that the TAC did more to take on the multinational pharmacies than the ANC government).

3. The Proportional Representation system needs to give way to a constituency based democracy with direct accountability by elected representatives to the electorate — and not to the party bosses.
4. Political party funding must be regulated and parties forced to open their books. There is no hope of rooting out corruption otherwise. The current talk about addressing corruption remains disingenuous until this is done.
    The ANC is currently making long-term policy decisions (such as coal dependence, like the arms deal) based on personal profit motives within the ruling elite that will be disastrous down the line. Whereas the United States has its politically connected military-industrial complex, South Africa has its mining-energy complex (our Halliburton).

5. The insidious practice of cadre deployment must stop. Not only does it tie big financial interests to political patronage, but it also prevents the formation of a competent, impartial, civil service necessary to implement government’s ambitious plans.

6. Far more public participation is needed at a local level, as close to the communities as possible, and as envisioned by the constitution, not in the current way that leads to toilets without walls. The ANC’s predilection for top down social engineering is unAfrican.

7. There must be a Basic Income Grant that affirms citizenship and the dignity of the poor and the jobless. This is (the African concept of ) ‘Ubuntu’. And the ANC is dead opposed to it for political reasons, because the current paternalistic grant system, that humiliates the recipients through means-testing, is ideologically motivated, and it carries the powerful subtext demanding gratitude from its recipients to the ANC.

These are the initial democratic demands the citizenry must make, in addition to the democratic demands of the Constitution: freedom of speech and media, access to information, transparency, accountability, and public participation. No secrecy bill. No media tribunal.
     This is not just wishful leftist idealism. It is the only way that government’s own policies can be targeted properly, implemented with consent, monitored, evaluated and have any hope of succeeding. These are all reasonable democratic demands. The only plausible reason for resisting is to safeguard the power and the ill-gotten gains of the elite.

Chancellor house:  the ANC’s taxpayer-looting cash cow: http://mg.co.za/specialreport/chancellor-house

Brent Meersman is the author of Reports Before Daybreak and Primary Coloured.

Order Primary Coloured from:


About Adriana Stuijt
Retired South African-Dutch journalist formerly Sunday Times Johannesburg

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