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South Africa's painful slide through protest and scandal

The country's beloved African National Congress has changed, and probably for the worse. In the past 12 months the ruling party that was once safeguarded by Nelson Mandela has been plagued by scandal and rioting.
South African President Jacob Zuma dances during a traditional ritual in Nkandla last month to help ensure his victory in a December 18 ANC leadership vote. AFP
South African President Jacob Zuma dances during a traditional ritual in Nkandla last month to help ensure his victory in a December 18 ANC leadership vote. AFP
The world looked on in horror as South African commandos machine-gunned black workers demanding better pay and conditions; with labour unrest intensifying, a new press censorship bill was being pushed hurriedly into law.

Yet these are not scenes from a history programme about the dark days of apartheid, but an overview of the past year.

South Africa's 2012 began with the 100th anniversary of the African National Congress (ANC) and ends with the resounding re-election of scandal-ridden Jacob Zuma to the leadership of the ruling party, 12 months that saw unprecedented industrial action and the downgrading of the country's credit rating for the first time since the fall of apartheid.

"Our beloved motherland is losing its sense of direction," warned former president Thabo Mbeki in October. "I, for one, am not certain about where our country and nation will be tomorrow."

The racially inclusive euphoria that followed the 2010 World Cup was decisively shattered by the 2012 census results, which showed black South Africans continuing to occupy the bottom of the country's economic ladder. It found that the average black household earns just over Dh24,000 per year compared to Dh155,000 for whites, and that, 18 years after the end of apartheid, two million South Africans live in shacks.

Little surprise, then, that a similar number of people have come out onto the streets in so-called service delivery protests, grassroots public actions against the lack of basic utilities such as running water or sanitation. Though they are not new phenomena, their frequency and intensity have escalated sharply in recent years.

As the former ANC MP Andrew Feinstein told an audience at London's Frontline Club in October, "Every year, over two million South Africans are involved in some form of low-level social protest against the state of governance, the levels of corruption, and the lack of services."

Even so, 2012 saw the largest number of protests in any one year of the country's history.

One reason for this civil disobedience is that while South Africa is not a single-party state, its electoral politics are paralysed. Due to an understandable emotional connection to the ANC, most black South Africans remain deeply reluctant to support the "white" opposition Democratic Alliance, even when it has frequently shown to be less corrupt and more effective than the ANC in the few jurisdictions it controls. Most importantly, significant numbers of people rely on government social grants, often controlled by ANC-allied structures, as their only source of livelihood, lifelines that they cannot afford to jeopardise.

As a result, the service delivery protest has come to replace the protest vote as the population's main form of engagement with their political elites.

But while two decades of ANC rule have achieved substantial progress in many areas, such as a nearly 180 per cent rise in average incomes for black households, it has conspicuously failed to keep pace with popular expectations.

What's more, the ANC's clumsy, race-centric affirmative action policies designed to address the imbalance have provoked the ire of both whites and blacks. Reacting to the latest wave of violent strikes, the last apartheid president and Nobel laureate Frederick W de Klerk blasted the government's alleged "social engineering" in which "people's prospects would once again be determined by race, rather than by individual merit and circumstances". According to the writer and commentator Justice Malala, "we have lifted a massive amount of black people out of poverty and - crucially - removed the barriers to their being able to improve themselves. Yet they are leaving behind another, huge and restless underclass".

In fact, it is economic, rather than racial, inequality that presents the greatest threat to the country's social fabric, as many South Africans' daily experience of democracy has come to resemble a kind of patronage.

"The service delivery protests are really municipal rebellions," said Gillian Hart, a professor of geography at the University of California, Berkeley. "No doubt without the social grants that the ANC dishes out, we would have seen much earlier and higher levels of social chaos."

The riots also reflect rising levels of popular indignation at the patronage and inefficiency that have come to define ANC rule.

And 2012 brought back much more disturbing memories of the struggle than anyone could have anticipated. In August, heavily armed riot police opened fire on 3,000 platinum miners on a wildcat strike, killing nearly 50 people. The moment, reminiscent of apartheid-era footage and the Amritsar massacre scene from the film Gandhi, was caught on tape and became instantly known as the Marikana Massacre. It became South Africa's single most lethal use of police force against civilians since Sharpeville in 1960.

Some of the hopelessness many South Africans feel comes from being abandoned by their erstwhile heroes. A particularly painful irony was the increased complicity of the labour unions and ANC leaders in the very mining companies against which they once organised. The Marikana massacre itself served as an example of establishment trade unions allying themselves with big business and ANC politicians rather than their own members.

Yet public outrage at the ruling party's hypocrisy is ambivalent, accompanied as it is by an equally strong sense - particularly widespread among township youths facing a lifetime of unemployment - that politics is the surest, and perhaps only, way to self-enrichment. A recent New York Times piece found that in the KwaZulu-Natal province alone, 40 local councillors were killed over the last two years in battles over tiny ward seats; positions in which possibilities of kickbacks and bribes more than compensate for the minuscule salaries and low prestige.

This was the Petri dish that gave rise to Julius Malema, the scandalous former leader of the ANC Youth League currently facing money-laundering charges. A ranting, race-baiting bundle of contradictions - hardline communist rhetoric and designer clothing; anti-business tirades and multimillion dollar slush funds; proletarian demagoguery and lavish mansions - Malema personified the frustration, anger and impatience of a generation bypassed by democratic promises.

There were some positive signs, however, that the tide may slowly be turning. Although Zuma's victory in the ANC leadership elections effectively guarantees his presidency of the country until 2019, a sizeable portion of the population - the urban middle classes and the intelligentsia - has already deserted him.

Though they may be numerically insignificant for now, it is a signal that the incumbent cannot forever rely on an increasingly homogenous base of poor, rural, grant-dependent voters. As RW Johnson notes in the London Review of Books, "the ANC is steadily losing the cities and its urban elite depends ever more clearly on the votes of the rural masses". In fact, Zuma's current inward turn towards the countryside in some ways resembles the miscalculation that ended up eventually condemning the old apartheid National Party to oblivion.

But it's not just a numbers game. South Africans appear to be taking politics into their own hands in other ways as well.

For much of the post-apartheid period, the country's democracy was safeguarded by leaders of such mythical calibre - the Jeffersonian founding father Nelson Mandela, surrounded by his no less visionary counsellors on the Constitutional Court - that it required minimal supervision from the masses in order to operate prudently. Mandela staffed the court with humanist intellectuals who had distinguished themselves in opposing apartheid and gave it powers to overturn even democratically drafted legislation if it was found to conflict with the constitution.

Over its first decade and a half, the court made a series of incredibly progressive decisions, often even going against the ruling governments of Mbeki and early Zuma. For example, in 2005, it struck down anti-gay marriage laws, and even intervened in forcing a reluctant government to provide anti-retro-viral drugs to HIV-positive pregnant women at the height of official denialism. However, to some extent, the combination of Mandela's conciliatory politics and such an enlightened judiciary insulated rank and file voters from the necessity of defending their constitutional rights themselves. Moreover, it had become hard to ignore the irony of a council of erudite elders, many of them white, defending the freedoms of the undereducated and poor black majority.

Today, Mandela is ailing, and the court's brilliant first leader, Arthur Chaskalson, died earlier this month. Mogoeng Mogoeng, the current chief justice Zuma appointed in 2011 (the most conservative member in the court's history), is famous less for his commitment to civil liberties than his tolerant stance on rape. No longer able to rely either on the president or the court to defend their freedoms, thousands of ordinary people have started to mobilise in demonstrations, letter-writing campaigns and acts of civil disobedience on philosophical and not purely economic grounds.

So it was when the ANC proposed the Protection of State Information bill. The proposed law would give government broad powers to arbitrarily classify various kinds of information as secret, powers that rights groups and international observers believe would inflict a severe blow to the freedom and independence of the South African press.

Civil society groups, led by the Right to Know coalition, have been mounting a sustained offensive against the bill for the last year and a half.

Such resistance caught the ruling party off guard. Increasingly underpinned by a corrupt corporatism, the ANC leadership sees openness and disclosure as threats to its murky control over the country's resources. In order to protect its investments, it was more than willing to buy off the population with a small share of the loot in the form of subsidies, grants, housing and affirmative action job protections.

But a critical number of South Africans are now showing themselves unwilling to accept such social compacts based on the arrogant assumption that abstract freedoms are somehow luxuries too high up on Maslow's pyramid for ordinary people to worry about.

Despite widespread domestic and international opposition, the bill is likely to be passed into law early next year. Nevertheless, the public outcry has forced the ANC to water down key provisions, and in November, Right to Know successfully lobbied for the inclusion into the bill of a public interest clause.

Given that when South Africa last passed a censorship law, in 1986, it entertained no such dissent, 2012 showed that, for all its unwelcome sense of déjà vu, there remain reasons to doubt that South Africa's fitful democratic honeymoon has come to an end.

Vadim Nikitin is a freelance journalist. He blogs at foreignpolicyblogs.com

Updated: December 29, 2012 04:00 AM

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