Thursday, February 24, 2011

Tunisia: The Crystal Ball for South Africa?

An article arguing what a government is doing is wrong, and stating what it should be doing is in no way groundbreaking. However, this one, by the other Mbeki, Moeletsi, brought the wrath of the ANC down upon him. To paraphrase a favourite line, he touched the ANC on its studio when he wrote, “I can predict when SA’s "Tunisia Day" will arrive.”

However, even that idea, that South Africa will one day face a Tunisia or Egypt style uprising, is only a glib update of that classic rejoinder: "South Africa will be Zimbabwe." To quote the ANCYL on Mbeki & his article in their reaction, I’d merely dismissed such comparisons as a “prophecy of doom,” “very pessimistic,” & “consistently negative.” Whilst those descriptions I used to ascribe to those who made these arguments, with Moeletsi I can’t.

Be it, the state largely being able to foster a fair level of economic growth but unemployment remaining an endemic problem, or there being ‘youth bulges’ in all three cases, there are far too many parallels between the situations in Tunisia, Egypt & South Africa to dismiss the comparisons. However, the one similarity South Africans would most probably recognise more than any of the others, is how both in Tunisia & Egypt you had a symbiotic and at times corrupt relationship between business and government which also excluded the population at large.

It goes without saying that the ANC was not happy with Mbeki’s article, and the Youth League even less so.

Whilst Sipho Hlongwane , in his column on this topic, found the ANCYL’s reply to be besides the point, I can’t agree, if anything I found it to be an amplification of the ANC’s statement. Amazingly (after the usual bluster and ad hominem attacks) the ANCYL was able to create fair defence to Mbeki’s argument which was:

The Tunisia-like protests will not happen in South Africa, because the ANC government has made profound progress in placing institutions, structures and virtues of democracy, which allow the people of South Africa to freely and fairly choose public representatives after every five years. Besides entrenched democracy in South Africa, the ANC government is at the forefront of the attack in the battle against poverty, unemployment and starvation.

One cannot deny “the ANC government has made profound progress in placing institutions, structures and virtues of democracy,” & that it, “is at the forefront of the attack in the battle against poverty, unemployment and starvation.”

However, there is one point, which I’d say, were it true, would be the most important fact against any argument that there’re correlations between South Africa, Tunisia: “entrenched democracy in South Africa”.

Though the ANCYL's argument in reply to Mbeki was fair, it wasn’t correct, as that point, "entrenched democracy in South Africa" was incorrect.

If one takes that when the ANCYL say “entrenched democracy,” they mean democracy is accepted within our nation, you’re looking at the concept of a “consolidated democracy;” a concept used essentially to gauge the quality of a democracy.

I used to believe that South Africa was well on the road to being a consolidated democracy. Amongst fulfilling the other factors, I thought for SA, democracy was “the only game in town,” a necessary factor of a consolidated democracy. I believed we were only missing the final factor, "a peaceful transfer of power from one party to another after electoral defeat," however I don’t think that any longer.

In South Africa, a basic tenet of a consolidated democracy, that democracy be the "only game in town," is not satisfied.

When looking at the violent nature of the ongoing service delivery protests or strikes public sector or otherwise, how can we believe that people feel and accept that their grievances are best articulated through democratic channels.

As such, if the ANC and the ANCYL, or Hlongwane for that matter, feel that our being a democracy inoculates us from Tunisa-style revolts then there is a problem. Being a democracy – which we are – is not enough to spare us a Tunisia situation at some point in South Africa’s future.

When looking for a point when South Africans would – and it will happen – decide they’re no longer happy with the ANC, I’d always thought of a date far off into the future. Mbeki makes a case for 2020, but the question of when it happens is irrelevant; what we have to ask is "when it happens will it be through the ballot or violently?".

Nevertheless, to use Moeletsi Mbeki’s 2020 argument, should the day come “that the ANC government will have to cut back on social grants, which it uses to placate the black poor,”; I can’t agree with Sipho’s reply that “our burning man revolution will be at the ballot box,” for Sipho is incorrect in finding proof from the peaceful transition from ANC to DA government in the Western Cape that South Africa has proven itself to be able to handle transfers of power.

In the 2020 scenario, it’d be the nation as a whole where a transfer of power would have to occur & what we have seen in places like Khutsong or Thembisa, is that South Africans cannot be depended upon to express their dissatisfaction on the ballot.

More so, as history has shown, movements are catching. If the self-immolation of one man, Mohamed Bouazizi, can spark the fire that topples a regime, how can we then deny that an instance of violent protest, in the simmering anger of the 2020 scenario, it wouldn’t spread across the country, as happened in 2009?

If America, 235 years old, to this day still strives for a “More Perfect Union,” how can we, only 16yrs old or 26 years old in 2020, feel that we are safe?

The quest of entrenching democracy & democratic ideals within us as a nation is clearly not done. We all – government, opposition parties, civil society, the population as a whole – still have a lot to do in this regard or one day we won’t be watching a popular uprising in some distant land on Al-Jazeera, we’ll be witnessing it in the streets & public squares of our own country.

1 comment:

  1. Funnily enough I had a similar discussion with a colleague the other day. Not so much about whether there will be an uprising but about the fact that people are having riots over service delivery and yet the municipal elections are not far away. Why do we complain and yet continue doing what we always did? Why dont we actually hold anyone accountable in any real way. I am not picking on one sector of the community here, some fight, some just ignore it, some complain but do nothing. Why is that? (Sorry if this comments more than once, I just battled to comment)