Protests are only effective if they are targeted, coordinated and effective
The 24 August national shutdown strike can be pronounced as at least a partial success, with big crowds in some centres and something closer to a show of unity between the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) than we usually see.
That said, what next? Twenty-eight years on and we are protesting against a government that should represent the will of the people. Are large crowds delivering memoranda to the government really going to make a difference? We’ve been there before.
Much of the protest was about the cost of living and failures of the government such as load-shedding. Another issue was xenophobia.
Protest can be very effective if it is targeted, coordinated and persistent. Two examples: the United Democratic Front and the Treatment Action Campaign. Both had clear targets and did not give up in the face of an unyielding state. Both achieved big wins.
If you are in for the long haul, short-term grievances should not be the focus but systemic and systematic change.
All too often, what is supposed to be a radical, even revolutionary, change inherits too much of the previous system. The Soviet Union inherited a very efficient police state and made it more efficient. Zanu-PF did the same.
In South Africa, we inherited a colonial state that was based on divide and rule and co-opting potential opposition leaders by making them kingpins of patronage.
If you judge South Africa today as a developmental state, it is clearly a failure. Unemployment and inequality remain at shamefully high levels, the government routinely fails to deliver infrastructure projects and the policy of broad-based black economic empowerment all too often promotes rent-seeking (grabbing a resource without doing anything in return) rather than entrepreneurship.
The key to turning this all around is accepting that a patronage state serves no one in the long run. In the short term, patronage kingpins prosper. Their control of resource distribution to the poor buys them political power. But it is not a sustainable model because it results in economic decay. I have previously explained why patronage creates a perverse incentive for projects — particularly essential infrastructure — to fail. Here in Makhanda (formerly Grahamstown) activists have tracked down budgetary commitments of R600-million going back to 2010 to tackle our water problems when a quarter of that money could have solved the problem if efficiently applied.
Failing to deliver infrastructure and allowing services to degrade inhibits further investment. The protest movement accuses big business of an investment strike. I am not big business but I have to ask: would you put billions into creating jobs when the government is dedicated to feeding itself not to getting the basics right?
The colonial and apartheid governments avoided this decay because they aimed to serve a small minority and could afford huge inefficiencies; we cannot hope to create a developmental state on the same basis.
So we need to firmly grasp the nettlesome question of what decolonisation of the economy really means and what measures will get us there fastest and with the least pain, particularly to those already suffering under the current system.
There are several elements to a solution.
The first is breaking the power of patronage. The simplest single step in that direction is reducing the need to access a patronage network to gain any economic opportunity. A universal basic income grant has been criticised by some as furthering dependence but it would have the opposite effect. The fact that you have money in your pocket without having to secure favourable attention of a potentially corrupt bureaucrat reduces the power of patronage. The poor who are marginally surviving and lack the time to seek out further opportunity would gain, as would micro-entrepreneurs who are a tiny amount short of what they need to get started.
There is a lot more that would need to be done to convert from a patronage state to a developmental state but other measures would take more time.
One of these measures is culture change: cause before comrades.
Progressive movements are meant to embrace change for the greater good; reactionary politics is about preserving the past, no matter how unjust. As soon as you personalise politics and make it about protecting those close to you, you divert a progressive cause into being reactionary because protecting the person loses the impetus to promote change for the greater good.
The ANC started to go wrong not long after it was in office with the 1990s arms deal that became a corrupt means of funding the 1999 election campaign. When Tony Yengeni was convicted for his role in the corruption, there was widespread outrage in the ANC and he was given a hero’s welcome when he completed his jail time. How is celebrating a criminal in any sense progressive? Yet this is nothing on what the ANC is up to now, where the factional battles amount to “our crooks are better than their crooks”.
The problem with opposition politics is that far too much of it is personality-based: the cult of the leader. That is a related problem as patronage flows from powerful personalities. Such a top-down leadership system, no matter what rhetoric it employs, cannot validly claim to be progressive.
Why this culture change is important is because it is the start of undoing impunity. The government introduces more and more rules and laws to control fraud and corruption yet the problem gets worse and worse. Why? Because there are no consequences. Comrades protect comrades.
The next important insight is to understand that the more complex a system is, the more likely it is to go wrong. Running a municipality should not be rocket science. Yet if you study the relevant legislation including the Municipal Structures Act and the Municipal Finance Management Act (MFMA), related regulations and all manner of procurement laws and regulations, it becomes extremely complex. Section 32 of the MFMA provides for officials and politicians who are responsible for unauthorised, irregular, fruitless or wasteful expenditure to be personally accountable for the costs incurred. When has this ever been implemented? Complexity covers up complicity.
Xenophobia? Cheap politics in a failing state. Foreigners can’t vote and blaming them is much easier than fixing the fundamentals.
In summary, I propose the following targets for future campaigns.
A basic income grant.
Strongly attack the culture of comrade before cause particularly when it is used to justify or cover up wrongdoing.
Oppose any movement that has any elements of a leadership cult.
Demand consequences for wrongdoing.
Simplify law and regulation that applies to service delivery and infrastructure so that it is clear and easy to judge whether implementation is correct and to implement consequence management.
Get these things right, and we can start working on the practical issues such as reskilling municipalities so they do not outsource as much, ensuring that tenders are correctly and competently awarded and that wrongdoers are rooted out of government.
Philip Machanick is an associate professor of computer science at Rhodes University.