South Africa’s Third Way revival

Economies are broken everywhere, but while the rest of the world considers the radical, South Africa resigns itself to the rational.

President Cyril Ramaphosa addresses Black Business Council Gala Dinner. Image credit GCIS via Flickr (CC).

South African president Cyril Ramaphosa will remain president after the May 2019 election. The ruling African National Congress (ANC) can rely on its strong base of mostly rural, working class voters to ensure victory, the only question being by what margin. The flattening of South Africa’s labor movement, starting under former president Thabo Mbeki and graduating to the violent repression of the Marikana massacre in August 2012, has seen the main sources of political agitation become university students, the NGO sector and big business. In spite of and because of the dramatic failure that was the previous Jacob Zuma presidency, many view Ramaphosa with modest warmth, finding attractive precisely that which makes him pernicious: his reputation as a businesslike, rational pragmatist.

Interpreting Zuma’s presidency (2009 to 2017) through an ideological prism (he projected himself as opposed to “white monopoly capitalism”) is giving him too much credit. His actions were governed by personal enrichment, and sustained by reconciling his power and popularity. So widespread was the corruption and mismanagement that the country now stumbles through an extraordinary amount of commissions of inquiry, trying to make sense of what went wrong. With news cycles still dominated by fresh revelations detailing the involvement of high ranking officials in the country’s looting, what was once a mood of righteous indignation has fizzled out to a general ennui.

If Zuma was the paragon of corruption, Ramaphosa’s rise came by embodying himself as anti-corruption. It remains to be seen whether or not he’ll be able to overturn whatever corruption persists while holding whoever takes part liable. The predictable criticisms focus on how his efforts to do so have thus far been lackluster, while those defending him point out the awkwardness of acting ruthlessly when lacking electoral legitimacy, which they claim he’ll get in May.

This vindication reflects the popular sentiment that although he hasn’t accomplished much in the transition to a new regime, what Ramaphosa has to offer will be noticeable afterwards. Much of South Africa’s faith in Ramaphosa comes from the trauma of Zuma and the desperation for anything that seems to be different. We are in the doldrums of low expectations, which when combined with our historical tendency to idolize political leaders, renders personality the chief factor for political change.

What makes Ramaphosa charming, is less the substance of what he has to bring to the table, and more the method by which he brings it. Ramaphosa operates with technocratic authority and the air of a problem-solver. His business success supposedly serves as self-evident proof. Combine that with his background as first a trade-union advisor during apartheid and then a negotiator in ending it (he oversaw the drawing up of the new Constitution) completes the profile of a man adept at finding tough solutions for tough problems.

Assessing his State of the Nation address, the South African journalist Ferial Haffajee called him, “…a nerd and a workaholic in the style of former US president Barack Obama.” And much like Obama following the 2008 financial crisis, so for Ramaphosa—in the midst of a policy climate raising demanding action around land reform and the state of public enterprises—a defensive narrative has sprung out presenting Ramaphosa as a man faced with making unpopular but urgent compromises while having the will to make them with sound deliberation and analytical rigor.

Ramaphosa’s posturing is that of rising above the ideological, and zoning in towards the practical; the suggestion being that the two are difficult to reconcile. His approach resembles the now discredited Third Way politics of the 1990s, associated with Bill Clinton and the New Democrats, Tony Blair and New Labour’s Third Way in the UK, and copied elsewhere by governments. At the heart of Third Way politics is centrism that views itself as post-political, able to harmonize different political orientations in the pursuit of the irrefutable, objective good that is policy moderation.

As far as indicating a substantive value commitment, Third Way centrism is vacuous. It is, however, obsessed with process, which if followed rationally and with care to ensure accountability, transparency, and good governance, will yield good outcomes. What it’s actually served to do, was to naturalize policies which are ideological, rooted in neoliberalism and faith in the free-market. It did so by marrying center-right economic tendencies with some, progressive social justice initiatives (mostly around identity), but never far enough that they could be considered actually egalitarian or redistributive.

The Third Way leans left to obfuscate the fact that it stands right, and talks loftily of procedure and deliberation to assert that it is right.

Considering this, Ramaphosa’s policy direction will likely be a continuation of the Mbeki years, swinging in favor of deregulation, liberalization and privatization. The government under Ramaphosa is already getting ready to implement structural adjustment programs to the satisfaction of the World Bank and IMF, with a particular focus on restructuring state owned enterprises and opening up to multinational mega projects. (His finance minister said as much during the recent Budget Speech.) With his close ties to numerous South African business elites, the intention is clearly, as its always been, to appease domestic and global finance capital.

What distinguishes Ramaphosa from Mbeki is a stronger effort to involve and triangulate,  preemptively placating those angling for a radical vision. While Ramaphosa talks left on land reform, the Department of Mineral Resources led by Minister Gwede Mantashe continues to override the interests of indigenous communities in favor of international mining companies. Ramaphosa’s talk of “inclusive growth” merely refers to a neo-corporatist, big tent style of politics that sees summit after summit where the left may have a seat at the table, but won’t have a signature on the final policy document.

This turn contrasts starkly with the rest of the world, where radical programs are finding mainstream resonance again. In the Anglophone powers where “there is no alternative” once reigned, policies such as a Green New Deal, free universal healthcare, a living wage and universal basic income are firmly on the national agenda. They are spearheaded by hard-working, self-described democratic socialists like Jeremy Corbyn, who’s rapidly restored the Labour Party’s popularity in the UK, Alexandria-Ocasio Cortez, the young congresswoman from New York driving the conversation on climate change internationally, and above all Bernie Sanders, who recently announced his candidacy for the US presidency, raising $6 million in individual donations within 24 hours of making the announcement. (His closest rival for the Democratic Party nomination, Elizabeth Warren, raised only $300,000 on her first day as a candidate.)

In South Africa, the closest thing to a popular left movement with electoral viability has only increased Ramaphosa’s appeal. The black nationalist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) spent the majority of their existence since inception fighting Jacob Zuma’s corrupt presidency (amazingly, allying with the center-right Democratic Alliance to do so), and neglected building a strong, working class base in both rural and urban South Africa. Since Zuma’s departure, the party finds itself fighting for relevance, and is faltering. Now regularly embroiled in its own corruption scandals, the EFF’s lead figures are often found devolving into hysterics aimed at those who speak critically of them. Where their brash brand of politics was once useful, it now just makes Ramaphosa look all the more level-headed, measured and in control.

A credible alternative seriously capable of addressing South Africa’s economic crisis in the short to medium term is almost non-existent. Still, the country continues to be in the throes of outrageous inequality. 30 million people, which is 55% of the population, earn less than $82 per month. Meanwhile, the top 10% of income earners received two thirds of national income in 2014. While white South Africans dominate the top earners at 49%, the face of chronic poverty in South Africa is black—only 30% of black South Africans, who outnumber whites eight to one, are among the top earners.

To drive home the extent of the disparity, any South African earning an income of more than $1,366 per month falls in the top 2% of income earners. To most, that is both disturbing and perplexing, because inasmuch as they might earn a relatively high income on the continent, most South Africans are financially constrained by wage and salary stagnation, debt-driven consumption, and burdened by financial commitments to extended family members. Many in South Africa’s middle class are a paycheck short from financial catastrophe.

The depths of the misery and destitution faced by the majority makes our political landscape laughable when considering how void of ideology it is. To be sure, advocating the presence of ideology also means that whoever responsible for seeing it through, should do so pragmatically and efficiently. Our conundrum appears to be that those with somewhat of an ideology can’t be trusted to run the country well, and those who could run the country well are sympathetic to an ideology that serves the few and not the many. Neither, are helpful for addressing the crisis.

South Africa’s future looks bleak if current political trends continue. We can no longer pretend that all it takes to address our persistent and deep-seated problems is better management of government. Our next president might be a billionaire businessman, but our country isn’t a business. History has shown that even if government operates effectively, as long as it is still tethered to the interests of the investor and ownership class, all managerial efficiency does is aid their accumulation.

In the middle of the short-lived grassroots movements like #FeesMustFall, many South Africans, especially young South Africans, came to accept that the causes of widespread poverty and inequality are structural.

Well, that structure has a name, and it’s time we fought it earnestly.

Further Reading

Everything must fall

Fees Must Fall (#FMF) brought student activism at South Africa’s elite universities into the global media spotlight. A new documentary zooms in on the case of Wits in Johannesburg.