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SA’s arrested revolution needs more than the ballot

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An IEC member prepares a ballot paper at a voting station. Nowhere have elections brought about any major structural change, the writer says. – Picture: Ayanda Ndamane / Independent Newspapers

By Sipho Seepe

The 2024 national and provincial elections will go down in history as one of the most hotly contested in South Africa’s post-1994 political dispensation. For its part, the ANC pulled out all stops in its effort to retain power. Celebrities, sports personalities, artists, instant millionaires, and political has-beens who had benefited from the ANC emerged out of the woodwork putting shoulders to the wheel.

For this lot, defending the ANC is a must even at the risk of insulting one’s intelligence. Understandably so, any loss of power by the ANC is likely to threaten their material comfort.

Every election spawns a particular buzzword. Words such as hope, continuity, job creation, crime reduction, and economic growth have from time to time been used to motivate citizens to vote. “Change” is the buzzword for this election. Undergirding the word “change” is a general sense that past approaches, policies, and programmes have failed to deliver democracy’s promises.

No less an important personality than the retired deputy chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke captured this urgent need for change. Addressing the South African National Editors’ Forum fundraising gala dinner in 2022 regarding his reflection on the promise of “a better life for all” Moseneke averred.

“I conclude with a heavy heart that the revolution has failed. The quest to alter power relations in society in favour of the excluded and marginalised masses of our people has failed. The high political and social ideals of those of us who were part of our glorious struggle have by and large come to naught… After 30 years our country must reset its fate, future, and vision. We cannot possibly prescribe the same medicine when the malady persists or perhaps gets worse.”

Indeed, repeated elections and the liberal constitution have not brought about any material changes in the lives of the African majority. The study, Wealth Inequality in South Africa, 1993-2017, conducted by scholars Aroop Chatterjee, Southern Centre for Inequality Studies (Wits); Léo Czajka (Université Catholique de Louvain); Amory Gethin (World Inequality Lab – Paris School of Economics) revealed that “the top 10 percent of South African wealth holders own more than 85 percent of household wealth, while the top 1 percent wealth share reaches 55 percent. The top 0.01 percent (about 3,500 adults) own a higher share of wealth than the bottom 90 percent (about 32 million individuals) … Such levels of wealth inequality are higher than in any other country for which comparable, high-quality estimates of the wealth distribution are available”.

These scholars found “no sign of decreasing inequality since the end of apartheid”.

If anything, Parliament is a place of containing the aspirations of the African majority. This is not unique to South Africa. Nowhere has electoral democracy brought about any radical economic transformation. Eons ago, Karl Marx captured this reality as follows. “The oppressed are allowed once every few years to decide which particular representatives of the oppressing class are to represent and repress them”. This is the first bitter truth. The sooner the African majority realises this, the better. Nowhere have elections brought about real structural changes. For that, you need a revolution.

A posting on social media poignantly contemporised Marx’s observation as follows. “There are two types of ANC supporters . 1. The connected millionaires, and 2. the “idiots”. To see where you belong, check your bank balance. To prove a point. It won’t be long before you see a service delivery protest by type 2 ANC supporters! It won’t take even a week.”

Under ANC rule, South Africa has earned the dubious dishonour of being a poster child of global inequality. The ANC’s race to the bottom became arguably manifest under the Ramaphosa administration. Regarding this, Duma Gqubule, research associate at the Social Policy Initiative, writes (Country’s worst president since 1994? Business Day, 7 February, 2023).

“Whichever way one slices the data, Cyril Ramaphosa’s presidency has been a disaster for the economy… there were eight out of 10 quarters of declining gross fixed capital formation (GFCF), a measure of investment, before the lockdown at the end of March 2020. In February 2019, the government announced a R100bn infrastructure fund. Four years later it does not contain a cent. Despite four investment summits where pledges of R1.1 trillion were made, GFCF plunged to 13.1 percent of GDP in 2021 — the lowest since 1946 when the Reserve Bank started collecting statistics — from 16.4 percent in 2017.”

As if that is not enough, the ANC president Ramaphosa went into this election with the Phala Phala scandal hanging over his head. He is ill-qualified to lecture anyone about corruption. Returned with a significant but diminishing vote, the ANC finds itself irresistibly drawn to forming a coalition with the DA. This on its own would come as no surprise.

The party has long lost any form of revolutionary conscience. Its preoccupation is simply on remaining in political office. It is already talking the language of the DA on almost every issue that matters such as land and the role of the state in the economy. Indeed, the socio-economically marginalised ANC supporters should have their heads examined if they believe that an effectively crippled ANC would do better after having to do so in the last 30 years.

If the outcomes of the elections are anything to go by, the ANC’s traditional base is beginning to finally wake up. Parties such as the EFF and the recently formed Umkhonto we Sizwe are making electoral inroads. As matters stand, the ANC has lost its majority in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng. Like all liberation movements on the continent, the ANC is fast becoming a rural-based party.

Finally, elections have never brought any real change anywhere. If anything, they serve as a tranquilising mechanism to bewitch the masses into thinking that change is around the corner. The last 30 years have exposed the fact that the ANC has never been governing but simply holding the levers of power. It was handed a deep fake crown while the mining companies exited with their wealth to the imperial centres with the blessing of the modern-day compradors. Instead of assisting Africans to reclaim their country, elections have become a useful tool for dismantling whatever unity existed within the African community.

So far, the only solution is the unity of the oppressed. A coalition of the ANC, EFF, and MK Party would give the government the strength, and political manoeuvrability to effect policies that would place the interests of the marginalised majority at the centre. The alternative is ghastly to contemplate. The stakes are high. And as John F Kennedy, former president of the US, was wont to remark. “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.

For now, the marginalised majority should come to terms with the fact that theirs is an arrested revolution.

Professor Sipho Seepe is an independent political analyst