By Imraan Buccus
No one thought that South Africa would end up as a violently repressive kleptocracy, with strong links between organised crime and leading figures in the state and the ruling party. No one imagined a future of enclaves of incredible wealth surrounded by a sea of worsening poverty.
Our cities are similar in important ways to some Latin American societies, especially central American countries and Mexico. In these kinds of societies organised crime operates with impunity and ordinary citizens are at constant risk of violence. The rich move to high security gated communities, but everyone else lives in fear. The state itself often extorts money from vulnerable people and demands for bribes are routine. The state does not exist to pursue the public interest. Instead it has two primary functions. One is to enable elite accumulation, and the other is to repress popular resistance.
The elite that becomes enriched through the state is made up of state officials, leaders of the ruling party, and criminal networks. These three categories of people – state officials, politicians and criminals – are enmeshed in networks that are effective at accumulating personal wealth but do so at the cost of devastating the rest of society.
In these kinds of states party politics is seldom about any kind of commitment to a better future for the majority. It operates on systems of trickle-down patronage in which, at the bottom of the pyramid, votes are bought with petty forms of patronage. Academics call this clientelism.
This is an almost unbearable picture of social decay. But it is not just true of Mexico, Belize, Honduras or Guatemala. It is also true of South Africa. This is a truth that is tough to face, but if we don’t face reality we will not be able to do anything to change course.
We don’t have an easy route to change. Electoral politics is in a complete mess. The ANC has not been able to expel its corrupt and authoritarian elements, who remain powerful. Who could vote for a party with Ace Magashule as its Secretary General? The EFF is no alternative. After its sharp turn to the far right the DA is now a joke. Many whites that I speak to say that they couldn’t bring themselves to vote for the party any more. It has no future beyond being a small ethnic outfit along the lines of the Vryheidsfront Plus.
But there are at least three upsides to our very bleak situation. One is that the kleptocratic faction in the ANC can no longer get away with the claim that they represent black interests. For some years many people were bullied into silence with this argument, but know it is widely recognised that it is simply farcical. A few black people becoming millionaires and billionaires by looting public funds is far from being in the interests of all black people. In fact it leads directly to greater poverty, worse services and worse institutions.
A second upside is that we do have a vibrant civil society and a corruption busting media. But while both do important work that are often white dominated, and tend to focus on elite interests. A real solution to our problems will require the participation of the poor and working-class black majority. That will require building new social forces that don’t yet exist.
A third upside is that both trade union federations, and Abahlali baseMjondolo, the shack dwellers’ movement with over 75 000 members, are committed to opposing corruption. But although Saftu and Cosatu are starting to acknowledge that they have some areas of interest, and both federations want to build links with Abahlali baseMjondolo, these organisations have not yet cohered into a unified force. If this were to happen it could, possibly, lay the ground for a real alternative to the current mess.
In the meantime we need to stay strong and refuse to accept a corrupt and repressive state that is worsening poverty and running down institutions is, in any way, acceptable.
Dr Imraan Buccus is Al Qalam editor and research fellow in the School of Social Sciences at UKZN.