Big man politics

Mike Berger writes on the neopatrimonial road we're on

In Belinda Bozzoli's recent article in PW (25 June) 'DA-style "good governance" is not just a nice-to-have' she describes clientelism in practice: big man politics at various levels dispensing favours of various kinds to clients in return for loyalty and support. When that is combined with outward forms of national democracy which have largely been emptied of content the term, originally coined by Eisenstadt, is neopatrimonialism - a dominant form of politics throughout most third world states and notably within sub-Saharan Africa (SSA).

It's worth deconstructing and examining these political systems briefly. The clientelism Bozzoli describes can assume various forms. Favours may include various forms of personal security or protectzia all the way to special business deals, introductions, rent-a-mob or whatever other needs and gratifications the client may express. Clientelism works via personal networks of influence, family connections, reciprocity, intimidation and friendships of various kinds.

The problem with clientelism it delivers goods chiefly to the smart, ruthless, lucky and connected; it robs the poor to feed the rich. Also, clientelism in its various manifestations is poor at coordinating large groups of unrelated or distantly-related individuals, e.g. for military purposes. Thus, for thousands of years larger collectives were hierarchical autocracies of various kinds and different degrees reflecting the time, place and special characteristics of the society. The concentration of power at the centre minimised the development of local power nodes characterising clientelist-patronage systems, but came with disadvantages, too well-known to review here.

The recent evolution of institutionalised democracy in industrialising societies has been the major cultural-political innovation of the modern era. It liberated individual initiative and talent to an unprecedented degree while legitimising power exercised by the state. Over the past century or so liberal democracies have come to dominate the global stage politically, morally, economically and militarily, at least until recently. Right now, they're under considerable pressure from a new versions of authoritarianism and internal divisions partly precipitated by migrant pressures coming from failed states in Africa, parts of Latin America, the Middle East and elsewhere.

In many ways democracy runs counter to basic human nature except for the higher degree of personal freedom it delivers. A genuine, rule-based democracy requires considerable postponement of gratification and long-term pragmatism, neither of which comes easily. It limits the default human tendency to favour family and comrades and constrains the acquisition and projection of personal power by both individuals and groups.

In order to do this long enough and effectively enough to reap the benefits, democracy requires strong institutions supported by most citizens even against short-term gains as well as impartially enforced laws, strong informal cultural norms, a threshold degree of shared national identity and an acceptably fair distribution of resources between the different, sub-state social groups.

Post-colonial SSA especially lacked many of the pre-requisites to sustain effective democratic governance and descended into hybrids of pro-forma democracy co-existing with various combinations of clientelistic local politics and bloody but inefficient tyrannies. State power was generally too weak to control far-flung, multi-ethnic territories and, amidst much bloodshed and human misery, the new post-colonial constructs struggled to maintain the fiction of a democratic, cohesive national polity.

The language of modern democracy and human rights persists in such neopatrimonial states serving PR purposes whilst cronyism, patronage and endemic corruption operates at all levels. It could be argued that even weakened democratic institutions and allegiances at least offer the possibility of shifting the balance back to effective democratic rule given popular will and other favourable conditions. This will be further touched on in relation to the options facing South Africa.

A useful start is Prof Tom Lodge's thoughtful and carefully referenced article published in 2014, in which he categorised the ANC as a neopatrimonial party tracing its origins from its earliest leaders through alliances with criminal groups during 'the struggle' to the power of regional political and traditional leaders post-liberation - to mention only a few of the tangled roots through which the ANC is deeply entangled with clientelist forms of politics.

It does not, however, take deep scholarly analysis to see Zuma and his supporters as outrightly clientelist in orientation. Zuma scarcely bothered to disguise his ambition as latter-day African royalty with grandiose displays, multiple wives, blatant nepotism, open patronage, a complex client-patron relationship with the Guptas and ridicule of 'clever blacks'. His political longevity despite the mortal damage his reign was inflicting on democratic institutions and the economy of South Africa was possible only because he was embedded in a neopatrimonial ANC which endorsed many of his perspectives and were themselves deeply implicated in patronage politics.

Furthermore, the Zuma camp could depend on a rural constituency, familiar and comfortable with traditional forms of personalised hierarchy, and a disempowered, urbanised poor accustomed to a dependency role relieved by regular, ritualised displays of mob violence. These realities were camouflaged by borrowings from post-colonial tropes of Western/white/male wickedness and theatrical displays of outrage over petty white bigotry or Zille's tweets or injured black dignity assuagable only by the symbolic 'repossession' of 'stolen' land without compensation.

When the ANC assumed power in 1994 it brought with it a natural desire to transform the civil service into one more compatible with its own vision and history and to project power through political appointees. This, together with inexperience, a sense of entitlement, pervasive corruption, further abetted by a general disrespect for the law, the Africanist fantasies and AIDS denialism of Mbeki and the rise of political activists riding the wave of revolutionary rhetoric, ensured that South Africa has become steadily more polarised and detached from economic reality.

Ramaphosa has inherited a thoroughly factionalised, confused and corrupted ANC sunk deep into neopatrimonialist politics. All available evidence to date suggests that he would like a reformist economic dividend without paying the price of splitting the ANC or confronting the racial rhetoric to his left and within the alliance itself. It won't work.

Whether investment comes from the West or the East it comes with strings favouring the investors and politically connected recipients, not the broader populace. Michael Lind in a hard-hitting article for American Affairs pointed out that, contrary to the punditry in the Western popular media, the ruling managerial class in the USA and the West is interested primarily in profits. It thus outsources externally to cheap labour markets like Africa and parts of South America (previously the East) or internally to poorly skilled migrants. The Chinese will be no different and we in South Africa will not be exempt from the consequences of a grossly one-sided balance of power.

The neopatrimonialism of SSA and the ANC is a political system difficult to break embedded as it is in high-risk, low-trust local contexts in which such forms of political interaction make strategic sense to individuals or sub-state groupings even though the national outcomes are contrary to the interests of the majority - especially the poor. There is scant prospect, in my view, of Ramaphosa breaking the grasp of local power-brokers on the wider ANC even if he wanted to.

A minor and transient amelioration is the best to hope for. Furthermore, there are no leaders in sight within the ANC or on its flanks who can possibly be cast as a tough-minded reformers, charismatic, insightful and tenacious enough to assume the mantle of saviour.

The tragedy for South Africa is that the most realistic prospect for deep reform capable of addressing our massive inequalities lies in coalition politics between 'reformist' elements in the ANC with a market-orientated, delivery-based, non-racial DA. But events over the past couple of years and a relentless, political-media campaign against the DA are rapidly closing that window of opportunity - doubtless to the delight of clientelists of all stripes.

That is no cause for celebration for the vast majority of South Africans however. If you need to know why look at the 2015 - 2017 rankings in the World Happiness report. Of the top 20 ranked countries 19 are classified as Western-style democracies whereas SSA countries make up 12 of the bottom 20 places, with the Middle East-North Africa-East Europe taking up most the rest.

Realistically the foreseeable prospects are an ever-narrowing, increasingly bumpy road ahead for South Africa in which room for reversal becomes more and more constrained. We have no way of knowing precisely when the road runs out and the decline becomes unmanageable, but as things stand at present that appears the most likely scenario. Serious futurists like Sir James Martin predict a 'canyon' facing mankind around mid-21st century as climatic, political and technological events start to merge too fast to manage.

The problem is that the way public debate and political dynamics are unfolding in South Africa it seems that as a society we're losing the capacity for bigger picture politics. Within the sub-Saharan African context South Africa would appear to be best placed to leverage technology, institutionalised democracy and social capital to face the challenges of the future. But it will require a much greater sense of responsibility from our political leaders, academia, media and ordinary citizens than demonstrated to date.

Mike Berger


James Martin “The meaning of the 21st century: a vital blueprint for ensuring our future”, published by Eden Project Books, 2006