Is there any escape from the mafia state?

Mike Berger analyses the political parasitism that has this country in its grip

"For mankind is ever the same and nothing is lost out of nature, though everything is altered" John Dryden. "Every successful revolution puts on in time the robes of the tyrant it has deposed" Barbara Tuchman

In a remarkably prescient and thoughtful little book unoriginally titled "When Mandela Goes" published in 1997, the journalist, Lester Venter, carefully explored the likely trajectory of South Africa over the following two decades, thus bringing us to the present. In brief his prognostications were that:

Continuing population growth especially in the poorer sections of the population coupled to stagnant economic performance would lead to a youth bulge, widening inequality, more crime, corruption and erosion of the social fabric - thus further amplifying negative social-political trends while sharpening racial and class divisions.

This spiral, predictably, would be accompanied by poor education, inadequate service delivery of all kinds set in the context of increasing globalisation with its concurrent emphasis on free trade, stable governance and a skilled, disciplined population.

Falling short in all these essential attributes of success, deteriorating South African economic and political life would encourage populists and a shift to redistributive, leftwing, nationalistic politics. These in turn would simply exacerbate the gap between reality and expectation and worsen the negative spiral.

Venter is a realist. At the time of writing he prognosticated on these and related themes based upon an assessment of the fundamental economic and demographic dynamics, currently prevailing socio-political trends and the mindsets of the major players within South Africa.

It is hard to argue that Venter miscalled the 20 year event horizon in any important respect. Recent reports, leaks and analyses, by now familiar to most readers, strongly suggest that political corruption has evolved into an shadow but real Mafia state, part of but parasitic upon the Constitutional state displayed to the world. Such parasitic relationships are by no means either new or confined to South Africa.

Within biology it is widely recognised that two organisms can have a mutual relationship which varies on a spectrum from mutualism (outright win-win dynamics) to parasitism which is frank zero sum. This metaphor and its empirical and theoretical foundations in biology have been underutilised, in my opinion, in political analysis. The most drastic recent examples are perhaps the notorious drug-based economies of South America.

In "Killing Pablo" , Mark Bowden describes the virtual state-within-a-state created by the drug cartel headed by Pablo Escobar in Colombia. Using brutal violence, blackmail, bribery and infiltration of state institutions the Escobar gang virtually destroyed Colombia before being eliminated with the help of significant and prolonged USA intervention. 

To a variable extent such relations can be found even within established democracies. They may be as 'mild' as informal 'old-boy' networks which distort commercial interactions or influence high-level appointments to the quasi-organised extraction of rents from society by the medieval Catholic clergy for instance.  One may even rationalise such forms of symbiotic-parasitism as the inevitable accompaniment of a vigorous, unregulated but intensely productive and innovative society.

But the inherent danger of outright parasitism always remains. This is especially true if the political conditions and immune system of the host is already compromised. These risk factors were and remain particularly prevalent in South Africa.

As already pointed out most of the major negative economic-demographic-social-political dynamics identified by Venter in 1997 have persisted or even gradually worsened over time. Nor are we immune to the global trends towards political polarisation dividing the media, academia and the broader public into fiercely antagonistic tribal enclaves which place a premium on loyalty rather than truth or balance - or journalistic integrity.

Globalisation also pits South Africa against more adaptable and dynamic economies which exacerbates our reputational, socio-political and strategic weaknesses. Such mutually reinforcing trends leave the country in a highly vulnerable state which both invites parasites and simultaneously weakens our ability to deal effectively with them.

These trends can be overstated and other mitigating (even paradoxical) developments ignored. In everyday life race relationships may have precariously improved and the middle class has grown significantly and has lost its previous dangerous pallor. Although educational standards are still poor, literacy and the spread of skills into the black communities has made some progress, although not nearly enough.

Perhaps even more importantly, urbanisation and various processes of cultural diffusion and appropriation have shifted the perceptions and ambitions of a broader band of the previously excluded towards what may be broadly called Western values and aspirations. Whatever the negatives in such cultural attitudes they offer a better platform for socio-economic success than entrenched rural poverty and passivity or an unrealistic sense of entitlement.

Furthermore, South Africa still possesses a robust civil society capable of looking after itself if not actively sabotaged. The famous (notorious?) South African resilience manifests in innumerable bottom-up projects at various scales and in various fields aimed at community upliftment, community reconciliation and combating poor governance and corruption. Such cultural attributes reflect both pro-active self-interest and a collective morality which contains the seeds of rehabilitation.

Nevertheless, it is clear that the parasitic network which has coalesced around the Zupta axis is having major ill effects on the broader South African society. These have been dealt with in a number of reports but in my view the three most egregious consequences are:

The systematic damage being done to the competence and integrity of our civil service and our regulatory institutions which threatens the foundations of our Constitutional Democracy.

The undermining of South Africa's already precarious economic viability inviting opportunistic demagogues feeding on mob social dynamics.

That within the ANC over the past 15 years a tipping point has been breached which renders the alliance incapable of mounting an effective immune response.

It is the task of the historian and social psychologist to disentangle the various narratives and internal dynamics that have led to this outcome but the upshot is large-scale public cynicism towards all politicians, anger, lowered trust and erosion of pro-social behaviours and attitudes in susceptible communities.

All these trends constitute a mutually reinforcing downward spiral. The question which needs an urgent answer is whether we can find within our history, social traditions and civil society the necessary insights and energy to check and even reverse these dynamics.

As already suggested, there is evidence that South African society is broadly committed to Constitutionalism and has manifested both resilience and the capacity for civil resistance. Over the longer-term if these attributes are successfully harnessed to a flexible strategic policies which broadly emphasise:

- legal resistance to racialised and parasitic politics including defence of our key constitutional institutions,

- a physical infrastructure which simultaneously promotes economic opportunity, individual dignity and environmental protection

- racial inclusivity and socio-economic transformation which does not undermine the public's sense of fairness, individual responsibility and dignity

- a continued emphasis on education and especially skills relevant to our socio-economic context

- maximum government deregulation compatible with protection of the public from abuse and exploitation,

- the promotion of opportunity and the cultivation of personal initiative and integrity

Some will dismiss these guiding principles as unrealistic and visionary. Yet these are the policies which have already been implemented, imperfectly perhaps, in the Western Cape (and some other developing nations) which has transformed the province into the most favoured destination within South Africa. And we can take heart from the vigorous civil and political response to State capture and the threat it poses to the broader South African population.

Like a minor heart attack which induces some patients to undertake the necessary pre-emptive preventative measures, the Zupta travesties may help induce the wider South African population to forgo its addictions to ethnic politics, insatiable historical grievances and unrealistic political fantasies in favour of more pragmatic policies.

Tuchman in her history of the 'calamitous' 14th Century, comments on the impulsivity and juvenility of their political behaviour which she partly attributes to the youthful demographic profile of the times. That is equally true of South Africa and the modern 'culture of narcissism' does nothing to abate these tendencies. Furthermore, there is a cynicism and weariness within sections of the South African population which translates into apathy and escapism, into infantile rage or unrealistic longings for political nostrums to set matters right.

Secondly, while the voices of opposition are substantial in number, they are splintered and fragmented. In contrast the Mafia state is small, ruthlessly focused and amoral. Historically such parasitic but organised groups are extremely difficult to dislodge or defeat. The fight-back has begun and will become increasingly bitter, divisive and dirty as pointed out by Adriaan Basson in News24 (1 June 2017). Furthermore, the nature of media is to simplify and distort reality and within a democracy a multitude of voices can deliberately divert excitable publics into political dead-ends and precipitous self-defeating actions.

To conclude: while the Zupta network is an immediate problem that needs to be eliminated if possible, but at least constrained, the underlying economic, historical and political dynamics remain. There is no magic formula other than ongoing intelligent pragmatism and courageous, principled political leadership. Our future depends on whether we can find these insights and strengths within our society.