Our "July Days" and their reckoning (I)

RW Johnson writes on how the aftershocks of the Zuma insurrection are being felt in the municipal elections

Just as the 2016 local elections played a key role in ending Zuma’s reign, so the approaching local elections of 2021 have several points of interest beyond the normal. One is that the ANC tried its hardest not to hold the elections now, for its decline is apparent to all. It couldn’t get its candidates selected on time, it can’t pay its staff, it is visibly split and one of its leading cabinet ministers has just had to resign amidst yet another corruption scandal. Its electorate is apathetic and demoralised.

Particularly in one party states African nationalist parties have frequently found that such circumstances result in lower and lower turnout. By the late 1990s in Zimbabwe some contests saw turnouts of well under 10% and this ultimately allowed an Independent like Margaret Dongo to win Harare South in 1995. The constituency was sizeable but she won easily with only 3.075 votes while her Zanu-PF opponent trailed in with a mere 1,630. To be sure, South Africa’s multi-party politics probably guarantee higher turnouts than that but the mere demonstration that fewer and fewer people are willing to give the ANC positive support will carry its own message: not only is the state failing but the political elite which runs it represents less and less.    

The DA has its own problems. Its electorate is in an irritable and tetchy mood, annoyed by the way the party’s leadership has thrown away the momentum which had borne it upwards in one election after another after 1994. It is also clear that Helen Zille’s high-profile chairperson role has prevented John Steenhuisen from really establishing himself as leader.

When James Selfe did the job he said little and saw his job as backing up the leader as much as possible. Zille does the opposite, continually speaking out and taking initiatives, robbing Steenhuisen of headlines and impact. It was never a good idea to have a former party leader as chairperson and the resulting dissonance has registered with voters.

The elections take place amidst the gathering collapse of municipal government in almost all areas outside the Western Cape. More and more municipalities are effectively bankrupt, have given up providing services or are actually under administration – including, for example, more than half the municipalities in North West province.

Ramaphosa’s rather pathetic promise that the ANC would like another chance and will try to do better next time cuts absolutely no ice. The municipalities are in crisis because they don’t maintain or repair the infrastructure in their care. Instead the money gets stolen or paid in large salaries to councillors and officials. Does Ramaphosa mean that in future the councillors and officials will take much less and spend the money on maintenance instead? Absolutely not.

For neither Ramaphosa nor anyone else can prevent local ANC elites from stealing public money, awarding themselves huge salaries and allowances, using public money to buy themselves fancy cars and getting up to all the other tricks which kill municipal governance. After all the ANC couldn’t even prevent one of its municipal leaders from stealing money intended for Mandela’s funeral – a sacred trust, you would have thought – so what hope of getting officials to give up the stealing habit for more mundane reasons of public interest?  

A truthful ANC manifesto would promise every ratepayer that their rates would be wasted or stolen, that rate increases would be exorbitant and that services would be few and bad. Indeed, it’s quite fun to imagine the slogans: “We promise you more potholes, leaking pipes and inaccurate bills. We are incapable of running any town properly or honestly. So why not give us another chance?”

Since even loyal ANC voters might baulk at that, the answer is to put Cyril upfront to tell a list of whoppers. When Soweto residents tackled him over electricity he quickly promised to get power restored and carefully avoided telling them that since four out of every five Soweto residents manage not to pay for their electricity, they have a considerable cheek to complain at all.

This is quite obviously a situation which is bound to end in tears but since the ANC has long encouraged this sense of entitlement and victimhood it naturally feels that the run-up to elections is no time to start telling uncomfortable truths.

The DA also has things it does not want to talk about, particularly the yawning gap which is opening up between the party in the Western Cape and the party in the rest of South Africa. It is difficult to open a newspaper these days without reading an impassioned denunciation by someone or other of the Cape independence movement but this merely bears witness to that movement’s success. For over ten years now various groups have been campaigning on this issue and even standing, without success, in elections. If you talked to these folk you quickly realised that they were (a) English-speaking (b) mainly white and (c) pre-political, accounting for a certain naivete.

Now however, the issue has broken surface. A poll shows 58% of Western Cape voters (of all races) wanting a referendum on the subject. Geordin Hill-Lewis, the DA’s mayoral candidate, talks of expanding Cape Town’s powers into new areas. If the government won’t agree to hand over such powers he says, Cape Town should just take them. This is fighting talk, calculated to appeal to autonomists, without ever pronouncing the dread word “independence”. The Freedom Front Plus, which is unabashedly in favour of Cape independence, is making a major push, fielding far more candidates than hitherto in the Western Cape.

In fact the DA does not speak with one voice. While Mr Hill-Lewis is beating the drum for expanded city powers and greater autonomy, the party’s leader, John Steenhuisen, seems to be doing the opposite. To the utter delight of the FF+ (who are making hay with the issue) Steenhuisen has “instructed” the Cape Town city council to build low-cost housing on a number of the city’s golf courses.

Steenhuisen, who has also been embarrassingly on both sides of the Phoenix posters scandal, seems to have blundered badly. If the DA leader can simply “instruct” Cape Town councillors to make major changes to their city, what is the point of having local elections at all? He would have been wiser to remember that Mmusi Maimane’s decision to take over responsibility for dealing with Patricia de Lille from the Cape Town city council was the prelude to complete disaster: it ended with the DA having to apologise to de Lille and with Maimane losing the party leadership.

In fact what happens to a city’s golf courses is a tricky planning issue. As open green spaces the golf courses act as major “green lungs”. To replace them with low-cost housing would have major effects on the environment, pollution and employment. Moreover, to plonk down low cost housing amidst the city’s leafy suburbs while simultaneously robbing them of their “green lungs”, would have a disastrous effect on property values in those and adjacent areas - and quite possibly on crime rates too.

Steenhuisen’s announcement seemed almost calculated to produce a major revolt among DA voters in those suburbs – an extraordinarily maladroit thing to do on the eve of local elections. Inevitably, the DA had had to disavow Mr Steenhuisen for the second time in a week. The local elections are Mr Steenhuisen’s first as DA leader and they are turning into a disaster for him, especially since he now seems bound to get the blame if the DA results disappoint.

When Harold Laski made similar foot-in-mouth blunders during the 1945 election he earned a magisterial rebuke from Clement Attlee who wrote him a note urging that “a period of silence from you would be most welcome”.

That the Cape independence activists have now propelled the issue of autonomy/independence onto the agendas of two major parties is no small measure of their success. The problem they now face is that the Freedom Front Plus has, so to speak, expropriated their issue without compensation. Yet it is difficult to imagine the white English-speakers of the Cape movements voting FF+. They are precisely the sort of people who, a generation ago, would have voted United Party and such folk have tribal feelings of resistance to voting for what they regard as re-christened Nats.

What explains the sharp uptick of secession talk? The July Days. Initially the “July Days” referred to the July Revolution in France when Charles X was overthrown and replaced by Louis Philippe. Then in 1917 came the July Days in St Petersburg when armed soldiers, sailors and workers attempted a Bolshevik coup – which in turn brought Kerensky to power.

But South Africa has now had its own July Days, scorched into popular memory, in the shape of the riots and looting in KwaZulu-Natal and parts of Gauteng. For a while a major ripple of unease ran through the whole country. Even in Cape Town a number of shopping malls shut down, hoping to pre-empt trouble. The point was that the July Days gave everyone a terrifying picture of what happens when a state fails.

For the state did fail: the government simply failed to react, the police vanished and the army was initially absent. Everyone could watch the looting gaily going on, day after day, on their TV screens. Factories and warehouses were burning, trucks were hijacked on the motorways, armed looters and equally vigilantes were in the streets – and the forces of law and order did absolutely nothing. Moreover, the government’s attitude since the July Days has essentially been that it would be best if we could all forget about them. But people don’t forget and the whole credibility of the state has been markedly reduced. By the same token, talk of a failed state seems to have been vindicated because everyone has now seen the state fail.

The July Days have produced strong pressures for further semigration to the Western Cape. They also produced a sharp change in the propaganda of Cape activists: instead of emphasising positively how much nicer it would be to live in an independent Cape, they now argued that South Africa was obviously going to hell so why should the Cape be dragged down with it? This more potent and negative line has the advantage that the ANC government is bound to keep producing new and different proofs that South Africa is going to hell, all of which will be grist to the Cape activists’ mill.

This is an important change. What those who claim that Cape secession is wishful nonsense miss is that what is not practical politics today is not set in stone. The situation will continue to change and evolve. For example, we are told that there is a serious possibility of a major water shortage in Gauteng.

Such an event would doubtless encourage the migration of more people and companies to the Western Cape, but it would also seriously undermine the ANC’s grip on the country’s economic heartland. This would not only provide further reinforcement for the Cape secessionists’ case but would greatly weaken the ANC government. There are also many other potential developments which could affect the balance of power.

The demand for Cape secession rests in large part, of course, on the historical memory of the autonomous and self-governing Cape Colony. In effect the secessionists suggest that the formation of South Africa was a mistake and should be reversed. This puts the ANC in the ironic position of defending the colonial settlement. For no one can pretend that the four constituent elements of South Africa – the Cape and Natal colonies and the Boer republics of Transvaal and the Orange Free State - would have come together on their own. It took a British army of nearly 500,000 to expunge the independence of the Boer republics and create a situation in which Union became possible.

In fact the possibility of Cape secession or even of South Africa splitting up needs to be seriously thought through. We live in an age of explosive sub-division of political units. When the world’s nations assembled to form the United Nations in San Francisco in 1945, exactly fifty countries were represented. Today the UN has 193 members.

In good part this expansion was due to decolonization (the sub-division of empires) but even now that decolonization is over this process of sub-division has not stopped. In recent time we have seen Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and the USSR split up into many countries and we have seen Singapore secede from Malaysia, South Sudan from Sudan, Timor-Leste from Indonesia and Cape Verde from Guinea-Bissau, while both Britain and Spain face major secessionist movements, as do many other countries.

In South Africa’s case Union succeeded largely because of the growth of a strong central state which became progressively more dominant over time. Moreover, the state was extremely successful in binding the Union together with a fine and sophisticated infrastructure and in generating strong economic growth so that all sections of the population experienced rising living standards. The Union, and then the Republic, were in those terms an obvious success, a fact which bound the country together.

However, after 1994 all this went into reverse. The infrastructure is decaying and falling to bits. Economic growth has almost ceased and real per capita incomes (and thus living standards) have now fallen for six years in a row. This seems likely to continue. And quite clearly the central state is failing and getting weaker all the time. It is, accordingly, harder and harder to regard the country as a success – indeed, we have growing talk of a failed state.

Given this huge historic reversal it is hardly surprising that the issues of autonomy and secession are increasingly on the agenda. Moreover, the cause of this reversal – the accession of the ANC to power – seems set to continue at least for some time, so it is only reasonable to expect these processes to continue.

It is accordingly an interesting historical exercise to imagine how different history might have been if Union had not occurred and if the four constituent territories making up the Union (and now Republic) of South Africa had continued as independent entities. In the second part of this article I shall attempt to consider this very different scenario.

R.W. Johnson

The next article in this series can be read here