South Africa's unhappy state

Mike Berger writes on whether we have it in ourselves to escape our current predicament


History unfolds continuously over time - until, presumably, one day it doesn't. Nor do I see political trajectories as the consequence of unidimensional causes, and certainly not dictated by racial biology, but by an entangled web of antecedent factors, some more important than others. It is the job of historians to sort between the 'blooming, buzzing confusion' to weigh the relative contributions to various outcomes or trajectories along the way. History is always under revision.

If the past is uncertain, so even more so is the future. And the present is not simple either. The most relevant fact about the present is that by definition South Africa fits broadly into the category of neopatrimonial states where at one level the institutions of a constitutional democracy persist in a debilitated and dysfunctional form while the general fabric of political, economic and social life is dominated by dispersed networks of patronage, cronyism, bribery and intimidation.

These networks generally operate on or well across the boundaries of legality depending on the degree of outright criminality within a particular network. Since the law is enforced erratically, perversely, or not at all, existential incentives and threats ensure that the system expands into all the nooks and crannies of everyday life.

An excellent example is the recent article by Sara Gon on Politicsweb (18 July) in which she describes the personal threats, destruction of property and disruption of function which preceded the sequence of compromises and incremental surrenders made by UCT to the Fallists under the umbrella of 'restorative justice'. The procession of events outlined by Gon serves as a generic model for much of the way politics is conducted in South Africa.

Of course, it is easier if you can also capture and hold onto the formal levers of power conferred by a constitutional democracy. By using co-opted legal structures staffed by your selected surrogates in an illegal manner those at the top of the patrimonial hierarchy can leverage the power of the state to extract rents and to distribute favours as the situation demands.

Zuma conducted this strategy in so clumsy and outrageously provocative a manner that he opened himself, the ANC and South Africa itself to total ruin and to counter attack. Even so he nearly survived and his successor Ramaphosa essentially promises more of the same carried out with considerably greater discretion, precision and better camouflage by self-serving references to historical justices and inequalities.

In this exploitative mode and in the gravitas Ramaphosa projects, he resembles Verwoerd who allayed the moral pangs of his supporters by appeals to a systemised racial mythology to justify the self-serving exploitation and domination underlying apartheid. In the current reversal of roles the whites, largely, will be expected to provide the rents to support an expectant but seriously disenchanted black population.

This may be seen or depicted as long overdue 'justice'. But the abuse of both the letter and spirit of our constitution has splintered South African society into racialised factions of convenience characterised by short-term, tribalised and survivalist mindsets. In terms of broad human welfare neopatrimonial states fare poorly in comparison with established liberal democracies and even some autocracies.

In line with Tolstoy's opening to Anne Karenina "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way", neopatrimonial states are each variably unique in their history, cultural associations, political structure and social organisation. It is important to ask what may be special to South Africa? In other words what special legacies has our entangled historical web conferred on South Africa that may enable us to escape the leash of our history and current predicament? It's worth listing some of these:

Prolonged contact between the politically dominant groups: European colonialists on the one hand and the earlier Bantu-speaking pastoralists derived originally from West-Central Africa. Much but not all contact was conflictual and unequal but despite the injustices of colonialism some residue of mutual familiarity and even respect and affection remained. This is visible in daily life and is reflected in polls but such remaining goodwill is being whittled away steadily.

The prolonged period of colonial-apartheid domination which came to an end in 1994 has left behind physical, cultural and intellectual infrastructure which has the potential of contributing significantly to South Africa's future welfare.

Finally, newly democratic South Africa was the beneficiary of almost universal goodwill and hope for a successful outcome from the rest of the world.

Tragically the constructive possibilities inherent in our mixed historical legacy have been recklessly squandered by the ANC bloc. Predictably destructive ideological choices, inexperience, short-term self interest combined with irresponsibility have all contributed. But we are left with what I term a patchy neopatrimonialism including, by definition, the elements of a constitutional democracy.

One of the most obvious features of South Africa are the substantial islands of a relatively functional first world scattered in a third-world quasi-Hobbesian sea. This is a large and complex topic but for present purposes it will suffice to say that these islands represent the seeds of South African renewal. Furthermore, I suggest this reality is widely recognised and equally widely denied or weaponised for political ends.

First-world in this context does not only refer to the obvious manifestations of physical infrastructure, comfort, technological expertise and order but to the mindsets, good and bad, which accompany such environments. Currently these are entirely belittled as elitist or Eurocentric or even racist. But at a deeper level it is the internalised norms of self-discipline, personal responsibility, integrity, delayed gratification and broader social obligation which underpin the Enlightenment, industrialisation and democracy.

There is an immense literature on this topic but once again sticking to the current context it suffices to say the only political party which fairly consistently represents these political norms, especially the inclusivity dimension, is the DA. It is a serious mistake to focus on the ideological divisions and deviations from some platonic ideal of liberalism while ignoring the reality that no alternative exists in the South African context.

To marginalise the DA will be to choose either the neopatrimonialism of the ANC bloc or a form of civil conflict out of which it is implausibly hoped a more sustainable, decentralised political dispensation will arise in Southern Africa. For the moment I would go with the DA as a seed for a return to a constitutional dispensation. This will require much more out-of-the-box thinking, open-mindedness and adaptability than is evident in South Africa. Whatever road is taken our immediate future looks difficult and uncertain.


To cover such a complex topic in the space of a 1000 words is a magnet for oversimplification and distortion. For example, I do not mean to imply that all virtue inheres in constitutional democracies and that neopatrimonialism is equivalent to evil. That would be a gross distortion. For instance, democracies can act ruthlessly, exploitatively and deceptively towards other states, especially non-democracies, and even towards groups within their own countries.

Similarly, individuals in neopatrimonial states can act with great kindness to kin or other group members. What I do argue is that democracies expand the circle of cooperation much more widely and facilitate mutually beneficial and peaceful interactions within and sometimes outside its borders. In the current resurgence of identity politics and global tension this may be breaking down. Much is in flux.

Mike Berger