The causes of our current discontents

RW Johnson says the black African electorate has been in a state of radical dissidence for some time

The violent rioting and looting in Gauteng and the systematic attacks on, and looting of trucks on the N3 between Durban and Johannesburg have come in the same week as Tito Mboweni’s plan for structural reform. In very different ways both are signs of desperation.


In one sense the civil disorder is eerily reminiscent of the 1976 riots in Soweto, the unrest which led to the shootings at Sharpeville and Langa in 1960 or even the Cato Manor riots of 1959. Although the ANC made great play with all these events in its propaganda, the fact is that it had no control over any of them. The Cato Manor disturbances began with grievances over shebeens and seem to have been more or less spontaneous, while the later massacre of nine policemen seems to have been carried out by an urban mob under no political direction.

In the Sharpeville case the anti-pass agitation was really the work of the PAC while in Soweto the rioting students looked to Steve Biko, not the ANC. Indeed the very nature of these urban disorders – as also the xenophobic riots of 2008 – is that they depend heavily on rumour, the almost spontaneous combustion of circumstances and events and many personnel below the level of the political. It was the same again this time with Ramaphosa and Bheki Cele issuing “calls for calm” which, although doubtless well meant, were in the circumstances almost fatuous.

In fact the current situation has been brewing for some time. In the pre-election survey I carried out (via MarkData) for ENCA, we asked voters who they blamed for the fact that poverty and inequality had got worse in SA since 1994 (a multiple choice question, so answers total over 100%). Among all African voters, 57.8% blamed the government, 36% the ANC , 18.5% wealthy whites, 10.8% the black elite, and only 0.2% blamed apartheid/whites in general.

We then asked about falling standards of school education since 1994. 32.2% of Africans said this was because “the government doesn’t care about education”, while 50.2% disagreed with this. 44.9% of African voters blamed “teachers who are less hard-working than they used to be”, while only 30.9% disagreed with this.

We then asked about why public hospitals had deteriorated since 1994. 52% of Africans said this was because “the government doesn’t care about health” while 33.1% disagreed. When we asked why this had occurred 59.6% of African voters said that in the old days the doctors who used to run the hospitals did it well, while “the new people” did not.

Only 11.4% of Africans disagreed with that – a huge vote of no confidence in the way the public health system is run. We then asked why voters thought that unemployment had got so much worse since 1994. 54.6% of African voters said this was because “the ANC doesn’t really care about unemployment”, while only 29.8% disagreed. When we probed further, 56% of Africans said that “the ANC may care about unemployment but its policies just don’t work”.

Only 22.3% of Africans disagreed. When asked who else they blamed for high unemployment 33.4% of Africans blamed the trade unions while 29.3% disagreed. However, the most favoured answer of all about the rise of unemployment was that “there are too many foreigners”. It is worth giving the detailed figures:-

Too many foreigners?



















Don’t know / no answer






There was no other question on which there was such an overwhelming consensus among all racial groups. It is worth pondering the fact that whenever any politician says that there are too many foreigners allowed into the country, he or she is immediately denounced for xenophobia.

Yet such politicians are merely echoing the views of a huge national consensus. One may dislike or disagree with such views but to leave such a majority feeling unrepresented and unheard is asking for trouble. The track record suggests that if the authorities respond to this situation merely by preaching greater tolerance, the man in the street will simply take matters into his own hands.

Throughout the survey and even more in the accompanying focus groups one could discern a sense of despair and extremely low morale among all racial and political groups. The fact that so many of the ANC’s core voters believe that their party simply doesn’t care about unemployment or the decline of the public health system was matched by a cynicism and lack of belief in the government.

Thus, for example, when we asked why it was that President Ramaphosa talked of getting rid of corruption but that no corrupt people had yet gone to jail, 14.7% of all voters said that Ramaphosa didn’t really mean what he said, 29% said the reason was that the police were “useless and/or corrupt” and 52.8% said the reason was that corrupt people were still too influential within the government. Only 3.5% said Don’t Know. The two-thirds of the electorate who took a cyniCal view inevitably included a very large proportion of ANC voters.

This situation had the effect of making voters far more open than hitherto to radical change. When we asked voters whether they would accept major changes if that helped stimulate the economy, 68.8% of African voters said they would, against only 25.7% who said they wouldn’t. In the depressed Eastern Cape 85.4% of all voters said they would accept major change against only 13.2% who said they wouldn’t.

When we tested this by taking the concrete case of failing SOEs, only 32.8% of African voters said that the government should keep paying for their losses, while 38.2% wanted the SOEs privatized and 22.8% said they should be shut down. We also asked about attitudes to an IMF bail-out (though admittedly, many voters would have had only hazy views of this subject).

Only 34.2% of African voters said that South Africa should refuse IMF conditions for a loan even if that meant not getting any money, but 29.4% said it would be worth carrying out IMF conditions to get a loan and a further 30% said that South Africa anyway needed to carry out pro-business reforms of the sort likely to be required by the IMF, so the country might as well get IMF help if it could. Finally, 62% of all voters wanted a coalition government, with half of all African voters wanting to see the DA included in such a government – a radical political change. Only a miserable 25.9% of African voters said they were happy with government policy as it was now.

What all this boils down to is that the African electorate – let alone voters of other racial groups, who feel the same even more strongly – has been in a state of radical dissidence for some time. The country has been held on its traditional ANC course only because of the dominance of a narrow elite of ANC activists and leaders who are more and more out of touch with mass feeling.

This is a fundamentally unsustainable position. What tends to happen in such a situation is that sooner or later some member of the political elite decides to act as a lightning rod for the large mass of dissident feeling below. Effectively, this is what Tito Mboweni has now done. Inevitably, ANC, Cosatu and SACP activists are up in arms against him – for, as should be realised, this narrow elite is the principal beneficiary of the present position, holding major (and well paid) positions within governmental structures of all kinds.

They are supported by parasitic BEE and trade union elites who also have a strong vested interest in the present dispensation. In their view – this is dramatically represented by MPs – the current privileges and rents which they receive are still far from enough and should be increased. There is no limit to the greed, selfishness and sense of entitlement of this narrow elite.

There is a comic element to the way Mboweni has placed his proposals before the country. He sent his long (77 page) paper around all the ministers, soliciting their views. He got virtually no responses at all, which can hardly have surprised him for he would surely have known that ministers are too lazy and incompetent even to read properly through the papers emanating from their own ministries, let alone a complicated and lengthy paper from another ministry.

Now that the paper has been published there are furious complaints of a lack of consultation to which Mboweni has reacted by saying he can’t understand how the SACP can complain of this because several of their ministers (including Blade Nzimande) were among the recipients of his paper and they spoke not a word of dissent. And, of course, had these SACP ministers bothered to read the paper, word of it would have spread immediately to Cosatu and other affected interests.

Really, of course, it would be possible to be a great deal more pointed about the behaviour of these groups. It is, after all, not long since the SACP organised a protest at Nkandla in favour of the building of Zuma’s palatial homestead there on the grounds that this constituted “rural development”. Effectively this was a public demonstration in favour of corruption.

Cosatu’s overlords took a similarly strong stand behind Zuma at the height of his looting spree, from which many of them directly benefited. And, as we know, the EFF also had its fingers in the till of such Zuma-era scams as the VBS affair. That is, the Left opposition to Mboweni is riddled with corruption and keen, above all, to maintain its own privileges.

Ramaphosa’s first reaction to the uproar created by Mboweni’s paper has been to say that these ideas are among many others which are on the table and that all of them will be discussed. This is already a long way from giving Mboweni unequivocal support. Indeed, Ramaphosa looks poised to back into his usual round table meetings of “all stakeholders” (ie. those making the most noise in the present rumpus) in pursuit of a consensus which is as mythical as the unicorn.

It is difficult to see how Mboweni’s proposals could survive such a process. If Ramaphosa does take that route it would effectively mean that Mboweni and his plan have been thrown to the wolves. It is difficult to see why Mboweni would choose to stay on as finance minister if that happens. But if Ramaphosa loses his finance minister in such a fashion not only would there be a huge collapse of both confidence and the markets but Ramaphosa’s presidency would effectively be over. His reputation would never recover from the resulting ignominy.

What makes such a course doubly ridiculous is that it would mean kow-towing to the narrow activist elite despite the fact that the large majority of ANC (and EFF) voters are actually demanding the sort of changes Mboweni wants.

It is too soon to say that Ramaphosa will take such a suicidal route but the worrying thing is that he appears not to understand the implications of the choices he now faces. He seems always to feel that the right response is for him to utter some banal words of reassurance. He was, of course, completely right to condemn the barbaric attacks on foreigners in Gauteng but he then went on to insist that South Africa was “a home for all”. That is exactly what it is not, nor can it ever be.

Over the next generation Africa will have a billion more people. There is no possibility that their countries will provide them with sufficient houses, schools, health care or jobs so, without doubt, many of them will seek greener pastures.

If South Africa retains the open borders policy which has effectively been followed since 1994, one could easily see perhaps fifty to a hundred million more people trying to migrate here. If the political elite continues to ignore mass opinion on this issue, nothing is more predictable than that we will see a rising crescendo of xenophobic violence. This is not because South Africans are worse than others. There is no country in the world where the combination of 40% unemployment and mass immigration would not produce an explosion. It is wholly irrelevant for Ramaphosa to talk of the debt that the ANC owes to the rest of Africa. After all, we don’t have sufficient houses, hospitals, electricity or water for the people we have now.

Ramaphosa followed this by happily appearing with the Elders who were visiting South Africa to endorse NHI. This was entirely farcical. The delegation was led by the former Norwegian premier, Gro Bruntland, and including Ricardo Lagos (ex-premier of Chile) and Graca Machel. Ms Bruntland seemed to belong in a dream world, saying that South Africa should follow the example of Norway, Japan and the UK in providing universal health care. Norway is almost the richest country in the world and both Japan and the UK are in the top tier by GDP per capita. Ms Bruntland also insisted that South Africa and Ireland had comparable income levels.

Even Mr Lagos’s country, with a per capita income of $15,346 and an unemployment rate of only 6.9%, is far from comparable with South Africa. It was unclear what Ms Machel was doing there at all. She has never held elective office anywhere and her own country, ruled by a shamelessly corrupt Frelimo elite, has never considered introducing universal health care. Quite what Ramaphosa thought he was doing by endorsing this circus is unclear. Perhaps he wanted their advice on bullet trains and new cities or the launching of a South African space programme.

Meanwhile the reality is that Mboweni’s plan contains only the beginnings of what is needed. Its significance, however, is that it would be a good start and that it would mean that the ANC had formally abandoned the pretence of a National Democratic Revolution. The even harsher reality is that the government has lost control not only of Johannesburg but of its own capital, Pretoria.

What is left of the army is down in the Cape flats, pretending to be reining in gangsterism, while the police in Gauteng are completely unequal to the task of restoring order. The government’s only real option is to hope that the current wave of urban violence simply burns itself out. But this very obvious and public demonstration of the government’s impotence is bound to encourage further lawlessness. If looting is so easy and can be carried out with impunity, why not carry on doing it ?

The ultimate cause of these events is the huge feeding frenzy in which the ANC elite has been engaged since 1994. Quite transparently, that elite couldn’t give a damn about the poor, unemployment, inequality, health care or, indeed, anything else other than filling its own pockets. How to explain that civil service pay increases have averaged 11% a year for a whole decade during which economic growth has been miserable? How to explain that Ramaphosa has been able to amass such a vast fortune?

The Oppenheimers, Ruperts, Naspers and others built their fortunes by constructing huge businesses which employed many thousands, but what did Ramaphosa build? And where has all the stolen money gone? It has gone on expensive cars, foreign trips, luxury hotels and continuous, lavish partying. Many, many billions – perhaps as much as a trillion - have been stolen but there is little to show for it. Very little has been invested. The ANC elite still likes to talk about its “revolution “but seldom has a revolution been more comprehensively betrayed.

As the polls show, even the ANC electorate has begun to understand the scale of this betrayal. This fact, together with the high unemployment (created by corruption and absurd economic policies) and the sight of the endless looting by the black elite has created a toxic mix. The rage, cynicism and deprivation which now exists in many townships and informal settlements is an elemental force, equalling or surpassing anything seen even at the height of apartheid.

True, African nationalist “revolutions” have been betrayed in most of Africa but the difference is that they were all mainly rural societies whereas South Africa is now a predominantly urban, even metropolitan society. This not only bottles problems up but, because of the concentration of large populations in a confined urban space, creates explosive possibilities for social and political action not seen in rural societies. We can already see the constitutional order unravelling with such crazy rulings that flying the old flag is hate speech (flags can’t speak) and now the justice minister’s attempt to revive the death penalty.

Where does all this lead? Ultimately, to the dissolution of the state. Already the state has crippled itself by creating an incompetent civil service, quite incapable of implementing policy. The various arms of the state are also in a state of collapse. The navy and air force now barely exist: the corvettes are forever tied up at Simonstown and the only planes capable of taking off from Ysterplaat air base are old DC-2s.

The army is in a pathetic state with a huge surplus of expensive generals and soldiers with an average age twenty years higher than it should be. The police are corrupt and incompetent. The national broadcaster and national airline are both bankrupt. Parliament has failed its duties comprehensively. Starting with Frene Ginwala, its Speakers have abused their office while the parliament itself failed to stand up against one president who caused the death of some 365,000 Africans by denying them Aids drugs or against another who effectively handed over the state to a family of immigrant crooks.

Many people praise the courts but there are undoubtedly many corrupt and incompetent judges and even some of the decisions of the Constitutional Court are clearly biased. Many ministers are corrupt and most are also incompetent.

One could go on, but why bother? We have seen this trend in many other African states. It ends up with a failed state which is incapable of keeping order and ultimately state power is reduced to controlling the road leading from the presidential palace to the airport. If South Africa follows this route it is easy to predict that some provinces will secede simply in order to prevent themselves from going down with the ship. In which case the ANC would have managed to destroy the national state which has existed since 1910.

It is sometimes remarked that under apartheid there was always hope because the system could not last but that under ANC rule there is no hope. Happily, this is not quite true. Under both apartheid and ANC rule the business community, on whom the country’s economy depends, has often been missing in action. Time and again hopes that businessmen would speak out against a bad government have been disappointed. But recently this has changed.

No doubt spurred on by a real desperation, more and more businessmen have been speaking out very clearly and have even been willing to demand such forbidden fruit as privatization and structural reform. And Ramaphosa has been immersed in that community for seventeen years so he knows how significant such plain speaking is. He is undoubtedly given over to an absurdly consensual style and he seems to have no shortage of banal responses and foolish ideas but, all the same, there has to be a real chance that he will listen and understand. It seems likely that he will. But, of course, the real question is whether he will then act.

R.W. Johnson