The working poor, the fractures in the ANC and the South African situation: an interview

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Lawrence Hamilton and Hans Pienaar

Hans Pienaar interviews Lawrence Hamilton, author of Are South Africans free? (Bloomsbury Publishing).

What is your take on the booing of Zuma on May Day? Was it as significant as some observers say?

I should say at the outset … I have done work on South Africa but am mainly a political theorist … So, I don’t have any particular insights into the ANC. That’s just a rider. People get a sense with these sorts of political events and political problems that you are going to have a once-off solution, or a once-off revolution, or a once-off moment that decides everything. That is never really the case in politics, so, for me, this is just another stamp of distrust, upset, and manifestation of fracturing in the alliance ... also of the deep fractures in the ANC. I suppose it’s got a little bit of extra significance, in the sense that Cosatu was the one body that could really call on a bloc vote, the one entity that could be linked directly to labour – the labouring class, if you want. It was something the ANC had historically really valued keeping on their side … If this event is a demonstration of a wider, massive discontent among Cosatu membership, then it is a pretty serious loss … but we have had a whole series of events for a long time. I wouldn’t say it is any more of a significant blow than other events, especially in the last few months. I suppose it’s more of a blow for the ANC, in the sense that … what the populism of Zuma and the Zuma camp is now relying on, probably – and relied on more or less from the start, and is definitely relying on strongly now – is a populism that hooks into people in the position of what we used to call the working class – in South Africa this is a better term due to high numbers of unemployed people and working poor – that has great political potential due to its numbers and situation. If there is serious evidence that this … very large subsection of society is now booing him and showing serious upset with what Zuma stands for and what he has done … that is another stamp. I don’t think it’s inconsequential that, at the same time, Cyril Ramaphosa was finally making his stand.

You talk of the precarious class, but many members of the precarious class see workers as part of the ruling class, especially in South Africa, but also in the wider world, especially in the South – you know, the third world.

Definitely, especially in this context, but in the third world in general, in the global South, whatever you want to call it … with such a huge problem with unemployment, the really precarious class is obviously one that is unemployed, and the bloc that is represented by Cosatu is much less precarious. But it is still a working class in the sense that it doesn’t earn very much, generally, and in a sense depends on Cosatu to represent and defend it and its rights and interests.

And its only option is to find work.

And its only option is to find work. And many employed South Africans constitute the "working poor". So, it’s still precarious as compared with the middle and upper classes in this country; they are very small, but they’re very powerful economically. Their economic power of the working class – if you want, their political power – is strongly linked to Cosatu, and now the break-off unions, etc … There is no doubt that that subsection of society strongly depends on those forms of representation, and if historically they were one of the ways in which they leveraged power politically via the ANC alliance, they now use a situation in which they are willing to do that kind of thing, and they start seeing it as they have nothing to lose. That’s quite a telling moment.

This also points to something you allude to in your book, which is representation. What is wrong with our system is obviously that the precarious class sees that the only route of getting their voice heard is going through the ANC, whereas in a proper democracy, you should maybe be able to set up your own party. In that sense, the ANC alliance’s woes have shown up the deficiencies of the constitution. It is a crisis of representation, of the electorate unable to call their rulers to account. Can you elaborate on that?

It is a very complex story. I think you put it really well there, that we’ve seen the crisis of representation in the South African context as a consequence of the fact that the ruling party is no longer able to hold the centre. And, in its inability to hold the centre, we start to see the problems around our system of representation. It’s linked to the electoral system … to this proportional representation and closed list system, where we elect parties and not individuals. So, there’s a delinking between the populace and their representatives in a direct fashion. That’s the most basic way of seeing it. And so, there is a self-fulfilling prophecy here. It worked when it worked, but when it doesn’t work, it can unravel quite fast. If you’re okay with just selecting a party, then as a citizen, the only time you have any real link to your representative is in the next election, via your choice of party. When things go wrong, as they have been doing for the last seven, eight, nine years, you start to see that the only person you have on the ground is the ward councillor, and the ward councillor is either inept or unable to do anything about problems, because he is more or less powerless. The entity that really has the power is the national representative structure, which is one that doesn’t give citizens real – some kind of component of access of – control over their representatives. There is a very complex history, both in South Africa and around the idea of representation, but it is quite unusual to have chosen such a stark form of proportional representation; and, if you put that together with the dominance of the ANC as a party, and then its internal values and structures start to corrupt, then you get to where we are now. Generally speaking, under proportional representation, it does give rise historically and comparatively to … party proliferation, the generation of lots of different parties … and depending on where you set the bar for access to parliament – what proportion of the vote will actually count for you to get into parliament – you can be in a position, as in Italy, historically, and many other places, where many parties compete for power, and you have many parties that have seats in parliament. If our system were to mature, as it were, in that way, you would get a greater proliferation – and we have quite a low bar, one percent I think – so, you would imagine, we would get a proliferation of parties very quickly. But you have to couple that with the obvious important thing of the ANC being the liberation party. It’s taking at least a generation to unwind that link from the majority populace. So, we haven’t seen this maturation that you would imagine under proportional representation, in South Africa. We could start to see it now and, coupled with all of these concerns, we could start seeing more breakaways or the creation of more parties, and that would be an indicator that we would be maturing as a proportional representation system. But we would still have this problem of only voting in parties, and we don’t have constituencies, and those representatives are not linked to particular geographic constituencies that we, as citizens, can then hold to account out of those geographic constituencies. So, it’s an unfortunate combination of both of these things that we have been dealing with, and the ANC has felt until quite recently that it could do more or less what it wanted to. And I think, for the first time in its history, it’s really feeling like it’s potentially going to be held accountable. And you do really see a kind of desperation that’s popping up: Baleka Mbete using a funeral basically to make a party speech; I know that’s happened historically a lot in South Africa, but it was a bit brutal and blatant this time around.

Is there anywhere else in the world that has a similar system, like this? You mention Israel in your book, but Israel is seen as an advanced, matured democracy …

There are two major differences between Israel and South Africa. First of all, it’s seen as an advanced and matured democracy … obviously, if you look at it from a universal suffrage view it’s highly problematic, but if you, for the moment, put aside the Palestinian component, the fact that most Palestinians have no rights or powers as citizens, and even those that do have citizenship in Israel, those that can vote and, formally at least, have the same rights as Jews in Israel, are subjected and dominated in various ways, their electoral system is just like ours. And the other big difference is that it’s a very small place ... Even if you have no constituencies and you just vote for parties, you can have a sense of where they come from – their constituents, etc – and there is a greater possibility of some kind of linkage to your constituency. But across the rest of the world, as far as I am aware, it isn’t common at all. Somebody mentioned New Zealand, but that is a mixed system. So, a lot of the systems that have adopted proportional representation are mixed systems … where half the MPs get voted in via proportional representation party list, and half get voted in via proportional representation constituency list. So, you still have a sense that you could call on your constituency … And then, of course, you have the other extreme – the Westminster model – which is a constituency-based model, but it’s a winner-takes-all process. And that’s what we had here, ironically, under apartheid: for whites, you had a winner-takes-all system. The process of coming to a decision of what electoral system, what form of representation to have was, as you know, a highly disputed process with lots of people with lots of interests, there were a majority of Afrikaners and some English-speaking South Africans represented by the NP and then there was the ANC, who (more or less) represented the rest of the population. The NP and those the represented, let’s call them the previously advantaged groups, wanted somehow to retain some sort of special means of retaining some aspects of their rights. They liked the PR system, because they thought they could retain a kind of group following, in the old apartheid sense ... The IFP liked it for obvious reasons, and the ANC … I think what basically took place was that they gave in on that point. They were so sure of their majority that they didn’t think of it as an issue. That was a little short-sighted, frankly, on everyone’s part. And then you end up with a system where, once you get beyond the crisis of the moment of trying to maintain peace and generate a post-apartheid society that doesn’t tear itself apart, you see down the line that the kind of weird coalition, or set of ideas, that came together is not particularly good for the country as a whole. You know, it’s a big country with many different places, and very, very diverse on so many levels – not only race and class, but geography; it’s a very, very diverse society. There’s a deeper point to this as well; there is probably a sense that this kind of system is good for nation-building … You try to get everybody behind a single party, and you drive through a nation-building process because you’re starting from such a fractured, diverse society; and so, the obvious idea is that you try and generate – in fact, you’ve heard this for twenty-odd years out of the ANC – cohesion, unity, cohesion, unity. And that, again, I think, is a historical mistake. It’s not a mistake that hasn’t been made; it’s been made many times by the United States after their independence – one of the reasons they have such an odd system themselves is partly to insure against friction and faction. We kind of did the same, but my view on this is that friction and faction in politics are what is vital for politics. So, if we drive too hard for cohesion and unity, you end up often in the wrong place to what is intended. You need to face – especially in our democratic age, the world over – mostly, you just have to face the brutal reality of the antagonism that democracy brings.

This is also another peculiarity of our politics, the huge distrust that the majority of the electorate has in the other parties – a paranoid distrust; most of them see the DA as a white party.

My view is that it is quite understandable, frankly. The DA has managed, in the last little while, to change its face … but it doesn’t take very much for an ordinary citizen to know where it came from, and Helen Zille doesn’t help when she tweets stupid things. I don’t think it’s the explanation for the DA’s lack of support across the board – that there’s too much distrust of other parties. I think it’s a combination of that with the fact that there is a strong historical hold on to the liberating party, and when that’s in question, the DA could have been an easy alternative, as it has been for some people; but the problem is its history, so it is linked to the wrong kind of history, to the history of apartheid … To undo that will require at least another ten years. Clearly, Helen Zille was great in the beginning, in the sense that she was able to see some way of drawing the DA away from that history, but she has now become a serious liability for that party. Those are the things that put it back years every time something like that happens. Even the kind of middle class students that I teach have extremely strong opinions against the DA. Mainly because it reeks of something that for them in South Africa we ought to have been trying harder to leave behind for so long; and I agree. It’s not just that it reeks of whiteness, whatever whiteness is; it reeks of untransformed old schools of power. Which, frankly, the ANC is not far from, itself, either. But the difference is that the ANC is the party of liberation. So, it’s all about an effective – an emotional – response to the party. I was sitting some years ago with a group of highly successful black entrepreneurs in Sandton at a dinner party, and literally they said – about 70% of them said – we’ll vote for the DA this time, but there is no way we are going to tell our parents.

Obviously there is a gap to take for ... I don’t know what you want to call them ... centre-left people in the ANC, to form a new party, to take up this choice, or facility, that the proportional representation system puts there. What is preventing this? I would think a party led by Ramaphosa and other people would be able to draw many voters away from the DA, and form a strong centrist party.

Absolutely. I say what’s drawing them away from it is the history of the ANC, because the ANC is a centrist party; the ANC , or rather the ANC-led alliance is, effectively, a broad church of centre parties. So that would be a party that would effectively be replacing the ANC. I mean, the ANC under Zuma of late has become basically a traditionalist, conservative party. It’s very difficult to place as a party, because it’s all over the place, and they are now so fractured. But you’re absolutely right; there is a huge, gaping hole in our political landscape for a centre-left, social-democratic party. We don’t have anything like that … I think the EFF will gain even more votes; the EFF taps into huge discontent, and I think Julius Malema gets better and better each day, to persuade, diagnose … I wouldn’t like him to lead the country, but I think he's quite a phenomenon. He is a bright, bright guy. So, he is tapping into it a great deal, and that party will rise ... as the ANC drops off. So, a social-democratic party that is properly centre-left would take not only from the DA and the ANC, but would potentially also take from a large part of the EFF. But Ramaphosa is not going to do that, because he thinks he can get the ANC there. What we are seeing now – and I am a bit of an optimist; you never know how things will be in politics – but, if he is successful, what we’re seeing now is a process where he is trying to wrench hold of the party and bring it back to was, frankly a social-democratic movement; and then, they would fill that gap; but it’s a cumbersome and ugly process, and it will take a long time, but there is definitely a big hole.

To come back to the proportional representation system, how it works. To my mind, another hindrance for a proper democratic process is the slates – the list system. Are there any other places in the world where you have a similar thing – you know, where politicians devote most of their energies to trying to stay in the right list ... instead of trying to do what we would like to see, developing the country?

What our form of system does is that it reinforces patronage politics, as you’ve just described. For your chance of being in parliament – on the list – you’ve got to make sure you’re above that 60% mark on that list, so as an everyday potential MP, or party MP, you do everything you can to keep on the good side of the leaders. In some sense, our sort of system doesn’t even need a party whip. The natural functioning of the system keeps a natural party whip. In systems like the Westminster model, the party whips are very important, because there is a lot of rebellious voting, because the representatives feel like they also need to listen to their constituencies; they go back to their constituencies, and their constituencies say, “No, on this matter, we think X, Y and Z”; the party tells them they have to vote A, B and C – or call it A – and then there is a conundrum: are they representatives of the party, or are they representatives of the people that make up the constituency from whence they come? And that, often, is their guiding light on how they vote. So, sometimes you get a rebellious vote, and sometimes you get a party-dominated vote. In our system, whatever the whip says, the system functions to keep people in line. If you are seen as a rebellious MP, there’s a very good chance that they’ll push you down the list – either push you off the list entirely, or push you way down the list. So, your job depends on keeping in line with the leadership. That’s why people have put way too much on this no-confidence vote in parliament. I’m not in the game of prediction, but I would be extremely surprised if parliament votes against Zuma. Besides, in the UK and the USA, which have got distinct systems – in the places that have got proportional representation: a lot of Europe, a lot of newer democracies, New Zealand and Australia, etc – that issue does arise; but, say you have 400 MPs, half or 200 of those members will be as a consequence of slate or party, or a party system, and the other 200 will come straight from a geographic constituency; so, what they’re doing is they’re trying to cover both forms of representation. Well, then it’s just a matter of numbers, and you’d hope that people who are coming from constituencies would vote in line with their constituents’ interests, and you would imagine that people who are coming from party lists would vote in line with the party’s interest. But because there’s a mix, it’s not as simple as that. Many people who are voted out of constituencies are party members anyway, so they might vote for the party. But because there is a mix, some of the people who are voted in the party slates can vote against the party. I think the German and Irish examples are quite a good solution – a straight mix ... So, the slate in and of itself doesn’t have to be a problem, especially if it is tempered by another way of doing things. Our problem is that our entire representation is through the party list.

I think it also solidifies the discourse; it reifies the discourse. It forces people to follow the doctrine of the party. To my mind, what is lacking in our discourse is the quality of our discourse; especially among ANC MPs, it’s very low …

Very low, yes. It’s got a lot lower as well, and there is a particular reason for that; Jacob Zuma has not been interested in having people around him who are going to contest his views on things, and he doesn’t hold the bar very high, so ... there are people in the ANC historically, like Joel Netshitenzhe and others, who have a great quality of ideas and arguments, but they’ve been more or less ostracised. I mean, it’s a big problem, actually, in South Africa. I think it’s a big problem in the ANC … We don’t have an ideas-based discourse in our politics …

Not even in the DA, really …

Not even in the DA. Frankly, what you get out of the DA is a blind adherence to a free marketeer ideology, coupled with a degree of populism to draw in other components. They have the old representatives of an economic elite, where it is in their interest to espouse a completely free market ideology, à la Margaret Thatcher or something, and that’s now become a bit more popularised. I now spend half of my year in the UK, and what’s really marked is that there are so few outlets here for any significant ideas-based discussion ... I had academic friends in Brazil. They’re constantly involved in ideas-based discussions. It’s kind of understandable, in a way, because of our lack of investment in education historically, and the fact that so much money and power went into a very small part of the population – the white population. There is a massive catch-up required, and the insufficient response to that means we have a very low education level generally, especially at the tertiary level. Generally speaking, there is no ideas-based discussion at all. And it’s got worse of late, as you know. Racism is now becoming an issue; and it has always been an issue, but it has recently come to the fore, and people get knocked down from both extremes, and across race and class divisions, ad hominem the whole time. It’s not actually been about ideas.

And also, a great cause of this is the mythology that has grown around our constitution; it’s almost as if we have done all the work now, and we can sit back and enjoy the constitution, whereas any constitution is a living document.

You know from my book that I have quite a number of problems with our constitution. One of the main issues I have is – I agree with you completely – we’re going through a process in which politics, as a consequence of this reverence for the constitution, is going through a process in which politics is become juridified. In other words, every political process, every political decision, has become one which has to be tested and retested and counted through the legal system. In South Africa, as in other constitutional democracies – but it is worse here – the main form of agency we have as citizens isn’t through our representative, and thus through parliament; it is through the courts. And that, for me, is an entire distortion of what politics ought to be about. There is a real problem of representation right there. Why is it that a judiciary is more representative than a parliament, which should be the final arbiter? The reason is because we have generated the situation in which we have the constitution as sovereign, as the final arbiter. So, everything returns to the constitution. One way of undoing that is, as you say, to see it as a living document, and to have measures in place to revise it. The problem with that, of course, is that, in a very turbulent and very young democracy like South Africa’s, if you do that, you take away one of the main bulwarks of stability. Liberals, in particular, become extremely horrified by that idea. They’re really concerned that we require some thing, particularly a legal institution, that can safeguard a set of rights, safeguard a set of goods, safeguard a set of procedures that are fundamental in their eyes for the democratic process. I see that argument, and I take it on; I just think it’s an argument that mostly comes out of fear – fear for this kind of unknown, where we let democracy crop the blows. Essentially, our reverence for the degree with which we revere our constitution actually holds us back in many ways. I’ve written on land reform, and in that latest book I’ve written of various kinds of other things around the constitution, and I really think the constitution needs to be seen as a living document. And one way in which you make it a living document is to enable forms of revision. It’s dangerous, no doubt, but it’s necessary.

What are our chances of moving away from the proportional representation system?

In all sorts of large political departures, you’ve got a problem. Because you have people who have set up their careers and their parties in the status quo, it is extremely difficult to get them to change the status quo. They’ve got to be sure that their interests in the party, or the player in the political sphere, are maintained. So, there are only really two options … in politics. You somehow make the changes in the interests of most of the big players. So, you would somehow persuade the ANC, the EFF and the DA that these pieces of change are in their interest – which is, at the very least, a complex process. It’s not reachable because, generally speaking, people in politics, and particularly in South Africa, have a conservative bent; they want to keep things as they are. You have to get over that conservative bent, somehow. The other thing is that the big change in politics is through revolution, right? But you don’t necessarily have to go as far as revolution. You can put up a situation, which, frankly, is beginning to start anyway in South Africa, where you have the threat of it – and the threat needs to be a credible threat. It can’t just be a made-up threat, like it doesn’t seem like it’s going to happen; it’s got to seem like it will happen. And if that threat is there for long enough, and is seriously credible, then it becomes in the interest of the holders of power to say, okay, we stop the revolution, because if we do this, X, Y and Z. But for me, those are the only two possibilities.

Well, at the moment there is a credible threat in the ANC on its knees going into coalition with the EFF. If you do the simple addition sum, the ANC and the EFF – according to the polls – will give you more than 66% of the electorate.

Yeah, I heard a rumour about that as well about a week ago. But because I’m not party to what goes on at the high levels of the ANC or the EFF, I don’t have a clue really how to respond. I don’t know whether it’s just a rumour, or whether it could be reality. At least from the surface and the way in which Malema has taken that party, I would be quite surprised, because there’s a lot of – a lot of – anger; there’s a lot of mistrust. At least on the surface, at least the rhetoric is a very, very strong rhetoric. It is quite stark where you have a situation in which Mmusi Maimane and Julius Malema would share a stage.

That’s right. And they work together in municipalities.

These are entities that are so poles apart. The EFF’s ideology is all over the place, frankly; but in terms of who they represent, they are poles apart, and yet they will come together. And it is simply because they have a common enemy. So, I would be quite surprised if that would happen. But then again, I’ve been surprised quite a few times in the past few years.

As we all have.

But if it did happen … the great irony of all of this is that the only way that it could happen is if the Zuma camp continues with its populist rhetoric, and somehow persuades the EFF to come on board to that camp; and then, you do get a situation where they can change the constitution, and do it in ways that will be very serious for our political economy generally. You’re literally looking at a Mugabe moment there. I wrote about this in 2003. What effectively occurred in Zimbabwe was a situation in which Mugabe doesn’t really do any land reform or any serious redistribution of any kind. He starts to lose power, and then he grabs on to these strongly populist moves. And it’s easier for him to change the constitution and other kinds of things than it is for South African politicians. But in that situation, it wouldn’t be, because – you’re right – then they would have sufficient support to change it. And our macroeconomic situation is so dire, that it could be a recipe for serious disaster. But I seriously doubt it.

And if Zuma is removed from the equation? For instance, if Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma wins the election in 2017?

But then, he is not really removed from the equation. I mean, everyone knows that she is simply a placeholder.

It might be underestimating her.

Have you heard her rhetoric since she returned? It is identical.

It is identical now, but it doesn’t have to stay that way.

Maybe not. I suppose the idea of it is just so abhorrent that I’m scared to think about it.

To come back to our political system, especially among Afrikaners there is a lot of talk about minority rights, in the context of what you also said in your book. How does this fit in with your beliefs on how the situation should be?

… The short answer is that the compromises that we talked about earlier in the transition were very much influenced by a desire to secure those minority rights – not just Afrikaners, but across the board, in many ways. So, it is a central issue in the superstructure, if you want – or our macro-political structure – of what we have, partly as a consequence of that. Many people – in particular, those in the Afrikaans community – have felt really threatened; they feel like they need to defend those rights with greater vehemence. I frankly think that’s bad for democracy and bad for South Africa. Because, really, what you need is a process in which – because, essentially what’s going on is that there is a legalisation of a laager mentality that we know all about, as South Africans in this country. The laager mentality is something that was generated across the board under apartheid. It goes back, also, to British colonialism and everything, and is something that, I mean, is one part of the ANC project that has been – at least, in its initial form it was – quite amazing, to try and overcome that, to try and generate unity across class, and unity across race, etc. And, frankly, they failed; there is no doubt about it ... And so, in the failure, I think you now see this response from various people. So, it’s not just that you see Afrikaans people defend their minority rights, but you also see majority young blacks, say, at Wits, defending their blackness, because somehow they’re feeling threatened in some sense.

They feel like a minority.

They feel like a minority, which, of course, they’re not. I think it’s got something to do with the old psyche of this country that keeps coming back. Rather than the psyche, say, of lots of Latin American countries, where you have a psyche that is often forward-looking in terms of mixing and miscegenation and that kind of stuff, our psyche is all about separation, defending one’s own and that sort of thing. As regards South Africa, and as regards politics in general, I think it is really dangerous, because it doesn’t just create friction and faction; it creates deep, deep division that’s very difficult to overcome politically. The other thing is that I’m a bit of a majoritarian democrat; frankly, I think that the way in which democracy functions best is that you do have certain rights to safeguard extreme domination or repression of individuals or even groups, but they only function right at the extreme. The main format of democratic politics is that of a majoritarian system. You generate competition internal to that majoritarian system; so, in actual fact, proportional representation is not the best for it – something like the Westminster model is better. You generate strong competition internal to the majoritarian process, and you generate that on the basis of accountability – strict accountability, as regards your representatives. If that functions as it ought to, then there is a very good chance that, in the next four, five, six years, depending on when you elect, you can just get rid of the majority that has messed up for these four, five, six years. That, for me, is when you get the real representational and accountability structure of a majoritarian democracy. We don’t have it here.

We don’t have the cycle.

We don’t have the cycle, and we don’t have the competition. The most important thing is the competition. We don’t have the real competition to put forward visions and new interests and new ideas – coming back to our point about ideas – to the populace, to the citizenry, who then will choose from a series of options. Maybe there will be many ideological issues – in our case, there will probably be race issues – that will play, and class issues – whatever – but there will still be a significant and interesting choice, a competitive choice, and then you live with the majority outcome. But surely only four, five, six years, because you have the chance then to elect a different set of representatives. A little bit brutal, but I think democracy is a bit brutal.

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