People Power Is The Condition Of Our Democracy’s Survival - Huffington Post

7 February 2018 - "The whole success of what South Africa has set out to achieve over the past 28 years will be determined by its economy


By Michael Morris 

"Power to the people" once had a distinctly revolutionary ring to it.

It was, after all, an idea that cost many thousands their liberty, and others their lives. Today, it is the condition of our democracy's survival.

If anything defines the true crisis of state capture – as a consequence of which, Thuli Madonsela observed soberingly last week, "we nearly lost democracy" – it is the simple question the courageous former public protector crafted for herself to test the scope of political accountability.

But where that testing question – "If things go wrong here, who is responsible?" – appears to be meant for those at the top – the individuals everyone expects to carry the can – the real challenge lies in galvanising citizens to claim their agency; the power of the people.

When things go wrong, Madonsela argued, that's really the only power that matters.

"We look to strengthening democracy," she said, "but without the people, nothing will happen."

That she is not alone in thinking this way, emerged last week at a one-day conference hosted by the FW de Klerk Foundation in partnership with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation – on the theme "South Africa: Beyond State Capture and Corruption".

A common thread in the debate was the need, now, for electoral reform – direct representation – as a means of neutralising the overweening power of parties over MPs, and letting ordinary people make their influence felt at the centre of political decision making.

The February 2 event – 28 years to the day since FW de Klerk signalled the greatest alteration in modern South Africa's history – featured contributions from De Klerk himself, Madonsela, now a professor at Stellenbosch University in the chair of social justice, UCT professor of economics Haroon Bhorat, a co-author of the explosive report, "Betrayal of the Promise: How South Africa is Being Stolen" – fittingly, he stood in for Pravin Gordhan, who was ill – and scenario planner and chief executive of the Institute of Race Relations, Frans Cronje.

If optimism – measured though it was – defined the overall tenor of the debate, each speaker dwelt on the risks of settling for the false optimism of imagining that the election of Cyril Ramaphosa as ANC leader, on its own, was a positive end in itself.

South Africa's work is cut out for it in clawing its way back from the brink – a task that will require hard effort and tough decisions. De Klerk noted that among those supporting constitutional government, there was "a huge sigh of relief" when Cyril Ramaphosa was elected ANC leader in December.

"The key question... is whether Mr Ramaphosa has the power, the will and the intention to restore integrity to the core of government."

De Klerk believed that Ramaphosa "has begun well", not least in "making the right statements about corruption". This, however, was par for the course for "virtually every new leader in the emerging world", and even Jacob Zuma "speaks voluminously" on combating corruption.

The test, then, "will lie in Mr Ramaphosa's actions – and not in his words". Where those actions should lie was crisply spelt out by Frans Cronje.

He began by focusing on the socioeconomic progress "quietly and remarkably" achieved over the past two decades, turning South Africa into a measurably better country than it was in 1990. But there was an ironic penalty to this good story to tell.

South Africa's successes had heightened expectations to a level that exceeded the capacity to meet them, chiefly as a result of poor economic policy choices over the past decade; the growth rate declined, and the key measures of fixed investment, consumer confidence and consumer spending "fell flat".

The "years of weak economic performance" had left South Africa unable to meet popular expectations on one hand, and "vulnerable to populist incitement" on the other.

He said: "It was alarming to see the extent to which absolute nonsense such as the 'rogue unit' story and the 'white monopoly capital' argument gained mainstream traction – that was nearly sufficient to so distort public perceptions away from the real challenges facing our country, that the state capture project almost survived, [and that] in December last year we came within 200 votes, cast by ordinary men and women, of what would have been a very dangerous situation."

Cronje added: "But have no doubt – if an economic recovery is not now achieved, the risk will be back. The whole success of what South Africa has set out to achieve over the past 28 years will be determined by its economy."

The essentials – reducing the budget deficit, reversing mounting unemployment and improving schools – all count on lifting investment-led economic growth. This, in turn, would depend on revising empowerment policy to achieve genuine economic inclusion, securing property rights to assure investors, and reforming labour law to make it easier for the semiskilled to get jobs.

"Reflecting on these policy challenges will temper the expectations of even the most fervent South Africa bulls," Cronje said. "The events of the past six weeks are very welcome, but meeting popular expectations is a much greater challenge... that extends well beyond the problem of state capture."

These circumstances were exacerbated by "the crippling effect of ideological dogma that regards markets, investors, property rights, entrepreneurs, free speech, independent institutions, constitutional safeguards, and the rule of law as the impediments that stand between people and the realisation of their aspirations to a better life".

Drawing on former president Thabo Mbeki's signature phrase, the "battle of ideas", Cronje pointed to what he called the "new terrain of struggle" – the battle of ideas that would have to be won before South Africa had any hope of seeing meaningful reform.

This would require publicly challenging "the fallacious arguments that underpin the current policy malaise in the country... the fallacies that empowerment policy as currently practised is the only effective strategy for ensuring meaningful black economic participation, that current levels of labour market regulation are in the best interests of the poor, that giving more power to officials will finally solve problems of access to high-quality schools, and that the property clauses of the constitution are to blame for the dearth of black commercial farmers".

The fallacies are "very powerful, and it does not take much to appreciate that in the end, it may be the fallacies, and the grip they exercise, that will perhaps prove the most formidable obstacle to policy reform of all".

Where some argued for constitutional reform to protect South Africa in future from a recurrence of disasters such as state capture – "industrial-scale looting of the state" – De Klerk emphasised the public assertion of values and integrity.

For a start, he said, "we need voters and political parties that refuse to elect known scoundrels to public office".

Direct representation would be a good step, too, as South Africa's "slide into state capture and corruption can be ascribed in part to the lack of proper separation between the executive and the legislature". It was "self-evident" that MPs "cannot carry out their oversight functions and their duty to hold the executive accountable if they themselves are de facto accountable, not to the electorate, but to those who in effect comprise the executive".

It was precisely these conditions, as Professor Bhorat described them, that enabled state capture, which far from being "random, opportunistic crime, was a very structured crime". An insidious feature was its incorporation of state-security mechanisms.

"All the authors of 'Betrayal of the Promise: How South Africa is Being Stolen' faced extreme scrutiny from the security apparatus... that's an indication of how far state capture has spread."

As for its impact, Thuli Madonsela said, its reach was indiscriminate. "People without food perhaps wondered: 'Why should I care about state capture when I have nothing to eat?' To them we have to say, part of the reason you do not have food is because of this very problem of state capture."

She acknowledged that with Ramaphosa's ascendancy, "the needle has shifted ... we have, at least, transcended our state of denialism".

But the implications had to be shared and understood. The very word "democracy" derives from the combination of Greek words for "people" and "power". "If we hope to have a stable democracy without state capture," she said, "every person must know what they can do in their space, and hold public representatives to account."

*Michael Morris is head of media at the SA Institute of Race Relations (IRR), a liberal think tank that promotes economic and political freedom. 

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