The Sunday News
Cetshwayo Zindabazezwe Mabhena
One of Muammar Gaddafi’s most memorable political statements was the pithy saying that “Libyans do not need democracy, they need boreholes instead.”
What Gaddaffi summarised in a political statement a scholar may expand into an intellectual opinion. The opinion being that democratic rituals such as elections might be an expensive luxury that poor Africans can scarcely afford. The black masses of the poor are busy scrounging for basic food, shelter, education and healthcare to keep bodies and souls together in a truly dark continent. The time for politicking and electioneering is a privilege of elite politicians and privileged political activists that can afford the luxury of dreaming that votes mean democracy. For the black poor majority of Africans elections are an expensive lottery of men and women that is occasionally used to give an impression that those who rule do so by the consent of the ruled and not by coercion. Elections are an occasional political ritual choreographed and performed by the elite to manufacture political credibility and legitimacy that in actuality do not exist. The South African democratic experiment that started in 1994 is fast proving that a storied democratic constitution and multi-party elections that deliver a vibrant multi-party parliament every five years cannot do anything to solve the problem of poverty and racialised inequalities that dog the country. The majority black poor of South Africa would agree with Gaddaffi that the poor do not need democracy but jobs, education, food, shelter and healthcare. Elections, no matter how democratic, for the poorest of the poor, are an obscene diversion from the hard daily job of literary scrambling for oxygen itself.
Ramaphoria at large
Like all other Africans South Africans love and believe in miracles. There was once what was called “Madiba Magic,” which was a belief in Nelson Mandela’s ability to pull up pleasant surprises and get done things unseen before. Twenty five years after South Africa’s independence and a good five years after the death of Nelson Mandela poor South Africans can soberly reflect on how it was political superstition to believe in the political magic of Mandela. Mandela’s magical heroism could not change the apartheid power relations and economic realities that keep the black poor majority getting poorer in the Republic. The iconic Mandela could not charm away the poverty that has become an identity for the majority of black bread eaters and water drinkers in the land.
The newest miracle is what cheeky social media mandarins have called Ramaphoria in reference to the excitement and euphoria created by the presidency of Cyril Ramaphosa, he of the Thuma Mina ideology. Ramaphosa was, in 2017, elected to the presidency of the ANC ahead of Nkosazana Zuma under the bewitching title CR17, the Christiano Ronaldo of South African politics that dribbled himself to power in a tightly contested race. It is popularly and excitedly believed that this man will stop state capture, deliver jobs, provide housing, education, transport and healthcare that will push the Republic closer to paradise. Ramaphosa comes after the troubled presidency of the “Machine Gun Man”, Jacob Zuma of the Umshini Wami fashion. Zuma once enchanted the South African population that widely believed that the self-educated peasant from Nkandla would deliver the Republic from misery. The Renaissance Man, Thabo Mbeki, the high-minded philosopher king had been disgraced out of power. In his time the pipe-smoking thinking man was believed to be the deliverer of political glad tidings and many other gifts in the Republic. Now and again the South African democratic experiment produces enchanting magicians and messiahs that quickly get evaporated as the poverty and misery of the black majority remain even more durable and stubborn. Exciting presidents and their cabinets of ministers and premiers come and go but the South African existential problem of poverty and inequality remains ever so present. The storied best constitution in the world and most credible elections in the continent seem to be doing nothing to deliver liberation to the Republic. Apartheid economic conditions and power relations are refusing to die. No amount of the personal magic and charm of leaders seems to be able to inspire and enact transformation.
The Systemic Crisis
At the inauguration of President Ramaphosa on the 9th of May in Pretoria the world saw power and glory. South Africa took the opportunity to display military arsenal that included stealth fighter jets and other dangerous gadgets of war and peace. South African magnificence and strength was on show and representatives of other countries could only watch in awe. All that symbolism of strength and might served to conceal the poverty, misery and vulnerability of the black population. The show was a first world display that mocked the third world misery of the majority of South Africans. In a symbolic but very strong manner, the white man was flexing his muscles in a black country, with his advanced technology and weapons that do not help but mock the mass of the poor black people. The mass of black and poor people in South Africa are truly the hungry people of the land of power and plenty. That magnificent presidential inauguration show was a show of South African exceptionalism and essentialism, and white supremacy at its full height.
The poverty of black South Africans is not natural. It is a systemic design. The mass of the black people are not poor they are impoverished. They were displaced from their land and dispossessed of their means of livelihood, reduced to wage earners and piece-job labourers. At the end of apartheid the whites kept the economy and gave political administration, not power, to the black and popular government. Different presidents, no matter how charismatic, have become mere political managers that can do nothing to change the system that still carries the hangover of apartheid, though attempts are made to change the status quo.
The Tricky Experiment
South Africa’s historical dilemma lies in the problematic of the dialectic of reconciliation and transformation. It will never be easy to give the economy to black people without antagonising powerful whites, and finishing off the fragile peace and reconciliation covenant of 1994. Democracy has become inseparable from coloniality in that the constitution and the many elections are structured for purposes of preserving reconciliation than enforcing decolonisation of the economy. South African whites are not just white people located in Africa but they are part of the white populations of Europe and North America, they carry the political and existential weight of being the kith and kin of super-powers of the world that decide the global political and economic climate, they are untouchable. Their political and economic interests are protected not only under the South African constitution but in the world system. Whites in South Africa enjoy a tyranny of the minority, they are few but powerful. Angry South Africans can vent on foreign nationals but cannot touch the descendants of Empire, the white population. White people, everywhere in the world, are privileged beneficiaries of the world political and economic system that is why in any country that they visit under the sun they are not called migrants but exalted expatriates that enjoy hospitality and privilege.
Any Other Experiments?
The rest of Africa can learn from the South African democratic experiment. The first lesson being that democracy does not guarantee liberation. Democratic elections, a vibrant parliament and rigorous public institutions including an independent judiciary do not necessarily end coloniality but may preserve it. The success of Paul Kagame in post-genocide Rwanda may signal that Africa needs strong, tough, brave and ethical leaders that enforce development without falling into the temptation of tyranny and corruption, tribalism and cronyism. No-nonsense and incorruptible leaders are what Africa may be in need of. Singapore also proves that it is strong leaders that build strong institutions and that make development a national culture, and totally eliminate theft and corruption. When an ordinary Singaporean picks up a coin or a note in the street they habitually surrender it to the police, in fear and love, for uncompromised and uncompromising strong leadership. Africa must fashion its own political and economic experiments that will deliver liberation to the troubled continent. Needed are experiments that will deliver both the proverbial boreholes and democracy. Otherwise democracy without boreholes is empty.
Cetshwayo Zindabazezwe Mabhena writes from Braamfontein, Johannesburg: [email protected]