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A new political order for South Africa

Helen Zille, Leader of the Democratic Alliance
27 September 2012

The following speech was delivered by Leader of the Democratic Alliance, Helen Zille, at the Cape Town Press Club today.

Decades ago, the famous historian Professor CW de Kiewiet famously said that South Africa progresses through “economic windfalls and political disasters”. 

He was referring to the discovery of diamonds and gold during the 19th century and the devastating political consequences that followed.  The struggle for control of our untold mineral wealth ignited the British imperialism that fanned the flames of Afrikaner nationalism, leading to an inferno that ended in scorched earth and mass poverty. 

The National Convention that ended the first decade of the 20th century produced a colour-bar constitution that, from its inception, proved to be a slow-burning fuse for the new Union of South Africa.  The exclusion of black South Africans turned smouldering resistance into a full-blown liberation struggle, which only ended with the negotiation of an inclusive democratic constitution as the century drew to a close.  

De Kiewiet’s insight is that political disasters cannot be measured only by their enormous cost, but also by the momentum they give to progress and development.  Some of history’s most inspiring moments occur when political leaders take the risk of rising to seemingly insurmountable challenges because they know the alternative to doing so is certain disaster.  One such seminal moment was the negotiation of our inclusive, progressive constitution by great leaders who recognised the importance of preventing a prolonged racial civil war in which there would be no winners.  In Nelson Mandela’s words, we “were prepared to accept the inherent capacity for goodness in each other.”

A great deal has been achieved since 1994.  Racist legislation has been demolished; access to basic services has been greatly expanded; and, although much remains to be done, major strides have been made towards reconciliation.  Nelson Mandela’s leadership made credible the hope of a better life for all in an inclusive society.

Today, almost 20 years on, this faith in the future has been deeply eroded.  Marikana demonstrated in the most tragic way that the embers of the past century’s conflict continue to smoulder.

We need to ask ourselves the following question: Did our constitutional settlement prevent or merely postpone the inferno we sought to avoid?  The answer to this depends on whether South Africa’s leaders are prepared to rise to the challenges we face in the same way that our immediate predecessors were.

This time the challenge is to ensure that all South Africans personally experience the opportunities our constitution guarantees, so that they can choose to take a pathway out of poverty within a generation.

The history of our continent shows that political emancipation alone is not enough to achieve this.  Kwame Nkrumah, under whose leadership Ghana became the first Sub-Saharan African country to shake off the shackles of colonialism, is famous for his aphorism:  “Seek ye first the political kingdom and all else will be delivered unto you.”  But less than a decade after he became President, he was overthrown by a military coup, followed by decades of precipitous economic decline under populist misrule that promised “economic emancipation”.

This tragic story has been repeated in other transitions from colonial rule.  For some countries it took decades to reverse the downward spiral.  Others have still not turned it around.

We always believed that “South African exceptionalism” would mean getting it right the first time.

But recent developments, including the rapid rise of Julius Malema, have prompted many people to ask:  Will the promise of the new South Africa be shipwrecked on the same rocks?

Despite our progress, our nation is divided more than ever, between economic “insiders” (who have jobs, homes and the prospect of a better future); and “outsiders” who have given up hope of progressing along the pathway out of poverty.   Inevitably, some are blaming the constitution, rather than seeing it for what it is: the only guarantee they have of a better future.

We all know the statistical story of inequality in South Africa.  We have an income Gini coefficient of 0.70; an unemployment rate, broadly defined, of 35%; and a staggering 51% unemployment rate of young South Africans between the ages of 15 and 24.  Out of every four jobless people, three are under the age of 35.

The National Planning Commission described the social reality of these statistics:  “If a young person fails to get a job by the age of 24, they are almost never likely to get full-time formal employment. In other words, South Africa risks having at least half of an entire generation of young people live life never having had a formal job. This time bomb is the single greatest risk to social stability in South Africa.”

Another appropriate description would be the well-known metaphor of the “burning platform”.

This is based on a true story about a worker on an oil platform in the North Sea.  One night a loud explosion set the platform on fire.  Looking over the edge, he had to make a choice.  He could either stay where he was and be consumed by flames or he could plunge 50 metres into the freezing Atlantic.  The man jumped – and survived.

In ordinary circumstances he would never have dared to take such a leap, but the burning platform had radically changed his options, and his response.

In politics, the instinctive reaction to a burning platform is denial.  The comfort of remaining in a familiar space, even when it gets very hot, usually outweighs the perceived danger of doing so – until it is too late.

The National Planning Commission has described South Africa’s “burning platform” well.  It has also set out comprehensive proposals to enable us to choose a soft landing.   It creates a space for South Africans to share a vision of the kind of society we are trying to build and a blueprint to do so.

But I fear that, despite the supportive rhetoric from Cabinet and Parliament, there is almost no chance of its coherent implementation because this would cause the tripartite alliance to tear asunder.

Instead, the ruling party tries to douse the flames on its disintegrating and burning platform with the political equivalent of plastic watering cans.  Thus, the COSATU conference cobbled together a compromise last week to re-nominate its top office bearers unopposed – despite irreconcilable divisions.  President Zuma hopes this will herald a similar safe passage for the ANC’s top six at Mangaung in December.  

As President Zuma said last week:

 “When challenges are there, this federation brings back unity.”   In other words, it is still easier to take the heat than allow the platform to fall apart.   

Some would argue that this is necessary for stability.  But this is a short-term view that compromises our ability to get to the root of the crisis of economic exclusion, unemployment, poverty and inequality.   The ruling party is terminally divided about what needs to be done to deal with these crises.  That is why, for example, COSATU and the SACP have so vehemently rejected proposals for a Youth Wage Subsidy, which would enable young people to get a foot on the first rung of the economic ladder, or performance contracts for teachers, which would introduce accountability into education. 

The divisions at the heart of government are the root cause of ungovernability.  They will inevitably lead to the ruling party’s implosion.  This irreversible process will dominate the political landscape over the next seven years.

The key question we face is how to prevent the disintegration of the ruling party from becoming a disaster for South Africa.  But disaster prevention is not enough.  The question is: Can we recapture the promise of 1994 and turn it into reality? 

Any party that aspires to govern South Africa must, at the very least, be trusted by people from different backgrounds and offer a credible, sustainable way of overcoming the socio-economic legacy of apartheid.  That is an entry level requirement.  Any party that cannot make such an offer has no prospect of governing South Africa successfully.

The truth is that none of our existing political parties, as currently constituted, can credibly offer this on its own.   It is time for political leaders to catch up with reality. 

South Africa needs a convergence in the political centre, of everyone who is committed to four core values:

  • Defending our constitution and securing its promise of equal rights and fair opportunities for all.
  • Nurturing genuine non-racialism on the basis of reconciliation and redress.
  • Growing an appropriately regulated, market-driven economy that can achieve the levels of sustainable growth needed to reduce unemployment significantly and lessen inequality.
  • Building a state that puts competence above party loyalty, values service and punishes self-interest and corruption.

In South Africa, where our political affiliation tends to be ingrained in our psyche, it is especially difficult to take the leap required.  It is like asking people to give up part of their identity. It is easier to remain on the burning platform.

The political parties of the past (and present) are powerful brands, but today they serve to keep apart millions of people who really belong together.  The 23 thought leaders in South Africa who devised the National Development Plan to tackle unemployment, poverty and inequality have demonstrated this.  This plan shows remarkable similarities to the DA’s 8% growth and jobs plan. 

We are seeing the beginnings of a political awakening. People of goodwill, from across the spectrum, are starting to converge around a vision and a plan for our country. The next step is to build a governing majority that can make the plan’s efficient implementation its highest priority. 

If we fail to do this, and fast, we will face the inevitable rise of a brand of populism that promises paradise, but delivers purgatory. Populists start from the premise that the constitution is a barrier to progress; they mobilise on the basis of racial nationalism; and they seek state control of the economy.

They pose as champions of the poor to disguise self-interest and power hunger.   They abuse the institutions of state to pursue political agendas and to enrich their political allies.  And they use Marxist rhetoric to mask self-enrichment.

They are the political disaster without the economic windfall.

If we are to avoid the decades of decline that have derailed so many democratic transitions on our continent, this travelling circus must be unmasked for the charade that it is.

But how do we fight the simplistic yet beguiling promise of populists?

We cannot show them up by shouting them down.  This, perversely, adds to their appeal. 

The biggest obstacle we face is that constitutionalists and populists find themselves incongruously tied together in the same political party – the so-called ‘broad church’.  The dividing line runs through the middle of the ANC, which is paralysed by ideological contradictions and confusion, and by interest groups vying for the spoils of office.

Any political party that is held hostage by warring factions is soon overtaken by those that are able to adopt clear policy positions, and follow through coherently and confidently. 

That is why the debate in South Africa is increasingly a contest between the values of non-racialism, constitutionalism and a market-driven economy, on the one hand, and racial mobilisation, power abuse and state control on the other.

The ANC colossus stands inert in the middle, pulled in both directions, but unable to move either way without falling apart.

The cracks are widening.  Every crisis, from the failure to deliver textbooks in Limpopo to the massacre at Marikana, merely widens the gap.

The big question is:  Can a clean break happen in time so that the constitutionalists, wherever they currently find themselves, can build a new majority and implement a plan that defuses the time-bomb of youth unemployment?  A plan that offers young South Africans opportunities to learn, and to work; and the dignity of belonging through the contribution they make.  There are no more economic windfalls.  We have to make it happen.

Achieving this outcome must be the over-riding goal of our politics in the years ahead.

Zwelinzima Vavi is right that South Africa needs a “Lula moment”.  But I’m not sure it is what he thinks it is.

The former Brazilian President Lula da Silva’s success was rooted in his capacity to mobilise the unions and civil society to support a policy platform very similar to our own National Development Plan.  Lula liberalised Brazil’s markets by cutting spending, paying down debt, trimming the bureaucracy, introducing accountability (particularly in education), improving productivity, linking social grants with family responsibilities, rationalising inefficient state-owned enterprises and reforming business laws to incentivise investment.

That strategy enabled his administration to lift 40 million people out of poverty.  And that is precisely what South Africa needs.  It cannot be done from a position of ideological incoherence.  It requires a highly competent state and strong leadership.

The longer South Africa’s power incumbents use their positions to protect their widespread patronage networks, the more the chance of our own Lulu moment recedes.

We cannot miss the window of opportunity between now and 2014 to bring together all South Africans who want to build a stable, shared future based on the four core values I set out.

We must use the two years that lie ahead to bring together individuals, organisations and institutions, who understand the urgency of our situation.

I will stand for re-election as the DA’s leader in November committed to making this happen.  I call it the realignment of politics. Indeed, I have committed myself to achieving this outcome since my election as DA leader five years ago. 

I know that there are many people in other parties who agree with this objective.  But the comfort of incumbency too often trumps the insecurity of moving into the unknown. 

This fear will not prevent the ANC’s erosion.  A continuing succession of catalytic events, from tiny tremors to occasional quakes, will widen the cracks until the foundations collapse.

The big risk is that the constitution succumbs first.

We have already experienced how a ruling party can undermine a constitution without changing a single word of it.  We have seen the strategy of deploying loyal cadres to institutions of state to advance the sectional interests of a dominant political faction.

We have seen it happening in the National Prosecuting Authority.

We have even seen it in the Judicial Service Commission.

We have seen it in the disbanding of the Scorpions and the emergence of the Secrecy Bill.

We are seeing it in the drive to establish a single public service.

And we must recall that at the ANC’s recent policy conference, those advocating the confiscation of property without compensation were only narrowly defeated.  The message was not lost on investors.  And so, the assault on our constitution undermines our capacity to grow our economy and create jobs.

People often say to me that while there are so many hungry, homeless, unemployed South Africans, it is a middle-class luxury to worry about a constitution.  This is probably the most tragic comment of all, because as we know, hunger, homelessness, unemployment and hopelessness will be irreversible without a constitution that guarantees people’s rights, expands their opportunities, and protects them from the abuse of state power,

So, how can we advance the political realignment that South Africa needs?

All of us – whatever our present and past political affiliations – need to decide where we stand now. The choice is between the populists, who will drive South Africa into the abyss of absolute poverty,  or the constitutionalists who must rise to the challenge of implementing a plan that gives everyone a chance of belonging, of working to improve their own lives, and contributing to society.

The risk of leaving our comfort zones to achieve this pales to insignificance when considering the alternative. 

We cannot let demagogues win.  We need to come together in a single party committed to building a non-racial and prosperous South Africa.

We must join hands and walk this road together. If we remain divided we will be defeated. The dream of the rainbow nation will lie in ruins.

Giving up a small part of our political identities will be worth it if we can build a brand new political vehicle to put South Africa on course and stay the distance.

I will continue to devote my life to the attainment of that goal. I have staked my political leadership on it. And I am prepared to work with all like-minded political leaders to achieve it.

If we can transcend the political formations that keep us trapped in the past, future generations will look back and thank us. The time has come to leap from the burning platform and take the plunge into the unknown.  It offers far greater hope than staying where we are. There is no time to waste.