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Superficial analyses of where South Africa is heading miss the mark. To understand the future, we need to understand the past, and to look beyond our borders, writes Ivor Chipkin.

— Featured in Daily Maverick

The level of debate about the political future of South Africa is shockingly naïve. The weakening of the ANC electorally and the strengthening of opposition parties means, so the argument goes, that democracy in South Africa is maturing as we enter the phase of meaningful competitive politics. This is, at best, one scenario. It is the scenario that many commentators and academics like because, myself included, they believe in some form of democratic polity. Yet we should not substitute hope for what is happening in reality.

The problem, as I see it, is the absence of a historical sensibility, not just about South Africa’s past but about the past of the world. Political debate in South Africa consistently fails to acknowledge two overriding features of the South African state. In the first place, it is a new state – a little more than a 100 years old. Secondly, during its short life it has existed as a national territory for only brief periods – for a few years after 1910 and then formally from 1994. For most of the twentieth century South Africa existed as a partial national state, governed through multiple and parallel administrations – usually organized on the basis of race or a notion of tribe. The Bantustans are the culmination of this politics of fragmentation and undoing. One of the major challenges of state-building in post-Apartheid South Africa has, therefore, been integrating former homeland administrations in new government arrangements and pacifying their various elites.

As a general rule, one of the decisive dynamics in the history of government over historical time has been the relationship between what we might call the centre and the periphery (though these terms are imprecise). European medieval and Renaissance history frequently turns on the relative authority of the monarchy in relation to the nobility. When the nobility has been tame, as was the case of France at the time of Louis XIV, the monarchy is supreme and absolutist. In Britain during the Eighteenth century the nobility acquired hereditary title over their lands and become more and more independent vis-à-vis the monarchy. The peculiarity of English history is the balance that was achieved between these constituents, resulting in a constitutionally limited monarchy. The Japanese regime, for a period of roughly 800 years until 1600, manifests a similar dynamic, as does the Mamluk regime in Egypt. India since 1949 has been in state of constant struggle between its regional notables and the central state. So too have African states since independence. Even though the Nigerian civil-war was decided in favour of a unitary state, Nigeria remains always a fragile entity.

In other words, for long historical periods and in many geographies, state formation hinges on the ability of a political centre to tame its regions. When it cannot, the result is long-term political instability and disorder and even the break-up of the polity itself.

The fate of state-socialist regimes in recent times is also instructive in this regard. I draw on the exciting new work of Xu Huang to illustrate the point. The ‘great divergence’ between the Soviet Union and China, collapse and disintegration in the case of the first and consolidation of absolutist control in the case of the latter, rests on their respective ability to manage their ‘barons’, that is, their regional elites. That the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s produced a period of chaos is not in dispute. When Mao granted groups of workers and citizens the ‘right to rebel’ in 1966 the ‘red guards’ took aim at local and regional administrations and power-brokers. Hence, when in the 1970s China took measures to restore political stability and launch economic growth reforms took place in the context of the enhanced authority of Beijing and of the central Communist Party.

The contrast with the Soviet Union is striking. In the post-Stalinist era, modernization and economic expansion produced huge growth in the central bureaucracy. Brezhnev’s rule is regarded as the golden age of the nomenklatura. It is also the highpoint of Soviet achievements in military power, geopolitical influence and technology. Nonetheless, the ‘ossified’ bureaucracy was deemed the principle constraint on further modernisation. Gorbachev’s reforms – Perestroika – like Mao’s cultural revolution targeted the bureaucracy. Unlike the cultural revolution, however, that weakened local and regional administrations, Gorbachev sought to break the power of central state bureaucracies – setting off centrifugal forces that ultimately tore the Union apart.

Why is all this relevant to contemporary South Africa?

It is relevant because the power of regional and local elites vis-à-vis the central state in South Africa is not a settled matter.

Until recently the dominance of the ANC has been achieved because it has absorbed and contained a great variety of social and political contradictions and tensions. Different classes have been able to realise enough of their interests to remain loyal to the party. Furthermore, diverse regional and local elites have been able to pursue their ambitions through its structures, largely reconciling and integrating them to the new South Africa. In this way ANC dominance has given us more than two decades of political stability. The ANC has paid a very high price for this brand of nationalism. It has divided and fragmented the organization internally. Little wonder the figure of Jesus Christ appeals to many of its leaders. The party suffers to heal the body-politic.

What does the weakening of the ANC mean in this context?

There are several possible scenarios. The first is that such elites either remain in the ANC whilst others seek political expression in other or new parties, all the while accepting the broader constitutional framework. We might call this the scenario of state consolidation. It can take two forms: democratic or authoritarian.

In the opposite direction, a second is that the weakening of the ANC reopens centrifugal forces that ignite forces in favour of secession. This is a scenario of state dissolution. This is what was avoided during the political transition from Apartheid.

Another is that local and regional elites push for greater autonomy in their respective areas/ jurisdictions, weakening any move to build capable, national administrations and developing coercive powers through local police and militias that owe them allegiance. I will call this a scenario of state fragmentation. The last two scenarios are not mutually exclusive.

I believe that combinations of the first and third scenario are most likely in the short and medium term. We saw the brazen expression of the logic of fragmentation in December 2015 when the finance minister was unexpectedly fired. There, regional elites (based in provinces) and local elites (sometimes organized through SOEs and/ or personal/business networks), working through the President, struck against the centralising power of the National Treasury. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of Jacob Zuma’s presidency has been the fragmentation of the state and the weakening of central administrations. Still, there is a nagging worry that in Jacob Zuma, South Africa has found its Gorbachev. Who will be the country’s Mao?

Ivor Chipkin

Director and Founder