By Ryan Brunette
South Africa is entering its second recession in as many years. Gross domestic product per person has returned to the levels of 2008. Unemployment, already at five times the global rate, is rising. So is the poverty rate, with more than half of South Africans living on less than R1,183 a month and a quarter living on less than R547. Twenty-five years after the end of apartheid, South Africa competes for the position of the most materially unequal society on the face of the earth. Rather than coordinating a credible response to this malaise, the South African state is in crisis. It is widely perceived to be a part of the problem. Its politics is in fundamental ways corrupted. Its public administrations are in a condition of decay. Life-giving services of water, sanitation, and healthcare, economy-driving provision of electricity, transportation, and education, these are in many places collapsed or on the brink.
Over the past five years an unprecedented movement secured for the country a president who is widely considered to be alive to these challenges. That movement now feels itself to be enervated, on the back foot, even despairing as to the future. It is crucial, then, that it learns what it is confronting, that it develops a galvanising programme of strategy and tactics appropriate to doing so.
The new politics of patronage and reform
The central fact of contemporary South African politics is the emergence within it of a nationwide and mass-based patronage system. The early post-apartheid era, whatever its failures, was programmatic. It mobilised through ideological claims to the “common interest”. It developed plans that offered rationally credible solutions to pressing societal problems, that framed collective, rule-bound, and impersonal redistributions. That broad-minded momentum now lies shattered in disparate contestation over the spoils of public office. In this development South Africa is not unique. Patronage was first amplified on a mass scale around the midpoint of the 19th century, in the great democratic cities of the north-eastern United States. Under its influence the Democratic and Republican parties reclined into corruption; public administrations stumbled through the challenges of industrialisation. Over the next 100 years, with the expansion of suffrage and other mechanisms of popular political competition, these systems proliferated across the Americas and in parts of Europe. In the latter half of the 20th century, with political decolonisation and socio-economic modernisation throughout the globe, they became a feature of most countries. All through this history, people have expressed concerns about the associated political, administrative, and often socio-economic deterioration. In proportion to popular interest in the benefits of proficient government, politics has reoriented around an opposition between patronage and reform. The same is happening in South Africa. Many have just not fully realised it yet. […]