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The threat to South Africa’s democracy runs deeper than state capture

A protest in South Africa against housing shortages. EPA/Kim Ludbrook

A recently released report written by a group of South African social scientists, “Betrayal of the Promise”, considers the widespread capture of state institutions by a network linked to President Jacob Zuma and declares it “a silent coup.”

The reference to a “coup” might seem odd given that the democratically elected head of state is described as its patron. But South Africa’s current predicament is not primarily about the individuals in specific offices. Rather, at its root, it’s about a crisis in the country’s democracy.

The report by the academics proposes a dividing line between those committed to social transformation – as set out in the country’s constitution – and those who aren’t. The Zuma-aligned camp is alone on the latter side of this line.

But, even though they don’t have much else in common, almost all the country’s key political alignments – political parties as well as social movements – share what I call a naive view of the state. They think that state institutions must be captured by one or another sector for state action to achieve a desired goal.

This is an analytical and political cul-de-sac. South Africa’s democratic crisis is a result of the unfinished project of remaking institutions first shaped under colonial and then apartheid rule. The challenge now is how to rebuild them so that they have both popular legitimacy and the capacity to achieve the promise of the country’s constitution: to create a more equitable society.

I describe this dominant view of the state as “naive” because it treats institutions as terrain for narrow manipulation by one group or another. In fact the crisis shows that South Africa doesn’t yet have, and desperately needs, effective institutions with the capacity to respond to broader society.

Various views

Zuma’s political allies in the African National Congress (ANC) insist that to reduce the power of “white monopoly capital”, the state must empower black industrialists by transferring public assets.

They envisage this being primarily through state controlled concessions, such as mines, as well as contracts with state owned enterprises such as the power utility Eskom and transport group Transnet. This is complemented by vague pronouncements around land redistribution.

The opposition Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) take a vanguardist position, arguing that state power can provide for the working class by nationalising private assets and redistributing land.

The Democratic Alliance, the largest opposition party in parliament, advocates the privatisation of public assets. It insists that this will subsidise public projects, although it’s not clear how.

For their part, civil society organisations seem to realise that state institutions, free from narrow private capture, are essential for a more capable state. They are beginning to focus much more attention on the integrity and independence of state institutions. Some are focusing on issues of government transparency and privacy, others on resisting attempts to compromise key ministries, especially Treasury.

But civil society has little influence or connection to formal politics. Trade unions are split. Middle class professionals in the activist sphere have lost their links with trade unions and urban social movements, which proved such a powerful alliance for democratisation in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Protests in urban townships are frequent but localised. They are rarely linked to any city wide agenda or movement.

A failing democracy

Institutional “capture” is both a symptom and a cause of the country’s broader democratic crisis.

The constitution contains some of the most extensive socio-economic rights anywhere in the world. But inequalities have been extraordinarily durable.

Now the constitution itself is increasingly under attack. This shouldn’t be surprising given that many state institutions, especially at the local level, aren’t effective and, therefore, cannot realise the rights set out in the constitution.

Democratic South Africa’s challenge remains how to find a way to remake institutions so that they’re capable of ensuring the rights guaranteed by the constitution are realised.

Comparative insights from Brazil

In this it has lessons to learn from Brazil, which has similar constitutional guarantees. Despite recent political challenges, Brazil has managed to decentralise important parts of administering redistributive programmes. This has led to more capable institutions, especially at the municipal level.

Since 1988 when a new constitution came into force, Brazilian cities have used large federal government revenue transfers for redistributive ends such as health, education and housing.

On top of this, Brazilian cities have a long history of participatory councils, from city wide budgeting to specific policy sectors such as housing and health. In large cities like Sao Paulo, many of the social movements for housing, which helped drive the campaign for democracy in the 1980s, have remained important political and social movements. They’ve helped reconstruct Brazil’s local state institutions, which were previously a global example of weak and clientelistic politics.

Cities like Sao Paulo now have institutions that are able to make big gains for poor people in sectors such as transport, housing and sanitation.

This suggests important lessons for how to address South Africa’s democratic crisis.

Recapturing institutional legitimacy

A positive sum, redistributive agenda is the central promise of the South Africa’s Constitution. This is also a requirement for the success of any dialogue between all sectors of South African society as proposed by the authors of Betrayal of the Promise.

A debate over policy is going to be extraordinarily difficult while the country’s institutions continue to lose legitimacy. This means that a focus on the capture of state institutions will need to go hand-in-hand with a focus on how they can be refashioned to be more responsive to society.

South Africa awaits the movements and parties with the ideas and organisational strategies to take such a vision forward. Until then, the country will struggle to move beyond today’s anti-democratic precipice.

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