Gloomy sentiments

ANTHONY BUTLER: Things can get worse in SA — and fast

Sense of foreboding in the country is spreading to international partners and investors

First published in Business Day and BusinessLive

26 MAY 2023

Earlier this week ANC secretary-general Fikile Mbalula blithely reassured a BBC interviewer that “if certain things are not resolved we will become a failed state, but we are not journeying towards that direction”.

Unfortunately, Mbalula did not reveal what those “certain things” are, or how exactly they will be tackled. 

In the past, limitations of public healthcare, security and education did not unduly trouble local elites. Today, in contrast, a deep sense of apprehension has set in, with widespread fear about a total electricity blackout or the nightmare of a failed state. The new and alarming sense of foreboding that has gripped much of SA’s commercial and intellectual leadership is understandably spreading to international partners and investors. 

There is an inexorable accumulation of institutions and organisations that just don’t work. Power cuts are escalating, and a parallel collapse of local electricity distribution infrastructure is unfolding. The appalling cholera outbreak in Hammanskraal feels like the harbinger of a new epoch in the history of SA’s public health. 

The things that do not work cannot be fixed because other things are broken. The dysfunction of the freight rail system has driven heavy lorries onto a road system that is consequently collapsing too. Eskom is not just destroying itself: it is collapsing water purification and sewage plants, basic public health and education systems, and undermining the viability of businesses, big and small. The longstanding psychological escape valve of “hope for the future” has progressively closed. 

Three realities cannot be gainsaid. First, the idea that the governing party can reform itself is no longer credible. The new generation of leaders elected to the national executive committee in 2022 is more provincial, poorly educated, dogmatic and corrupt than any of its predecessors. No matter how demonstrably “deployment” has wrecked parastatal performance — most pertinently at Eskom — the ANC will not abandon it.  

Second, the party will not easily be removed through the ballot box. It will continue to campaign well, fuelled by money from parastatals, corruption, and international party-to-party transfers. The danger of ballot rigging is real. If the party nonetheless loses, it will most probably still run SA’s national government by informal coalition. The worse it performs, the more likely it is to team up with the EFF, a development that will make matters even worse. 

Third, even if the ANC loses power, democracy turns on the idea that a fresh coalition can form a new government and steer the machinery of the state in a different direction. However, the ship of state the ANC will leave behind has been holed below the waterline. Events in Tshwane over the past few days have dramatised this predicament.

The fiscus is weakened — both locally and nationally — which means there is no money for a fresh government to respond to inherited crises. Human resources in the public sector are in a parlous condition across almost all areas of its activity. Worse still, the removal of the ANC from political office at local, provincial and national levels will not dismantle networks of corruption that are now entrenched almost everywhere. 

The progressive deterioration of the state will continue. The ANC will not change. Electoral politics will not make much difference. Taken together, these features of our situation will accelerate the general and dramatic loss of hope domestically in the future of the country, which means money and skills will leave even faster.  

As for the blocs and countries whose companies actually invest in SA — in descending order the EU, US and UK — they will take their cue from domestic sentiment. While the situation is obviously bad, there is no reason to believe it cannot get far worse quite quickly. 

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

Closing in on a grid collapse

ANTHONY BUTLER: Eskom’s handling of power cuts proves to be exceptional

Exemptions from load-shedding are often deemed impractical, except when it comes to ANC shindigs

First published in BusinessLive and Business Day

12 MAY 2023

Though a total failure of SA’s electricity system is relatively unlikely, it remains a matter of great concern. A grid collapse would shut down water and sewage treatment plants, telephone and internet services, payment systems and food supply chains. It would also be likely to bring looting and unrest.  

The fact that demand for electricity exceeds the capacity of the power grid increases the possibility of a total system collapse as a result of a cascading grid failure. Yet we still do not have a coherent policy response from the central government departments charged with responsibility for energy planning and the oversight of Eskom. 

Resources have been diverted away from the regular inspection and upgrading of power lines, transformers, substations and other critical components. Deliberate acts of sabotage and vandalism, motivated by financial gain, have been targeted at power infrastructure.  

Last week the judiciary made matters worse. Despite concerns about practicality, the high court in Pretoria ordered the public enterprises minister to take “all reasonable steps within 60 days” to stabilise electricity supply to schools, hospitals and police stations. Though the minister is appealing against the judgment, higher courts may confirm that constitutional rights to healthcare, education and justice impose just such obligations. 

Former Eskom CEO André de Ruyter pertinently warned the court that, with so many such facilities being embedded in distribution networks around the country, “were they to be excluded from load-shedding there would be very little load left to shed to reduce demand on the grid”, so presenting “a manifest risk of grid collapse or blackout”. 

New challenges concern the politicisation of grid system management. First, we have a growing problem of political exemptions from load-shedding. The ANC’s Nasrec conference in December 2022 was memorably exempted from power cuts by Johannesburg’s City Power, despite Nasrec being equipped with standby generators. ANC leaders presumably wanted to avoid the embarrassment of generators kicking in while proceedings were under way. 

Energy expert Chris Yelland has reported that the tiny seaside town of Port Alfred in the Eastern Cape has been exempted from power cuts this week because it is hosting a workshop on labour policy for delegates from the Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and SA) group of countries. The exemption was requested by the department of labour and granted by Eskom’s head office. Such an exemption is apparently illegal under the Electricity Regulation Act and it was not notified to the system operator at Eskom National Control, which is the only body authorised to allow exemptions from load-shedding. 

Since the Port Alfred venue had generators available, the key motivation, once again, would appear to be the ANC wanting to avoid embarrassment. If such exemptions proliferate the grounds for preferential and inequitable treatment will also grow, along with greater risks to the stability of the grid.  

A second key dimension of politicisation concerns party politics. We can anticipate every effort will be made to suspend load-shedding for the longest possible period in advance of the 2024  national and provincial elections, no matter what costs and system risks this might bring.  

Meanwhile, Cape Town and the Western Cape are moving ahead with initiatives to end load-shedding, using hydropower and solar generation, energy storage, buybacks from households and businesses, and voluntary energy savings. If the gulf between load-shedding experience in the Cape and the rest of the country grows, so too will the temptation to meddle in electricity system management. Any loss of trust and effective co-ordination between government entities presents a further risk factor. 

SA will become increasingly dependent on “automatic” grid protection systems that use fault detectors, relays and protective circuit breakers to identify and isolate faults, so preventing them from spreading and causing cascading failures. Such systems are themselves far from being fail-safe. 

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

The unlikely rise of the Gauteng ANC

ANTHONY BUTLER: For now, the Gauteng tail keeps wagging the ANC dog

The top leadership has been noticeably centred on the province since the Zuma presidency

First published in BusinessLive and Business Day

28 APRIL 2023 – 05:00

Something unexpected may be happening in the ANC leadership. The conventional wisdom among political analysts is that the governing party is undergoing a long-term divergence between party mechanisms of leadership selection and policy determination on the one hand, and the dynamics of the wider society on the other. 

SA has been urbanising rapidly, and in consequence, has become more preoccupied with the problems of city dwellers. However, the ANC remains dominated by branch and regional networks in mainly rural areas and slow population-growth provinces such as KwaZulu-Natal, the Eastern Cape and Limpopo. 

Strangely, though, the ANC’s topmost leadership has become noticeably Gauteng-centred since the much lamented departure of lamentable former president Jacob Zuma. Consider the composition of the “Top Seven” of the former liberation movement, headed by Gauteng-born and raised ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa.

His deputy, Paul Mashatile, is a former Gauteng overlord. Most of the rest of the Top Seven are members of the “Mashatile faction” or the “Gauteng faction”, or both, and seem set on replacing the province’s Ramaphosa with the province’s Mashatile when the time comes (or perhaps before). 

This problem of Gauteng arrogance was exemplified by the national executive committee (NEC) statement on coalition government this week. The December ANC national conference directed the NEC to develop a strategic perspective on coalition government, a task that was assigned to former Gauteng chair and premier David Makhura.  

According to his detractors, Makhura exemplifies a time-honoured ANC tactic of donning thick-lensed spectacles in the hope of being taken for an honest intellectual. His task on this occasion was not hard, though, because he could simply lift ideas from a book on coalition government, Coalitions of Inconvenience, published in 2021 by an excellent Gauteng think-tank, the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection. 

Makhura came up with a reasonable set of proposals to reduce instability in local government coalitions, including a common minimum programme that would be made public, and some attempt to find ideological and policy commonalities.  

Although the report is nominally about municipal coalitions, ANC secretary-general Fikile Mbalula, who takes himself more seriously than anybody else since his election to the position, made it clear that the coming general election is his real priority. 

There is no chance of the ANC securing constitutional adaptations needed to introduce formal changes in the process of forming national or provincial governments, such as mandatory submission of a formal coalition or confidence-and-supply agreement. But it could certainly regulate the way in which the party’s own provincial and local structures approach coalition agreements. 

Yet the ostensible grounds provided for a new coalition policy comprise mostly debacles of metro coalition government that the Gauteng ANC — and its local EFF buddies — have themselves created, many would say deliberately. Nobody seriously believes feeble mayors installed in Ekurhuleni, the West Rand or Johannesburg were meant to succeed. Instead, the deals struck have been great for the two parties in the province, which have been free to share the spoils of government behind the backs of the various feckless mayors they have elevated. 

The EFF is leveraging its power in Gauteng — where the provincial ANC needs its help to survive in office — to secure access to position, power and resources in national government. Worse still, Mbalula now insists that the Gauteng-skewed leadership impose its dictates about coalition partnerships on other provinces. Even ANC behemoths such as the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal, which have many more delegates than Gauteng and view the EFF as a mere irritant, will be forced to obey national (meaning Gauteng) dictates.

This then is the puzzle. How long can the Gauteng tail continue to wag the ANC dog? 

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

SA’s foreign policy dilemmas

ANTHONY BUTLER: SA shows inability to deal with external challenges

Belated decision not to invite SA to G7 meeting should serve as a warning

First published in Business Day and BusinessLive

14 APRIL 2023

SA faces complex external challenges. It is an inescapable but sometimes unwelcome truth that the country still depends heavily on a resurgent and Western-dominated multinational governance system and on economic relationships with the global North. 

SA’s largest trading partner, by a considerable margin, is the eurozone, the EU’s single currency area. Japan, the US and the UK are also important actors. While the relationship with China deepened in recent years, SA exports resources primarily to that country and imports manufactured goods. 

In contrast, exports to the US and Europe include services, sophisticated goods such as vehicles, and the potentially enormous growth sector of tourism. Decisions by institutional and direct investors in London, Berlin and New York meanwhile continue to have far-reaching consequences for us. 

The SA government leans towards an ideological rather than pragmatic approach to international relations. Party-to-party relationships — for example between the ANC and governing parties in Russia and China —  are privileged over state-to-state relationships. 

China has become an object of special fascination as it offers a non-Western path to development, and membership of the China-dominated Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China, SA) bloc is highly prized.  

It is certainly a real gain to enjoy a partly institutionalised relationship with the world’s two most populous countries and future economic giants of Asia and Latin America. The members of Brics also share with SA an impatience with the global multilateral order. 

The appeal of Brics is not limited to SA, a club of which it is now, in effect, a founder member. As present Brics chair, SA is responsible for drafting guidelines to be applied in admitting new members.

There are formal expressions of interest in Brics membership from 13 countries and — under heavy pressure from China — the grouping is now moving ahead with expansion.

In the near future we are likely to see the admission of two more states — I expect Indonesia and Saudi Arabia — as “special partners” with more limited rights than present members. 

Subordination to the West is deeply resented, and a shift in the global political and economic order has enormous appeal. However, there are hazards that come with deeper ties to authoritarian states such as China and Russia.

SA needs to secure practical economic and strategic objectives. This requires caution with respect to the disjuncture between SA’s real economic relationships and its political preferences. 

There are warning signals about SA’s inability to negotiate these complex challenges, such as the belated decision not to invite SA to the G7 meeting later this year in Japan. Maintaining a position of nonalignment throws up quandaries that also confront other middle-income countries in the global South, many of them also struggling to combine political democracy with economic prosperity in a less exclusionary multilateral governance system. 

Given the tendency of the SA elite to parochialism, it is a particularly propitious time for the arrival on the local scene of the New South Institute (NSI), a global think-tank headquartered in Johannesburg.  

As NSI director Ivor Chipkin observed at Thursday’s launch event in Sandton, SA needs to engage in dialogue, not only with the polarising giants of China and the US but also with countries that are like us in relevant ways: postcolonial and post-authoritarian states in the global South and post-Soviet Eastern Europe and Asia.

All this needs to be done on the basis of solution-focused research, evidence-based analysis, policy learning and pragmatism. 

• Butler is a professor of political studies at the University of Cape Town and a research fellow of the New South Institute.

The crisis in SA’s schools

ANTHONY BUTLER: ‘Silent crisis’ at schools needs urgent reforms

First published in BusinessLive

31 MARCH 2023

Public policy concerns what governments do, but also what they don’t do. In post-apartheid SA, a devastating schooling crisis has been treated as a non-issue to which governments have mostly responded with nondecisions.  

The depths of the “silent crisis” in SA education were detailed this week in a set of meticulous reports from Johannesburg think-tank the Centre for Development & Enterprise (CDE).  

The centre bluntly observes that “the majority of young people in our schools are not learning to read, write or add”. It emphasises that the cause is not a lack of resources, with the 2023 national budget allocating almost R300bn to basic education.  

The introduction of structured workbooks in classrooms and a stable curriculum produced some promising gains, but these gradually petered out, and were then wiped out by the Covid pandemic.  

SA sits at the very bottom of all credible international tables. Poorer countries spend far less and do far better. Almost four out of every five grade four pupils here cannot “retrieve explicitly stated information and make straightforward inferences” — they cannot “read for meaning”. Nearly half of all schools, on one account, are “cognitive wastelands”. 

Some of the causes for this dramatically poor performance lie in apartheid era policies that entrenched racial resource asymmetries and hollowed out black teacher training colleges. However, after 30 years of democracy SA continues to have too many unskilled and poorly motivated teachers, an often incompetent and corrupt bureaucracy, and failures of accountability across the basic education system. 

Plenty of remedies have been proposed for these problems that are grounded in evidence and in the successful reforms of other middle-income developing countries.  

School success varies widely. We know that four out of five teachers lack the subject knowledge and pedagogical skills needed to teach their subjects. Performance needs to be measured systematically and objectively to target the roots of such problems.

Incentives, and ultimately sanctions, must be put in place where they are required. School principals and senior teachers — often the key to improved performance — cannot continue to be appointed through flawed and union-manipulated processes.  

There are four major impediments to reform. The first concerns an infelicitous balance between the immediate political costs of reform (such as upsetting unions) and the long time it takes for improved outcomes to come through. Citing the experiences of countries like Peru, however, the CDE points to the possibility of meaningful improvement within an electoral cycle.  

Second, unions around the world typically block teacher performance management systems. In SA, accountability systems of all kinds are stymied by the SA Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu) which, according to a 2016 ministerial task team report commissioned in response to a “jobs for cash” scandal, is “in de facto charge of the management, administration and priorities of education” in at least six of the nine provinces. 

The third impediment is parents, who favour content and pedagogy relevant to their own school days. Moreover, misconceiving appropriate language policy, they push for English language instruction too early in their children’s lives. In the weakest schools, they lack the confidence and knowledge to use the school governing body system to their children’s advantage.  

Finally, society’s decisionmakers and broader middle classes place their own children in the 20% of schools — mostly suburban or private — that function tolerably well. There is no substitute for political leadership that can turn today’s educational “unpolitics” into a politics of reform.

Parents need to be made aware of the damage that is being done to their children; the society’s elites need to be recruited into a reform project; and Sadtu needs to be faced down and forced to negotiate a new settlement for SA’s schools. Only a president can lead such an initiative. 

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

SA’s hopeful revolutionaries

ANTHONY BUTLER: A happy and revolutionary long weekend, comrade

It is easy to confuse a profoundly unjust society for a country ripe for revolution

 First published in Business Day and BusinessLive

17 MARCH 2023

Will 2023 be the year in which the EFF finally unleashes revolutionary change in SA? 

It is true that Eskom at last faces real competition in its struggle to bring all economic and social activity to a halt. In contrast to the parastatal, though, the EFF has merely pledged to stop all commercial and academic activity in the country for one day, on Monday. 

The EFF’s demand that workers and students stay at home has been backed up by direct threats of violence. Party leader Julius Malema has described the protests as the start of a revolution and predicted that opponents of the EFF would “meet their maker”.  

Malema told party members last October that “at some point there must be killing because the killing is part of a revolutionary act”. It is difficult, however, to see threats of violence as elements of a wider revolutionary upheaval. 

Revolutions that have transformed both economic and political structures have often, by necessity, involved violence. But this has not always been the case, as the largely peaceful and revolutionary transformations of post-Soviet East and Central Europe demonstrate.

All manner of violent uprisings and revolts have meanwhile taken place throughout human history, and almost all have failed radically to change the underlying systems of power. 

The EFF’s involvement in violent rebellion has in any event so far been largely confined to welfare state revolutions. For example, its “ground forces” on university campuses have lobbed bricks at poorly paid private security guards, who have been instructed to avoid retaliation.  

Such protests have occasionally created inconvenience outside the tertiary education sector, for example with the littering of streets close to campuses or the build-up of traffic congestion close to university access roads, but this scarcely qualifies as revolutionary upheaval. The EFF has in fact been exceptionally unsuccessful at linking its nominal agenda of revolutionary change to potential agents of political upheaval, for example in organised labour. 

Like the ANC from which it emerged, the EFF has become wedded to revolutionary rhetoric in a society in which revolutionary change is more or less impossible. It is easy to confuse a profoundly unjust society for a country ripe for revolution.  

Moeletsi Mbeki once famously predicted a “Tunisia moment”, in which the social grants that have come with an expanding SA welfare state will suddenly be withdrawn as the result of a fiscal crisis, generating an intolerable shortfall between popular expectations and realities. At this point — at least according to the “J-curve hypothesis” first advanced by sociologist James Davies more than  six decades ago — individuals will rise up and engage in collective revolutionary activity.  

The trouble with Davies’ theory — and with Mbeki’s derivative amateur sociology — is that empirical evidence simply does not support it. Most societies across human history have been far more brutal and unjust than SA is today, but inequality and oppression have typically produced subservience, coping mechanisms and fear rather than revolutionary sentiment. 

There are some revolutionary Marxists in SA, but there are many more deeply conservative Christians. The ANC wisely embodies both traditions — sometimes in the same person. It is striking, for example, that excitable scholars have expended a good deal of energy on the implications of Nelson Mandela’s brief membership of the ostensibly revolutionary Communist Party of SA, but far less on what writer Dennis Cruywagen describes as “the spiritual side of Mandela … and his wish to be buried as a Methodist”. 

We can anticipate that the EFF’s national shutdown will be a partial success. Since Tuesday is a public holiday, pupils, students, many workers and much of the middle class will be taking the day off on Monday anyway. SA remains a world leader in the revolutionary long weekend. 

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town

A new deputy president for 2024?

ANTHONY BUTLER: Malema as deputy president looms large

First published in BusinessLive

03 MARCH 2023

Does SA face the prospect of EFF leader Julius Malema as deputy president even though his party usually garners only about 10% support from the electorate? The writer argues it is a possibility. Picture: Thapelo Morebudi

Veteran political commentator Prince Mashele generated a great deal of excitement this week with his prediction that EFF leader Julius Malema will move to the Union Buildings as deputy president in 2024. This claim, made on SABC current affairs programme The Watchdog is hardly new, but it is now catching the political imagination of many observers.

It is realistic to suppose that the load-shedding crisis will not have been resolved by the time national and provincial elections take place in mid-2024. In consequence, the ANC is likely to receive a drubbing. By blaming assorted reactionary and neoliberal elements, and by keeping the power on in the weeks ahead of the polls, the ANC should avoid dropping below 40% — Mashele suggests 42% is plausible. Meanwhile, the EFF will probably achieve its now customary 10%.

With such an outcome the ANC could not easily cobble together a majority for President Cyril Ramaphosa to be re-elected in the National Assembly. The other small parties would be too small, and a growing band of up-and-coming ANC leaders, most prominently Gauteng chair and premier Panyaza Lesufi, insist it would be unacceptable to negotiate with the DA.

The EFF has deliberately turned its guns on Ramaphosa, while simultaneously courting ANC leaders in the provinces. Moreover, the red berets have maintained friendly relations with Malema’s old mentors, ANC deputy president Paul Mashatile and secretary-general Fikile Mbalula. What could be more natural than for Mashatile to offer to serve the nation by stepping into Ramaphosa’s presidential shoes and negotiate a deal with the EFF? In exchange for EFF votes, Malema would be asked to serve his country as Mashatile’s deputy.

Of course, EFF leaders continue to live in an oppositional fantasy land and have made no attempt to engage with realistic public policy options. Policy incoherence would bring investor panic and a rapid acceleration of SA’s downward economic spiral.

EFF electors would doubtless feel deeply betrayed by the self-serving deal-making of the party’s leaders, and conservative ANC voters might react with abhorrence to Mashatile bringing Malema into the government. But the next elections would be a long way off.

It is the terrifying quality of Mashele’s scenario that makes it so compelling. But whether events will actually unfold in the predicted manner is dependent on a variety of contingencies. The ANC might do better than expected in 2024 and the EFF might do worse. While a coalition between the ANC and the DA seems implausible, a government of national unity, or an architecture of informal agreements between multiple parties, could be concocted.

Ramaphosa might decide he is unwilling to abandon the office of state president. Given that he was recently re-elected ANC leader he cannot simply be recalled, even if a majority of the party’s national executive committee favoured such a move. A special conference would have to be called by a majority of ANC provinces, and it is unclear whether such an unscheduled event is politically or logistically possible.

There is a huge dose of Gauteng arrogance in narratives about Mashatile’s rise. The proposed coalition partner, the EFF, is unpopular across much of SA. The ANC has remained stable over the years by rotating leadership between provinces, from the Eastern Cape’s Thabo Mbeki to KwaZulu-Natal’s Jacob Zuma, and now Gauteng’s Ramaphosa. It would be understandable if the ANC in Eastern Cape or KwaZulu-Natal pushed back against the idea of yet another Gauteng politician taking up residence in the Union Buildings.

Mashatile’s Gauteng commands few ANC conference delegates. Moreover, his province is heading for an absolutely devastating defeat in the provincial elections, and this will call into question the basis for his sense of entitlement about his future role.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town

Watch out for vote rigging

ANTHONY BUTLER: With vote riggers on tap, complacency is not an option

First published in BusinessLive

17 FEBRUARY 2023

Many South Africans don’t respond well to the idea that democracy could be under threat. Some get very angry, and insist they will never allow the democracy they fought for to die. More often they adopt the predator-avoidance strategy falsely attributed to ostriches, by burying their heads in the sand.

However, as political scientists Nic Cheeseman and Brian Klaas remind us in their grimly entertaining 2017 book How to Rig an Election, we are faced with a global phenomenon: “An increasing number of authoritarian leaders are contesting multiparty elections, but are unwilling to put their fate in the hands of voters … more elections are being held, but more elections are also being rigged.”

Cheeseman and Klaas note that our image of rigged elections tends to be lurid: in Madagascar, an opposition leader’s aeroplane is refused the right to land so he simply cannot contest; in Liberia there are 17 times more votes than voters; in Pakistan the most prominent opposition leader is killed; and in Equatorial Guinea “an election official [was] forced to sign off on an official result while a pistol was held to his head”.

Such crude interventions are in reality the last resort of power-hungry incumbents — it is far better to sew up the result subtly, and far in advance.

Some democratic vulnerabilities these authors analyse will be uncomfortably familiar to South Africans. Unnecessary hurdles to voter registration can selectively discriminate against anti-incumbent electors in growing urban areas. Vote buying can be widespread, with electors photographing their ballots to prove which way they have voted. Politicians may dole out public funds and development projects immediately in advance of elections — only to communities that have shown “loyalty” to the party of government.

Unaccountable electoral commissions can become dominated by incumbent appointees and selectively enforce the rules to the disadvantage of opposition parties. There may be limited access to politically compromised private media, and opaque governance in influential public broadcasters.

Equally importantly, there are new challenges related to technological change. Politicians’ personal data can be hacked to provide a basis for smear campaigns. Rapid-response bot armies can shape political narratives and spread manufactured disinformation. In many countries electoral infrastructure is vulnerable to the manipulation of voters’ rolls, voting machines and vote tabulation.

Such manipulations often make ballot box stuffing redundant. However, if it is needed, supposedly independent electoral commissions can be compromised and their members intimidated, making possible multiple and fake votes, and tampered counting processes.

Such threats to the integrity of elections can be countered by closely interrogating electoral commissions, reminding citizens that their ballot is secret, and using social media to increase awareness of vote-rigging techniques. Parallel voter surveys can be used to double-check election tallies.

Newly competitive electoral conditions in SA mean the incentives to rig elections are growing. Myriad unexploited opportunities already exist to obstruct free political activity, stifle editorial independence and curtail political freedoms. New technologies — and malign international consultancies happy to help rig elections — are on tap.

Meanwhile, the ANC has been allowed to get away with its claim that constitutional democracy is subordinate to its incoherent and anachronistic “national democratic revolution”. In recent years it has more consistently sought to normalise Chinese and Russian autocracy.

It is true that the ANC also hosts great defenders of democracy. However, an informal coalition between the ANC and the EFF under a new ANC president may be just around the corner. This would represent a betrayal of electors’ intentions and could make election-rigging a requirement for political survival.

Those who think our emerging political elites would baulk at such a strategy have perhaps not been paying sufficient attention. The biggest threat to democracy in SA is complacency.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

The talents of Fikile Mbalula

ANTHONY BUTLER: A polarising figure with a narrative for all occasions

What matters about Fikile Mbalula is not his ministerial performance or colourful personal life but his parallel ANC career as talented fixer, spin doctor, organiser and campaigner

First published in BusinessLive

3 February 2023

Recently elected ANC secretary-general Fikile Mbalula is a polarising figure. To his critics he is a clown who messed up his cabinet portfolios. To his champions he is an organisational genius and a breath of fresh air in a political world short on charisma.

Now 52, Mbalula rose through ANC youth politics in Botshabelo, Free State, in the late 1980s and early 90s. He emerged at the start of the democratic era as a provincial youth league secretary before rising to the league’s presidency.

A protégé of firebrand and Thabo Mbeki loyalist Peter Mokaba, “Mbaks”, as he was widely known, switched sides to join the coalition that swept Jacob Zuma into power at Polokwane. Bequeathing his youth league leadership to Julius Malema, he rose rapidly to deputy police minister and then sports & recreation minister from 2010 to 2017. In this role he rebranded himself as “Razzmatazz” and energetically pursued the Commonwealth and Olympic Games.

He fared less well after 2017 in the more consequential roles of police and then transport minister. Rebranding himself as “Mr Fearfokol”, Mbalula seemed wedded to government by tweet, even in sensitive positions where this was inappropriate.

Meanwhile, across his ministerial career he starred in comic sideshows that kept him in the public eye. He was famously “kidnapped” by fellow ANC leaders Tony Yengeni, Nyami Booi and Mcebisi Skwatsha in 2008, and forced to undergo ritual circumcision in the undergrowth of Philippi in the Cape.

After a brief affair that resulted in a pregnancy, Mbalula, a public champion of safe sex, regaled the nation with unhappily detailed accounts of exploding condoms. A former special adviser to Mbalula also made startling claims about the then police minister’s alleged involvement in efforts to procure eavesdropping “signal grabbers” in advance of the ANC’s December 2017 conference. 

However, Mbalula’s significance does not derive from his ministerial performance or his colourful personal life. What matters about Mbaks is his parallel career inside the ANC, as a talented fixer, spin doctor, organiser and campaigner.

The “state of disaster” narratives that emerged from the ANC’s national executive lekgotla on Monday bore Mbalula’s imprimatur. As the ANC starts on its year-long election campaign its strategy, directed by Mbalula and deputy secretary-general Nomvula Mokonyane, is going to be a multi-pronged attempt to deflect blame for the power crisis.

He has portrayed Eskom’s “code red” status as something unexpected, like a natural weather event. He insisted that under a state of disaster “experts” will be in charge, not ministers — meaning these same experts will be the ones to castigate when the lights stay off. Best of all, he has implied, with just a grain of truth, that a key problem has been too many Treasury regulations that prevent political leaders from implementing their turnaround visions.

The secretary-general also promised no power outages by “the end of the year”, which we can take as a decision that maintenance will take second place to ANC popularity in the run-up to next year’s elections.

Cyril Ramaphosa may well be dependent on Mbalula’s political capabilities if he wishes to remain SA president in 2024. At the same time, the secretary-general has been a Mbeki supporter and a Zuma loyalist, and he will quickly become an advocate for the merits of a Paul Mashatile presidency if circumstances require this.

If the ANC decides it needs to work with the EFF next year, Mbalula will be the key facilitator with his old friend Malema. If the liberation movement decides it wants to get rid of Ramaphosa along the way, Mbalula will be on hand to trash his record, while conjuring up a fresh narrative for the new leadership.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

The ANC’s electoral prospects in 2024

ANTHONY BUTLER: Opposition hoping Eskom crisis will dislodge ANC

First published in BusinessLive and Business Day

20 JANUARY 2023

For opponents of the ANC, the unfolding Eskom crisis is a bittersweet experience. The costs of rolling blackouts have been enormous for the country. But opposition leaders can at least hope citizens will never forgive the ANC — especially since rolling blackouts will continue to be a feature of daily life up to and beyond the 2024 elections.

Sadly for such critics, it is far too early to assume the ANC has done enough to lose at the polls. Behind its tired and demoralised façade it still knows how to target important segments of the electorate. Many of its leaders possess a strong intuitive understanding of what needs to be done to win.

As a party of government, its record with regard to jobs, crime, transport and many other important issues has been poor for more than a decade. At least since the initial onset of the global economic crisis in 2008 the ANC has presided over economic stagnation and joblessness that electors have consistently identified as the main challenges facing the country. Yet it has survived as the majority party at national level.

The movement has also long demonstrated a capacity to shape narratives about issues that might seem destined to bury it, such as the HIV/Aids policy debacles of the Thabo Mbeki period. It consistently tailors messaging to the economically vulnerable or those in precarious employment, deploying scaremongering about a loss of social grants or job-destroying economic restructuring.

The ANC is equally expert at using geographic and ethnic segmentation. Over the past two decades the top leadership has rotated between a nominally Eastern Cape leader, Thabo Mbeki, a KwaZulu-Natal based faction around Jacob Zuma, and the hitherto marginalised northern provinces purportedly championed by Cyril Ramaphosa. This has brought fresh waves of ANC support, most notably in KwaZulu-Natal under Zuma, but also lasting gains for a movement that can claim to belong to the people of SA as a whole.

Messages about the historical legacies of the ANC have little appeal among the young, but they continue to have resonance among older citizens, who are more likely to register and vote. The ANC can still dominate “get out the vote” operations in rural areas and townships where, despite its travails, it has an unrivalled footprint.

Rolling blackouts pose a stiff test for ANC campaigners, but they are rising to this challenge on the back of the coal lobby’s already strenuous social media lobbying. Many of their narratives — concerning “baseload”, “clean coal”, and the imprudence of decarbonisation — have been borrowed from vested carbon interests elsewhere around the world.

Specialised local spin has included the idea that “white monopoly capital” is destabilising Eskom so as to buy it up cheaply, or that black excellence in the coal sector and parastatals is being deliberately trashed by apartheid apologists.

Already ANC backbench MPs and senior ministers are groping for a new narrative about “sabotage” — against Eskom or, better still, by the parastatal against the great liberation movement. It is sadly predictable that what former minister Alec Erwin called the “human instrumentalities” involved will soon be linked to Western imperialism.

The ANC’s ability to veto power cuts that might have affected its conference last December points to another obvious stratagem: a tame board and CEO can evidently be persuaded to suspend blackouts in the immediate run up to the 2024 elections.

If things get really bad, the ANC always has its classic fallback of “renewal”. We should not be surprised to find ourselves faced with a new “good ANC”, perhaps headed by an allegedly dynamic Paul Mashatile. He could ask the people for one last chance to govern, while apologising for the failures of the “bad ANC” — that led by an indecisive former president, Cyril Ramaphosa.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.