Public Investment Corporation RET

It looks increasingly likely that a win by President Jacob Zuma’s incumbent faction at the ANC’s conference in December will bring about “radical economic transformation” — there will be an unprecedented transfer of wealth from ordinary working people to an already bloated elite.

The key instrument in this radical programme of reverse empowerment will be the Public Investment Corporation (PIC), an entity that manages R1.8-trillion in government employees’ pensions and other guardian funds.

Earlier this week, Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba told union federation Cosatu’s central executive committee that he could not guarantee PIC-managed funds would not be used to “re-capitalise” state-owned enterprises (SOEs).

Such SOEs include the struggling national flag carrier, South African Airways (SAA), the SABC, and PetroSA, which have, together, accumulated losses of more than R25bn over the past decade.

In a carefully disseminated narrative, such SOE bailouts have been hailed as protecting jobs and promoting the national interest. In the absence of incentives to reform, however, SOE rescues simply buy time and space for further looting and mismanagement. The drunkards are soon back for another hand-out — and the Treasury’s pockets are now empty.

In the case of the SA National Roads Agency, the PIC has taken a step further, becoming the Gauteng pariah’s primary bond holder. This looks like an abuse of pensioners’ savings to rescue political elites from the fal-lout of the e-tolls debacle.

The worst is yet to come. The PIC has now established significant precedents for “political investing” in companies that offer no, or vanishingly little, prospect of returns. The PIC has thrown money into marginal platinum miner Lonmin. This has set a precedent for public-sector pension funds to be used to buy out ailing and “politically connected” resource houses, so dumping their toxic environmental and labour legacies on unwitting public-sector pensioners.

On yet another front, the PIC’s role in the purchase of the terminally sick Independent Media empire by Sekunjalo Investments has still not been explained or justified. This move has opened the door to a stream of further politically motivated abuses.

Public-sector pensioners are now being carefully groomed by their abusers to pay for a massive injection of capital into one of the world’s largest financial white elephants: Eskom.


Back in May 2015, the head of the ANC’s economic transformation committee, Enoch Godongwana, proposed that private pension funds might “address Eskom’s cash-flow situation … in return for equity”. The roughly R100bn initially required, however, could never be forthcoming from private institutional investors in SA, or from international power companies, in the absence of governance reforms that the ANC is too weak-kneed and compromised to contemplate.

For this reason, ANC leaders have spent two years lobbying for “worker investment” in paraststals to “protect jobs” and to “promote development and transformation”. But the only funds the workers have to invest are their pensions.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town

Parastatal budgeting (a vaguely prescient column from 2011)

Parastatals’ ‘budgets for dummies’ the way to go

 Business Day

18 Mar 2011

Anthony Butler

SA HAS become the site of two fascinating experiments in the methodology of budgetary accountability. Contrasting approaches to the transparency of government budgets — the Treasury model and the parastatal model — can now be compared for the first time.

The National Treasury was recently awarded top prize in the International Budget Partnership’s Open Budget Index, for overseeing the world’s most “transparent, participatory, and accountable” budget process. The partnership praised the Treasury for providing clear information to MPs, civil society groups and the media, so enabling citizens to participate in decision-making and hold the executive to account.

The alternative approach has been pioneered in the parastatal sector, where public borrowing now virtually equals that of the government itself. The parastatal model has four key features. First, it avoids overdependence on numerical data. When parastatals must use numbers, they use the simpler ones they believe ordinary citizens are best able to grasp. Confusing government subsidies, bail-outs and Treasury loan guarantees are omitted. Eschewing the complex data tables favoured by the Treasury, parastatal managers round financial information up to the nearest R5bn or R10bn.

For this reason, stateowned logistics group Transnet claimed in 2008 that its Johannesburg-toDurban fuel pipeline would cost R10bn. This rose to R15bn in April last year, before accelerating upwards this year to R25bn.

In a move towards still greater transparency, the Department of Transport uses R100bn — the reported cost of its proposed revamp of passenger rail services — as its basic unit of account. On Tuesday, Transnet announced its own R100bn project, this time for a major new port development. In the interests of citizen accountability, a detailed budgetary breakdown was provided: there would be “two phases” amounting to “R50bn in each phase”. Such easily understood R50bn or R100bn increments are also favoured by Eskom when communicating cost increases for its Medupi and Kusile power stations.

Second, parastatals have democratised their financial management processes by drawing large numbers of democratically elected citizens into their web of financial transactions. While private companies typically retain a single CE and finance director for several years, Transnet and Eskom have increased citizen participation by allocating such jobs to large numbers of middle managers on a rotating or “acting” basis. A further innovation in democratic transparency has been the publication in advance of the names of new parastatal CEs in The New Age newspaper, so citizens can learn their identities before Cabinet ministers and the members of parastatal boards have been notified of their own decisions.

Third, in the interests of transparency, it has been decided that all major infrastructure projects — highspeed rail links, airports, pipelines, sports stadiums and ports — will henceforth be located in Durban. This will allow citizens and MPs to inspect all of the projects in a single day.

The only exceptions to this rule are the nuclear power stations President Jacob Zuma has apparently agreed to purchase from France. In the light of recent events in Japan, such plants must be located, for technical reasons, in the Eastern Cape or in the northern suburbs of Cape Town.

The Open Budget Index is best viewed as a discredited instrument of western imperialism. Its methodological shortcomings have been exposed by its incorrect classification of China — a partner that Public Enterprises Minister Malusi Gigaba has identified as a good governance model — as “among the least transparent countries in the world”.

Despite its superficial attractions, the Treasury model — with its mass of detailed argumentation, small font sizes and dense statistical tables — is too labyrinthine for citizens, and Cabinet ministers, to follow. It is surely highly undemocratic that the finance minister has made available to the general public information that is too complex for even the president and his head of government communications to understand.

Butler teaches politics at Wits University.

Apartheid and democracy. Part 2

Is democracy good?

Wednesday 30 August 2017

The global political context has radically changed since the mid-1990s when I wrote Democracy and Apartheid. We no longer live in an age of liberal triumphalism. Political analysts do not expect “democracy” to solve all our problems. And we only have to look at the president of the US to see that democracy can have very negative consequences and not just positive ones.

Some of the critiques of democracy that are worth considering are:

#1 Liberal representative democracy is shallow or meaningless so its presence or absence is of little or no interest

Many critics have complained that this “liberal democracy” is shallow. What is needed, they argue, is a system that is more “deliberative” and/or “egalitarian”. “Deeper” or “deliberative” forms of decision making would involve citizens talking and understanding rather than just voting. A more “egalitarian” system might be one in which urban, educated, wealthy elites do not dominate political debate.

#2 Liberal democracy is counter-revolutionary

More direct critics (especially in the Marxist tradition) have complained that “bourgeois democracy” (the kind that we call “liberal representative democracy”) is a sham.

After all, the power of the “capitalist state” is deployed in the interests of the capitalist class in order to reproduce and sustain the capitalist system. The function of democracy (according to Marxists) is merely to make capitalism seem “legitimate” to those who are oppressed by it. In this way, democracy helps to delay the glorious revolution. “Bourgeois democracy” of the kind introduced in 1994 is therefore bad because it generates “false consciousness” among the population about the real condition of their lives.

“True democracy”, on a Marxist view, can only be realized outside the distortions of the capitalist system. The authoritarian state of East Germany (1949-90), to take one case, called itself the “German Democratic Republic”, despite being a police state with severe restrictions on opposition party and civil society activity, and the holding of “elections” in what was essentially a one-party state.

In the Marxist tradition, liberal representative democracy is a veneer applied to a system in which the capitalist class is dominant and the workers suffer from “false consciousness”. The Communist Party, by contrast, apparently enjoyed a “scientific understanding of society” that allowed it to discern the true interests of the masses. Apparently.

#3 “Liberal democracy” is merely a historically particular Western/colonial idea or practice

Other critics of “liberal democracy” include proponents of pre-colonial political traditions that purportedly offer the advantages of democracy without its malign western elements. See, for example, Andrew Nash’s presentation of something he calls “Mandela’s democracy” (POL5044S students – we will soon discuss this).

There is also potential for untried forms of democratic politics that cannot be realized through current (western) institutions and ideas. These are set out in a variety of utopian traditions, some of which focus on the potential of new technologies.
Can political science help us understand democracy in richer ways?

There have been two decades of innovation in political science since I wrote Democracy and Apartheid. (In my view, this is one further reason why the book is not useful for teaching.)

One trend is to treat many states as “hybrids” that combine different democratic and authoritarian practices, to differing degrees, rather than arguing that they are either democracies or they are not. A second trend has been to break down “democracy” into its various components or dimensions.

If I were writing a similar book today, I would use quite different concepts — such as “illiberal democracy” (Zakaria 1997), “hybrid regime”, or “Competitive Authoritarianism” (Levitsky and Way 2010) — to analyse apartheid SA.

These new concepts all emerged to help political scientists understand the numerous regimes that did not, and do not, fit the classification of states as “democratic” or “non-democratic” (or as “in transition” between the two). This dichotomy, and the idea that there was a general trend towards liberal democracy, dominated western political science in the 1990s. (This was also part of the argument of my book, but sadly I was not successful in developing any useful new concepts myself!)

I particularly value the analytic power of concepts like “hybrid regime” and “competitive authoritarianism”. Levitsky and Way’s “competitive authoritarian” regimes are different to “closed authoritarian regimes” because there are legal channels through which opposition parties can compete seriously for power – and conceivably even win. Examples today might be Russia, Malaysia, Angola, or Turkey.

Elections are held regularly, there is political opposition, and (circumscribed) civil liberties at least permit opposition parties to select candidates and organize campaigns. Not all political journalists are routinely jailed or killed. Not every ballot box is stuffed.

Democratic procedures therefore allow partial but genuine contestation for power. But these regimes are not “democracies”, according to Levitsky and Way, because competitive authoritarian regimes “fall short” on at least one, and usually more, of three “defining attributes of democracy”. These are (1) free elections, (2) broad protection of civil liberties, and (3) a “reasonably even playing field.”

Their writing is very clear although their arguments are complex. You can ask your lecturers about their approach or listen to Levitsky here

If I revisited the themes of Democracy and Apartheid today, twenty years on, I might explore the matter in something like these terms: was apartheid SA a “hybrid regime” (one that combined democratic and authoritarian practices) or perhaps a competitive authoritarian regime?

SA probably did not meet even the relatively minimal conditions for competitive authoritarianism after 1960, because the regime began to introduce wide ranging bans on opposition political parties — and to imprison or drive into exile a wide range of political opponents.

It is also interesting to “disaggregate democracy” in the way that has been attempted by the “Varieties of Democracy” project. This new approach makes it possible to trace how some of the contested component dimensions of democracy (they claim there are seven of these) have changed over the course of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries in more than a hundred countries (including SA). There is a reference to the project site below if you want to see what is going on today in this part of political science.

Best wishes


Anthony Butler

30 August 2017




Butler, Anthony (1998) Democracy and Apartheid: Political theory, comparative politics and the modern South African State (New York, St Martin’s Press & Basingstoke, Macmillan).

Fukuyama, Francis (1989). :”The End of History”, The National Interest (16): 3–18.

Levitsky, Steven and Lucan Way (2010) Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes after the Cold War (Cambridge University Press).

Zakaria, Fareed (1991), ‘The rise of illiberal democracy’, Foreign Affairs (November-December)


The Varieties of Democracy project can be found at

Apartheid and democracy. Part 1

Apartheid SA as a democracy

Tuesday 29 August 2017


This is the promised blog post for the two students who asked me this morning whether or not “apartheid SA was a democracy”.


“Was apartheid SA a democracy?”

I would say obviously not, but it does depend on what you mean by “democracy”.

“Democracy” is a contested concept: people argue over what it means, and their competing definitions are not just based on reason and evidence but also on value judgments and ideologies.

“Democracy” literally means something like “rule by the people”. That idea (direct popular rule) is not realized in any complex society. If you want to look at it in that way, there is a sense in which “nobody has a democracy”.

In practice, so-called “democracies” have been (at best) “representative democracies” in which citizens vote periodically for a political elite that then governs on their behalf. This can work quite well. (There is a lot of evidence for this usually being a better option than the alternatives.)

But scholars – and ordinary people – have also expected more from “a democracy”.

Political scientists typically argue that beyond elections, a democracy should have some additional attributes, such as:

  • Elections that are regular and competitive, and that result in changes to the occupants of legislatures or executive offices (for example the presidency)
  • Elections that are “free and fair” (a variety of requirements flow from this)
  • Constitutional (and real) protections of certain key human rights (freedom of speech, press freedom, freedom of association) – this is what makes for a “liberal democracy”
  • A political system that permits “participation” (or perhaps “pluralism”) so that citizens can express their preferences between elections concerning particular issues and ideas that matter to them, regardless of how they vote


Was apartheid a democracy on these terms?


Why not?

  • After 1910 most (eventually all) black people were excluded from voting
  • Opposition parties were banned, quite widely after 1960
  • There was institutionalised racial segregation that denied fundamental human and political rights, including the rights needed for democracy to exist
  • Bantustans were created as “mini-states” in an attempt to deny Africans’ political rights inside SA by granting them fake rights in fake countries (this project was never legitimate under international law)
  • Freedom of association and speech was suppressed
  • A whole lot of other conditions for democracy were absent: there was detention without trial, state sponsored violence, and many other anti-democratic interventions.


Why do some scholars argue that SA was a “qualified” democracy?

After 1910, SA had competitive “white elections” that resulted in changes in government.

These elections had important political consequences. Most of them were very negative.

White voters sometimes obstructed moves towards reform that business and governmental elites might have favoured.

In addition, between 1910 and 1994, many white South Africans accepted the myth that SA was a democracy, and this was reinforced by academic analysis and media coverage of SA’s elections. This helped to maintain the legitimacy of the regime in whites’ eyes, and so served as a brake on political reform.

Up to the 1960s it was relatively easy to pretend that SA was democratic, because there were so few democracies globally, and many other so-called democracies also denied the vote to a majority of their inhabitants (specifically women, non-citizens, people who had been imprisoned, citizens deliberately disenfranchised by literacy and other requirements for registration, etc.).

And even after 1960, apartheid propagandists excused the white franchise in SA on the (false) grounds that Africans would soon enjoy political self-determination in the Bantustans.

I explored the argument that apartheid SA was a kind of democracy in a book Democracy and Apartheid that I wrote in 1996 and 1997, in the aftermath of the 1994 election (Macmillan 1998).

This book was a critique of the triumphalism about liberal democracy and capitalism that prevailed in political science at the time, expressed most famously in an article about “the end of history” by Fukuyama (1989). Fukuyama’s writing reflected a wider presumption that there was a global trend towards both market-based economies and liberal representative democracy.

South Africa “transition to democracy” was viewed in just this light by most of its international analysts.

It is important to situate the argument of my book in this context, and also to read the book in its entirety. The use of selective quotations can easily open the way to misunderstandings (as I discovered this morning from one student).

What the book does NOT argue is the following:

(A) “Democracy is good”

(B) “Apartheid was a democracy”

Therefore (A) plus (B)

(C) “Apartheid was good”


In the next blog post, I will explore whether or not democracy is (always) good.


Anthony Butler

29 August 2017

No need for democracy in China?

Political theorists know that disputes about the meaning of “democracy” usually cannot be settled by appeals to reason or evidence alone. Elections, at least, have been central to almost everyone’s idea of democracy since its unlikely emergence in ancient Athens.

Writing on the eve of SA’s own transition, the greatest of all living political scientists, Adam Przeworski, defined democracy as a regime in which “government offices are filled as a consequence of contested elections”. But most scholars insist that democracy must also be a “liberal” system in which fundamental rights and freedoms are constitutionally protected.

Can democratic decisions be delegated to others? In large and complex commercial societies, electoral participation has mostly been limited to periodic votes for representatives who then deliberate on citizens’ behalf.

While western political scientists struggle to define democracy and to understand its implications, the Chinese Communist Party is bypassing the concept altogether.

Chinese people are increasingly unwilling to tolerate the crony capitalism and corruption of the “party-state”. Reformers have talked guardedly about the potential merits of constitutionalism — or even of intraparty elections involving carefully vetted candidates.

But conservatives insist that democracy is costly, destabilising and inefficient. Far better, they argue, to use new technologies to rebuild the party’s legitimacy. Behind China’s “Great Internet Firewall”, an army of censors has long overseen indigenous Weibo social media, taking down the posts of frustrated citizens, identifying antiparty agitators and facilitating the arrest of dissenters. Now the party has reportedly begun to use social media data more constructively to tackle the sources of popular discontent.

Corrupt local officials have been identified and (when politically convenient) removed or punished.

Ordinary people’s revealed anxieties about pollution and public service failures have been translated into remedial actions. Official websites have been set up to filter and channel citizens’ complaints, while the posts of “rumour-mongers” continue to be deleted.

Party officials can now knock on the doors of outraged residents whose houses lie in the path of a rapacious property developer. Informed by Weibo analytics about the intensity of the citizens’ anger, the party can make available appropriate and differentiated compensation to each household, and so avert the formation of a local protest movement. Through this lens, issue-based protest politics simply shows that party officials have not yet identified and tackled the root causes of discontent.

Social media giant Facebook, banned in China, has an almost magical ability to target relevant advertising at consumers. In representative democracies, candidates with deep pockets — and their big-business sponsors — have recently started using the same social media analytics to target political advertising at voters. This growing technological nightmare for the proponents of liberal democracy in the West may be a dream come true for Chinese communists.

Advances in the machine-based processing of social media communications could in future allow the party to know what citizens want before they do themselves. If it can identify the factors that generate discontent, and ameliorate the causes of antiparty sentiment before they turn into anger and protest, the governing elite will be able to dispense altogether with the bothersome and inefficient practice of democracy.

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

Party funding proposals

Parliament’s ad hoc committee on the funding of political parties has recently received numerous detailed submissions in support of its review of party funding.

Parties need resources to organise and educate citizens, formulate policy alternatives and campaign. But private donations create opportunities for corruption and influence buying. Donors can receive licences and concessions, selective policy advantages, or public sector contracts. Meanwhile, rich parties can dominate election campaigns. The international trend has been towards greater or exclusive public funding of parties, transparency of donations, and heavier regulation of expenditures.

After a decade of foot-dragging, the ANC has finally initiated a reform process. Its own submission last week calls for heavier regulation, donation caps, transparency and spending to promote participation and democracy.

Parties that agree to regulation and disclosure will be compensated by increased public support.

It will also consider bans on donations by party-or state-owned companies and multinationals.

The ANC document has many merits. It recognises the advantages of greater openness and acknowledges the needs of smaller parties and new entrants. It accepts opposition parties’ fear that disclosure will drive donors away or underground.

Nevertheless, opposition MPs will need to keep their wits about them if they are not to be disadvantaged by new legislation.

First, international experience points to the dangers of evasion and selective regulation. When donations are banned or capped, they turn into “loans”, are hidden in commercial deals or opaque legal trusts, or are packaged to fall under thresholds.

Disclosure also encourages donors to divert funds to political foundations or other party-aligned institutions in civil society: interest groups, NGOs and partisan newspapers.

Such practices encourage intrusive regulation of targeted political parties and civil society organisations. Factions within governing parties, moreover, inevitably try to penetrate regulatory institutions — even those deemed independent, such as the electoral commission.

Regulation must be nondiscretionary to reduce partisan and factional bias.

Second, it is desirable to ban donations from state and foreign corporations, but such controls can be circumvented fairly easily. Transfers from parastatals to ANC vehicles — for example from Eskom to Chancellor House — demonstrates just how simple this can be if a party is sufficiently brazen.

Third, state elections are often dwarfed by intraparty elections. Money should not be allowed simply to migrate from regulated contests to unregulated ones within parties. But how can this be done without destroying party independence?

Fourth, most parties in SA oblige their elected representatives to donate a share of their salaries to the party — ANC treasurer-general Zweli Mkhize has tried to extend this “tithing” to purportedly nonpartisan directors-general. This practice is widespread in provincial governments and provides a major advantage to governing parties.

Finally, public funding increases are no panacea. There is already more than R1bn of public funding in SA annually. The Represented Political Parties’ Fund distributes more than R135m, and Parliament appropriates R530m to support ill-defined caucus and constituency activities.

Some ANC-governed provinces dole out R630m for party and constituency activities. Order should be brought to this chaos before increases in public funding are even considered.

Opposition parties and the ANC have an interest in bringing monetised politics under better control. There is a need for a regulatory and legal framework that is fair, robust, and resistant to manipulation.

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

Mbete and the no confidence vote

Baleka Mbete, Speaker of the National Assembly, ANC chairwoman and self-styled presidential hopeful, has enjoyed remarkably generous media coverage in recent days. Yet a week ago, she epitomised everything that had gone wrong with the ANC.

Umbrellas and Agang (from 2013)

THERE is nothing more sinister than people with umbrellas. Georgi Markov, a Bulgarian dissident who defected to the West in 1969, poured scorn from exile on the regime that once persecuted him. On September 7 1978, at a bus stop close to London’s Waterloo Bridge, Markov felt a sting in his leg. He turned to see a man hurrying away with an umbrella. A micro-engineered pellet, containing the poison ricin, had been injected into his thigh from the umbrella’s tip. Within three days, he was dead.

Fictional villains have added to the umbrella’s ghoulish reputation.

Batman’s long-standing adversary, the Penguin, was a wobbling, waddling, hoodlum, who never left his lair without an umbrella. The Penguin’s umbrella was more than a rain-repelling accessory: it could fire bullets, double as a bullet-proof shield, or expel toxic gases. It could even serve as a parachute.

A more sympathetic parasol-wielding vigilante featured as the arch-villain in a long-running Thabo Mbeki-era miniseries, Fiscal Judge Dredd (recently revived as Planning Man).

Portrayed by Bollywood heartthrob Trevor Manuel, this imposing “Master of the Future” was an adversary of, well, more or less everybody. He also nursed inner demons. In a notorious 2007 horror flick called Polokwane!, Fiscal Judge Dredd ran amok, berating photographers and trying to attack a journalist with his neo-liberal golfing umbrella.

Now South African opposition politicians have “umbrella fever” once again as a result of Saturday’s launch by Mamphela Ramphele of a fictional political party called Agang SA.

Democratic Alliance (DA) activists believe that apartheid was wrong; but they also believe that somebody else was responsible for it. (They are not quite sure who.) Meanwhile, African citizens are disinclined to vote for a party that is willfully forgetful about history. DA leaders therefore need shielding from the black historical chickens that may come home to roost on election day. Could Ramphele, they wonder, pull a chicken-repellent umbrella out from under one of her hats?

The need for such an accessory was first identified by United Democratic Movement leader Bantu Holomisa, who observed long ago that only an opposition “umbrella body” could counter a dominant African National Congress.

Two clues about the umbrella’s potential size and pattern were revealed in Ramphele’s address to the Cape Town Press Club on Wednesday.

First, her promise to “unveil” her policy platform during Saturday’s launch said a lot about the so-called party’s character.

Unlike real political parties — which argue about policy, fight over candidate lists, and elect leaders — Agang (according to its website) wants to put “citizens … at the centre of public life” by “having conversations across the country, to understand people’s needs and expectations for the future”.

Ramphele’s soon to be “unveiled” leadership team is probably made up of Mbeki acolytes. Associates of Moeletsi Mbeki’s Foundation for Global Dialogue helped set up the party. Pro-Mbeki intellectuals, and businesspeople who made money doing business with the Mbeki-era state, are likely to become funders. Agang will aim to cannibalise the electoral carcass of the Mbeki-aligned Congress of the People.

Second, Ramphele told the Press Club that, in certain petitions to the Independent Electoral Commission, her party would be “working as a team” with the DA. “Working as a team”, of course, could go much further than this.

The Agang life-president claimed earlier this year that the DA and Agang could form a “mutual umbrella”. As a result of her close personal relationship with DA leader Helen Zille, an informal deal might already have been struck.

Perhaps Ramphele has consented to serve as the black front for a DA-controlled opposition alliance? Such an agreement might look like a clever way to dig the DA out of its racial hole; but it is unlikely, in the end, to win over many African voters.

• Butler teaches politics at the University of Cape Town.

Praising Hitler (from 2015)

IT IS easy to sympathise with former Wits University student representative council president Mcebo Dlamini, who was ejected from office earlier this week. Dlamini rose to prominence when he praised Adolf Hitler for his “organisational skills” and claimed there was “an element” of Hitler “in every white person”. He also argued (perhaps less controversially) that Wits vice-chancellor Adam Habib “is not God” and so could not legitimately fire him.

He later conceded that he was focusing on “Hitler’s good side” (suggesting that he was dimly aware of more negative assessments of Hitler’s political legacy). But his supporters reiterated that Hitler could not have been all bad because he fought against evil imperialist Britain.

Dlamini probably did not become an intellectual vacuum all by himself. Perhaps he was not sufficiently exposed by his teachers to the tragic history of modern nationalism, the emergence of mass industrial war or the dispiriting events that occurred less than 75 years ago in Germany, Russia and the “bloodlands” between them. His intellectual disempowerment may demonstrate the perils of a humanities curriculum increasingly focused on the legacies of colonialism and on the exploitative character of capitalism.

The UK’s politics are still of great interest. Thursday’s election showed that it was just as capable as SA of setting itself on a hazardous course towards political instability and economic decline, in pursuit of largely illusory or symbolic objectives. The UK now faces an uncertain future in which neither of the two big parties can secure a parliamentary majority. This is a major change. Across the second half of the 20th century, strong party identification among electors and a first-past-the-post electoral system almost invariably brought majority government.

Coalition politics arrived in 2010, when the Conservative Party was forced to form a coalition government with the centrist and pro-European Liberal Democratic Party. Other players emerged, including a Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) that now runs a partly devolved Scotland, and a xenophobic UK Independence Party (Ukip). This more complex party system reflects a resurgence of deeper societal deliberation about nationality, the nature of contemporary capitalism and the significance of international integration. Struggles for independence or autonomy in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in some respects resemble the final throes of a belated decolonisation. Subnational assemblies and delegated executive powers have not eased separatist sentiment in Scotland. Labour may now have to form a coalition with an SNP that does not even believe the UK should exist.

Labour is led by Ed Miliband, a social democratic intellectual preoccupied with remaking market capitalism for an era of economic integration, rising inequality and an unsustainable welfare state. As for the Conservatives, they may have to share power with Ukip, which advocates British withdrawal from the European Union (EU). Conservative leader David Cameron has proposed a dangerous referendum on EU membership in 2017, in order to quieten anti-EU sentiment in his own party and to reverse defections to the nationalist right.

In truth, conventional policy variation between the two big parties is modest. Labour favours slightly higher taxes, and the Tories advocate fiscal conservatism, but both support a dynamic private sector softened by an activist welfare state.

The questions electors have been asked to answer run much deeper. Can this state ever become a society? And how can the dynamic of international capitalism be harnessed to such a society’s collective project of enhancing human welfare? These are crucial questions for South Africans too, and ones that Dlamini has not been empowered to ask, or even to understand.

• Butler teaches politics at the University of Cape Town.

Time for a new Santa (from 2016)

We have reached that time of year when boys and girls across the land dream about a visit by an overweight man dressed in a red suit. This jolly visitor brings a sack full of presents for all the little children who have been really, really good all year (which isn’t very many of them, to be honest).

This year, however, Santa Zuma is in a pickle.

He used to be guided by a classic management text, Leadership Secrets of Santa Claus, which provided him with a reliable guide to the challenges of gift delivery.

After all, Santa is in charge of a complex operation. He has to increase productivity in the “workshop”, manage the “elves” that make the presents, and choose a cabinet of reindeer to deliver millions of gifts to apparently impossible deadlines.

The book advises “choosing your reindeer wisely … hiring tough so you can manage easy”. But Zuma has appointed a recruitment agency, Saxonwold Consulting, and it has made some terrible decisions.

“Hire me new reindeer,” Santa Zuma told Ajay, Atul and Tony, the three garden gnomes who run the headhunting company. “We will find small-timers in small towns,” said the Ajay gnome, “where the only restaurant is Nandos or Kentucky Fried Chicken. We do not want anyone who has been to Cyril’s fancy McDonalds, and may talk back.”

A year ago to this day, Santa Zuma fired the much-loved Keeper of the Golden Chest, and replaced him with a small town night-club singer and comedian called Des.

But this created a storm that threatened to destroy Santa’s workshop. He was forced to bring Pravin Goblin back from the rural forest to which he had been banished. This legendary creature — a brawler with the face of a baby — turned out to be far too clever by half for old Santa to control.

The honest dwarves that live under Constitution Hill began to ask if Zuma was really Father Christmas at all. “Santa,” they observed on one of their sacred scrolls, should be “a national pathfinder, the quintessential commander-in-chief of state affairs and the personification of this nation’s constitutional project”.

Leadership Secrets advised Zuma to “listen to the elves!” But his bedpan nurse, Sister Dlamini, drove the ogre Shrek to a city by the sea, where the Zombies and Ghouls of the Deathly Alliance now rule.

In his prime, Santa Zuma was a merry gift-giver, dressed in socialist red, leaving presents (and offspring) behind him, everywhere he went.

Now Father Christmas has fallen out with his old friends with red noses: Thulas the Ogre, Blade the Abominable, and Jeremy “Pointy Ears” Cronin.

He has stopped saying “Ho! Ho! Ho!” to little boys and girls, and started cackling “He he he!”

In short, he has fallen under a “state of capture”. The little children do not want Vlad the Impaler to have all of their pocket money to build a new generator for the workshop. Now Vladimir is going to be very cross with Santa!

“Quack quack!” Santa Zuma’s erstwhile friends laugh, ridiculing his lame duck status. But who can become the new father of the magical kingdom?

Santa must by tradition be very round, bearded, and jolly. Just like ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe, you might think, only jolly.

But Santa also has to squeeze down chimneys bearing a sack full of gifts; this is not something Mr Mantashe should attempt, not even in an emergency.

Little boys and girls such as Floydinia and Mbuyiseni want their friend, Julius, to be Santa. “He is sometimes fat, dresses in red, and promises gifts, tenders, and land for everyone,” wrote little Mbuyiseni, who is the clever one, with his red crayon. “Julius will go back to the ANC once Zuma is gone — then they will have to make him Santa!”

Nkosazana could come home from the African Union in the Sky. “I have already made the continent better by 2063,” she observed, pointing to Agenda 2063, her singular and miraculous achievement in office.

“She could conceivably be parachuted in by 2017 wearing a false beard,” one sceptical ANC Bogeyman claimed. “But she is the very opposite of jolly, and it will be hard to find a political parachute strong enough to give her an easy landing.”

Happy Cyril also wants to be Father Christmas. “Yo ho ho!”, he said to the elves just the other day. “I will pay you more money so that unemployment will go down!”

“But isn’t there a trade-off,” a wise goblin asked? “Yes,” Cyril explained, “it is between the level I choose for the minimum wage and the political support I will get from the Congress of SA Elves!”

Leadership Secrets reminds us that an ANC Santa exists only because the little children think that he does. If Santa continues to be naughty — or if the ANC chooses another naughty Santa — the little boys and girls across the land will stop believing in him. Then Santa, and the ANC, will simply disappear.

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