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.

Some thoughts about academic freedom (from 2016)

A SPOKESMAN for the SABC denied on Thursday that the corporation’s chief operating officer, Hlaudi Motsoeneng, had been approached to serve as the next vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town (UCT) on the long-expected retirement of the incumbent, Dr Max Price.

Members of UCT’s governing council have reportedly concluded that Motsoeneng’s successful reforms at the SABC showed he was well-suited to this role. This view was echoed at the SABC’s headquarters in Auckland Park on Thursday. One Motsoeneng staffer claimed UCT’s own recent institutional innovations had been an inspiration to the chief operating officer: “These moribund apartheid-era institutions have struggled to cope with democracy,” he noted. “That is why they have both reverted so quickly to apartheid practices.”

The two institutions operate with a similar financial model. The SABC’s chief financial officer commented, “the academics do all the teaching and all the research.

“University management then takes all the money generated and gives a little bit of it back to the academics. They also provide a bus service.”

Motsoeneng has reportedly applied the same model at Auckland Park, relentlessly squeezing overworked journalists while the ranks of overpaid middle managers continue to swell. Motsoeneng’s pay rose from R2.8m to R3.7m in 2015, generating outrage and controversy.

“It’s no mystery,” the chief financial officer explained. “His salary has been pegged against the top 20% of university vice-chancellors.”

Motsoeneng believes the philosophy of the two institutions is similar. “We are both firmly committed to the right to freedom of expression as enshrined in the constitution,” Motsoeneng noted at a recent SABC middle managers’ golfing gala dinner. “This right is a cornerstone of the institutional culture of both organisations.”

The chief operating officer cautioned, however, that “even the exercise of fundamental rights is not unlimited”. He later clarified: “This means you can’t actually say what you want after all.”

Motsoeneng recently issued a controversial instruction that SABC news should not screen coverage of violent service delivery protests, on the grounds that this encouraged violence. On apparently similar grounds, Price has now barred Flemming Rose, a Danish freedom of expression campaigner, from delivering UCT’s TB Davie lecture, an annual event designed to cherish academic freedom. Asked if it was ironic that UCT had banned Rose delivering a lecture on academic freedom, a university spokesman responded that, “we don’t want to talk about that because it might create a stir”.

Despite the apparent parallels, Motsoeneng is reportedly outraged that critics have likened him to Price. “There may be almost no evidence that televising protests results in more protest,” an SABC source claimed.

“But, there is even less evidence that Mr Rose’s presence on campus would have led to violence.”

The comparison further angered Motsoeneng because, “I imposed the SABC’s protest policy in a systematic and disciplined way.… UCT’s protest policy was a complete shambles by comparison.”

The chief operating officer was reportedly “appalled” by Price’s implication, contrary to all the evidence, that Rose’s speech might amount to “propaganda for war, incitement of violence or advocacy of hatred”. Motsoeneng also slammed claims he was after Price’s job. “UCT’s humanities faculty is full of dancers, musicians, actors, drama queens and media studies students: it’s worse than Auckland Park.”

“At SABC, some reporters dressed in black as a protest against censorship,” Motsoeneng’s spokesman observed.

“There’s been nothing like that at UCT — just lots of old guys wearing brown corduroy trousers and tweed jackets. We’ve been told that this is just the normal situation.”

“Maybe these lecturers do not care enough about academic freedom to protest,” the spokesman observed. “The reason Hlaudi will not move to UCT to crush dissent is that he is not needed there.”

• Prof Butler teaches public policy at UCT

Race and inequality (from 2016)


Race relations in SA currently seem to be in turmoil. Controversies that have erupted around racist social media posts have been advanced as evidence for the widespread persistence of apartheid-era racism. Black South Africans have meanwhile been presented as hostile towards non-racialism and impatient about the slow rate of social change.

Cheerleaders from a dwindling camp of optimists, such as the SA Institute of Race Relations (IRR), point to the findings of a broadly representative national opinion survey the Institute commissioned last year. Only 4% of citizens claim that racism is one of the most serious issues facing the country. More than three quarters of South Africans think that race relations have improved, or stayed the same, in recent years.

Such evidence is open to all manner of interpretation. But there are reasons to suppose that race relations are going to get quite a lot worse.

The biggest constraint on current interracial antagonism may be that most blacks — in rural areas, peri-urban townships, and former Bantustans — still live in monoracial worlds, in which ethnic and xenophobic difference is more prominent than race. But urbanisation and modernisation mean fresh opportunities for racial contact, and so conflict.

So too does the much-heralded growth of the black middle class. High-performing blacks have often risen through former model-C schools and universities into interracial professional and managerial workplaces. Many report experiencing these institutions as sites of assimilation rather than integration, where discomfiting language, culture, and values predominate.

Even where opinion survey responses reveal no preoccupation with race, underlying grievances may fester. One DA researcher involved in focus groups in Gauteng ahead of the 2014 elections reported that, once gently prompted, almost all black middle class participants recounted humiliating racist experiences.

We spend a good deal of time thinking about how people cope with being poor. It may be equally difficult for people to cope with being rich. Why do black people who have attended elite educational institutions and moved up corporate or professional career ladders still experience society as dominated by racial discrimination?

One plausible answer is that it is.

Another is that SA’s whites often resolve the problem of possessing wealth, in a sea of poverty, by attributing their good fortune to merit. Access to financial and political capital, nutrition and child care, and well-functioning health and educational institutions, tends to be discounted.

Black South Africans are more likely that white to advance a broadly communalistic ethic and may find this convenient linkage of personal success to moral virtue harder to swallow.

Some blacks have turned to Pentecostal and charismatic churches that promote ‘prosperity theology’. In such churches, testimonials celebrate wealth as a sign of divine intervention and as a reward for religious devotion.

But the belief that we deserve our success has an unfortunate corollary that black professionals are often unwilling to accept: that those who are poor and marginalised are to blame for their own predicament.

The new black middle class is built on the labours of parents and extended families — teachers, nurses, and other modestly paid professionals and workers — who have gone to great extremes to enrol their children in suburban schools, help them to transcend language barriers to learning, and make their way through the obstacle courses of higher education. Such experiences may continually return the thoughts of successful black managers and professionals to their wider familial and societal obligations.

Successful people in most societies internalise beliefs about their own inherent superiority — about why they deserve what they have got. The poor, for their part, internalise assumptions about their own inferiority — about why their place in society is appropriate for them and not the injustice it might otherwise appear.

Such settled patterns of legitimate dessert are hard to establish in SA. Apartheid wove together narratives of race and dessert that are difficult selectively to unpick.

Middle-income countries are by their nature unequal, moreover, and their inequalities tend to reproduce themselves over generations. As a result of the strong overlap between class and race forged by apartheid, inequality will continue to be colour-coded in SA for many generations to come. This is likely to result in repeated challenges to the legitimacy of the social order, even from many of the society’s new beneficiaries.

Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town

Good and bad capitalism (from 2016)

CRUDE anticapitalist rhetoric has long been central to African National Congress (ANC) politics. The idea that the “capitalist state” facilitates capital accumulation and co-ordinates exploitation thrives in the movement, in offshoots such as the Economic Freedom Fighters, in the trade unions and among nongovernmental organisations.

National Union of Metalworkers of SA general secretary Irvin Jim exemplifies this mind-set. He argues that political corruption is “fundamentally no different” to “stock exchange capitalism”. He is less worried by “Gupta capture”, he says, than by the “capture of the Treasury … by Trevor Manuel, Pravin Gordhan and Nhlanhla Nene, whose budgets have done everything possible to ensure that … white monopoly capitalism remains in power”.

Such attitudes have turned many post-apartheid socialists into useful idiots. When crooks and traditionalists decided to elect the conservative Jacob Zuma as president, leftists thronged to support him because he was not a “neoliberal”. Want to loot a parastatal? Campaign for economic development “driven by strategic state-owned enterprises”, and a gaggle of swooning socialist economists will line up to support you.

Should the National Treasury insist on value for money and the central bank try to keep inflation under control? Of course not: this is all part of the “neo-liberal agenda”. A transparent National Development Plan to mobilise resources for sustainable growth is neoliberal. How about the ratings agencies? Servants of global capital. Now the opportunists who want to steal money from public-sector pension funds say this will promote development — and credulous leftists are ready to get on board.

Change, however, is in the air. In briefings since his budget speech, Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan has distinguished between “good capitalism” and “bad capitalism”.

Since the collapse of communism two decades ago, a spotlight has been cast on the divergent country growth performance, and the varied distributional characteristics, of the only game left in town: capitalism.

Economists Carl Schramm, Robert Litan, and William Baumol distinguished four types of capitalism in their book, Good Capitalism, Bad Capitalism. “State-guided capitalism”, dominant across much of Asia and Latin America, involves “picking winners” (although it is often easier to pick losers instead).

“Oligarchic capitalism” downplays economic growth in favour of the enrichment of a tiny minority of the population — inequality and corruption invariably follow. “Big-firm capitalism” deploys economies of scale and network effects to generate efficient mass production — but big firms will engage in rent-seeking if they are not exposed to constant competition. Finally, “entrepreneurial capitalism” generates breakthroughs in new technologies and product areas.

According to the authors, a mix of big-firm and entrepreneurial capitalism best promotes sustainable growth. SA’s combination of state-guided and oligarchic capitalism, on this account at least, promotes corruption and ruin. Such analysis implies a mind-shift that is difficult for the SA left: we should not be “for” capitalism or “against” it. Instead we need to understand its dynamics and harness its creative energy, while mitigating its negative consequences.

Governments are not powerless in the face of a global capitalist monolith: they can discourage rent seeking, keep competition relentless for big businesses and use legal and institutional arrangements to promote entrepreneurial capitalism. The 2008 financial crisis has swept away liberal complacency and demonstrated the value of once-derided leftist critiques of financialisation and inequality. Business and labour alike are alert to the risks we all face in future decades, such as climate change and mass social unrest.

“Inclusive growth”, the economic merits of greater equality and the value of carefully set minimum wages used to be preoccupations of the left alone: now they are mainstream ideas. SA’s leftists need to abandon their fantasies about the end of capitalism. At least their finance minister, to his credit, wants to know how to make capitalism better.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town

A conservative analysis of Trump’s rise (from 2016)

WE SHOULD be worried about the rise of Donald Trump, even if he doesn’t make it all the way to the White House.

Decent Americans are rightly concerned about Trump’s dalliance with white supremacy, his insults against women, Muslims and Mexicans, and his enthusiasm for torture. But the US political system contains reassuring checks and balances when it comes to domestic policy.

In foreign policy, by contrast, presidents can make big and irreversible mistakes, and there are few institutional constraints. Although Trump has been sceptical about US military intervention, his vulgar nationalism could escalate peaceful conflicts into violent ones. His trade protectionism, and his refusal to fund the US’s “world policeman” role, could usher in a period of economic uncertainty and geopolitical insecurity.

He probably can’t win. But pollsters, most of whom insist a majority of Americans will never vote for him, have been getting pretty much everything wrong. Unpredictable turnouts of motivated citizens may outlast the primary stage. How can the Trump phenomenon be explained?

Former US treasury secretary Lawrence Summers says Trump’s rise reflects “the political psychology of frustration”. Ordinary people see him as their champion in a world that is leaving them behind.

Washington Post columnist Robert Kagan, by contrast, blames Republican Party leaders’ “wild obstructionism”, their ridicule of institutions such as the Supreme Court, and their racialised contempt for US President Barack Obama.

Trumpism, however, is far from just a US phenomenon. Long-established democracies have been plagued for decades by antiparty populism and discontent with the political establishment. Scholars have struggled since the 1990s to understand why once-respected politicians now rank alongside sex workers — or even journalists — in the popular low-esteem stakes.

Representative democracy turns on the illusion that citizens understand what their politicians are doing and how well they are doing it. This mirage was once sustained by influential intermediary institutions — the news media and political parties — and by grand narratives that together made the world comprehensible. The idea of the Cold War explained foreign and defence policies, while prosperity, low unemployment and a growing welfare state were presented as the outcomes of elite policy choices.

But the Cold War is over, and idealised models of economic management and the welfare state have turned into a spaghetti bowl of perverse consequences and opaque regulatory institutions. The news media and political parties are increasingly polarising and hollow.

Meanwhile, international integration has undercut assumptions about the character of “the nation”. The result has been citizen confusion and anti-establishment politics. Political entrepreneurs have seized on the opportunities this presents. A new generation of strongman politicians, such as Narendra Modi in India, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, are perfecting the use of vulgar nationalism to cement domestic electoral coalitions.

Trump’s rise suggests this strategy could work in established liberal capitalist democracies too. Market economies have undermined many of the precapitalist institutional foundations that allowed them to flourish: a virtuous citizenry, stable families, healthy communities and societal trust. Liberal societies have, meanwhile, been destroying some of the prerequisites for democracy that had been bequeathed by the predemocratic era: civility, deference and respect.

Alarmed and confused citizens are sure they have a right to choose. But, increasingly, they do not know how, or to whom, they should listen, or who can help them make sense of their world.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town