Civil society is our best way to check misrule

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How is South Africa to develop political accountability? Pressure must be put on the political elites, writes Adam Habib.  

Political accountability is not simply a product of good leaders and appropriate institutional designs. These are important elements, but they facilitate accountability between elites and citizens only when citizens have sufficient leverage over the elites to produce what I call “substantive uncertainty”.

This is usually the product of social mobilisation and extra-institutional action, on the one hand, and elite contestation on the other. Both political processes have the net effect of dispersing power within society and this is what enhances citizens’ leverage over national political elites.

A development that has the potential to enhance the accountability of the political elite greatly is the establishment of a more competitive political system. This requires the emergence of a viable opposition party, which could enable a significant reconfiguration of power relations, encouraging political elites to become more responsive.

South Africa has all the institutional characteristics of a robust democratic political order but its political system is entirely uncompetitive. The ANC overwhelmingly dominates electoral support. More importantly, the largest opposition parties are unable to compete seriously with the ruling party because their support base tends to be confined to South Africa’s minority groups.

It can be argued that a viable political system does not yet exist in South Africa, and there is no prospect of one emerging from the collection of parties represented in Parliament.

The only alternative, I believe, is for an opposition party to emerge from within the tripartite alliance. In 2001, Rupert Taylor and I argued that, as the natural political home of organised workers, the lower-middle classes and the unemployed, Cosatu and the South African Communist Party represented the best hope for a viable parliamentary opposition party.

We also held that both organisations retain significant popular support as a result of their liberation credentials, and noted that Cosatu was the only institutional actor outside of the business sector with the organisational and financial muscle to underwrite the development of a viable parliamentary opposition.

We also acknowledged that there were significant obstacles to such a split in the tripartite alliance, the most significant being that it was opposed by both the leadership and membership of Cosatu and the SACP.

The leaders feared that leaving the alliance would give the elite classes, both black and white, free rein to determine ANC policy. Jeremy Cronin, deputy general secretary of the SACP and now deputy minister of public works, said as much in 2004: that remaining in the alliance prevented neoliberal tendencies from dominating the ANC and made progressive victories more likely, especially as the global economy was increasingly beset by crises.

The weakness in this perspective is that it assumes that policy influence occurs only via participation in internal forums. Yet policy can as easily be influenced by extra-institutional action and/or the deployment of other forms of leverage by actors within society. After all, capital has been able to influence ANC policy significantly since 1996 — ostensibly without a substantive presence inside the party. Moreover, as Cosatu and the SACP have both conceded, their alliance with the ruling party did little to prevent the slide into neoliberalism during the first decade of South Africa’s transition.

Another factor preventing a split in the alliance is the overwhelming support for the alliance among workers and shop stewards. The overwhelming majority of Cosatu members support the continuation of the alliance.

Yet this does not address the issue of whether a break would strategically advance the agenda of the working and unemployed poor. After all, majorities have been known to support inappropriate or even incorrect strategic perspectives.

Nevertheless, although the rationale for a break in the alliance may be logical, it has not happened and developments at the ANC’s Polokwane electoral conference in December 2007 made it an even more remote possibility.

Cosatu was an integral element of the anti-Mbeki alliance, and Jacob Zuma’s win at Polokwane was as much a victory for Cosatu and the SACP as it was for Zuma himself. Both were duly rewarded with significant Cabinet portfolios, including those of economic development, trade and industry and higher education.

Although Cosatu members may still be unhappy about some of the policies and the corruption scandals plaguing the Zuma administration, the union federation has far more influence than it has had before. For the foreseeable future, then, it is unlikely that Cosatu will seriously contemplate leaving the alliance or charting an independent path.

In this context, it is vital that Cosatu maintain a critical distance and retain sufficient independent leverage to enable it to press its alliance partners into taking its interests seriously. Cosatu’s general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, is clearly aware of this, and is openly establishing additional alliances with civil society.

An independent and critical Cosatu, willing to take on the state, is a necessary political condition for fostering accountability in the ruling elite. It is unlikely to compensate for the lack of a viable opposition party but it has the potential to keep politicians on their toes.

In the longer term, however, the contradictions of governance under a restrictive fiscal regime are likely to overwhelm the alliance and force the partners to part ways. An alternative progressive political agenda must be aware of this and remain willing to consider the difficult choices that may be required for a reconfiguration of power.

This includes enabling the emergence of a viable opposition party and ensuring, at least in the interim, that the union movement retains a critical independence within the alliance.

Finally, the development of substantive uncertainty, and the related enhancement of political accountability, requires an independent, robust, plural civil society. Much progress has been made in this regard, and perhaps this is where hope for South Africa is most often located, even though challenges loom large. Civil society has not only been fundamentally transformed since 1994 but sections of it have also had a systemic impact on the state.

This has occurred for two significant reasons. First, political democratisation and economic liberalisation have led to the transformation of an ostensibly homogenous, progressive, anti-apartheid civil society into one composed of at least three distinct blocs — nongovernmental organisations, survivalist agencies and social movements — all with very distinct relationships with the state.

The diverse roles, functions and relationships of these have the potential to institute checks and balances to force the state to be responsive to citizens, or at least to be made aware of its lack of responsiveness.

Second, as commentators like Richard Ballard have noted, the social movements that have emerged in the post-apartheid era “contribute to the restoration of political plurality in the political system”, facilitate “the accountability of state elites” and have “contributed to the emergence of a political climate that prompted the government’s recent shift to a more state interventionist and expansive economic policy with a more welfarist orientation”.

These developments, with the community-based protests termed by Peter Alexander as a “rebellion of the poor”, have begun to initiate a process of “enabling popular agency”, needed for the dispersal of power, which, in turn, forces political elites to become more accountable.

An alternative progressive political agenda would encourage the vibrancy and plurality of contemporary civil society. It would pursue electoral reform, facilitating both the emergence of a viable parliamentary opposition and the independence of the union movement, and encouraging the emergence of an independent and plural civil society.

These constitute the core elements of an alternative progressive political agenda.

Individually and collectively, these elements have the potential to disperse the concentration of political power, which would enhance the leverage citizens have on political elites. The net effect could be the emergence of a social democracy that combines the procedural aspects of democracy with inclusive development outcomes that involve all citizens.

This is an edited extract from Adam Habib’s new book, South Africa’s Suspended Revolution: Hopes and Prospects, published by Wits University Press. He is the vice-chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand.

Adam Habib gives the keynote address at the M&G Literary Festival at the Market Theatre on Friday August 30 at 6pm, and participates in a panel discussion on August 31 at 9.30am.

Article Source: Mail & Guardian