Story of the past 20 years is the story of all of us

Rhodes>Perspective>2014 Archive

AS STRANGE as this may seem, the story of the past 20 years is not purely that of the African National Congress (ANC).

A great irony of our public debate is that its frequent emphasis on denouncing the governing party gives it far more power than it really has.

This was illustrated last week by debate on the 20-year review published by the government: the response tended to assume that the document was a report on the governing party’s performance when it was, in reality, reporting on how the country has done.

This is more than a little ironic — while the ANC is frequently accused of confusing party and state, of believing that it is the country, it was President Jacob Zuma who described the review as "an occasion to reflect on what has been achieved … by South Africans working together". And it was ANC critics who insisted that the story of the past 20 years was about only one actor.

Far more is at stake than the quibble that the government is not simply the governing party: if we see the past 20 years as purely about the ANC, we miss much of the story. We also distort the debate: it is assumed that to say we have done well is to be an ANC hack, to say we have done badly is to attack the governing party.

This produces absurdities, such as the claim that nothing has changed for the better since 1994. But most people no longer risk being thrown in jail if they don’t carry a pass; many are now free to do much that was then barred to the majority.

The black middle class, which apartheid strategists hoped would blunt demands for political change, was created by the democracy they hoped to prevent.

The ANC is not responsible alone for the state of our democracy: it has also been shaped by political actors and private interests who wield power in the economy and society. In the economy, too, the role of business and labour and professional groups is as much a part of the story as that of the ANC. Even in areas where the government plays a prominent role, such as education and health, private providers, teachers and doctors, have aided or blocked progress.

The most important story of ANC government may not be that it has done too much to change society but that it has not done enough. It governs a country in which a small group of insiders monopolised power and privilege — while much has changed since 1994, it could be argued that it simply broadened the number of insiders while keeping much of the patterns of the past in place.

Given that it has been in office for 20 years, the remarkable feature of our democracy is not how much power the ANC has, but how little — large areas of social life are unaffected by who is in power and what the government chooses to do.

Those who have lost out are not those who benefited from apartheid but its victims.

The affluent and the middle class are doing better than they did 20 years ago — not only do they continue to dominate the economy and society but it is their voices that shape the debate. In the townships and shack settlements, people are still largely voiceless, subject to local power-holders and spoken about, not heard.

Even the ANC itself is arguably a victim — the constant factionalism and scrabble for position in the governing party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions is partly a symptom of the fact that there are not enough opportunities outside politics to satisfy the ambitions of a rising middle class (or to offer people lower down the scale a middle-class lifestyle).

The ANC did not create these problems — but it is responsible for not doing enough about them.

What could it have done?

Contrary to some voices we now hear, it was right to judge that it could not impose change on society — that would have deprived the country of capital it badly needed. Given the balance of power, change can only be negotiated — bargained compromises, not force, can create a way out of the past. The ANC’s chief failing is that it did not develop a strategy for negotiating change — while there are signs that it may be moving in that direction, it is not there yet.

And so we have changed in many ways for the better over the past 20 years but our chief challenge, building growth that includes everyone, remains elusive.

The ANC cannot duck responsibility — but the fact that its influence has been limited means also that it is not solely responsible for the past 20 years: the credit and blame must be shared by all the key interests, private and public. If the next 20 years are to be better, we need to examine the past two decades, learn from our recent history’s strengths and acknowledge its failings. But we cannot do that unless we recognise that many interests and actors have shaped the past and all will need to help build a future.

By Steven Friedman

Source: Business Day


Friedman is director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy.