Cees Bruggemans: Elevator to nowhere – myths of the ‘new South Africa’

In true Cees Bruggemans style, he sums up the ANC brilliantly – it’s like standing on an elevator, and trying to walk upstairs and downstairs at the same time. They stay on the same spot, and the world just keeps rolling away from them. In this piece he reflects on the past 10 years and makes reference to Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert’s iconic words. Van Zyl Slabbert is best known as the leader of the official opposition in the House of Assembly from 1979 to 1986, the Progressive Federal Party. Bruggemans looks back at the 5.5 percent GDP growth achieved in 2005, minimum levels of growth needed in a country where 1 in 4 sit without jobs. Worse following the negative levels of growth achieved in the second quarter of 2015. A brilliant read. – Stuart Lowman

by Cees Bruggemans*

Cees Bruggemans, chairman, Bruggemans & Associates

It is ten years since Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert wrote these arresting words (2005), the country at the time already over ten years into the Mbeki stewardship, by then supposedly only in what at the time appeared to be mere foothills of a sustained 5.5% GDP growth spurt that uproariously would go on and on and on.

It was not to be.

These words confirm why. Why the Mbeki years, and following him sadly the even greater contradictory Zuma years, could never sustain such outstanding economic performance, even if this was poorly grasped at the time, gripped as the country was by speculative credit fever and great anticipation focused on World Cup soccer preparational mania in which supposedly anything was possible and within reach, only for the asking, if only going by red-hot property market conditions.

Van Zyl at the time mused as follows regarding “the most common mistakes” of a democratic government (pp145-146):

  • Confusing democratic representivity with competence: the fact that you are the duly elected representative does not automatically give you the competence to make your promises come true. A local councillor does not automatically have the competence to reticulate water, allocate electricity or administer rates and taxes. And when he/she retrenches or fires the official who has such competence, you have a self-concocted crisis of delivery;
  • Rewarding loyalty above competence: The leader appoints those who are compliant and uncritically support him/her because he/she values control more than performance. Thus manifestly incompetent cabinet ministers strut around pronouncing nonsense, and compound the problem by appointing officials who are of the same ilk;
  • Confusing authority with intelligence: A very common mistake. Nice young Afrikaner boys who came to Parliament in 1974 and five years later became ministers or deputy ministers. Suddenly their whole demeanours changed. The back stiffened, the suits became more expensive and they pronounced the words “yes” and “no” as if they were pregnant with profundity. They automatically assumed that because they had authority they must be clever;
  • Dealing with corruption selectively: As leader you know that the cabinet minister sitting next to you has his/her fingers in the till, but you deliberately divert attention from this person by jumping on a minor official selling fake IDs in Mpumalanga to show that you are serious about combating corruption. The rule is simple: the bigger the fish you catch, the more seriously you will be taken as an angler. Corruption is corruption is corruption;
  • Sacrificing domestic policy for foreign policy: This is also a mistake of repressive governments, but as they are not accountable to anyone but themselves, it resonates far more strongly with democratic government. The absent leader syndrome very quickly translates into perceptions of indifference about domestic problems and crises.”

Would Mr Zuma, in his short wilderness period, have read these sage words and made up his mind how to proceed once in power? Will we ever know, or can we merely appeal to the facts since as to what apparently comes naturally, going by the Van Zyl analysis?

Van Zyl Slabbert becomes yet more penetrating when examining our many and damning contradictions in what he describes as the “emerging programmatic infrastructure underpinning the myths of the ‘new South Africa’” (pp163-165):

  • Firstly, we have a liberal democratic Constitution. The defining characteristic of such a Constitution is not the celebration of majoritarianism, but constraint on the use and abuse of power. That is why the separation of powers, rule of law, respect for human rights, etc form such a distinctive part of a liberal democracy. (Yet) most ‘liberation movements’, when they come to power, have a deep distaste for any constraint on their use, or even abuse, of power. Attempts to circumvent these constraints become the new political game – how is it possible that a movement that epitomises the ‘will of the people’ and/or ‘the masses’ can be constrained in pursuing its mandate? That is why, in a one-dominant-party democracy such as ours, one has to be on the lookout for how key constraining institutions are co-opted, or the executive begins to ignore the legislature or other organs of government;
  • Secondly, within a liberal democratic Constitution, another programmatic practice is to centralise decision-making and authoritarian control, euphemistically called democratic centralism. Bluntly put, it means that ‘the leadership’ of the ruling party controls the party, cabinet, Parliament and all other levels of government. The government of the USSR made this practice famous. To pursue a liberal democracy and democratic centralism concurrently is to indulge in serious programmatic contradictions. Something has to give, and usually it is a liberal democracy;
  • Thirdly, in order to keep ‘the masses’ on board, the ideology of a national democratic revolution is propagated. Historically it is almost impossible to find an example where such ‘a revolution’ has been national, or democratic, or both. The hallmark of such an ideology is the promise of ‘large scale’, ‘fundamental’ economic and social redistribution. The promise of ‘a chicken in every pot’ continues to haunt the ANC. Increasingly the dilemma is that the more they promise, the less the poor and dispossessed are inclined to believe them;
  • Fourthly, a macro-economic policy referred to as GEAR (growth, employment and redistribution). This is the attempt to use ‘the market’ as the driver of economic growth and to respond to the challenges of globalisation. (Yet) there is a tension between the concurrent pursuit of a national democratic revolution and GEAR. The former promises growth through redistribution; the latter redistribution to growth. The more visible the success of GEAR, the more galling it is to those waiting for the delivery from the national democratic revolution. The new emerging ‘Black’ middle class and business elite are a constant reminder of the degree of relative deprivation of ‘the masses’.

“So there we have it!” according to Van Zyl Slabbert:

The myths of the ‘new South Africa’ are maintained by the CONCURRENT pursuit of four major programmatic goals: a liberal democracy, democratic centralism, a national democratic revolution, and GEAR (since 2012 superseded by the National Development Plan, as much a dead letter as its forerunner).

It is like standing on an elevator and trying to walk upstairs and downstairs at the same time. You stay on the same spot, and the world just keeps rolling away from you (keeping your insider/outsider dichotomy, your most damning and incapacitating feature intact, as your structural shortcomings relentlessly deepen).

The ANC government is potentially confronted with four paradigm shifts at the same time (a terrifying, paralysing reality as it eventuates).

(Yet) out of the current confusion, something extraordinarily creative may yet emerge. We remain an amazing society, and given where we have come from I am not without hope for the future.

These words, now ten years old, eloquently and analytically razor-sharply capture our present and ongoing predicaments. This tide is yet to turn. One wonders how much time and hardship for the many need to pass for this to eventuate? If ever?

*Cees Bruggemans is chairman at Bruggemans & Associates


  1. Van Zyl Slabbert “On the other side of history – an anecdotal reflection on political transition in South Africa” Jonathan Ball Publishers 2006
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