This is the future: Free speech is key for SA becoming Kenya – or Zimbabwe.

For much of his career, retired newspaperman Wilf Nussey had a front row seat to the de-colonisation and subsequent developments in Africa. In this considered piece he looks back on half a century and offers some clear signposts about where South Arica is heading. The country is at a critical juncture. And the way Nussey sees it, the way it approaches Freedom of Speech will determine whether it follows the disaster called Zimbabwe, or manages to arrest the slide and settle into a Kenyan-type future. Fascinating insights from a thoughtful observer. And a useful guide for anyone considering whether to invest their future into a country which, for the moment, appears to have lost its way. – Alec Hogg

By Wilf Nussey*

The most overworked word in South Africa is “democracy”. We do not have a full democracy. We never have had. It was born a cripple in 1994, half strangled by the umbilical cord “proportional representation”.

Wilf Nussey
Wilf Nussey

For democracy to work it requires a fairly sophisticated, preferably homogeneous community aware of the alternatives such as dictatorship, sovereignty and oligarchy and who accept that democracy, while not perfect, is the best governing system available. And it demands a commitment by the great majority of that community to the basic tenets of democracy: government “of, by and for” all the people, without ethnic or class distinctions and with tolerance of minority views (according to the OED).

We have some trappings of democracy like baubles on a Christmas tree that might fool the casual observer into assuming it’s real. But the architects of our constitution did manage to instal, thank God, a few elements of democracy that have saved us so far from the rapid slide into dictatorship and chaos that has characterised almost all of Africa’s previous conversions from colonialism to independence.

One is a right which singularly distinguishes South Africa from all but two other countries in Africa: freedom of speech. Though how long that may last is open to question; more about it later. For now it is this freedom above all which has kept us out of the clutches of dictatorship or oligarchy and just above the level of Zimbabwe.

Another, of course, is the system of local government elections which we have just seen in action – the only level at which a voter may vote directly for an individual as his choice of ward councillor, and even so each ward has to have a proportional councillor as well. National and provincial elections both give proportional representation, enabling the winning party to appoint whoever the hell it wants to any constituency it pleases. Voters may never have seen or heard of their rep, and often never do again.

The Public Protector is a post our ANC constitutional designers must deeply regret creating – just as they must regret appointing Thuli Madonsela to the job because it is her personal integrity, energy and intelligence that have made it so powerful a force. Seldom have so many owed so much to one person. It is chiefly the combination of her work and freedom of speech that have saved our bacon up to now.

The judiciary must be as great a disappointment to them. The justice bureacracy is crumbling at almost every level from the police and prisons and the lowliest prosecutors up to magistrates courts, many of which are ill-equipped for their work, all bogged in backlogs.

The high courts, however, have applied the law with honesty and few aberrations. And contrary to ANC expectations the highest, the Constitutional Court, has set its independence and its impartiality firmly in concrete. Judges go by the book, not politics.

These three things, more than any other, have saved South Africa from “Africanisation”.


Freedom of speech

Without full freedom of speech Thuli Madonsela’s findings on Nkandla might never have seen the light of day. In just about every other African state her report would have been suppressed – referred to endless committees, heavily edited, or simply shelved. The Mail and Guardian may never have been able to publish the exposure of Nkandla which led to the Public Protector’s investigation.

The Opposition in Parliament would have been futile, emasculated, unreported, just part of the rubber stamp. The government could have to violently stamped out public protest, and killed any reports. Elections would have been a joke.

The mass of corruption and mismanagement that free speech has revealed here is overwhelming, hundreds of cases from rapacious mayors of villages to the gigantic US$4.8 billion arms deal and the current row over Eskom’s alleged purchase of inferior coal from the Guptas.

So pervasive has it become that it is the biggest growth industry in South Africa and getting bigger as the hyaenas target the Treasury and the State-owned enterprises. We have become so accustomed to it we take it for granted. It is simply too much for the average individual to absorb.

In every respect the country is decaying`. Violent crime is so commonplace most of it goes unreported by the media. Murder, rape, cash-in-transit robbery, hijacking, gang warfare, drug trading – everything has increased frighteningly since our “independence”. People have to look after themselves. Our police force is a joke; at least the apartheid police were efficient albeit for all the wrong reasons.

Our once extensive and well-run infrastructure of First World standards is falling apart: Eskom, the SAA, the Land Bank, Transnet, every day some new disaster in the media – usually accompanied by a flood of government lies, excuses and pure arrogance.

But all that is well known.

The most alarming feature of our national life now does not get the attention it deserves. It is the incredible impunity with which the perpetrators, including Cabinet ministers and top officials, simply flout the law. They blandly ignore judgements or bog them down in endless court actions (at taxpayers’ expense), divert legal process with “investigations” and commissions, tangle it in specious charges, find scapegoats or swing political axes.

The great weakness of SA’s democracy

This is the great weakness of our “democracy”: it has no bite. It has teeth but getting the authorities to use them is like asking the sheep to bite the jackal. Examples: the dropping of 783 criminal charges against Zuma, the clumsy attempts by the Hawks to politically discredit Gordhan, the reinstatement of Dudu Myeni as SAA board chair, the re-appointment of the disgraced Hlaudi Motsoeneng as COO of the SABC.

A benign dictatorship or an oligarchy are arguably better forms of government than a democracy powerless to enforce its own rules. Our continent, however, is crammed with examples of how one-man or clique-rule does not work.

In more than forty years of reporting from the time of the first “dompas” burnings in Pretoria in 1950 I have watched black African countries emerge from colonialism like crocodiles from a swamp, starting with Ghana on March 6, 1957, and culminating with South Africa in 1994.

Britain, France, Belgium and Spain (which held a tiny mainland territory plus an island now known jointly as Equatorial Guinea) dished out independence as hurriedly as they could, like school certificates.

Only two original democracies have survived, those of Botswana and Namibia although, ironically, in Ghana it is showing signs of revival almost fifty years after the depredations of the tyrannical Kwame Nkrumah.

Africa’s new leaders twisted democracy into dictatorship by bending the rules of trust and consensus that make it what it is. Or they simply seized power with panga and gun. All still claim to be democracies. In the two Congos this is a sick joke – neither is a country but an unrealistic, random aggregation of disparate ethnic groups barely advanced from their condition of five centuries ago, beset by war, starvation and disease.

Some can make claim to benign dictatorship, like Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni who gained power through rebellion and has survived three dubious elections to hold it for thirty years. His country remains plagued by internal strife, spills of warfare from neighbours and dismal development.

A better example is Senegal’s Léopold Senghor, who became president with independence in 1960 (the same year as the Belgian Congo, which immediately sank into anarchy). He ruled firmly and fairly and its 13 million citizens have enjoyed free elections though without much improvement in their quality of life.

At a third extreme are those leaders who rule with an iron fist while they bleed their countries dry. Topping the list is Equatorial Guinea’s President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who seized power then won a dubious election this year by an impossible margin. His mini-country is one of Africa’s largest oil producers.

This gives it the biggest per capita income in Africa yet its three quarters of a million people live in appalling poverty. An estimated one in five of the children die before the age of five. The country is strongly suspected of involvement in human trafficking.The president has been accused of cannibalism for ritual purposes.

He pockets virtually all the oil income. His son periodically comes to Cape Town to splurge on new cars and other luxuries.

Read also: Pennington: ‘Free Speech under attack’ – an era of global extremism

Another dictator is Angola’s João dos Santos who diverted its huge oil revenues into his daughter’s foreign bank accounts. The quality of life of Angolans has not improved since the civil war ended there. Now with oil prices down he pleads for international aid.

The world knows all this but shrugs it off … “That’s Africa”. Almost no news emerges from Angola or Equatorial Guinea because media cannot survive there. There is no free speech.

Africa’s most successful democracy

At another extreme are Botswana, much lauded as Africa’s most democratic state, and Namibia.

Botswana is wealthy thanks to diamonds, large scale cattle ranching, tourism and minerals. Gaborone, the capital, buzzes with business. Outside the cities and towns there are still pockets of poverty and there is controversy over treatment of ethnic minorities but the overall quality of life is reasonably good.

Wealth is in the hands of an elite, some in government. A few cattle barons dominate ranching. The diamond industry is controlled by companies like Debswana owned half-and-half by De Beers and the government. Tourism is largely controlled by a clique of operators.

Democracy works, thanks to the firm foundations laid by first president Sir Seretse Khama and his successor Quett Masire, and is internationally rated as the most vigorous in Africa. Seretse’s son Ian now rules.

Read also: African presidents under siege: Will life be better after Zuma, Mugabe? Expert analysis

Even there the media, most State-owned, must tread warily. They are vigorous and sometimes outspoken but the government heavily favours its own publications. Privately-owned media have to be circumspect or suffer withdrawal of official advertising, loss of access to information, harrassment and pressure.

Namibia is  similar though not as wealthy and there, too, media must be circumspect. At 19 on the international rankings list of press freedom it ranks higher than Botswana –– which in turn ranks higher than South Africa.

Why all this background, you may ask at this point? We all know South Africa is rotting and the rest of Africa is a mess.

Quo vadis South Africa?

The reason is to confront you with a question most South Africans seem reluctant to think of: where are we heading?

One thing is absolutely certain: we are never going back to the heady days when whites were pampered and non-whites were oppressed but the country worked, trains ran on time, potholes were filled, SAA made money, our road network was one of the best in the world and the economy ran smooth and strong.

So where will we be in the African spectrum by the end of next year? I set that date because I don’t agree with the perennial optimists and professional soothsayers who say everything will be okay, will come right, it will just take a few years for the new rulers to settle down, stop the rot and learn to run the country.

Read also: UCT cuts Rose’s talk. Is it the end of Freedom of Speech?

I give us one year, give or take a few months, because of the rate at which pressure is building between multiple economic and political forces.

I doubt it will be later than the end of 2017 before South Africa’s future direction becomes clearer. I don’t think we will ever go the extreme of Equatorial Guinea but Zuma’s money-grabbing patronomy is so rapidly dragging us into the pit of darkness that we could be committed to the Zimbabwe or Angola route by then.

And there is the possibility, faint but too ghastly not to contemplate, of national civil strife: mob violence swelling into anarchy, police and armed forces ill-equipped (and too unreliable) to cope, a mass flight of capital and maybe people.

The scenario for the very near future seems fairly clear though nothing is ever certain in politics. It is a major internal split in the African National Congress with the slowly expanding body of pragmatists – those who recognise the sterility of the party’s moribund socialism –  forming a power group of their own in opposition to the anachronistic old guard. The split may be internal, which is the most likely with the ANC congress coming up next year and a general election in 2019, or it could be messily external.

A clear, irreversible internal division would spell major ideological and economic change of direction for the ANC should the pragmatists take the lead. It would enable the ANC to stand ostensibly united to win the 2019 general election even if the pragmatists manage to oust Zuma as summarily as his supporters ousted Thabo Mbeki in mid-presidential stream.

Such change would carry the ANC and country in safety through my 2017 deadline and point us towards what I regard as the middle range of Africa’s present governments, something akin to those of Kenya, Tanzania, Senegal, Ghana, Malawi and Morocco. All are oligarchies which go through the motions of democracy yet deviously cling to power – except Morocco, which is ruled by a powerful monarch with an elected parliament.

What they have in common is relatively benign rule although they are autocratic and tend to come down harshly on outspoken individuals and media. The ANC is already trying to go this way: note its Internal Censorship Bill aka “Film and Publications Amendment Bill”, and the comments of Lumko Mtimde, chief executive officer of the Universal Service and Access Agency of SA, at a conference on print media held, ironically, at the Voortrekker monument:

Of the self-regulation system that exists now, he said the time for talking about media transformation was over.

“We cannot continue talking. The current system, led by respected former judges, cannot be fair as the judges are funded and housed by the media industry. It still does not have teeth,” he said, adding that the worst sanction for newspapers under the current “pseudo-coregulation” was an apology.

Ending Free Speech? 

Muzzling free speech will be Priority Number One for an internally revised ANC. It is only free speech, specifically the media, which has exposed the depth and breadth of corruption in the government despite their desperate ducking and diving and even extra-legal attempts to avoid it.

This is not to detract one whit from the principles and bravery of those many individuals who knew what was happening and spoke up, even if they did so anonymously because there are elements in the ANC who unhesitatingly resort to violence to shut up their opponents.

None of those would have been heard for long, or been heard at all, had it not been for a dwindling handful of professional journalists (I use that title advisedly these days) and media like the Mail & Guardian, Sunday Times, Business Day, Noseweek, BizNews, Politicsweb, the Daily Maverick, GroundUp, News24 and some others who published what they said. And who also dug at some risk into the polluted landfill that government has become to see what has been buried.

In this respect South Africa has proved itself to have freedom of speech more solidly than even vaunted Namibia and Botswana.

Do not delude yourself (should there be a shake-up inside the ANC) that everything will come right overnight, or within a month, or even a year. The ramifications of a new, pragmatic ANC will be extensive.

It will take months for the pragmatists to identify the huge army of Zuma’s beneficiaries from the Cabinet down to the lowliest in the civil service. Then more months to expunge the useless and replace them with loyal and above all competent people.

That approach, already being strongly hinted at, involves an almost 180-degree turn towards capitalism and away from the dead end of old Marxist-style socialism. ANC realists both inside government and outside have accepted that socialism brings no investment and that it is far easier to make lots of money from capitalism, even honestly, without stripping the Treasury. That’s how the world works and there are no better examples than Russia and China.

It won’t be easy. How do you continue to pay welfare to some 16 million people every month and save money? Take it away and you will lose votes. But if they win the 2019 election the new boys will have five years in which to start compensating for big welfare cuts, including the creation of jobs through foreign investment. Paying single mothers R150 a month per child is possibly a bigger cause of pregnancies than (as our sage Minister of Health says) unprotected sex.

Undoubtedly there will be deafening protest from many quarters like the ANC Women’s League, its Youth League, the free educationists, the communists (though they are a spent force), most trade unions, the incomprehensible Dr Lwazi Siyabonga Lushaba of UCT and other leftist academics, and a flock of people and organisations that have flourished on the government’s largesse.

I think that in a short time they will be outshouted by the difficult to measure but patently very large body of South Africans who are thoroughly fed up with what is happening now. As the benefits of pragmatism begin to show protest will diminish but never vanish. Even communists like money.

The protest will very likely involve violence by people such as those trying to destroy the universities they need. This will be a crucial crunch point for the new boys in power. How do they stop or control protest? How much can they rely on the police?

It will be difficult. Violent protest is so commonplace many people believe it is acceptable. It isn’t, of course; our constitution does not permit to people to assert their rights by disrupting the rights of other people. They can’t afford another Marikana.

Assuming a reformed and still unified ANC can retain control during the rocky transition from today’s near-anarchy to rational rule, the role of the media will become more important than ever. Unlike the rest of crippled Africa, they have the backing of an entrenched and enforceable constitution.

Pragmatists they might be but the new leaders cannot change their morals like they change shirts and the scourge of corruption will continue. So will the competition between the greedy and the media.

If division in the ANC goes external, we will see a new party on the political battlefield, the New African National Congress or Azanians or something like that. It would open up a whole new kaleidoscope of possibilities: coalitions, election alliances, floor crossings galore, much anguish within a DA trying to adapt, the death of some of the fringe parties like Cope, and (unless they can adapt) the disappearance into limbo at last of some stubborn old guards like Mantashe and Nzimande. Both are already anti-Zuma but they may not be able to stomach so drastic a change in ANC policy.

It could be a healthy evolution, opening the way for some rational administration to dismantle such prime obstacles to foreign investment as BEE, threats of nationalisation and State ownership of enterprises. If it achieves a measure of stability with able, respected people in charge, we can expect a flood of foreign investment.

On the other hand it could trigger serious conflicts between the diehards of the traditional ANC, the new progressives, the rampant youth with no respect for law, loyalist elements within the police and defence force, our giant criminal element … and tribes.

Civil war? No. I do not foresee the kind of massive tribal and ideological conflict that tore apart countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo (the old Belgian Congo), the Sudan, Ethiopia and Eritrea, Nigeria and Biafra, Somalia and Rwanda and Burundi among others.

By a lucky twist of colonial history we have a fairly balanced mix of peoples and policies with no single group dominating the rest or in a geographical or political position to do so. Ten million Zulus, the biggest and most militant group, are mostly in one region (and seem to be increasingly disenchanted with their Zulu president).

The politically vigorous Xhosas are in no position physically or otherwise to dominate. Sotho/Tswana people are not aggressive. None of the others – Shangaan, Pedi, Khoi, San, Coloured, European, Indian, Venda, Swazi, Ndebele, etc – have either the ability or the inclination to try for power.

But some violence will be inevitable in the event of external division. The question is how much, how widespread and how containable. There will likely be uprisings for a variety of reasons, many generated or aggravated by the present regime trying desperately to hang on. The accumulation of explosive grievances is very large.

Among them are the terrible frustrations of the huge number of jobless, one of the highest in the world, which forces many to turn to crime; the lack of services as more and more cram into urban areas; the soaring cost of basic foodstuffs; the chaotic education and health systems, spilling more youth on the streets; the crumbling public transport; the expanding gulf between haves and have-nots.

The general frustration over the long list of unfulfilled promises, rising costs and crumbling services affects everybody. Protests over all sorts of complaints are spreading daily, beginning to seriously disrupt the lives of folk trying to go about their normal lives and could be the genesis of nationwide upheaval. They expose a remarkable reluctance or inability of the athorities to curb what is becoming near-anarchy, maybe a fear caused by what happened at Marikana.

The turmoil a major split of the ANC into two or more factions coule trigger is not possible to gauge. The only certainty is that it could do serious damage to the entire nation and therefore should be avoided. This is not to suggest the ANC should be supported, more practically that the pressure of public persuasion, which seems to be having some effect already, should be increased, the screws turned harder.

My view of the likeliest scenario is that the ANC leadership will metamorphose within the next year or so from a guerilla movement into a political party. Thereafter we will begin moving roughly in the direction of Kenya or Ghana and possibly (if we can retain our constitution with a few modifications, like ditching proportional representation and curbing presidential powers) we could surpass Namibia and Botswana.

It won’t be anything like the Nationalists’ “good old South Africa” but it will be prosperous, peaceful and perfectly liveable. Then perhaps one day we will be able to travel without fear of potholes or hijackers, see fewer desperate people begging for jobs and handouts at stoplights, go to sleep knowing the police will react fast if called, and see in action a Parliament which does not make South Africans cringe with embarrassment.

That is provided the media maintain and raise their pressure against corruption, for competence and above all for constant accountability. The politicians’ determination to conceal their actions won’t just go away – it will probably increase.

That’s one hell of a load to place on the shoulders of a media family struggling to survive financially and to find real journalists, not activists and semi-literates. They cannot avoid it, however. Free speech is the foundation of democracy.

  • Wilf Nussey, educated at Potch Boys High, had a career in newspapers with the Argus Group before becoming a full-time author. His books are available on