The forces for and against a South African revolt

Some of the things we think we know about revolts and revolutions – but that do not always apply:

  • Where there are adequate elective processes dissatisfied people believe they can influence outcomes through voting and therefore are unlikely to make the sacrifices required of a revolution.
  • Revolts are generally lead and organised by the middle classes – a degree of education is required – thus where the middle class is linked to the ruling elite through patronage or ethnicity, its members are less likely to lead a revolution.
  • Societies where a middle class is non-existent (where the division in the society is a simple one between the rulers and the people) can be surprisingly stable and enduring.
  • Poverty and unemployment tend, on their own, not to be strong predictors of unrest and revolt – it is often a necessary condition that these two social ills exists alongside visible inequality.
  • Ethnic exclusion from government or the economy is a powerful driver of unrest and revolt – colonialists loved to place favoured ethnic minorities to rule over less favoured ethnic majorities – a recipe for revolt and, depending on the relative size of the groups, civil war.
  • Revolts tend not to happen in situations or countries where the condition is continuously and steadfastly awful. Revolts happen when expectations begin to rise amongst “the people” – in response to improving social, economic, political or cultural conditions.  US sociologist James C Davies turned the simple observation that expectations rise faster than improvements in the underlying conditions and further that the system can cope with the disconnect only until conditions continue to improve (the Davies J-curve). I discuss the usefulness of this formulation in relation to South Africa’s ongoing service delivery protests here, a blog post that could have been written … almost word for word … today, but was, in fact, written in March last year.

With those meagre points acting as a theoretical background here then are my thoughts on the forces working for and against revolt in the South African context. It is not as simple a matter as putting some things in one column and others in another. Many of the protective factors are also depth charges seeding our future with hazards, but I will do my best to make it as simple as possible.

Why we are less revolting than we might be

  1. The first and most obvious reason is unlike many of the Middle East North Africa countries (from now on written as MENA, following a financial market convention) South Africa is a fully functional democracy where citizens have several opportunities to vote for and against parties that run their lives at a local, provincial and national level.
  2. The Ruling ANC is still seen by much of the electorate as the party led and staffed and supported by those who fought apartheid and those whose lives have improved because of that system’s demise. Whatever it might be in the future, right now the ANC still has enormous reserves of goodwill based on the fact that it is the premier liberation movement (still) led by the heroes of the struggle.
  3. The ANC government pays just under 40 percent of consolidated non-interest expenditure (that’s  R314 billion up from R156 billion five years ago) on the public sector wage bill and a further 20 percent to the poorest South Africans in the form of social grants. These are crucial constituencies to get to buy into stability – and a large part of the nation’s wealth is doing just that:  providing jobs for the emerging middle classes and  poverty alleviation for those who would otherwise be without hope.
  4. Add into the stability mix the fact that the ANC has managed to dispense a huge degree of patronage to the most aspirant and powerful of its leaders, members and constituents through the legal and regulatory regime of Black Economic Empowerment and the application of employment equity laws especially in the parastatals.
  5. Finally, whatever the criticisms, this government has built more houses for the poor, paved township roads, established sewerage and water connections, and provided the poorest South Africans with private and public goods on a scale unimagined under the previous dispensation of the Apartheid rulers.

Why we might be more revolting than we think

  1. Firstly, the obvious threat to stability is fiscal. Can we afford to meet the ever growing needs of the poorest as well as the growing middle class? At some impossible to predict moment in the future a force (a Maggie Thatcher type force) will arise within government and attempt to get our financial house in order. The first cuts will be in the fattest areas: social grants and public sector wage bill. I have no doubt an even slightly popular government could weather the resulting storm, but it will be a weather phenomenon that will be spoken of for many years.
  2. Secondly, failure to meet the fiscal challenge has its own terrifying dangers. In fact, this is precisely what happened in Zimbabwe. The leaders of Zanu-PF ransacked the war veterans pension fund which caused ex-combatants to begin militantly to threaten Mugabe and Zanu-PF.  The pension fund was recapitalised to the tune of $2bn in the late 90’s and the rest, as some are wont to say, is history. Spending $2bn they didn’t have led directly to hyperinflation, food riots and the formation of the MDC. With no largesse left to dispense the white owned farms were next on Zanu-PF’s attempts to stave off revolt and the last titbits of that economy are currently being pissed up against the wall with the same objective but in the name of “indiginisation”. Of course, Zimbabwe hasn’t revolted, but the price the politicians have made that country pay for stability has left Zimbabweans worse off than even the most cataclysmic revolution might have done.
  3. If  a greedy, rent seeking, corrupt, politically powerful and unaccountable elite is what fuelled revolt in MENA, then we are in all kinds of trouble. “Elite Theory” is a branch of sociology that argues that the economic and political elite make up an informal network that is the actual source and exercise of power – not “the people” through elections and parliament.  At an obvious level the theory applies to us: a publicly unaccountable elite within the ANC deploys loyalists to key institutions throughout the state and economy so as better to control the shape and direction of society. But with such a dominant and popular ruling party, such practices are unlikely to lead directly to revolt. However, beyond the formal exercise of the policy of “cadre deployment” we have an elite almost identical to those in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and a host other MENA countries. These are the grand political families that thrive on tenders won from the state and bribes won from global corporates attempting to secure lucrative deals here. These are the groups and individuals that have turned some of our provinces, town and cities into gangster fiefdoms ruled by fear, patronage and manipulation.

On Balance?

We are still well within the safety zone and the system seems to have the flexibility and resources to withstand firm assaults in the future.

The obvious danger is the parasitic elite that honeycombs the upper echelons of our politics and economy. Many who participated in the Polokwane Putsch understood themselves to be cleansing the ANC and government of such an elite.

Unfortunately they failed to notice that their principal allies were the second -rankers and blatant criminals that Mbeki had managed to keep away from the trough.

If this elite manages (as it constantly strives to do) to divert the resources our society has available for economic growth, employment, poverty alleviation, infrastructure development, public health and education (you name the social good, it is threatened by the elite’s rent seeking activities) then we will have to reassess.

While people like  Willie Hofmeyr are still loyal ANC members and in place as senior state officials there is hope. Yes it is horrifying that he estimates that his Special Investigative Unit will scrutinise R20bn of tender fraud in this financial year (read about that here) but the real trouble arrives when people like him throw up their hands in disgust and head for the private sector.

8 thoughts on “The forces for and against a South African revolt

  1. Interesting argument. We may however enter a period of low level conflicts at a local level, that never really develops into a substantial moment which would give rise to a popular revolt. Given your argument, I however have a question. Could a more coordinated but still local level campaigns serve as a counter balance to what you call the “parasitic elite”? In other words, would more protest make government more accountable, and through that create conditions for quicker service delivery and employment creation?

    1. Hi Ebrahim – I think it is the right question and I am convinced that the answer is: such protests will always limit and curb the corrupt elites. I think we have seen governments (or other representatives of the elites) in MENA handing out huge bonanzas (and thereby taking a smaller slice for themselves) in response to even the early signs of protests. In fact the protest in MENA has already caused the local elite to rush around trying to understand whether Twitter and facebook and Tunisia and Egypt have any messages for their own continued happy and contented existence. Also if our service delivery protests go on long enough and deepen as I think we can expect them to, then it is only a matter of time before revolutionary elements clinging onto the left flank of the Ruling Alliance find a way to root themselves there and begin to articulate and organise around those grievances (which are direct grievances against the elite). I suppose we must hope for a political leadership that is shocked out of its complacency, and begins to fight to address those grievances before they require taking to the streets and the barricades … not because they(the political leaders) feel their own ill gotten gains are threatened by a democratic upsurge, but because they remember what motivated them in the first place … okay, now I am getting preachy ..

  2. I buy most of your argument Nic, but I worrry about some generalisations in your piece. It is my understanding, particularly from Egypt etc that gauging the emotional state of the masses is a damn tricky business and is likely to erupt at the most surprising time, through the most out of way provocation, and with speed. Intellectualising the issue aside, how confident are you that you have gauged the mood of the people correctly. After all, revolt occurs from the ground up where I disagree that enough has been done to at least show the masses that the ANC is doing things; revolt does not emanate from the politicised middle classes, and as Sampie Terreblanche and so forth have pointed out, the anger lives within the 90% of people who account for just 10% of income, almost 20 years after democracy.
    I come away from yur piece wondering, as before, whether you are not downplaying the potency of the socio-economic mix and the amount of frustration over such a long period that the poor are expected to ensure.
    There;s almost an expectation that since the ANC are around, the poor will be pacified: I struggle to accept that, on balance.

    1. Hi Mark, I am not confident that I can assess the ’emotional state of the masses’ and I agree with you that the one thing that Egypt and Tunisia etc. has taught us is that why people eventually or suddenly take to the streets and why the phenomenon spreads the way it does is essentially a mystery. We are no-where at predicting weather systems but we are even further off predicting the ebbs and flows of collective human actions and societal change. But we are forced to take a stab at understanding the world … so we look at what are the forces that keep things from changing and what are the forces attempting to change and we try and have as deep an understanding as possible of the relative strengths and balances …. and when we have weighed everything in whatever system or theory we are using we say: okay, then it is probably going to be like this, although there is an off-chance it might be like that … when acting and planning on the conclusions of that thought process our foremost duty is to know how imperfect our system of thinking about the future actually is and how likely it is that we are wrong. So like you, I see the ebbs and swells of service delivery protests and I track the underlying failures to grow the economy, employment, reduce inequality … and perhaps I am making that cardinal error: thinking the world will be the same tomorrow as it is today (the bias towards the constant, thinking that the way things are is preordained, the natural state). An old friend of mine contacted me on facebook and had this to say about the piece … which I suppose is the exact opposite of your point: ” Interesting analysis but is it really needed? Who out there really thinks that a revolution in SA is seriously on the cards (except for continuous skirmishes as local level, and labour unrest).

      Maybe when a viable …electoral challenge emerges the hawks in the ANC will become fiercer – but that also still at least another decade away…..

      Only a serious economic crisis will change the scenario (and given our reliance on hot money, and the minerals-energy-financial complex, this is a real concern – but hopefully capital controls are around the corner, as well as a transition to a green economy….)”

      So, Mark, I keep worrying that I might be being lilly livered, but on this one, I feel it in my waters: we are going to see widespread periods of instability and protest, but we are many years away from a Belgrade or Tahrir Square … but I well might be wrong …

      1. Just found your blog through a link on Pierre de Vos’ blog. Thanks for the very interesting posts.

        Out of pure interest, a few months back I was looking into social unrest tipping points and stumbled across a study by Cornell University. This study links food prices to violent protests. The link to the study is

        Do you think there is a link between this study and our increase in violent protests?

  3. Reblogged this on Nic Borain and commented:

    Reblogging two stories about protest … this is the second …. but I am not exactly sure how and where these are displaying. Hope they are not causing chaos somewhere on the my website.
    Best regards

    Never again vote for a 5 year dictator

    Our current political system in South Africa is better than pre 1994 but worse than others in its content and application. We now have a constitution.

    The biggest failing in the system is a lack of accountability. The primary allegiance the proportional representatives have is to their own political party. The 50% of the local government councillors that have a constituency can at least be identified by the electorate but still are not accountable. Our system is effectively a 5 year dictatorship

    We, the voters, are the shareholders of the South African government and employers of our politicians. We choose the politicians who are employed and pay their salaries. We must be able to directly control the politicians.

    An interesting statistic is that 97% the laws of the world’s best-known form of direct democracy, Switzerland, are passed without voter intervention. The threat of voter intervention means the laws are passed with the electorate in mind.

    South African elections are coming in 2014 and you can start making a difference starting now by:

    1. Adopting a politician, preferably one at each level of government and they do not have to be in the same party
    2. Mentor them on direct democracy
    3. Let them know that you will not vote for them or their party if they do not commit for changes to bring about Direct Democracy
    4. Present the document below for each politician and political party to sign

    I, (name of politician or political party), acknowledge that I am effectively an employee of the voters because the voters decided who would be employed by voting and the voters who, through payment of their taxes and rates, pay my salary and I recognise that the current system does not put the voters in control.
    – I commit to regular and effective consultation with the voting public through public meetings and continuous communication via the press, radio stations or in person.
    – I agree to vote in accordance to the best interest of the voters who elected me, who may be polled by means of a referendum similar in format to that used for petitions.
    – I am committed to ensure that the wishes of my constituency are effectively communicated and advocated for in at all levels of government.
    – I am also committed in doing everything within my power to ensuring that the laws are upheld and that service delivery is efficient and effective.
    – I commit to being held accountable for my performance by the voters
    – I further agree that the registered voters will be able to remove me from office when 25% of the number of registered voters who voted in the last election within my ward or designated constituency sign a petition for my removal. This will mean that 2,500 signatures will be required if 10,000 voted in the last election. All registered voters will be able to sign, including those who did not vote in the last election. The recall petition may not be initiated until 6 months has elapsed since the last election and when an election has been called. Should an election be called, the recall process will be cancelled.
    – I will promote legislation at all levels of government and changes in the South African Constitution to bring about a system of constituency with top up proportional representation, recall, referendum and Direct Democracy.


    Please consider the following:

    On reading and accepting the above:
    1. You become an egg
    2. As you decide to spread the message you become a bird
    3. As you spread the word you create eggs
    4. Those eggs will become birds and fly into the distance never to be seen again to create more eggs
    5. Spread the word and help us all to walk to freedom

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