You are currently viewing our desktop site, do you want to download our app instead?
Moneyweb Android App Moneyweb iOS App Moneyweb Mobile Web App

NEW SENS search and JSE share prices

More about the app

Diagnoses of doom mask denial about real problems facing SA

Hand-wringing about problems which are said to spell the doom of South Africa’s negotiated democracy is a well-established custom.
South African president and leader of the ruling ANC Cyril Ramaphosa. Image: Michele Spatari/NurPhoto via Getty Images

To understand South Africa today, we need to recognise that people can focus endlessly on a country’s problems but still live in a state of denial.

Hand-wringing about problems which are said to spell the doom of South Africa’s negotiated democracy is a well-established custom. It began only months after the first election in which all adults could vote in 1994. It has become louder over the past decade and dominates the national debate, which is the preserve of the minority who enjoy access to media.

Moneyweb Insider INSIDERGOLD

Subscribe for full access to all our share and unit trust data tools, our award-winning articles, and support quality journalism in the process.

Choose an option:

R63 per month
R630 per year SAVE R126

You will be redirected to a checkout page.
To view all features and options, click here.

A monthly subscription is charged pro rata, based on the day of purchase. This is non-refundable and includes a R5 once-off sign-up fee.
A yearly subscription is refundable within 14 days of purchase and includes a 365-day membership.

Click here for more information.

Right now, violence in the KwaZulu Natal province, attacks on the judiciary by former president Jacob Zuma and his supporters, and an unemployment rate of 34% are the immediate causes of dismay.

But, while the issues change, claims that the country is in deep trouble are routine.

Despite this, the national debate – which is restricted to an elite comprising around a third of the population – is in denial.

How can this be?

The debate’s diagnoses of doom denounce what works in post-1994 South Africa while ignoring or misrepresenting the stubborn and very real problems which prevent democracy from realising its potential. In particular, blaming the governing African National Congress (ANC) has become a substitute for facing deep-rooted problems which would remain whoever governed.

How the denial works

To illustrate how this type of denial works, the three problems which are currently in focus are all real – but far too real to be blamed only on some politicians.

The violence was a result of an incomplete journey to democracy, which means that the security forces are deeply factionalised and that corrupt networks will use violence to protect their turf.

Yet it is blamed purely on police incompetence or poverty. And the ANC is blamed for both.

The attacks on judges are treated with alarm despite the fact that they are no threat to the constitutional order. They have little credibility in the national debate because they are clearly ploys by politicians desperate to escape prosecution for corruption. Their credibility is further undermined by the fact that those who denounce the judges never hesitate to use the courts when this suits them.

But a real threat to the justice system which has been evident for years – in which grassroots citizens whose living areas are plagued by violence are impatient with due legal process and the courts – is hardly noticed in the now routine rush to blame ANC politicians.

The unemployment figures have prompted much denunciation of the government. But there was no similar reaction in 2003 when the rate was 31%. This went unnoticed because the economy was doing well for the minority able to benefit from it. Since they dominate the debate, it simply ignored reality.

Nor has anyone pointed out that unemployment has been growing for 50 years and that the lowest jobless numbers of the past two decades were higher than those in the Netherlands during the Great Depression.

The debate is in denial over the reality that unemployment is a deep-rooted and long-standing problem.

The denial does not necessarily target the governing party directly. So, a prominent theme is criticism of the political system despite the fact that it works largely as it meant to for the minority whose voices are heard.

Moves are afoot to change the electoral system “to ensure more accountable government”, despite the fact that local government already has the system to which the debate wants to move and is widely agreed to be a site of very little accountability.

A set of hearings at the commission of inquiry into Zuma-era corruption began a pattern in which parliament is said to be defective because it did not hold the ANC to account. The search is on for legal fixes which will force it to do what the one-third who take part in the debate want. Secret ballots are demanded for parliamentary votes in the hope that legislators will do what the debate wants, not what the parties for whom citizens voted want.

None of the proposed changes would make democracy work better – most would weaken it. Changing to an electoral system used by deeply unpopular municipalities will solve nothing; encouraging legislators to hide from voters when they cast ballots will strengthen elites and weaken the citizenry.

The whole point of parliaments is that they give the power to make decisions to the party which wins a majority. Rules to curb that will take the country back to minority rule, not forward to a brighter future. South African democracy works well for those who can make themselves heard – so well that, in a country where it was once common to fear that the ANC would control too much, it is routinely denounced by anyone who wants to be taken seriously by the debate.

Why this frenzy to fix what is not broken? Because the political system will not satisfy the debate as long it allows the ANC to govern. Supporters of a changed electoral system claim it would weaken “party bosses”. So do those who want to force parliament to do what they want and those who want legislators to be allowed to cheat on their voters.

In all three cases, “party bosses” is code for the leadership of the governing party.

Facing deep-rooted problems

The key point here is not that the ANC should not be held to account. Trying to ensure that the governing party does what citizens want it to do is a core feature of democracy. Voters being rude about the governing party is a democratic habit.

The ANC has much for which it should be forced to account: it did not create most of the patterns for which it is blamed, but has done far too little to change them and often seems happy simply to live with them.

But there is a huge difference between holding a governing party to account and making it an excuse for failing to face deep-rooted problems. Fixating on the ANC has given the one-third an excuse not to face difficult realities.

South Africa is a country beset by many problems, only one of which it solved in 1994 – the fact that 90% of the population were denied citizenship rights. Its problems routinely create crises which could be opportunities to face deep-rooted problems. But the opportunities are routinely wasted by a national debate which finds blaming a political party and its current leaders a convenient way of ducking responsibility for tackling these realities.

As long as that continues, the problems will persist because the prospect of tackling them will be drowned out by angry denial.The Conversation

Steven Friedman, Professor of Political Studies, University of Johannesburg

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Sort by:
  • Oldest first
  • Newest first
  • Top voted

You must be signed in to comment.


Articles like that only confirm my view of some academics.

Great points. Well argued. Rational points there.

This academic is the father of the “comedian”, Daniel Friedman, who was fired from The Citizen for hate speech against Afrikaners. Which just about says it all.

Speaks for itself nuff said.

Nice to have a job where you can outline problems but you don’t have to provide a workable solution.

Stevie mu man — Methinks you be one of the denialists and ANC protagonists.

Well argued!

Dr. Friedman is correct. These problems have always been present in South Africa, but they only became apparent after 1994 when they were included in the official statistics. After 1994, we started judging a communalist culture according to capitalist rules. This is a scientific error. Although we are a shameful disaster among civilized capitalist countries, we are doing quite well compared to all the other backward communalist nations in the rest of Africa and South America.

Let’s consider the relative value of our beautifully elegant and sophisticated constitution for a moment. It is absolutely wasted upon the communalist part of society. They simply abuse it to escape the legal consequences of their actions and to demand free stuff from the rest of society. The ANC makes a mockery of the constitution. We are a constitutional democracy with a human rights charter, yet our violent death rate is 60 times higher than for China, which is supposed to be an oppressive and cruel dictatorship that tramples upon human rights. Our violent crime rate is more than 10 times higher than any civilized capitalist country. On the positive side, other collectivist countries in South America and Africa have double the amount of violent deaths per capita.

A communalist system depends on the forces of nature for equilibrium. Unemployment, overpopulation, and crime are solved by famine and disease. Balance is always restored in this system because the population size and the unemployment rate are determined by the fertility of the soil, the rainfall, and the climate. The development of property rights, capitalism, and the rule of law, enabled sophisticated societies to escape the natural constraints. The population size in European communities remained constant during the communalist Middle Ages but exploded upward after the adoption of property rights. Growing population size is simply a function of a growing economy. The size of the economy determines the size of the population.

This brings us back to the local problem of overpopulation, unemployment, and crime. Our population size and workforce are not too large for a capitalist nation where property rights are respected and protected, but it should shrink by about 50% to compensate for the fact that we are a socialist society. When a nation decides to move away from an established capitalist system to move towards a collectivist system, they automatically set the Malthusian Trap that applies the forces of nature to restore a new equilibrium through famine and disease.

In short – our workforce is about right for a DA or FF+ government. To compensate for an ANC government and to find equilibrium with the current socialist economic policy, nature will have to cull 15- to 20 million people. This is inevitable because, although it is unintended, it is the implicit result of the ANC policies of redistribution of property through taxes on capital, BEE, EE, cadre-deployment, and corruption.

Yep … and perhaps the dear professor could explain why England, with a similar population to SA, decimated by WW2 and lacking our vast mineral and agricultural resources, not to mention the climate, has become a First World country while we slide into chaos and bankruptcy?

Sensei – It strikes me that the foundation upon which you build your elegant commentary on contemporary SA society – is your interpretation of the SA Constitution. I quote – “Let’s consider the relative value of our beautifully elegant and sophisticated constitution for a moment. It is absolutely wasted upon the communalist part of society. They simply abuse it to escape the legal consequences of their actions and to demand free stuff from the rest of society. The ANC makes a mockery of the constitution.”

While respecting your right to your own opinion, I would argue that it is the very same “elegant & sophisticated constitution” which has allowed for much of the abuse & mockery you so aptly describe. Perhaps this is best illustrated by the Constitution’s definition of its “fundamental purpose”. Namely “Transition and Transformation”. These two conflicting themes – (the interpretation thereof) – were always destined to clash. No more so than in a society like SA was / is pre & post 1994. I personally cannot understand how the Constitution’s “esteemed” authors failed to see this inevitability. More importantly, it is not clear to me how anyone can now correct such an obviously fundamental flaw in the very foundation of our young country. Tragically, as with Surfside, a poorly laid foundation invariably has catastrophic results…

Maybe we should also remind the lovely prof that it is not the road to social justice and equality that is paved with good intention, but it is the road to hell that naive individuals like himself are taking this nation on. Ì

“Fixating on the ANC has given the one-third an excuse not to face difficult realities.”

So the problems we have are caused by the privileged one third who have access to the media?

A sweeping statement if ever there was one, what you been smokin dude?

Dear Professor Friedman

After reading your article, I should like to hear your views on the essay published recently by Michael Power of NinetyOne asset management which speaks directly to SA economic woes.

If I understand it correctly, the argument he makes is that many of the SA unemployed (presumably the third you are talking about but in fact a much larger percentage for under 30s, and also your figures may exclude those who are underemployed or have simply given up) are trying to sell their labour to get jobs which are done far more cheaply in Asia. The SA economy can not compete at those rates because the South Asian worker expects around R1500-2000 per month as compared to at least R3500 here. In a global competitive world, SA has been trying to compete as a “cheap” European economy when it’s more like an “expensive” South Asian one.

This is not to argue for basic wages being lowered in this country so that the typical worker is paid more or less the same as one in South Asia. What you didn’t seem to mention is that wealth inequality has hugely increased under the ANC because the governing party chose to massively enrich a tiny fraction of the 90% you mentioned, once they came into power. I’m sure you must have come across many senior managers and officials in government who contribute very little of value but are very well paid by international standards. Working at a university, I imagine you must also have heard students saying that they prefer to work in government as salaries tend to be higher than in most private sector jobs and they are less likely to get fired.

The reality is that SA is not competitive internationally under the current government and the country does not sell much apart from some minerals, agricultural produce or some tourism experiences that the rest of the world would want to buy.

Instead of trying to grow the economy by having clear, consistent and business friendly policies which would encourage foreign investment and hence provide more jobs, it is obsessed with a punitive transformation and ANC-elite enrichment agenda while over-taxing the roughly 1 million people who earn more than R500,000 per year. There are now more adults on social grants than employed, a completely unsustainable situation.

You mentioned “denial” but until the ANC stops denying that the country’s economy and labour market just cannot compete internationally under their policies, unemployment will continue to worsen and the whole country will be worse of – more protests, more riots, more violence ……

If you want cheaper labour do what amazon and apple does. They don’t pay Americans less they take their business to Asia. That’s how that works not your stupid idea. So you want people to stay as tellers and bricklayers and working at KFC. That’s the backbone of your imaginary economy. Well drop your pay then

Excellent basic economic sense, but hey don’t spoil a good story with the facts …;-)

This is like reading the HSRC / Race Court trying to excuse Malema’s blatant anti white racism. So now SA’s problem isn’t the deeply corrupt and incompetent ANC destroying investment opportunities, supply and transport utilities, infrastructure and municipalities but a shady 1/3 force.

It is not worth critiquing this rubbish; it is useful only in showing how warped, academically dysfunctional and corrupt many of SA’s “academics” are. ANC shills.

As i said during one of his precious articles it feightens me to think that the Prof will be inessence create duplicate copies at the university with this drivel using tax payer money

I do find this article quite interesting, its fictional nature seems so lambasting against a victimas anc government by a group of people who have knowledge and who question reality yet it is exactly what the dearest professor is dishing out by blasting out at those who know and who question what they see.

With all due respect Sir, given your acquired knowledge and time spent i would not waste it on justifying nor attempting to be the vanguard of the anc government and all its flaws. They have failed South Africans from all walks of life, they have only but demonstrated that they will have 100 percent of nothing rather than ensuring South Africa is a thriving modern economy and a beacon of hope for the rest of africa.

The very media you speak about where a third of the population voices their disdain is the same place where you post your articles, expect that the people who read it question your words one at a time, they are not foolish nor are they to be undermined.

South Africans deserve a life with dignity but again the state just like the apartheid regime have failed the populus again. This time around turning our country into a basket case and an enclave society. They have no excuse and are guilty of corruption and treason of the highest order because they have stolen the future away from so many children born of democracy who have yet to taste a single drop.

The solution to South Africa’s problems are not going to be solved with more politics in fact the very solution is to reduce the amount of politics and allow society to just get on with it.

For a country which is free, we only rank in at 99 out of 180, this ranking implies we are “Mostly Unfree”, in 2003 SA had a score of 67.1 by which were were mostly free but now 59.7 points and unfree

Blah blah doom blah blah problems blah blah SA. I don’t see you coming up with good points. What whistleblowers are you looking out for? What are you doing besides threatening to leave the country. You changed up your flips flops filled your pockets and now you making excuses to get out. The people who are living in denial are people trying to live. Put food on the table. Get their kids through school. These are the people you want to change the country for you so you can fill your pockets in peace.

Friedman is a special kind of tjop.

Denial indeed! The President regularly frame SA problems as opportunities. There is a vast difference between an opportunity and a problem. Not only is it spelt different, but by nature have complete different properties. It can be likened to: a fish start rotting at the head? The leaderless ANC is holding SA at ransom? The President is suppose to fulfil his oath of office, which refers to being a President for the people, not the ANC. Judging from the last general election, there are more people which did not vote, than voted. It is evident that the political system overall is compromised. Expect more demonstrations and …………….


Heish! These “local universities”!! Whahahaaa. Where do they get these people???

Its simple.

Liberation movements should disband after “liberation”

But no. In SA “freedom fighters” with no ability to run a country does just that!! All they are good for is plunder and pillage. THE WORLD OVER!!! FFS???

It also affects and infest “learning institutions” with commentators that cant see past the anc as they are only there because of them not inspite of them.

Comments made by ex “freedom fighters” and their “commentators” dependent on anc handouts and will obviously flog the same old dead horse.


Just typical and blatant excuses and at least “one third” knows this guy is just a b…. agent.


Friedman, is just trying to please his paymasters, the ANC and is trying to be too revisionist in the making.

True, we never had a normal, but we are not a nation of a 1000 years. Hell, Joburg turned 100 in 1986.

To try downplay the extent of rot under the ANC’s rule is missing the point. There was a need to have multiplier effect on each rand spend and to undo racism, which the ANC never came close to.

The ANC just became a vector for corruption and entrenched racism. If Friedman is referring to deep rooted problems being those of a black feudal nature, he in inadvertently agreeing with those of the old NP that wanted a ‘separate development’.

I find you always have to fill in what Friedman never can say out loud.

Chaps-we shouldn’t fall for an article like this that is deliberately provocative especially towards an audience that favours a market related economy.

The writer is what he is-an irrelevant left wing academic with no ideas, no solutions, no vision and no answers.

It would seem that Mr Friedman is also in denial.

The facts are that there IS close to 40% unemployment, with an underlying uneducated and almost unemployable workforce, that the SOE’s infiltrated with ANC cadres have all collapsed … the deep-rooted problems which he describes have all been caused by the incompetence and intransigence of the ANC elite and their voters.

His point that unemployment has been growing for 50 years is easily explained in the exponential birth rate growth amongst the black population. Islam is the fastest growing religion, not because they convert more members but because they have so many children. Refer also the Catholic church.

In his meandering analysis he seems to be incapable of or not wanting to accept that although SA has a set of functional laws and a constitution, no-one in the ANC, especially Mr Zuma and his colleagues want to be bound by them.

The Nationalist government destroyed social structures and our international reputation with Apartheid and the ANC has now compounded the error economically with BEE.

So who else should we blame, Mr Friedman, considering that the corrupt ANC has had full control of the organs of state and the economy for the lat 25 years?

I note that I have been “moderated” again. What have I done this time?

Academics: People who are held in high esteem but have never worked a day in their life in the real world and offer nothing to society

End of comments.





Follow us:

Search Articles:
Click a Company: