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South Africa remains a nation of insiders and outsiders, 27 years after democracy

SA’s democracy is vigorous – but only for a minority of the population.
Image: Bloomberg

Twenty seven years into democracy, South African politics is still for the few. And those who complain the most have the least to grumble about.

Since South Africa is highly unequal and remains divided into insiders and outsiders – those who benefit from the market economy and those who can’t – we might expect its politics to be a loud battle between those who have and those who don’t. Most commentators believe it is.

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Within the governing African National Congress (ANC), a battle rages between the “radical economic transformation forces”, who purport to champion the interests of the poor majority, and their market-friendly opponents.

Outside it, the third biggest party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), some in the ANC alliance and the advocates of black consciousness  and pan-Africanism are assumed to speak for those who live in poverty.

There is much radical talk which creates this impression. The left-wing tradition in South Africa goes back over a century – it was injected into the mainstream of anti-apartheid politics by the alliance between the ANC and the Communist Party. But, while it is common for political activists to use left language, all politics is still, as it was before 1994, insider politics. Then the insiders were whites – now they are the minority who receive an income from the formal economy each week or month.

In the country’s insider politics, the majority who try to survive outside the formal economy are talked about, but are never heard. The “radical economic transformation forces” are people trying to gain a bigger share of what the few enjoy, not to share it with the many. The EFF’s chief concern is to challenge white privilege in the insider economy, not to open it to the outsiders. According to one survey, EFF members have, on average, higher incomes and qualifications than ANC members.

Insiders and outsiders

Over the past few years, the country has witnessed a furious debate over whether the government should be able to expropriate land without compensation. Only one group has been ignored – the millions of landless people who have the greatest stake in the outcome.

Since insider politics is often about insisting that you speak for the poor when you have consulted no-one who lives in poverty, both sides of the debate did their best to show that the landless were on their side. Those who wanted expropriation found a few landless people to take to official hearings. Their opponents in the media interviewed just as few landless people who were reported to not want expropriation. But no-one spoke for the people without land.

During the first year of Covid-19, a debate raged over whether lockdown measures were needed. The official opposition, the Democratic Alliance, echoed the global right-wing by demanding that all activity be allowed. The EFF insisted that nothing should be opened. The ANC claimed to adopt a “scientific” approach in which public health and the economy’s needs were balanced.

None of them spoke for – and to – the majority who were forced to travel on taxis which they knew might spread the virus, to earn incomes in ways which might infect them, and whose need was to find a way to feed their families without falling ill.

Insider politics also shapes another conflict which divides “left” and “right” – the demand for free higher education. This is a rallying cry of the left which is denounced by opponents as a Marxist assault on the market economy. But the “left” demand boils down to insisting that the children of the corporate and professional elite should be educated at public expense. This, would, of course, mean that less money would be available to address the needs of people living in poverty.

There are many other examples which underline a reality in which no-one speaks for the outsiders except some local organisations which are ignored by the mainstream debate. It is why policies aimed at ending the exclusion of the outsiders – or at least at helping them to survive – usually fail. They are products of what insider politics think the majority need, not what the outsiders want.

Suburbs versus townships

There is a perverse side of insider politics: it ensures that the government is routinely denounced by those whom democracy has benefited while those whom it has largely left out remain silent.

The gap between insiders and outsiders is also that between suburbs on the one hand, low-income townships – the (almost) exclusively black urban residential areas – and shack settlements on the other. The suburbs are inhabited by the more affluent insiders. Not only does the ANC enjoy little support in these areas – it and the government are targets of deep contempt there. No-one wins respect in the suburbs by saying anything good about the government.

But suburban residents enjoy full economic and political freedom. They can also ensure that they receive much higher standards of public service than others: if the power or water supply is interrupted, suburbanites quickly begin demanding that the problem is fixed. They don’t always get what they want, but their problems are addressed more quickly than the rest of the country’s. And they can rely on privately provided services to make up the slack.

In the townships and shack settlements, the ANC, despite some setbacks, still tends to win elections handily. It is often so dominant that the important conflicts happen within it. It is not uncommon for ANC activists to mobilise protest against an ANC mayor or councillor.

But people aren’t free since local power holders don’t like competition and are often able, working at times with the police, to suppress people who speak and act independently. The best-known example is the shack dweller organisation Abahlali base mjondolo, which has endured sustained violence because it threatens local power holders.

Outsiders must also make do with officials and politicians who ignore them. While suburbanites must sometimes make do without services for hours or a few days, outsiders must at times go without for weeks or months.

Great irony

The great irony, of course, is that the areas which denounce the government can better influence it than those which support it. This speaks to an important reality: that the majority does not yet rule, even though the constitution says it should.

This ensures that South African democracy is vigorous – but only for a minority of the population. The insiders use their freedoms to engage in heated contest while the majority is forced to accept whatever they decide. Until this changes, South Africa will not deal effectively with poverty and inequality because those who need change most will remain unheard.

Steven Friedman is professor of Political Studies at the University of Johannesburg.

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


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Steve, dont you think South Africans are sick and tired of the race card?

What have rich whites done for the country?
What have rich colored done for the country?
What have rich indicans done for the country?
What have rich blacks done for the country?

Surveys mean nothing.
ANC is corrupt to the core and since the DA supported the lockdowns, they are the same to me.
EFF have done nothing(mainly) apart from protest on issues related to racism. This is a great distraction from their real aim, to get as much money and then spend it among the leadership only. Does the EFF have program where they actually help people/ villages in their controlled areas to “uplift people”?

My dear Friedman — You cannot legislate or vote people into prosperity
It comes from hard work, entrepreneurship and dedication.
Not characteristics generally found in the majority of the population.

Socialisms great virtue is the shared poverty and misery by all — That is your great vision o0f SA ne !!

There are parts in this article that I strongly disagree with and it important that we remember a few things: the ANC has been the ruling party for all the years discussed in this article, during this time they have had an overwhelming majority, many policies were proposed during election years and never implemented, government (the ANC) have decided to force companies to be more inclusive instead of fostering conditions for private comapnies to create jobs. I would recommend that Prof Friedman listen or read some of Thomas Sowell’s work. He proposes that certain social programs have the opposite outcome from what was intended. The honest truth is that we need fewer politicians and more independent academics in government.

The overwhelming ANC majority merely means that they are supporters of the destruction — Nothing else !!

The only possible reason people still vote for a corrupt to the core anc consisting of thieves from the bottom to the top is they have the same values and only do so to get something for free or get time at the trough.

The anc has made “their people” weak through policies like BEE where competition is not allowed and thugs infiltrate positions they should never have been allowed to occupy.

This is facilitated by the most senior of leaders and it is obvious that the intention is to just buy votes this way. This will ensure they can continue to destroy whatever they touch.

So it boils down to values of the majority. We get what we vote for so both the insiders and outsiders need to go and look in the mirror and question your own values before you cry or struggle.

If you have the same values as a bunch of corrupt thieves??? WELLL!!!!!


Unfortunately the dear Prof doesn’t understand that we are in a very competitive global world and the East is eating us alive. In South Korea which has the same population as us GDP is 6 times higher. There were no land grabs but there was a hunger and effort to improve, educate and innovate.

Our work ethic is mediocre(all races), our maths and science skills one of the planets worst and government policy as we have is anti capital investment, with unfriendly labour laws and now lack of land security. In short we cannot create jobs-evidenced by a colossal unemployment rate.

There is no South African, LG, Samsung, Hyundai or Kia. The Mr Musks, and Shuttleworths, and many well skilled job creating people are fleeing an unemployment and crime ravaged corrupt state with captured judicatory, useless SAPS,broken health and education services and broke SOEs.

This mess was created and amplified by the hopeless policies of a clique of self enriching and incapable cadres.

Watch little Mauritius as it takes our financial services on!

“Forced to travel on taxis”, they burn the buses. Guess who owns the taxis? “Free education”, they go to universities, fail, toyi toyi and burn the institution. You can take a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. Seems like a lootocracy.

The key assumption in Friedman’s world is that all SA’s problems are somehow related to apartheid or arrive out of thin air. He refuses to allocate responsibility to the voters and supporters of the ANC regime and its fellow travelers; him included. Childish.

The successful people are those who can carry on DESPITE the government. Everyone else is a victim of failed policies, poor implementation and corruption.

There are a lot of ‘successful’ people who are only successful because of their ties to government. But i take your point

It’s best to take responsibility for your own life, and stop blaming others. Most importantly, be suspicious of all politicians.

So we can say the “Gubment’s” policies and programmes DIDN’T WORK!! SO LET’S KEEP DOING THAT??????????????????????????????????????????????????? Who’s really in charge here?

Friedman starts with the usual inequality argument. There is no inequality, not if you compare apples with apples. There is however, deep poverty that needs to be urgently addressed.

The majority of black people here are not worse off than their peer group in surrounding countries. On most metrics like income, literacy, education, access to medical and legal services, amount of businesses started and listed SA blacks are not worse off than their peers in Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique.

Black people here are actually better off. That is why hundreds of thousands streamed into this country during apartheid, and millions thereafter.

The government hides behind inequality because it is easier to claim benefits than putting in the hard work of real development, of ensuring small families, quality education and strong economic growth.

The “silent” black majority that Friedman referred to has failed for 25 years to take responsibility for their vote to keep the government accountable, and so improve their own lives.

It is the same voting pattern as in surrounding countries. For hundreds of years black people had no experience of democracy, elections and voting. That is how the liberation parties intends to keep it.

The black majority were denied VOTER EDUCATION by Friedman’s beloved ANC.

“The ‘radical economic transformation forces’ are people trying to gain a bigger share of what the few enjoy, not to share it with the many” – 100% truth!

Translated into plain English, this means the ANC’s policy of keeping people ignorant by destroying the education system – and buying votes with social grants – has locked the majority of electors into a democratic dictatorship.

100% correct. That’s their best weapon they use to keep the majority as voting fodder and dependant on state grants.
Talking of education Rob, did you go to a certain boarding school in Kimberley in the 80s?

LOL – He did own a Corvette at some stage.

Can the Editors, after not placing my two responses to Friedman, please indicate the following:

1 Which censorship rules of Moneyweb I have transgressed? and

2 Where I am factually wrong?

And now the Editors of Moneyweb are spiteful by placing the query instead of my posts and by refusing to answer the query.

If i have learned anything in the last 20 years, it is that you cannot force change in Nature rather you can only assist in improving it by following in Natures footsteps.

Even Einstein was a socialist often stating that humans could use resources much more effectively through a central controlling authority, despite his intelligence he did not understand the “Natural Law of Spontaneous Order”.

Governments are their not to “control” things but to “regulate” them, the ANC is 100% responsible for pushing the buck down the line and creating the most unequal society in the world, the All Mighty will judge them accordingly.

Free the Market, Enforce Property Rights and adopt regulations which support entrepreneurship. As a Wise commentator @MichaelfromKlerkDorp once said, “South Africa has become a country which contains pockets of Excellence.”

Another upvote for you, PurgeCoin! 🙂

Step aside ANC and us normal folk (of all races) will turn this country into a global powerhouse within 10 years. We are the solution, the ANC is the problem. That sentence is all your article should have said Friedman

The government has noble goals and its policies are not completely bad.

Our issue is that hardly anything gets done right first time, if at all. That is not the fault of economic inequality.

Sick of hearing from these Academics – Steve YOU are the one out of touch with reality mate. God bless those fingers they have to come up with something to keep you relevant.

Being able to vote without having financial freedoms is meaningless. The policies the ANC adopted of cadre deployment, party above everything else and most importantly BEE as the only way to transform has entrenched previously unequal situations.

Also, the ANC has dealt a telling blow on the marginalized of South Africa, through its corruption and mismanagement of everything especially at home affairs and allowing millions of illegal immigrants to enter South Africa, compounding a bad situation and effectively stealing the futures of South Africans.

When you need to transform you need EVERY (and I mean EVERY) rand to have a direct multiplier effect on the lives of all South Africans. Not the select few and not to allow this multiplier to be intercepted by millions of illegal aliens.

This is something that the ANC will never understand, to the detriment of the marginalized people of the country.

Just one more article to assist the politicians get richer.
The oldest trick in the book.

99% of the world population has helped the 0% of the poor.

Go try this rubbish with the rich US, UK, EU, China and the oligarchs of Russia.

End of comments.





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