Can South Africa turn crisis into opportunity? Fellows’ seminar by John Matisonn

“The three years 2016 to 2019 will change South Africa more significantly than any other time since the dawn of democracy in 1994. The bookends of that process are the 2016 local elections at which the ruling African National Congress lost control of three of the country’s major cities, and the mid-2019 general election, at which it will be fighting to retain its monopoly on national political power. This offers South Africa both a crisis and an opportunity.” This is the opinion of journalist and author John Matisonn who is currently at STIAS to work on his forthcoming book provisionally titled Apocalypse 2016-2019: Decline of Jacob Zuma, Rise of South Africa?

Matisonn - 1STIAS Fellow John Matisonn during his seminar presentation on 17 May 2018

As with his previous book God, Spies and Lies published in 2015, Matisonn described the aim as “to unravel the past to understand the future. To understand how South Africa got to where it is. I’m hoping that what I have to say gets into the public discourse.”

Matisonn sees the 2016 local elections as the crisis point for the ANC when it became clear that change was needed and quickly. “The ANC lost three main cities – Johannesburg, Pretoria and Port Elizabeth – their support went down to 53% and even further to 47% during Zuma’s last days.” This heralded the ousting of Zuma but the 2019 election will show whether it’s possible for the ANC to turn the situation around.

Matisonn is particularly interested in analysing the intersection of political and economic ideas and practice and will “draw on the lessons of the first 23 years of democracy to understand state capture, why and how the country was able to turn it back, and what is needed to create jobs and grow the economy effectively”.

“During the Zuma Presidency we moved from ordinary corruption to state capture which is essentially using the state to serve the interests of a small cabal,” he said.

“In 2000 the World Bank identified ‘state capture’ as a phenomenon in post-transition countries that poses a threat to growth more far-reaching than ordinary corruption, repurposing the state to serve the president, his family and friends, at the expense of other entrepreneurs, economic reform and, of course, jobs. Policy, legislation and regulation no longer serve the national interest. Many countries in post-communist eastern Europe, including Russia, fell into this category.”

“State capture hurts the poor most,” continued Matisonn. “The biggest example in South Africa was the nuclear deal with Russia – the proposed purchase of R1 trillion nuclear energy plant – it would have completely debilitated the economy and destroyed our ability to meet any developmental goals.”

“Unofficially the jobless rate in South Africa is now at 37% – this is shocking and has huge long-term consequences.”

“Zuma brought the ANC and the country to the brink of ruin,” said Matisonn. “We have to turn from a captured state to one that can grow its economy and jobs.”

Among the political institutions he mentioned as having been substantially damaged during this period he includes the tripartite alliance, where Cosatu has been split and substantially weakened, the Communist Party which, in 2017 for the first time put up candidates against local ANC candidates; and, the ANC youth and women’s leagues. Government institutions undermined in the same period include the South African Revenue Service “previously one of the best-functioning government departments”, the National Prosecuting Authority and the Treasury.

“Zuma also tried to impose media censorship via the Secrecy Bill and the proposed Media Tribunal,” added Matisonn.

“The National Development Plan, a widely supported blueprint for growth based on the lessons learnt by successful modernising countries, was adhered to in name only.”

“Zuma left behind several unfunded and unresearched headaches for his successor – like the university fees and land expropriation without compensation issues – which will need to be addressed soon.”

“However,” he continued, “South Africa has a good Constitution and a strong civil society, and these proved decisive in reversing the tide. Zuma is a brilliant grassroots politician,” he said, “but he was out of his depth from the beginning.”

Matisonn will not only focus on the Zuma era but will also look at some of the political and economic decisions that arose in the Mbeki and Mandela presidencies that have substantially affected the country.

“South Africa also missed both the dot.com boom of the late 1990s and the resource boom of the 2000s due to lack of policy certainty. You can make tough demands on industry, but you must be fair, engage and then provide long-term certainty.”

He pointed out that in the 1980s South Africa accounted for 40% of world mining, now it’s less than 5% and many of the big mining companies have left the country. He believes it’s important to confront how that happened.

“Education is another vital area,” he said. “We should be the best in Africa. There has been a great increase in numbers but quality has declined especially in maths and science. The massive increase in the university population, which the state demanded, was not matched by a concomitant rise in state funding.”

His work will examine how countries, including China and Japan, overcame national resistance to modernisation and provide examples of policy decisions that would significantly reduce unemployment and entrench job creation. In this regard he sees sectors like the information economy, mining, renewable energy and education as areas where “low-hanging fruit makes the biggest successes possible from decisive policy and implementation commitments”.

“Building a public consensus around shared goals will be essential,” he said.

Asked about current President Cyril Ramaphosa, Matisonn said: “It was said of US President Franklin D. Roosevelt that he was a second-rate intellect with a first-rate temperament, and that was the most important ingredient of his success. While I’m not sure Roosevelt was a second-class intellect, I think Ramaphosa has the same strength – a first-rate temperament to achieve the difficult changes he wants. And an excellent intellect.”

“President Ramaphosa is the right person at the right time. He knows what he wants to do. Hopefully he can get enough time to do it”.

“Ramaphosa has worked in the economy both as a trade union leader and business man. He is a lawyer, has great respect for the Constitution and I think he knows who to trust. Right now he has to hold the ANC together – and I think he will – there are many good reasons for ANC members to stay together.”

“In a young democracy like South Africa’s the personality of the president matters even more than usual. The true political will of the Ramaphosa government will only come into play after the 2019 election in bringing substantial change.”

Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Christoff Pauw

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