South Africa’s Geopolitical Position After Mandela

The icon is dead. Long live what? The world was treated in December 2013 to a celebration of Nelson Mandela’s funeral that was incredible. The elegies were never-ending. More heads of state and government, past and present, came to pay homage than any other funeral in history. There were to be sure some dissenting voices among commentators, but really very few. There was no doubt quite a bit of hypocrisy in the celebration, but there were also expressions of genuine grief and real appreciation for an extraordinary person. It was the last hurrah for someone that South Africans called Tata Madiba.

But now what? The reality for South Africa is that, whatever role Mandela played in the struggle against apartheid, then in the (re)construction of a nation, then in the passing of political power to others, he can play these roles no more. South Africa is now on its own, for better or worse – without the special grace afforded by a living icon. What are its present internal conflicts and its present geopolitical position? And what can we expect it to be in the coming decade or two?

The first thing to expect is the continued, perhaps rapid, decline of Mandela’s organization, the African National Congress (ANC). The ANC was the leading force in the struggle against apartheid (although not the only force). Against seemingly enormous odds, the ANC won the political battle. It achieved its primary demand, a political system based on one person, one vote. In South Africa’s first election based on universal suffrage, Nelson Mandela was elected president in 1994, and the ANC won over two-thirds of the seats in the legislature. It repeated this electoral showing in the two subsequent presidential elections of Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma, as well as in most regional and local elections.

Nonetheless it is visibly in decline. Why? The first explanation is that all national liberation movements that gain power after a long struggle have an initial period of enormous electoral support followed by a decline, often a drastic decline. This occurs for three reasons: (1) Popular expectations of enormous improvements, especially in the economic sphere, are not met. Indeed, in many ways the situation gets worse for large numbers of people. (2) At the same time, there is great corruption among elected officials and others favored by them, and there is ever-greater infighting among the top leaders for the spoils of office. (3) As time goes by, there are more and more voters who are too young to have a direct memory of life under the previous regime.

In the case of South Africa, the problems generic to all national liberation movements are compounded by a particular political history. The ANC has been linked in a tripartite political alliance with the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). Both organizations have been affected by the decline of the ANC.

The SACP has long played a political role far beyond its potential electoral strength. This has led it to stick very close to the ANC, in obvious fear that any split would mean electoral disaster, making them politically irrelevant. Some SACP members, or ex-SACP members, have become among the leading proponents of a neoliberal orientation of the government. Others have recast their socialist aspirations as a very long-term prospect.

COSATU, unlike the SACP, has a significant numerical base. But COSATU is a federation of trade unions, whose interests vary, and whose leaders have differing analyses of the present political situation. The summary version of COSATU internal debates is that some large trade unions are ready to break with the ANC and actively endorse alternative political affiliations. Others call for precisely the opposite policy. This divides trade unions between each other and within each trade union. COSATU is at the cusp of a major turning-point, involving a probable organizational split. Whether the trade unions will continue after that to be a major actor on the South African scene in the decade to come is quite unsure.

Finally, the ANC itself is increasingly split. There have been breakaways before this, but none of them seemed to make headway electorally. This time, a split would probably have more serious consequences. There are two basic cleavages within the ANC. One is ethnic between leaders rooted in one or the other of the two largest groups, the Xhosa and the Zulu. The second has to do with South Africa’s greatest claim to world fame, the non-racial character of the regime. There is now a large faction who call for a rejection of a so-called rainbow and the assertion of an “Africanist” precedence. The burning issue is redistribution of land rights, still largely in the hands of White farmers.

In addition to the internal conflicts, South Africa has been playing a relatively important role on the world scene, and its geopolitical activity has become subject to increasing criticism.

South Africa is one of the five members of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), the smallest and economically weakest of the five. There is much debate in South Africa about the degree to which this linkage permits the others, China especially, to take advantage of South Africa.

South Africa is at the same time a heavyweight on the African continent, and its army has played an active role in “peacekeeping” in various African states. The question: Is this subimperialism, or straight imperialism reflecting South Africa’s economic interests, or is it rather a virtuous expression of regional autonomy and solidarity?

Finally, as in much of the world, there is massive and growing unemployment. And as in much of the world, the political reaction has been a growing xenophobia, leading to attacks on Mozambicans and others who have immigrated in search of economic improvement.

In many ways, South Africa is a tinderbox, waiting to explode. Yet, on the positive side, it has the world’s most progressive constitution (providing of course that its provisions are respected). It still enjoys one of the most lively and open arenas of political debate. And it has an impressive number of bottom-up social movements.

South Africa a decade from now will probably look very different. The question is, will it look better? Or worse?