SA’s great social stand-offComment on this story
The privileged class is now stuck with a president they dislike, while the masses - who hold political sway - have largely kept the faith in the ANC, says Mike Siluma.
Johannesburg - Justifiably, a visitor to South Africa just before the elections would have assumed that the ANC’s and Jacob Zuma’s goose was cooked long before May 7.
Based on reportage in most media and comments from their consumers, the dice would have looked decidedly loaded against the president and his party winning one of the most fiercely contested polls since 1994 – what with the service delivery protests, the e-tolls saga in Gauteng and the thorough condemnation of the president by much of the media and the opposition in the wake of the Public Protector’s report on upgrades to his Nkandla residence.
Yet, if our visitor had stayed for the poll’s outcome, they might have been perplexed by the seemingly illogical turn of events – where, contrary to seeming public opinion, the ANC and its president were given the keys to the Union Buildings for the next half decade.
So, how would we explain the apparent conundrum?
We would have to concede a few home truths.
First, that in South Africa there is no such thing as a monolithic public, and therefore no unanimous public opinion on who should govern the country and what values should guide it, our great constitution notwithstanding.
Rather, we have on one hand the privileged (consisting of the elite and the middle class), and on the other the masses (comprising the working class, the unemployed and the poor generally).
The privileged control the economy and most of the media, and have colonised the space of public debate, conducted mainly in English. They include the nation’s captains of industry, academics, journalists, and our legion of analysts and experts, the last named of whom we seem to produce by the truckloads.
A defining characteristic of this class is that despite its monopoly of information, it often mistakes its own views for those of the populace at large. Discourse within its ranks routinely passes for national debate. It also assumes that it thinks and speaks on behalf of “the rest”, the masses.
And so it was that when it came to the elections, the views of this class, which is mainly white but increasingly includes blacks, took centre stage in the media as to who should govern the country until 2019.
Seeing the service delivery protests as the beginning of an anti-Zuma/ANC revolt, they urged the protesting masses to “use their vote” – a code phrase for “vote the ANC out”, instead of stopping at burning tyres and destroying clinics and libraries.
It is members of this class who are likely to be concerned about the country’s credit rating and the burgeoning army of social grant beneficiaries. They have strong feelings about corruption, but more in the state than in the private sector.
As things stand, they feel thoroughly betrayed by the lumpen masses, who protest against service delivery failures one day, and then proceed to re-elect the ANC and Zuma the next.
To them Zuma personifies much of what they dislike about the current dispensation. He is not one of them, in that he has had limited education. He is often dogged by controversy. And when he speaks publicly, usually in English, they look forward to his next grammatical faux pas for vindication.
They regard him as damaged goods. So nothing he does, even quoting Shakespeare as he did at the ANC’s victory rally at the weekend, will placate them.
When the ANC’s win was announced, one newspaper, reflecting the exasperation of this class, cried in a street poster: “Another Five Years of Zuma!” This followed earlier calls by two of the most influential publications among the middle class, the Financial Mail and the Mail & Guardian, for an anti-ANC vote.
And what of the masses, the ones often seen but not heard – except when they engage in violent street protests?
Their majority makes them the deciding factor in choosing a government, which is the only time they have more power than the privileged class.
They have repeatedly voted the ANC into power, and support it for both what it has delivered and what it has merely promised. They still remember the ANC as the organisation that sat on the right side of history in the struggle to end apartheid.
In addition, they consider that, with RDP housing, increased social grants, school feeding schemes, promises of jobs, free healthcare and education (and more), they have not got an altogether bad deal under the ANC government.
Being more susceptible to fabulous promises, they would be inclined to hand their votes to the likes of the Economic Freedom Fighters should they decide to abandon the ANC.
Eventually, we would have to tell our said visitor that what the election has done was merely to entrench the great social stand-off in our land. A privileged class is now stuck with a president they dislike and a governing party they believe is ruining the country. While controlling virtually every lever of power and influence, they remain impotent to install a national government of their choice.
Facing them off are the masses, who hold political sway and have largely kept the faith in the ANC. They remain economically marginalised 20 years after gaining the franchise, and hold out for a more equitable order. Still living in townships, shack lands and farms, they bear the brunt of unemployment and poverty.
Hopefully at this point our said visitor would better understand our national conundrum. They would also understand why, on May 7, Jacob Zuma’s (and the ANC’s) much-anticipated Waterloo never happened.
* Mike Siluma is a journalist, broadcaster, columnist and former newspaper editor.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.