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Restless Nation: William Gumede

Restless Nation: William Gumede

This is a book that draws together a number of articles penned by William Gumede, reflecting his serious concerns over the social, political and economic direction that has been taken by post-apartheid South Africa. The focus is on the ruling African National Congress (ANC), and Gumede’s fearless analysis of shortcomings of its leadership that he describes as “astonishingly self-interested and empty … bereft of any ideas, or, if not that, are either appallingly complacent or simply lacking the will to steer SA inc to surer ground”.

The author tells us that these are selected columns, blogs and written and radio opinion pieces that appeared, or were aired, after 2005 – the year his celebrated and definitely unauthorised biography Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC was published to great acclaim and no little controversy.

He does not tell us whether it was he or others who selected what went into this book, but he does say that the intention in publishing “is to bring this commentary to a much wider audience”. Readers might be interested to read his latest commentary that appears in this month’s issue of our sister magazine, New African.

It is significant that the first article in this book examines the limits of a liberation legacy. In it, he describes the difficulty that resistance movements have in adapting to become political parties that might be described as possessing a truly democratic governance structure. Here, Gumede takes his argument beyond just South Africa and the ANC and applies it to many African countries that have undertaken anti-colonial and independence struggles.

He writes: “Most independence and liberation movements which are still in power see their movements as the embodiment of the ‘people’ and therefore see themselves as able to speak for the entire nation, with the leader as the tribune of the ‘people’.”

Later in the book he avers: “The tragic story in Africa is that almost every African liberation and independence movement that came to power went on to create a situation where only a small elite benefited from the end of colonialism or white-minority rule.” As well as South Africa itself, he could be writing about half a dozen other countries in the Southern Africa region.

A rising tide of dismay and disgust

But essentially, this is a book about South Africa itself and the rising tide of dismay and disgust in the Rainbow Nation at the behaviour and performance of the country’s leaders. Gumede writes with clarity and a measured style that rarely strays into rhetoric. There is a tone of gentlemanly politeness about the way he chooses to express himself; but make no mistake, he pulls no punches when speaking truth to power and decrying the opportunities the country has squandered in its 18 years of majority rule.

On the issue of politeness, in a column he wrote for the Sowetan newspaper in 2009, he insists on the importance of open debate and being able to disagree respectfully with others whether arguing with family, friends, strangers or politicians – without resorting to shouting insults or attempting to humiliate those with which one disagrees. “No good can come,” he says, “from shouting: no proper policy can be worked out, priorities cannot be inclusively decided on, no consensus can be cobbled together.”

But what exactly are the issues that Gumede’s critique is concerned with? They are many, varied and have a number of facets, yet the author comes back time and again to the question of the government’s poor service delivery to the people, particularly those who are the most vulnerable within South African society. A widening economic divide between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ is of special concern.

Gumede quotes research that suggests that South Africa now has the dubious distinction of being the most unequal society in the world, having now overtaken Brazil. It might be argued that Africa’s second-largest economy, Nigeria, might also be as bad as South Africa, or worse, when it comes to income disparities, but perhaps it is the way that South Africa’s economic divide matches its racial divide that makes it so apparent.

The racial divide has changed slightly as there is now emerging a black elite in South Africa, an elite that embraces the conspicuous consumption habits and the ‘bling’ culture of the West. But what is so disconcerting is that it is some ANC politicians that are among the worst culprits of this elite, having a wilful disregard for the poor. By blatantly flaunting their wealth and having a less than ethical approach to their financial affairs, they demonstrate a crassness that is difficult to fathom. Gumede relates the story of one politician, presumably unselfconsciously, using a luxury Hummer SUV to campaign in one of the country’s poorest townships.

Just why Gumede chose to publish this compendium at this time might be related to the ANC holding its 53rd national elective conference in Mangaung in mid-December 2012. The national conference is held every five years, and this year’s event is expected to throw up another battle for the party’s leadership, much the same way as the 2007 conference, held at Polokwane, unseated Jacob Zuma’s predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, as party president. Mbeki was to resign as national president the following year.

A poignant relevance

But the publication of Restless Nation also has another much more poignant relevance as it coincided with the tragedy at Lonmin’s Marikana platinum mine when 44 died – two members of the South African police hacked to death and 42 demonstrators shot and killed during a wildcat strike over wages by rock drill workers. In a nutshell, these tragic events illustrate just what Gumede is warning us about.

Almost two decades after South Africa embraced majority rule and put the obscenity of apartheid aside, here are workers living in terrible conditions in tin shack shanties or overcrowded hostels, working in difficult and dangerous conditions, earning little more than $600 a month – in South Africa, barely a living wage. By contrast, the chief executive of the UK company that operated the mine was paid more than $90,000 monthly (before bonuses and expenses), more than 150 times the miners’ wage. It is this kind of inequality that is creating the restlessness that the author is referring to. What compounds the situation is that the delivery of government services is in many cases either nonexistent or hopelessly ineffective while politicians – whose responsibility it is to deliver to the public – embark on all-expenses-paid (by the tax-payer) luxury travel and indulge in lavish partying.

Not that Gumede is saying that poverty and inequality can be easily defeated, nor that all politicians are guilty of incompetence or fiscal irresponsibility, but that little attempt has been made to improve service delivery and that a number of politicians have regularly made election promises that they know they cannot keep. Here he pleads for both discipline in spending public money and more honesty in presenting policy pledges.

Since the publication of this book, we have witnessed the re-emergence of Julius Malema and his calls for mine nationalisation in the wake of the Marikana tragedy. Gumede has some particularly significant points to make about the former ANC Youth Wing president, arguing in the Afrikaans Rapport publication in February: “Some may argue that now [with Malema’s expulsion from the ANC] he appears to have been elbowed aside, the calls for nationalisation will die down. To the contrary, many members of the ANC family – including senior members – firmly support it.”

Interestingly, Gumede quotes Cyril Ramaphosa, the former ANC secretary-general and now a leading business man, as saying: “Much as we understand that poverty and unemployment are rooted in decades of economic injustice, so too we must accept that the frustration being witnessed today arises in part from our collective inability to transform our economy. This inability has certainly sparked the call for the nationalisation of mines.”

Gumede goes on to assert that it is not just the poor that are heeding this call. “Many in the Black Management Forum, the Black Lawyers Association and the Association of Black Securities and Investment Professionals support the nationalisation call,” he writes in the Rapport article. He goes on to say that the nationalisation debate will be finalised at the ANC’s national elective council in December. What impact the Marikana disaster will have on this debate is unclear. Some have argued that it could be a watershed, as the ANC finally wakes up to its duty of ensuring the large companies take a more socially progressive attitude towards their workforce. But Gumede is (or was) persuaded that “property in private hands will not be nationalised, but unexploited resources will be”.

He ends his article saying: “Managing existing state-owned companies and all spheres of government more effectively, more honestly and more accountably, and governing in the interest of all rather than those of a small elite, are more effective solutions to our current problems than nationalisation.”

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