A bittersweet farewell to the Institute for Democracy in South Africa (Idasa)

The Institute for a Democratic Alternative for South Africa played a pivotal role in that country’s transition away from apartheid rule. Two “white liberals” – Alex Borraine and the late Frederick van Zyl Slabbert – left their jobs as members of parliament in order to meet with exiled members of the African National Congress in various remote locations. Out of the spotlight of the media and everyday politics, they helped negotiate a series of ice-breakers between the white and black elites, initiating a set of discussions that would pave the way for Mandela’s release and the writing of a new constitution. Of course, many factors made such meetings possible, including the challenges and protests of so many ordinary citizens in South Africa and abroad, but few serious observers of that country’s history would discount the importance of these early, secretive, get-to-know-you retreats.

Following Mandela’s release, the unbanning of the ANC, and the first multi-racial elections, it was not exactly clear what role various anti-apartheid organizations might play given that their core mandates no longer seemed relevant. In the case of Idasa, it transformed itself in name (but not acronym) to be an organization that would help South African citizens build this new democracy with various information, awareness and monitoring functions. (Steven Friedman correctly highlights that the simple bridge-building work of the original Idasa is still needed today.)

Back in the early 1990s, I was lucky to meet a few of Idasa’s key program managers, including Robert Mattes, who would run the Public Opinion Service; and Warren Krafchik, who directed the Budget Information Service. These projects conducted pioneering research on citizen attitudes and the emerging budget process, and they communicated their findings to scholars, policy-makers, and ordinary citizens. A few years later, while I was a doctoral student at UC Berkeley, these folks kindly allowed me to serve as an intern in their units, provided me a desk and an internet connection, and most importantly, allowed me to be a part of the organization.

idasa cape town

My year was personally and professionally inspiring. The period 1997-8 was surely the height of the post-apartheid “honeymoon,” the year following the Springbok win of the Rugby World Cup (now of Invictus fame). Idasa had purchased a marvelous old building at 6 Spin Street, right around the corner from the nation’s parliament, the national library, and several key offices of the bureaucracy, including the South African Revenue Service. Each day the building’s corridors came alive with art and performances, as leading politicians and scholars from around the country and around the world stopped in for visits. At morning tea time, as I developed a taste for Rooibos tea many years before it would become an American rage, I learned so much from my colleagues about their respective cultures, and from their work in trying to consolidate democratic practice in this divided society.

In the years to follow, Idasa continued to generate a great deal of research, including in the area I began to study – HIV/AIDS policy – and the organization would extend the scope of its activities to the entire Southern African region. More recently, I discovered that the Cape Town office closed, and all of the operations were consolidated in the Pretoria office. The organization’s stature was clearly in decline. It was certainly not an activist organization, barely a monitoring organization, perhaps a research outfit, but not quite a think-tank. If donor support fell away, perhaps it was because the organization’s mission had simply become too ambiguous. In late March, the director announced that Idasa would close due to lack of financial support.

Idasa shopOn the one hand, I am so sad to hear of this great institution’s fall. I retain just a speck of hope that some angel donor will come in to resuscitate this once giant. On the other hand, perhaps I should just pay tribute to its incredibly important legacy, which gave hope to the most brilliant political story that I’ve observed in my lifetime – one which continues to animate my own life and career to this day. In just a few weeks, one of my old Idasa friends, Albert Van Zyl, who now works for our old boss, Warren Krafchik, will present the work of the International Budget Project to my class of Princeton undergraduates learning about the Politics of Development.

I am very proud to have been associated with this distinguished organization. Despite its current lack of a Wikipedia entry(!), I hope its role in contemporary South African history will be sufficiently recognized.

The LRC challenges the shame of South Africa’s schools

There is much to admire about South Africa’s relative progress and stability in the almost nineteen years since its first multiracial election, but its school system is truly an embarrassment. Despite the country’s upper-middle-income classification, many areas that were formerly designated as so-called “homelands” (i.e., the Transkei and Ciskei), resemble the poorest areas of many of Africa’s poorest countries.

I paste below a link to a wonderful but depressing story about the dismal state of Eastern Cape schools — sometimes referred to as the “mud schools” because several are made of mud. It highlights how the Legal Resources Centre (LRC) has been working to protect children’s rights to education, suing the government to provide appropriate resources. It should not be necessary to litigate for decent schools for the poorest kids, but at least that avenue is available and seems to have had some impact.

http://mg.co.za/multimedia/2013-03-07-the-forgotten-schools-of-the-eastern-cape

LRC and Eastern Cape Schools

Contemplating a different kind of billionaire in higher office in Africa

Too many African states have been governed by the wrong kind of millionaires and even billionaires – those who have “earned” their money while being in office, extracting resources from the state in various ways. Indeed, one of the challenges for African political development has been that state office has too often been seen as the only viable road to personal enrichment in the context of quite limited market opportunities.

But as followers of South African politics now know, billionaire (in terms of South African currency at least) Cyril Ramaphosa was just elected deputy president of the ANC. Ramaphosa was a founding member of the National Union of Mineworkers, and his leadership of the 1980s strikes contributed to the fall of apartheid. His trajectory is reminiscent of Brazil’s “Lula,” a former union leader, who served two successful terms as state president after a few failed bids for office. And yet, Cyril largely stayed on the fringes of politics for more than a decade to join the brave new world of black empowerment, through various holding companies and corporate leadership positions.

cyril_r

So what does a guy do when he’s worth, according to Forbes, over $600 million (more than 5 billion South African Rand)? He found himself elected to the number two spot of the somewhat embattled, but still extremely dominant ANC. As pointed out in today’s Mail and Guardian, this does not necessarily mean he will become the next deputy president of government (though re-elected party president Jacob Zuma surely will take another turn as state president), but either way, he has now reached a new level of political power that had seemed his destiny at the dusk of apartheid government.

What might it mean to have a guy in office who really doesn’t need the spoils of corruption? Unfortunately, of course, “need” can vary, and for some, 600 million might not seem like enough. But since I live in a city that’s been governed pretty darn well by a billionaire, I’d like to contemplate the optimistic scenario that Ramaphosa could help the ANC to chart a better course, serving the public interest in ways that have become increasingly rare. (Hopefully, he won’t push too hard on downsizing the size of soft drinks…) In fact, too many of the ANC’s moral and good governance core, including Desmond Tutu, Trevor Manuel, and many others, have chosen the exit option. Ramaphosa could inject some new ideas about process and efficiency, and quality service delivery; including the South African private sector’s desperate need for a better educated and better trained workforce. Most important, all of that money in the bank just might help him push back against the increasingly pervasive practice of self-enrichment through sweetheart deals, and private perks from the public purse.

Cyril had a shining profile at the dawn of post-apartheid government. Today, he is viewed as a serious businessman, who still retains some liberation movement credentials, albeit somewhat tainted by concerns about his role in the Lonmin strike violence. And of course, one has to wonder, can a guy with so much money, who has been hanging out in corporate board rooms for more than a decade, still be viewed as a man of the people? Moreover, it would be quite a stretch to consider him a “self-made” tycoon, in the sense that he didn’t exactly build any businesses from the ground up. He was in the right places at the right times, and has managed to leverage opportunities afforded at transition into something of a corporate empire. Certainly, he has used power and connections to be successful, but I have yet to see any real accusations of illegal activity. He seems to be a pretty honest and hard-working guy.

As John Campbell points out, Cyril actually won more votes than Zuma at the ANC party conference. No doubt, this could feel threatening to Zuma, who, like his predecessor, could always be recalled mid-term should the party decide to remove him from office.

These caveats notwithstanding, I gently advance the notion that in this case, a billionaire in a position of power might do South Africa some good.

South Africa: race and the census

While I was in Cape Town last week, the South African statistics bureau released preliminary results from the 2011 census. Interesting stuff for someone who is particularly interested in the census and race politics.

For South Africa, the obvious and immediate questions that come up are, how are life styles evolving? And how does this compare across the races?

The various news outlets seem pretty confused about whether to report good news or bad news. For instance, the Mail and Guardian headlines that it will take, “50 Years for Blacks to Catch up,” with

an article that begins:

The first flush of data from Census 2011 released by Statistics South Africa (Stats SA) on Tuesday showed a number of differences between the races, especially white and black. But none stand so stark as the inequality in education and income.

And indeed, most of the headlines point out the obvious — that enormous income and wealth differentials remain between whites and blacks, on average.

But the more important story is the trends:

South Africa’s older white population (with a median age of 38, compared to 21 for black people) didn’t grow wealthy faster than their black counterparts over the last 10 years. In fact, quite the contrary. Black household income growth between the 2001 census and the latest version averaged 169%, compared to an increase of just 88% for white households.

And of course, averages don’t tell the whole story. Can you really compare the income of individuals with vastly different educational profiles? And alternatively, the types of data that the census captures, such as years of schooling, don’t account for the important differences in terms of quality of education, which continues to skew heavily towards whites. This is no longer the product of deliberately discriminatory policy, but a more complicated story that is tied to longstanding patterns.

So is the news bad or good? Ok, I’ll admit that I also think it’s pretty tough to boil down a very complicated picture to a single digestible message, but from what I’ve seen, I think the numbers look better than I would have thought. Service delivery appears up everywhere, and most relevant trends are positive. Over the next few weeks and months, I plan to dive more deeply into the data, and I will report back again.

Commemorating a famous South African protest with new protests

South African president Jacob Zuma spoke yesterday in Kliptown, Soweto in commemoration of the 1960 Sharpeville massacres — an infamous event, during which peaceful protests against the South African pass law turned into a police killing of 69 people. In an attempt to put an affirming spin on this horrible but political watershed event, the anniversary has been renamed, “Human Rights Day.”

According to Business Day, protests erupted in Sharpeville on Tuesday when the news circulated that the speech would take place in Kliptown and not in Sharpeville. And in turn, a series of “service delivery” protests followed in other areas — a term I put in quotes only because some analysts, such as Steven Friedman, have argued that these protests have tended to be motivated by broader political agendas rather than specific gripes about service under-provision. The modern Sharpeville protest suggests the centrality of the politics of dignity.

And with respect to the subject of human rights, various South African news outlets have been highlighting the contradiction between Zuma’s discussion of the importance of the constitution and the bill of rights on the one hand; alongside recent his administration’s recent moves to curtail free information, to review the constitution, and to question the integrity of the judiciary.

In short, the question of which services and protections ought to be aspirations, and which ought to be rights remain the subject of active political conflict in the South African polity.

And as part of that political struggle, protest remains a powerful and important citizen tool for voicing discontent, especially when the electoral system seems to offer little recourse. But I’m torn: Will today’s protests bring about stronger and more responsive democratic governance? Perhaps. But it also might backfire if such protests are organized at too low of a threshold, and if active engagement falls by the wayside as a strategy for realizing human rights and promoting better service delivery. My point is not to blame the protesters, but to wonder why the ANC continues to alienate its base, rather than drafting the citizenry as partners?

Legal Resource Centre challenges S. African Secrecy Bill

George Bizos defended Nelson Mandela and other ANC luminaries during the Rivonia trials of the early 1960s. Now, he is putting forth a challenge to the so-called “secrecy bill,” authored by the current ANC government. Bizos, who works in the constitutional litigation unit of the Legal Resources Centre (LRC), argues that the bill contradicts the constitution’s guarantee of citizens’ right to information (see M&G).

The ANC sullies its reputation by continuing to consider this piece of legislation.