Tag Archives: democracy

Student protests and the crisis of South African democracy


#FeesMustFall protest in Pretoria, 23 October 2015. Photo: Paul Saad

Click here for our analysis in the Boston Review of the 2015 student protests  in South Africa. We describe the events as one symptom of the deep crisis of the post-apartheid order. We also consider possible future scenarios in what promises to be a hot year for South African politics.

This work is part of my ongoing research in collaboration with Ayanda Manqoyi from UCT. We are grateful to Boston Review managing editor Adam McGee for the excellent editorial work.

Here is an extract:

“The vast majority of black South Africans and other historically disadvantaged groups continue to be excluded from the centers of economic wealth and political power. Whites hold on to their privileged economic position, in alliance with a tiny black elite that controls the government, having benefited from limited ownership transfer deals in the private sector. Majority ownership in mining and other key economic sectors remains in the hands of local whites and investors from Western countries.

Most blacks are de facto segregated in areas that suffer from structural disadvantage and widespread poverty. Moreover, those black citizens living and working in privileged areas still experience the dehumanizing effects of racism. …

It is with a keen awareness of this context that the word ‘decolonization’ has been embraced by some student leaders to contextualize their activism as a facet of a broader strategy to dismantle white privilege in the country.”


Land tenure and the question of democracy in Swaziland

This piece was originally published on the Human Economy Blog.

I have recently written a commentary for Al Jazeera English on the question of democracy in Swaziland, following the parliamentary elections held in the country at the end of September this year. Taking as my starting point the unique trajectory of an absolute monarchy that still avails itself of a partially elected parliament, I tackled the question of democracy from the angle of land tenure.

The article also suggests that a look at the human economy of Swaziland, that is, at  people’s economic options in their everyday lives and their interactions with wider structures of regional capital and legal systems, provides a much more fruitful line of inquiry than an abstract focus on notions of democracy imported from the North without much attention to the local and regional context.

My main argument is that most Swazis are not actively fighting for regime change because they rely on land they can obtain in indefinite usufruct under the customary system managed by the chiefs and headed by the king. This land, obtained at a minimal price compared to equivalent land on the private market, is the real “welfare state” for Swazis. It provides the most viable option for building one’s own home and planning for retirement in a formal economy dominated by appallingly low wages and a state that has no universal welfare benefits for its citizens – except a miniscule social pension grant.

The article has stirred some debate among Swazi activists and citizens online, in particular a heated Facebook discussion on some of the implications I laid out in my article for the pro-democracy movement (unfortunately the lively discussion is not online anymore). Some activists have taken issue with some of my claims on the land question, but also acknowledged that the pro-democracy movements so far have offered little in the way of concrete plans for a transition towards a better and more equitable economic system.

A few days after, on 18 October, I discussed some of these insights on Swaziland as a guest on the Drivetime Show hosted by Shafiq Morton for Voice of the Cape Radio, a popular Muslim community radio in the Western Cape, South Africa (click here to listen to the interview). There I was also able to make some comparison with the South African situation, suggesting that the land question and issues around customary tenure and traditional leadership are central to understanding some of the contemporary struggles for economic democracy in the southern African region.

Swaziland: liberal democracy and its discontents

I have written a commentary on elections, democracy and the land question in Swaziland published by Al Jazeera. Click here to read it.

See below for a few extracts:

“September 20 marked Swaziland’s last round of parliamentary elections. For the occasion, international media have brought Swaziland’s “forgotten crisis” back into the spotlight. Locked between South Africa and Mozambique, Swaziland is a small country with a population of 1.2 million and is one of the last surviving absolute monarchies in the planet. The kingdom is at the crossroads:

  • 31 percent of Swazis are HIV-positive;
  • a sovereign debt crisis is looming due to the public budget’s excessive reliance on fluctuating revenues from customs duties in the Southern African Customs Union;
  • the formal economy is stagnating and is heavily dependent on sugar production for export;
  • rural areas, where the bulk of the population resides, suffer from overcrowding and declining subsistence production and are ever more dependent on migrant workers’ remittances.

The political system remains firmly in the hands of the king and the royal family. The royal elites enrich themselves by exploiting the vast wealth of the royal investment fund Tibiyo Taka Ngwane. Nominally a national development fund held by the king “in trust for the nation”, Tibiyo is in fact a cash cow outside parliamentary scrutiny for the benefit of a handful of individuals. It brokers partnerships with foreign capital, mostly from South Africa. Few others gain from this arrangement: the local white elites and the tiny minority of black Swazi businessmen and top managers benefit from this shady fund.

Meanwhile nearly 90 percent of the population lives with $5 a day or less. The unemployment rate is 41 percent. Workers in the formal sector receive appallingly low wages and little social protection. The rest get by with precarious informal economic activities or subsistence farming.”


“[M]ost people have serious concerns about the current situation. They  complain, for instance, about mass unemployment, low wages, the dismal state of hospitals, and the lack of services in the rural areas. They condemn government corruption and the conspicuous consumption of the royal family.

Yet, there is no sign of a mass movement calling for multi-party democracy. Not all protesters are committed to the pro-democracy slogans pushed by the organisers. Most join the protests because they are concerned about specific issues, like wage disputes and poor service delivery. Many of them openly criticise the king and his politics, but remain sceptical of multi-party democracy.

The diversity of viewpoints is seldom argued along ideological lines and there is rarely full agreement on any single point. Some are keen to stress that this is the essence of “Swazi democracy”. Others argue that multi-party democracy has not brought benefits to their neighbours. A few confidently claim that in the absence of parties conflict is low and political violence rare. They claim that the people can have a say on issues of local and national development through the Tinkhundla system – political organisations are not needed.”


“Today, every Swazi has the right to a piece of land in the customary system. They obtain it for a modest one-off payment to a local chief – but they do not hold individual title deeds. Land can be passed on to their children and relatives but cannot be sold in the private market. Swazi Nation Land occupies about 60 percent of the country and is subdivided among nearly 400 chiefdoms.

Most Swazis do not have the capital to buy a house in the private market – Swazi Nation Land is their “welfare state”. They have little access to cash and get by with land and labour mobilised through their kinship and neighbourly networks in the customary economy. People use the land to build their homes and plan for retirement. They cultivate maize and keep livestock, supplementing their meagre wages and saving small amounts towards medical expenses and children’s school fees. With all its pitfalls, the rule of the monarchy gives a prominence to customary land rights that is unique in southern Africa.”


“After all, Swazis’ pragmatic conservatism might not bring the desired effects. Despite the king’s propaganda, the monarchy has shown no interest in reforming itself.

A frontal attack against the regime is also unlikely to succeed in the short term. Trade unions and progressive parties channel the wide discontent among the workers, whose livelihoods are constantly undermined by exploitative capitalism. At the same time, workers are not fully urbanised and are not fully rural. They move back and forth between the two economies. The protective function of the customary system cannot be easily dismissed as a ‘backward’ attachment to a static and meaningless tradition.

The pro-democracy movement needs to come up with a concrete plan for transition: what would happen to customary tenure and the chiefs who oversee it? How would the challenges of the dual economy be addressed in the new dispensation? So far activists have not provided satisfactory answers to these questions.

Furthermore, proposals for a different form of democracy that does not blindly follow the Western model should be taken seriously. ‘Democracies’ in the plural exist in a variety of forms around the world; liberal democracy is not the only way forward.”


Obama, Romney and American oil

According to the International Energy Agency, US will become the world’s largest oil producer by 2020. I find it quite interesting that during the presidential campaign there was such a big distancing of Obama from Romney’s vision of “oil-driven” America, and yet it seems like it might be happening anyway. It shows how little difference voting makes on so many crucial issues.

Italy, a crisis of democracy

I strongly recommend this video interview on Al Jazeera with Emma Bonino, vice-president of the Italian senate. One of the most authoritative Italian politicians and activists, with a strong track record of radical reformist political activity in Italy and abroad, talks about Italy and the current crisis. While I don’t agree with her firm support for Monti’s technocratic government, I definitely share her views on the underlying causes of the disastrous state of affairs in Italy. She is right when she says that the Italian party system is the primary cause of the current crisis, and the main obstacle to its resolution.

Italian parties are not really accountable to their constituencies. They are let free by inadequate legal requirements to do as they wish with excessive amounts of public funds, which they use to establish political consensus through continuous financing of clienteles. They are also supported by an electoral law that gives them the power to decide through blocked lists who is elected to parliament, with no voice from citizens to choose their own candidates.

As Emma Bonino says, Italian parties have no real intention to change. This is why so-called “anti-politics” protest movements, like the 5 Star Movement led by comedian and activist Beppe Grillo, are shooting up in the polls, and the number of people who do not intend to vote at the next general elections increases by the day. The Italian crisis is first of all a crisis of democracy.

British austerity, a nation-wide restructuring exercise

The UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, finally tells us the truth (which was already evident to everybody anyway): austerity means a nation-wide restructuring exercise to go on for many years, and that is radically and irreversibly changing Britain into a much more (unequal) market-driven elitist society, where few will have lots of capital and other social and knowledge resources, and most will have to scramble at the margins to get by, both in terms of material security and spaces for psychological freedom and autonomy. More alienating work, less pay. Very few will be able to earn a living by pursuing what they really wanted and worked hard for. It still escapes me how this is supposed to remain one of the “freest” and most prosperous democracies on earth.