As we coast uncomfortably towards the May 8 election, accompanied by rolling blackouts and with commissions delving ever deeper into sewers of corruption, it is time to take stock of where we are and where we may be going. This should apply in particular to trade unions that have, in recent years, touted models of “socialist alternatives”, in Brazil and Venezuela.
In the first place, however, we should acknowledge that South Africa still retains freedom of expression, with strong elements within the media prepared to probe and to publish without fear or favour. The judiciary too, remains untainted by graft or political manipulation. But, as our sixth non-racial national poll looms, there seems little on offer but more of the same.
And this in a world where super rich individuals and corporations are estimated to annually steal R45trn through tax evasion as the gulf between rich and poor grows ever wider. Not that we should be surprised since even that father of the free market, Adam Smith, regarded the corporate structure as inherently corrupt.
But along with growing wealth, there are also growing demands for free education, health care, for jobs and an end to poverty. These tend to be met, especially at election times, with a cacophony of vague promises and no hint of any change to the neo-liberal economic policies that lie at the root of the problem. In South Africa, the effects of this crisis, coupled with the ravages of corruption, nepotism and sometimes gross mismanagement, mean that any government will inherit a fractious citizenry and a situation of virtual insolvency.
So we should not ignore what happened - and is happening - in the once proclaimed "socialist models". There are certainly lessons to be learned from the two Latin American states hailed as such by much of the trade union movement. A number of parallels exist and, perhaps more importantly, differences and threats that should be heeded.
Missing the boat
South Africa missed the boat of the commodity price boom that enabled Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to deliver on promises of social upliftment in Brazil. But what is not generally recognised is that neither he nor his Workers' Party (PT) had a majority in parliament within the Byzantine and very corrupt political system that exists across the Atlantic.
But with his trade union background, Lula proved a master at negotiation, and he struck up an initial alliance with smaller parties of no particular ideological orientation. Like many of the political elite, they were in politics for the money.
Coalitions have also been a pattern in Brazilian politics since the end of brutal military rule in 1985. But whereas, in the past, the smaller coalition partners were paid off by being given ministerial posts, the PT assured their support by under-the-counter payments known as mensalão.
In power in 2003 and backed by a booming economy, Lula gained massive support, pouring money into higher minimum wages and cheaper credit, largely ignoring the creaking public services. And when the commodity boom ended and austerity beckoned, it was an increase in bus fares that triggered the first major protests.
Like Hugo Chavez who rode to power in Venezuela on a tide of popular support and petrodollars, Lula became the personification of government, a case of personality cult writ large. The redistributive policies of these presidents were rightly hailed. But while they could be regarded as socialist in form, they were not in substance. Chavisma, in particular, was a case of benevolent autocracy.
It is what I call the Father Christmas distortion of socialism: benevolent men in red garb and with deep pockets, delivering largesse to the masses. But when the money runs out and the gifts stop coming, resentment sets in among a majority who were never empowered.
In the turmoil that often follows, populism in the form of apparent outsiders who condemn the entire political establishment gains traction. In Brazil, this saw Jair Bolsonaro, a homophobic former army captain become president, declaring that the previous military dictatorship should have shot 30 000 of its opponents.
Across the border in oil rich Venezuela, chaos reigns and is widely reported on, generally without any analysis of the facts. As in Brazil, the executive president, in this case Nicolas Maduro, who succeeded Chavez, found himself at odds with a parliament dominated by opposition parties and coalitions.
Slump in oil prices
The slump in oil prices, disastrous policies and grandiose schemes coupled with sanctions applied by US president Barrack Obama and strengthened by Donald Trump, caused a steady economic meltdown. This in a country where the elected executive president and the cabinet he appoints serve for six years while the deputies in the national assembly serve for five.
It meant that Maduro and his cabinet were still in charge in 2015 when, for the first time, opposition parties and coalitions made up the parliamentary majority. In order to stop infighting among the different parties, the presidency of parliament rotates among them.
And when the presidential election was held in May last year, most of the opposition boycotted. However, Maduro won with 68% of the vote against two opposition candidates and with a voter turnout of 46%.
The assembly cried foul and in January when Juan Guaidó, representing one of the smaller parties, headed the assembly, US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo and vice-president Mike Pence assured him of US backing if he declared himself president. He promptly did so, the US and its allies recognised his effective parliamentary coup, and the crisis escalated.
Democracy, the idea of extending real power as far as possible to the people, is the main casualty. It is the prime lesson we should acknowledge.