Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Portugal’s experience again offers a warning

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29 Apr 2014 | Tony Leon | Original Publication:  BDlive

Veterans of the military coup were quoted as saying that ‘inequality was putting democracy at risk in Portugal’, writes Tony Leon

ANNIVERSARIES and commemorations were thick on the ground across the world at the weekend. The most noted of all was Sunday’s event in St Peter’s Square, Rome, which saw the two living pontiffs, Benedict and Francis, proclaim the canonisation of two of their recent predecessors, popes John Paul II and John XXIII. More than one commentator has suggested that this unprecedented and relatively speedy path to sainthood by the fairly radical current pope intends to unite a divided faith by embracing, simultaneously, the most outstanding and recent leaders of the church’s conservative and liberal wings.

Back in the secular world, also on Sunday, South Africans celebrated 20 years of apartheid’s end and the dawn of democracy. The government and the ruling party, itself the broadest and most quarrelsome of churches, brought together its various wings and factional leaders at the official celebrations at the Union Buildings.

And perhaps less noted in South Africa, last Friday in Lisbon, Portugal celebrated the 40th anniversary of its broadly peaceful overthrow of 48 years of authoritarian rule, when a military coup ousted the dictatorship and inaugurated democratic government. In many ways, and with a warning, the events in Lisbon and Pretoria are directly linked, and occurred almost 20 years apart to the day.

The obvious linkage is that the fall of the dictatorship in Lisbon led to the rapid abandonment of Portugal’s colonial empire in its far outposts in Mozambique and Angola, removing two critical buffers separating the apartheid state and its external enemies. Symbolically — and something that would be repeated in Eastern Europe even before it was witnessed in South Africa — it was a powerful signal that even seemingly unassailable empires often have clay feet.

The warning, and far more contemporary than linkages from the past, was the fact that far from being in celebratory mood, many Portuguese saw the commemoration as an occasion for antigovernment protests. As one weekend report noted: "The country, scarred by three years of a punishing international bail-out programme, is not in the mood for nostalgic celebration." Indeed, a number of its former leaders and veterans of the military coup were quoted as saying "inequality was putting democracy at risk in Portugal", one of the most unequal countries in Europe.

South Africa sits with the same paradox in even more extreme form — according to the World Bank, we are one of the most unequal countries on the planet and recently dethroned Brazil as the most unequal country in the world. The Financial Times, perhaps the only London-originating broadsheet this weekend to even note the April 27 anniversary, carried a perceptive column by South African-linked (via his grandparents) columnist Simon Kuper, titled Apartheid, Just Less Black and White. The headline referred to the shocking fact that, according to the same World Bank report, "amazingly" as Kuper notes, "South Africa is more unequal today than it was just after the end of apartheid in 1995". Or as local analyst Frans Cronje put it in an interesting new book, Our Next Ten Years: "South Africa is a very unusual society that is both very unequal and very free. Exactly how this plays itself out is one of the key issues we need to resolve."

And do not expect the remaining days of the election campaign to provide any compelling answers, or even ask any of the more significant questions. The president recites the "good story to tell" mantra, and the opposition has had nothing to say about tax policy or even very much about the racial slant that adds a further twist to the South African inequality story, except that it is in favour of job creation and opposed to black economic empowerment billionaires.

Of course, in the heat and dust of electoral combat, you can hardly be expected to conduct an academic seminar. But perhaps given my present noncombatant status, this past weekend found me participating in just such a thing amid the gleaming spires of Oxford University. St Antony’s College held a conference reviewing 20 years of democracy in South Africa. After a rather formulaic opening speech on Friday, the thoughtful representative of the exiting wing of the African National Congress (ANC) broad church, deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe, made some interesting concessions, admittedly in a crab-like and coded fashion, during a probing discussion led by local academics Anthony Butler and Xolela Mangcu. In answer to whether the ANC had the ability to "save itself", he said it had previously overcome periods of irrelevance. But, he added, this had happened with refreshed leadership. Having acknowledged what he termed "the sins of incumbency", he conceded that office bearers can be held accountable for such sins only if the ruling party embraces a critical culture, to which he added: "In a governing party, if you’re too critical that can be career limiting."

As his own career at the apex of power draws to an end, he leaves with a warning to his successors.

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