Sunday 6 November 2016

The Italian Season in South African Politics

Michael Schmidt

With the new pattern of coalition rule now established in several of its municipalities including the metros of Tshwane, Joburg and Nelson Mandela, South Africa has now fully entered its “Italian Season,” a period of dramatic realignment in the face of state inertia, ruling party atrophy, and social unrest.
The season in Italy that I am speaking of occurred four decades ago, in a very different time and space, heavily inflected by the Cold War, but nevertheless, to compare Italy over 1962-1969 to South Africa over recent years is instructive, for the similarities are startling.
In 1962, Italy gained its first centre-left government since 1947. The Italian political spectrum had been dominated in the post-war era by the centrist DA-like Christian Democrats (DC), but possessed powerful ANC-like Socialist (PSI) and Communist (PCI) parties.
The PCI, though declined to 1,540,000 members by 1966, remained a mass party (the SACP probably peaked at only 30,000 in the 2000s). Unfettered to a nationalist movement, unlike the SACP, the PCI nevertheless held strong sway within the COSATU-like CGIL union confederation, alongside the Socialists, which, like the ANC, had also suffered two splits in the previous two decades (its United Proletarian splinter, the leftist PSIUP, can stand in here for the EFF).
Where the PCI and the SACP are similar is that, though the SACP is in power via the ANC, and the PCI remained outside of power except in the cities of the “Red Belt” of Emilia-Romagna, they were both, in their relative ages, riven by internal conflict between traditionalists and social democrats, and had become viewed by the young working class as dead letters because of their integration into the system.
The year 1962 heralded what is termed “the opening to the left,” in which a coalition of the Social Democrats and Republicans pushed DC rule to the left with several attempts at modernising structural reform, in a similar sense to the quasi-socialist RDP under Mandela. 
As with democratic South Africa’s golden age, this was a boom period for the Italian economy, but the Socialists signally failed to make hay while the sun shone, and their structural reforms were soon replaced with watered down policies over 1963-1968 by coalition governments dominated by the Socialists that dissatisfied the newly-urbanised proletariat who had stood most to gain by the “opening” (one is reminded here of GEAR, then ASGISA). 
In the 1960s, the Italian state was prey to practices that tended to curtail initiative and efficiency. Firstly, there was lottizzazione: governments ensured that key civil service posts were occupied by party members; here, we call it cadre deployment, and as in Italy, it occurs right through the ranks (it is instructive that COSATU membership has shifted significantly from private to state employees).
Then there was the sorry condition of the Italian state-owned enterprises. Inefficiency meant heavy reliance on public funds, which were all too readily obtained, yet most SOEs experienced heavy losses over the 1960s, with the marginal exception of hydrocarbon giant ENI. 
The confluence between lottizzazione and SOEs resulted in the emergence of what then Bank of Italy governor Guido Carli termed a “state bourgeoisie,” with Italy specialist Paul Ginsborg writing that “a new generation of public managers and entrepreneurs, very closely linked with the dominant political parties, not only wielded considerable power, but also diverted substantial amounts of public funds into private channels.” 
Ginsborg cites the chilling case of ENI’s Eugenio Cefis, who used ENI funds to secretly purchase for himself a controlling shareholding in electrical-chemical SOE Montedison, to which he then relocated, to preside over an empire with 15% of the European market, and which by the 1970s included “the ownership of major newspapers, … the financing of political parties, and close links with the secret service.” I hardly need to draw comparisons here, but the term state capture comes to mind.
Lastly, there was the pervasiveness of clientalism in Italy where the Mafia were particularly successful in exploiting the cities’ developmental agencies to divert funds intended to develop SMMEs into construction speculation, which eroded public space, the public interest – and public confidence. 
Over 1967-1968, Italian universities overcrowded with newly-urbanised working class and aspirant middle class students erupted with protest, as occurred here over 2015-2016. In both cases, the immediate concerns around fees, exclusion, and a lack of transformation – stemming from the antiquity of the Italian academy, and the corporatisation of the South African – were rapidly overtaken in the eras of the Cultural Revolution and the Arab Spring with broader concerns. 
In both countries, the students rejected conventional politics, including those of the ossified Communist parties, in favour of more militant and directly-democratic politics, though flawed in practice, and radical new currents arose: in Italy, the operaista of the varsities, housing projects and factories; here, the populists of the #fall campaigns, townships and platinum mines. Both countries were wracked by unprecedented strike-waves over wages and conditions and community protests over service delivery, with the socialists and communists losing control of the unions to new formations (witness the fragmentation of COSATU, and NUMSA’s new initiatives). In Italy, even the DC-linked CISL unions radicalised, and in 1972 federated with the leftist CGIL and conservative UIL (take heed of SACOTU’s aim to unite with COSATU if it sheds the ANC). Radicals repeatedly clashed with a remilitarised police force: the Carabinieri had undergone the process in 1962, and the SAPS in 2010. 
From 1969-1982, a crisis-riven Italy fell into what is called the Anni di Piombo, the “Years of Lead,” in which bullets ruled in a zero-sum “strategy of tension” between reactionaries and revolutionaries, resulting in waves of ultra-left and ultra-right terrorism and even two coup plots. The 2012 Marikana Massacre was a worrying sign that this course is already a possibility for South Africa, while this year’s integration of the EFF into municipal governance at ANC expense (as with the United Proletarians in Italy at Socialist expense) somewhat defuses the threat. So now we stand on the cusp of where we might diverge from our “Italian Season” – or continue with unforseeable results.