With the new pattern of coalition rule now established in several of its municipalities — including the Tshwane, Johannesburg and Nelson Mandela metros — SA has 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 occurred four decades ago, in a very different time and space, heavily inflected by the Cold War. But to compare Italy over 1962-1969 to SA 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 down to 1.54m members by 1966, remained a powerful 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 in the Cosatu-like CGIL union confederation, alongside the socialists, which, like the ANC, had also suffered two splits in the previous two decades.
Where the PCI and the SACP are similar is that, though the SACP is in power via the ANC, and the PCI remained outside 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.
The year 1962 heralded "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, similar to the quasi-socialist RDP under Nelson Mandela.
As with democratic SA’s golden age, this was a boom period for the Italian economy. But the socialists failed to make hay while the sun shone. Their structural reforms were, from 1963-1968, replaced with watered-down policies from coalition governments dominated bysocialists. This annoyed the newly urbanised proletariat, who had stood to gain most from the "opening".
In the 1960s, the Italian state was prey to practices that curtailed initiative and efficiency. There was lottizzazione: governments ensured that key civil service posts were occupied by party members. In SA we call it cadre deployment and, as in Italy, it occurs right through the ranks.
Then there was the sorry condition of the Italian state-owned enterprises, or SOEs. 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 Guido Carli, then-governor of the Bank of Italy, termed a "state bourgeoisie".
Italy specialist Paul Ginsborg wrote 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. By the 1970s it included "the ownership of major newspapers ... the financing of political parties, and close links with the secret service". State capture comes to mind.
Lastly, there was pervasive clientelism in Italy, where the Mafia was 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 into protest, as has happened in SA. In both cases, the immediate concerns around fees, exclusion, and a lack of transformation — stemming from the antiquity of the Italian academia, and the corporatisation of its SA counterpart — were rapidly overtaken with broader concerns.
In both countries, the students rejected conventional politics in favour of more militant and directly democratic politics. Radical new currents arose: in Italy, the operaista of the universities, housing projects and factories; in SA the populists of the #fall campaigns, townships and platinum mines.
Both countries were racked 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 SA’s 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 SA Police Service 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 SA, while this year’s integration of the EFF into municipal governance at the ANC’s 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 unforeseeable results.