THE TRADITIONAL categorisation of political ideology and practice occupying a spectrum stretching from left to right is now obsolete. It was always problematic if considered at the point where far right collided with far left in their methods and attitudes. Even the space marginally to left and right of centre has become occluded, prompting a new distinction between liberal and illiberal politics and societies. There are disturbing indications that increasing numbers of the world’s population live under illiberal regimes. And, even worse, there are people using democratic processes to deliberately turn their nations in authoritarian directions. This might be regarded as treason.

Where does South Africa fit into this new spectrum? Its Constitution is correctly regarded as a classic liberal document enabling social democracy. But for that very reason it is seen as suspect by many in the ANC and in its clamorous offshoots. They see it as an obstacle to the overturning of the last vestiges of rainbow nation non-racialism by African nationalism.  The government’s external and internal policies suggest that it is increasingly attracted to the illiberal, in part to accommodate extremism and hang on to power.

Most obvious is its transparently hollow neutrality over the genocidal Russian war in Ukraine; and its enthusiastic membership of BRICS. Already dominated by two of the world’s most authoritarian states, BRICS has been augmented by a clutch of repressive countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia with abysmal human rights records. This applies to women in particular. Attachment to BRICS is not merely symbolic as earlier this year joint naval exercises with Russia and China off the KwaZulu-Natal coast coincided with the first anniversary of the invasion of Ukraine. As the old adage goes, you are known by your friends. The saving grace of BRICS+ may be that its members have little in common bar oppressive policy towards their own citizens: for instance, India and China are antagonists and South Africa and Russia have little to offer each other except vacuous nostalgia. And while BRICS+ dominates world oil and gas production, the move towards renewables in democracies diminishes the significance of this.

Last month’s Zimbabwe presidential and parliamentary elections were denounced not only by the usual international observers, but by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) monitoring group. They pointed not just to the predictable intimidation, but manipulation of the electoral roll and were clear that these elections were far from free and fair. When Emmerson Mnangagwa was reinstalled as president only three SADC presidents turned up – from the DRC, Mozambique and South Africa in the person of Cyril Ramaphosa no less. The ANC’s loud-mouth secretary-general Fikile Mbalula was there, too, having said he could see nothing amiss with conduct of the elections. In the space of a couple of weeks South Africa had firmly identified with repressive regimes, global and regional.

This might, it could be argued, be just expedient. But developments within South Africa suggest otherwise. Its big cities continue to collapse, most noticeably Johannesburg where there have recently been spectacular happenings and none more so than the fire in the building in Marshalltown in which nearly 80 people perished.  Known as Usindiso shelter it was the apartheid-era pass office, so still belongs in theory to the municipality. In reality, it had been hijacked or stolen (for a second time) by criminals who were extorting rent from desperate people. On the night of the fire, doors were locked in this decaying and dangerous building and all but a handful of the victims were burned beyond recognition. One can only hope they succumbed first to smoke inhalation.

The official reaction defied belief, made a mockery of the Constitution, and illustrated the moral vacuum at the heart of the South African state. Ramaphosa made an appearance with one of his emollient speeches surrounded by jocular-looking officials. The fire was a wake-up call, he declared. Indeed. Then Panyaza Lesufi, Gauteng premier, announced a commission of inquiry. What for? Everyone knows the nature of the problem which is that of corruption, indifference and incompetence. To cap it all, Lindiwe Zulu blamed apartheid for the tragedy; while Kenny Kunene of the Patriotic Alliance, the sushi king, called for mass deportations of foreigners. What will he use: cattle trucks? His language referring to cleansing and equating criminality with foreigners has highly disturbing connotations.

NGOs working with the homeless were blamed for the situation; yet their lawyers are simply pressing for the government to apply its own laws. Most of the victims were non-South African, but relatives were given just a month to claim the bodies and where this has happened there are reports of money being demanded. Possibly some of the foreigners were Zimbabwean, refugees from a vicious regime whose fraudulent elections South Africa had just endorsed very publicly. Abahlali baseMjondolo categorised the whole episode as one of ‘sickening xenophobia’. And, one might add, of right-wing populism.

And then there is the sinister GILAB; the General Intelligence Laws Amendment Bill being introduced to Parliament. Both Judith February and Pierre de Vos, leading civil rights lawyers, have noted that it is so appallingly badly drafted, semi-literate in parts, that some sections are unintelligible. But the basic intention is clear: to redefine national security in terms of ‘national values’ and the ‘national interest’ rather than protection of the Constitution. No one knows what these new criteria entail, but they reek of authoritarianism and we can predict only too easily how they will be framed. The ANC still regards itself as a vanguardist, Leninist movement that cannot distinguish between party and state. It appears that wide ministerial powers will be exercised to vet NGOs and here are echoes of paranoia about foreign agents. If this Bill becomes law, it heralds mass surveillance within a security state with lawful political opposition under threat; another departure from Western values.

February notes that the contents of this Bill are diametrically opposite to the findings of the high-level review panel chaired by the ANC (and South African Communist Party) veteran Sydney Mufamadi. Are there competing forces working within the government? And referring to De Vos’s description that GILAB is highly disturbing, was it cut and pasted from Beijing or Moscow? Or even perhaps Pyongyang?