Picture: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters – Jacob Zuma and President Cyril Ramaphosa chat at an ANC event. While the ANC might be tearing itself apart, the biggest casualty of this internecine fiasco is ordinary, mostly poor, South Africans whose lives depend on an effective government, says the writer.
By David Monyae
South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC) is Africa’s oldest liberation movement and boasts a host of African luminaries such as Albert Luthuli (the first African Nobel Peace Prize laureate), Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu.
When the ANC came to power in 1994, with Mandela as party and national president, South Africa emerged from being a global pariah to an admired nation, with Mandela’s magnanimity towards his erstwhile tormentors playing a seminal part in those heady days.
Twenty-eight years after coming to power, the hopes of many South Africans have been dashed, giving way to despair and frustration, as the ANC has forfeited a chunk of the moral authority that it enjoyed under Mandela’s stewardship.
Dwindling electoral fortunes seem to portend a terminal decline, with some predicting that come the 2024 elections, the ANC might not muster up to 50% of the national vote (for the first time since 1994, the ANC’s share of votes dropped below 60 per cent in 2019).
As the principal driver of South Africa for almost three decades, the ANC’s diminishing returns are largely its responsibility, and a reflection of how it has struggled – and largely failed – to reverse the socio-economic mire in which the majority of South Africans have been wallowing for centuries of colonialism and apartheid.
Some political Cassandras have already started writing the ANC’s obituary. The support that the ANC has enjoyed since 1994 testifies to how many South Africans still value the pivotal role that it played in bringing apartheid to an end.
The hope of ANC-inclined voters is that the party is the only party through which South Africa could surmount its three main challenges of inequality, poverty and unemployment. In addition, lurking in the background is also the crucial question of land.
However, in contrast to the party’s continued stay in power, dwindling electoral returns mean that the ANC can no longer take its stay in power for granted. The rest of the African continent bears a salutary lesson to how liberation movements buckle under the pressure of governance once in power and usually morph into corrupt, undemocratic and violent regimes.
The ANC, and South Africa in general, was tempted to adopt a false sense of exceptionalism, as though the woes that beset the rest of Africa can never come to South Africa’s shores. Indeed, former president Jacob Zuma famously declared that the ANC would rule until the second coming of Jesus. This hubris has of course been tested, and it seems almost inevitable that, unless something drastic is done, the ANC is going to lose power.
Several factors could be adduced to explain the party’s declining popularity. Some factors are internal to the ANC, some are domestic factors in South Africa, and some are global factors the latter for which the ANC cannot be held solely responsible. There are certain things, however, for which the ANC has control.
One of these factors is the appointment of leaders of all manner based on merit. Well-intentioned policies such as affirmative action have become discredited because of cadre deployment – the appointment of ANC-aligned individuals to key responsibilities, with scanty regard for their competency.
One of the surefire ways of dealing with this is to subject leaders to extensive scrutiny. One’s role in fighting against apartheid or one’s affiliation to the powers that be should not automatically entitle them to crucial positions.
Incompetent and unethical appointments have not only proved futile, but they have ushered into government thoroughly corrupt individuals. The ANC has not been sufficiently hard on punishing corruption.
Many who have been brazenly corrupt have either been left scot-free, redeployed to other roles or imprisoned for disproportionately short sentences. If during the tenures of Mandela and Thabo Mbeki the ANC still kept some semblance of moral authority, and the levels of corruption within understandable proportions, the tenures of Jacob Zuma and Cyril Ramaphosa seem to have upended this status quo. South Africa depends on both the private sector and the public sector.
While it has limited control over the activities of the private sector, it has a total cart blanche on the public sector, and the main drivers of economic progress within this sphere are state-owned enterprises (SOEs).
Findings from the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into State Capture have revealed chilling details of how, under Zuma, special interest forces influenced the appointment of people into crucial SOEs such as electricity provider, Eskom, state broadcaster, SABC and national air carrier, South African Airways. Rectifying this brings us back to what has already been mentioned about changing the appointment modalities for SOEs.
Zuma’s departure from office was hailed as South Africa’s opportunity to reset the country and reintroduce decency in public service. Alas, it was under the leadership of his successor, Ramaphosa, that the ANC got its hitherto lowest vote percentage, albeit with overall low numbers of voter turnout.
Unemployment has been increasing, and South Africa remains one of the most unequal economies in the world. The devastation wrought by the coronavirus pandemic has made a bad situation desperate.
To compound this, the ANC is a movement at war with itself; fanatics of Zuma, still reeling from his departure from the presidency, and his brief imprisonment in 2021, are busily trying to sabotage Ramaphosa and end his presidency prematurely. The party now stand riven by division; the party’s secretary-general is under suspension and his deputy just died.
The president is also under siege for having not reported a break-in at his farm during which cash, in foreign currency, was stolen. All this is happening in a year when the party will be holding its electoral conference.
While the ANC might be tearing itself apart, the biggest casualty of this internecine fiasco is ordinary, mostly poor, South Africans whose lives depend on an effective government.
If what obtains at the moment will remain intact, disillusioned South Africans will look elsewhere for relief, and this circumstance is usually fecund for the rise of populist and fascist organisations and individuals who skilfully exploit popular discontent for their own ends.
In this particular scenario, the ANC might only lose power but implode, thereby surrendering South Africa to an uncertain, and possibly more catastrophic future.
David Monyae is an Associate Professor of International Relations and Political Science and Director for the Centre for Africa – China Studies at the University of Johannesburg.