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Conference for Democratic Renewal and change should be a concern for the ANC

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Anti-corruption, reflections on the role of the Zondo Commission in tackling corruption, discussions on democratic renewal and change and the call for the urgent need for political reform, as well as reflections on the July 2021 unrest and threats to our democracy high on the agenda of Defend Democracy campaign. Picture: Defend Democracy Campaign

By Bheki Mngomezulu

This past weekend (July 1 and 2, 2022), Defend Our Democracy Campaign convened a conference to discuss pertinent issues of national importance. Among the names that featured on the programme were those of people who have served in critical positions in the government.

They included advocate Mojanku Gumbi, who was the Presidential legal advisor, Rev Frank Chikane, who was the Director General serving three successive Presidents (Mandela, Mbeki and Zuma), and Mcebisi Jonas, who was Deputy Minister of Finance.

Noticeably, different structures were also represented at this conference. Among them were the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), Equal Education, the South African Council of Churches, Rivonia circle, Business Unity South Africa (BUSA) and the Helen Suzman Foundation.

Worth noting is that there were cogently thought through topics lined up. These included inter alia paying tribute to anti-corruption activists, reflections on the role played by the Zondo Commission in tackling corruption, discussions on democratic renewal and change and the call for the urgent need for political reform, as well as reflections on the July 2021 unrest and threats to our democracy.

The three questions posed for the plenary discussions were carefully worded. These were:

  • What are the main threats to our democracy?
  • What should be done in response to these threats?
  • How can civil society better respond to current and future threats?

Lastly, the seven breakaway sessions were also lucidly crafted. They included the following:

  • Making democracy work better;
  • Making the public service work for the benefit of all;
  • Political parties, public representatives and Parliament – time for a new set of norms and standards;
  • Building people’s power in a democracy;
  • Jobs! Jobs! Jobs!;
  • State capture and corruption and;
  • Local government: Preventing a complete collapse of the system.

By looking at the picture painted above, one cannot ignore five very important observations.

Firstly, there is a realisation that things are not the way they should be in the country. Secondly, this situation did not invent itself but was created by role-players who either did not act when they were supposed to, or acted improperly and thus derailed the country in its upward trajectory. Thirdly, all these loses have happened under the ANC’s watch – both individually and collectively. Fourthly, there is no indication that things will change for the better automatically. Fifth and most importantly, collective effort by civil society and all progressive structures outside of government have to take the initiative and make concerted effort to rescue the country’s nascent democracy.

While these efforts are progressive in nature, they are an indictment on the ANC, which has been the leading party in government since 1994. The implicit question is: why has the ANC allowed the hard-fought democracy to derail? The general narrative that has been made popular in the public domain recently is that former President Zuma and the Guptas are to blame for everything that has gone wrong in the country.

Such a narrative is too simplistic and myopic in two ways. Firstly, the country’s challenges did not start in 2007 when Zuma assumed the presidency of the ANC, nor did they begin in 2009 when he ascended to the presidency of the country.

Secondly, South Africa’s many challenges identified by the Defend Our Democracy Campaign did not end on February 24, 2018 when President Zuma was forced to resign thus paving the way for President Ramaphosa to become president.

The country is in a worse situation now than it was before February 2018. The unemployment rate has increased significantly. Crime statistics are shocking. For the very first time, Eskom has imposed stage 6 of load shedding. The increase in petrol prices has reached unprecedented proportions. Food prices have soared.

What is interesting is the manner in which certain individuals ventilate on this situation.

Some are quick to blame former President Zuma as an individual but do not do the same with President Ramaphosa. In fact, putting the blame squarely on either President Zuma or Ramaphosa would be unjustifiable. No president acts alone; they are part of the collective.

The best we can do as a nation is to ask the ANC as a whole to do self-introspection and ask a two-pronged question: where did things go wrong and how can the country get itself out of this quagmire? In the event that the ANC is unable to address these questions, then society has to act in the manner proposed by the Defend Our Democracy Campaign.

In a way, the conference under discussion forces us as a nation to cast our eyes and minds backwards and look at the history of the formation of the United Democratic Front (UDF) and Mass Democratic Movement (MDM). Coupled with that would be to reflect on the history of the original Congress of the People that resulted in the adoption of the Freedom Charter way back in 1955.

By reflecting on the histories of these structures, we would be in a better position to understand what the Defend Our Democracy Campaign is trying to achieve.

The ANC should be worried about this turn of events. The organisation has been losing support and people decided not to vote for the ANC in the 2021 local government election.

The circumstances that necessitated the formation of both the UDF and the broader MDM are similar to what is happening. There was a serious concern from the general South African public about the manner in which the government of the day was running the country. After failed attempts to reason with the government, the majority of progressive South Africans joined hands and mobilised against the state.

Under the current political dispensation, racial divisions are not the main cause of the call for strategies to defend democracy. Instead, the concern is that the government is gradually losing its grip on power due to political avarice and lack of ethical leadership. The fact that these events are happening while the ANC is in power places the party at the centre-stage.

What is also evident is that the majority of the people who are raising issues against government are either ANC members or have been members of the organisation for some time. The one issue that does not make deviation from the past is the fact that other role players who are not directly involved in politics have also joined the debate. These include the business sector and the religious community.

Given this broader context, the question becomes: what does all of this mean for the ANC as it prepares for the 2024 national and provincial government elections? This question could be addressed from different vantage points. However, the reality is that the current situation does not augur well for the ANC.

What compounds the ANC’s woes is that it is clearly divided to the core. This is despite the promises made by some leaders that they have embarked on the renewal agenda.

While this is a commendable and worthwhile exercise, politicians are not truthful to themselves, the ANC and the country.

As such, most (if not all) of the ANC’s challenges are not caused by opposition political parties. The ANC is wittingly and unwittingly inflicting gashing wounds on itself. This amounts to political suicide.

One reason why the ANC has survived thus far is that opposition parties have been unable to capitalise on the ANC’s mistakes. Apart from lacking numbers, they do not seem to have clearly articulated strategies on how to present themselves as the alternative.

While all these things are happening, the voters and the general South African public are the greatest losers. On the one hand, hope for a better life dwindles. On the other hand, some become apolitical as evidenced in voter apathy. This is not good for the future of this country.

If people do not vote, or vote in small numbers, the possibility of coalition governments becomes real. Experience from the recent past shows that South Africa is not ready for coalition politics.

Most of our politicians either do not understand the essence of coalition politics or simply make them unworkable deliberately for political expediency.

Whatever the reasons are, the reality is that in coalition governments parties spend time fighting amongst themselves as opposed to addressing societal needs.

If the UDF and the broader MDM was able to exert pressure on the apartheid government and eventually managed to remove it from power, the ANC has reasons to be concerned about the prospects of losing power in the modern political context. The formation of both the UDF and the MDM was not an event but a long process. Therefore, the activities of the Defend Our Democracy Campaign should be seen in that context.

To conclude, the recent conference should not be taken lightly. The ANC needs to up its game if it is serious about winning the 2024 elections.

Mngomezulu is Professor of Political Science and Deputy Dean of Research at the University of the Western Cape.

This article is original to The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.