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South Africa has a lot to learn from the UK

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Graphic: Timothy Alexander/African News Agency (ANA) – What is evidently clear from the UK incident is that factionalism within political parties is a recipe for disaster. The reality is that currently, unity within the Conservative Party is at its lowest ebb.

By Professor Bheki Mngomezulu

The news about the sudden resignation of Liz Truss as British Prime Minister after having served her country and her party for only six weeks or forty-five days shocked the entire globe. This was unprecedented. The closest that the UK came to this situation was with George Canning who served his country for only 119 days. However, the difference is that Canning died in 1827 while in office.

The untimely and not-so-graceful exit of Truss has invoked several questions. Among them are the following: Was her decision a sign of cowardice? Was this a rational decision which was informed by the turn of events and therefore a justifiable move? Is this a sign of political maturity? Was she forced to resign by her political home – the Conservative party? Did she do this in the interest of the party and the country? Was her resignation triggered by lack of support from the Torries [the Conservative Party]? These are critical questions. Whatever the motivating factors might be, the reality is that Truss did the unthinkable and actually rewrote British history. Through this action, she has earned herself a place in the chronicles of her country and her party.

A few lessons can be learnt by South Africa from this development. I will highlight a few of these lessons that are glaring and bear relevance to South Africa’s politics today.

Firstly, what is evidently clear from the UK incident is that factionalism within political parties is a recipe for disaster. The reality is that currently, unity within the Conservative Party is at its lowest ebb. This means that any leader of this party has to fight battles on two fronts.

On the one hand, the leader has to deal with internal squabbles. On the other hand, such a leader has to wrestle with criticisms coming from the Labour Party which is ready to take over from their Conservative Party counterparts.

The resignation of ministers such as Suella Braverman who was responsible for the country’s Home Affairs exerted more pressure on Prime Minister Truss. These resignations were prompted by the change of mind by the Conservatives who had propelled Truss into the helm of both the party and the country – preferring her over contenders such as Rishi Sunak.

In South Africa, the ANC, which is the governing party, is also wrestling with factional politics within its ranks. This is not new. Following the untimely exit of Former President Thabo Mbeki, Cabinet ministers resigned in numbers. The only difference here is that the resignations came after Mbeki had been ousted whereas in the case of Truss it is the resignations that forced her to step down. However, the fact remains that factionalism does not augur well for any party’s continued stay in power.

The second lesson is that it is unwise (and actually foolhardy) to bite off more than one can chew. Setting the bar too high and making promises that are impossible to fulfil is not the best way to go. When Truss assumed office, she promised to address most of the UK’s challenges. These included the energy crisis, the country’s economic situation, arresting the shocks of Britain’s exit from the EU, people’s social challenges and many other issues which still continue to negatively affect the UK.

Once in office, Truss tried to introduce many policy changes almost instantaneously. To make things worse, she replaced Finance Minister Kwasi Kwarteng (a trusted loyalist) by Jeremy Hunt who was Rishi Sunak’s staunch supporter. By doing this, she thought that she was bringing unity within the Conservative Party. Little did she know that ministers of Finance, Defence and International Relations (Foreign Affairs) are not changed willy-nilly.

This was not a wise move. Instead of helping her achieve her set goals, the changes caused an upset in the global markets. In the process, the British Pound Sterling plummeted. This had a negative impact on the country’s economy.

In South Africa, the current administration under President Cyril Ramaphosa did something similar. On assuming office, Ramaphosa claimed that there were “nine lost years” under former president Jacob Zuma. He also promised the nation that he was bringing “a new dawn”. To this day, that dawn has not come. Instead, the country’s situation has deteriorated.

This is evidenced in the highest unemployment rate, the lowest percentage of economic growth, increased crime levels, intermittent power cuts and many other challenges which continue to haunt the country.

Thirdly, Truss decided that she was not going to ride against the wind. When it became clear that she had failed her party and her country, she did not hesitate to instantly tender her resignation. Surely, some of the challenges she faced during her short term of office cannot be solely attributed to her. The party she represented is equally to blame for this. But she admitted that as the leader of the Conservative Party, she had failed to steer the ship in the right direction. For this reason, she has to be commended.

Now, given the many challenges that South Africa is battling with, would it not be proper for Ramaphosa to take a lesson from Truss? Having been in office since 2018 when he was completing his predecessor’s (Zuma’s) term, and having been in office since 2019 when he was officially elected to lead the country, has he delivered on the mandate of the ANC?

If the answer is in the affirmative, then his continued stay in office is justifiable. However, if he has failed to deliver on his own promises and also failed to deliver on the mandate of the ANC, would it not be a wise move to emulate Truss and exit the stage? This is a question many will be asking as they dissect British politics.

There is another fourth lesson to be learnt from what has happened in the UK. Politicians should give full support to their leaders and comrades instead of capitalising on their mistakes. While Boris Johnson was the Prime Minister, Truss and other Conservatives were there. How much support did they give him? If they realised that he was derailing, what did they do to call him to order? If they allowed him to make mistakes so that they could rejoice on his downfall and replace him, then Truss has learnt about this mistake the hard way.

Similarly, in the South African case, if Ramaphosa and other Cabinet ministers realised that Zuma was making mistakes, what did they do to correct the situation? Did they watch and wait for his downfall so that they could replace him? If that was the case, would it not be possible for other ministers to do the same with Ramaphosa and pretend to be his cheerleaders as he goes down so that they could replace him? These are critical questions which have been invoked by what has happened in the UK.

The fifth and last lesson here is that the size of the country and its economic strength do not guarantee political stability. For many years, the UK has been known to be the best performing economy with its strong British Pound Sterling. However, this economic strength has failed to save the country from political embarrassment.

In the same vein, South Africa’s economy has been one of the strongest in the SADC region. But this has failed to save the country from many political humiliations. Conversely, a small country like Rwanda has done fairly well on many fronts compared to South Africa.

Flowing from the discussion above, it is evidently clear that what has happened in the UK has opened a new chapter in global politics. The decision by Truss to resign after six weeks in office has set British and global politics on a new pedestal. She has tacitly shown the world that it is not the amount of time one spends in office that is important. Instead, the assessment of one’s performance while in office is what matters the most. As soon as it becomes clear that things are not going well, it is not wrong for a leader to admit failure and step aside.

Therefore, given the many challenges that the African continent is facing, it would be advisable for the leaders of individual countries to do self-introspection and ask themselves if they are still assets or liabilities both to their political parties and their countries. The answer that they come up with should inform their next move.

Lastly, it should be noted that South Africa has very strong ties with the UK in many areas.

Therefore, with Truss having resigned when it became clear to her that she had failed to deliver on the mandate of her party, it would be wise for Ramaphosa to ask himself if he has delivered on the 2017 mandate of the ANC and then decide what the right move would be. At least he has had more time in office than Liz Truss.

Mngomezulu is Professor of Politics and Deputy Dean of Research at the University of the Western Cape

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