It came as no surprise, since we are in a pandemic, that the government introduced relaxed emergency public procurement measures for personal protective equipment (PPE). But as a result of overwhelming corruption, President Cyril Ramaphosa appointed a Committee of Ministers to deal with allegations of corruption associated with the country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
And finance minister Tito Mboweni quickly cancelled the emergency procurement measures and reintroduced the usual levels of transparency as a result of the corruption.
Ramaphosa showed exceptional leadership at the start of the pandemic – with an early lockdown and drawing in our best medical minds to help government, we were seen as leaders in handling the pandemic. It was a moment of pride that fostered social cohesion and solidarity among South Africans. So, with all the reports of corruption despite president Ramaphosa’s “harsh warnings” a few months ago, he felt let down.
Chief whip Majodina said “Impunity seems to be [the] order [of the] day when the rate of infections is rising and essential workers continue to experience shortages within hospitals regarding availability of personal protection gear.”
She went on to say “This impunity must stop. The brazen nature that has been characterised by massive irregularities and acts of misconduct continues to dent the name of the organisation and makes [a] mockery of all our commitments to fight corruption.
It is clear that the reputation of the ANC has plummeted in recent weeks as the scale of the looting of emergency funds allocated to the Covid-19 crisis has become clear. In a time of a massive health and economic crisis in which people are dying, and others are losing their jobs or having to take pay cuts, it is simply nauseating to read that Ace Magashule’s son bought a R2 million BMW days after winning a huge tender to provide masks and soap to the Free State provincial government. Popular anger against the ANC has never run this hot.
We know from the past, when Jacob Zuma led an orgy of looting, the ANC can be punished by voters at the polls. In the 2016 local government elections many ANC voters stayed home in disgust and the party lost the Johannesburg, Pretoria and Port Elizabeth metros. During the contestation between Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and Cyril Rampahosa for the presidency of the ANC, and therefore the country, it was possible to believe that there was an anti-corruption faction in the ANC, and that support for Ramaphosa could translate into real moves against entrenched corruption.
Now that Ramaphosa has been in office for more than two years, it is clear that he is not going to slay the corruption dragon. Now that he has lost the support of Cosatu many commentators see him as lame duck president who may not see out his terms.
Scholar and former ANC leader Suttner reminded us recently that we need to revisit popular power “as – at least – an element of democracy distinguishing what results from state power and what is self-empowering or democratic self-emancipation or entails popular agency.” He went on to say that we need to move beyond focusing on “delivery” by the state, but focus on holding the state accountable for what it does and does not do.
The question now is where we go from here. We know from history that liberation movements tend to stay in power for three to five decades, and then get pushed to the periphery. We saw this in the early decades of liberation in countries like Ghana and Kenya, and much later we saw this phenomenon in Zambia where the United National Independence Party (UNIP) was displaced by the Movement for Multi-Party Democracy (MMD) in 1991. Very often the reason that former liberation movements get pushed to the periphery is as a result of widespread corruption when they are the governing party.
In SA, less than three decades into freedom, a few options are appearing.
One option, an option that would push the country into a Zimbabwe style death spiral, is that the openly corrupt faction of the ANC, led by Magashule, makes common cause with the EFF and South Africa, like Zimbabwe, is ruined by a corrupt and authoritarian elite.
Another possibility is that, as we have recently seen in Lebanon, and previously saw during the Arab Spring, the vast army of unemployed youth take to the streets and demand the removal of the ANC from power. If this happens the ANC is likely to respond with lethal force, as it did in Marikana in 2012, and with the army already on the streets we could see a bloodbath.
But if Ramaphosa can cling to power, and there is no mass uprising, then the future of the ANC will be settled at the next election. There are a number of possible scenarios.
It does not seem likely that the DA or the EFF will be able to effectively capitalise on the collapse of the ANC’s credibility. Helen Zille’s dramatic turn to the right has changed the DA into a small ethnic party with no prospects of winning widespread support. The EFF is deeply corrupt and is not positioned to win over voters revolted by the corruption in the ANC. Of course, though, if ANC voters stay at home in disgust that could boost other parties, as happened in 2016.
New entrants to the political space in South Africa have generally not found much success. Makhosi Khoza and Mamphele Ramphele both found that a high profile in the media does not automatically translate into political support. Patricia De Lille’s Good party has also failed to attract significant support.
The Socialist Revolutionary Workers’ Party, founded by Numsa, the largest trade union in the country, crashed and burned in the last election. In this case it may have been the fact that the party was launched so close to the election and that sealed its fate. But the problem here could also be that the party gave the electorate chunks of socialist dogma rather than speaking more directly to people’s lived experience.
There are two exceptions to the struggle that new entrants to electoral politics have faced in South Africa. One is the EFF, and the other is Cope, which before it was torn apart by infighting, did very well at its first outing at the polls. Both of these parties, of course, were breakaway formations from the ANC, and could make a claim on the ANC’s historical legitimacy. But, as noted above, the EFF is too compromised by its own corruption scandals to mount any credible opposition to the looters in the ANC.
But in politics the future does not always resemble the past. In recent years, in countries around the world, new entrants have shocked the establishment by storming in from nowhere to take power. Donald Trump is the most globally prominent example of this phenomenon. There is no reason to assume that South Africa should be immune from this phenomenon.
If the collapse in the ANC’S credibility leads to an outsider sweeping in from the margins, and, like Trump, promising to drain the swamp, the most likely candidate is Herman Mashaba. Mashaba is a free market fundamentalist, a xenophobe and a man who was extremely hostile to the urban poor during his brief period as mayor of Johannesburg. If he rises to influence on the back of the collapse in the ANC’s reputation it will push politics to the right.
This is a perilous moment for our country, in which none of the likely outcomes offer any real optimism. In this moment of growing crisis; two things are clear. One is that we need to build maximum unity against the looters in the ANC and the EFF. The other is that we need to find a way to develop a credible electoral alterative for those who are revolted by both the racism of the DA following Zille’s right-wing turn and the looters in the ANC and the EFF.
The problem with the previous attempt to build a coalition against looters during the Zuma period was that it was dominated by business and NGOs. It was an elite project and, therefore, always vulnerable to claims that it represented elite interested against ‘radical economic transformation’. Of course, ‘radical economic transformation’ is just a cover for wholesale looting. However, when the opposition to looting is rooted in elites it will never have widespread credibility.
This time around that mistake must not be repeated. An effective coalition against corruption should be a cross class project, but it must include trade unions, in both Cosatu and Saftu, and the organised formations of the poor such as the Social Justice Coalition in Cape Town and Abahlali baseMjondolo in Durban. This is the only way that we will have a fighting chance to defeat the looters. Without a credible party in parliament the opposition to the looters simply has to come from society.
Dr Imraan Buccus is research fellow in the School of Social Sciences at UKZN. He writes in his personal capacity.