The governing African National Congress (ANC) is now firmly established as the political party in South Africa most associated with corruption. After all, its own president, Cyril Ramaphosa, recently in a letter to party members put the ANC in the dock as ‘accused number one’, much to the discomfort or chagrin of many in the party. More damning you cannot get.
At this point some clarification is called for. There are many, many decent, moral, and conscientious people in the ANC at all levels. To them it is a grave injustice to label their party as corrupt, as it unfairly tars them with the same brush. But having been the government since 1994 under whose watch corruption has escalated to unprecedented levels and with many of its members directly involved, the party is automatically associated with corruption in the public eye. The biggest fault of the good people in the ANC is that they did not act sooner or stronger against their corrupt and criminal fellow ANC members.
A history of corruption since the 90s
First, senior members of the party, or movement as it still likes to call itself, became embroiled in the R30 billion (1999 rands) arms deal scandal in the late 1990s; then many senior ANC figures became deeply embroiled in the theft of up to an estimated R1.5 trillion from taxpayers during the ‘ten wasted years’ of state capture and corruption under its previous leader, Jacob Zuma. And most recently a large number of ANC-linked people, together with businesspeople and others, were allegedly involved in the corruption and theft amounting to billions of rands involving personal protection equipment (PPE) tenders and emergency relief funds during the Covid-19 national lockdown.
The latter also occurred at a time when the cash-strapped government already in desperation had to approach the IMF and other institutions for loans. Meanwhile the effects of factional power struggles in the ANC were also taking their toll.
The accumulated effect of corruption over some 25 years, but perhaps especially in respect of the latest PPE scandal during a very emotional national experience, plus a decade or more of factional battles, has been the devastating erosion of the ANC’s credibility, and by extension that of its individual leaders and office bearers. The full extent of how this will impact the ANC as governing party in the longer term has yet to be understood. But it inevitably raises a number of questions:
Can the ANC be rehabilitated and reformed?
How is the factional contest in the party involved or affected?
Can the ANC regain its erstwhile status and respect as well as the large support it enjoyed?
Will the ANC suffer serious losses in the next elections, or possibly even lose power?
Can the ANC survive in its present form, or will it split or even eventually cease to exist?
Or will things simply continue as before?
Serious collateral damage
The answer to the first question is, not without serious collateral damage. To rehabilitate or reform itself, it has to get rid of the corrupters and thieves in its midst, by prosecution, stripping of positions, and expulsion if found guilty.
Cleansing itself in this way, relates to the second question as it will perhaps inordinately impact those who find themselves aligned to the faction generally considered to be opposed to Ramaphosa. Cleansing the party of the corrupt could well further fuel the factional battles to destructive levels. Such actions could also encourage Ramaphosa’s enemies in the party to intensify their efforts to topple him.
Public sector overhaul
Secondly, as 26 years of the ANC policy of cadre deployment throughout the public sector has been a major driver and facilitator of patronage and corruption, that policy will have to go. Obviously labour laws and opposition from unions will prevent the wholesale retrenchment of ANC cadre civil servants. But there will have to be a weeding out of the corrupt and a gradual replacement of ANC cadres with a professional, politically independent civil service.
Even some ANC veterans have increasingly been calling for the latter, among them ANC veteran Mavuso Msimang, one of the most experienced civil servants in the country. Ramaphosa too has recently made some remarks in that direction. Msimang was credited with leading the successful turnaround at the extremely corrupt and inefficient Department of Home Affairs a decade ago, but resigned as director-general of the department in 2010 after falling out with his political boss, then Home Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, about the best way forward. Ironically, Dlamini-Zuma allegedly was the driving force behind the recent lockdown ban on cigarettes and alcohol that not only cost the economy billions in lost revenue, but also provided the space for criminal networks to gain a bigger foothold in this lucrative market.
However, after 26 years of such abuse, corruption is so rife and widespread throughout the public sector that it’s open to question whether it can be completely or even just substantially rooted out.
Local government fiefdoms
Furthermore, apart from state-owned companies during the Zuma years, one of the biggest breeding grounds of corruption has been municipalities. It is here where the biggest rot and collapse have set in and where local politicians, often in collusion with local businessmen and criminals, view local governments with their assets as their personal fiefdoms.
Despite repeated damning reports, warnings and calls to action by a succession of Auditor-Generals over the years, the ANC government has failed to launch a successful clean-up. In fact, its efforts have not even made a dent in a problem that continues to worsen, as revealed by the latest audit reports.
Ending corruption and factionalism mutually exclusive
Attempts at cleaning up, rehabilitating and reforming across all of the above, may inevitably lead to serious turf wears, battles for dominance and control, and thus a worsening of the factional power struggles in the ANC.
Ironically, Ramaphosa’s promise and focus during and since his rise to power has been on ridding the ANC of factional divisions and putting an end to corruption. So far, he has succeeded in neither. And given that the two concepts seem to be mutually exclusive, it may perhaps remain a bridge too far.
In the meantime, this conundrum has also prevented consensus around a range of other issues, most pressingly how to end the country’s electricity crisis as well as the adoption of a new growth-orientated economic strategy. These various unresolved issues have further pulled the country downwards in a destructive spiral.
Other dynamics at play
There are other dynamics also at play in this very unstable, unpredictable political drama that create something of a paradox. Just as attempts at cleaning up the corruption in the ANC and the state could escalate the destructive factional battles, the very same factional power struggles have ironically perhaps presented Ramaphosa with his best opportunity so far to decisively tackle the scourge.
It has perhaps allowed him to finally unshackle himself from his hopeless quest for ending ANC factionalism, uniting the party and achieving consensus on all important matters. The turning point came when Ramaphosa wrote a public letter to ANC members condemning the latest corruption spree during the lockdown.
It almost immediately elicited an attack from his enemies in the ANC, launched by a scathing open letter written by his predecessor, Jacob Zuma. Other Ramaphosa opponents also entered the fray. Ramaphosa and his close allies later labelled it a ‘choreographed’ attempt to undermine him. That this came on the eve of an important special NEC meeting, and following what seemed like Ramaphosa’s newfound resolve to act against corruption and its perpetrators, was no mere coincidence.
Most of those accused of corruption are in the anti-Ramaphosa faction. It had been anticipated that this faction would use the ANC’s national general council (NGC) scheduled for this year to launch a process aimed at toppling Ramaphosa. But Covid-19 put paid to that. Now the special NEC meeting seemed to present them their chance.
Ever since the 2017 national conference, power on the NEC – the ANC’s highest decision-making body between conferences – was more or less equally balanced between the pro- and anti-Ramaphosa factions. The hype in the week preceding the special NEC meeting suggested a shift in favour of the anti-Ramaphosa faction. It painted Ramaphosa as weak and vulnerable to being removed. This was a serious miscalculation by his opponents.
Power shift on the NEC
What exactly went down in that NEC meeting, we don’t know – you’ll get different accounts from different people. But one thing is certain, there was a significant power shift in Ramaphosa’s favour at that meeting, and not the other way around. If he went into the meeting seemingly weak and vulnerable, he came out of it stronger and revitalised.
That much was very clear from the way in which Ramaphosa and his allies among the other top ANC office bearers took control of the customary media briefing after the NEC meeting, to the exclusion and detriment of ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule and other opponents. Magashule normally conducts the media briefings, but now stood significantly quiet and on the side. For the first time in a long time – perhaps ever – Ramaphosa seemed like an ANC president fully in charge of his party and the government.
So, if one accepts that unifying the factions of the ANC and ridding it of corruption are two mutually exclusive concepts, it appears ridding the ANC of corruption now became the dominant focus. At the same time the factional power struggles continue or may even worsen, perhaps to the point where the ANC can no longer sustain them. In an ironic way it was the very factional divisions that finally brought Ramaphosa to a point where he could start acting more decisively against corruption. Whether it will last or succeed, or whether the balance of power will at some point again favour his opponents, remains to be seen. But for now, he has the upper hand.
Will ANC split, lose power or continue as is?
Of the questions raised above, this is the final one. The ANC is no stranger to ‘splits’ and defections, the biggest previous ones having been those that led to Robert Sobukwe forming the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) in the 1950s and the one that led to the formation of the Congress of the People (COPE) after Thabo Mbeki’s ousting. But these have been more like smaller factional breakaways than actual major splits in the movement/party.
Another such a breakaway is quite possible, especially if Ramaphosa perseveres with his anti-corruption drive without fear or favour, and providing he accepts that the factional divisions in the ANC cannot be healed. It seems both are currently being upheld by him.
Given that the ANC positioned itself as broad-church movement representing multiple interest groups during the liberation struggle, minor splits and breakaways were inevitable. That weakness continues as the ANC has never successfully transformed itself from a liberation movement to a political party. And the factions that arose out of the state capture period, worsened that weakness.
It seems while another major breakaway could occur – perhaps the biggest to date – a split down the middle is unlikely.
I have long contended that for the ANC to make a complete break with corruption and all its factional troubles, a total realignment of the political landscape is needed. There are forces in the ANC that are much closer to far-left formations like the EFF, and there are others that belong more in the moderate centre alongside parties like COPE, the DA, the IFP and others. Encouraging a breakaway to the left and a realignment of the remainder in the moderate centre, would inevitably lead to a weaker ANC, but nonetheless one with the best chance of a clean revival and ultimate survival.
It is unlikely that the ANC is about to lose power, but it could well be weakened to the point where it is forced to govern in a coalition with others in the not so distant future. But how this all ends, depends on how Ramaphosa’s fight against corruption and the factional power struggles play out from here onward. One thing is sure, the ANC cannot emerge from the corruption and factional power struggles unscathed or unchanged. And neither will the overall political landscape.
Stef Terblanche is a Cape Town-based political analyst/consultant and journalist. He provides political risk analyses to corporate, research, diplomatic and other clients for over three decades. He writes for DDP in his personal capacity and his views do not represent those of the organization.