In April and in this particular year, South Africa should be celebrating 27 years of democracy; one year of democratic freedom for every year that Nelson Mandela spent in prison to achieve it.
It should have been a year in which the governing ANC would be celebrating Mandela’s legacy; all that he stood and fought for. All South Africans should have been celebrating the collective achievements of a free and prosperous ‘rainbow nation’ admired by the world. However, celebrations are few, if any.
Instead, the Mandela legacy seems forgotten, and the ANC finds itself all but in tatters, ripped apart by bitter power struggles, factional disruptions, corruption and policy disputes. Similarly, so too does the inefficient state bureaucracy that it controls.
Instead of implementing dynamic policies that would develop the country and grow its economy while significantly reducing poverty and unemployment, its policies have created or led to new small and entitled elites, policy uncertainty, mass exclusions, over-regulation, and more poverty. These policies, or their resulting impacts, have discouraged investors and driven away skilled, educated and wealthy South Africans of all races.
I mention “all races” deliberately because we are still a nation that is divisively focused on race and identity despite the immense promise of non-racialism at the centre of the Freedom Charter and our national Constitution. At the same time, we should not overlook so much good that is being done and achieved by so many South Africans who work tirelessly to that end. It’s just that the occurrence, the social drumbeat, and the perception of the negative and the bad, by far overshadow the good… on most days at least.
Grand ideals, few accomplishments and many failures
In the same vein, the ANC is both a party that initially delivered much to the people it claims to represent and still occasionally does, and a party that has since failed them miserably on numerous other scores. It’s a party of grand ideals, few accomplishments and many failures.
It opened education to every child in South Africa, yet at the same time drove much of the education system into the ground. It built millions of houses for the homeless yet at the same time allowed ruthless criminal gangs and corrupt developers to take control of much of it, while millions more still languish in gross conditions in informal settlements.
It built new infrastructure in some places while letting existing infrastructure go irretrievably to the dogs in others. It talks up the importance of food production and security alongside sustainable land redistribution, yet does little to support, develop and protect those who are actually on the land producing the food, whether in an emerging or existing capacity. It talks glibly about growing an inclusive and transformed economy, promoting development and eradicating poverty, inequality and unemployment, yet its policies and strategies do the opposite and seem to benefit only a small super elite and the middle classes employed by the state. And the problems are worsening, while the list goes on, and on.
Destructive internal politics
That’s the scorecard on governance. Politically, the ANC now faces the possible culmination of one of its biggest internal battles or power struggles yet – the showdown between President Cyril Ramaphosa and those who support him on the one hand, and Ace Magashule, Jacob Zuma, the ‘radical economic transformation’ or RET forces, and others who support them, on the other hand.
At this point the ANC looks like a party that has lost its soul, its raison d’être, and its political compass. And without the binding glue of a common purpose and strategic vision that previously held the ‘broad church’ together, the ANC has become a party off ill-disciplined factions competing to own what’s left of this once proud liberation movement. It no longer has a central, coalescing vision and lacks strategic direction:
Some in the ANC are motivated by greed and entitlement in the guise of being radical economic revolutionaries.
Some cling to utopian, impractical ideologies in a world that has moved on.
Others are fixated on the power to dictate for “the common good”, power that comes with maximum centralised command, regulation and control.
Some are looking out mostly for the interests of new elites and themselves.
Some are trying hard to find a new purpose and direction in the context of the 4th industrial revolution, a devastating pandemic, a world stirring with an emerging new social conscience, and the immense threat of climate change.
And still others are valiantly trying to hold onto or resuscitate the values and vision of the grand ANC of the past, to transform, develop, improve, grow, and share.
Sadly, it has lost that vision and today the ANC is a party that has become completely unstuck.
Decisive period ahead
Against such a background the ANC’s factional power battles may be reaching its climax with ultimatums and judicial processes in play at the time of writing. It faces an important National General Council (NGC) where policy implementation will be reviewed. At the same event the internal tensions could make themselves felt by factional moves against President Cyril Ramaphosa, unless the current battles and divisions are resolved before then. That would require unity and burying the hatchet – seemingly impossible. Alternatively, it would require driving the disruptors and the corrupt out of the party. They will probably regroup and continue their undermining and their attacks, both from outside and within the party.
And next year the ANC will once again elect its leaders at a National Conference that could turn into a bloody political battleground, again, unless the divisions and squabbles are resolved before then. There seems to be no easy solution or no quick and clean end in sight.
This year is also a year of elections at local government level, the level at which South Africans have been most let down by the ANC, resulting in more than 900 service delivery protests across the country in the 6 months between August last year and the end of January, according to the police. Can the country and the economy survive all of this and how? Can the ANC survive all of this and in what shape or form? And how will it impact our democracy?
The answer to these questions is an optimistic yes, but as they always say in the fine print, terms and conditions apply.
The road back
Firstly, the factional divisions, power struggles and attempts by those deposed who try to retake power and stay out of jail, must come to a decisive end, even if they regroup and continue their attacks from outside the ANC. For too long these people have undermined good governance, sound policies, service delivery, growth and development. For a country with such vast potential, South Africa finds itself in such a sorry state at the hands of relatively few.
President Ramaphosa must not be seen to falter now; he must move decisively, capitalising on the very significant and decisive recent power shift in his favour in the ANC, ridding the governing party of the disruptors and the country of corruption. Every National Executive Committee (NEC) meeting since August last year has strengthened his hand and drawn the noose tighter around the Zumas and Magashules. At the same time, the odds have resoundingly stacked up against the political and legal survival of the latter – from judicial defeats to the outcomes and multiple decisions of recent NEC meetings, and more.
The current tensions in the ANC cannot end without some form of expulsion or split. But the party will survive. Too many South Africans are too invested in the ANC as an institution to abandon it. To them the ANC is still a movement rather than a political party. It is the ANC of their ancestors, of their liberation, of their hopes and dreams for the future. I don’t see it losing power any time soon, even as a slimmer, purged and reformed ANC.
In fact, the latter is probably an essential precondition for its survival. At worst it may in future have to consider strategic alliances and coalitions, which, if correctly approached, could strengthen the moderate political middle ground to the benefit of the entire country, and which, after all, is what the Freedom Charter envisioned.
The party should not spend too much time worrying about the EFF. Its radical populism may appeal to restless young people and those most marginalised by the ANC’s misrule of the past decade or more; but any revitalisation and reform of a repurposed ANC could soon fix that. Unless the ANC fails to do what is required or you are living in Nazi Germany, a party like the EFF eventually will have nowhere to go.
And the DA, despite having the most racially diverse support base, is still grappling with too many demons regarding its own identity and strategic direction. It simply is not ready to govern and has not yet earned the trust of the majority. In fact, it’s very far from that. So, it’s up to the ANC to get its house in order.
By decisively ending the turbulence and divisions now, President Ramaphosa may largely preclude further attempts on his political life at the NGC and next year’s elective National Conference. That will allow him and the ANC to focus on the elections, and that will require an inspiring manifesto that will include a bold new vision and growth-focused policies. In fact, the ANC already possesses that: it’s called the National Development Plan ans sit on a shelf gathering dust.
To maximise the NDP’s vision, Ramaphosa and the ANC will also have to eradicate the populist foolishness of ‘radical economic transformation’ in favour of workable, pragmatic policies. And the ANC will have to remove the ideological shackles imposed by its alliance partners, COSATU and the SACP.
It is a tremendous test for President Ramaphosa that asks for much. Can he save his party and return it to its core vision and capability? And can he and his party again deliver South Africa to its full potential? A year from now we might have a better idea whether the South African democracy is back on course. It’s so much more than just the right to vote.
Stef Terblanche is an independent Cape Town-based political analyst/consultant and journalist. He writes in his personal capacity.