South Africa

The ANC: Critical, or merely unwell?

By Stephen Grootes 17 November 2014

There is a common complaint among the middle-class grumparati that politics in South Africa never changes; that no matter what happens, there is no political cost to the actions of those who dominate our political scene. But the last six months have shown, once again, how quickly things can change in our country. The question now is whether this rate of change will speed up, or whether it will subside once again. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

Six months ago, just after the May elections, President Jacob Zuma spoke at a victory celebration outside Luthuli House. He was confident in victory, and full of praise for his party. But his true feelings for his opponents appeared to show when he said about opposition parties: “There is nothing wrong with Nkandla. There is something wrong with them.” There was more, in a similar vein. He was a man at the height of his political might, starting his second term in office, having consolidated power in his first. To make things even better, his face on election posters had not forced his party below the 60% mark, despite predictions for many people that they would be heading towards figures even as low at 55%.

In the last six months, the picture has changed dramatically.

Parliament is in chaos, with armed riot police forcibly removing a female MP, whose plaintive cries of “I don’t want to be touched” were ignored. The opposition, for perhaps the first time, is united against the ANC, across race, class and ideological lines. They are making that unity show, by bringing pressure to bear on his party. At the centre of this is, of course, Nkandla, which appears to show Zuma’s victory speech was a little off-key.

Within the alliance itself, a much bigger problem has suddenly started boiling over. Cosatu appears to finally be starting its split, after the expulsion of Numsa from its ranks, despite the pleas of people like Cyril Ramaphosa and Gwede Mantashe.

Suddenly the ANC appears to be fighting on two fronts, against a stronger, more united, and better-armed opposition (in terms of issues) on the one side, and the start of a new Leftist movement on the other.

As any tactician knows, opening a second front in a war is a risky business, and even someone who likes political contestation as much as Mr G. Mantashe from Cala is unlikely to relish fighting two completely different fights at the same time.

At this point, it may be fair to start asking what all of this means for the future. Inherent in this question is a suggestion that the decline of the ANC may be speeding up. But first it’s important to ask if the ANC is in fact declining in the first place.

That surely seems beyond debate. The party is certainly facing more threats from opponents than ever before. The number of people angry with the ANC is greater than ever before (think Nkandla, e-tolls, infrastructure failure, corruption in general, incompetence, service delivery protests, etc., etc. And etc.) The party expended a huge amount of resources during this last election campaign and got its worst-ever result (Mantashe and company looked more exhausted than ever at the end of it). The SACP has been reduced to a Stalinist cult that can’t even pay its own rent. And Cosatu is falling apart, with the result that the ANC is losing some of the organisational resources (and money) that it’s relied upon in the past. (If all of that sounds too harsh, Mr Mantashe, I look forward to your response. – SG)

One of the big questions about the ANC for several years would be what would happen if or when its grip on power was threatened, how would it react. There were dark mutterings about whether it would stop being democratic, whether it would refuse to give up power, whether it would try to become some sort of dictatorship in response. But others suggested that actually the only glue holding the entire ANC together, especially when you consider the incredible ideological breadth of its constituencies, was power itself. That if the grip on power was no longer there, then that glue would lose its grip. Perhaps, just perhaps, they were right; certainly the ANC seems to be less coherent a body than it was just a few short years ago.

So, then, is the rate of decline speeding up? It was quite interesting how all the opposition MP’s got their groove on during Thursday’s debate/circus/shouting match/police action in the National Assembly. They looked large and in charge, in every way; the people who were running the show. Baleka Mbete had no counter to it, and even many of the ANC MP’s seemed to not really show much spirit in opposing the opposition action. If the only measure of success for the opposition is that it was able to dominate the chamber for the first time, then the sound of popping corks was surely to be heard from their offices.

It is also common (and very easy) at this point to blame Zuma for all of this – many an opinion piece has been written claiming he is the one responsible for this decline in the ANC. That is not true. The problems are generally structural. Before 2007 there was corruption in the party, then ANC Secretary General Kgalema Motlanthe gave an interview in the Financial Mail (to Carol Paton, who else?!) in which he suggested that almost every municipal project was conceived with who would benefit in mind. During the Mbeki era Cosatu felt disillusioned with the ANC, but stuck by it anyway. Certainly damage was done to that relationship then, and we are seeing the effects of it now.

All that has really happened is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep the ANC together. One of the big reasons for this is that it has lost its ability to deal with those who lose elections, the system of “slates” (groups of people running together against another group, rather than people running as individuals as they used to in the past) has come to dominate, meaning that factions who win tend to take revenge on factions who lose.

There is perhaps a strong link between that lack of cohesion in the ANC, and what happened on Thursday night. The party has been simply unable to find an answer to the Nkandla issue, and thus eventually had to resort to using the police.

Having said that, it would be foolish to write off the ANC. It still has a large majority, and it seems very hard to imagine it will not win over 50% in 2019. It has resources and leaders with intelligence and experience, who may be able to broker the compromises needed to fix some of these problems, even if they don’t hold forever. But the events of the last few days have probably shown that the chances of that happening are growing weaker. And that decline could be the only option. DM

Photo: Mangaung 20 December 2012. ANC delegates sing and dance as the NEC is announced – a clear sweep for Jacob Zuma’s supporters. Photo Greg Marinovich / NewsFire



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