South African politics appears to be stepping up a notch, there seems to be more anger, more fury, more emotion than there was, say, two or three years ago. Sometimes, it feels downright frightening. What could be scarier, for example, than a President who believes his party is more important than a country? People who usually control themselves very carefully, such as Gwede Mantashe, or even President Jacob Zuma himself, have started to vent more often. As always, when people in power show anger, it can look as if the wheels are about to come off. At the same time, the oncoming drought, coupled with the un-ending power crisis, is about to test our politicians more than before. Welcome to the First Age of Accountability in South Africa. Ever. By STEPHEN GROOTES.
On Thursday something rather interesting happened. Judge Dennis Davis, who is chair of the Tax Review Commission, was speaking at a conference about the law and tax, when he suggested that a “tax revolt” could be on the cards in South Africa. His main point was that because there are such levels of corruption, he was constantly being asked by people why they should pay tax in the first place. It was, after all, going to Nkandla, corruption generally, and then the usual litany of wastage that is the SABC, SAA or whoever else. As a result, said Davis, the higher the level of corruption, the greater the chance people wouldn’t pay tax.
Quite rightly, much of the commentary afterwards focused on what has become a middle-class dinner party gripe; the fact that many people feel they give up nearly half their salaries, and get very little in return (particularly as they pay for their own private security, schools, etc). But something was missed. Davis was making a critical point about our government, and through that, the ANC. He may not have meant it as such, but he was basically saying that governance is so poor, normally law-abiding people were considering opting out of the system altogether.
And yet, there was no reaction from anyone. No anguished statement from Luthuli House, no race baiting from the ANC Youth League, no claims of counter-revolutionary intent from Cosatu. Nothing.
Contrast that with the response of the ANC after First National Bank went on an anti-crime campaign early in 2013. Then it pressured the bank so much, it had to withdraw the campaign. When then Nedbank Chair Reuel Khoza suggested that there were huge problems with our governance, he endured a similar result.
When former ANC secretary general, Kgalema Motlanthe, suggested last week that those now running the ANC did not follow the constitution of the party, the commentariat waited with baited breath for the Luthuli House reaction. How would it play, what is surely the hardest hitting criticism from a former secretary general, in the party’s post 1990 history? In the end, they rolled with the punch. The ANC’s official spokesperson, Zizi Kodwa (who, don’t forget, is also an NEC member), said they “affirmed” Motlanthe’s place a leader of wisdom, as a “critical opinion former”.
But Motlanthe’s successor as secretary general, Mantashe reacted very differently, going on the attack and making it quite personal. Even more staggering was Zuma’s response. He told the ANC’s KwaZulu-Natal conference over the weekend that Motlanthe was “politically bankrupt”, and inferred he was “sitting at home, lonely”. Both Zuma and Mantashe may well have reacted as they did because they took Motlanthe’s criticism more personally; it was, after all, about them and their own actions. (Coming from someone who played his own role in moving the 2007 tsunami forward, this is also a falling-out among former friends.) However, it also suggests that it is Kodwa who realises the danger of that approach for the ANC. He seems to have understood that for the party’s offensive against Motlanthe would have backfired, and so he just rolled with the punch.
It is here that we see the differences between different parts of the ANC in dealing with a ground that has shifting quite dramatically beneath their feet. In 2004 the ANC won its only two-thirds majority. At the time, several of the other parties in Parliament would happily vote in favour of ANC policy on the major issues of the day. The ANC may only be just short of that two-thirds majority now, but the fact that almost all the opposition parties now vehemently oppose it on almost every policy issue, is just one indication of how things have changed. We now have the sight of the Democratic Alliance going to court to make sure Member of Parliament cannot be thrown out of the National Assembly, when it was Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) members being evicted by police.
This changes the game for the ANC: it is now dealing with a group of opposition parties who are almost coordinating their efforts against it. These parties have very diverse constituencies, but the one thing those constituencies agree on, is that they do not see the ANC as the leader of the nation. It was not always thus.
We have started to see this in other ways too. With local government elections around the corner, the City of Joburg has been quick to assure residents that it does not have water restrictions in place, despite a request from Rand Water for people to cut back on the water they use. Rand Water isn’t run by a political party, the City of Joburg is. The same city has been experimenting with smart electricity meters as a way to prevent load-shedding. That kind of governance innovation was simply unthinkable ten years ago. Back then, governance innovation in the same city involved trying to get the correct electricity bill to the correct person.
It is not only the ANC that is suddenly finding itself having to be accountable. The DA’s response to the Diane Kohler-Barnard affair shows how it can have almost the same problem. It is vulnerable to a scandal, particularly around race. No matter what one thinks about Kohler-Barnard, or the DA or the ANC, just try to think of anyone else you’ve ever heard of who was fired for doing anything similar? It is almost unthinkable outside the political realm. But such is the pressure on the party, that it must take this step.
Normally, one would think that the same holds true for the EFF. It must also be accountable. However, it’s relative size, and the fact that the normal rules of life just don’t seem to apply to Julius Malema, make it hard to think that accountability is a problem for him. That’s also because his party doesn’t really have any decision-making power over actual governance.
One of the most over-looked factors in this process is that of urbanisation. People in cities are almost always more informed than people in rural areas. It’s not just about access to non-Hlaudi media, it’s also about bumping up against people with different lives and ideas, and about entering the world of work, where time spent with someone from a different place can start a conversation about politics. We are becoming more and more urban, and quickly. You don’t need to look at a map to know that of the three biggest urban centres, the ANC has lost one, and is under pressure in the other. This process is only going to continue, and make the various parties worker harder for that urban vote.
The trick now for the ANC, is to react to these changing circumstances. We have pointed out before how the Gauteng ANC seems to be going its own path. One can imagine Gauteng Premier, David Makhura, or the party’s provincial leader, Paul Mashatile, watching the recent student protests very, very closely indeed. And if it had been Makhura who was dealing with the protests, the reaction may have been quite different. One presumes that the Gauteng ANC is going to watch Zuma’s comment that the ANC is more important than the nation, or read headlines about a new R4bn jet for the President, and want to weep. As they watch that precious 53.59% they won last year slipping away.
This also makes the choice of who takes over from Zuma very, very important. Normally, ANC delegates and branches are urged to vote for leaders to take the ANC in a particular direction. Now, surely, the rational choice would be to vote simply for the person most likely to win an election.
In South Africa’s history, there has never been a truly accountable government. Of course, it must not be forgotten, that the ANC has been the most accountable. And by far. But now, finally, we appear to be entering a new phase of accountability, the pressure is truly on for the first time. Your vote has never been so important. DM
Photo: Some of the hundreds of people carry candles during a memorial for the late Nelson Mandela in Soweto, Johannesburg, South Africa, 04 December 2014. EPA/KIM LUDBROOK.