South Africa


This election means nothing. The real war begins on 9 May

ANC secretary general Ace Magashule speaks to journalists outside the ANC’s national executive committee meeting in Cape Town, 23 March 2018. Photo by Leila Dougan

For those seeking the world’s saddest axiom, a gift: The more a democracy matures, the dumber its election cycles become.

Recall the United States during the 2016 presidential campaign, which was richly spiced by dick jokes, schoolyard taunts, and a fat reality TV star ripping through a field of professional (if professionally lousy) political lifers. Wherever you look these days — Canada, the United Kingdom, Kenya, Hungary, India — idea-free election campaigns have resulted in corporatist sleaze-bags running the show.

On one hand, there are the populist “men of the people”, who insist they’re destroying state institutions in order to vanquish elites, when what they’re actually doing is unfettering elite power. On the other hand, there are the moderates, who at their Davos meet-n-greets pretend to worry about “the rise of ethno-nationalism”, “the end of liberalism” and “the global inequality problem”, while further entrenching the elite establishment.

However you slice it, democratic governance now belongs to oligarchic dynasties backed by corporate might. Which would be fine, I guess, if any of them knew what they were doing.

They don’t.

South Africa, ever exceptional, performs this new world order like it’s amateur theatre in a budget rehab facility. The plot is the same: Feckless moderates battle lying populists in order to implement fake policies that would gain no purchase in the barren late capitalist soil. Except that in the local version, all of this happens within the ANC, written in coded language, performed by actors so heedless that they threaten to tear the country apart.

Before we get to the details, let’s scope the mise-en-scène. A drought-ridden, debt-soaked, electricity-and water-free land finds itself at the brink of an internal, not-so-clandestine-any-more civil war. In the wake of nine years of Zumocratic thieving, there are no state-owned or state-run institutions left to speak of.

If it wasn’t for the Moody’s rating agency — which appears committed to propping up the Ramaphosa administration in order to maintain a moderate bulkhead at the bottom of Africa — the country’s richly deserved downgrade to junk would be a fait accompli. Current growth forecasts are doubly bullshit, because the Eskom debacle shut off electricity for almost two weeks, resulting in another Kamikaze nose-dive into the abyss.

Everybody knows that the pool of available cash is shrinking — South Africans don’t need economists to inform them about recessions, technical or otherwise. Political assassinations are so widespread that they basically go unreported. On cue, dog-whistled warnings about foreign nationals have resulted in xenophobic outbursts in KZN and elsewhere.

The murmurs from Luthuli House suggest that these problems are “systemic”, a complex set of interlinking what-whats that can’t properly be jingle-jangled unless one takes a 30,000-foot view. Yes, there has been corruption — and yes, it remains a problem. Certainly, South Africans seem a bit upset by the whole poverty thing — the daily protests are duly noted, and duly denounced.

In general, however, life is sort of okay in an overall sense.


The tragedy, of course, is that South Africa was better placed than any other post-colonial society to erase the legacy of the bad old days. Since the end of apartheid, South Africa has faced no external threats. (Our migrant “problem” is laughable by comparison to almost any other middle-income nation on earth. Just ask a Turk.) But the fatal, and frankly lazy, assumption that political freedom would lead to economic freedom has resulted in the wholesale destruction of state institutions, largely because stealing was the only viable, and quick, route to upward mobility. This has in turn shut off all roads to restitutive justice — the majority of the country’s population hovers on the poverty line, receiving small payoffs from the government in order to stay alive.

At the beginning of democracy, the ANC was determined to create a party elite, while the corporate sector wanted to maintain its own hold on financial power, and those on the fringes connived to break into the economy by any means necessary. But there was only so much money to go around: These occasionally intersecting, often competing interests kicked off a spectacular arc of collusion that culminated in the mind-bending thievery of the Zuma years, where nearly everyone associated with the state and the corporate sector was on the take — including most of the so-called “reformers”.

Outside the financial sector, which is ring-fenced in order to maintain the status quo, nothing in this country works — mostly because it’s not supposed to. Take the environment, where the ANC serves as a vast whirring machine of death. Led in economic policy by Jurassic-era leaders like Gwede Mantashe, Zweli Mkhize and Enoch Godongwana, it’s impossible to imagine an organisation worse suited to environmental stewardship.

Obsessed with GDP indicators and pretend growth measures, addicted to the idea of a resource economy, the ANC is willing to exchange actual human lives for growth in the mining sector. Ignoring any innovation that didn’t emerge from Davos ’94, the party’s National Development Plan would be an environmental hit job if it was ever implemented, while the ruling party would frack the fuck out of this place if it had half the chance.

It’s dark out there, friends, and not just because the lights don’t work.

But what’s the point of retreading all of this old news as we wash down our morning anti-depressants with the first whiskey of the day? Well, at the outset of Ramaphosa’s presidency, most of the commentariat failed to grasp how difficult reform would actually be. It has come to pass that the clean-up operation has been met with an inevitable fight-back operation, one that has precipitated an all-or-nothing battle within the Congress.

* * *

On 9 May, following a useless billion-plus election-spending orgy that will secure for the ANC its sixth majority, the real war begins. It threatens to be the most dangerous this country has ever experienced.

* * *

For most of its long, busy history, the ANC has deftly managed competing ideologies and outlooks. Religious conservatives and communists occupied the same physical and political space; radicals and reactionaries broke bread without trying to break each other’s knee-caps. The Freedom Charter was an articulation of half a century of political kibitzing — regardless of one’s sensibilities, the 1955 document remains one of the finest of its kind ever crafted, even if many of its more radical propositions were muted following liberation.

About liberation… it never really works out for liberation parties. Fighting the evil Nazi apartheid fucks focused the mind. After the fall, and in the negotiated transition — which was meant to serve as the beginning of South African nationhood, not the end of it — something went haywire.

Sure, a whole bunch of apartheid hacks should have swung from trees. And yes, Whitey McWhiteface should have coughed up some of that sweet, sweet apartheid booty. But the outgoing authoritarian regime proved brilliant at securing its survival — in doing so, it tacitly backed those within the ANC committed to the terms of a Constitution that, among many other things, protected and entrenched minority rights.

There’s an entire political class in South Africa that insists the ANC “sold out”, as if uMkhonto weSizwe had a nuclear warhead aimed at the PW Botha’s favourite Tuynhuys braai grill, and failed to deploy because an Oppenheimer showered Mandela in diamonds. In fact, the settlement was negotiated in an atmosphere totally unfavourable to the incumbents. For one thing, the outgoing regime retained the monopoly of violence. For another, following the implosion of the Soviet Union, history had ended in the triumph of liberalism, and the ANC could find no international support for anything other than the creation of social democracy.

And so it was. Suddenly brandishing uncontested political power, the comity that was once a feature of the ANC became a bug — constitutionalism and rule of law stood in the way of those in the party that had no connections with the established white economic elite. As democracy wore on, that faction began suckling at the beneficent teats of national, provincial and municipal tenders, resulting in a demimonde of middle-men and fixers who hosed money back into the ANC. Like juiced-up steroid freaks in Hell’s gym, this sub-class believed that their biceps were real, which resulted in the Anyone-But-Mbeki lobby, and the inevitable ascension of Jacob Zuma and his merry band of grifters, conmen, and assassins.

In one corner, the Constitutionalists led symbolically (and now literally) by Cyril Ramaphosa and an oligarchy comprised of the ranking Sandtonteriat. In the other corner, the former Zuma faction, now led within the Congress by Secretary-General Ace Magashule, and by exiled Youth League leader, Julius Malema. Following a 25-year feeding frenzy, the state has been robbed bare, so there is no possibility of a negotiated outcome. The battle is zero-sum. And this is the simmering conflict that will break into full-blown war come 9 May, after another general election has laundered whatever the latest version of the ANC is into legitimacy.

* * *

Indeed, what to make of this latest campaign season? Even graded against the low bar set by elections elsewhere in the world, South Africa 2019 has been a horror show. Ramaphosa, proving once again that not everyone is a natural at this politics stuff, has stumbled at every turn. His team made the boneheaded mistake of holding a campaign photo-op in a train — he learned that rail travel in South Africa is, ahem, not on track, because the government has visited upon Prasa the usual combo of debt, mismanagement and pure sabotage.

His party’s electoral list is filled with Zuma-era ghouls like Nomvula Mokonyane, Malusi Gigaba and Mosebenzi Zwane. Ramaphosa’s son, Andile, recently admitted to earning R2-million in consultancy fees from the obesity-generating prison contractor, Bosasa. News recently broke regarding two ANC mayors arrested for murdering political opponents.

The president’s current Cabinet could populate three seasons of a Netflix true-crime series. Watching Ramaphosa walk into walls has become a national pastime.

Meanwhile, his apologists point to the clean-up operations that are currently underway. In nearly 18 months, he has installed a new head at the National Prosecuting Authority, and a new helmsman at SARS.

Mazel tov to them both.

The Zondo and Nugent commissions have puked up supernaturally enormous troves of corruption — corruption that was beyond the imagination of even the most jaded among us.

Mazel tov to them both.

But governments are not businesses, as Team Ramaphosa is slowly finding out: They are infinitely more complex than even the most whizzbang Silicon Valley tech monster. Eskom chief executive Jabu Mabuza, who has been running businesses since slightly before the advent of Great Zimbabwe, walked into the power utility and got his fancy hat blown off his head — insiders now admit that they had no clue how terrifyingly big the job would be.

While focusing on the double-dealing that defines the utility, the new management failed to grasp the extent of the destruction of the power plants themselves. Every aspect of the utility, down to the coffee makers, has been ruined by studied, deliberate neglect. This applies to every state-owned enterprise in the government’s mouldy portfolio.

What should be obvious is that Zuma broke South Africa almost completely. And what should be equally obvious is that, following his (alleged) purchase of the ANC leadership from Mpumalanga warlord David Mabuza during the 2018 ANC electoral conference, Ramaphosa had a short window to brutally purge the opposing faction. Instead, he vacillated, while his supporters promised that the bloodletting would come after the elections.

This was a terrible strategy. If you’re playing a long game, the one thing you need is time. But Ramaphosa doesn’t have much. After 9 May, he is completely vulnerable. DD Mabuza has entrenched himself in the deputy president position — he is biding his time, allowing the two factions to rip each other to pieces.

Despite a mudslide of bad press, Ace has learnt how to mute the noise and has a good portion of the ANC National Executive Committee behind him. He drafts the electoral lists, he kingmakes within the ANC, and he maintains an iron curtain of mulish contempt for due process. He becomes harder to dislodge by the day.

Meanwhile, Russian wet squads and other interested parties circle the dying Congress, standing by for a sign that shit is about to go pear-shaped. The battle between Ace and Ramaphosa will be an epic, era-defining clash of competing non-ideologies. And on the sidelines, Julius Malema prepares to return to the fold. Allegedly.

And so the problem really couldn’t be more serious: A vote for the ANC is not a vote for Ramaphosa, but rather the endorsement of an internecine war of which he is just one of the combatants. His faction of technocrats has no natural constituency — Pravin Gordhan may be a god where expensive lattes are served, while Ace is widely loathed, but his brown paper bags are greatly appreciated. This is the world in microcosm: Moderates versus populists in a Battle Royale to the death.

A democracy where public life is made up of strife between political parties is incapable of preventing the formation of a party whose avowed aim is the overthrow of that democracy,” wrote the philosopher and mystic Simone Weill. Ja, but imagine a democracy where that strife happens inside one party, with no viable political opposition to challenge its unbreakable grasp of political power.

Ramaphosa has proved what we already knew: The ANC is incapable of preventing the formation of a faction whose avowed aim is the destruction of the constitutionalism that cost so many lives and so much treasure. The election is a red herring. South African democracy gets its truest test on 9 May. The ballot box has never counted for much in this country. The streets await. DM


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