Covid-19 as the next foundation of South Africa’s political contest

Covid-19 as the next foundation of South Africa’s political contest
Some of the thousands of residents wait in a queue to be tested during a local government mass testing deployment in the high density Alexandra township on day 32 of the national lockdown as a result of Covid-19 Coronavirus, Johannesburg, South Africa, 27 April 2020. (Photo: EPA-EFE/KIM LUDBROOK)

There are a select few events in the history of a country that reshape the foundations of its political and societal norms. Covid-19 may be such an event, both here and worldwide. The pandemic has the ability to alter SA politics and particularly the structure of the ANC. But the full ramifications may not be visible for a while.

In several democracies there are events that occurred many years ago that provide some with a foundation for their understanding of the world.

In Russia, just three weeks ago, President Vladimir Putin posed in front of a gigantic monument to millions of Russian soldiers from that country’s Great Patriotic War (1941-1945). He used the opportunity to ask his citizens to vote in favour of a series of political “reforms”.


In the UK, that same war, there called World War Two, is often used to address political issues. For many years after the war the conduct and achievements of a person during that conflict were used to define them, hence the phrase, “He had a good war”.

US politics has this too, but in a slightly different way. There, some people will still refer to the fact that former Vice-President Joe Biden missed being called up for Vietnam because he suffered from teenage asthma, that Bill Clinton was actively looking to avoid fighting in that war and that George W Bush opted for the National Guard and then mostly didn’t bother to pitch for duty. And of course, the champion, Donald Trump, had bone spurs in one of his feet, but later forgot which one.

(Being an authentic war veteran didn’t, however, help John Kerry who was in 2004 savaged by the false testimonials from the group called “Swiftboat veterans for truth” and ultimately lost the presidential race to the war part-dodger, GW Bush – Ed.)

In South Africa, our foundational event is not so much these inter-state conflicts, but the Struggle itself, the series of events that led to South Africa emerging from apartheid and becoming a democratic state.

The evidence of this is everywhere: people will refer to “Struggle families”, the governing party, the ANC, still calls itself a “movement”, parliamentary questions lead to debates about our past.

Up until now, there has been no event that comes close to shaking the Struggle from this foundational position, one of the main reasons opposition parties have not made much progress. And it may also partially explain why all of the four biggest parties still have their roots in organisations that were formed during apartheid.

However, depending on what happens over the next few months, political questions in South Africa and other countries might well change from: “What did you do in the War?” to “What did you do during the Covid-19 pandemic?”

In the US, for example, Donald Trump’s bid for a second term might be doomed by his mishandling of the pandemic. Current Vice-President Mike Pence is likely to find his political future severely limited because of his position as chair of the White House Coronavirus Task Force. And state governors could find that they are judged on how their states fared during this time.

The same might apply in the UK. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s channelling of Churchill appears to no longer work in the face of mounting evidence that his government has badly misjudged and mishandled this virus.

Brazil, India, China, Turkey, Iran, Philippines, Venezuela – their autocratic leaders are facing the reckonings on their own. While some of them appear to be lost in chaos, like Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, others are using the destruction to move aggressively, either for short-term gain, like Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan with the reconversion of the Hagia Sophia, or a long-term strategic leap, like Chinese President Xi Jinping’s final subjugation of Hong Kong.

So, what kind of impact will Covid-19, and its handling by the political elites, have here, in South Africa? Will what is happening now, and what will happen in the future of this pandemic weaken the Struggle’s hold over the baseline of our politics?

The fact that our country is so young and so many of our leaders are over the age of 65 suggests that they are kept in place by political structure. A big part of that structure might be shattered by Covid-19.

Certainly, the opposition parties will try very hard to make this the case. If it turns out that the ANC and the national government have mishandled the situation, leading to many unnecessary deaths and a ruined economy, the opposition parties could be handed a handy advantage in future elections.

Nothing is simple in these times, though – in our divided society different people will see what happens over the next few months very differently. In a society with our racialised inequality, any political party that campaigns actively against that is likely to do well. This may mean that there will be no dramatic change, despite the Struggle losing some of the importance that it now has.

But still, incompetence and corruption are hated in normal times and loathed in the age of a pandemic. This could weaken the ANC and strengthen other parties, such as the EFF, which campaign by emphasising this poisonous cocktail.

And there could be important disruptions within the ANC itself.

Up until now, the part a current leader played during the Struggle has been important. So, for example, former president Jacob Zuma’s history on Robben Island was not easily forgotten. The sometimes-apparent factions around the “exiles” (those, such as Thabo Mbeki and Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, who spent the Struggle outside the country) and the “inziles” (those who were inside SA during the Struggle, such as President Cyril Ramaphosa) are an indication of how important and determinant the Struggle issue has always been.

Now, if all of this falls away, and pushes Covid-19 performance up front, the ANC members who have relied on their “Struggle credentials” may find them less useful in the future.

This will tie in with a much bigger dynamic in the ANC, around age. It appears that a group of younger leaders is trying to assert itself, and is vying for political power in the organisation. Older leaders, such as  Lindiwe Sisulu or Naledi Pandor or even Ramaphosa, have their “Struggle credentials” at the core of their political brand. Should Covid-19 become a foundational event the older guard might weaken, strengthening the generation of Ronald Lamola, Fikile Mbalula and Mzwandile Masina.

The fact that our country is so young and so many of our leaders are over the age of 65 suggests that they are kept in place by political structure. A big part of that structure might be shattered by Covid-19.

Were this to happen it is possible that the ANC keeps parts of its “Struggle legitimacy” but with younger leaders who have no links to the Struggle. That could just unlock the gates of open contestation in national politics. DM


"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

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