South Africa

The Aftermath: Analysis

The ANC’s fork-in-the-road moment

Photo by AV Rescue NZ via Flicker

President Cyril Ramaphosa may now finally be in a position where he can advance his own agenda. Key to this, of course, would be ensuring the rule of law, the document that he helped to negotiate in the 1990s.

As the physical dust begins to settle it is clear that the political smoke of the events of the last two weeks is likely to smoulder for quite some time. This is surely the biggest test of the ANC’s ability to both govern, and to survive while doing it. It is now likely to face questions/doubts/attacks over its legitimacy, its coherence, its ability to do anything, and the will to live and survive.

It is a historic fluke that the ruling party may be “lucky” that this great chasm has finally exploded at a time when there is no serious, and growing, opposition to it. And it may be the party’s ability to create and govern through coalitions of interests that keeps it in power, and possibly leads to some sort of positive rebirth. The political power of President Cyril Ramaphosa and the likely tightening of the ranks behind him as a variant of “wartime president” positioning may turn out to be the key to this paradox of staying in power while mismanaging South Africa into an existential crisis.

There is now no shred of a doubt that the people of our country will put the blame for the events of last week on the actions of the ANC and its leaders over the many years.

To put the argument in its strongest terms: It was the ANC’s economic policies and its incompetent/corrupt delivery of the last 25 years that created the fertile ground for looting; it was infighting between leaders, and the corresponding rank-and-file members, of the ANC and the arrest of its former leader for contempt of the Constitutional Court that started the fire, and it was the ANC’s own politicisation of the State Security Agency (SSA) and the police Crime Intelligence that meant the state could not properly respond to it.

Of course, the party has tried to rebut these points. When they were put to the ANC’s head of presidency, Sibongile Besani, on SAfm last week he conceded that the party “cannot run away from its responsibility as the governing party”. He conceded that certain failures in the past had led to this situation.

But Besani also tried to focus on what the ANC has said is its renewal, that it is trying to fix itself and govern better in the future.

While there is some evidence of this, as has been seen in the implementation of the party’s “step aside” resolution and the suspension of people such as Secretary-General Ace Magashule, there is also evidence of failure.

Police Minister Bheki Cele has asked the president to consider removing Khehla Sitole as national police commissioner, State Security Minister Ayanda Dlodlo has explained how there are concerns about the SSA, the person publicly accused of running a parallel intelligence network for Zuma, Arthur Fraser, is still the commissioner of correctional services, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula is still defence minister despite unbelievable scandal… 

The list goes on. And on. And on.

All of this suggests that the ANC might not be able to renew itself, even with a reformist president in power.

However, strangely, this may be the one moment when that reformist president gets more political power than even he could have dreamed of.

In his address to the nation on Friday night, Ramaphosa was clear that this was an “attempted insurrection”, that this was an attack on our democracy.

There is plenty of evidence that the overwhelming number of people in South Africa believe in democracy as still the best form of government (or at least, as Churchill once put it, it’s the worst form, “apart from all the others”…).

When the man who was democratically elected to be head of state tells the people who voted that their votes are under attack, he is likely to benefit from that statement. It is possible that because, as some see it, our constitutional order is under threat, he can claim to be the only person capable of defending it. (As opposed to Donald Trump’s “I alone can fix it”? – Ed.)

This is a huge shift to the dynamic in our politics.

While the violence and looting of the last week was terrible to behold, life-changing for those affected by it and perhaps too hard to recover from, it is important to remember that there were seven provinces where this did not happen.

That suggests that those who instigated this violence have limits to their organisation.

To put it another way, if Ramaphosa were to now grant former president Jacob Zuma a presidential pardon after the violence, it is possible the ANC could lose support (or lose outright) in those seven provinces, such would be the outrage.

But now that Ramaphosa is the face of the constitutional order that is under attack, he has more political room to act; it will be very difficult for any opponent in the ANC to stand up to him, not after the destruction, mayhem, and what looks suspiciously like an attempted coup by the faction aligned to Zuma and Magashule.

In some cases it may even be hard for opposition parties to oppose him, as happened in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic.

There are parallels with the presidency of George W Bush in the US nearly 20 years ago. It was the attacks of 9/11 that increased his support to the point where he and his supporters could carry out their evangelist agendas. This led to the invasion of Iraq and changes to the domestic policies of the US, both of which had long-term effects. It is not possible to know if he would have been able to do this without the attacks, but it would surely have been harder for him to accomplish as a peacetime president.

Ramaphosa may now finally be in a position where he can advance his own agenda. Key to this, of course, would be ensuring the rule of law, the document that he helped to negotiate in the 1990s.

In the shorter term, the ANC may well have immense problems among its core constituencies. People are poorer, angrier and sicker than at any other time in many years. Much of this is because of the party’s own failures (did the fact that ANC MPs voted to protect Zuma’s looting at Nkandla contribute to the looting of last week?). 

Often a failing economy and high levels of unemployment put the governing party under pressure in elections. However, there is little evidence here that opposition parties are able to benefit from this.

The DA appears to have given up on broadening its appeal to voters, while the EFF’s leaders have made completely contradictory statements about the violence, the economy and Zuma, and are likely to be boxed into a corner of their own making.

These grave political mistakes by leading opposition parties are likely to allow the ANC to stay in power regardless of its mostly shambolic performance. 

Still, it will have to show evidence of real renewal, even for keeping its internal factions at bay.

There is another historical resonance. After the violence and starvation of the Cultural Revolution, the Communist Party of China changed direction dramatically, and introduced measures that eventually led to its own version of capitalism. While China is still not a free nation in the Western sense of the word, it is certainly a much richer one where millions of people have been able to lift themselves out of poverty.

In South Africa, the ANC has a major advantage over the DA, the EFF, the IFP and even those with grand personal agendas such as Herman Mashaba’s ActionSA. The ANC (probably) still has the ability to stitch together a broad national coalition involving people from different classes, language groups, ethnic identities and interests. It has a figurehead who is the most popular politician in the country and states publicly that he believes in the rule of law and is working towards that end. It just so happens that he also now has more power than ever before.

But none of this is certain, or cast in stone. Much can still happen which could derail the party. Many, particularly in KZN, may still feel that they are on a knife’s edge, that more violence could still happen and make the situation even worse.

The performance, grit and commitment of the country’s (and the ANC’s) leadership is going to be absolutely critical to what happens next. DM


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All Comments 29

  • I agree that the violence was instigated by ANC opponents of Ramaphosa and that the momentum was provided by the greedy and the hungry but do not buy the coup or the insurrection. I think these criminals were saying “don’t mess with us, leave us at the trough”, and that their opposition to the imprisonment of Zuma was not personal loyalty but the fear that it implied things were moving against them. This is the best opportunity for Ramaphosa to move against them while they are temporarily on the back foot and the military is deployed. Clean out the cabinet for a start, drop the consensus governance and stop talking about uniting the ANC.

    • I agree. A complete replacement of the entire cabinet is needed. For starters boot out the ministers in charge of police, the defence force, education and health and invite private sector leaders with the required experience to head up these ministries.

        • Recently there has been talk of a government of national unity and it makes sense at this stage to caste the net wider than the ANC. For instance, there are many capable people in business that would willingly help but not if they’ve got to duck political spears and pander to politicians. The game of chess must stop and urgent attention paid to making this country a place where all can find a space and flourish.

  • Cyril needs a day like the Godfather I ,where in one early morning Micheal Corleone (Al Pacino) acts first to remove his enemies that will otherwise remove him. No more Mr. Nice Guy. This is a REAL gangster movie in front of our eyes.

    • But watching the movie is better than watching this rubbish go about their business. This rubbish refers to the ANC garbage that needs to be cleared out.

  • The devastation & brutality that has been inflicted on this country comes primarily from one source- the ANC.

    South Africa is being destroyed right before our eyes as their internal politics & power games play out.
    End of story.

    • Please! A few thousand looted, tens of millions did not.

      Those few thousand were not an uprising. I could as easily get them going in the name of stopping global warming – if it meant free stuff.

      The hundred or so schemers, that wanted to do much more, did the moderate ANC a favor as now they can be strung up for all to see.

          • IMHO there are many people blowing this out of all proportion.

            A few dozen people were planning chaos to apply pressure. They are now exposed, played their hand and they are shown to be bluffing. Their counter-revolution was a damp fireworks display.

            A few thousand duly did the expected when given the chance for free stuff. They would have looted in the name of anything – nothing political about it. The ones targeting infrastructure or places with spectator value rather than personal gratification were part of the politicians, not the looters.

            Tens of millions more did nothing.

            To describe this as destroying SA is just dramatisation. 99% of the country and people are unaffected.

            Never let a drama go to waste :/

          • Johan, look at the broader picture. I’m not just referring to the events of the past week.

            How would you describe what the ANC’s done to South Africa over the past 10 t0 13 years?

            “Dramatisation” or destruction?

  • The ‘reform’ tendency of the ANC will do what they can to keep the party institutionally intact until the 2024 elections. They will use the intervening period to make sure that by that time they will have privatised whatever they can of state assets (especially Eskom), and have established sufficient gated security bubbles or escape holes for themselves so that the incapacity of the state hardly effects them. This will continue the project of state capture. However, unlike the crudeness of the Gupta/Zuma activities, this will done in a ‘lawful’ and gentlemanly way, with much posturing about ‘corruption’ and genuflecting before the Consititution.

  • o, if only CR would take action in a direction.

    Any direction would do, my stomach is churning from this boat bobbing about.

    If we ended up like China – in all respects – by 2030 I’d be happy. Sure, Norway or Sweden 2.0 would be better, but I’d settle for any certainty that I can plan for. I am sure business of all size, the unions and the rest of the world agree.


  • Some governments are born corrupt, some achieve corruptness, and others have corruptness thrust upon them. All governments have to deal with corruption at some stage in their existence. However if their is no prospect of being voted out of power the corruption becomes blatant and endemic. Can you really expect to replace a cabinet when the pecking order is so intrenched.
    Our political parties like many others have a capability to destroy themselves. We need to have a real contender to win an election so that we can always vote out a government before it can do too much harm. This does not look like happening any time soon.
    What grouping of aspirant politicians will capture the imagination of our people. It’s not the DA.

    • Forgive me if I repeat a comment made elsewhere.
      If we wait for the ANC to renew itself, it will bring South Africa down with itself. The DA and EFF are too divisive to be alternatives. Covid 19, the KZN revolt and the ANC’s willingness to sacrifice South Africa on the altar of its own internal struggles all suggest an imperative for South Africa to find a new road that takes it into the 21st century.
      Now is the time for young leaders, men and women, Black, Coloured, Asian and White to say enough of current leaders destroying our and our children’s future and to form a new party; a party that unites South Africa behind a vision that addresses the tough challenges that face us as a nation: a party that is democratic and accountable, open and transparent and fully inclusive; a party that sets goals for the country to become economically, socially, environmentally and politically sustainable; a party that recognizes the existential threats facing us all as human beings of inequality (including poverty and unemployment), climate change, waste of scarce resources and environmental degradation and the threat of pandemics.
      There are many signs that South Africans yearn for unity and inclusion – all we need is a few young leaders to come together and to get it right. Support and funding will not be a problem.
      We need to get out there and find these leaders – they are there. This country has enormous talent and it does not lie in our current professional politicians.

      • Why on earth does it have to be a party? We are in a position where any number of community leaders can stand up as independents. They can organise an alliance on WhatsApp. I’m sick of parties and leaders and politicians. I want to vote for a real person, warts & all, who will answer to me in my ward, because he/she lives there.

        • Thanks for responding. Start with a movement but it will never beat the ANC with independent candidates. In my new South Africa, candidates will be nominated and elected in constituencies large enough to allow for some proportional representation – no party candidate lists -, they will be required to have two public report back meetings a year and, like the President, will only be eligible for election twice. These changes to the constitution would start to deepen democracy and accountability

  • While you mention the fact that seven provinces had no looting, you make no attempt to analyse why that happened. Your journalists should at least
    do a phone around and find out how the peace was maintained while TV ran non-stop footage that should have inspired more wide-spread looting. The ANC government and leadership in every province worked non-stop to defuse and prevent the riots from spreading. For me the unity of the majority of ANC leaders in the face of what could have been a final division, is a sign that the ANC may well get stronger from this crisis.

  • The RET faction has the next chess move unless the cabinet reshuffle is done quickly, but Cyril’s speed is not his strong point. We mustn’t count our chickens yet. Is it the Zuma 14 days threat which is the next trigger? Just as a side note the Zapiro cartoon of Mandela Day 10 years ago had Mandela asking JZ to fire Cele, Mahlangu Nkabinde and Shiceka. Comment in the book: Growing clamour for the axing of the dodgy cop and the two dodgy ministers. The cartoon could have just been updated with names above, but why do we have a twicer.

  • If he has any courage (?) Cyril Ramaphosa should seize THIS moment to dissolve his largely useless cabinet, and assemble a new one, consisting of ethical and able people, drawn not only from ANC members who are not compromised, but business as well as certain upstanding people in opposition parties

  • A well thought out article to an almost intractable problem – but unfortunately most people seem to vote with their hearts and not their heads. Our long period with the NP regime showed this. Despite what the opposition parties say I do not see the ANC being voted out in the near future, my only hope is that they change from within.
    My big question however is whether Stephen Grootes has a twin? His rational comments in this article are completely in contrast to his general remarks and demeanor in the Safm ‘Morning Alive’ broadcasts.

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