South Africa

2021 LOCAL ELECTIONS OP-ED

Crisis of the democratic order: It will take time for parties to negotiate a minefield of decisions if South Africa is to be repaired

President Cyril Ramaphosa addresses the ANC’s 2021 Local Government Elections Thank You Event in Soweto on 8 November 2021. (Photos: Gallo Images / Sharon Seretlo)

The local government election results have created a crisis for the ANC as well as challenges for the DA, which also lost votes. It throws open the process of democratic contestation, with ANC dominance possibly never again being regained. This situation also throws up possibilities for rebuilding the democratic project with a more pronounced role for actors outside political parties.

I have the impression from reading the reactions to the local government election results that both the ANC and DA are in denial in interpreting their reverses. While this focus is mainly on the ANC falling below 50% of the national vote, the DA also lost ground that it will have difficulty recovering.

For the ANC, this is not a time for clichés like “put aside our differences”. The ANC needs to recognise that it has received a resounding vote of no confidence, manifested in a range of ways (active voting and passive withholding of support) through people not registering; registering but not voting, or voting for other parties and ensuring that the ANC won the lowest percentage of the poll since 1994. 

In such a situation, even if the ANC does not recognise that it may well be on the way out, the electorate has sent that message to the organisation and to others.

This may be a curtain-raiser before the ANC is no longer the largest electoral force, and it may go the way of other liberation movements that have disappeared from the scene or resorted to fraud to retain power. Given the disposition of many in leadership, fraud might well be a temptation. But it seems that institutions of state remain able to prevent that, if attempted.

It may be that ANC history will be drawn on to point to precedents where the organisation overcame deep declines in the past, for example, when the presidency of Pixley ka Isaka Seme in the 1930s saw it come close to collapse, at least at the level of national leadership. I qualify the level of decline because the ANC has never been a monolith and it has often displayed different qualities in various localities. (See Peter Limb, The ANC’s Early Years: Nation, Class and Place in South Africa before 1940. Hidden Histories Series. Unisa Press 2010). 

Nevertheless, as Limb shows, the decline at the national level was arrested in the subsequent presidencies of ZR Mahabane and AB Xuma, and through building organisation, paved the way for the ANC to become a mass organisation, leading other allied organisations in the Congress Alliance of the 1950s.

The context today is, however, different insofar as the business of the ANC has since 1994 been played out on a national terrain where the ANC as leader of government has had to win support beyond its own members. That support has depended on performance of measurable tasks, especially those stipulated in the Constitution, to meet the basic needs and thus improve the lives of the majority of the population. It is in the failure to perform these duties, partly through stealing resources meant for the poor, that the ANC has not simply lost ground, but has been rejected.

There used to be substantial literature about “dominant parties” posing a danger in the way of consolidation of democracy. (See, for example, Southall, R. “The ‘dominant party debate’ in South Africa”. Afrika Spectrum, 2005, 40(1), 61-82. and Raymond Suttner, “Party dominance ‘theory’ of what validity?” in Politikon, 2006, 33, 3, 277-297). This was in the period when several dictatorships fell in Africa and Latin America and a body of writing emerged on “transition to democracy”.

One of those identified as a “dominant party” was the ANC, which, through its dominance, was said to form a barrier against the “circulation of elites” depicted by dominant party theorists as central to democracy (See Courtney Jung and Ian Shapiro, “South Africa’s negotiated transition: democracy, opposition and the new constitutional order”, 1995, Politics and Society 23(3).

It is interesting to consider that when this literature was at its height, around 1995-2005, it was almost unthinkable that the ANC would lose its dominance, partly because the strongest alternative political organisation, the DA, was not able to garner sufficient votes to be anywhere near defeating the ANC electorally.

What makes the current crisis more serious is that while the ANC has lost its electoral dominance, possibly forever, there remains no alternative that attracts the support of anything like a majority of the population of South Africa.

One of the reasons why the ANC encountered this rebuff relates to its not appearing concerned about the fate of the majority of the population who still live under conditions akin to what was experienced under apartheid. The poor either stayed away or did not vote for the ANC. It was not a misunderstanding, and that is why hurried new messaging suggesting regret and humility convinced very few people that it was possible for the ANC to recast or renew itself along a different course, as an organisation and in government.

Most of the ANC leadership do not want to read what the electorate said in very plain words, although ANC reactions are of more than one kind. Predominantly, the ANC may be depicting itself as turning over a new leaf and setting off on a different trajectory to recover the glory that it once enjoyed as the leading force in South Africa’s democratic project.

It may be true that most of the public representatives of the ANC belong to a venal, corrupt elite. But the ANC’s support base, loyal until now, derives from the poorest section of the population, many of whom have not seen the benefits of democracy.

That is not to romanticise the poor and the marginalised and those who have been staying away out of frustration at not having water, electricity, or decent housing, healthcare and many other constitutionally required necessities. Their active rejection of ANC rule does not make this large body of people an automatic resource for rebuilding and enhancing the democratic project in South Africa.

This is because, as British Communist historian AL Morton once said, if the generalisation that “absolute power corrupts absolutely”, has a measure of validity, absolute powerlessness can also corrupt just as much. Consequently, it may be that those who are on the margins, those who are poor and suffering under the current conditions, with a denial of their basic needs, without a place to live and many other facilities, as well as constantly experiencing state violence, are also not immune to temptation. Denial of rights and impoverishment, a situation of desperation does not itself foster integrity and an active social consciousness.

The ANC Morogoro strategy and tactics document of 1969, produced at a time of crisis, recognised that the consciousness of the oppressed could be swayed in ways that did not advance liberation, referring to “the fallacious assumption that the masses are rock-like and incorruptible”.

We cannot assume that we have a section of the population who, because they have experienced great hardship, will automatically enlist in support of a democratic project, one which evokes hope for the many that suffer. The decades of suffering do not necessarily breed large groups of people who put the needs of the country and mutual solidarity first. At this point in time, the fact that many are starving, or without homes or water or electricity, may well mean that realising their personal needs will be put first.

ANC response — scapegoating and coalitions

In some ways, the ANC may have been less prepared for the type of results that emerged than many others, although the signs were there, with people being very unhappy about the way in which it had performed its duties in government.

Nevertheless, the ANC is shaken, and the results are likely to increase internal tensions. There were already signs that because of the bout of load shedding that we are currently experiencing, that Eskom and Minister of Public Enterprises Pravin Gordhan would be blamed for the ANC’s losses. This was made explicit.

As the Mail & Guardian of 5-11 November 2021 put it, “Another area that the NWC members identified as having contributed to the weakened campaign strategy was Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan. All the NEC members in the two factions that the M&G spoke to agreed that Gordhan would need to be disciplined.” 

Before the election results came out, Jessie Duarte spoke of Eskom [read Gordhan] needing to get direction:

“The ANC suspects the latest blackouts are deliberate actions by some within Eskom for political ends.

“The governing party is calling for decisive leadership at Eskom. The ANC says the disruption caused by blackouts must be condemned.

“The party’s deputy secretary-general Jessie Duarte is demanding an explanation from the power utility.

“‘We’re demanding an answer. We want to know what’s going on at Eskom.’”

Likewise, ANC National Chair and Minister of Energy Gwede Mantashe said: “The biggest opposition this election is Eskom because they do all sorts of irrational things at times and we must swim against that wave.”

All of this points to a dangerous trend that will feed into attacks that have been seen before. Gordhan is a key member of the Cabinet who has taken the fight against corruption seriously. This has often evoked EFF vituperation, and he has generally not received wide support from the ranks of his colleagues in government, including the president. It has also been manifested in anti-Indian discourse from the EFF, one of the potential coalition partners of the ANC in the period that lies ahead.

At any rate, even if the ANC does find scapegoats, it is left with very difficult choices and being able to carry out one or other choice, siding with the DA or the EFF, is mainly dependent on the decisions of the other party whose power is now much greater than it has been before. 

It depends on the consent of one or other of such partners, whether the ANC will be in opposition or able to rule through a coalition. Any choice will divide the organisation and if it becomes a relationship with the EFF, the fight against corruption and non-racialism will take a knock.

If the DA backs down from its rejection of a coalition with the ANC and they enter a coalition, it may signify cutbacks on some welfare provisions and grants and other potentially progressive programmes.

Obviously, this is an opportunity for parties like the DA and EFF to use this power to extract concessions from the ANC. The impression that one gets is that the ANC may well be prepared to pay a high price to remain at the head of government — or at least most local governments — and this is because it is not the content of governance that matters to most ANC leaders, but being in government itself. But any choice, assuming the agreement of the DA or the EFF, will increase divisions within the ANC.

What do we as citizens or inhabitants do?

One thing is clear, and that is the ANC is proving by its reaction to defeat to have not taken in the quality of and seriousness of the rebuff that it has just received. It is becoming more and more evident that the ANC will not be able to play a key role in regenerating democratic life in South Africa. 

It is true that the ANC remains the strongest electoral party, but the pattern of not voting or even registering to vote has demonstrated that electoralism cannot be seen as the only or even most significant factor in the regeneration of South Africa. That is not to dismiss the hard-won right to vote and to suggest that we should not vote in the future. But what is apparent is that the stayaway was not just an attack on or a rebuff of the ANC. It was also a rejection of the political options open to people and an emancipatory process must find ways of expanding the range of opportunities for political action.

Having delivered this sort of decision as voters, a question that must be asked is where it leaves the electorate and other inhabitants of South Africa, having created such havoc for the power of the ANC as a formerly dominant party. Are the citizens and other inhabitants of South Africa going to retreat into their homes, such as they are, or is there a possibility of them playing a further role? 

My fear is that most of those who stayed away are not necessarily in organised formations that will, in the short run, play a part in realigning South African politics. It will take time. It will have to be preceded by talks between a range of organised forces, including trade unions, business, faith-based institutions and organisations, various civic organisations, professional organisations and popular organisations directly emerging from and representing the poor.

After those talks, insofar as they find one another and work out common positions on certain issues, they can possibly grow into a united force. But more importantly, insofar as the people who voted or didn’t vote or didn’t vote for the ANC, or are simply unhappy, what organisational form it will take will depend on whether and what type of other unities may be formed with, or more likely without, the ANC.

It will take long to develop common positions and translate that into a form of political consciousness that’s part of what is needed in an emancipatory project. Anyone who has had any involvement in organisation will not find that surprising or daunting, because organising is about listening and talking to people, trying to find ways of developing a programme which they can share with others to address the problems that are confronted. 

That being the case, it means the resolution of the current situation will take time. DM

This article first appeared on Creamer Media’s website: polity.org.za

Raymond Suttner is an emeritus professor at the University of South Africa. He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities. His writings cover contemporary politics, history, and social questions, especially issues relating to identities, gender and sexualities. He is currently preparing memoirs covering his life experiences as well as analysing the political character of the periods through which he has lived.

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