South Africa


Broken promises and a crisis of credibility: Making sense of the ANC local government defeats

Broken promises and a crisis of credibility: Making sense of the ANC local government defeats
Illustrative image/Former president Thabo Mbeki (Photo: Gallo Images/Darren Stewart). A ballot box (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed). ANC deputy secretary-general Jessie Duarte.

The outcome of the recent local government elections constitutes a severe setback for the ANC, but insofar as no other party marshalled majority support, on its own or in alliance, there may now be a period of instability in local government. This is part of a broader crisis of democratic life that is unlikely to be remedied by existing political parties.

‘The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” – Antonio Gramsci: Selections from the Prison Notebooks, 1971, p 276.

November has seen a massive defeat of the ANC in a number of metros and municipalities throughout the country. In the local government elections at the beginning of the month, for the first time the ANC received less than 50% of the national vote. This was followed by DA mayors being elected in all three Gauteng metros.

These developments constitute an unprecedented setback for the organisation following what was already a serious reverse in the previous local government elections in 2016, when the organisation lost control of two Gauteng metros and that of Nelson Mandela Bay.

All of this points to the possibility or likelihood of the ANC losing power in the national elections of 2024. Internally, as an organisation, the ANC is not united and is unlikely – and possibly it is already too late – to pursue any self-examination of the type that could lead to a remedying of the problems that the electorate has obviously found with its performance in recent years.

“Self-correction” is not a realistic option, given that the organisation now has deep-seated tendencies towards criminality and corruption (that have continued after the removal of Jacob Zuma as president) and has demonstrated complete indifference to its electoral pledges and constitutional duties to better the life of the poor.

Before the fall of apartheid the ANC was generally identified with selfless struggle for freedom. “Selfless” was an appropriate term because for many decades of illegality, hope for those who were members or associated with the ANC in other ways because the organisation was banned, was only sustained through a long-term belief that the cause of freedom would triumph.

Before realisation of democracy, cadres were arrested, tortured and murdered by the apartheid regime. (Some signs of the future abuse of power by the ANC were also seen in the same period, through the abuse of human rights of those held in Quatro and suspicious deaths of cadres like Mzwakhe Ngwenya (known by his MK name Thami Zulu), who was alleged to have been poisoned by ANC security.)

What prospect does the ANC local government defeat hold for the future of democracy?

That the overwhelming dominance of the ANC has now been seriously eroded has not led to a sustainable political result. South Africa has been left with a combination of relatively small parties securing a fragile victory for the DA in key metros.

The DA, despite securing leadership, does not have a strong hold over the electorate, nor over the parties that supported its victories. In fact, it is a minority within a minority of the voters who have combined to defeat the ANC. Legally there may be metros and other councils that have been installed according to proper procedures, but many lack not only significant legitimacy, but also the authority required to ensure that their decisions are complied with.

For those who cherish the democratic prospects that appeared to be possible at the time of the defeat of apartheid in 1990 and 1994, there is nothing in the combination of forces which defeated the ANC that can hold the imagination of people who are committed to an all-embracing, ever-unfolding and enlarging realm of freedom.

In the past, when referring to Gramsci’s famous “morbid symptoms” statement – made in a very specific context, albeit capable of wider application – it was seen as applicable to the crisis of the apartheid state and the unreadiness of liberation forces to then “seize” power.

It was beyond the imagination of many of us, then, to visualise a day when “the old” and the manifestation of various “morbid symptoms” would be applicable to the ANC itself, often once described as the “people’s movement” and still referred to by former president Thabo Mbeki as having an “historic mission” to free South Africa (see PDF of Mbeki letter below).

While it is undeniable that the ANC has traded in corruption, violence and illegality over some time, some of these traits have become evident in abundance in the EFF and appear to have also become a factor when the DA has had its hands on power.

The question of democratic regeneration has not become more promising as a result of the electoral setbacks experienced by the ANC. There is no party that has emerged in recent times – and some of these comprise a few thousand or a few hundred people – that can be said to have a substantial commitment to the wellbeing of the overwhelming majority of the people of South Africa. One result of these elections has been to reinforce the sense of cynicism about South African politics that prevails – no matter the party.

This brings us back to where we were before the local government elections, and that is a situation where it seems unlikely that the democratic question in South Africa will be adequately addressed through existing political parties within the electoral system.

Crisis of credibility of electoral democracy

Mbeki, in a letter to the deputy secretary-general of the ANC, Jessie Duarte, dated 24 November and copied to all other office bearers, apart from the suspended secretary-general, Ace Magashule, aims to engage this problem with reference to renewal of the ANC.

He refers to the results of the November local government elections as a “serious reversal for the progressive movement and a significant advance for the right-wing forces”. There is a problem with this characterisation, and it relates to an overall methodology that is employed by Mbeki throughout his letter. The letter deploys a teleological approach, by which the ANC as a movement is defined by its historic purpose, by an end result that it is seen as moving towards inevitably, and he repeatedly returns in the course of the letter to the “historic mission” of the ANC. That historic mission relates to conventional formulations of the organisation’s objectives in regard to democracy, non-racialism, national democratic revolution and the Freedom Charter.

The problem with this type of approach is that the teleology, the historic mission, remains an unchanging reality which requires realisation through a particular set of actors, in this case the ANC and its allies. The fact that the ANC and its allies have shown themselves to in fact not be acting in accordance with this “historic mission” but not even acting primarily as a political organisation focused on and striving towards particular political goals, is not factored into this type of approach.

Mbeki refers to the need to remedy certain problems and the need for regeneration and renewal, but this is based on the assumption that there is a core set of values reposing within the ANC to which there can be a return. Now, the problem with this sort of approach is that you can quote as many resolutions from as many decades back as you like, but you still have to measure that against the character of the supposed agent for renewal, the ANC and its leadership, as it is today.

Mbeki refers to the Communist Party of China, emphasising the quality of its members, the need for members to measure up to the criteria for membership. In principle, it is correct to ensure that members of an organisation do comply with the duties of membership. He refers to an offer of the ANC Veterans League to take on the task of renewal of the ANC “working under the direct supervision of the NEC” (National Executive Committee). [My italics]

The problem with this approach – and it is not the first such intervention by Mbeki – is that the problems of the ANC are seen to reside in the quality of its membership. It is true that when membership was opened to all after unbanning in 1990, that a range of people joined the organisation for motives unrelated to realising democratic goals and the wellbeing of the people of South Africa. Many understood that the ANC would become the leading force in government and their fortunes would improve through linking up with the future ruling party (as has been the case with many).

A feeding frenzy ensued, but it would be a grave error to focus primarily on the qualities of members when the prime culprits in debasing their duties were those in leadership. Many who remain leaders have been fingered for their role in the Zuma period, or at least for enabling what happened over those years and, in some cases, continuing such practices today.

Members need to be inducted into the values of the organisation they join and many ANC structures were preoccupied with this at the time of unbanning. But such induction cannot be successful where it is overseen by a leadership that embraces the very qualities that need to be eschewed.

Reference to the role of the ANC Veterans League is because that league is presumed to comprise “tried and tested” cadres. That may well be an important resource, insofar as many come from the generation of people who made great sacrifices. But induction or training of members is also subject to the conditions of the time. That is why, when the ANC was unbanned in 1990 it could not simply pick up from where it left off in 1960 and assume that new members had to learn what others had learnt in the intervening decades. It was recognised that the conditions in 1990 were fundamentally different, nationally and internationally, not only from conditions in 1960, but even from what had prevailed in the mid-1980s before the process of collapse of the former communist-led states of Eastern Europe.

This is not intended to impugn the integrity of members of the veterans league, unlike the substantially tainted NEC leadership to whom an oversight role is assigned. It is purely to suggest that renewal is complicated and cannot be seen as having an obvious and unchanging meaning. It always requires debate over what it is that membership entails at any moment in history.

ANC depoliticisation

On Mbeki’s political characterisation, the ANC was not rejected in the elections because people consciously chose to take the course of a right-wing set of forces. They did not reject an organisation which was the repository of the values that are described by Mbeki as the “historic mission” of the ANC.

What was rejected in the November elections was not the identification of the ANC with specific values, but with a series of broken promises which resulted in the living conditions of the majority of South Africans being that of indignity and continued denial of their basic needs. This is well established and was reported on before and after the elections – how water systems are polluted, streets have sewage running through them, and so on. (Astonishingly, the ANC has attacked the SABC for reporting on these conditions and consequently losing votes.)

That failure to perform constitutional duties is what was rejected. The ANC was and is no longer identified as a force for remedying these problems. The rejection of the ANC relates to it not being trusted to perform constitutional duties. It has had 27 years to do so, and instead of living conditions getting progressively better, the ANC has failed to deliver on what Mbeki calls its historic mission. Far from that, the ANC has delivered in some ways a worse life than people had in the early years of democracy. This is not an ideological question, but derives from a resort to self-enrichment, instead of meeting the needs of those who remain impoverished.

Not only ANC troubles

What has become clearer in the aftermath of the local government elections is that its significance does not lie only in the heavy defeats that the ANC suffered, important as this has been in seeing the possibility or likelihood of the ANC no longer being the leading force in government or even continuing to exist in the not-too-distant future.

That is not something that could have been forecasted a few years back and has happened very rapidly, in the past five years or so. But what is equally important is that it has become more and more clear that there is no alternative force among the political parties or combination of political parties that is ready to step in as an alternative to the ANC. This is the case not only as an alternative that will meet the needs of the majority of the population, but that is the bearer of a programme addressing the fundamental needs of the population.

But beyond that, there is no party political alternative that is able to ensure stable governance, at this stage, in considering governing arrangements at a local level. Virtually every DA-led local government in the metros is there at the whim of parties that decided to support it in the election of mayors, in particular the EFF and ActionSA.

Whatever programme the DA may wish to implement – and even passing of the budget is a fragile prospect – may possibly be undermined by the parties that secured its victory in the metro elections.

To summarise the problems of the moment: the ANC is in trouble, it has no remedy for its own problems and is unlikely to renew itself in any meaningful way, given that most of the people who are responsible for its crisis remain in its leadership.

The same people who brought about the disgraceful neglect of the needs of the people of South Africa are unlikely to be rehabilitated in the near future and turn over a new leaf. That is a given. But the problem that South Africa faces remains that there is no stable alternative, let alone an alternative that offers a meaningful vision for the future, that evokes any sense of excitement.

What I have argued in the past has been that there is not a total absence of vision in the broader political terrain. The lack of vision is primarily in the space occupied by party politics. And the rebuilding of South Africa depends on strengthening forces outside of the party-political arena, which may contribute towards the re-establishment of the democratic process and a democratic vision. There are a limited number of popular-based social movements, advancing an emancipatory vision, albeit in a limited geographical and sectoral space.

What I have also argued, and this is likely to be controversial, is that probably the most stable pro-constitutional force in South Africa at the moment is business. It may well be a crucial factor in achieving a sustainable democratic regeneration.

Obviously, there are limits to the way business would see this, and the notion of emancipation that some people have in mind would go well beyond what many businesspeople want. However, it is important in the present context to recognise that business – of various types and sizes – was a central factor in the formal ending of the Jacob Zuma period.

Its role in his removal was in defence of democracy and in particular constitutionalism. That is more than can be said for the ANC, whose electoral defeats in recent times relate to failure to abide by constitutional norms which it had sworn to uphold as part of its oath of office, quite apart from various commitments made to renew itself and act differently.

Rebuilding democratic life will not happen overnight. There need to be discussions between a range of organisations and people who have the interests of the country at heart, in order to build a combination of forces that can save the country and its hard-won freedom. DM

This article first appeared on Creamer Media’s website:

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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