South Africa


How fast will the ANC fall, part one: What will determine the party’s future?

How fast will the ANC fall, part one: What will determine the party’s future?
Illustrative image | Sources: (centre) ANC President Cyril Ramaphosa during the ANCs 110th anniversary celebrations at the Old Peter Mokaba Stadium on January 08, 2022 in Limpopo, South Africa. (Photo: Gallo Images/Philip Maeta) | (bottom left) General Jan Smuts (1870 - 1950) is interviewed by the BBC, on his arrival at Northolt Aerodrome for the Empire Prime Ministers' Conference, to be held in London, April 28, 1946. (Photo: Keystone/Getty Images) | (centre right) 21st June 1976: A rioter in Soweto, South Africa. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images) | (top right) 10th January 1961: South African demonstrators holding up placards outside the hotel where the UN Secretary General was staying in Pretoria, South Africa. (Photo: Central Press/Getty Images) | (centre left) Louis Botha (1862 - 1919) South African general in the Second Anglo-Boer War, and first prime minister of the Union of South Africa after its establishment in 1910. (Photo: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images) | (bottom right) The first meeting between the British commander, Lord Kitchener, and Boer envoys at Middelburg, to negotiate peace after the 2nd Boer War. Front row, from left to right, Christiaan de Wet, (1854 - 1922), Louis Botha, (1862 - 1919), Horatio Herbert Kitchener, (1850 - 1916), and unknown man. Back row, from left, Colonel Henderson, Van Velden, Major Watson, H Fraser, Captain Maxwell and A de Jager. The results of these negotiations were for the most part accepted by the Boers in May 1902. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images) |

In five articles this week, John Matisonn assesses the crisis in SA politics and the reforms needed to turn it around.

After the events of the past week, we are entitled to ask if the ANC is fit to govern. The state of our nation is … in deep trouble, and its governing party continues to suffer a string of humiliations.

In the week of the first Zondo corruption report, authorities allowed South Africa’s most valuable symbol of democracy to be burnt out without adequate fire protection, a single guard or policeman on duty, or a cent of insurance cover.

The ANC can’t pay its non-retrenched staff or meet its tax liability on time. Two of its annual marquee events – the up to R1.2-million-a-plate dinner and address to the Women’s League – will be best remembered for an electricity blackout and Covid non-compliance.

The ordinary South African has been affected psychologically. State Capture hollowed out institutions to the extent that our public life is riven with as many fake claims as real ones, clouding anyone’s ability to see truth from lies or trust anyone to do the right thing.

Little wonder that the ANC lost its majority at the 2021 local elections. It may need a coalition partner to form a government in 2024. There is no ready alternative government, but governing parties crumble internally too. 

Do the ANC’s January 8 promises – more jobs, less corruption – have plausible implementers? The ANC’s track record suggests it is not on top of vital global trends or knows how to mobilise the assets we have. President Cyril Ramaphosa is holding it together – just. 

If you have any doubt about South Africa’s potential to go backwards as well as forward, just look at this video graphic showing how dramatically our neighbours have been affected by events in the past 30 years. The video shows changing growth rates from 1980 to the present. Though it does not chart jobs, the link between growth and jobs is strong, if not exact. (Source: @ec0n1st)

January 8 promises are good but not new. What will it take to fix things constructively – by cutting unemployment, crime and corruption, and improving education? 

In these five articles, I draw on lessons I’ve learnt from my work with colleagues in the United Nations, with other former senior officials of South Africa’s democratic state and my two books on the past 30 years of SA politics and economics.

It’s become commonplace to say liberation movements that become governments last 20 to 30 years, using examples like India, Zambia, and Tanzania, and the crises of governance in Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Less has been said to explain why. Maybe all governing parties lose their way eventually.

As a political journalist I watched not one but two all-powerful South African ruling parties die. Both happened before South Africa was a democracy. So the local analogies are far from perfect, but they’re the best we have. They say little about our contemporary democratic electorate, but they do say something about politics and power. 

In their day, both ruled South Africa as though they were indispensable. With hindsight, there were signposts. Both white supremacist ruling parties began their decline by losing white voter support in the cities, the universities and among the intellectual innovators. 

At least one significant breakaway party was formed, pointing to the frustrations within the mother body and the growing divergence of interests within the party that result from its own success. As decay set in, they were reduced to a shrinking pool of ageing voters on farms.

But the most important similarity to the ANC’s current conundrum is that their core, founding purpose – which had been the main political issue of the day – was no longer the core question of national politics. They could not adapt to address the new central question. The parties’ own momentum drove them in an outdated direction, which led to their extinction.

Before 1994, it was always obvious to me the ANC would win the first democratic election. The ANC’s core purpose was to fight racism and end political apartheid. Bantustan leaders in the 1970s assured me they were more popular than the ANC. I never bought it. If the first democratic election had been held in 1964 instead of 1994, the ANC would still have won.  

The ANC achieved its aim of ending the white monopoly on political power, helped create a black middle class and provided social grants to the poor. 

But to maintain those grants, let alone increase them, South Africa has to create more tax-paying jobs. South Africa’s core problem now is economic development in its broadest sense – including fighting corruption and crime, improving education, and supporting those in need. ANC rule has seen unemployment rise by millions. Such a record does not deserve to be rewarded.

The ANC talks about economic revival and reducing inequality. But its plans are always internally disputed and imprecise. To succeed in the 2020s we need a major change in focus, skills, integrity and commitment. And we will need a change in institutions.  

Before the death of the last two governing South African parties – the apartheid National Party and General Jan Smuts’ United Party (UP) – there were signposts that are visible in the ANC today. When the UP and NP lost power, there was a coherent opposition ready to face the newly relevant challenge. But they did not die just because there was an alternative in the wings – they died because they also crumbled internally. 

Ring any bells?

From 1910 to 1948, the party of generals Smuts and Louis Botha governed alone or in coalition for all but 10 of 38 years. Smuts’ 10 years out of power, from 1924 to 1934, were the punishment inflicted on him by white workers for backing his white business supporters against them. 

Smuts had turned the army and air force on them during the 1922 strike. The (white) Labour Party coalesced with the National Party of General Barry Hertzog to break Smuts’ power and form the Pact government. Smuts only returned to power when that government mishandled the gold standard crisis during the Great Depression. 

After five years as deputy prime minister under Hertzog, Smuts split with Hertzog to become UP Prime Minister and take South Africa into World War Two because the white electorate favoured war on Nazi Germany.

Smuts’ stature on the world stage was unmatched until Nelson Mandela became president in 1994. His UP lost power in 1948 as a result of a flaw in the electoral system, even though his UP got the most votes. But the death of Smuts in 1950 and his deputy, Jan Hofmeyr, in 1948 left a strategic hole that was never filled. 

Over the next decades it lost the universities and then the cities, but lingered in the political wilderness for three decades, retaining the support of ageing “Bloedsappe”. 

Bloedsappes’ support for the party (its earlier name was the South African Party) was in their blood. Emotional loyalty to Smuts, the UP and its brand of white unity and links to global influence went with them to the grave. 

Smuts had gained his first political office in the 1890s. His long hold on power rested partly on his adaptability. A white supremacist, the Afrikaner Smuts started his political career supporting the British white supremacist, Cecil Rhodes. Both favoured white unity. 

The Jameson Raid changed Smuts’ mind. He moved from Cape Town to Johannesburg, landed up in President Paul Kruger’s Cabinet, and fought the British as a general in the Anglo-Boer War. 

After the war, he reconciled with Britain. Rhodes was long dead, but their shared agenda – uniting white English and Afrikaans-speakers – reasserted itself. It took Smuts to the seat of global power, to strong friendships with the world’s leaders, including British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and US President Franklin D Roosevelt. 

Afrikaner nationalists never forgave his embrace of Britain, their former enemy, but it took almost half a century to dislodge him – when white Afrikaner-English unity took a back seat to apartheid and Afrikaner nationalism as the issues that mattered.

In 1974, the UP suffered yet another humiliating election loss. I got my first political scoop as a young reporter on the Johannesburg Rand Daily Mail covering the party’s postmortem.

Bloedsappe were at the Joubert Park, Johannesburg hotel when Sir De Villiers Graaff, leader of Smuts’ once-mighty United Party, gave his review of the UP’s latest election losses, and I got a leak of the long rationalisation. 

Unknown to most of us that day, Graaff’s secret weapon was a nationwide network of retired soldiers who had been prisoners of war with him in Germany. He was beloved by rank-and-file party organisers. Graaff summoned them periodically to turn back each leadership challenge.

To anyone not in thrall to the tall, good-looking, multimillionaire baronet, with his Royal Air Force moustache, war record and extensive Cape land holdings, his explanation for defeat and recipes for recovery were barren. He was lost in an age of white politics from a different time – when the UP stood for English and Afrikaans-speaking whites coming together, resisting the removal of Queen Elizabeth as head of state and becoming an independent republic. 

On the central issues of the day, white supremacy and the autocratic apartheid state that maintained it, the UP tinkered around the edges. Its policy for “race relations” was a racial federation, a convoluted way of keeping white power intact. The National Party’s apartheid policies were too harsh, but the UP’s would be just harsh enough.

By 1974 rejection was strongest in the cities, especially Johannesburg and Cape Town. Like Ramaphosa in 2021, Graaff’s personal fortune was increasingly the mainstay of the party’s financial survival, especially after 1959, when the Oppenheimer fortune shifted its funding to the breakaway Progressive Party (PP).  

The 1974 election was the breakthrough for the PP. After its formation in 1959, only Helen Suzman survived the 1961 white election. But 13 years later, Suzman was joined by six more members. Even though the party still supported a “qualified franchise” limiting the vote to black South Africans by education or assets, only a small portion of whites backed it.

After losing power despite a majority of white votes, the UP lost the universities. Leading academics were becoming too radical for the Progressive Party, but the new PP MPs included some of the best (white) minds, at last grappling with the overwhelmingly dominant political issue – how do you end apartheid?

Events intervened to accelerate change. In 1976, the Soweto uprising took place, and the United States’ Republican administration responded to the escalating Zimbabwean (then Rhodesian) war by ending its support for white supremacy there. 

The UP had nothing relevant to say in the face of these momentous events. By 1977 the party was dead. A replacement, the New Republic Party, stumbled along a few years before folding. The age of the Bloedsap was over.

The PP would never win a majority of white votes. In 1986, its leader, Dr Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, resigned from the white Parliament on the grounds that it was not the site of political contest. That battle was between the ruling white National Party and ANC of Nelson Mandela, who was in prison, and Oliver Tambo, ANC president in exile.

In the first democratic election, the PP, renamed the Democratic Party, won only 1.73% of the democratic electorate’s vote. President FW de Klerk’s ruling National Party took 20.39%, most of the white and Indian voters. 

But the NP’s death could already be foreseen. Suffering breakaways and defections, it could not redirect its focus to the new tasks at hand: building a non-racial nation, and developing a job-creating economy. DM

Tomorrow, Part Two: The NP and ANC’s common problem

John Matisonn is a former senior United Nations elections official, Independent Broadcasting Authority councillor, and long-time political and foreign correspondent. He is the author of Cyril’s Choices, An Agenda for Reform; and God, Spies and Lies, Finding South Africa’s Future Through its Past.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Paddy Ross says:

    As an ex-pat, I found this article very enlightening and look forward to the follow-up articles.

  • Hermann Funk says:

    Very informative, looking forward to the remaining articles.

  • William Stucke says:

    Great article, John.
    Please explain how the Nats won in 1948, with a minority of the votes?

    • Pet Bug says:

      Compelling article.
      Yes, also wondering how the NP won with less votes.
      Maybe there were more rural constituencies with far less white voters than urban constituencies with much higher populations that skewed the results…?

    • Andrew Wright says:

      Quite simple – the system was the fptp and with rural seats outnumbering urban seats, the Nats won the majority of seats. Much the same can happen in any fptp system

  • f vg says:

    Just delighted that John Matisonn is still around. Really missed his insights. Powerful, as always, but above all: a reminder of just how much is lost once the memory of those times fades, once everything gets replaced by mind-numbing social media ‘soma’. That’s the greatest danger of all: the tsunami of kitsch that needs to be filtered through to get to a piece like this. A breath of fresh air – a scarce resource in these corona times …

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