Why South Africa still has a chance
While the decline and probable fall of the ANC may be disturbing, there is another important dynamic, which is that we are seeing the promise of accountable democracy.
There are increasing signs that the South African government is in office but not so much in power. This is not to say that it is powerless, just that it appears there is no single group of politicians who can exert their will. There are many signs of this, from the lack of progress in changing economic policy to the current weakness of the state, to the infighting in the governing party.
While this may resonate with what is happening in other countries, such as Lebanon or Sri Lanka or even the US, there are also major differences. There are green shoots emerging that our politics is capable of renewing or regenerating itself and that the old barriers to real political change are weakening, albeit slowly. Key to this is the endurance of institutions like the Electoral Commission and the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA).
The signs of political weakness are everywhere.
The government has been unable to develop a comprehensive plan to manage our electricity needs. Unions have lost the ability to officially control the situation, with workers going on an unprotected (pretty well organised — ed) strike.
There is a deepening crisis of legitimacy within our police, as communities increasingly turn on them or even attack police stations.
The person in charge, legally, President Cyril Ramaphosa, has a few problems of his own. The revelation that he appeared to break SA Reserve Bank regulations by keeping a large amount of US dollars on his private property appears to have paralysed him. It certainly gives the impression that he is not able to respond properly to the Zondo Commission’s findings on those responsible for State Capture and those who are still corrupt in our state.
Ramaphosa, then, plays for time, insisting that the nation waits for four whole months before responding.
In the meantime, the newly elected leader of the ANC in Gauteng, Panyaza Lesufi, says publicly he wants the party’s National Executive Committee (NEC) to respond more quickly and decisively to problems.
On the day he says this, one member of that same NEC, Derek Hanekom, calls another, Tony Yengeni, a “moron” on Twitter, while Yengeni publicly calls on Ramaphosa to step aside over the robbery at Phala Phala.
Then there is a Cabinet minister, Dr Aaron Motsoaledi, who has claimed that there is a “dictatorship” of NGOs because of their legal challenge to the decision to end the Zimbabwean Exemption Permits. This same minister has been caught on video telling a political meeting that foreign nationals are “rascals”.
This may well reveal a deep sense of paranoia within the government, and perhaps the ANC.
At the same time, the cost of living is skyrocketing. The prices of food and fuel are going up dramatically as the end of the pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine perpetuate the underlying inequality and poverty of our economy.
SA is not alone…
We are, of course, far from being the only country in this position.
In Lebanon, a political crisis has unfolded over several years as the cost of living has gone up dramatically. Its inflation rate for May was 211%.
In Sri Lanka, there is such an acute foreign exchange shortage that only emergency services are allowed to buy fuel.
In the US, the country is now so divided that a Supreme Court with a low level of legitimacy is able in just one week to strike down a state law around restrictions on carrying guns and remove a right held by women for more than 50 years.
The crucial difference
But there may be a crucial difference between these countries and ourselves.
While we are in a difficult position, there is important evidence that our society and our politics are capable of renewal and regeneration.
One of the reasons the ANC is in the position that it is, is because it has not brought fresh energy into its top leadership. A brief look at its top six national officials, and even the average age of Cabinet members, will reveal this. If it can renew itself, if it is able, for example, to introduce current Gauteng Premier David Makhura to its national leadership (as Lesufi has hinted should happen) then it might be able to remain in power for a while longer.
But, as the party is finding out, it is not the totality of our politics. Instead, we are seeing the rise of organisations that are beginning to challenge the status quo. These include the EFF and ActionSA.
Many may not like their politics or their leaders or their agendas. But the point remains: our society will create new organisations if those in power are not serving their interests. This suggests that if there are repeated failures by our governing classes, the pressure on them will increase until eventually there is change.
And our political system, that of proportional representation, may be key to this.
The African Independent Congress was created as a direct response by the people of the town of Matatiele to a decision to change the provincial boundaries around them. They created a party and it won some political power. For a time it even held the balance of power in the metro of Ekurhuleni.
This is very different to Lebanon.
There, elites rule through a system where parliamentary positions are settled through sects, where the position of Speaker is always a Shia Muslim, the President a Christian and the premiership goes to a Sunni Muslim. This is based on a census conducted before World War 2.
Sri Lanka’s crisis has been brought about by the fact that one family, Rajapaksa, has been able to dominate for many years.
And in the US, much of the problem is structural. No one in their right mind would these days introduce lifetime appointments to the Supreme Court, or all federal courts, but the country’s political divisions (and the use of wedge issues like abortion) are so great that any reform is impossible. Their state-based political structure, where the majority of people live in cities, but a person can lose the popular vote and still become president through the Electoral College, will also not be easily changed.
In some countries, politics is dominated by religious identity. This makes it virtually impossible to change the country and usually turns politics into an absolutist game, won through the sheer power of unchanging numbers.
We do not have these problems, thankfully.
While identity politics may be growing in strength (the rise of the FF+ and the Patriotic Alliance points to this; the rise of ActionSA argues against it), this is not nearly as difficult to counter as religious identity, which invariably leads to a form of absolutism.
A democracy that works
Such is the sense of crisis in South Africa that this can be forgotten. There is much evidence that despite its problems, our democracy works. That while the decline and probable fall of the ANC may be disturbing, there is another important dynamic, which is that we are seeing the promise of accountable democracy. With all of its problems and shortcomings, nevertheless.
However, for this to work, our electoral institutions (and our judiciary) must function. The centre must hold. If they are threatened or weakened in any way, then the rise of accountability will not happen. One of the strengths here is the structure of the system itself, that parties can observe everything, every single step of the way.
For there to be accountable democracy the Electoral Commission needs to be protected and strengthened.
It is easy to be despondent. For most people in South Africa, life is worse than it was three years ago. Much of this is because of our politics and its impact on our economy.
But it will not always be this way. Our politics has shown itself to be capable of creating both accountability and renewal. Our electoral institutions are fairly durable at this moment. Now we also need the NPA to start firing with both barrels. DM
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