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COALITION POLITICS OP-ED

Removal of ANC’s dominance partly fixed SA’s crisis of party politics — but not the crisis of state

Removal of ANC’s dominance partly fixed SA’s crisis of party politics — but not the crisis of state
John Steenhuisen, leader of the Democratic Alliance, at a rally in Belhar ahead of the general elections. (Photo: Gallo Images/Brenton Geach)

The ANC in its malgovernance has put the future of the South African state under stress. We are faced with a situation where the state itself may collapse. And while the DA, the second largest party, has very low credibility, its long period of governance in the Western Cape deserves study.

South Africa has just completed its general election, the first in 30 years where the ANC has failed to secure a majority of the votes. Before the voting, it was already being billed as the most important election since 1994, precisely because of the possibility of the ANC being defeated or failing to secure a majority of the votes.

It is true that it is of great significance that the ANC has failed to achieve a majority. It is not so much an achievement of opposition parties in the sense of them having performed so well in their capacities as political parties, as that the ANC itself has been its own undoing through corruption, illegality and failure to perform its public duties in a manner that accords with its mandate and norms of public service (which are more open to debate than some suggest).

Whatever combination of parties takes the reins of government enters a situation of an all-round crisis of the state. In this situation of crisis of public life in every sphere that we can point to – the roads, electricity, water, healthcare, housing, schooling and so forth – there are no easy ways for these to be remedied.

We have a condition where the ANC has done many things that have angered people, but have also endangered them and often forced them to live in squalor.

One can simply look at the transport situation. The roads throughout the country suffer from neglect and failure to repair adequately, sometimes damaging tyres on suburban streets, but also leaving huge potholes on highways into which cars have already sunk and many accidents have been caused and lives lost.

The question of the roads and transport generally raises a broader question of South Africa’s performance as an exporting country where goods sometimes have to arrive through a chain of transport – just in time at the place of production – in one or other overseas country. Delays on the roads or at ports compromise production goals.

Likewise, as a country that needs to transport goods from one part of the country to the other, for some decades business and economists have been arguing that it’s necessary to fix the railways and roads beyond those leading to ports.

At the moment, one has transport of heavy goods that ought to be done by rail being carried on the roads in heavy-duty trucks, and this is one of the reasons why the roads are as damaged as they are now.

This type of transport is often done with long hours of driving – one of the reasons for high accident rates and loss of lives. We have a situation where, although there was supposed to be a revamp of Transnet, it is not yet on a route to repair in which there is a sense of confidence.

At the moment a huge percentage of transport of goods is no longer done on the rail, but the implications are much wider. The average person who is struggling to survive is now paying for more expensive transport because passenger rail has practically ground to a halt.

In some places. it has been resuscitated on an uneven basis, but very often regressing to its earlier non-functioning state.

One of the effects is that the taxi industry continues to be the primary form of transport for most people in the country. And because of spatial apartheid, people have to travel long distances and most are black, (Africans, Coloureds and Indians).

People who comprise the majority of poorer people often live quite far from their work and have to take two or three taxis to travel to and from their homes. This means that already low wages are eaten into by this transport problem.

There is also a serious problem of state functionality in general. 

The state has failed to perform its duties, whether in combating crime or running crucial documentation centres like Home Affairs, where not only is there a lot of corruption, but even the supply of necessary documents like IDs has become a nightmare for people who seek these.

There is a lot of sheer incompetence, not due to an inability to do the work, but due to a failure to train, mentor and monitor. Members of the public dread dealing with some departments and are surprised when performance of duties is trouble-free and relatively speedy.

The ANC’s defeat and future

The ANC made a fairly dignified acknowledgement of its defeat and did not engage in cheap shots against any other party. This is commendable and a good sign for future party politics if it is conducted in a manner that shows respect to other parties and does not attempt to excuse defeats, no matter what.

It’s possible that the ANC can revive if this translates into a broader professionalism and ethic of public service. I’m not sure that that will happen. But this was a welcome departure from that to which we have become accustomed.

Defeat of a ‘dominant party’

There was a time, some 15-20 years ago, when political scientists and some other commentators described the dominance of the ANC as a key factor preventing the “consolidation of democracy” in South Africa. It was said that before one can say democracy is consolidated, there must be what was called a “circulation of elites”, and it must be possible for the ruling party to be defeated in a future election.

That danger of defeat, it was said, kept the ruling party on its toes and ensured that it would perform its duties adequately. And if it did not, there was an opposition party that would take its place. I criticised that approach at the time. (“Party dominance ‘theory’ of what validity?” in Politikon, (2006) 33, 3, 277-297, where much of the debate is engagedavailable on request).

It was described as a theory but it had insignificant explanatory value. There are lots of cases of ruling parties being dominant for a long time and performing well or adequately, as was the case in Sweden until the recent decline of the Social Democratic Party’s support, and in Japan and some other countries.

Dominance itself is not necessarily a problem, especially if there is not an alternative capable of offering governance that can win support in the first place and be better than that of the ruling party.

Against what I’ve just said, it must be noted that the DA in the Western Cape has performed better than most other provinces, and the City of Cape Town has performed much better than almost every other metro in the country.

Some people contest this, but there is little doubt that the quality of service of the DA as a provincial and local government is better than others.

What we have seen is historic in one sense – that one party did rule, with a majority of the votes, for 30 years and on the 30th anniversary of South Africa’s democracy being inaugurated, it has been reduced to a party with just over 40% of the vote and with possibly limited opportunity to return to rule the country single-handedly.

What of the alternative parties? One of the problems of the prospect for democracy in South Africa is that there is no real alternative that has emerged that can win the confidence of the majority of the population or deserves to win that confidence. (This is apart from the DA-run Western Cape provincial and Cape Town metro governments, just mentioned). The smallest parties that raised ethical questions and questions of leadership fared very badly in this election.

The DA, the second-largest party, has very low credibility. Its leader, John Steenhuisen, is given to making careless statements, such as his attack on minority parties in the Western Cape. He does not have the gravitas of a leader that could retrieve the country from its decline and take it to a higher level of performance. 

Also, the DA has not been able to shake off the label and perception of being a party for whites.

On the other hand, insofar as the DA has run the Western Cape and the City of Cape Town with a higher level of competence than virtually every institution of government in the country, the long period of DA governance in the Western Cape deserves study.

It’s important for us to know whether there are lessons for governance more generally. Are the levels of public service, of public responsibility demonstrated by DA representatives in provincial and local government, patterns of conduct that can be drawn on by whoever happens to rule at a local or provincial level or anywhere else in the country?

My impression is that within the successes the DA has achieved, there is unevenness – there are many complaints from people in the poorer areas that they are not adequately serviced. 

While the DA may have a lower level of corruption – not an absence of corruption – its performance in terms of provision of services to the population is not beyond reproach. But nevertheless, it is important for those who would like to see the recovery of South Africa to learn from the DA’s example in the Western Cape and the City of Cape Town.

Crisis of state

It is very important to remember that while we have spoken of a crisis of party politics which was partly remedied by the removal of the ANC as the dominant party in South Africa, there is a wider danger. 

The ANC, in its malgovernance, has essentially put the future of the South African state – as a series of institutions and structures – under stress. We are faced with a situation where the state itself may collapse because it has crises in so many areas of its (in)operation.

It may not be possible to recover from many of these. 

I’ve mentioned some, but not the issue of water. The water crisis is already upon us, where many areas have polluted water and cholera has broken out, sometimes acknowledged, sometimes unacknowledged.

We have a situation where state performance is not operational in many cases. Infrastructure has been neglected and there is widespread collapse. People are not experiencing delivery of what is required for adequate governance in South Africa.

It is risky to try to forecast what will unfold in the months and years ahead. It is best to consider what combination of forces lead the country and see in their practice what lessons have been learnt. DM

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

Raymond Suttner is an Emeritus Professor at the University of South Africa and a Research Associate in the English Department at University of the Witwatersrand. He served lengthy periods as a political prisoner. His current writings cover mainly contemporary politics, history, and social questions.

The headline on this article was amended at 10.15am on 5 June 2024.

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