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South Africa, 2019: No paths to paradise


Steven Boykey Sidley is a Professor at JBS, University of Johannesburg, and the co-author of Beyond Bitcoin: Decentralised Finance and the End of Banks (with Simon Dingle).

I had breakfast not too long ago with an ANC elder, a wise man. He insisted that there are no remaining thinking men and women within the party who are confident of winning the 2019 elections (by which he meant gaining more than 50% of the national vote), at least given the current trajectory of things. Some suggest that the ANC may still squeak through in the 2019 elections, but the unthinkable is now a real possibility, worthy of short odds at Ladbrokes.

On the other hand, entrenched interests are ossified, profligate lifestyles are habituated and there are apparatchiks who have very firm hands on levers of power, persuasion, intimidation and blackmail. I find it difficult to believe these interests would allow either the march of democracy or the dictates of the Constitution to jar the comfort of their worlds.

Nobody is going to leave without a fight, or worse. At Nelson Mandela Bay metro, a disgruntled ANC councillor was moved to smash in an unprotected DA face with a glass water jug as he found himself on the losing end of power long taken for granted. One can only imagine how this would play out at the national level.

As recently as this week at the ANC National Working Committee, even the “stalwarts” were unable to publicly show their collective displeasure. One would have hoped for a statement from these elders that firmly demanded, among other things, the resignation of Jacob Zuma. But no, what we got was some mealy-mouthed utterances that everyone who spoke up for his removal was expressing a personal (i.e. not collective) view and vague hints as some heated discussions and promises of follow-ups. “What we have committed to do is to have a follow-up meeting before the close of December.” In other words, as usual, exactly nothing – Zuma and his cadres remain strongly in place, and again we are treated to rubbish about party unity. Has anyone in the ANC noticed that this obsession with party unity has brought them Zuma, shame, corruption, malfeasance, incompetence, and a fleeing electorate?

The ANC NEC is clearly unwilling to act against Zuma, cowed as they may be from their fear of either party discipline or the skeletons that may be rattling in their own closets (I have been told by a staid research group that up to 70% of the NEC has been enriched by the largesse of this administration). This means that Zuma will sit at the titular head of the party and government until 2019. And he carries the weight of patronage and a tainted legacy, perhaps enough to sink the party.

So let’s spin the clock forward.

Assume (for the reasons stated) that Zuma stays his term and our government continues to flounder in the mud of infighting, corruption, backstabbing, self-protection, incompetence and an inability to govern. Now the election season arrives, and the politicking begins.

The ANC will attempt to pin its many unspinnable failures on “white monopoly capital”, or outside agents, or neoliberalism, or drought, or globalisation, or the media. Much as they did in the municipal elections. But it will ring even more hollow the second time around. And so it is unlikely that they will get more voters than they did in the municipal elections, and it is likely that they will get fewer. No matter who Luthuli House puts forward for the next president, it will be a little late – everyone knows that Zuma’s cabal will remain behind with their fingers firmly in the cookie jar.

All of this puts the ANC on a knife-edge on election day and leads to a number of scenarios, none of which looks good.

One is that the ANC squeaks through in an honest ballot, and we are treated to another five years of pretty much more of the same. There will be no way to unseat the cronyism and ineptitude without a massive catalyst, and so the country will be likely to continue to drift towards whatever rocks may be in its path. No matter who steps forward to take the reins, the same patronage payrolls smoothly operate, the same unqualified or disinterested cadres run huge government machines. The cancer of governance neglect and malfeasance is now too widespread to expect any change under a new ANC president.

Or, the ANC loses, and tries to crook the results, Mugabe-style. I think that this is unlikely – I still have a possibly naive trust in the IEC, even with Zuma’s man at the top.

Or, the ANC loses, and Zuma (or the ANC government) declares an emergency and shuts down democracy, followed by the great whooshing sound of investment and human capital leaving the country.

Or, equally likely, the ANC loses, and a DA/EFF coalition governs, while hundreds of thousands of ANC cadres contemplate permanent unemployment. If this is the case, beware of flying water jugs.

There may well be a path I haven’t seen, one that would turn South Africa in the direction of its promise.

But, if there, it is certainly well hidden. DM


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