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Waiting for December: The ANC remains powerful, but impatience eating away at loyalty

Ben Turok is the director of the Institute for African Alternatives (IFAA) and a former ANC MP. See his Wikipedia profile.

While there seems to be a revival of public interest in the fortunes of ANC politics I am not sure that it goes beyond the race between individuals.

Clearly whoever emerges victorious in December will want to place their individual stamp on the future ANC, but we need to remember that Jacob Zuma remains the head of the state machine and many of his cronies will remain in strategic positions. It will take enormous effort and quite some time to shift them.

There is also the problem within the ANC itself identified by Njabulo Ndebele in his keynote address at the recent Stalwarts and Veterans conference on the ANC. He argued that the ANC had become too introspective and even self-serving, looking after its own rather like a family. He said: “Over time, in government, the suitability of the family ethos in the transaction of state business may by default exclude those who are not in the family circles.… it can have devastating consequences.” He urged that “our gaze ought to strive to look beyond a political party perspective, or at the very least, to reduce the intensity of focus on it”.

Participants greatly appreciated this advice from someone outside the movement and his remarks were referred to subsequently by many speakers. Apart from the merit in organisational terms it is also a reminder that the ANC is no longer a certain winner in elections. The last local government elections showed a substantial abstention of traditional supporters and it could be even worse at the general elections in 2019.

What the Stalwarts conference tried to do was to bring a very wide variety of interests together to discuss the state of our country and the ANC. I doubt whether such a range of different organisations, religious, business, civil society, have ever met in one hall, certainly not to discuss the ANC. And there were no dissenting voices.

It is tempting to ask whether this represents some kind of departure from the kind of politics we have become used to where one political party challenges the others primarily in pursuit of power. Party politics in South Africa has traditionally been about capturing seats in Parliament and taking over government.

The mood at the Stalwarts conference was quite different. There were no signs of egos, or speakers promoting themselves as candidates. It was all straight from the shoulder moral exhortation and call for governance with integrity without Zuma.

It is just possible that this mood reflects what is happening in many countries where conventional politicians and conventional parliamentary parties are being spurned. Look at Donald Trump who came to power without party support. In the UK large numbers of voters abandoned both Tories and Labour in favour of Brexit. Emmanuel Macron won without official party support. And Angela Merkel is struggling to put a coalition together. Similarly in many other European countries, no single party is able to form a government and resulting in a patchwork of unstable coalitions. This seems to signal the end of an era of strong political parties with ideologies and policies that can win majority public support. It also means much weaker parliaments and governments which are either paralysed or vacillate in decision making.

To return to the stalwarts conference, it was remarkable to hear so many voices complain that the ANC and its government have been hijacked and usurped for corrupt ends. One speaker said that constitutional democracy has been taken over by rallies. Others commented that the National Executive Committee of the ANC is fractured and the Cabinet paralysed. Disenchantment with government performance was common in all the presentations. All this was articulated with much shaking of heads and with expressions of sadness.

That the ANC remains a powerful force in South African politics is beyond doubt. It has deep roots in our townships and rural areas where sentiment and loyalty runs deep. But impatience with inadequate performance and numerous instances of corruption are eating away at this loyalty and shifts in support are in the offing.

What is more, there is much scepticism about the performance of the ANC in Parliament and no doubt about Parliament itself. Claims about a Peoples’ Parliament are seen as mere rhetoric, and constituency offices often serve as little more than advice offices. Debates in plenary too often take on the character of propaganda opportunities with a heavy dose of personal nastiness.

The truth is that what goes by the name of party politics in South Africa is distinguished by empty sloganising and tired clichés about opponents which does little to convince ordinary people that their needs and interests are a priority. In this respect our system is not much different from political systems in Europe and elsewhere where popularity polls put politicians way down the scale. This is a sad day for a once proud movement where local leaders were regarded with great respect as heroes in the struggle.

As everyone in the movement knows, ultimately what is decisive in politics is the sentiment of large numbers of ordinary people in their estimation of the people who claim to be their leaders and representatives. If this sentiment falters, they will find alternative ways of asserting their interests, and it may be external to the formal political arrangements available to them. DM


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