Partially as a result of policy failure, policy confusion, pandemic unease, economic decline, endemic corruption and downright governance failure across the board, the “glorious” liberation movement is about to face its toughest test of survival since the apartheid state’s repeated crackdowns in the 1960s.
But this time, the enemy of the ANC is not external (the National Party), it’s from within. And enemies from within can be much more damaging than outside forces in which a combined effort of even disparate bedfellows intent on their own political survival can find common cause.
Enemies within gnaw away at the fabric of the organisation. They undermine organisational structures. They paralyse policy formulation. They contribute to the contestation of position on just about everything from the deployment of cadres to the adherence to the basic ground-rules of our Constitution. The proxy wars (read factional) battles of Busisiwe Mkhwebane, the beleaguered Public Protector, is case in point.
Ultimately, enemies within create an ungovernability in which the elected heads and their underlings compete in setting the prevailing narratives but, given an equal balance of forces, barely move the collective significantly away from the inertia of the centre.
And that’s where we find the ANC at the fateful (and Shakespearian) Ides of March in 2021.
The internal forces of combat within the governing party were bound to lock horns as the Zondo Commission honed in on the alleged corrupt perpetrators of State Capture — their fight for survival was always going to pit factions against each other at virtually any cost. Both former president Jacob Zuma and ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule exemplify this.
But other concurrent factors are equally important. Economic decline severely limiting brown-envelope (patronage) politics has put pressure on the modus operandi of the ANC. When you run out of taxpayers’ money to grease the ANC’s own wheels, loyalties begin to fray.
Add to this toxic mix the populist pressures from those on the periphery (or seeking to manipulate the centre) amid a vacuous policy terrain and you have a recipe for a failing party in power.
Since the ANC has conflated party and state for years, a failing ANC equates to a failing South Africa. And that means that either the ANC has to be rescued from within itself, or from outside parties.
For the reasons stated above, the ANC has become its own internal battleground. The two apparent factions — perhaps better termed constitutionalists versus radicals — look set for a fight to the finish. Both also wish to command all the glory of Brand ANC in their efforts. Neither grouping — as amorphous as they might be — has the stomach for launching a new political movement and even less for leaving behind the caché that is the ANC.
In more mature democracies — and those where the decades since liberation recede into memory — the loyalty to the “mother ship” wanes. New parties are often formed out of the rump of the old or voters themselves — fatigued with infighting — take electoral risks on opposition parties.
South Africa’s problem is then twofold as this messy and malignant status quo endures.
First, the ANC faces an increasingly hostile domestic economic environment where its own policies have condemned millions to economic exclusion and resultant unemployment. The party of Tambo and Mandela has been its own worst enemy and has largely failed in its mandate of securing “a better life for all”. The spawn of this is a rising tide of radical populism of which the ANC internally has no answer to — simply because it cannot deliver the growth path needed.
With the internal party machine unable or unwilling to take the political and policy risks needed, the position deteriorates. If the ANC cannot self-correct to the centre (as undefined as it may be), who else can correct it? The voters, of course!
But here’s the rub. South Africa’s voters are indeed frustrated, fragmented, fraught with concern and somewhat fatigued. This is a country in which competitive democracy has never been institutionalised. The sheer power and patronage of the two large hegemonic nationalist political parties over the past century have kept opposition firmly at bay.
For both the ANC and South Africa, therefore, this is a country that does not know how to hold its elected officials to account. Internally within the ANC, it’s almost a stalemate resulting in the current state of affairs. Externally, South Africa’s voters bemoan the malaise we are in, yet stay away from the polls in large numbers or spend their time finding fault with the many opposition choices that actually serve the body politic relatively well.
Ultimately, voters remain scared to cast their vote en masse against the ANC. And there’s the real rub. When you are used to a status quo, no matter how disappointing it is, a risky vote for an opposition party is akin to the “devil you don’t know”. Better then, to stay with the “devil you do know”.
But a new point of inflection is approaching. The inflection point at which the risk of remaining static or taking a political chance is fast approaching. And the ANC knows it.
In preparing for the coming battles, the new activist grouping “Defend our Democracy” has been launched. It’s not a new political party — nor does it want to be. It is designed to support a particular faction within the ANC as that party’s battles increase in intensity.
While the initiative is welcome within the context of the ANC’s internal battles, it still doesn’t assist in opening South Africa’s door to a real competitive democracy where a ruling party fears being removed at the ballot box in successive elections. The initiative serves to entrench the constitutionalists within the ANC itself, rather than create a much-needed environment in which opposition politics can emerge as an electoral force.
Perhaps more significant would’ve been an umbrella “Alliance for Change” endorsed by many of the leading figures in the “Defend our Democracy” movement, thereby de-linking themselves from the ANC. But for most of the signatories, proposing an opposition vote at election time still remains a bridge too far.
Make no mistake, South African politics is still entering a new era — but it’s still very much dominated by the ANC’s internal ructions rather than by the pressures from outside.
While a genuine and reforming ANC can, in itself, contribute to welcome political realignment, the electoral success of centrist opposition forces can be as — if not even more — important.
Waiting for the dice to fall within the ANC is still a risky business and confers on the governing party the chance to extend their term in office with all the resultant policy and governance uncertainties already experienced.
The problem is that the broader society is being sucked into the ANC’s internal conflicts and enabled as willing participants. This potentially undermines the traditional role of supporting an opposition party and beginning the long haul towards competitive government.
South Africans do need to take sides. But be careful how you wield your support. DM