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Ruling party on the wane: Political authority is slipping away from the ANC


Susan Booysen is Director of Research, Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (MISTRA), and visiting and emeritus professor, Wits School of Governance.

The ANC government is in an era of frequent popular disregard and disdain, rather than obedience and trust.

The case of South Africa demonstrates what happens to a political system when the pillars of political authority — trust and legitimacy — crumble, but do not collapse entirely. It speaks to the fusion of the two universes of current South African politics: the attrition of the African National Congress that meets the new world that Covid politics brought and which overlays the dulling of the ANC.

Authority is taken as the power held by a party or government to rule and be obeyed, and acceptance by people that this entity has the right to claim obedience to its rules and laws. This authority is undergirded by political trust and legitimacy. As Carl Fox observed in a 2015 writing, “unless people are prepared to obey, there is no way to manage a modern state in all its complexity”. The ANC government instead is in an era of frequent popular disregard and disdain, rather than obedience and trust. 

It is accepted in South Africa that the ANC retains legitimacy that is associated with its historical liberation movement status. This legitimacy fills in gaps between doubtful party and governance practice and loss of trust. It helps confer on the ANC continuous acceptance as the government. Its authority, however, is under stress. The ANC is suffering erosion due to organisational self-harm.

Consider recent demonstrations of failing authority. The July 2021 civil revolt and riots demonstrated that the ANC and its government are threatened in the authority stakes. There was little fear of consequences when participants blocked roads, destroyed trucks, forced access to malls, looted, wrecked and torched, for days on end. After all, this was an ANC in-house event of sorts, and because of factionalism the party and its government would think twice. 

The South African Police Service resisted the chaos mildly and the numbers brought in by the SA National Defence Force made some difference. Containment, however, was the result of communities mobilising in the interest of accessing groceries, medicines and social security payments. Protection of the authority of the state was not foremost for the citizens, unless it was to protect the dispensing of social aid. 

The court system and possible prosecution was not much of a deterrent either. There are no official estimates, but the number of riot-looting-torching participants in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng probably numbered several tens of thousands. Just over a week after the outbreak, it was reported that about 3,500 had been arrested. Later it was recorded that 682 face prosecutions. The 12 or so who stand accused of plotting the revolt have been revealed in a few scattered court appearances and salvos of seemingly imperfect proof.

The trend of a diminishing scale of consequences is common to South African protests where the ANC-controlled state apparatuses are not in command — there are limited consequences, since the participants form part of the ANC support base, and the party hopes not to alienate them through strict prosecutions. 

This time around, there is also an important difference: the limited consequences stand in a context of failing authority, for example of the legal system. To date, much of the authority of the legal arm of state power had rested in the acceptance of due process, rights of appeal, and the ultimate authority of the Constitutional Court.

To some extent this authority stands, yet in recent months it has been eroded by at least two trends, both related to Jacob Zuma. Having exhausted his core Stalingrad strategy of appeals, Zuma’s campaign to circumvent actual trials embraced diversionary tactics. These included challenging Billy Downer’s status as prosecutor, and claiming absurd medical reasons for an unwillingness to appear in court. Zuma also applied for the Constitutional Court to rescind its ruling that he be jailed for contempt of court. Others, including the still incumbent Public Protector, followed suit. The authority of the Constitutional Court appeared to no longer be so final. 

The Constitutional Court has become overused (but there hardly was an alternative) in being required, largely, to resolve intra-ANC political battles. Most of the high court judgments were accepted, but some went the appeal route, often spiralling up to the Constitutional Court. Inevitably, the courts acquired a political flavour. This was also seen in the recent Judicial Service Commission fiascos in interviewing judges, and the fact that several judges on the Judicial Conduct Tribunal found that there were insufficient grounds for the impeachment of Judge John Hlophe, who had tried to influence judgments on Zuma. The authority of the court system generally has been diluted. 

Such developments informed the Afrobarometer findings on the new world of political trust, and in effect political authority, in South Africa. The findings reflect trends reliably, because of, among other factors, its cross-Covid and non-Covid retention of one research methodology: a longitudinal set of face-to-face interviews. It shows the differentiated decline of trust across South Africa’s political institutions. The courts still emerge relatively well (albeit without majority endorsements), while the greatest concern is the declining validation of South Africa’s representative institutions and elections.

The new “authorities” are the broadcasters, both private and public. They are just about the only institutions that are trusted by the majority of South Africans. These are the actors that have been in households when politicians disappeared behind the Zoom curtain. The broadcasters were seen to be bringing the politicians and other public actors to account, parading them to the viewers amid corruption, malgovernance and party failures. 

A second set of institutions down the Afrobarometer trust hierarchy were the courts, army, Public Protector, South African Revenue Service and president. These institutions were ranked as well trusted or somewhat trusted by proportions in the late 30% range (the president) with the rest in the 40% range. Cyril Ramaphosa fares worse in this poll than in other contemporary measurements. Yet, despite the national damage done by ANC factionalism, he does better than Zuma had in earlier Afrobarometer polls. 

The trust failures of the institutions of representative government are the most indicative of changing lines of authority. This nationally representative survey shows that Parliament (roughly equivalent to national government) is trusted by 28%, premiers (or provincial government) by 27%, and local councils by 24% of South Africans. The corollary is not surprising: 67% of the survey participants report that they are willing to give up elections if the substitute can provide security, housing and jobs. This orientation has been evident since 2006, yet those who are “very willing” to do this rose from 35% in 2018 to 46% in 2021.

This is a new South Africa — one in which the conventional political authorities count less and less, and parallel and informalised processes are endorsed. I identify these trends in my book Precarious Power. The ANC does not collapse; in some respects it remains “dominant” or at least substantially stronger than the rest of the also-not-highly-esteemed political parties. But much of political and economic activity is not channelled through the ANC government. Protest and revolt, and self-help looting and criminal rings, along with many other iterations, supplement the formal, but discredited processes.  

The ANC and its government in the past few months have done little to invent restitution of depleting levels of authority. First, uncontained party factionalism led to massive public damage that also holds future knock-on effects. Then ANC organisational haplessness and failed funding combined to ensure a spectacle of lapses in local election preparations.

In these chaotic and complex ways, South Africa has had a glimpse of the future beyond the time of authoritative political processes and institutions. DM


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  • Rg Bolleurs says:

    Quite agree. Authority seems to be slipping away. Etolls are and were a great example and the failure to prosecute state capture and to stop the looting signal that the state need not be taken seriously.

    Stuff like the pensions green paper and the election debacle reveal a government out of touch with reality and frankly, it’s quite amazing why anyone bothers to tune in to what they have to say.

    In the meantime, the ANC remains closseted in Luthuli house generating more grandiose schemes that everyone knows they can neither run nor fund, or killing economic growth with more stringent BEE when the dire need of the country is jobs and growth.

    It’s just not sensible to take them seriously at all.

    • Cosi Romanis says:

      Good points, and should labour on their cadre deployment policy. The deployment of party loyalists to further the interest of the party has promoted a sense of entitlement. BEE used to promote selective wealth creation, through nepotism and preferential contract allocation. Selected individuals, positioned such to facilitate the rerouting of development funding into the bank accounts of corrupt individuals, the entitled, depriving those that are in dire need of positive change. There is little, or no difference, in their policy approach to cadre deployment, and organized crime.

  • Dennis Bailey says:


  • Hermann Funk says:

    We not only need a totally re-aligned political landscape, but also have to seriously consider how to transform one of the greatest disadvantages of democracy (the latter applies to all democracies). The main focus of voted officials is always to secure re-election. This prevents them to develop and implement long-term visions.

  • Karsten Döpke says:

    Personally I can’t wait for the day when the running of the state is left to AI, no politics, only systems and policies for long term growth and wellbeing of the country and its citizens.We are obviously unable or unwilling to do a decent job ourselves.

  • J LOMBARD says:

    “South Africa has had a glimpse of the future beyond the time of authoritative political processes and institutions.” Chilling. In the words of Alexander Hamilton: “Too much power leads to despotism, too little leads to anarchy and both eventually to the ruin of the people.”

  • Glyn Morgan says:

    It is very obviously time to think of a practical alternative to the ANC. You know my choice. Now make yours! Do some serious thinking first.

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