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Welcome to the dispiriting scene that is South African politics


Tim Cohen is editor of Business Maverick. He is a business and political journalist and commentator of more years than he likes to admit. His freelance work has included contributions to the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times, but he spent most of his life working for Business Day. After a mid-life crisis that didn't include the traditional fast car, Cohen now lives in the middle of nowhere in the Karoo.

Could we take a moment to step back and look at what has happened in local politics, because I get the feeling a fundamental sea-change has taken place, which not un-typically is not recognised by the political class.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

It’s understandable that the politicians and bureaucrats struggle to understand the full complexities of running a parastatal as large and difficult as, say, Eskom. Few can. But you might have thought the one thing politicians would understand is the process of getting elected. A fundamental aspect of that process is submitting a list of names of the people you want elected to the IEC. 

So leave aside for a moment the decision by the IEC to throw the ANC a lifeline and reopen the submission process – that was always going to happen, and arguably should – you don’t want democracy to be undermined because of a bureaucratic bungle. 

But think for a moment what it means that the ANC could not actually get that together. The party has all kinds of dubious claims as to why it could not get the names in along the lines of “the toner for the fax machine had run out”, and the IEC’s website was “down”.

Now add the fact that its own staff have not been paid and tried to bring a court case against party, hastily withdrawn, to get their salaries. In combination, what you have is the most extraordinary ineptitude, even by ANC standards. How did this happen?

We don’t know, but it’s not hard to guess; as Carol Paton pointed out in a recent analysis in Business Day, the precise problems that the ANC has inflicted on the public in general have now, at last, come home to roost within the party. 

The issues are completely within the realm of what we have learned over the past 25 years; they are cadre deployment, laxity, greed, and factionalism. The ANC elected two of its worst administrators to, get this, head the party. Ace Magashule ran his province absolutely into the ground, and was rewarded with the most senior position in the party. From that elevated vantage point, he has spent the past two years trying to build links with the alliance of the discontented, with an eye to staying out of jail for years of what appears on the face of it to be grotesque corruption in his past. 

Elbowed out by the party, Magashule’s replacement is the assumptive, off-kilter, gratuitously dysfunctional Zuma-faction acolyte Jesse Duarte. That the party has run out of money under her watch is completely unsurprising. 

That covers, briefly, the cadre deployment and factionalism issues. What about greed and laxity? Like it has done with public servant salaries, SOE bailouts, and the rest, the ANC’s approach to money is so gratuitously unaware of what it takes to make money, and so spendthrift in parting with it, that somehow the party itself has become embroiled in the process. The party decided to match the salaries of head office positions with those in the civil service so that  party workers would not be prejudiced by working for the party. The problem is that government pays civil servants with extortionate taxes, but party members with what it can extort from tenderpreneurs. That has kept the party locked in a cycle of having to grant inflated state contracts to its support base – but opened the party to corruption, which has, as we now all know, spread in cancerous fashion.

There is a twist here, and that is the Political Party Funding act which has just kicked into action. The ANC proposed the bill essentially I think in the hope it could stymie its opponents because corporate SA would be embarrassed to acknowledge its funding of the DA. But the move backfired since it also puts tenderpreneurs at risk because it makes it more likely that the connection between party payments and state contracts will become public knowledge. No tenderpreneur want anyone to join those dots.

It’s also misconstrued because corporate SA has long ago stopped funding the DA, which now relies almost exclusively on a small group of very rich families, notably the Oppenheimer clan, because the DA’s determination to remain within its racial cocoon means it has no prospect of ever becoming the ruling party. 

So how has this played out in the public eye? We get previous few insights into the mindset of South Africans and those we do are kinda suspect. But just at the right moment, the one insight we have got recently is the small poll done by Ipsos, and the results are just mind-bending. 

The poll found support for the ANC in the local government election dropped from 51.8% in December 2020 to 34.9% in August 2021. These numbers are easy to misunderstand since they consist of the proportions of the total sample. In other words, they are not reflective of the outcome of the election because they include those who don’t intend to vote or won’t say how they intend voting. Ipsos does that calculation too and finds the ANC will get probably get just under 50% of the vote – which by the way, would still be its worst result in any national election.  

Why this is not front-page news everywhere I just don’t understand. Clearly there has been a huge mindset change; with the riots and the looting and the booze bans and the continuing corruption and the Covid-19 debacles. I think an increasing number of South Africans just don’t believe the ANC can be trusted anymore. That is the sum of it. 

You would think in these circumstances the opposition parties would be rolling in the sun, but here is the strange thing; they are not. The like-for-like aspect of the poll shows minor gains for the DA and the EFF remains static.

Welcome to the dispiriting scene that is SA politics. DM168


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  • Roger Sheppard says:

    Well it is pleasing to hear Tim Cohen has removed himself to a far and distant place – in the Karoo, or somewhere – which is simply tough luck for that far and distant place. Not so pleasing to read however, is his type of persistent DA-baiting that so many journalists use to prove they are second rate! Gwen Ngwenya’s DA policy representations made it clear: the DA stands for Non-racialism. This is a simple statement most eggheads understand. Perhaps Tim Cohen can listen quietly to the discussion between Gabriel Crouse and Helen Zille on the Minister Dlamini-Zuma’s alleged lies. Dlamini-Zuma effectively closed the voters’ role upon that proclamation. Within the in-and-outs of THAT proclamation shenanigan lies much sinister stuff. It is the DA taking the issue before the courts, the very court the mob-led ANC is wary of, in its search to recover from that potentially DISASTROUS lateness – no candidate list in 92 municipalities! NOTE: 92 municipalities, not 92 wards! AND note, dear hermit, the DA has a representative for every ward across the land for this forthcoming election, whenever THAT shall be, for the first time in its history.
    Rather should you strive to convince folk that the only serious opposition to the calamitous road down which the mob-led ANC is taking us all, is the DA!!
    So out there, dear hermit, keep away from the keyboard until you are more positive about opposition; keep it simple, sing country! Can the Concourt deliver come Monday? a luta continua DA!

    • sl0m0 za says:

      Well stated Robert !

    • Phil Evans says:

      Tim lets himself down with chestnuts like “because the DA’s determination to remain within its racial cocoon means it has no prospect of ever becoming the ruling party”. Without substantiation, a statement like that is just mendacious. Otherwise, it was a good analysis.

    • Dellarose Bassa says:

      Well, the IEC’s website & registration process only seem to work when the DA, as is typical of its organisation, is registering all its candidates for all wards – on time – for the Local Government Elections. The IEC website & systems only seem to become dysfunctional when the ANC – with its typical disorganization/ infighting/asleep-at-the-wheel modus operandi – want to register their candidates. Excuses, excuses! One would have to be deaf, dumb & blind to put them back into power. There are the rare exceptions in the ANC who can get the job done – but that’s the problem: they are rare & hamstrung by the “branches” & the snouts feeding at the tax-payer trough. Let’s not go there!

  • virginia crawford says:

    The opposition parties have shown an extraordinary lack of imagination in rallying people to vote, for anyone, other than the ANC. DA supporters should askvthemselves the tough question: although they have shown themselves to be able to run things better than the ANC, they are not able to win widespread support. You ‘ve got to be pretty useless not to be able to hear a bunch of incompetent crooks like the ANC. You can blame the media whatever, but take a long hard look at yourselves: the air of arrogance, the know-it-all-ness, the total lack of charm. I did vote for the DA as an anti- Zuma vote, but not because I like them. Helen Zille is so unwilling to relinquish power and that bossy attitude puts people off. John Steenhuizen: I wouldn’t buy a car from him is the best way to describe my feeling toward him. So get real DA and do what it takes to win!

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