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Mandela’s dream deferred — the imploding ANC and the nightmare scenario that could take its place

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Oscar van Heerden is a scholar of International Relations (IR), where he focuses on International Political Economy, with an emphasis on Africa, and SADC in particular. He completed his PhD and Masters studies at the University of Cambridge (UK). His undergraduate studies were at Turfloop and Wits. He is currently a Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Fort Hare University and writes in his personal capacity.

Here’s the bedtime story I hope I won’t have to tell my grandchildren in 2042: The ANC implodes, the RET faction prevailed in the end. They did not care about playing within the rules. They played dirty and Cyril Ramaphosa’s men and women were outnumbered and outgunned at every turn. It was not a pretty sight.

The year is 2042 and I am sitting next to my granddaughter’s bedside in my son’s new home in Canada. Soon after he and his twin sister finished their university undergraduate studies, they both informed me that they don’t see their future here in the country of their birth. When I inquired why not, the answer was painfully self-evident to me.

You see they started university life in the year 2022 and by the end of that year, the then president of the ANC was unseated and a new president was elected. An unsavoury character according to them and as far as they were concerned, one who spells disaster for the future of the country. Where would you go, I enquired? Canada, came the unequivocal answer. I was disappointed but at the same time understood. That was in the year 2025.

“Grandpa,” my granddaughter asked, “please tell me the story of how South Africa imploded in the most spectacular manner in 2024.” I began the story reluctantly because it conjures up bad memories and sadness beyond words, but I continued.

And so it began, the battle for the soul of the ANC and its political survival after 110 years. It was clear then already that the ANC would at some point implode and a new political home for the majority of South Africans would emerge. The only question on everyone’s minds was, when exactly will that be? At the time it seemed most within the chattering classes which included the petit bourgeoisie and the bourgeois classes, wanted that date to be 2024. That was the date the next general election would take place and when the ANC lost its parliamentary majority. Why exactly they were so eager then, I did not know.

“Imagine,” I said to her, now hanging on my lips, “where we would be then if the same potency, passion and aspiration were among the same classes during the apartheid era. We would have rid ourselves of that crime against humanity much earlier than 1994, but alas.”

“But why were the whites not on your side, Grandpa?” she inquired. “I do not know dear, perhaps one day we will better understand why they did not fight against that evil system with the same vigour and energy.”

Returning to the story I narrated: it was 2022, the ANC had swelled and got much bigger than we ever could have imagined. We thus filtered out the imperfections and made excuses where we could. The Zondo Commission had just handed over the first of a three-part report decrying State Capture and made all sorts of recommendations to the president. Almost immediately some politicians called for the president not to use the report to settle political scores and deal with his detractors. But the allure of the report to be used in this way was too overwhelming it seemed.

The so-called radical economic transformation faction in the ANC was gaining momentum to the surprise of many, and they were beginning to win some of the crucial regional party conferences, which should have served as a warning. It did not.

We democrats were just too dumbstruck as to why anyone in his or her right mind would support some of these characters. I mean, many of them were facing corruption charges before the law, others had to step aside from public office because of these allegations and charges. And still, others were simply dubious and unsavoury characters all-round, lying about the death of relatives to gain sympathy and money, stealing public money meant to empower and embezzling it.

And still, others did everything in their power to enrich others at the expense of the people of SA — and still, we saw many people supporting such delinquents. All the while the civil servants and politicians drank and smoked and gambled from the proceeds of our taxes. Our leaders told us ordinary Joes it was best to have a social compact as the panacea for all our woes.

The Parliament building burnt down that year as if to serve as a warning of things to come. Perhaps a clear sign that said: your democracy will burn to the ground. The policy conference of the ANC came round and yet again the same old, same old was regurgitated, no new plan nor vision was in the offing. The economy was in a very bad state, unemployment soared, poverty levels persisted, even though the government introduced an unemployment grant in February of that year, further stretching the debt-to-GDP levels.

And thus the inequality widened even further. It was a disaster within a state of disaster. “What do you mean by that Grandpa?”

“Well you see to make matters worse among all this bigotry, infighting and politicking, there was also a virus we had to contend with, it was called Covid-19. It caused unimaginable damage and suffering globally and we were no exception in South Africa. Imports, exports, goods and services, our entire political economy lay in ruin because of it.”

At this point, it was clear that three possible scenarios would play out in December of that year which would define the future of us all. First, if the so-called RET faction continued gaining ground and support, they would take the ANC conference and elect their own president of the ANC, be in the majority in the NEC and determine who can and cannot be members of Parliament and the Cabinet.

The second scenario was that the CR22 faction keep their marginal majority and re-elect the then-sitting president for a second term and continue with the clean-up campaign that was underway at the time, thus, getting rid of the corrupt and self-serving leaders in the party.

And thirdly, no one faction is strong enough and hence a compromised outcome had to be sought in order to take the country forward.

Political killings and assassinations were the order of the day throughout that year. Intimidation, laying of criminal charges against each other was all part of the bouquet of offerings in this political war. It was a bloodbath, and no number of mobs and buckets of water could clean the stench left behind.

It was the RET faction that prevailed in the end. They had the most to lose, you see (like staying out of prison and losing all their belongings), being shamed after a life of struggle, and as such, they did not care about playing within the rules of the ANC constitution. They violated just about every rule, section and regulation governing the organisation. In other words, they played dirty and the CR22 guys were outnumbered and outgunned at every turn. It was not a pretty sight. All the while, President Ramaphosa preached unity while Rome, or perhaps Parliament, was burning.

The exodus was felt almost immediately after that conference. People with means made plans to permanently leave their birthplace. Then the money followed systematically over a number of months. By the time we got to the 2024 general elections, apathy was a given. People did not even bother to come to the polls. To vote for what, criminals and charlatans? The mass emigration was a blight on the legacy of Mandela and left an indelible print in all of our minds.

So, when some said that they would not be blackmailed or threatened into re-electing then-President Ramaphosa, little did they know.

The great realisation for us all was that we all preferred the world we found after 2017 and not the one defined by nine wasted years prior to that. Corrupt habits became extinct slowly but surely, and they made way for the new, good governance and ethical leadership.

Then, just before she closed her eyes to sleep, my granddaughter asked “why did it have to take the ANC to implode before things got better?” To which I replied, “sometimes you’ve got to get sick before you start feeling better. Now lie down and dream of tomorrow and all the things that we can do. And who knows, if we dream hard enough, maybe some of them will come true. We now call it the great realisation and yes since then there have been many, but that’s the story of how it started and why hindsight is 2020.” DM

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All Comments 16

  • Oh yes, a very complicated scenario but not unrealistic. I really can’t see CR surviving the ANC election this year, he’s just too slow to realise that his feet are in the fire and that his country needs leadership. If all dreams had a happy ending the people of this country could survive but I think you’re underestimating the viciousness in the enemy. I simply can’t see any one person in any leadership position in this country that deserves to be there, either as a leader or as a thinker.

  • Thanks Oscar. Scary and eye opening. Yes, I also don’t know why white South Africans have not fought apartheid more vigourously. Most of them are dead now and their children are still apologising – but the apologies are not accepted. Those who support RET factions should be equally ashamed – they are just doing what white South Africans of yester-year did. Supporting a system, either because they are blind, or because they want to feast of corruption. If apartheid was a crime against humanity (which it was), then Jacob Zuma’s legacy and what RET is propagating should also be regarded as equally criminal. May I never need to visit my children and grand children in Canada. Too cold for my liking. But sadly it will happen. I try to understand that as an African of European descent at my age I must still do my best to help South Africa to work. I saw the good (Mandela), the bad (Botha) and the ugly (Zuma) and that keeps me going. Sadly my children only saw the ugly. They have no obligation to apologise.

    • Sadly I didn’t have to wait for my grandchildren to emigrate.. My one and only child has gone, along with a few of his well educated and principled colleagues.
      They already saw no future in the land of their birth and were snapped up by countries that don’t give a toss about race or skin colour.

  • I have the same dream each night. I am standing in the path of the express train hurtling down the track, coming closer and closer, but I am so scared that I can’t jump out of the way. I suppose the only saviour is that realists can can note of the meaning of dreams while optimists have to accept the result.

  • Good article Oscar, and also very good comments by Charles and Heinrich. Whilst it appears the RET faction is obviously the biggest threat to our democracy, I believe they are not alone, far from it. There are many blatant corrupt individuals even in the CR camp. And then there are many question marks about some other political parties, like the EFF, ATM and Patriotic Alliance. But the most telling comment is by Charles that there is not a single person of any political party in a leadership position that really deserves to be there, certainly not somebody capable enough to lead the country. Until a true leader like Madiba or a Helen Suzman steps forward, there will always be the the REC-type factions, inherently corrupt, and being more interested in their own power and self-enrichment,

  • “But why were the whites not on your side, Grandpa?” she inquired. “I do not know dear, perhaps one day we will better understand why they did not fight against that evil system with the same vigour and energy.”

    Go back in history and try and read what happened in the Congo, Kenya, Zambia, Tanzania, Uganda, Angola, Mozambique and Zimbabwe in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. Look at these countries today, after decades of so-called democratic freedom. That is what white South Africans feared, justifiably or not.

    And the threat of the same outcome for South Africa, unfortunately, is not over yet. The road signs are all there – we simply choose to ignore them. In Zimbabwe it was known as the boiling frog syndrome.

    • How right you are. For many years I have been saying that apartheid was given another 20 years life quite unnecessarily by what was happening north of us. The only possible example of stability after independence was Botswana, but that had a very small population, a tiny economy and a good and wise man at the helm. It’s very different now that the population has expanded and the economy has grown substantially.

  • “ Imagine,” I said to her, now hanging on my lips, “where we would be then if the same potency, passion and aspiration were among the same classes during the apartheid era. We would have rid ourselves of that crime against humanity much earlier than 1994, but alas.”

    “But why were the whites not on your side, Grandpa?” she inquired. “I do not know dear, perhaps one day we will better understand why they did not fight against that evil system with the same vigour and energy.”

    That is a hurtful, racist and at the same time completely idiotic lie you told your granddaughter.

  • “White” South Africa and – for that matter – “White” Rhodesia always feared the very implosion you sketch in your article. The latter not without reason as history has unfortunately demonstrated! But we are tired of such ‘labels’ – we rather look to leaders of the calibre of Siya Kolisi or Tendai Mtawarira to take us forward. Both men understand very well the dynamics of Archbishop Tutu’s “rainbow nation” and our politicians would do well to take a leaf from the World Champions’ book.

  • Time to stop voting for the ANC or EFF! Time to vote for a democratic party that has a record of success. There is only one and that is the DA. So petulant commentators such as Coen Gous wait “until a true leader like Madiba or a Helen Suzman steps forward” before doing anything! You are whistling in the wind.

    The time to vote Democratic Alliance IS NOW! There is no other option! If the caliber of the leaders we get are as good as the ones that are holding the Western Cape and Cape Town at the top of South African standards so be it. It will be better than the scenario so well put across by Oscar!