The ANC after Mangaung

RW Johnson questions whether Cyril Ramaphosa can save the party from itself

Since the Mangaung conference of the ANC there has been a good deal of comment suggesting that the re-appearance of Cyril Ramaphosa in the top leadership offers a major chance of renewal in the party, especially since Gwede Mantashe has said Ramaphosa will effectively become the new prime minister.

Already there is a good deal of speculation of Ramaphosa even taking over as President just four years from now, in 2017, or even sooner, thanks to Zuma's continuing legal difficulties. Such speculation, I would argue, is not only wishful and naïve but reveals a fundamental ignorance about the nature of ANC rule.

The folly of the "Good Guy-Bad Guy" theory

A great deal of popular commentary (including that by the DA) suggests that the first five years of ANC governance under Mandela was a golden age, something we should strive "to get back to"; indeed the DA appears to believe this so thoroughly that it continually tries to situate itself as Mandela's true heirs. This golden age, again following popular commentary, was then followed by a silver age in which South Africa was led by a brilliant intellectual, Mbeki, with particular distinction in the foreign affairs field, but, sadly, with perplexing folly when it came to Aids and Zimbabwe.

When Mbeki was thrown out there followed an age of even baser metal in which the country was ruled by a corrupt and uneducated know-nothing who provided no leadership at all. Hence the drama of Ramaphosa's return to the scene, a partial return to the golden age.

Such a perspective represents a complete misreading of our recent history. Mandela's presidency was anything but a golden age. The old man had not the slightest idea of how to run a government and it was a mess, saved only by Mbeki's frantic back-stopping. An early casualty was the rule of law. The Shell House shootings - murders carried out in public view in the middle of Johannesburg - were successfully covered up by Mandela's bluster.

Mandela himself started out full of reconciliatory forgiveness but soon got fed up with whites who left and said "good riddance" to them. His speech at the ANC's Mafikeng conference was the most reactionary and anti-democratic ever given by an ANC leader. In it he attacked opposition parties and NGOs as part of a "counter-revolutionary conspiracy" which was encouraging crime, stealing weapons, subverting the economy and building up "alternative structures including intelligence machineries as well as armed formations". The speech only just stopped short of calling for the complete suppression of all opposition.

Meanwhile, at an early stage all cabinet co-ordination was lost. Ministers did much what they liked and they were certainly not going to tolerate an RDP Minister interfering in their departments, a major reason for the early demise of the RDP.

Policy was, inevitably, haphazard and blundering. The enforced retirement en masse of the country's best schoolteachers was a blunder of historic proportions, permanently downgrading the whole education system. This was followed by continual hammer blows to the educational system, of which the imposition and then abandonment of Outcomes Based Education was the greatest. Aids was simply ignored, allowing the virus to spread like wildfire.

For the first few years the government had no economic policy at all. It then lurched into Gear but never had the guts to implement that policy fully. Mandela delighted in telling business audiences that he "hadn't the first idea about economics". They applauded his frankness but it hardly helped the credibility of his government's policies.

Meanwhile, affirmative action boomed and the systematic ruination of the civil service, the parastatals and the entire state machine began. Corruption also really took off under Mandela, with the notorious arms deal a high point. Mandela more or less lost interest in being President after 1997 and needed continuous prodding to do his job for the two years after that.

What was really different about the Mandela period was that most whites and the media were so relieved to find that ANC rule meant a dear old man, full of generous instincts, firmly non-racist and eager for reconciliation and also with a nice sense of humour, that they were swept up into a sort of feel-good enthusiasm for the New South Africa. This was all very nice but as has been observed, "The operation was not a success and the patient was left in a much weakened state. But no one noticed because not only the patient but all the observers were under anaesthetic at the time."

The Mbeki period which followed saw the continuation of all these disastrous policies and the generalisation of affirmative action to the private sector. Worse, BEE began - a form of licensed corruption and crony capitalism. Mbeki's admirers continually emphasised his giant intellect, a praise-song Mbeki very much wanted to hear. 

He liked to pontificate about colonialism in, for example, Haiti and Sudan, but any examination of his writings showed many gross historical inaccuracies. His intellectual ambitions far outran his real capacity. Mbeki attempted to centralise all power in his own hands and the media ran scared before him. Worst of all, of course, was his wilful Aids denialism, which cost an estimated 365,000 lives, and his persistent support of Mugabe.

The Zuma period has essentially been a further continuation. Corruption and factionalism have raged ever more openly, but all the seeds of this had been sown long before Zuma's arrival in power. The two great gains were a noticeably tougher attitude towards Mugabe and a complete reversal of Mbeki's Aids denialism. Credit for this last development is often given to the Minister of Health, Aaron Motsoaledi. He doubtless deserves much of this praise, but it should be realised that the key decision was Zuma's. He may be an uneducated man but on this subject he was simply far more sensible than the more educated Mbeki.

By simply reversing Mbeki's policy and ensuring that anti-retroviral drugs get to those who are HIV+ Zuma has brought down Aids deaths in 2005 (under Mbeki) of 257,000 to 194,000 in 2011. In the same period life expectancy has risen from 54 to 60 and mother-to-child transmission of HIV has fallen from 8.5% to 2.7%.[1] This is, of course, just another way of measuring Mbeki's genocidal policy. He is extremely fortunate not to be on trial either in Johannesburg or in the Hague. The demise of Mbeki's folly has also seen the disappearance from the scene of the crazy international Aids denialists (as well as the local Traditional Healers Organization) who were subsidized by Mbeki, deeply disgracing South Africa in the eyes of the world.

Zuma will probably never again do such a fine thing: he has saved hundreds of thousands of lives and removed a great stain from South Africa's international image.

The other great gain was mainly inadvertent. Under Mandela and Mbeki the press had been subservient and scared and it was extremely difficult for the Opposition to get its views heard. Once the Mbeki vs. Zuma battle opened up, however, the press seized its opportunity and became far more independent and critical. Having won power, Zuma inevitably wanted the press to retreat back inside its old kennel, but the deed has been done and, as Hillary Clinton observed of her husband, "that's a very difficult dog to keep on the porch".

Indeed, Zuma is criticized and ridiculed far more than any preceding South African President. Most to blame are his failure to lead on many policy areas and the persistent reports of corruption within his closest circles, together with the wider pandemic of corruption which envelops the ANC as a whole. The party now is merely a federation of corrupt warlords, all exacting money from their subjects like so many medieval barons.

It is only when they are unwise enough to oppose Zuma that any notice is taken of their corruption. Zuma's triumph at the ANC's Mangaung Conference was essentially the triumph of a Tammany boss, punishing foes by cutting them off from favours while distributing patronage to his own loyalists. A corrupt provincial congress here, a corrupt warlord there, a rigged election here and there, the careful packing of branch meetings and every other sort of shenanigan became merely routine.

A single garment, cut from whole cloth

The key point to realise is that African nationalism is a garment made from a single whole cloth - in the same way that Afrikaner nationalism was before it. There is in such parties a sort of bubble, a closed-off world of a national ethos perceived in one very particular way. It matters not that a Malan or Strijdom comes or goes (or an Mbeki or a Zuma): there is a single, confident guiding ethos and it is quite impervious of the fact that the rest of the world thinks it is wrong or mad. In that case, by definition, the rest of the world is wrong.

Inside that parochial bubble everything is always for the very best. Moreover, the changes which happen within that bubble - the gradual evolution of apartheid from a mere slogan into a fully philosophized and implemented religion - are always immanent. What the ratings agencies are really telling you - just as they told apartheid governments in the 1980s - is that your assumptions and those of the rest of the world are increasingly at variance. Sooner or later, one has to awake from that parochial dream.

But the ANC is not ready - yet - to do that. In that sense it really doesn't make any difference whether Motlanthe or Zuma is President: nothing very much could or would change. Just as it is wrong to regard the Mandela period as a lost golden age - the downward slide began then in earnest - so much of the speculation about the elevation of Ramaphosa is unwarranted.

It is true that he is a competent and modern man, economically literate and, perhaps above all, part of the internal struggle, the democratic and multi-racial UDF, a very different pedigree than that of the Robben Islanders and exiles who have ruled South Africa since 1994. But a moment's thought suggests that the idea of a Prime Minister Ramaphosa driving through the National Development Plan is highly unlikely.

Should he attempt this he would be following exactly in the shoes of the RDP Minister, Jay Naidoo. He would come up hard against the fact that implementing the NDP would mean interfering in almost every ministry and that the breakdown in cabinet co-ordination under Mandela has now had twenty years to dig in. Forcibly overcoming those resistances would mean offending many different interest groups and institutional interests. This is not something Zuma has ever been willing to do and Ramaphosa would have no hope if Zuma did not support him all the way.

Cyril Ramaphosa and the failure of ANC governance

Beyond that there is the simple fact that ANC policy has been fundamentally mistaken in many areas. Affirmative action has destroyed the state machine and the parastatals; BEE has encouraged corruption; labour legislation has helped hobble industry and lower productivity; land policy has seen the destruction of food production; and the legislation on mining threatens to kill the golden goose on which the entire country depends. What is needed is someone bold enough to roll back these mistakes in one area after another. This would require great determination and political strength. Would Ramaphosa really do that?

Perhaps the most dramatic sign of national decline has been the continuing fall in the country's credit ratings. Listen to Ramaphosa on that: "If the rating agencies were to pause and look closely at the direction that the ANC is taking this country in....I am confident that the (recent) downgrading should be turned into an upgrade. We have great policies." and "I would like the business community and the rating agencies to look closely at the policies, not just look at the reports and the our policies."[2] In other words, the same old ANC nonsense, a blithe confidence that the ANC has got it right and that we all just need to see things their way.

This sort of denialism is almost as absurd as Mbeki's Aids denialism. The facts are that South Africa is running an increasing budget deficit and current account deficit, that both poverty and unemployment have increased vertiginously under ANC rule, that the government is in the ridiculous situation of having an economy which provides 80% of the world's platinum and yet still can't run profitable platinum mines, that the state machine has been destroyed, that the country's armed forces, something like the 10th strongest in the world in 1990, are now as weak as a baby, that our once cheap and plentiful electricity has become rare and expensive, that local authorities throughout the land are being looted, that cadre deployment is crippling the parastatals. And so, on and on. ANC policies have been a complete disaster, inaugurating a period of unprecedented national decline. This is clear to almost everyone, including the rating agencies - but not, apparently, to Cyril Ramaphosa.

It is worth pointing out that the problems we are confronting today are not just what has happened to pop up as "events, dear boy, events", as Harold Macmillan would say. They are the result of the cascading effects of ANC policy failures over nearly 20 years. True, Zuma's selection of Ramaphosa as his deputy is a sign of a recognition within the ANC that some sort of turn-around is needed, not least in the ANC's disastrous public image. But it is this cascading, cumulative effect of governance failure which makes our current problems so difficult.

Moreover, it is important to realise that the ANC and SACP never foresaw any of these problems - in a sense they weren't meant to exist. Those who drew up the Freedom Charter spoke of how the doors of learning would be opened, for example: the assumption was that there would be good schools (and hospitals) and that all that was required was a splendid and sweeping removal of all restrictions on free access. There was absolutely no thought that the standards of educational and health provision would collapse under ANC governance, any more than there was any discussion as to how to control corruption.

Indeed, it was assumed that in the new, democratic and post-apartheid society, corruption would not exist. The naiveté of such thinking now seems breath-taking. There was similarly no thought of how policing and law and order would collapse under ANC rule. True, towards the end of the struggle there were claims that the ANC had witnessed the failures of many governments in Africa and would therefore know how to avoid their mistakes.

In fact the ANC has repeated virtually all the mistakes of African governments elsewhere - right down to the wrong-headed refusal to invest sufficiently in power stations so that South Africa has joined the long list of African countries to have problems over power supply. This was the one and only time that Thabo Mbeki apologised to the electorate, for he knew all too well how symbolic - and how representative of Africa - such a failure was.

That is to say, to reverse current trends would not only require the repeal of a great deal of the ANC's legislation of the last nineteen years but it would also require a sharp alteration from the ANC's historic mind-set. In ANC terms, what is required is nothing less than a South African Gorbachev who abandons the failed initiatives of decades past and consigns his own party to the scrap-heap. There is very little likelihood of such a figure emerging within the ANC leadership and, as he himself would be the first to declare, there is no reason to believe that Cyril Ramaphosa is such a person.

The ethnic dimension

It has often been observed that while the ANC has a numerical majority, it is still culturally a minority. The truth of this has seldom been more apparent, for the Zuma government has had to endure a torrent of criticism and mockery unprecedented in South African history. After all the facile talk of "high roads", of being a "winning nation", and foolish attempts to persuade Pretoria that South Africa should behave like an Asian Tiger, there is now open talk of the tipping point to failed state status.

The South African media can see that we are at present quite obviously a losing nation and they do not like it. Their particular bile is vented on the blundering, foot-in-mouth Zuma: even the Malema-ites mock him with gestures of a shower poised over his head - Zapiro's mockery has sunk in even to the furthest left reaches of the ANC coalition.

Unsurprisingly, the KwaZulu-Natal ANC sees a media conspiracy of bias in such attacks. The barely coded message is "This is how you treat a Zulu President: when we had Xhosa Presidents you treated them with respect." There is some truth to this. Among both black and white, and perhaps partly to offset the alarm occasioned by the Zulus' warrior reputation, there has long been a tendency to dismiss the Zulus as "peasants" and "stupid".

I remember all too well how Anthony Sampson, who spent much of his time in the company of ANC-supporting Xhosas, upbraiding me for attempting to give equal treatment to the ANC and IFP during their bitter war in Natal. I argued that each side deserved a fair crack of the whip. He was contemptuous: "let's face it, the Zulus are just bloody stupid" (a ridiculous comment for both sides were Zulus). In all other matters Anthony would have been a pillar of political correctness but when it came to Zulus it was perfectly OK to indulge in tribal vilification.

This is a not an uncommon bias and so the fact that Zuma is a Zulu has licensed a far more unrestrained style of criticism. The pent-up frustration felt by so many at the follies of ANC rule now has an outlet. In fact, as above, ANC rule is cut from a single cloth, but it is "legitimate" to tear into Zuma as an uneducated Zulu peasant, in a way that would have been unthinkable under Mandela or Mbeki. 

It is worth pausing to consider Ramaphosa's ascent in the light of the ethnic factor. One Zulu former cabinet minister told me "We might have a Venda president (i.e. like Ramaphosa) one day, but not in this generation. It's like America having a president who is a gay Jewish lesbian. It could happen one day, but no way can it happen now." It is worth remembering that only in the 1950s did the ANC show signs of becoming a mass  movement, of posing a genuine challenge to the government: hitherto it had not really mattered, which was why it was never banned.

Once it became significant an Nguni (Luthuli) took over as its President in 1952. Over the past sixty years the party's president has changed five times but the one constant is that an Nguni has always held the presidency.  Once the ANC returned home there was an inevitability about the leadership passing to a Zulu, for the Zulus are not merely the largest Nguni group but they are far more cohesive and self-confident than the Xhosas.

They have no doubt that they are a nation in their own right. They have two Zulu-language newspapers and Zulu is the lingua franca even of most Reef townships. The Xhosa Nostra seemed impressive only as long as Tambo, Mandela or Mbeki was in charge. Once the presidency was lost they seem disunited, at odds with one another and with no natural leader.

The glad assumption that Ramaphosa would immediately take over as Deputy President has been dispelled: Motlanthe will remain in office until May 2014. And it is too easily assumed that Ramaphosa will then take over. If Mangaung made one thing clear it was the complete dominance of KwaZulu-Natal. (Where will the BRICS summit be held? Pretoria? Jo'burg? Cape Town? No, Durban.) In the end the KZN slate was simply voted through intact to become the ANC slate. Ramaphosa owes his position to that - and to Zuma's decision to deploy Ramaphosa's credibility in his own cause. No wonder Ramaphosa has quickly set out on a charm offensive in KZN. But it is not difficult to imagine that, come the crunch, KZN will want one of its own to succeed Zuma.

Already there are mutterings that Zweli Mkhize may contest the Deputy Presidency in 2014 and one may be assured that when it comes to the actual succession to Zuma, to be decided in December 2017, there will be not one but quite possibly several Zulu hats in the ring - Mkhize, Jeff Radebe, perhaps even Blade Nzimande. Jeff Radebe has served in every government since 1994, is thus the most senior man in Cabinet, and was elected in first place to the National Working Committee. It would be a brave punter indeed who bet on Ramaphosa surmounting that obstacle.

There is, finally, age to consider. Zuma is already 70, Ramaphosa 60. Average African life expectancy is 60. In May 2014, when he takes office for his second term, Zuma will be 72. The risk that he will either die or no longer be making sense before his second term expires must be considerable. This may be Ramaphosa's best chance for if the presidency fell vacant in mid-term, Ramaphosa would succeed automatically, Venda or not. If not, in 2019 Ramaphosa will be 67, surely rather old to be starting a presidential term? Mkhize would be 63. (Jeff Radebe would be 66.)

For, of course, the ANC is ever more clearly becoming a male gerontocracy. It should be recognised that authoritarian parties quite normally became gerontocratic and, ultimately, dynastic, with family members privileged to succeed. In the Soviet Union of the 1980s the old joke was "Why is the Politburo so full of octogenarians?" Answer: "Because the nonagenarians keep dying off." Similarly, when Todor Zhivkov was finally overthrown in Bulgaria he was 78, and had been attempting to bring in his son to succeed him.

Mao died in office at 82 and his wife, Jiang Qing, attempted to succeed him. In Rumania, Nicolae Ceaucescu was 71 when he was overthrown and shot by a firing squad, along with his wife, Elena, whom he had made into a virtual co-ruler. The couple went to their death in comic opera style, singing the Internationale. In North Korea Kim Il Sung ruled until his death aged 82 and was succeeded first by his son and now his grandson - a perfectly monarchical succession.

In Cuba Fidel Castro ruled for 49 years when he retired, also aged 82 - and was succeeded by his brother, Raul, already aged 77. The pattern is too pronounced to be accidental. Already we have had rule by Thabo Mbeki, son of a movement aristocrat. Perhaps we had better steel ourselves for rule by Mandla Mandela, Lindiwe Sisulu or one of Zuma's huge and still growing clan.

RW Johnson



[1] All figures from Mail and Guardian, January 4 2013

[2] Business Report, Sunday Independent, December 23 2012


This article was published with the assistance of the Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung für die Freiheit (FNF). The views presented in the article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of FNF.

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