A "pivot" after the polls?

William Saunderson-Meyer says the elections are unlikely to arrest SA's downward trajectory


It’s apparently going to be pivotal. Aside from any anxiety South Africans have about next week’s election, that it will be “pivotal” to the country is the pre-election consensus of an array of foreign news organisations, including the Financial Times and Forbes, as well as the Associated Press, Reuters, and Al-Jazeera news organisations.

Well, as one says in Afrikaans, ja-nee. Yes and no.  

Yes, the election is pivotal in that for the first time in three decades, the power of the African National Congress will face some checks. It almost certainly will have to do deals with other parties to be allowed to function as a minority government and may even have to enter into formal power-sharing coalitions.___STEADY_PAYWALL___

It’s likely then that ANC power will be constrained. However, that’s not necessarily pivotal to the way that the new government will function over the next five years.

There will be no substantial pivot towards political and economic pragmatism. There will be no less appetite for social engineering. There will be no slowing in turning our backs on a Western worldview based on broadly Judean-Christian values.

The ANC and its tripartite alliance have bulldozed the South African landscape into new and often malignant forms. Even if there were to be a radical shake-up of the existing political order, the clock can’t quickly rewind on the damage that ANC has done.

In the revolutionary jargon that it employs, the ANC has largely managed to impose its hegemony on every aspect of South society.

The first thrust was the parachuting of its cadres into the most powerful and influential positions of society. State-owned entities, parastatals, social, economic and cultural organisations, as well as the Chapter Nine institutions that were created to defend the Constitution and cannot execute their mandate unless they are rigorously non-partisan. That final citadel against unfettered State power, an independent and free-thinking judicial system, has also gradually been infiltrated with ANC-sympathetic judges and malleable prosecutors. 

The second was the legislative transformation of the economic and social landscape through legislation. Expropriation without compensation, race quotas and most recently, the planned deconstruction of the private health sector through the National Health Insurance Act, will continue to fundamentally change the contours of how we live, work and survive.

The third thrust was more subtle, the co-option of institutions that during the National Party years were previously remarkably critical of State policies and to some degree constrained their implementation. The universities and the media, previously counterpoints to the unfettered power of the State, now largely share the ruling party’s frame of reference. 

When one looks at this background against which the election takes place, one must concede to the ANC’s boast. Yes, it has transformed South Africa. We live in a country very different from 1994 when it first came into power. All that one can contest — which is of course what general elections measure — is whether these have made this a better, stronger nation or a worse, weaker one.

All the signals are that the majority of the populace broadly agrees with the course that has been set, though it may not agree with who exactly will be at the helm. That course is leftwards.

Over three decades, the centre-right parties — a continually spawning mess of political minnows feeding off the official opposition, the Democratic Alliance (DA) — has never at a national level garnered much more than a third of the vote. And the ANC, when one includes the radical Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), has never had under two-thirds.

Radical change is not on the cards for 29 May. The opinion poll consensus is that the ANC will get under 50% but won’t be obliterated. Similarly, the creaky Multi-Party Coalition (MPC), of which the DA at about 24% is the mainstay, may grow marginally but has no hope of a majority. 

The greatest political ferment has been on the left, with the last-minute addition of Jacob Zuma’s uMkhonto weSizwe Party (MKP) being the yeast to get the left-of-centre brew bubbling. Either of the EFF and MKP — predicted together to be in the vicinity of 20% — could in a coalition with the ANC deliver to Cyril Ramaphosa the majority he needs. 

Although both stress their radical credentials, both broke from the ANC on issues of personality rather than policy. Unfortunately, both Zuma and EFF leader Julius Malema loathe Ramaphosa and would surely demand his head as the price of any deal.

If the ANC wants to keep Ramaphosa, and if he wants to stay, the party may just try to survive as a minority government. That’s a tricky manoeuvre — it could involve temporary alliances on key issues both on the left and on the right — through a combination of persuasion, threats and promises of reward. 

While this would usher in a period of instability and uncertainty, the ANC has previously shown at the provincial and municipal levels that it is skilled at cutting deals to stay in charge. It’s also attractive because it will allow the party to salvage some dignity and buy time to steady the ship. 

None of these scenarios involves the ANC having to abandon its ruinous policies. All of these scenarios are likely to mean more of the same rather than a “pivotal” reset towards political and economic pragmatism.

If anything, because the ANC is losing support mostly on the left, not the centre-right — unless next Wednesday’s vote upends all the opinion poll predictions — the next ANC government will not only continue but possibly accelerate South Africa’s decline.

Ramaphosa has quietly proved to be, although it is yet to dawn on the commentariat, our most quietly ideological president yet. Expropriation without compensation, stricter racial quotas in employment, more cadre deployment, and the destructive ideological rigidities baked into the National Health Insurance — signed into law last week — are all the handiwork of the president that the business community and most of the media lauded as a social-democrat pragmatist.

Abroad, while a true commitment to multi-polar diplomacy might benefit South Africa, Ramaphosa’s foreign policy is only nominally non-aligned. Aside from the ANC’s ideological embrace of the likes of Cuba, Venezuela and Zimbabwe, its new close friends — none of which, except for China, is among the top ten countries investing in or trading with South Africa — are mostly a rag-bag of reprobates that includes Iran and Russia. 

Those who believe in a mixed-economy social justice-oriented democracy that is inclusive of racial minorities and Western liberal values should brace for disappointment. No pivot. Just a straight line tilting downwards.

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