In search of SA's elusive 'rational centre'

William Saunderson-Meyer asks how long the ANC's dominance is likely to endure


The frustration, anger and despair that many feel at the slow-motion disintegration of South Africa has two aspects to it. The first is a noxious government; the second, an opposition that has been ineffectual at unseating them.

The African National Congress is irretrievably corrupt and to retain power is increasingly prepared to embrace race-baiting, autocracy, and ruinous economic policies. After three years of post-Zuma drift, it should by now be clear that President Cyril Ramaphosa and his stout-hearted band of “struggle stalwarts”, as they style themselves, will not be able to reform the party from within.

Change has to come from outside. Post-1994, there has never been a more urgent need for a vigorous and inspiring opposition that can attract the support of a deeply disenchanted electorate, a substantial number of whom no longer vote ANC but can’t bring themselves to vote for anyone else. 

Unfortunately, never has the opposition been weaker and more fragmented. The Official Opposition, the Democratic Alliance, through some spectacularly poor decisions on leadership and municipal alliances with the Economic Freedom Fighters, has shrunk its support from 27% of the vote to barely a fifth. 

The new parties created by DA breakaways Herman Mashaba and Mmusi Maimane are vanity creations that exist to feed the egos of their founders. They are doomed to go nowhere, much in the same manner as happened before them with Good, Agang, the United Democratic Movement, the Congress of the People, and to a lesser extent, the Inkatha Freedom Party.

Last week, DA leader John Steenhuisen said that the DA was willing to work with reform-minded pragmatists, including within the ANC and civil society, to form a “rational centre”. The only condition was agreement on certain core principles: constitutionalism, non-racialism, and a capable state operating in a social market economy. 

This is neither a controversial nor novel idea. There is plenty of polling and anecdotal evidence to indicate that such an alignment would find wide favour, especially among the self-disenfranchised — remember, 36m people were eligible to vote in 2019, of whom fewer than 27m bothered to register, while only 17m actually voted.

The problem is that a mere splintering of ANC reformists would not be enough. An analysis of votes cast in National Assembly elections paints a dispiriting picture of the party’s innate strength. 

In the first democratic election in 1994, when South Africa’s population stood at 39m, the ANC’s vote totalled 12.2m. In 2019, with the population now at 58m, it had sunk to barely 10m. Nevertheless, if one added to the equation the1.9m voters who support its populist stalking horse, the EFF, their combined vote would still give such a coalition a greater than two-thirds parliamentary majority, based on historical levels of voter turnout.

Consequently, for Steenhuisen’s rational centre to happen would take an event of seismic proportions that triggered mass defections from the ANC. Former DA leader Tony Leon — the pugnacious first and longest-serving leader of the official opposition and a man who knows a thing or two about growing parties through mergers and acquisitions — has some challenging thoughts on this.

In his just-published book, Future Tense: Reflections on My Troubled Land, Leon is predictably unsparing of the failures of the ANC. He is similarly blunt about the failures of the DA to capitalise on those failures.

In this regard, Leon offers some refreshing insights on the “liberation dividend”, the survival of often staggeringly incompetent governments — like the ANC — because of voter gratitude for their role in the country’s liberation. Leon concedes that this visceral attachment, along with the powers of patronage and social-grant largesse that an incumbent ANC has, gives it a significant advantage. But it is not an unassailable one, he argues. 

Leon points out that the longest recorded liberation government in recent history was that of the Mexican Institutional Revolutionary Party, which held power for 71 years until 2000. Ireland’s Fianna Fáil survived for 61 years, to 2011. 

At the shorter end of the longevity scale, India’s National Congress Party, the movement of Gandhi and Nehru, was dominant for 30 years, until 1977. So, too, Israel’s Labour Party of which, he notes in an interesting aside, membership was essential for promotion in the fabled Israeli military.

“This brief electoral laundry list is worth emphasising for two reasons,” writes Leon. “The obvious one being that there is in the modern democratic world no such thing as an enduring natural majority party of government, absent massive state-aided electoral fraud or some military intervention.

“The second reason is allied to the first. Each of these parties was undone in the end by the very factor that had ensured its longevity. Untrammelled power leads to abuse and, over time, the excesses and the lack of empathy with ordinary voters bred by arrogant and out-of-touch political potentates inspires such strong revulsion that, in their numbers, they turn against their political overlords.”

Leon is careful not to predict that such a “popular awakening” is on the cards here. Although he does not mention them in his analysis, neighbouring Zimbabwe and South Africa provide contradicting evidence of how things might play out, in the future.

In Zimbabwe, terrible economic and social dislocation did trigger a voter revolt against Zanu-PF but this was brutally suppressed. With 41 years of practice at despotism and firm control of the armed forces and police, it is difficult to see a determined Zanu-PF government ever relinquishing power peacefully. 

On the other hand, the same used to be said of the vehicle for Afrikaner emancipation, the National Party. After 46 years of autocracy, it exited voluntarily in response to severe economic problems and increasing political resistance.

Once it started, the electoral decline of the Nats was satisfyingly precipitous. For most of the NP’s history, it had massive majorities in the House of Assembly  from 1948 to 1989 and a comfortable one until 1994. The 1994 election left it as the second-biggest party with 28% of the vote but five years later it was below 7% and by 2005 it had disbanded.

There’s no shortage of earthshaking events looming on South Africa’s immediate horizon. On the upside, unless they happen, it’s highly unlikely that Steenhuisen’s rational centre will emerge. On the downside, it’s going to be traumatic.

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye

Tony Leon’s Future Tense: Reflections on My Troubled Land is published by Jonathan Ball.