Ramaphosa and the strange workings of ANC democracy

RW Johnson says power of regional patronage barons was on full display at the national conference

Ramaphosa and the Strange Workings of ANC Democracy

It is difficult to imagine that there is any country in which people are more leadership-focused than South Africa. Very often one finds that voters identify their party by its leader, not just as a fact about that party but as signifying its very identity: Buthelezi was Inkatha; Mandela was the ANC; Tony Leon was the DP/DA. One also notes that there is a great hunger to find the Providential Leader, a Smuts or a Mandela to whom one effectively surrenders one’s powers of judgement. Both white and black political traditions feed into this. The dominant African tradition is that of chiefly authority, while the trekboer tradition led to a similar veneration of strong leaders by whites.

One result of this political culture is an ever-present eagerness to believe that this or that figure – usually a new figure – will provide salvation. Currently the providential man is Cyril Ramaphosa. Not only do his ANC followers express extravagant hopes in him, but so too do any number of white journalists, businessmen and DA matrons. This is having real effects, as the ascent of the Rand shows. Ramaphosa’s embrace of “expropriation without compensation” – indeed, his declaration that this could produce “a garden of Eden” in South Africa – suggest that he shares this unrealistic euphoria.

In fact, the first time that any farm is expropriated without compensation, all agricultural land in the country becomes valueless and unsale-able. Farmers will no longer have the collateral for their loans and most would go bust immediately, a huge consequent blow to the banks, to exports and to food security. In the ensuing chaos and famine, it is most unlikely that any government would survive. With “expropriation without compensation” the ANC has found its own form of Mutually Assured Destruction and Ramaphosa, like Dr Strangelove, seems to have learned to love the Bomb.

The ANC leadership contest has shed a strong light on the current state of the movement. In the months before the conference, the eNCA TV station used the services of Markdata to conduct a large opinion survey among some 5 000 people, including some 2 700 self-declared ANC voters. Focus groups were also convened in various parts of the country. The results were striking. ANC voters everywhere said that President Jacob Zuma was a disgrace: he had pulled the country down and brought pervasive corruption, the cause of every woe. He had to be got rid of – and then the ANC would self-correct and again become the ANC of Mandela. So they would vote ANC again: after all, how could they vote for the opposition Democratic Alliance which (ridiculously) they thought would abolish all welfare payments and restore apartheid? The results of this survey provide an unrivalled picture of the country’s mood on the cusp of a great change.

When ANC voters were asked who they would prefer as their new president, 48.4% said Ramaphosa and 21% Zuma’s ex-wife, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. Of the nine provinces Ramaphosa led in eight, the exception being Zuma’s bastion, KwaZulu-Natal. When one looked at the tribal breakdown, Ramaphosa led by 3:1 among the Sotho, by 5:1 among the Tswana, by 9:1 among the Pedi, and by 8:1 among minority tribes.

Among Xhosas he led by better than 2:1 and even among Zulus his support stood at 32.8%, as opposed to 37.5% for Dlamini-Zuma. That was the situation as of September 2017, but when the pollsters returned to some of their sample in late November, the Ramaphosa momentum had continued and he now led Dlamini-Zuma by 64% to 14%.

The pollsters also asked ANC voters whether they preferred the “radical economic transformation” policies of Zuma/Dlamini-Zuma, aimed at a complete redistribution of all wealth and income, or whether they would prefer a more pro-business orientation in the hope that that would bring more jobs.

Overall, African voters preferred the latter by a 5:2 majority. Although Ramaphosa’s image was that of a wealthy businessman supported by other businessmen, the pollsters found that he was supported by large majorities among the less educated, the poorer and the unemployed. The reason is obvious: under ANC rule the number of unemployed people has risen from 3.7 million to 9.4 million. Inevitably, jobs are by far the No.1 issue – and Ramaphosa was thought more likely to mean more jobs.

Then came the ANC conference where one saw the full power of the regional patronage barons, of Zuma’s incumbency, and of the bribery and manipulation of the delegates from the ANC branches. As a result Ramaphosa won, by the narrowest of margins, what should have been a landslide. The result turned on three provinces in particular – Mpumalanga, the Free State and the North West. The pollsters had found that Ramaphosa led in all three by 3:1 or 4:1, but the Free State and the North West delivered their bloc votes to Dlamini-Zuma and Mpumalanga dithered, at first supporting a (fictional) Unity candidate and then sliding onto Ramaphosa’s side at the last moment.

This last switch was what decided the contest and it left Zuma visibly thunderstruck and unmanned. His daughter, who had been sitting elsewhere in the hall, quickly went and sat next to her father, knowing that his hopes had been dashed. David Mabuza, the premier of Mpumalanga, had clearly made a deal with the Zuma camp and then got a better offer from Ramaphosa.

In addition, the conference voted for radical economic transformation including the expropriation of land without compensation – exactly the policy which bankrupted Zimbabwe.

One cannot understand the results without realising that power in today’s ANC lies largely with great regional barons who control patronage, jobs, tenders and contracts. Three such barons are particularly visible: David Mabuza of Mpumalanga, Ace Magashule of the Free State and Supra Mahumapelo of the North West. All three men rule their provinces with a rod of iron. In both the North West and Mpumalanga, what bribery and patronage can’t do is sometimes settled by assassination.

In some cases the liberation “war veterans” – as in Zimbabwe, actually young thugs drilled as a private army – bullied and intimidated those who did not take the Zuma side. Magashule is deeply involved with the Gupta family, who have been Zuma’s main sponsors and beneficiaries. Thanks to the manipulation of conference votes, he has now become the ANC’s Secretary-General – the boss in charge of the entire organisation.

There were no angels here. To win Ramaphosa had to fight fire with fire. In the run-up to the conference, he raised hundreds of millions of Rands from white business (leading the Zuma forces to depict him as “the candidate of the imperialists, of white monopoly capital”). One has to ask what this money was used for. After all, Ramaphosa is worth at least $420 million himself. The campaign was simply a matter of public appearances and speeches. There were no leaflets, no posters, no TV ads. So what could all that money be spent on other than financial inducements of one sort or another? It is a very safe bet, in other words, that not only David Mabuza but many ANC delegates went home from the conference a whole lot richer. For most of them after all, this would have been the primary reason to join the ANC.

It is a peculiar thing to watch a political party nominate by a hair’s breadth a candidate preferred by its voters by a huge majority and then endorse economic policies which are precisely the opposite of what its own party voters want. Is it really the case that the activists who make conference policy are so different from ANC voters at large? It seems unlikely.

The Zuma strategy lay in the slogan of “radical economic transformation” and the campaign against “white monopoly capital”. His last-minute announcement of free higher education was clearly supposed to show evidence of what radical economic transformation might look like, viz. a purely voluntarist radicalism not based on budgeting or rational economic calculation. The conference vote for the expropriation of land without compensation showed that this approach to policy-making is far from dead in the ANC.

But what is interesting about this strategy is the assumption that the way to mobilise and win over conference delegates is via appeals for racial solidarity against whites (all landowners being presumed to be white). Thabo Mbeki, it should be remembered, made the same assumption: he abandoned the non-racial rhetoric of the Mandela period for continuous appeals for black solidarity against whites.

The powerful thing about this sort of racial populism is only partly due to black hostility to whites (which opinion surveys suggest is far from universal) and much more to the implication that any black who does not rally to this cry is proving him- or herself to be a willing pawn of the whites and thus standing outside and against other blacks.

Most blacks are extremely nervous of such an accusation, not only because African tradition emphasises the complete consensus of the village community but because no one has forgotten the fate meted out during the Struggle to those suspected of such disloyalty: within ANC circles the most dread accusation was of “selling out”.

The most striking manipulation was seen with the bloc votes from the Free State, the North West and Mpumalanga. The Free State’s vote was decided at an almost certainly illegal meeting of the provincial general council held with not much more than one day’s notice. The premier, Ace Magashule, is not only openly in league with the Guptas but has often distributed to his ANC followers largesse deriving from the Guptas.

In the North West, opponents of the premier, Supra Mahumapelo, have been driven out and, in some cases, gunned down. More than forty ANC branches that supported Ramaphosa were simply dissolved and replaced by fake new branches of Mahumapelo’s puppets. In Mpumalanga too, opponents of the premier, David Mabuza, have been known to meet a violent end: journalists joke uneasily that Mabuza “runs the most efficient police state in Africa”.

This is the violent reality of power in three of South Africa’s nine provinces, but their violence is easily surpassed by KwaZulu-Natal where scores of ANC officials and activists have been murdered. Things are relatively better in the three Cape provinces (West, East and North), but it is a matter of degree rather than of kind.

One cannot but be reminded of the scenario painted by IRR CEO Frans Cronje, who depicts a future in which the black and white middle classes continue to live in a privileged bubble in the big cities, while the rest of the country is ruled either by traditional chiefs or criminal gangs. We are already some way towards that.

One of the interesting features of the focus groups conducted by Markdata was the nostalgia for the old Bantustans that they uncovered in several places. The reasons given were twofold: first, the Bantustans had brought many jobs – a local civil service, police force, broadcasting authority and airline, for example – almost all of which had vanished after 1994; and second, there was the possibility of access to power within that Bantustan, whereas after 1994 all power was transferred to (inaccessible) Pretoria.

But as one surveys the contemporary landscape one can see another reason. The Bantustan rulers in the North West, the Free State and Mpumalanga were all much less oppressive than their present-day replacements, while Buthelezi’s rule in the KwaZulu “homeland” was not accompanied by anything like the degree of violence which marks contemporary KwaZulu-Natal.

Similarly, today’s large black townships are all far less controlled by the police than they were thirty or forty years ago. Today’s police are far more corrupt, ill-disciplined and simply absent, leaving a much freer field for the gangs. This, then, is the uncomfortable reality. No one believes that the old apartheid order was fair or just, but the hope was that it would be superseded by something better. As one looks at the lived reality of black life in South Africa’s townships and rural areas today – the gangs, the oppressive local bosses, the violence, the mountainous unemployment and the often tyrannical chiefs – it is difficult to believe that this has happened.

This is an extract from the IRR’s latest issue of @Liberty, published today (see here).