Few people, today, would not lament the wasted years of apartheid. The opportunities squandered, the enormous societal costs incurred.
Yet, in spite of being front-row participants to a disaster that slowly unspooled over 46 years, National Party voters, by and large, kept the faith. Despite the fractures and splinters, the slow growth of a liberal opposition with a coherent ideological alternative, the Nats were never in any real danger of being voted out of power.
The destruction of that party’s political grip on power came largely not from the dawn of reason in the white electorate, but a confluence of external factors that put immense pressure on the government of the day to make dramatic compromises. Even then, were it not for a fortuitous stroke that laid low the bellicose President PW Botha, opening the door for a palace revolt led by FW de Klerk, the decline would have continued inexorably.
And the stemvee, the voting cattle, as the Nats disparaging referred to their blindly loyal supporters, would probably have continued to vote for the party that had put the country in the dwang, in the first place. Or at least, they would have, until the runaway train finally hit the buffers and the journey was inescapably over.
What reminded me of those frustrating Nationalist years was a recent dinner party at which I was a guest. The people around the table were all highly intelligent, successful professionals.
They were pragmatists, seemingly unmoved by populism or ideology, and from their privileged vantage points within the machinery of government, they were all painfully aware of the failures of the public service that they were trying to keep afloat.
This, theoretically, was the ultimate group of rational political actors. Yet in one of those rare moments of candour that can happen when the conversation sparkles and the wine flows, most of those who had voted in the May general election admitted, somewhat embarrassedly, that they had voted for the African National Congress.
It was deja vu, for me. Here were the new Nationalists, now dressed in the black, green and gold livery of the ANC rather than the oranje, blanje, blou of the PW era.
One can venture many reasons for this kind of stubborn, political perversity, this inability to translate rational thoughts into rational actions. The cliches say it all: hope springs eternal; people would rather deal with the devil they know, than the devil they don’t; and we all trust that somehow, miraculously, the piper will never have to be paid.
There’s also the psychological difficulty involved in abandoning a cherished ideal that you have spent a lifetime fighting for. Whether this ideal is the advancement of the Afrikaner or the enfranchisement of the black majority, the struggle ensnares its disciples.
In this case, more than one person at the table said this had been the last chance they would give the ANC. And, unanimously, their continued support for the ANC, despite its poor performance for at least the past decade, was based entirely on an almost messianic belief in Cyril Ramaphosa.
The consensus was that SA was in crisis, perilously close to disaster. Ramaphosa might or might not be able to save the country — the jury was out on whether it was even possible at this late stage — but certainly, they believed that there was no one else around who could.
This is the power of Ramaphosa in the present political equation. People have remarkable confidence in him.
We are not talking here about the Ramaphoria that swept the country 18 months ago, that momentary, giddy relief at simply having ditched Jacob Zuma, the sheet anchor that was dragging the country to oblivion. This is a cross-party rallying around the person who it is widely believed has the strength of character to take the necessary, hard decisions — the kinds of statesmanlike decisions that a Nelson Mandela and an FW de Klerk took 25 years ago.
So, what’s holding it all back? Are there good reasons for Ramaphosa’s timidity? Not on the statistical evidence.
This week, a large face-to-face opinion poll by Citizen Surveys found that Ramaphosa’s approval rating is 62% (down from 64%), against 28% (down from 29%) for the Democratic Alliance leader Mmusi Maimane, and 25% (down from 31%) for Economic Freedom Fighters’ Julius Malema.
These are extraordinary levels of support for Ramaphosa, given that the economy is slowing, unemployment is growing, a final junk-bond rating looms, and that the president has faced damaging revelations of hundreds of millions spent on swaying delegates in his favour at the 2018 ANC leadership conference.
Yet, critically for a man heading a divided party, his internal rivals have inconsequential support from ordinary South Africans. Deputy President David Mabuza scored only 21%, while ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule drew a miserable 11% approval rating. Similarly encouraging is the fact that Malema, whose firebrand populism has terrified the ANC into moving to the hard political left, is now less popular than Zuma was at his lowest level.
Given that all the numbers appear to stack up in his favour, South Africans should now be able to count on Ramaphosa to stop dicking about and, at last, to act. Time is short and all around the country, middle-class dinner guests are holding their breaths, hoping that their faith will be vindicated.
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