The ANC’s strategy of thuggery and coercion

William Saunderson-Meyer writes on the movement's dirty tricks in Howick and Tshwane


The unassuming KwaZulu-Natal town of Howick has a political importance that belies its modest stature.

Recent events in this sleepy Midlands town, as well as in the bustling metropolises of Cape Town and Pretoria, are bellwethers as to how our future might unfold over the next critical decade. All three places are at present controlled by the opposition Democratic Alliance and are, each in its way, critical inflection points because the ruling party’s desperation to regain control.

There’s  a general election next year and things are not looking good for the African National Congress. The Western Cape may soon not be the only province not held by the ANC. Gauteng is likely to fall to an opposition coalition and a credible opinion poll this week signals that the same may happen in KZN. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

The ANC is panicking. 

The “liberation dividend” is depleted. Ethnic loyalties, although still strong and potentially dangerous, are diminishingly effective in mobilising voters. Financial performance and the ability to deliver are slowly becoming more important in deciding how to vote.

Since the ANC is absolutely incapable of running clean and efficient administrations, it’s critical to thwart any attempts by the DA, alone or in alliance with other opposition parties, to do so. The more that DA-led places are allowed to succeed, the more jarring the comparison with ANC-led squalor and decay.

While President Cyril Ramaphosa has recurring fantasies of “smart cities” served by bullet trains, these are desirable only if run by his party. By fair means or foul, ANC hegemony must be restored.

The 2006 loss of Cape Town, the Mother City and site of Parliament, followed by the eventual loss of the province, was particularly galling to the ANC. Over the years, all kinds of subterfuges were tried — bribery; violence; delimitation gerrymandering and threats of changing provincial boundaries; and national government neglect — but all failed.

But the battle in August between the Cape Town municipality and the taxi mafia was something different afoot. One had the sense, as it was unfolding, that this was a seminal event that would have reverberations beyond the city’s mountain-girded borders.

At a local level, it was simply whether the powerful taxi associations — a rogue sector with an estimated R90 billion annual turnover but paying only R5 million in taxes — could intimidate the Cape Town municipality into allowing the taxis free rein in ignoring traffic regulations. No municipality had, anywhere in the country since 1994, successfully weathered a taxi kickback against enforcement.

But at a national level, it was a proxy war by the ANC against the DA. It was the government using, or at least tolerating, surrogates — the unions, the taxi industry, and sometimes the Economic Freedom Fighters —to explore to what degree it could through the judicious use of violence and intimidation thwart a democratically elected opposition administration.

Assisted by pressure from a panicky business sector on the city to settle with the taxi owners, the national government piled in. The Transport and Police ministers both blatantly favoured the rioting strikers in their public responses acting almost as spokespersons for the national taxi body, SANTACO. 

However, the city held firm and it was only when a visiting British doctor was killed — at least five people died in the public disorder — and several countries issued advisories against tourist travel to South Africa, that the ANC backed down and changed tactics. Within days, SANTACO had been pressured by the government into a climbdown and the Transport minister was issued with a half-hearted reprimand by the president for her bizarre behaviour.

The battleground has now shifted. Similar tactics are being deployed against the DA-led administrations of Tshwane (Pretoria) in Gauteng and uMngeni (Howick) in KZN. 

In Pretoria, the country’s administrative capital, there has been a three-month union campaign against attempts to cut an already astronomical wage bill that is about balloon further with an unaffordable R600 million hike. Buses have been stoned, hundreds of millions of rands worth of service vehicles torched, and dozens of municipal employees assaulted. The ANC and the union officials — nudge-nudge, wink-wink — say that they deplore violence and that the disruption has nothing to do with them.

Unlike in the Cape, the ANC strategy appears to be working. The city’s resolve is wavering in the face of the growing cost of the police’s inability to keep public order. 

Old, smouldering personal enmities between the DA and ActionSA are being cleverly fanned. The MultiParty Coalition Advocacy Group, which is an attempt to field a serious contender against the ANC in next year’s general election, is fracturing. 

It will do well to make it to the starting line, never mind win the race. 

In Howick, a town that historically was no more than a blip on South Africa’s political consciousness, became a place of national and international attention in last year’s municipal election. This was not only because the DA had won, albeit by a razor-thin majority, its first KZN municipality from the ANC, and in a rural area nogal, in 28 years.

The DA’s win against the odds was largely attributed to Chris Pappas, their charismatic mayoral candidate — a young, white, gay man, fluent in isiZulu. It was a reassuring reminder to dispirited voters disenchanted with the ANC that in South Africa the unimaginably wonderful can and sometimes does happen. 

For all the same reasons, it was also a chilling warning to the ANC that it had become politically vulnerable in ways that it had never thought possible. Suddenly the Marxist-decreed right to govern “until Jesus returns” was looking a little doctrinally and theologically shaky.

In trying to neutralise the threat — if Howick can fall, no peri-urban area in KZN is safe, especially not given the resurgence of the Inkatha Freedom Party as a DA partner — the ANC has moved on two fronts. First, it applied to the Municipal Demarcation Board for uMngeni to be swallowed by two neighbouring ANC-run councils. Second, it has waged a campaign of attrition, with periodic attempts by shadowy groups of populists to “close down” Howick and toss out its mayor.

Last week, just days after the DA announced that Pappas would be their candidate for provincial premier in 2024, the ANC Youth League demanded his immediate resignation and arrest on claims of nepotism. The Public Protector has agreed to investigate the allegations but in the interim — on the revolutionary principle of first sentence and then trial — the ANCYL, with the apparent backing of the mother party, announced mass action to shut down Howick on Monday this week, unless he exited office.  

On Sunday, the High Court in Pietermaritzburg ruled that the planned shutdown was unlawful. In response to the injunction, the ANCYL merely moved the date. Its provincial convenor said that the party did not “need anyone’s permission” to shut down the town and boasted, “Come what may, nothing will move out or get into Howick because of the shutdown.”

Things turned out differently. The couple of hundred people who turned up on Thursday had to be bussed in from surrounding areas because Howick’s township residents failed to join the action. The shutdown fizzled out to become a scraggly march, under the watchful eye of the police and private security companies, to present to the municipality a memorandum of their demands.

Although not on the scale of Cape Town’s defeat of the taxi sector, it was another rare win for law and order. And while the war is by no means won, it’s another reminder that with determination and planning, the ANC and EFF mobs can be defeated.

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