The three ways that SA can survive

William Saunderson-Meyer writes that it is the opposition’s best chance in 27 years


There are probably only three ways that South Africa can survive as a modern, mixed economy, non-racial democracy.

Either the African National Congress will reform itself and retain power, or it will implode and possibly have to share power, or it will be voted out and lose power.

The first option, despite the touching faith of many, is the least likely. It was always somewhat far-fetched to believe that President Cyril Ramaphosa’s government could root out cadre corruption, repair hollowed-out state institutions, and move rapidly to install a pro-growth economic framework. The pushback from within an entity that now more resembles a criminal mafia than a political party, is just too strong.

It would require a root-and-branch inquisition, followed by the side-lining or expulsion of thousands of ANC members who participated in state capture or at least facilitated it. It would also mean the departure of most of Ramaphosa’s cabinet and national executive committee, an unimaginable act of political self-decapitation.

After three years of Ramaphosa’s snail-like progress at reform, even the ardent fans of his “long game” skills must worry that we’ll all be dead before the final whistle. And recent events have stacked up further evidence against the “internal renewal” option. The July insurrection and the release from imprisonment of former president Jacob Zuma, make obvious the continued power of the state capture faction within the party. 

Ramaphosa stood down the police during the public violence because he was afraid of a bloody confrontation involving the Radical Economic Transformation wing of the party. As for the jailing of Zuma — by order of a Constitutional Court that Ramaphosa supposedly venerates and for what, after generous parole, would have numbered a mere five months — we now find it was probably all a calculated charade. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

City Press this week quotes three unnamed sources within the ANC as claiming that not only did the National Commissioner of Prisons consult with Ramaphosa before overturning the refusal of the Medical Parole Board to release Zuma, but that the plan had been in place for a while. They write, quoting an unnamed KwaZulu-Natal ANC leader, “There was an instruction from the top to let Zuma out. When he was arrested, we all knew he was going to be released before his time ended. It was all a plan in motion.” 

The ostensible reason for Ramaphosa’s covert intervention, according to City Press, was fear of further insurrection if Zuma died in prison. Such a threat to state security and public safety is, of course, a legitimate presidential concern. 

Were this a government with a commitment to the rule of law and were Ramaphosa as principled president as is portrayed, he would seek the advice of his ministers and, if he felt it was in the ultimate best interests of South Africa, issue a presidential pardon. He would then take any public fallout on the chin.

But that’s not the Ramaphosa way. The Ramaphosa way is, wherever possible, to avoid personal responsibility, which is why he habitually shields behind his ministers and officials. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma took the rap for nonsensical tobacco and alcohol bans; Arthur Fraser carries the can for releasing Zuma. 

It’s not only the president’s aversion to conflict that causes him to shirk accountability for his government’s actions. It’s because they are often morally indefensible — driven not by the interests of the nation but by the narrow interests of the ANC.

Business Day editor-at-large Peter Bruce, a commentator who at times has leant over backwards to give Ramaphosa the benefit of the doubt, sums up well in his weekly column the bleak implications of Ramaphosa’s recent behaviour. “The rule of law here applies only to some, and it has been fascinating — and depressing — watching Ramaphosa start out with his feet planted firmly on the ground and slowly vanish into the quicksand of his own party. He’ll get another term as leader — there’s no one else — but forget about reform. He tried to drain the swamp but the swamp won.”

If the ANC is incapable of reform, the question is whether the tensions between the reformists and the RET gang will result in the party simply fracturing? Probably not. Whatever Ramaphosa’s failures as the president of the republic, he has functioned well as president of the ANC. He has repeatedly stated that his primary goal is to keep the party intact and he has done exactly that.

In any case, neither faction, despite the mutual loathing, can afford a party split with all the unsettling variables that it introduces. If it happened, the retention of power would depend on forming an alliance with either the Official Opposition, the Democratic Alliance, or the Economic Freedom Fighters. 

Aside from the fact that even the reformists in the ANC would struggle to meld their liberation history and interventionist instincts with a predominantly minority group, liberal tradition, there is the issue of corruption. The DA has consistently proved itself to be an “honest governance” party, which in the view of many in the ANC entirely defeats the main motivation for winning political power.

The EFF, which is essentially the ANC in colourful clothing, would be a much better fit for an alliance. It has down pat all the revolutionary rhetoric, drawing its inspiration from Marx, Lenin, Castro and Gucci. 

And as the VBS Bank scandal has shown, it has no effete reservations about stealing the widow’s mite or the orphan’s portion. Its socialist stamp-of-approval is available for sale or long term lease by any multinational conglomerate or foreign power with the necessary funds.

To link with the EFF would also be to avoid the uncomfortable process of having to hammer out a new agenda between two like-minded but disparate political parties with different traditions and goals. This would be the joyous return of the prodigal son, restoring Julius Malema to his rightful place in the ANC inner circle.

The real issue is whether the EFF is big enough to give such an alliance — whether necessitated by a split or an electoral thumping — a majority in Parliament. In time, it may well. 

An IPSOS poll earlier this month, testing voter intentions in the 1 November local government elections, would have been heartening for the EFF and its RET stalking horse within the ANC. Measured against the 2019 national election, ANC support has dropped from 58% to 49% and that of the DA from 21% to 18%. The EFF, however, has increased from just under 11% to almost 15%.

This continues a phenomenon that emerged clearly for the first time in the 2019 KZN provincial election. There the ANC vote dropped 10 points to 54%. The DA grew by 1% to 14%, but the EFF grew from 2% to 10%.

Perhaps, after 27 years of ANC domination, we are at last moving slowly towards something different. Public antipathy to the ANC is growing. Social and economic pressure is growing.

The ANC can’t and won’t reform. If it did split, its preferred alliance would most likely be the EFF, skewing the axis of such a government further left, towards a radical, black nationalism, with disastrous implications for South Africa.

So, that leaves us with the third option: voting the ANC out. Whether this is remotely feasible remains to be seen. 

To do so, the more centrist political parties — the DA, Freedom Front Plus, Inkatha, Congress of the People, ActionSA, OneSA, and Good — would as a precursor to the 2024 general election have to perform markedly better in the coming municipal elections. Against a weakened, financially and morally bankrupt ANC that is in such disarray that it couldn’t submit its candidate lists timeously — partly because aspirant public representatives are still busy assassinating one another — this is the best chance the opposition parties will have had in 27 years. 

Whether they can win the trust of the electorate is another matter.

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