The unravelling of the ANC

RW Johnson says the party has no united vision or voice, but it carries on

The two open letters to the ANC, first by Ramaphosa, the second by Zuma have excited much comment and controversy but there is some danger lest the big picture should be forgotten – the big picture being the slow unravelling of the ANC. Currently, of course, one can read many columnists and editorialists wisely counselling Ramaphosa to accept a split in the ANC and to simply drop the Zuma-Magashule faction. This is, so to speak, white logic – and it doesn't apply. In the world of the ANC things work rather differently.

One should remember that the ANC was formed reactively in 1912 only because Africans had been entirely left out of the process resulting in the formation of the Union of South Africa. It was felt that the pitiful weakness which had made that exclusion so easy stemmed in good part from the fact that there was no united African voice, merely a plethora of different tribes and chiefs.

But the moment had gone – the negotiations for Union had concluded in 1909, after all. And thereafter the ANC languished so that by 1940 it was little further on than it had been in 1912. Things began to change then only because of the external stimulus of World War II. Without that it is difficult to say how much longer the ANC would have remained a shadowy organization with few members or resources and so weak that it was willing to accept a qualified franchise and piecemeal reform.

The reality in those years remained that Africans were still greatly divided. Overwhelmingly they still lived in their own rural areas, a fact which kept separate tribal identities strongly alive. Only a small minority mingled in the cities. The Tembu notables who reared the young Mandela would have laughed at the notion that there was any political party that mattered as much as a Tembu king, let alone that there was much affinity between them and Zulus or Tswanas.

As the ANC grew from the 1940s on it preached the unity of all Africans but no one could doubt that this was an ambitious ideal. There was absolutely nothing “natural” about African unity. African politics was chiefly, tribal and local. The one thing it wasn't was national.

In truth the only real impetus towards African unity was provided by the whites who treated all “natives” as a single group. Resentment against the dominance of the whites – a fortiori once this was codified into apartheid – was the single unifying theme, a theme which mobilized as well as it united.

Although, under Communist tutelage, the ANC stressed non-racialism (essential if white and Indian Communists were to have influence) at grass roots it was always and inevitably an anti-white movement. How could it be otherwise? Such are the dynamics of communal politics. At its peak it could even spread its appeal to many Coloureds and Indians as well as a fringe of radical whites.

This is, of course, why the ANC today still clings to the racial categories of apartheid, explains all its own failings as due to apartheid, depicts all inequalities and social evils as deriving from apartheid and also why it hunts aggressively for the merest hint of white racism.

Apartheid is by far the ANC's most precious possession and it will cling to it all the way to the grave. Mandela imagined himself an ANC member in heaven which is to say, campaigning against apartheid even after death.

However, apartheid was largely dismantled by De Klerk and even before 1994 it was gone. The fox was shot. In the new era the ANC depended in fact upon state power and the resources and patronage it provided. Fairly quickly most of its white, Indian and Coloured support melted away and the party was reduced to its communal core.

Ominously, tribalism became more salient with the prominence of the “Xhosa Nostra” under Mbeki and the Zulu predominance under Zuma. Unity remained anything but natural. Despite its continual stress on unity the ANC has suffered three major splits – the UDM, the EFF and COPE.

Of these the EFF is by far the most damaging: in effect the ANC Youth League walked out of the party and all attempts to rebuild it have effectively failed. Moreover, the ANC's alliance with the SACP and Cosatu has lost a great deal of ground. The SACP is now only a shadow of what it was in Hani's day while Cosatu has not only suffered from a large fall in union membership but it has lost Numsa altogether while the once-dominant NUM has been largely displaced by AMCU, which does not belong to Cosatu.

In exile the ANC leadership had exercised a complete, Leninist control because it was the sole source of patronage. ANC members in foreign countries depended utterly on the party for their sense of belonging, for allowances, for jobs, for scholarships, for medical treatment, for nomination to attend conferences with travel and accommodation money, and so forth.

All the resources which flowed into the organization from the Soviet bloc and Western well-wishers were controlled by the leadership. There was, of course, always some corruption but everyone knew that party discipline was paramount. Failure to observe it would result in your being cut off from all patronage or, worst of all, expulsion.

Once the ANC returned to South Africa this all changed. Classic African “big men” established powerful bases for themselves in ministries, in SOEs, in the provinces and municipalities, in the administration of sports, and in countless quangos, agencies and facilities. The result was instead of power being an all-or-nothing top-down business, it was now distributed in clumps throughout the system.

Most notably, of course, this resulted in the “premier league” - provincial bosses like Supra Mahumapelo, Ace Magashule and David Mabuza who turned their provinces into feudal fiefdoms which, to their considerable pecuniary advantage, they controlled from top to bottom.

At Nasrec one of these bosses took over the party while another took the deputy-presidency, a striking demonstration of how the new lines of patronage had redistributed power within the ANC. One result of this development was to make corruption irremovably organic throughout the party and another was to make factionalism inevitable and invincible.

The result of all these trends has been a steady unravelling of the ANC. The party has lost votes, credibility and respect and even such a central figure as Trevor Manuel, looking back over the party's progress since 1990, can speak of “three wasted decades”.

For there can be no doubt at all that it has failed to deliver “a better life for all”: unemployment has tripled since the ANC came to power, inequality and poverty have increased, a smaller proportion of the population than in 1994 have access to clean water, and for most citizens schools and hospitals are both worse than they were. We are now in the sixth consecutive year of falling real incomes per capita and the prospect is for more ahead.

The drama of the present is that this is the ANC which confronts the greatest existential challenge that the party has faced since 1994: the prospect that its failure will be so public and abject that it will have to cede economic sovereignty to the IMF and then watch as measures are forced through which largely negate much of what the ANC has thus far done in power.

Faced with this huge challenge, the party has no united vision or voice. Even on the central matter of the economy there is a cacophony of often almost illiterate voices. Magashule would like the Reserve Bank to simply print a lot more money, something he calls “quantity easing”, for he has not even sufficiently mastered the language of economics to know that the term is “quantitative easing”.

Mboweni has now twice laid out what he thinks ought to be done but he hasn't actually done anything, perhaps because he doesn't command a cabinet majority. Blade Nzimande has already accused Mboweni and the Reserve Bank governor of intriguing to reverse the policies preferred by the NEC.

On top of that Enoch Godongwana has produced an ANC plan which diverges sharply from Mboweni's and which calls for the nonsense of a state pharmaceutical company. There is considerable agitation for the launching of a Basic Income Grant costing R198 billion a year but there is also pressure for a special income grant for women, costing R140 billion a year. Fikile Mbalula has advocated the setting up of a special bank for taxi bosses. We also have proposals for a new ‘smart’ city outside Lanseria, a sovereign wealth fund and a state shipping line.

Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane, the Minister for Tourism who chairs the ANC's Economic Cluster has come out with yet another ANC plan. She wants thousands of government buildings to be converted to green energy and she is also very keen on a state bank which will “deepen financial inclusion” (ie. make soft loans to people unlikely to pay them back). This bank will “access different forms of capital”. (Be very wary when you see the term “access”: it means siphon off money which doesn't belong to you and do so on non-commercial terms.) Sure enough, Ms. Kubayi-Ngubane also wants pension fund legislation so that state finance institutions can “access” their funds at “favourable rates” (i.e. favourable for them, not for the pensioners).

Ms Kubayi-Ngubane's CV shows that she is a Soweto girl, that she was a student activist and that she has no training in economics. It is difficult to imagine another country in which her “economic plan” would be taken seriously.

One could go on. There are fantastical proposals in all directions and almost nobody making them has any grasp of economics. Perhaps the most striking thing about all these proposals is that nobody suggests where exactly the money will come from to fund any of them or, indeed, NHI which Ramaphosa continues to promise without the least idea of how it will be paid for. In addition, of course, Ramaphosa makes ringing appeals to the effect that we “must make our economy more inclusive”.

He makes no suggestion as to how this is to be done and given increasing unemployment it seems clear the economy will actually become less, not more inclusive. But he clearly feels the need to say something morally uplifting, this being what presidents are supposed to do. One frequently has to remind oneself that this is a G20 country in which all this airy-fairy nonsense is going on.

On top of this we have, for the first time, a President who seems not to have a majority in the NEC and who is opposed by the party's Secretary-General.

He is also being openly attacked by his presidential predecessor, another first. He has now agreed to submit himself to the party's Integrity Committee. Can one imagine Mandela, Mbeki or Zuma doing that? Or anyone even having the chutzpah to suggest it? We even have Tony Yengeni demanding Ramaphosa's resignation: a jailbird giving cheek to the President. This is what Ramaphosa's endless dithering has brought him to. A lot of people still quite like him – or at least prefer him to the alternatives - but almost no one respects him.

This is all part of the ANC's unravelling. The party is in an indescribable mess as, indeed, is the country. Not only has the ANC failed to govern South Africa but, in its present state, it is difficult to believe that it could govern anything. The party has no natural unity, there is no cohesive governing class and there is very little expertise or capability of any kind. Perhaps most striking is its continued dependence on a shallow pool of ‘leaders’ who were all in evidence thirty years ago. The cupboard is now pretty bare.

In part this unravelling is due to a culture that does not seem to be very compatible with the strict observance of rules which is necessary to the maintenance of institutions. There is always pressure for special allowances to be made, for rules to be made to fit the man, and for the needs of the immediate always to be preferred over any long term perspective.

Thus the constitution was written largely with Mandela in mind and thus the happy assumption that the President would always be a good guy, an assumption which looked very weak in Zuma's time. Similarly, the decision to leave the International Criminal Court seems to have been based largely on the immediate embarrassment caused by the visit of Omar al-Bashir rather than any principled view.

Now that Bashir has been overthrown there is pressure to reverse the decision but that is simply because other African states have decided to stay in the ICC: there is still no principled view. Or again, Mbeki tried to over-ride the constitutional restriction to two terms by attempting to prolong his ANC presidential term, while Zuma attempted a similar prolongation by trying to push his ex-wife in as president. One could go on.

It is hardly surprising that this disregard for binding rules has seen all the institutions of government weakened during the ANC's tenure. Parliament has frequently disgraced itself and failed utterly to stand up against Mbeki's Aids genocide or Zuma's rule-by-the-Guptas.

Parliamentary Speakers from Frene Ginwala to Baleka Mbete have bent their office to suit ANC needs. The Constitutional Court has disgracefully failed to uphold the language rights in the constitution. Many ordinary judges are politically biased, some are blatantly racist and some are clearly dishonest. Collective cabinet responsibility is openly flouted. Corruption is rampant throughout the civil service and executive at municipal, provincial and national level. About such bodies as the JSC and the SA Human Rights Commission, the less said the better.

The ANC would be a very different organization if it obeyed its own rules and resolutions, if the buying of elections was disallowed, if bribery was punished, if the corrupt were expelled or, indeed, if there were no murders of whistleblowers, ANC councillors and so on. But it isn’t like that and never has been. It does, though, provide a vehicle for many individual careers, for many patrons and clients, for women’s lib ladies and gangsters, for the ideological and the venal – and many others besides.

The lesson from this is that the ANC may have unravelled but this does not mean it will die or fall to bits. The unravelling is so patent that ANC leaders are greatly concerned about party unity but in a sense this is unnecessary. Given that the ANC is so reluctant to expel even members found guilty of gross financial crimes or criminal assault, there really is room for everyone. As Will Rogers used to say, “I am not a member of an organized political party. I am a Democrat”.

When Ramaphosa bewails the need for party unity what he really means is that he would like the ANC to have unanimous views and strong party discipline as in the good old days. The truth is that the ANC hasn't been like that since the days of Mandela – and even then things were less unanimous and disciplined than they looked. And corruption never stopped: Joe Modise was sewing up deals with foreign arms dealers long before 1994.

So the ANC will continue as long as it continues to provide a patronage network, a pathway for individual careers, a means by which local big men can dominate their towns or cities and access to power and its fruits. Naturally, to serve these ends it has to continue to receive at least a modicum of popular support – though not all that much. As discontented voters abstain in ever larger numbers the ANC is able to win power with the support of less than a third of the electorate and even much of that support is either coerced (people threatened that they will lose their social grants or pensions if they don't vote ANC) or a payroll vote by the millions employed by government, the SOEs etc.

The problem is that this unravelled ANC lacks the will, the capability and the necessary consensus to tackle the country's problems so all it really seems capable of if either drift or aggressive attempts to force the whites and other minorities to surrender yet more resources to the black bourgeoisie. Hence the latest attempt to try to force the private sector to apply the same affirmative action quotas as the state sector – a truly remarkable extra handicap for businesses already struggling to survive in a deep recession.

But the scope for this sort of racial politicking is now very limited and by far the more important result is drift. In 1996 Mbeki could see that the runaway budget deficit threatened to land South Africa in an IMF bailout and GEAR was the result. Today the fiscal danger is far greater but it is doubtful if Ramaphosa could – or would even try to – put together another GEAR. So, we drift on towards the rapids.

The interesting question is what would turn this unravelling into an actual split? If the ANC falls below 50% of the vote it will require a coalition in order to continue in government and that would mean some loss of patronage to the new coalition partner. But while the ANC continues in government it remains the only game in town for most of the factions and pressure groups attached to it.

An IMF bailout is far more threatening for it would probably bring the privatization of the larger SOEs, liberalization of the labour laws and a cut in the pay and numbers of the public service. The SACP and Cosatu would fight this tooth and nail and they might indeed split from the ANC if it accepts such a deal. But one wonders. If Cosatu and the SACP lost that battle they would be immeasurably weakened but it might be that in their weakened state they would cling to the ANC more tightly than ever. After all, the Alliance gives them an inside track with government which their own strength could never give them. So even the ultimate IMF bailout might not split the ANC.

Except for one thing, the independent Left. On the one hand the EFF, on the other Zwelinzima Vavi's SAFTU (the South African Federation of Trade Unions). Cosatu has for quite a few years now claimed to have 1.8 million members but that is, of course, a lie. Unions everywhere tend to inflate their numbers and given the steady (and latterly, steep) rise in unemployment it is inevitable that Cosatu has been losing members pell-mell. SAFTU claims 800,000 members and is certainly the second biggest labour federation. It includes the outside-left Numsa and Vavi hews to the same passionate but naive leftism that he always has. In other words, you can bet that both the EFF and SAFTU will oppose an IMF bailout for all they're worth.

This is of cardinal importance because it means that if the ANC accepts a bailout and the SACP and Cosatu, having huffed and puffed against it, decide to go along in order to save the Alliance, they will face a withering fire from the left, with Vavi and Malema shouting sell-out at the top of their lungs. This will exert a crucial gravitational pull and will surely guarantee that the SACP and Cosatu can afford no compromise. This movement of forces derives simply from the fact that the EFF and SAFTU have split away. Had they remained part of their parent bodies compromise would have remained an option for the SACP and Cosatu.

But they haven't remained part of their parent bodies and that will almost certainly mean that an IMF bailout – which may be only a year or two away – will complete the disintegration of the ANC. This will be nervous breakdown territory for Ramaphosa who has foolishly made the preservation of ANC unity his most important aim.

Assuming he lasts that long, the chances are that he will preside not only over the country's loss of economic sovereignty but also the break-up of the governing party. At the moment when he is not preaching about the new inclusive economy he is happily telling us that the ANC's NEC is completely united against corruption. One can imagine the scene, with the motion against corruption proposed by Magashule and Mabuza and seconded by Nomvula Mokonyane. As for an inclusive economy, there’s some guys we can get back from overseas to help with that. Name of Gupta.

R.W. Johnson