Just getting rid of the ANC won't solve our problems

Ernst Roets says we need to start thinking about what a better system would look like

I had the privilege to have been invited to a discussion in Johannesburg where the British journalist, Douglas Murray, was in conversation with Gareth Cliff and JJ Thabane about the state of democracy in South Africa and the world. It was evident from this debate that people in South Africa are particularly disconcerted with the state of matters. Thabane, too, had much to say about how disastrous the South African government has become, making the point that things cannot carry on in the way they do at the moment.

Murray responded by saying that wherever he goes, he hears talk about bringing things to a fall, about the necessity of ending things and so forth, but that those who talk about ending things are rarely interested in discussing the “what comes after” bit. This is why revolutions always end in failure. (The American Revolution is often said to be the only exception to this, but I am not convinced that secession qualifies as revolution.)

The South African (ANC) government is a perfect example of this, even though it is only one of many such examples. Even 30 years after coming to power, the ANC government is still stuck in struggle mode. Contrary to popular belief, this does not mean to say that the problem would be solved by simply replacing the ANC.

We need to recognise that South Africa is failing due to a variety of reasons. The struggle mentality and corrupt nature of those in power only constitute a small part of the problem. If that was the sum total of South Africa’s troubles, we would have to believe that corruption, mismanagement and incompetent government would be a thing of the past if only another political party were to take over the government but remained under the same system. It is quite startling to see how many believe this.

The fact of the matter is that South Africa is failing partly only due to the behaviour of those in power. The unsaid part of the truth is that South Africa is failing because of inherent structural flaws. It is precisely as a result of those structural flaws that those in power have the capacity of inflicting so much damage on society.

Discussing the symptoms of a problem is good, but it is of little use if we do not get to the underlying issue.

The underlying issue is, first and foremost, that South Africa is a very large country. As Flip Buys recently pointed out, South Africa is bigger than Germany, Italy, Britain, the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, Ireland, Greece, Lesotho and Eswatini put together. The distance from Cape Town to Musina is about the same as the distance between London and Rome. Not only is South Africa a large country, but it is an exceptionally diverse one, with a wide variety of languages, cultures and traditional communities each with their own perspectives on identity and history, and their own ideas about what constitutes a good life.

Allowing one party to govern over all of this makes about as little sense as saying that the political party in Europe that gets the most votes should have the power to govern over all of Europe and enforce discriminatory laws over entire nations that disagree fundamentally with the point of departure. It is quite difficult to understand how a reasonable person could see such a system as morally defensible. Not only is it morally indefensible; it is a recipe for failure.

To admit that things are not working is by no means to put forward an argument for a return to the past. It is a recognition that the current system is not working, just as the previous system did not work, albeit for different reasons.

We can, and we should talk about the failures of the South African government. We would, however, do well to remind ourselves of Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity as that of doing the same thing over and over again, and to expect different results.

It would stand us in good stead if we do what Murray suggested, which is to spend more time discussing the solution than the problem. Or, to put it more bluntly, to spend more time discussing what a better political dispensation would look like than to analyse the failures of the ANC.

In this regard, allow me to suggest some ideas on what a better system might look like:

1. Recognition of reality

I have already mentioned that South Africa is a large country with a wide variety of communities. There is nothing wrong with different communities having different ways of life, and different opinions about how they want to live. We would do well to base our visions about a functioning South Africa upon reality before we resort to ideological prescriptions.

2. Federalism

By federalism I mean a decentralised system where the central government has less authority and local governments have more authority. Decentralisation of political power facilitates community involvement, accountability and transparency. Yes, a decentralised system can still have corruption, but it would severely curtail the grand, centralised corruption schemes we got used to in South Africa.

3. Community autonomy

We need more than just a decentralised system. Communities need to have autonomy over their own affairs. No community has the right to rule over another and to prescribe to another how and what they should teach their children – to name only one example. This is already a fact of South African life. It would be technically incorrect to say that community autonomy has to be given or provided, as community autonomy is already a fact of human nature. Instead of giving or providing it, it must be recognised and respected.

4. Civil society

South Africa has reached a strange dichotomy where political society is failing dismally, while civil society is thriving. We tend to make the mistake of thinking about political life as a mere distinction between the public and private sphere. This is not wrong, but this distinction does not recognise the civil society sphere.

If it was not for civil society, South Africa would have been in a much worse place than it is currently in. Yet, the South African government ignores and even downplays the role of civil society as much as they possibly can. A system in which government does not have the power to supress or reject civil society would already be a much better one than what we have at the moment.

5. Simplification

Even though the South African political system is in a certain sense too simplified (as it does not recognise communities and civil society), it is, in another sense, way too complex. By this, I refer to the tax system and the alarming levels of red tape built into virtually every sphere of South African society.

It is increasingly difficult for a working class person to do his taxes himself, as the system gets layered and layered as time progresses. A simplified system, where it is easier to start a business, to employ people, and to better understand what is happening with government revenue and expenditure would undoubtedly be a better system.

In the run-up to the 1994 election, Nelson Mandela promised that the days of the gravy train were over and that there would be “no fat cats” under an ANC government. The ANC convinced us that they were ready to govern and that the New South Africa would be one in which people would live peacefully, and in mutual recognition and respect with one another. There is hardly anyone left who thinks of the current political dispensation as one in which anyone can reach his or her full potential.

Yet, criticising the system is difficult, because the government and some in the media have convinced us that doing so is to turn your back on Mandela or to wish to return to the past. We might argue that by that time the ANC was already a corrupt and dishonest movement. But even if we disagree on this, we can still agree that those visions of the future have not materialised.

So the question is – what do we do now …?

We can keep striking this rock with a stick in the hope of achieving a miracle, or, if we urgently need water, perhaps it is time we recognise that this rock that is the South African political system is not the miracle the world believed it to be.