What do ANC leaders really think?

RW Johnson wonders what such leaders whisper in private when they survey the wreckage of their rule

One of the great mysteries is what do ANC leaders really think about what they have done since 1994? On any honest reckoning it is obvious that the ANC has destroyed – is destroying – many of the institutions on which South Africa depended.

The list is long. Eskom hasn’t worked properly since 2007. The railways have been torn up in many places and trains don’t run as they used to. The trains that have run into Cape Town since the 1850s run no more: more than a century of colonial progress has been wiped out. SAA and SA Express have gone bust. So has the Land Bank (again). The Post Office is on its last legs. At least two thirds of all municipalities are failing. Potholes everywhere, half the sewage farms don’t work, pavements overgrown, water and electricity bills unpaid – and this applies to all the metropoles outside Cape Town as well as small towns. The education system is failing, the police force is utterly corrupt, crime rampant, the army is in a hopeless state. One could go on.

We all know these things. What they mean is that the ANC has not only not carried out its promises but that it is destroying the country and its future. Ironically, Ramaphosa dreams of bullet trains and smart cities – precisely because he knows that the ordinary trains have gone to hell and that the existing cities are failing.

What these things mean is that the ANC has failed completely. It promised “a better life for all” and “Jobs, jobs, jobs” but unemployment, 3.67 million when the ANC took over, is over 11 million now. It is far, far worse than it was under apartheid, which means poverty and inequality are worse too. We are now in our seventh successive year of falling per capita incomes, so year by year the populace is getting poorer.

I remember talking to Frene Ginwala in London in 1989. I said, You’re going to find you face many of the same problems that the Nats did. You’ll want higher commodity prices, just like they did. “Oh no we won’t”, she said. “The ANC had a committee look at this. We’re not going to depend on mines. We’re going hi-tech”. What happened to those dreams? Similarly I remember talking to Alec Erwin in April 1994 and he spoke boldly of the wonders a state-owned steel industry would achieve. What happened to all that? The SACP and ANC leadership thought that, perhaps after an early dip of adjustment, the country would surge ahead under ANC rule as all the potential of liberation was unleashed. In fact the opposite has occurred.

Our leaders know these twin facts of failure but they never, ever allude to them. To be sure, they do not wish to undermine the rationale for their own continued tenancy in power, but they must think about why these things have happened. And no matter how silent they remain, this will not prevent most South Africans from recognising what is going on. This is the greatest conundrum of South African political life.

What happens, one wonders, when ANC leaders meet on their own with no journalists and nobody from other parties around? Do they discuss these two great failures in whispers? Do they wonder aloud what will happen if these trends continue into the future? These are, after all, the great questions of the day. And when, if ever, will they take us into their confidence and share their thoughts with the rest of us? My suspicion is that this silence is racial, not political, that there is a deep-down lack of Black self-confidence, an assumption that of course things will be worse under a Black government but an accompanying racial belief that this assumption must never be spoken.

Of course, there will be excuses (Aids, Covid etc) and there will be plenty of plans and promises of a brighter future. But even the mildest comparison with South Africa’s middle income peers shows how badly we lag even the weakest of them. And everyone knows that the ANC government always has lots of plans and promises but that it is hopeless at carrying any of them out. It’s not just that governmental credibility is at rock bottom.

When this government proposes a National Health fund or a state oil company or a state bank there is an immediate outcry that such funds and institutions will inevitably get robbed – by the very ANC politicians who are proposing them. This isn’t political rhetoric. People believe – as a sober fact and with a great deal of supporting evidence – that the ANC are simply thieves.

One may take it for granted that in order to force through his public sector wage freeze and other economies, Tito Mboweni must have warned his cabinet colleagues of the Gotterdammerung they face if they did not accept the measures that he advocates. This would be phrased in terms of the government’s eventual recourse to the IMF and the draconian structural reforms that would follow. All scary enough, particularly since this would also imply a split in the Congress Alliance and in the ANC itself.

But the fact is that another sort of Gotterdammerung is fast approaching in the shape of the growing urban crisis. Everyone can see the potholes, the power cuts, the water crises and so on. No matter where you come from (outside the Western Cape) you can see towns and cities failing. Before long some of them will simply collapse and this may include one or more of the metropoles. Every politician has a hometown, and no one can be ignorant of what is happening. Moreover, we face a squeeze several years in length when municipal and public service wages will be frozen. This will probably see violent and damaging strikes. How many towns will come through this?

If one looks at the contrast between the cities and towns of the north, bankrupt, with failing services and holed below the water-line – and the still operating and successful cities and towns of the Western Cape, what is the difference between them? The latter are more competently run and they do not indulge in cadre deployment. That accounts for much. But perhaps the biggest contrast is that, on the whole, the ANC-governed towns are run by thieves and the Western Cape ones are not.

Again, what do ANC leaders think about this? Quite a few ANC cabinet ministers retire to the Western Cape – and Ramaphosa’s retirement home is in Cape Town - for they are as aware as anyone else of how distinctly preferable it is to live where there is a working municipal and provincial government. But none of them will articulate their thoughts.

Eunomix, a risk consultancy, forecasts that by 2030 South Africa will be a failed state - 50th in governance, 100th in prosperity, 110th in welfare and 160th in security. Which is to say that the ANC is driving straight into a brick wall. We need a Gorbachev or De Klerk, someone with the courage to admit that the country is on the wrong track and has to change. But such figures are rare. Nicolas Maduro pretends all is well in Venezuela, Alexander Lukashenko says the same in Belarus and Mugabe never admitted anything was wrong in Zimbabwe.

During the Brezhnev years when the Soviet economy had stalled and Soviet society lay moribund under a stale one party state, reformers cast envious eyes at prosperous, democratic, though tiny Finland. “The USSR should declare war on Finland”, it was suggested, “and surrender immediately.” So South Africa should remember that not all Black governments are inferior. We could declare war on Botswana or Rwanda and give in right away.

R.W. Johnson