South Africa: Will Ramaphosa’s ANC survive?

Crystal Orderson
By Crystal Orderson
Patrick Smith
By Patrick Smith
Editor-in-Chief of The Africa Report.

Posted on Friday, 25 June 2021 14:27

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa waves as he arrives for the G7 meeting at the Carbis Bay Hotel in Carbis Bay, St. Ives, Cornwall, England, Saturday, 12 June 2021. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth, Pool)

Supporters of President Cyril Ramaphosa are lauding the vanquishing of his main opponent within the governing African National Congress (ANC) – former secretary general Ace Magashule.

No doubt Ramaphosa has scored a political victory in the councils of the ANC by squeezing out Magashule on corruption charges. It seems the legal battles – which pit Magashule (with the help of an expensive, opposition-aligned lawyer) against his own party – are set to stretch out much longer. This will wash the ANC’s dirty linen in public.

It will be up to the courts to decide on what should be an internal party matter. Ramaphosa may have allowed himself a celebratory drink and an extra-long bike ride. But the strategic side of his character will be telling him that it’s way too soon to declare ‘mission accomplished’. It may just be the end of the beginning.

Ace Magashule reminded his supporters at a rally for his patron, ex-pres-ident Jacob Zuma, in Pietermaritzburg: “I will never leave the ANC comrades, I will die in the ANC.”

If you’re looking for points of light, there are plenty. South Africa is still the beloved country its people liberated in 1994 after hundreds of years of struggle. It has the same incredible array of people and talent; the same abundance of natural resources. But, in what many South Africans call the wasted years, its institutions have taken a hammering, with widespread looting of the resources meant to uplift the very people who put the ANC in power.

Progress reversed

We have reversed the progress we were making in overturning structural inequalities and racism. We all know it needs radical change, but those within the party can’t agree how. Some of us have just given up, voting to the left or the right of the ANC, or, worst of all, not voting at all. That is a scary thought because so many people have died for this right.

Now we have another impossibility on our hands. Can the ANC rebuild itself while it holds power at the centre and in the provinces? Political scientists say: ‘No chance’. It is doomed to get more and more dysfunctional until it implodes and loses power.

Ramaphosa’s strategy takes hold

Before the pandemic, that analysis looked spot-on. Now President Ramaphosa’s gradualism is bearing fruit. His strategy is to change the ANC from the top down and also transform the state machine by appointing honest and capable officials to key agencies such as the National Prosecuting Authority. Progress is much slower in other institutions such as the security agencies and the police.

Some of it is working. Look at the Zondo Commission, set up in 2018 to investigate the beneficiaries of state capture. Slowly but surely, some of those local and international companies such as the US’s McKinsey have admitted to wrongdoing and are returning their ill-gotten gains. An Interpol Red Notice has been issued for the Gupta family. Assets worth millions have been seized.

There is a long list of state officials and ANC party hacks facing criminal charges. More complicated is the other side of the ANC’s reform coin: trying to rebuild the party from the grassroots up. This will be tested at the next round of local elections due this year.

The ANC may prove more resilient than many predict. Its main rivals, the Democratic Alliance and the Economic Freedom Fighters, are haemorrhaging support at the ballot box. At by-elections in May, the ANC trounced its rivals, despite the economic and public health problems.

In an electoral system based on proportional representation, the vetting of candidates is often done at the party headquarters, where officials decide who makes it on to the party’s list of candidates. In some areas, the local ANC branch is so unpopular that the party-approved candidate would stand no chance. So, now, party officials say they want to try something quite revolutionary: to give power back to the people.

Ramaphosa has appointed one of the ANC’s most respected elders, Kgalema Motlanthe, to lead the candidate selection process. And they say they will ensure that the best and brightest represent communities. It will no longer just be professed loyalty to the ANC that gets you in.

The idea is that local communities choose their candidates, who will then be offered ANC membership with all the benefits that would imply for their candidacy. It’s a bold move, adding more complexity to party nominations. It could be risky, too. ANC branches don’t take kindly to outsiders and local councillors have been assassinated because of political vendettas.

What happens, as one commentator asked, if the local community chooses a sexist xenophobe and homophobe populist? Will the local ANC branch have to respect that decision? Not likely. The chances are that the local ANC branch will prevail. But the attempt to be responsive towards community sentiment could boost the ANC’s reform project.

When Ramaphosa took over the reins of state in February 2018 there was an efflorescence of optimism known as ‘Ramaphoria’. Ramaphosa, the lawyer turned political strategist, was going to restore the proud and liberated Rainbow Nation that Madiba had founded in 1994.

That is another country. The financial cost of Jacob Zuma’s presidency and patronage system is reckoned by credible witnesses to the Zondo Commission of Enquiry to have cost the country in excess of $80bn. The social costs – in terms of lost educational opportunities and the running down of public healthcare – are incalculable. As is the damage that the high point of grand corruption and patronage has wreaked on South Africa’s political system.

The bottom line

Yet, that system has not been able to produce a viable opposition party. The most obvious signs of this are the incessant load-shedding by the state power utility Eskom and the appalling conditions in the public hospitals and clinics, made worse by the Covid-19 pandemic. Communities and even hospitals have suffered water shortages. Then there is the dangerously slow distribution of vaccines, and the legions of civil servants planning strikes to shut down government.

Of course, the damage done to South Africa’s liberation project cannot be laid at the door of Zuma and his allies alone. It was very much a joint venture over several years, when the hopes of the new order collided with the harsh realities of the old.

A friend lamented that South African voters have been locked into an abusive relationship with the ANC. As the Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci said: “The old order is dying and the new one struggles to be born: now is the time for monsters.”

Patrick Smith was in conversation with Crystal Orderson.

This article was first published in The Africa Report’s print magazine.

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