In fewer than 800 days, South Africans will be returning to the polls to elect their national and provincial governments. There is no question that the period from now until we make our marks will be a difficult one; and there is every possibility that when it happens it could be an inflection point. How we traverse that intervening period will determine whether in fact the potential of that election is realised or not.
Readers familiar with this column will be all too aware of the problems confronting South Africa, both the mundane and the monumental. Be these potholes, crime, counterproductive policies, a dysfunctional public service, an escalating unemployment problem, as well as a political culture that effectively justifies all of this, they point to a future in which comprehensive failure is a real possibility.
In other words, if we think the present is bad, what awaits us may be even worse.
The conjunction of circumstances that brought South Africa to this point reflects the ripe complexity of South African society and the history that produced it. Getting the country back on track will accordingly be the work of years and careful, pragmatic policy adjustments.
One essential element of this will be the building of a more competitive politics. The African National Congress’ dominance has since 1994 been such that the theoretical discipline provided by the ballot has been almost entirely ineffective. In an enlightening piece written by the SA Institute of International Affairs’ Steven Gruzd and Michael van Winden in the run-up to the 2004 elections, former head of the ANC presidency Smuts Ngonyama airily dismissed the very idea that it was campaigning against political opponents: ‘We have no campaign at all against the opposition. ‘Right now, I’m with the president, who is in the home of an old lady discussing issues important to her like housing and whether she is satisfied with the ANC’s rule. We are going directly to the people to build a foundation for the next decade. There is no need at all to campaign against the opposition.’
The piece was called, quite appropriately, ‘It’s good to be King.’
Combine this with a sense of entitlement to office as the country’s ‘liberation movement’ and the result was hubris that could only wreak havoc on the country and its institutions. The most insidious part of this was the deliberate suborning of the country’s constitutional institutions to the interests of the party. From there, it required only the slightest reorientation (and for some, none at all) for these to be commandeered to further the objectives of party factions or the pecuniary ambitions of individuals.
And here we are. Not only have institutions been degraded, not only is the fiscus bare and the economy anaemic, but the recently released report on the riots of July last year – a report by a panel appointed by no one less than the President – had this to say: ‘It would be remiss of us if we did not express the strong view expressed by some of the groups we met, to the effect that the internal differences within the governing party, the ANC, contributed to the unrest and should be addressed as a matter of national security now.’
But this is probably the inevitable outcome of a culture in which politics, rather than governance, is the focus.
These are important considerations as we mark down these 800-odd days. It is highly unlikely that the ANC will be able to achieve any sort of renewal. It’s been talking around this theme for two decades now, with vanishingly little to show for it, even under President Ramaphosa, whose candidacy for leadership was explicitly premised on dealing with corruption. Yet he has shown little appetite for the depth of action that would be required; his conduct thus far has suggested that party unity is among his dominant concerns, that any reform introduced will be limited in scope (partly by ideological convictions) and most crucially, he has refused to renounce cadre deployment and the consequent politicisation of the state. At best, the President’s offer is to do things ‘better’ though – as revelations about the persistence of compromised officials in the State Security Agency shows – his ability or capability to achieve even this is questionable.
Nevertheless, a reset may be possible at the next election. At last year’s municipal election, the ANC secured less than half the vote. Not for the first time, some of the country’s largest cities have passed over to coalitions of smaller parties. Could this be a template for something more profound?
We at the Institute of Race Relations have described this possibility as a model of a pack of wild dogs. The expectation that a single large party might emerge – think something analogous to Zimbabwe’s Movement for Democratic Change – to challenge the ANC head-on, on a reformist programme, has been disappointed. This was probably always unrealistic. South Africa is a diverse society. Understand that correctly: it is not just about the various pro forma markers of race, sex and ethnicity; South Africans carry varying packages of historical baggage, and they adhere to differing value systems.
The ANC achieved something quite remarkable in being able to provide a home for so many South Africans, although this came at the cost of political cohesion, and required the extensive wielding of patronage to smooth over the fissures.
That path is not available to any opposition formation. The only possibility will be some sort of coalition arrangement. Each one of these would be one of the ‘wild dogs’ in the pack. Individually, the ability of each of them to inflict damage on their prey is limited. Together, they could be formidable, wearing down the animal – think a large buffalo (and its red-headed calf) – forcing it to expend its strength and gnashing at it from all sides.
Whether this will be the case when the day comes around will depend on several things. Can the existing coalitions hold together sufficiently to form the basis for provincial and national arrangements? There have been tensions between the partners over their approach to the Economic Freedom Fighters, and earlier this week, over the City of Tshwane’s adjustment budget, and specifically provisions for water infrastructure which Action SA demanded.
There has also been friction that appears driven by strong personalities and personal takes on matters, such as Dr Makhosi Khoza’s refusal to support the mayoral candidature of the Democratic Alliance’s Nicole Graham in eThekwini. (Dr Khoza subsequently declared that Graham exhibited ‘racist tendencies’ and the DA said that ‘the relationship between Action SA and the DA in eThekwini is less than ideal.’)
I would suggest that newly-formed opposition parties are particularly susceptible to these tensions, as they tend to be formed around prominent individuals with a strong sense of mission, and to attract a supporting community of activists who have already experienced careers in politics. The notion of deferring to those that are more established or numerically stronger (but who are struggling to make progress) may be difficult for the new and enthusiastic parties to accept.
Mirroring the animal kingdom, the political kingdom is given to displays of dominance, both among parties and among individuals.
With time and experience, these difficulties can conceivably be overcome. But this will not be possible if short-term considerations, immediate perks of office or the temptation to cast their lot with the current ruling party prevail. Coalition politics might well be described as political compromise in the firm pursuit of a common vision.
Whether the latter holds – indeed, whether it exists – for the next 800 days and the time beyond that might well determine the fate of the country.