Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The ANC after the municipal elections, treating the cancer

The hopes of 1994 © Photo Shafiq Morton
I HAVE covered every single election since democracy, from the euphoric highs, the hope and the bonhomie of 1994 to the disillusionment, the uncertainty and the simmering rage of 2016.

Without doubt, in this month’s municipal elections South African voters have shown their feelings, whether by engaging with the ballot box, or choosing to stay away. Indeed, the public has indicated that the honeymoon is over. No longer will it tolerate those who don’t deliver.

In the post-Mandela era, South Africans – who are certainly not unmindful of historical imbalances – are becoming less and less seduced by the sentimentality of struggle politics, and more and more concerned about bread and butter issues.

Protest by ANC members about candidate lists was the first sign that the 2016 local government elections would be contested vigorously – even from within the ranks of the governing party – where dissatisfaction with non-performing councillors had come to a head.

Because of our constitutional framework, our politics plays itself out in two spheres. The first is the outer, or multi-party one, which exists at a municipal, provincial and national democratic stratum. It is meant to be a level playing field, but it does have a systemic drawback. As there is a proportional system, those voters outside any party have little say in who will be their representatives.

Over 22 years it has created a distance from power, and is an aspect of our system that might need review.

The second sphere of our politics is the inner one, where one party currently overwhelms the political landscape, its inner workings affecting the outside, greater population. The tri-partite alliance of the SACP, COSATU and the ANC is the dominant space from within which power emanates. 

However, all of this does not mean – as President Jacob Zuma once suggested in parliament – that because one party has a large majority it has more rights than the minority. Zuma’s other sentiment  – that the ANC will rule until Jesus comes – could haunt him if ANC support dips below 50% in the 2019, or 2025 national elections, as some commentators have predicted.

Coalition politics – very much in the municipal frame right now – could well determine his successor. It is largely hypothetical, but the EFF and DA could possibly be wrangling with the ANC executive over who should be our next president.

The ANC was definitely hurt in this year’s local government elections by national questions being conflated with municipal ones. These questions reflected not only a growing unease over the ANC's executive competency, but frustrations about economic growth, unemployment, corruption, state capture and service delivery.

Then in KwaZulu Natal there were 14 politically-related killings, all believed to be within the ANC fold.  In the Western Cape there was much hurrah, but no leader. In Vuwani, Limpopo – where a municipal demarcation dispute led to wide scale unrest and boycotts – less than 4% of registered voters went to the polls.

It is obvious that the ANC has had to pay for Zuma – from the Guptas and Nkandla to Nene-gate. It also has had to bear the criticism of those elders still inside the ANC, but outside the Zuma circle. When party heavyweights such as Kgalema Mothlante, Mavuso Msimang and Frank Chikane weigh in about the ANC, then South Africans should listen.

It was Msimang who suggested in the Mail and Guardian that the ANC was “broken”. It was Mothlante who said that when fear reigns within you end up with a “dead organisation”.  And Chikane, a former Mbeki aide, wrote a letter to Luthuli House predicting dire consequences if nothing was done about the malaise of the corruptibility of power within the ANC, which he described as a “cancer”.  

The ruling party faces a Rubicon on this. Can the cancer be cured? Zuma cannot be blamed for everything, but it is he who via Nkandla has dragged political debate to the level of parliamentary hooliganism and who will be associated with the nepotism, the parastatal looting and the self-enrichment that has so blighted Africa’s oldest liberation movement.

A pertinent question on every South African’s lips is the ANC’s persistence of cadre deployment at all costs. Incompetent hacks get appointed to key positions, and the party not only undermines itself, but the whole country. Patriarchal hierarchies only nurture mediocrity; they undermine independent thought, innovation and excellence.

As I write this personal review, it almost seems as if the ANC is so out of touch with the epoch that it has become an anachronism, a political relic in its own time. One thing we observed at this year’s elections was the absence of youth at the polls. Young South Africans simply don’t relate to pot-bellied elders in green-and-yellow tracksuits doing staged walkabouts on the SABC, which they don’t watch anyway.

In a cyber-age where South Africans use 66 million cell phones (22 million being smartphones), where 15 million are on WhatsApp and over 1 billion SMSs are sent every month, the ANC still gives the impression that knocking on people’s doors will win elections.

Indeed, if the ANC is to rescue itself from itself – and to uplift the country it currently rules – some hard work lies ahead, as it is going to have to break new ground, create new standards, banish old habits, become tech savvy and take serious note of the youth bulge in our population.

Of course, this is a challenge that all political parties will have to face. The nuts and bolts of constitutionalism, the commitment of participatory democracy, and how our political system works – right down to how to cast a vote – needs to be taught at our schools.

Undoubtedly, the next few years are going to be challenging – and not only for the ANC. As analyst Ebrahim Fakier has said, we are entering an era of uncertainty. As for the ruling party – to borrow from data analyst Andile Ngcaba – chemotherapy will be the only way to solve the cancer today, band aids will simply not be enough to save the ANC from disaster in 2019.