What happens when the ANC loses its grip?
South Africa looks ill-prepared for a time when the ruling party no longer has credibility as a stabilising force, writes Rapule Tabane.
Politics, much like religion, is often premised on exploitation of the fear of the unknown. It's about promising a better and safer future to everyone whose vote and money counts and who is looking for someone to assure them that all will be well in the future.
The ruling party has promised a better life at each of the elections we have been through in the past 20 years. The question is whether in those 20 years we have crawled or inched or accelerated forward. The ruling party wants to argue that we should forget about the pace; the fact, semantics aside, is that we have made some movement forward.
In the past, the ANC would scare off potential voters for the opposition by painting a doom-and-gloom scenario for black people should the Democratic Alliance take over. The ominous prospect was of a white political party that would take us back to apartheid.
It is not a scenario they can sell to township dwellers about the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), for example. With regard to the EFF, they need another fear factor to sell, so what is it? The economy would collapse if the EFF took over? The good story the ANC has been telling will end abruptly should the EFF be elevated to power?
Let's watch the next few weeks. In the meantime, I have my own gloomy fear. It is of the period of post-liberation movement domination, for which South Africa appears utterly unprepared. I have a sense that, even as we rail against the ANC daily, many do it within the comforting knowledge that our democracy is intact, our institutions are in place.
We are irritated by certain individuals but secure in the knowledge that we have a working and enduring system anchored in the Constitution. By that, I do not seek to equate demo-cracy with the ANC.
But when I see the ANC losing its grip and watch helplessly as protesting communities run riot and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) undertakes an indefinite strike, I have to start wondering. The way everyone has turned a blind eye to what is a life-and-death protest by mine workers has worried me for a while.
Platinum production is at a standstill and workers have been on strike for almost a month without an income, so the matter should have been an urgent one for our authorities. But no, our conversations are about some woman's great ass and a parliamentarian's poor dress sense.
One positive from the strike is that, on the surface at least, it appears to be less violent than previous strikes.
When the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) embarked on lengthy strikes in the past, the ANC could be relied on to work with the union and companies to broker a solution. The relationships the ANC had with the unions and the government's relationship with employers were brought to bear to facilitate an outcome. But the same cosiness ultimately cost the NUM legitimacy among workers, who believed it was no longer serving their best interests.
The situation in which Amcu has positioned itself as a trade union with no political affiliation has resulted in frustration and the gnashing of teeth in some quarters. The workers' loss of confidence in the ANC has precipitated a crisis for the ruling party, which must watch from the sidelines.
The immediate result is that Amcu and mining companies "negotiate" from vastly divergent positions and it is almost impossible to break the deadlock until one of the parties capitulates for now in the interest of the long-term survival of the industry. The effective propaganda machinery of the companies has painted Amcu and its president, Joseph Mathunjwa, as the spoilers.
Media reporting from the companies' spin script has it that Mathunjwa has painted himself into a corner by promising employees a minimum monthly salary of R12?500 and that he cannot call off the strike without losing face. They describe his expensive cars and riches without referring to the very generous salaries of mining executives.
He is offered as the terrible explanation of why we find ourselves in this situation. Mathunjwa certainly is no saint and I will not defend him, but the finger-pointing and character assassination are not accompanied by ideas to break the impasse.
It appears many are waiting for workers to lose confidence in his abilities or for workers to lose their jobs so that their low opinion of his "suspect" leadership is vindicated.
I believe we are paying a price for our complacency in unwittingly over-relying on the tripartite alliance – a huge gap has emerged as the ANC sheds its credibility as a neutral force for a better society.
The rampant, daily protests by communities are, for me, signs of the unravelling of the liberation movement's hegemony. Luckily for the ANC, in the past few years protesting residents have not necessarily changed their political allegiance and still opt to vote for the party at election time. The upcoming elections will indicate whether or not this trend has changed.
The protests are proof that all the systems put in place over the years to strengthen local government have failed. Through councillors, ward committees and community development workers, local government was supposed to have its finger on the pulse of what is at the heart of residents' concerns, and to address them before people take to the streets.
With all the structures in tatters, it's a free-for-all. Freed from the shackles of respect for authority and fear of the police, communities now run riot, unafraid and ready to do anything to draw attention to their problems. It will take some time before new, credible structures are put in place. And after the elections, the ANC will have to reflect on how it let its grip on the pulse of the people slip away.