SA: Notes on an unfinished liberation

Our first democratic president, Nelson Mandela, had grasped that liberal democracy's resilience has been forged by a willingness to tell and hear truthful narratives. This contextualises what followed over the next decade, as the gap between what is arguably the world's most progressive Constitution and the practice of constitutional democracy widened dangerously.

As Mandela's celebrated presidency dimmed at the turn of the century, the ANC increasingly conflated the state with the Marxist-inspired "national democratic revolution" through "cadre deployment" in the public service. This crystallised, for South Africa, the post-liberation trend in Africa: the assumption that parties, political and otherwise, other than the principal liberation movement lack legitimacy and a popular support base.

The mandate of the National Assembly, in words pleasing to a liberal democrat, is "that all executive organs of state in the national sphere of government are accountable to it",  and its job is to "maintain oversight of national executive authority".

Over the past decade the inverse has happened. South Africa began to witness the inexorable centralisation of power in the executive – the proxy of Luthuli House. The academic definition is "executive dominance". In the post-Mandela era, under the presidencies of Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma, the ruling party's hegemonic political project has gathered traction.

If one takes the ANC's national democratic revolution to its logical conclusion, one sees that the idea of competing "centres of power", accompanied by the institutions and practices of constitutional democracy, are not mere hindrances. They are, in fact, blocks to the ANC's vision of society.

Relentless propaganda
The ANC, especially in the year of its 100th anniversary, has tried through relentless propaganda to convince the citizenry that its struggle credentials confer on it a permanent claim to power. However, this populist claim is increasingly challenged. Alternative legitimations for government, especially those derived from performance, are blunting the ANC's strategy to stay in power.

All South Africans, including my party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), respect the memories and historical narratives of the struggle, but these narratives cannot and will not form the foundational basis for the state and the government's legitimacy.

People plainly see when the government's performance is antithetical to the inherent morality that brought it to power. This was recently borne out by the tragedy at Marikana. The event, combined with the political uncertainty that has defined the period leading up to the ANC's elective conference in December, resulted in the Moody's downgrade of South Africa's credit rating this week.

Marikana also shone a scorching light on the "existential" crisis engulfing the ANC: an apparent disconnection from the front line of a battle over greed, inequality and economic liberation. Former ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema incited the striking miners thus: "They [the mining houses] have been stealing gold from you. Now it's your turn."

The ANC's core base is alienated by a president who marshals the rhetoric of social justice, yet spends more than R200million of public money upgrading his own home. More sinisterly, the presidency is invoking apartheid's shadowy national key points legislation to justify this expenditure. The principal party of liberation is now mirroring the legitimising arguments and practices of the apartheid regime.

Zuma kleptocracy
Synthesising these trends, the DA leader and premier of the Western Cape, Helen Zille, argues that the dividing line in South Africa today is between the "populists" – the Zuma kleptocracy and the Malema sympathisers – and the "constitutionalists" – the true, if disparate, heirs to the liberation legacy.   

The DA has moved to challenge the government's hegemony not by questioning its liberation credentials, but by allying itself with the social justice aims of liberation. We have been able to provide a democratic alternative, one that pivots on justice and service delivery, in the Western Cape, the city of Cape Town and multiple local administrations.     

Our compassionate liberalism is now entrenched in the body politic as one of the two major post-liberation philosophies of South Africa (the other being the ANC's disjointed Marxist and nationalist narratives). Ours can also lay claim to being the most intellectually cohesive.

The DA is helping to break the mould of identity politics, based on race, ethnicity and class, which was mobilised by the ANC in the post-liberation period. This is paradoxical because, again, one of the key tenets of liberation was to free South Africa from these baleful influences.

They are being broken by the DA –  not by denying their salience, but by constructing a policy programme that emphasises social solidarity and dignified engagement. This, in fact, represents the authentic "second transition" of which the ANC spoke earlier this year. And, ironically, this holds out the best hope of arresting the ANC's decline – a historical realignment in which the ANC's populists and constitutionalists part company over ideas and not over personality factions.

Lindiwe Mazibuko is the parliamentary leader of the DA. This is an edited version of her presentation at a workshop on the challenges of transition in Africa, hosted by the Brenthurst Foundation and the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung in Cadennabia, Italy

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