A brief encounter in the lead-up to the ANC’s 103rd anniversary reveals the unspoken anxiety of ANC leaders today. Cyril Ramaphosa handed a pamphlet to a man in the street in Cape Town. The man responded by shouting “Viva Ramaphosa!” The deputy president of the country and of the ANC immediately corrected him: “No, Viva Zuma!”
The organisation has historically celebrated and affirmed all its leaders. Often, people greet leaders by shouting “Viva!” or “Long live!” and mentioning whoever they see or wish to honour. Ramaphosa’s response confirmed what has been apparent for some time – that President Jacob Zuma looms much larger than the ANC itself and the reason may not be advantageous to the organisation.
The ANC may be weaker now than at any time since 1994, despite its strong electoral showing. Its membership has been rocketing, especially in KwaZulu-Natal. But it has never assessed its political weight by numbers alone. There may be multiple reasons why people vote ANC or become members.
One may be the material benefits that result. It has been suggested by Zuma and others that to receive social grants from the government while voting for an opposition party is a species of criminality. In Zuma’s presence, KwaZulu-Natal agriculture and environment affairs MEC Meshack Radebe attributed provision of social grants to Zuma personally: “Nxamalala [Zuma] has increased grants, but there are people who are stealing them by voting for opposition parties.”
This is part of a shift from investment in close political relationships with communities towards reliance on clientism.
This approach is largely responsible for the growing distance between the ANC and the people of the country, cutting across race and class lines. This cannot be addressed by a few visits to communities and promises that cannot be fulfilled. At times this relates to real financial constraints, but sometimes it is because of maladministration or diversion of resources meant for the poor to projects that are not core government business. Nkandla, although not the only example, starkly illustrates this.
When former Gauteng premier Nomvula Mokonyane told the Bekkersdal community “we do not want your dirty votes”, she demonstrated the extent of this disconnection. Given her political experience of organising in communities, it is revealing that she did not appreciate the loaded, multiple meanings attached to that statement. She was talking to people who have been robbed of their dignity both in the past and today. The poorest of the poor, in whose name the ANC claims legitimacy, remain “dirty and unwashed” and treated as the “other” in South African society.
Why does the ANC not read the danger signals? The key reason may be constant preoccupation with the president. How to please him? How to protect him? There is recognition that the president is vulnerable and needs protection at all costs, no matter the consequence for the standing of the ANC.
The first dramatic illustration was at the First National Bank stadium in Johannesburg when the president was repeatedly booed by sections of the crowd during the memorial service for Nelson Mandela in December 2013.
Following that, the ANC took elaborate steps to ensure that nothing similar happened when it marked its 102nd anniversary in Mpumalanga in January last year. It screened all who attended to ensure they were ANC members, for an event previously open to the public. Seating was carefully arranged to ensure that booing or similar disruptions could be swiftly addressed.
Now it is recognised that the president can no longer simply speak anywhere. There has to be elaborate intelligence about who will be present, how they will be screened, and how potential hostility will be contained.
The ANC used to thrive on mass rallies, demonstrating its strength. Now these are often seen as potentially threatening. The level of preparation required is symptomatic of the organisation’s weakness, deriving from preoccupation with its leader. Instead of drawing on the power of numbers, the ANC leadership has to exclude some who may want to attend because they may be disruptive.
Zuma’s programme is now a complicated security issue, though some difficult situations cannot be avoided. The ANC dreads what may happen when he appears in Parliament in February. Again, a moment when a triumphant statement may previously have been presented is feared to be one of embarrassment, or even disgrace.
That is why in Parliament most ANC MPs see their role as devoted to protecting the president, even if it undermines their constitutional role as members of the legislature. MPs and some ministers have long suspended their powers of judgment and analysis to perform this role.
Zuma is both dependent on support and determined to act alone. Since the 1950s, leadership of the ANC had never been a one-person show, although some strong-willed presidents were able, at times, to do what they considered desirable or necessary despite the strong reservations of others. Apart from this collective decision-making tradition, a number of ANC presidents relied on advice from their peers, notably the relationship between Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Chief Albert Luthuli and Moses Kotane.
Zuma does not appear to discuss with others what he will do before acting. When his close comrades enter a controversy, it is after Zuma has already made statements. A leader acting in consultation with his or her peers would have anticipated more often how statements would be interpreted and avoided these constant “misunderstandings”.
One of the striking features of the present is the change in the effectiveness of the parliamentary opposition. Until now the ANC has been able to work on the assumption that the opposition is a semi-irrelevant irritant, raising issues that may have been true but could, in the final analysis, be ignored without significant cost.
Now all that has changed with the arrival of the Economic Freedom Fighters and the simultaneous increasing boldness of the Democratic Alliance in Parliament. The EFF has the power to mount sustained attacks on ANC leaders and keep highlighting their lack of accountability, notably over Nkandla and Marikana.
The DA, despite the relative inexperience of its parliamentary leader Mmusi Maimane, has also embarked on tactics that make it difficult for the ANC simply to push through its decisions. Parliament, previously run almost entirely according to the whims of the ANC, which simply outvoted the opposition, has become a place of shame and humiliation where the president fears to appear and answer questions.
The rest of the parliamentary ANC suspends whatever private views they may have. They do not apply their own logic or what remains of their ethics. They subordinate these to shield the president from questioning and rubber-stamping decisions taken to discipline the opposition or impede opposition initiatives.
The ANC has also lost the reasonably peaceful relationship it enjoyed with citizens, especially the poor, who initially appreciated the government’s challenges and understood that not everything could be done immediately. The trust and goodwill of communities and ANC supporters has been squandered. They now see that delays are not all because of constraints facing government. After 21 years and growing evidence of diversion of funding intended for improving their lives into private pockets, there is a restive atmosphere, often akin to ungovernability.
Characteristic of the Zuma era, in which politics is no longer about political ideas and strategies but about position and wealth, the ANC and the government have lost the skill, desire and even capacity to talk to constituencies who are dissatisfied. Instead, many protests are met by riot police and result in bloodshed and death. The officials who could answer protesters are seldom there to meet them. The constitutional requirement to meet basic needs is transformed into the “maintenance of law and order”.
The tripartite alliance is in crisis, with trade union federation Cosatu more or less paralysed and the South African Communist Party devoting its energies to defending Zuma. There is a reconfiguration of ANC allies, with raised status for traditional leaders, whose powers are being extended in exchange for support. Likewise, sections of business are now closer than the unions, often in exchange for patronage benefits.
The ANC has become an organisation in which only one man can be acknowledged as a leader. A year before local government elections, the ANC is burdened with a president who is literally running away from Parliament, the country’s main democratic institution. In subordinating democracy to the needs of “uBaba”, fundamental democratic principles are being jettisoned.
Professor Raymond Suttner is a former ANC underground operative, political prisoner and leader. His book, Recovering Democracy, will be published by Jacana and Lynn Rienner early this year.