Contrary to the routinely evasive denials of the ANC, we face a crisis of governance of unprecedented magnitude. On the eve of the 2016 local government elections, the ANC’s rule is now more questioned, compromised and imperilled than ever. Despair about the ANC is visible and palpable in all facets of our society, even among its once-fervent supporters.
That President Jacob Zuma has become the object of ridicule for so many is a serious sign for our nascent democracy. Over the years, our integrity and reputation as a country have been severely tarnished by so many things involving Zuma.
The scandals to do with ANC members implicated in fraud, corruption and maladministration, at all levels of government, in many departments and in several parastatals, are so serious that in the public imagination they dwarf the socioeconomic crisis of worsening poverty, unemployment and inequalities.
There are many instances providing hard, compelling and even irrefutable evidence of a party in serious decline: the arms deal shenanigans, the Guptagate scandal, the Schabir Shaik corruption case (in which Zuma was implicated), the fraud and corruption charges against Zuma himself, the role of ANC politicians in the Fifa scandal over South Africa’s winning the bid to host the 2010 World Cup, the grotesque and absurd Nkandla scandals, the unpardonable Marikana massacre of black miners, the killing of township protester Andries Tatane, the mismanaged Gauteng e-tolls debacle, the perpetual crisis at the SABC, the electricity crisis, and so on.
A recent Mail & Guardian report showed the ANC ignoring the findings of its own ethics committee. An internal ANC election survey report found that its own voters think the party is performing badly. This is not surprising: the ANC’s historic support base in the black working class has been protesting nonstop for 11 years against service delivery problems.
In terms of governance, something malignant has been happening in the ANC, especially since Thabo Mbeki was ousted at the Polokwane conference in 2007. This is not to suggest that the current crisis began there. After all, there was a great deal of corruption, incompetence and poor performance on the part of the ANC government before then.
But it is undeniable that things are much worse now than under Mbeki. There can be no doubt that the leadership elected at Polokwane has been a major factor in the deep rot in the ANC, that is undermining and even destroying our constitutional democracy – and with it the hopes of the poor black majority.
We are not at a tipping point. We have tipped over already. Political analyst Professor Sipho Seepe said to me recently that we can’t simply lay the blame on Zuma, but that is to downplay the key role individual leaders have played in politics globally and throughout history.
After the Russian revolution, one of its leaders, Leon Trotsky, showed how the mental make-up, temperament and idiosyncrasies of individual leaders can partly contribute to pushing a party and a country into a crisis – or serve to pull it out of one.
But Trotsky showed, too, that a combination of a particular personality with exceptional circumstances was necessary if its effects, positive or negative, were to be felt in the party and the country’s body politic. He partly attributed the terrible degeneration of the Russian revolution to Stalin’s paranoid, punitive personality, and argued that his upbringing disposed him to these traits. Stalin had many of his closest comrades killed on trumped-up charges.
Zuma’s penchant for dance, his perpetual smile and his effusive personality might be his way of seeking not only to endear himself to people but also to deflect attention away from the troubles he faces. Perhaps the suggestion is that such a nice man couldn’t possibly be involved in serious misdemeanours.
At the time of Polokwane, Mbeki had many enemies in the ANC and its allies. There was a widely held perception that his dismissal of Zuma in June 2005 was wrong. Most of Zuma’s supporters believed that the rape case and the corruption charges against him were trumped up.
It is clear that the ANC sympathised with his plight because of the perception that he was treated unfairly by Mbeki. Union federation Cosatu and the South African Communist Party were unhappy with Mbeki’s tight control of economic policies they sharply differed with, rather than because of his strengths as a leader.
The writing is on the wall for the ANC. History shows us that, often, what precedes the downfall of a ruling party is wide public despair about it and cynicism about its leaders and rule. Looking at Nkandla, Guptagate and other examples of malfeasance, nothing stands out more clearly than the impervious crudity of Zuma and his administration.
A direct result is the appalling lack of respect for and trust in Zuma and ANC politicians today. We deserve so much better.
Ebrahim Harvey is a political writer, commentator and author