Dear ANC, don’t descend into mediocrity

COMMENT

As a Zimbabwean living in South Africa, the similarities between the ANC and Zanu-PF are unmistakable. The two parties may have taken divergent paths and developed differently, but now more than ever, their resemblance is uncanny.

Some, like Professor Chris Malikane, steadfastly deny the comparisons, arguing that the similarities are overstated and the warnings alarmist.

South Africans, of course, would like to believe that their problems are exceptional, that they will never be another Zimbabwe.

But for observers of the ANC’s wayward brother up north, like myself, the party’s trajectory is unmistakeable. Both ruling parties began life as liberation movements, which were recognised and lauded for emancipating black people from colonial regimes.

In March 1980, newly-elected prime minister Robert Mugabe spoke imaginatively, offering a message of hope and unity to a country torn asunder by years of war. Mugabe spoke of creating a government “capable of achieving peace and stability … and progress”.

Initially, parts of this vision were realised. But in the ensuing decades peace, stability and progress have suffered, while the economy is struggling. There is no clear succession plan in sight.

South Africa began its own post-liberation era bathed in the glow of the Rainbow Nation, only for the ruling party to be undermined by sustained allegations of corruption and state capture, and criticised for failing on service delivery, land reform and the economy.

Under President Jacob Zuma, the ANC has lost the confidence and support of the party’s two alliance partners — trade union federation Cosatu and the South African Communist Party. As the country approaches the general elections that are set to take place in 2019, the incoming leadership after the ANC’s national elective conference in December 2017 will need to heal internal divisions before presenting a united front at the next poll.

Politics in South Africa is not as brutal as in Zimbabwe, where torture and kidnap of critics of the regime has become routine. Currently, the ANC has a chance to redeem itself, if only it would stop imitating Zanu-PF.

South Africans cannot afford to tolerate the type of careless rhetoric emanating from its president and they don’t want the ANC to fully embrace Zanu-PF strategies to bolster the defence of their embattled leader.

When ANC Youth League chairperson Collen Maine recklessly enjoined Umkhonto weSizwe veterans to take up arms in defence of Zuma I couldn’t help experiencing flashbacks of Zimbabwe’s Green Bombers, the youthful liberation “war veterans” circling the wagons around Mugabe.

South Africa still has robust and fiercely independent institutions, particularly the judiciary and a civil society that mobilises at grassroots, and is ready to get its hands dirty. By contrast, Zimbabwe’s institutions, even supposedly independent ones, have been politicised, defanged and subsumed by the regime.

Neither Zimbabwe nor South Africa has a weak constitution. In the case of Zimbabwe, the constitution has been rendered secondary to the edicts of the party. If the constitution contradicts the ruling party’s position, the party’s line prevails.

South Africa, then, must guard the independence of the judiciary. But it is not a fight that can be fought alone.

The fight against corruption in South Africa, as in Zimbabwe, suffers from a lack of political will. Cabinet ministers guilty of criminal abuse of public office and the looting of public funds are politically exonerated. They retain their seat on the gravy train. Zuma’s government does not have the moral fibre to ensure accountability.

Both parties have a strong and storied liberation struggle history but may soon be remembered for their dependency on patronage — a symptom of the development of the economy over the past two decades.

It is erroneous to reduce the politics of the ANC or Zanu-PF to a battle between personalities: more specifically, to one in which the future depends on whether the president stays or goes.

In reality, there’s no Zanufication. The ANC has always been this way, but in the right conditions, with the “right” leader, the party’s actual personality became more pronounced. Exceptionalism afforded South Africa the time to convince itself that the oldest liberation movement on the continent couldn’t possibly be so mediocre. Yet, in reality, the signs were there.

It remains to be seen if the ANC can and will use this as an opportunity to cull the herd and emerge stronger. Otherwise, tiri muchikepe tese: we are in the same boat.

Kiri Rupiah
Kiri Rupiah is the online editor at the Mail & Guardian.
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