Editorial: Only the ANC can save itself

Jacob Zuma has taught us about firepools, and “meandos”, and how to make a fool of yourself in court. But, if there is one thing we will take away from his disastrous management of the country, it is the dire consequences of allowing systems of accountability to decay, be subverted and ultimately fail.

By this time next week we should know whether the ANC has learnt that lesson too.

The weekend’s big story will be about the battle between Cyril Ramaphosa and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma — that is unavoidable. Yet, where the ANC’s national conference goes after that will tell us what the future holds.

Down one road lies more of the same: a continuation of the cult of personality that started with Nelson Mandela, was honed in the early stages of an imperial presidency by Thabo Mbeki and then masterfully abused by Jacob Zuma to retain an iron grip over both party and government, despite being an incompetent, dishonest, immoral, criminally accused person.

Perhaps Ramaphosa or Dlamini-Zuma will be less incompetent or more honest, and we will have five or 10 years of decent government as a nice little holiday. But, in a system that allows it, those willing to abuse power will always rise to the top. Eventually the new ANC president, or the one after that, or the one after that, will again be in a position where the expedient thing is to fire a well-performing finance minister, or keep on an utterly failed social development minister, or boot out an inconvenient national director of public prosecutions.

Our democracy hinges on the ruling party preventing such flagrant abuse or stupidity by its leader, instead of taking to wearing “100%” T-shirts and pledging violence and death in defence of that leader.

The other road the ANC could go down, the one we just barely dare hope for, is that it will elect Zuma’s successor and then immediately begin the work of surrounding its new leader with layers and layers of accountability mechanisms.

In this scenario, the ANC will not wait for the courts to humble its president but will use party disciplinary mechanisms to enforce good behaviour well before anyone else has the chance to do so.

This ANC will look to the good work Parliament is beginning to do in oversight of the executive and will turn its mind to strengthening that institution — even to the extent of better empowering opposition parties to demand real answers from a president, instead of being brushed off with a sneer.

This ANC will make it an obligation for its national executive committee to act as a watchdog rather than a lapdog.

This ANC will not just sadly shake its head in a pantomime of opprobrium when its leader unilaterally hires and fires Cabinet ministers and so makes a mockery of the doctrine of party deployment.

This ANC may even start to consider reform of its own internal democratic mechanisms, so that it can move towards a system where there can be no doubt about who party members want to lead them.

Mechanisms to control the power of its party president are well within the reach of an ANC national conference. Their implementation should also be uncontroversial — if the ANC has learnt the lesson of the Zuma years.

We hope for this not only because we would like to see the ANC rescue itself but also because we fear what will happen if the party continues its rapid decline with no viable alternative in sight.

We hope for this because, with its history and its broad support base, the ANC is singular in its potential to rediscover the power of consensus in forming policy and making decisions. And, yes, we still believe that there is wisdom enough in South Africa to find solutions and, to quote from a once-great movement, to create a better life for all.

But, we do not believe that either Ramaphosa or Dlamini-Zuma — or any one man or woman — can save South Africa or the ANC. That will be the work of an organisation united behind a purpose, not a personality. 

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