/ 15 February 2019

Quo vadis? End of the ANC as we know it

A protester throws a bottle of water at a security guard at Wits University on September 20 2106.
(John McCann/M&G)


Democratic public governance, the exercise of public authority and the execution of policy, is dependent on the coherent composition of the political power that manages and administers it. Political power and its acquisition ought to be legitimated with principle and consensus that is achieved by the mediation of diverse perspectives, and its agglomeration into a coherent set of decisions.

Political parties who wish to govern need not necessarily be homogenous, but they must at least present a coherent vision and policy offering.

A party’s effectiveness in government and efficiency in processes of governance is therefore dependent on the coherent mediation of differences among its constituent policy-making actors, after which it is fashioned into a set of coherent decisions offered as public policy.

Its more or less democratic character will be dependent on how inclusive it is. Its efficacy on policy is dependent on how coherent its decisions and posture are. The effective mediation of differing perspectives and approaches in a party is thus a precondition for and a precursor of efficient aggregation of perspectives — but not its sole determinant.

The ANC, as governing party, appears to have inverted this axiom — with contradictory approaches to policy manifesting as aggregated decisions on policy and public governance. In other words, it has either put the cart before the horse — or, at best, has the horse galloping alongside a moving cart.

Instead of mediating policy with principle and consensus, policy has become a mechanism for establishing consensus. This explains why the ANC can have two or more diametrically opposed positions on matters of public concern articulated as official positions of the party.

Nationalisation of the Reserve Bank, land expropriation without compensation, the restructuring of state-owned enterprises, and now Luthuli House the ANC headquarters opposing the unbundling of Eskom, contradicting what President Cyril Ramaphosa announced in his State of the Nation address, illustrates how a party and its president singing from different hymn sheets on the same issue, leads to prevarication on policy and contradictory approaches to it — resulting in politicised uncertainty and manifests in government as “institutionalised ambiguity”

To get away from politicised uncertainty and institutionalised ambiguity, the ANC either has to rehabilitate and reform itself into a “proper” political party and jettison the idea that it continues to be a social/liberation movement or undergo a protracted process of fission and organisational attrition, leaving a legacy of societal capriciousness.

The ANC — and its variant offshoots (the United Democratic Movement, the Congress of the People, the Economic Freedom Fighters and the Socialist Workers’ Revolutionary Party) — is the result of an inability to agglomerate and aggregate diverse interests on the basis of principle and thereafter craft consensus on policy.

This partly explains the bitter fights in the ANC on matters of fundamental principle, and between itself and its offshoots. Even with the various splits and breakaways, there is still a lack of consensus on fundamental issues in the current broad church of the ANC as a social movement.

Racial nationalists sit alongside “Africanists” and nativists. Among their number are executive-minded majoritarians who believe in the dilution or even dissolution of the separation of powers and of functions. There are an equal number of statists, governmentalists as well as free marketeers, liberals, neoliberals, socialists, communists, social democrats, the captured and the corrupt.

This is exacerbated by the organisational inclusion of the youth, women and veterans leagues, traditional leaders (the Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa), the South African National Civics Organisation, the South African Communist Party, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (with its affiliate unions also ideologically diverse), the South African Students Congress (for those in tertiary education), the Congress of South African Students (for school pupils) and the Progressive Business Forum.

This disparate ideological swamp spills over into the ANC as a political party in government and infects its ability to govern. The ANC of fragmentation, polarisation and fracture, caused by its internal factionalism and divisions in its policy orientation, has opened the space for widespread government corruption, weakening and eroding state capacity and, most significantly, a weakening grip on the levers of political power and influence in society.

The ANC’s tripartite alliance will continue to fracture, fragment and break down into its natural “constituencies of interest and ideology” and further entrench politicised uncertainty, because it is clear that these interests (political and private) can no longer be coherently accommodated under the umbrella of “the ANC”.

The ANC has a long history of accommodating “factions and fragments” and will probably continue to do so and even win a few more elections. But post-1994, this amalgam that is the ANC has let its troubles spill over into government and allowed it to manifest, not solely organisationally but also institutionally as corruption, malfeasance, theft, incompetence, manipulation, sloth, entropy and inertia.

The question of a significant split in the ANC has been around for some time, precipitated by the political and personality clash between former president Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma in the lead-up to the ANC’s 2007 conference.

From now on, a caricatured and personalised administration presided over by a triumphalist but corruptly captured cadreship, needs to be reversed. But these fault-lines have now mutated into a compounded personality, policy and political crisis in which principle is out the window and consensus may no longer be possible”

Without reform, or a definitive “end of the ANC” as we know it, its end will arrive through bitty, slow and incremental attrition. In these circumstances, government will echo and reflect the chaos that bedevils the organisation, and will simultaneously be hamstrung by it, and an incoherent party, distracted and fixated on its own internal troubles, contaminates government.

Another possibility is the firm insulation of government from the party. As multiple simultaneous commissions of inquiry, along with a reform-minded president, renders those who were susceptible to corruption and malfeasance vulnerable to prosecution and ejection from public office and patronage, it might incentivise the reform-minded to consolidate their influence in the state and, by control of the state, generate a reform agenda. This means the reform-minded ANC cadres in the state provide a clear, coherent and uncontested mandate to other deployees in government.

In this sense, the ANC becomes a “normal” party that sends its deployees to serve in the executive and legislature without directly controlling and micromanaging them. The ANC governs through its members who hold public office and have a mandate to implement policies set out in the party’s manifesto. This does not dilute the influence of the party in terms of policy, deployment and finance in government, but it does somewhat denude its currently overweening power over it.

Importantly, government then becomes relatively autonomous from the party, in this case the ANC. This changes everything. The party’s job then becomes to keep citizens informed and win elections. The majority party in power post-election would implement the electoral mandate.

The 2019 election is a watershed election and will have significant implications for South Africa’s maturing democracy. Either we have ongoing fission and decay or autonomy and action. Anything is possible and bets are on. As Gramsci aptly puts it: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum, a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

Ebrahim Fakir is the director of programmes at the Auwal Socio-Economic Research Institute and Ivor Sarakinsky is a professor at the Wits school of governance