For political junkies and the purveyors of political risk analysis, these are the happiest of days. Rarely has there been so much political uncertainty — globally and in South Africa — and with such profound socioeconomic implications.
There is something mesmerising about watching vulnerable, venerable institutions and organisations such as the British House of Commons and the ANC try to hold it together under extreme pressure. Age-old conventions wilt as heat rises and democracy is threatened.
It would involve too many contortions to stretch the analogy; both President Cyril Ramaphosa and Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May (and to a lesser, but not insignificant degree, the leader of the opposition Labour party, Jeremy Corbyn) are encumbered by deep divisions in their respective parties as they seek to execute an institutional reform programme on one hand and a so-called “orderly Brexit” on the other.
Power struggles from within complicate leading South Africa and Britain. May vacillates between trying to govern on behalf of the whole of her increasingly frustrated and fractious nation versus vassalage to the interests of hardline Brexiteers on the right of the Tory party.
Both have external factors to consider: May is failing her leadership test. On Ramaphosa, the jury is still out. As I have argued here and continue to argue elsewhere until I am blue in the face, in a relatively short period of time — just over a year — Ramaphosa has accomplished a lot.
Critical institutions are on the mend, underpinned by a plethora of rule of law-based commissions of inquiry; a sturdy platform for reform and revival is being laid piece by piece — that is the “empirical” basis for hope Eusebius McKaiser calls for when he cautioned against “blind hope” in these pages, last week.
Those who argue to the contrary are unreasonable or unable to appreciate the scale of the institutional degradation Ramaphosa’s predecessor bequeathed him.
Can Ramaphosa escape the drag factor of his own party? This is a similar question to what May has faced and fails to address effectively.
The ANC list process — which delivered a list of candidates for election to the National Assembly replete with several of the worst scoundrels of the Zuma era — was more bruising than usual. It brought back the feudal factional fights that have undermined ANC integrity and political coherence over the past decade or more and demonstrated the reformer’s grip on power is far from firm.
But it is also fundamentally because the ANC has lost its ethical bearings. As various “elders” have pointed out, the impugned individuals should never have got anywhere on the list. But it is a sign of Ramaphosa’s caution or weakness that his preferred route is to let due legal process take its course.
Clearly a fan of 1960s World War II movies, Ramaphosa likes to tell people they shouldn’t be like the impatient soldiers who, instead of waiting for the explosives laid to detonate and disable their targets, approach them and are blown away.
Remember his State of the Nation Address remark: “Watch this space,” said twice with steely resolve and barely contained anger. He is tougher than he sometimes seems — and wily. He believes that the National Prosecuting Authority restored to full working order will bring down his political opponents, including a troublesome secretary general and some miscreants who disfigure the ANC candidates’ list.
This is risky, nonetheless, certainly in the short term. There has been a considerable backlash against the list. It undermines the credibility of his leadership and his reform programme, and will likely cost the ANC votes, especially middle-class ones.
Whether, and how much, this seeps down to the far reaches of the ANC’s core vote remains to be seen and may be a part of Ramaphosa’s political calculus.
Yet it surely makes it harder to trust the president — who is the face of the ANC’s campaign, understandably, given that polling shows him to be relatively highly trusted across race and class compared with his competitors and even his own party.
And besides, it seems this part of the game is not yet up. The ANC’s integrity committee, chaired by Robben Island veteran George Mashamba, will review the ANC list.
Too little, too late. The damage is mostly done. Serious questions abound as to whether the committee has the resources, never mind the political space, to act.
Bizarrely, veterans have been asking around for private funding for the committee, such is its parlous state. And if one wanted a neat microcosmic metaphor for the state of the ANC’s ethical conventions, it would be that it does not care enough to properly resource its own integrity committee. So “Listgate” rumbles on, distracting the ANC from running a focused campaign. So chaotic has the list process been that veteran trade and industry minister, Rob Davies, who was looking forward to retiring, was persuaded by Ramaphosa to come back to Parliament once more, but was irritated to discover, when the list was finally published, that his name wasn’t there after all.
The impact of these internal tensions was plain to see on Tuesday with the hysterics of deputy secretary general Jessie Duarte when attacking an eNCA reporter who asked tough but necessary questions about the review of the list. So under pressure is the ANC it had to try and change the narrative through Duarte’s meltdown.
No doubt, she was embarrassed by her boss’s breach of convention when issuing a denial on Sunday in the face of revelations about his own gangster tendencies. ANC secretary general Ace Magashule was admonished at Monday’s special national executive committee for drafting and publishing a statement on behalf of the ANC but concerned only with allegations against himself.
Just as the principle of Cabinet collective responsibility is one of many conventions bringing collateral damage to the Brexit crisis, as the British prime minister has lost control of her own government, the dismantling of such conventions unravels the institutional fabric. The result is greater political instability and uncertainty, further weakening and imperilling democratic practice.
These are the high stakes, which requires our leaders to transcend the crisis surrounding them and, where necessary, take unpopular decisions or risk personal political loss — that is the definition of great leadership. It was a test Angela Merkel passed in 2015 when she rose above and challenged the rising clamour of xenophobia in Germany to welcome a million refugees from Syria, even though she knew it would likely cost her dearly politically, as it has (she leaves power in the next year, having given up the presidency of her own party, the Christian Democrats).
On this note, it was discomforting to see how fast Ramaphosa had to row back (helped by his minister for international relations, Lindiwe Sisulu) from remarks he made a week ago to an election crowd in which he appeared to succumb to populist xenophobia about the regulation of foreign-owned, township-based businesses — another ANC convention that has wobbled as a tight election race got going.
For a dual citizen of Britain and South Africa, I believe in the grand multilateral experiment of the European Union. I maintain it represents an essential bulwark against the rising global tide of nationalism and mercantile protectionism. I choose to trust in the social democrat credentials and leadership capabilities of this country’s president and, for me, these are the most agitating and fascinating of times.
But such ruminations are a luxury. For those whose main concern is putting bread on the table, these are not merely frustrating, worrying times, but times in which mainstream political leaders appear to offer little hope, encouraging the neofascist demagoguery that makes progress at and beyond the fringes of older democracies such as Britain’s and newer ones, such as South Africa’s.
Just as the gilets jaune (yellow jackets) may spread across the English Channel from France and test the Britons’ culture of tolerance, so May 8 will also be a referendum on South Africans’ appetite for such populism, in the form of Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters, which is why these are also the most dangerous of times.
Richard Calland is associate professor in public law at UCT and a partner in The Paternoster Group, a political risk consultancy