/ 23 May 2022

What comes after the ANC?

After The Anc 1200x630 Headline

Two paradoxical doubts loom over the current political moment: one, a crisis of confidence in the ANC; the other, a crisis of confidence in what replaces the ANC. Both doubts stem from one source: a collective failure to re-imagine South Africa after the ANC — to truly consider what will follow the ANC’s final roar. Failure to re-imagine will consign South Africa to further decline or, worse, false hope

Consider, first, the scale of the present crisis. South Africa’s sorry state — from water scarcity to state plunder; and from racial inequity, to a heinous war on women — can no longer be relegated to a temporary and unfortunate setback. This many-headed crisis is directly linked to abject ANC failure. A failure whose toll of human suffering — of death, and struggle and tears — now verges on the catastrophic. I will go further. The ANC’s governmental failures now verge on a humanitarian disaster, so deep are the devastations and depredations on which they rest.

It is tempting to celebrate the ANC’s demise for its own sake, to glory in the cathartic spectacle of a dying behemoth. But there is no guarantee that what follows the ANC will be preferable. Without a clear-eyed vision for a post-ANC future, South Africa could tragically repeat old mistakes — or make all new ones. And that would be a farce too sore to see.

PODCAST: After the ANC

How, then, do we think beyond the ANC? Take the following thought experiment. Suppose that, tomorrow, the ANC was liquidated. Presume that all political parties died — no Economic Freedom Fighters, Democratic Alliance or Good party. Imagine, then, that the Constitution was abolished, and any possible economic policy was feasible. In sum, envision a blank slate upon which to refashion the entire project of South Africa — if that name even survived.

Now, picture a great convention, called to debate the shape of the new country, a gathering to build a new republic. Then, think: would the delegates at this imaginary assembly remake the new country exactly as the old? I pray not. 

Instead, they would fashion innovate new constitutional paths, chart bold new economic futures, uproot apartheid’s pernicious afterclap, build a dynamic political system and attack multiple social ills. They would learn from, and preserve, those parts of the old country that succeeded but they would abandon those parts that failed. 

Why can we not find the same imagination? Why is it that all we can do is lament the ANC and lament its opposition, and find no further conversation beyond this?

When computer scientists and engineers collaborate to update the newest computer model, they do not start with the past model. Instead, they design the best computer possible, from zero. Then, they come back to the old model with fresh eyes. This process avoids blind spots. A blank canvas can be a bridge to an unseen future.

Sure, this thought experiment is a pipe dream. But it is not designed to be true. Rather, the experiment should upset our deeply held assumptions to spur an urgent sense of national self-examination. 

I am not interested here in listing “seven steps to economic recovery”, or to parsing the minute details of electoral reform. Nor even to proposing a series of constitutional amendments or social policies. All these “solutions” are noble and necessary. Rather, I am interested in why South Africa has lost its tradition of political creativity. Why we, as a society, have lost our very belief in the future. 

If we fail to conjure futures beyond the ANC today, then we will pay the price in unpalatable alternatives tomorrow. This worrying and frustrating prospect is all around us. 

For one thing, the ANC’s fall could signal the rise of South Africa’s right. Take the worst elements of the DA, the Freedom Front Plus, ActionSA, the Inkatha Freedom Party, the African Christian Democratic Party, the Patriotic Alliance, the African Transformation Movement and other smaller parties. Now add the swelling rise of anti-African-migrant sentiment to the mix. Now sprinkle right-wing NGOs such as Afriforum and the so-called Institute of Race Relations, and their confused ideological musings. Then behold the garbled political programme that could materialise from this philosophical ragbag of ragtag. 

I am not saying that all of these institutions are evil, or that they cannot contribute to South Africa’s future. But combining their worst impulses could lead South Africa down a terrifying trajectory. Hello death penalty, hello free market fundamentalism, hello Afrophobic meltdown.

Another alternative is equally unpalatable: pious hope in a revived ANC. This naive wish only extends the agony of ANC misrule and delays destiny. No one can restore the ANC, not even Cyril Ramaphosa. Not only is Ramaphosa incapable of shifting the ANC’s course, he is complicit in its crisis, as an ANC bigwig through the party’s worst years. He personifies the uncomfortable friendship between big politics and big wealth. How then can Ramaphosa clean a mess which made him? 

The more hope that people invest in the decaying ANC, the more their hopes will be dashed. Yet I can already smell the false hope that will permeate every available airwave should Ramaphosa prevail at the ANC’s upcoming conference in December. 

Again, many good people still believe in the ANC. But the exception does not make the rule, and these people are sacrificing much-needed political realignment at the altar of unfounded patience. 

Rather than salvaging a crumbling ANC, this political moment calls for a deep reconsideration of South Africa as we know it. The fall of ANC dominance offers a rare chance to break with three decades of orthodoxy towards fresh paths of emancipation, development and progress. The ANC may have broken South Africa but we cannot allow it to break our capacity to imagine what replaces it. And, so, I ask: what comes after the ANC?

Dr Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh is a lecturer in the department of international relations at the University of the Witwatersrand. He is the author of The New Apartheid.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.