“Events, dear boy, events” is one of the most famous political aphorisms, attributed to British prime minister Harold Macmillan in answer to a question to him about what had been the most difficult part of his premiership, from 1959 to 1963.
Well, it was my intention to write about the opposition, for once, and not the ANC. Instead a ship got stuck and a disreputable politician also refused to budge. Which would be dislodged first, the Ever Given or Ace Magashule?
Events, dear boy.
It turns out that shifting a 400m long container ship weighing 220 000 tons that was stuck in the Suez Canal is easier than getting the slender secretary general of the ANC, who has been charged with serious corruption, to step aside from his powerful position at the heart of the ruling party.
The Ever Given caused a logjam of more than 300 ships, delaying global supply chains. South Africa’s institutional regeneration faces a similar tailback as a result of the distract and destruct “scorched earth” obstructionism of the Radical Economic Transformation (RET) brigade — of which Magashule is a key leader, due to the organisational influence he can wield in the ANC in terms of its own elective processes.
Magashule is a thorn in the side of Cyril Ramaphosa and his reform programme, and a cancer at the heart of the ruling party; one who imperils Ramaphosa’s prospects of winning a second term as president.
The ANC’s national executive committee (NEC) meeting at the weekend was messy and unruly, but when all was said and done and the last Zoom link was cut, it was another decisive victory — for Ramaphosa and his reform faction.
Within minutes, a senior member of the ANC sent me a message saying it was “a decisive NEC”.
The devil will be in the detail of the convoluted guidelines that will govern how the ANC processes cases such as Magashule’s now that these have been approved by the NEC.
On the face of it, the outcome is clear and simple: any party member facing charges, such as Magashule’s, must step down within 30 days.
But things are never straightforward in the ANC. The conventions of the organisation have been eaten away; the RET entryists show no respect for its history and integrity. So it is going to be a long month for all of the protagonists and, therefore, for the rest of us, because these internal power struggles in the ANC have a disproportionately big effect on government and on South African politics and its young democracy.
Ace will have to go. And the RET brigade will continue to be pushed back, one rogue at a time.
Political logic would suggest that the opposition would be able to take advantage of the ruling party’s politically shambolic, organisational weakness.
But no, apparently not. There is little evidence that the ANC faces a serious electoral challenge to its hold on power. The two biggest opposition parties are weakening in strength.
The Democratic Alliance has been in decline since its befuddled 2019 election campaign, which saw its share of the vote fall from just over 22% to just under 21%.
Having spat out its first black leader, Mmusi Maimane, scapegoated by the DA’s old boys for the campaign failure, it has since retreated to its original liberal laager, led by a new leader who was an excellent chief whip but whose political tone-deafness suggests that national leadership is beyond his ken.
The Economic Freedom Fighters have staggered from one crisis to another — its thin corruption-busting veneer punctured by the VBS Mutual Bank scandal, with many of its leaders caught in the crosshairs of a resurgent National Prosecuting Authority, and deeply divided between those — like its leader, Julius Malema, who would happily jump back into the ANC if the RET brigade with whom it enjoys significant common cause were to prevail, — and the true believers in the EFF rank and file.
Malema is only interested in power and having failed to get the exponential growth in support in the last election that he had hoped for, nor persuaded more people to register (nine million eligible voters failed to do so), he realises that, save for the odd kingmaker role in City Hall government, the militant, neofascist modus operandi is not going to deliver it.
Most South Africans can see right through the faux workerist branding to the nasty nationalist populism that lies behind it.
This is a depressing picture. The three biggest parties, who won almost 90% of the vote in 2019, surely cannot be the best that this vibrant democracy can deliver.
What are the prospects for a different, alternative opposition emerging, perhaps as soon as this year’s local government election?
There are two structural changes that, in the short and longer term, could have a significant effect on the electoral marketplace.
1 April is an important day in South Africa’s pursuit of transparent, accountable democratic politics. The Political Party Funding Act of 2018 comes into effect, requiring both donors and recipients to disclose donations of R100 000 and more. This is game-changing — and sophisticated — legislation has been a long time in the coming. Unfortunately, dodgy secret donors have had a field day since 1994, buying undue influence under the cloak of opacity and fuelling the corruption that later became codified as “state capture”.
One high-end tenderpreneur, Edwin Sodi, who was charged after evidence adduced at the Zondo commission, gave several million rand in donations to the ANC and certain leading politicians in the ruling party — no doubt to grease the wheels of his procurement successes.
It is not clear how the new Act will affect the supply of funding to political parties. It may end dodgy donations, but increase “clean” money. It may hurt the ANC disproportionately more. Or, as the DA argued, it will hurt the opposition more because corporates will be anxious not to be seen to be funding them.
The Act partly anticipates this by creating a multiparty democracy fund to which donors can contribute if they are serious about wanting to support a competitive system while maintaining a safe, hands-off distance from the parties.
The point is that it will shake up the current relationship between money and parties, perhaps creating space for smaller and new parties to compete.
The other structural change is longer term, and involves the electoral system. There are growing calls for a shift towards more directly elected representation, on the basis that it will deliver more accountability. I doubt whether it is the silver bullet that some believe it is, and there are lessons to be learned from local government, which already employs a different electoral system.
The constitutional court ruling in 2019 in the New Nation Movement case means parliament is required to reform the electoral system to enable independent candidates to stand in national and provincial elections, as they currently can do for municipal polls. Veteran ANC politician Valli Moosa has been appointed to head a review body.
Maimane clearly believes that backing independents is the way to further loosen the shackles of the “big three”.
Which takes us to a final factor: leadership. It is time for the older leaders of smaller parties to make way for the next generation, which may be more willing and able to construct the kind of strategic alliance that will be necessary if the space vacated at the centre of South Africa’s politics is to be occupied by a cogent and credible new alternative.
Maimane has a key role to play in this. He is still young and vigorous, and appears to have the appetite to return to the battleground.
The book that he is writing will be important — not just for the retrospective account of his time as DA leader, which will show just how many (painful) lessons he has learned, but also about what he really stands for.
What Maimane and other younger leaders from a range of smaller parties and extra-parliamentary groups must yearn to prove to the electorate — especially the six million young people who did not register in 2019 — is that they are not stuck with the ANC and its two bigger rivals.
To salvage multiparty democracy from the blockage and wreckage of the big three, they will need to find a way to work together to replicate politically the hydraulic feat that was performed by the marine engineers in the Suez Canal.
Just as with the Ever Given, this is an urgent and historic mission.
Richard Calland is an associate professor in public law at the University of Cape Town and a founding partner of political risk consultancy the Paternoster Group