What’s in store for SA as the ANC implodes?

What happens when the ANC loses power and how will it respond? These two compelling questions have slowly formed amidst the swirling mists of South Africa’s post-1994 politics. 

Now the answers are emerging, linked inexorably to the balance of forces and the central political character of the organisation itself. It is not a pretty sight. 

If greater clarity was needed, then one moment last week provided it. In various places in Gauteng one part of the leadership of the ANC was offering measured messages of political maturity and magnanimity to those who had won power ahead of it. 

Opposition party politicians had been elected as mayors in Tshwane, Johannesburg and, for the first time, Ekurhuleni. 

The party’s president chimed in, too. Cyril Ramaphosa, as ever, the voice of calm reason, indicated that the party was ready to spend time in opposition if that is what the voters had chosen and that the ANC would not put together coalition agreements merely for the sake of staying in power. 

Yet, a few hundred kilometres south, a bunch of thugs were using violence to disrupt a democratic process, and a day later, bribing elected representatives to ensure that it would stay in power in eThekwini come what may. 

Never mind the few hundred kilometres. The two places — neatly reflecting the two-faced character of the ANC — could have been on different ends of the cosmos, such was the gap between them. 

The one, the reasonable, measured, moderate middle of the ANC, unable to do anything to control the other: these are symptoms of an entirely dysfunctional, dislocated and deeply troubled organisation. Meanwhile, coalition deals were negotiated and struck across the land, with scant reference to Luthuli House. 

Luthuli House had lost control, because Luthuli House has lost control. 

The ANC is a busted flush. 

It came into power in 1994 with everything in its favour. An iconic leader with a global presence. A long history, providing boots-on-the-ground organisational capacity. A largely adoring international audience of cheerleaders, both political and in the capital markets. And an entirely dominant electoral position, with no serious challenger on the horizon. 

Now all of that is demolished, much of it spaffed on an orgy of unabated avarice and looting of public coffers. 

That there is still no real, clear ser­ious challenger on the horizon tells us as much about the opposition as it does about the ANC. The fragmented electoral outcome from the local government election shows that the electorate is not terribly convinced by the alternatives on offer, with the majority of eligible voters turning their backs on electoral democracy. 

About the ANC the message could not be clearer, delivered with resounding force a month ago: you are no longer to be trusted with power. 

This is the political message of 2021. 

For a very long time, the prevailing wisdom for political progressives has been that despite its many shortcomings and the growing mountain of evidence of abuse of power, that the ANC remained the best bet — or at least the least bad option; or, that within that already caveated, hold-the-nose-and-hope-for-the-best optimism, the “good guys” within the ANC, led by a decent, reform-minded president, would prevail and somehow hold the centre in spite of the disarray and disintegration all around them. 

That was certainly the view advanced in this column. Until now. A threshold has been passed. Not only has the electorate spoken in such unequivocal terms that the ANC’s dominant political aura has evaporated into thin air, but that its own inability to respond appropriately to its fall from grace renders its loss of national power an inevitability now. 

At the 2016 local government polls, having suffered its first major electoral setback, the ANC had an opportunity to reflect critically. A year later it appeared to have grasped the nettle and turned the tide; the radical economic transformation (RET) gang was defeated. 

But not only was it a marginal victory for the “good guys”, it was a chimera. Ramaphosa’s bright new dawn flattered to deceive. While important initial steps in rebuilding public institutions and in restoring integrity in public life were taken, beneath the surface the grotesque saturnalia continued, feasting at the entrails of those public procurement processes that had not yet been fully restored to order or where the detergent had not yet rinsed through. 

The protagonists fought back — and continue to fight hard — to protect their power. This is what is going on at state power utility Eskom, the vortex of state capture, along with state logistics company Transnet and the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa; and, it was the primary underlying cause of the July unrest: destabilise the democratic state to protect criminal vested interests.

Even if he was a bolder, braver, more compelling leader, it would likely be beyond Ramaphosa’s ken to lead his party to redemption. 

So, the central organising political construct of the post-1994 era — ANC dominance — has gone. The party no longer deserves South Africa; and South Africa deserves far better.

The ANC is a liability. Even its president knows it. Half-heartedly Ramaphosa continues, pointlessly, to pursue the path of organisational unity and rebuilding. Yet he must know that the game is over. And unless he is willing to fight as hard as he did in 2017, when he surprised his opponents with a steely determination to win, he is unlikely to be able to resist the tilt in the balance of power within the ANC that will become more obvious as 2022 unfolds. 

More likely, his appetite for the fight will have evaporated. And as soon as the incumbent seems wounded or weakened, then one by one the swing-voter amoebas on the party’s national executive committee will shake off their Ramaphoric skins and cast around for whomever they deem to be the most likely challenger; the principled, moderate, reformers and traditionalists will soon find themselves outnumbered again. 

On the face of it, there is not yet any one single obvious challenger. The RET gang is too busy desperately trying to hang on to what it has left to mount a serious challenge of its own. At best, they will have to find a new proxy (like Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma was in 2017). 

But a challenger will emerge. ANC chair Gwede Mantashe may be the stalking horse. The first signs of this came recently with Mantashe’s response to the potentially game-changing international climate finance deal in support of South Africa’s  just energy transition away from coal. 

The deal is the only rational route to take, for strong economic as well as climate-change reasons. Yet, having been outmanoeuvred by the Presidential Climate Commission and the president himself, Mantashe’s response was not to resign his position as minister for mineral affairs and energy out of principle but rather to double down on his support for coal. He even launched a call for pan-African unity in defence of fossil fuels. 

As ever, Mantashe’s underlying opaque motives are hard to unpick, but it bears some of the hallmarks not just of defiance of the president, but of a repositioning of himself ahead of the 2022 ANC race. 

After all, this fossil fool has previous history as a flip-flopper of note, jumping from his inscrutable support for Jacob Zuma to the Ramaphosa camp when he sniffed the winds of change in 2017. In Gwede’s fantasy world, the idea of a Mantashe presidency is not at all far-fetched. 

Thankfully, it will not matter much. Next year’s ANC national elective conference will dominate the year, as always, with a great deal of energy being spent on the overarching, angst-ridden question of whether Ramaphosa can secure a second term. 

Whether it is Ramaphosa or Mantashe or someone else who emerges next December as the new ANC leader will be largely irrelevant because they will inherit a broken, dysfunctional political machine that has lost its electoral invincibility. 

Political gravity will pull heavily downwards, and the slide from power will quicken, perhaps exponentially. 

For progressive democrats and constitutionalists the concern will be: what comes next? Already one can see the outline of formidable forces on the populist far right. As the ANC vacates the middle ground and the centre-left, a void opens, which will urgently need to be filled. Nature — and politics — abhors a vacuum. 

This is the simple logic that emerges at the end of 2021. Having had to always live with the ANC in power and accept that the country’s destiny was interwoven with the party, now we will have to learn to live without the ANC dominating political power. It will not be easy. Far from it. But it is a necessary step if South Africa is to cleanse itself and give itself the chance to reboot. 

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Richard Calland
Richard Calland is an associate professor in public law at the University of Cape Town and a founding partner of the Paternoster Group.

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