In the early hours of Monday morning, the ANC in the eThekwini region defiantly elected the former mayor of the city, Zandile Gumede, as its regional chairperson. Gumede is facing serious fraud and corruption charges and could not be at the conference because of the ANC’s “step-aside rule”. In fact, all five nominees for Gumede’s camp won, on a slate that was a slap in the face for the ANC president’s mission to renew the party.
Is the ANC cursed to follow in the footsteps of previous liberation movements? This has been a lingering question for the past 28 years, but the events of the past decade, and increasingly events at every ANC meeting, answers the question for South Africans.
Last week, countless Africans celebrated the news of Burkina Faso’s former president Blaise Compaoré being handed a life sentence in absentia over the murder of Thomas Sankara, which took place in 1987. The 37-year-old Sankara was gunned down during a coup d’état after seizing power from the moderate Jean Baptiste Ouédraogo in 1983.
Like many of its counterparts, Burkina Faso’s post-independence period since 1960 has been marked by military coups. Throughout modern Burkina Faso history, military takeovers have frequently been preceded by anti-government demonstrations, which have included both structured protests organised by labour unions and more spontaneous protest forms. Compaoré’s semi-authoritarian reign ended after 27 years in power in 2014, after months of such rallies.
According to academics Muhammad Dan Suleiman and Hakeem Onapajo, more than 90% of African countries have experienced coup attempts. Moreover, more than 40 coups and attempted coups have occurred in Africa since 2010, with 20 occurring in West Africa. Since the beginning of 2019, five coup attempts have been successful, whereas two failed. One of these successful coup attempts was in Burkina Faso on 24 January this year, when the military overthrew then president Roch Marc Christian Kaboré.
It used to be argued that because the ANC was able to avoid the institutional tensions and opportunism that plagued the Pan Africanist Congress and other liberation movements, it was eventually able to turn itself into a party fit for the transition from liberation movement to governance. Its strength was the ability to hold divergent movements under one tent; to become a “broad church” for the many movements fighting for the liberation of black people. For most of the period since 1994, this argument was comforting enough for most South Africans to consider this country’s transition “different” from that of its neighbours.
Unlike many liberation movements, the ANC was able to form a government — a government that was genuinely effective. Liberation movements in South Sudan and Somalia for example, are still struggling to form governments because of deep internal divisions.
But lately, the ANC has become hostile to reform and increasingly the party is becoming the church of the disaffected. A once globally celebrated party has transformed into the best vehicle for those with nefarious ambitions. In the past decade the ANC has become visibly entitled and has become more brazen in its argument for further untethered power. Violence has become more prevalent in the party and it is becoming clear that there are people in the ANC who would not hesitate to dispense with the formalities of democracy should they gain control over the organisation.
The timing of this dangerous faction is also quite fortuitous for the cabal. Democracy as we know it is under threat across the globe, giving bad apples ample space to attack already fragile institutions. In France, Emmanuel Macron has won the first round of the French election, but far-right rival Marine Le Pen is right behind him. Although Macron is not the picture of progress, La Pen is the picture of deep regression for Europe and the Global North. In the US the suppression of voting rights through legislation is still an ongoing issue: the Republican party continues to stop the introduction of comprehensive voting rights laws and the Democrats are not looking as though they are building enough momentum despite the shocking events after the 2020 election that brought President Joe Biden to power.
But back to the ANC. We, as the general public, must own our part in the deterioration of South African politics. Our sin is to remain fixated by this party; invested in a hope of “self-correction” — an ANC promise that has not been kept. Without meaning to, we hold the lowest standards for the governing party: fixated on any signs of renewal; continuously disappointed by each successive action, only to go right back to our addiction.
However, we hold far less empathy for upcoming movements and parties. We are overly critical, with many commentators waiting for the most perfect party that somehow marries experience, mass appeal with a squeaky-clean leadership. Such a party does not exist.
Of course, I am certainly not arguing for us to simply look away at every sin. Action SA, one of the most recent entrants in the space, has the blood of Elvis Nyathi on its hands. Groups such as Operation Dudula are spreading like wildfire across the country, as increasingly, more South Africans are being seduced by the message that African immigrants are the source of all social ills in the country.
But increasingly, we have become very cynical. And it is cynicism, more than anger, that kills democracies. Political cynicism allows the general public to opt out of political participation, entering the discussion only to criticise. Cynicism also turns citizens into noncompliant participants, driving an increasingly antagonistic relationship with critical institutions, particularly institutions like the revenue collector. Cynicism also decreases participation in elections: fewer people vote, and it is also easier for parties that do not represent the values and hopes of the majority to play an oversized role in political governance.
Robust political party contestation is necessary for democracy to be sustainable. South Africa’s civil society has an important role to play in keeping citizens engaged through this turmoil to ensure that political change happens sooner rather than later. It is unlikely that the Direct Elections Bill will come into law, but there are many exciting alternatives emerging in different communities that might not be scandalising enough to maintain media attention, but are rousing enough for us to notice.
The most fundamental purpose of civil society is to constrain and regulate the state’s authority. This is particularly important in a political culture in which the government and the state are often conflated. Without safeguards, leaders of political parties will eventually eye the resources of the state for their own enrichment. And they are — the events of this past weekend in KwaZulu-Natal have put the nation on notice.
Although coups may be a foreign concept to us, we cannot bet the country’s future on the hope that the ANC will exorcise its demons. The ANC’s political dominance since 1994 is not a given. Smaller political formations need our assistance, not our cynicism. We are not exempt from the path that many other African nations have taken; we are not above turmoil and decline. We cannot hold on to the hope that this is as low as we can go, because every week the ANC goes lower, and threatens our very fragile democracy.