/ 29 December 2023

Electoral options get complicated

2021 Local Government Elections
Stayaway: Voters trickled into polling stations during the local government elections in Gauteng — as they did in the rest of the country. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

Nobody disputes the fact that the ANC is in deep crisis and it has brought South Africa to an equally serious crisis. 

The damage it has done to the country has been caused by a toxic brew of corruption, cadre deployment, neoliberal macroeconomic policies, authoritarian responses to grassroots struggles and plain contempt for the people. 

Understanding how this happened requires an understanding of the different currents in the ANC. There are many and they cannot be neatly separated from each other. But it is still useful to identify a few of them. 

There is a liberal current which was once thought to be led by Cyril Ramaphosa, but he has turned out to be a non-leader who has only occupied the presidency in name and never driven any sort of project. 

The liberal faction has been part of the ANC since its founding but has not been able to dominate the party since the 1950s. 

It is identified with people such as Mavuso Msimang and, in the past, Trevor Manuel. It has been able to shape macroeconomic policy but has never been able to control the party as a whole.  

It now has a spin-off in the form of Roger Jardine’s party Change Starts Now and he has been backed by white capital. 

In the unlikely event that Jardine’s funders get the payoff that they hope from their investment, and he becomes the leader of the Multi-Party Charter, and goes into alliance with the ANC after the election next year, the liberal faction will accrue significant power. 

The chances of this happening are exceedingly slim, though.

There is also an authoritarian nationalist faction that has its roots in the politics of people such as Peter Mokaba and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. Many actors in this faction see corruption as a form of economic transformation and are perfectly willing to enrich themselves at the direct expense of the rest of society.

This faction was led by Jacob Zuma but now has no clear leader in the party. It does, though, have two external factions — one being Zuma himself and the other being the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). 

Unsurprisingly, these two factions are increasingly uniting, with Carl Niehaus’ move into the EFF being indicative of a broader trend. 

Corruption in the ANC has a long history, going back to the 1960s, and openly corrupt figures, such as Joe Modise, were tolerated prior to 1994, giving the lie to the idea that the rot in the ANC is a new development.

The openly corrupt, authoritarian, nationalist faction has a real chance of returning to power next year if the ANC dips below 50% of the vote, which is highly likely, and forms an alliance with the EFF. This is a real and urgent danger to South Africa as it would institutionalise corruption and result in a rapid roll back in democratic commitments.

Of course, if the ANC gets around 45% of the vote, as some polls predict, it could well get into a coalition with small, insignificant parties to remain in the political power seat.

The ANC also has a left in the form of the South African Communist Party and the trade union federation Cosatu. Both organisations lost all legitimacy after their support for Zuma including, scurrilously, at his rape trial. 

Cosatu has recovered some credibility, and has a real asset in Matthew Parks, who makes useful contributions to the national debate. But Cosatu’s refusal to break with the ANC means its credibility is compromised. 

The same is true of the SACP, which is little more than a left-wing talk shop. 

There have been two left spin-offs from the ANC. 

Zwelinzima Vavi’s attempt to create a new social democratic political project outside of the ANC, in alliance with a group of left NGOs, has been a dismal failure and he is a spent force. 

Irvin Jim’s independent Marxist political party failed but he has been successful in building the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa into a powerful union that organises across many sectors and is considering moving into neighbouring countries. But he is not a player in electoral politics.

The left inside the ANC has no chance of taking control of the party and, whatever its intentions, it effectively functions to give left cover to the liberals and corrupt authoritarian nationalists in the party. 

The moderately social democratic, pan-Africanist and intellectually sophisticated current of the ANC once led by Thabo Mbeki is now so weakened as to be largely irrelevant. Mbeki was vilified in the white media during his period in office as a result of his frankness about our racial issues and pan-Africanism. 

This hostility towards him was correct in terms of his disastrous misstep on Aids and his appeasement of the brutal and deeply corrupt regime in Harare but, in other respects, it was deeply unfortunate. 

Under Mbeki the economy grew and poverty and inequality declined. 

At the moment, Ramaphosa’s pathetic presidency means the corrupt authoritarian nationalists and the liberals in the ANC are stuck in a stalemate with the other factions, including the left. 

That stalemate will continue after next year’s election if the ANC scrapes past 50% and Ramaphosa remains in office. 

If the party does get beyond 50%, and Ramaphosa loses the presidency, the balance of forces will be determined by who the next president is. If Deputy President Paul Mashatile is able to take the position he will lean to the corrupt authoritarian nationalists. 

The more likely outcome, though, is that the ANC fails to get 50% of the vote and must choose to either align with the corrupt and authoritarian nationalists in the EFF or the liberals outside the party, possibly lead by Jardine, if his huge war chest from white capital allows him to capture the Multi-Party Charter. 

All three of these options will result in another step in the ANC’s now rapid decline. 

With no social democratic or left option outside of the ANC it seems that the majority of South Africans will continue to be spurned by electoral politics, something that raises the risk of the sudden rise of a right-wing populist, most probably campaigning on a xenophobic platform. 

The ANC succeeded in taking the lead role in negotiating an end to apartheid, and it governed successfully during the Mbeki period, aside from the Aids and Zimbabwe fiascos. 

However, from the moment that Zuma took control of the party its decline has been as rapid as it has been shameful. 

We can only hope that when its collapse is complete a viable progressive alternative will have emerged.

Dr Imraan Buccus is a senior research associate at the Auwal Socio-Economic Research Institute and a postdoctoral fellow at the Durban University of Technology.