/ 16 December 2022

Could this be the last ANC elective conference of any relevance to South Africans?

A vote for the ANC
The ANC will leave a legacy muddied by political careerism, personality cults and corruption (David Harrison/M&G)

Any South African turning 18 on 1 January 2024, making them eligible to participate in the country’s seventh election set to take place that year, won’t have any recollection of the 1994 to 1999 Nelson Mandela presidency and all its promise of change. 

Born in 2006, they would have lived through the final years of president Thabo Mbeki’s presidency, which was shaped by his wretched and in the end unsuccessful battle to stop the ascension of Jacob Zuma as state president. Somewhere in their subconscious memory, they would recognise the song Umshini Wami, which accompanied his march into power. 

Although Zuma’s term of office began with much cheer, with South Africa and the continent hosting the biggest sporting showpiece in the 2010 World Cup, what followed was an anxiety ridden decade that saw the country shift from one crisis to another. The corruption surrounding the build of Zuma’s Nkandla homestead would turn into a Constitutional Affair, with the president labelled a delinquent.  The Marikana tragedy of 2012 shook the country’s very foundations and revealed the cynical nature of some, if not most, black economic empowerment deals meant to buy political favour over actual transformation needs of this most unequal societies.

For the first time voter in 2024, the ANC has little to nothing to convince them to drop their smartphones and their Instagram or Tik-Tok apps and go to their nearest polling station to vote for whoever the party has on its ballot paper. 

Whether President Cyril Ramaphosa survives over the next 18 months or the Phala Phala haunted leader is recalled, the party doesn’t have a good story to tell to a first time voter. And although it may seek to remind them of the evils that existed before 1994, this is a generation that has lived through the collapse of Eskom, countless tales of corruption, the appointment of inept leaders across state-owned enterprises — with Hlaudi Motsoeneng’s reign as SABC supremo being my personal highlight — and an economy that has barely grown.

They would have seen a corrupt enterprise in the Gupta Empire emerge. They would have been part of an education system that has buckled under pressure of mismanagement and misallocation of resources. It would be a similar tale across various departments as the state has grappled with an exodus of its most skilled, leaving it to its more compromised ANC “cadres” to drive policy and execution.

Taking this into account, it’s unlikely that the young voter in 2024 (unless your parents have benefited from state largesse and bought you your own football team or Louis Vutton wardrobe) will look to the ANC to make their lives better. 

In 2019, South Africa’s population stood at about 58.4 million, of which more than 35% was made up of people 19 years or younger. We are no Germany, or any other European nation for that matter, where their older generation largely dictates its political course and hence the rise of conservatism and its worst ulta-right wing politics. In South Africa it will be the youth who have lived through the Zuma presidency and a first and disappointing term of Ramaphosa that will shape our course.

They may not participate in polls by actually voting for an unappealing candidate like the Democratic Alliance’s John Steenhuisen or the Economic Freedom Fighters’ now largely irrelevant Julius Malema, but their apathy will be disastrous for the governing party come 2024.

If you think about it, this weekend’s ANC elective conference is akin to an exit interview from the governing seat. Turning around its fortunes in little more than 18 months and selling a believable story of change is now near impossible. Ramaphosa or no Ramaphosa at the end of this conference, I can’t see any other outcome.

The National Party illegitimately governed and shaped this country for 70 years. It looks like the ANC will have a run of 30 years and leave a legacy muddied by political careerism, personality cults and corruption. It has wasted the goodwill that its victory 30 years ago came with, much like many of the continent’s liberation movements.

Rebirth is always very possible, as seen in the Labour or Conservative parties of the UK, but it may well have to be done out of the seats of power.

Thanks again for being a supporter of the Mail & Guardian. We’ll speak again as perhaps this last meaningful ANC elective conference develops over the next few days.