/ 26 June 2023

The demise of the ANC is the death of ideology in SA politics

President Jacob Zuma and former president Thabo Mbeki in 2009.
Former presidents Jacob Zuma and Thabo Mbeki. File photo

Commentators will proffer various reasons for the ANC’s demise, pointing out the many examples of atrocious governance in numerous local municipalities and certain national and provincial departments.

Other more sympathetic voices will remind us of the lack of support from the private sector and previously advantaged elites for the ANC’s policies of change, highlighting the lack of investment from a private sector that made massive profits, no matter how corrupt and incompetent the ANC was. 

For many, the bruising leadership battle between Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma marked the beginning of the ANC’s demise and its inevitable slide into mismanagement and corruption.

In my opinion, the downfall of the ANC predated the Mbeki-Zuma battle in 2007. The problem is that the ANC preaches a message of hope, not fear. It talks about a better, brighter future, not one where we just cope and get through life.

It wants people to care and love each other, not hate and despise one another. The ANC is an anachronism in the world of politics and talking heads. It should have realised that a message of fear is far more profitable and successful than one of hope. 

By the time the ANC was elected into power in 1994, the rest of the world had already become accustomed to living in a place without the threat of nuclear war between the communists in the East and the capitalist West and their period of hubris and celebration was ending.

They had already begun to see their politicians as not leaders but professional speakers, who said whatever they needed to, to get elected. When American political scientist Francis Fukuyama wrote that history had ended in 1989, with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain, he most probably meant the end of ideology in politics.

Politics and religion are twins. They both try to convince you to believe in their story, so that you can have a better life. Ideology in politics is about the better society politicians wish to create. If political parties do not have an ideology, then what are they selling to society? If politicians are not able to promise you a better life, what are they promising? 

In my opinion, they are selling voters the product of fear. They promise voters to keep out those they fear, such as other racial groups and immigrants. 

In the West after World War II, it was the Russian communists who had to be kept out. In apartheid South Africa, the National Party government promised to keep the Jews, communists, and especially the blacks, out. They told the world that if they were not in charge, the blacks would take over, and they would bring in their Jewish communist friends.

These messages of fear ensured that people did not vote according to their consciences but rather become pragmatic, like Pontius Pilate was at the trial of Jesus of Nazareth, where he chose to wash his hands of the matter rather than free an innocent man and risk losing the support of the Jewish elite. Similarly, people constantly vote for the lesser evil, not what they believe in.

Politicians have to cultivate a feeling of despair and hopelessness. We must fear so that we elect politicians to protect us from the bogeyman. The unholy alliance between the New National Party and Democratic Party, which ultimately became the Democratic Alliance (DA), since its inception, has been trumpeting this message of fear: “Anyone but the ANC”. 

Such that when there was a hung government in the Western Cape in 1999, rather than form a coalition with the ANC, which had received the most votes, they planted the seeds of these motley crew, opportunistic coalitions we witness today.

They drummed in the message that the ANC, as an ostensibly black left-wing party, remains a threat to society, because they are anti-business, stuck in the past, not allowing the market to change society, wanting big government and prone to communism and anti-liberal values. Although the ANC’s support grew from 1994 to 2004, the mainstream media echoed this message. 

As cracks in the unity of the ANC began to reveal themselves, individuals and parties broke away, for example, the Congress of the People, the Economic Freedom Fighters, and since the fightback by Zuma, a host of other parties, such as the African Transformation Movement. 

Over the same period, as it became obvious that the majority of South Africans did not want the DA, several conservative liberal-front parties, such as ActionSA and its predecessor Agang, were also established. 

Besides the obvious fearmongering message of keeping the ANC out, these parties want a scared people. The main object of their ire has become African migrants and, inherent in that, is an overall fear of black people being in charge. Indeed, the ANC’s failure is interpreted as black failure. 

The dream of the bastard republic of racism becoming testimony to humanity’s capacity for forgiveness and racial harmony has been shattered, with political parties fashioning themselves to represent particular national groups, religious caveats and geographic areas. 

We have parties courting the so-called coloured vote, such as the Patriotic Alliance and the Good party and, therefore, their message is an anti-black one, without necessarily rejecting white supremacy, and claiming themselves to be the ancestors of the original people of South Africa, the San and Khoi people. 

Since 1994, the Minority Front has benefited from the proportional representation system and been able to make itself seem representative of people of Indian origin. The short-lived alliance between the Afrikaner-dominated National Party and the English liberal Democratic Party, the DA has dropped all pretence of replacing the ANC and being a broad liberal church, and has evolved into an unrepentant, deeply conservative representative of white people and white leadership. This has allowed the growth of the Freedom Front Plus, as the main representative of the white Afrikaner. 

These developments are not different to those in the rest of the world. Today, black has been divided into brown and black. And, even in brown, there is “Latino” and Asian. Even in Asian, there is Eastern Asian and Southeastern Asian. It can go on into further divisible units. 

We have our own South African customised divisions — tribal and nativist, with Zulu, Xhosa, Indian, coloured, Khoi etc. And, in general, white people remain as one, until you regard them as one, then they become Afrikaner, English, Scottish, Portuguese, Italian, Polish, Czech etc.

The job of the political party and politician is to ensure that as you identify with that little sub-group, you are scared of being overrun by the other sub-groups or the majority itself. The opposition parties are experts at this message of fear, the ANC not so much. The ANC is a global anachronism — it still believes in hope. 

Former US president Barack Obama had a vision of hope but it was more a promise to keep the “Muslim terrorists” out that allowed him to be re-elected. Donald Trump got elected by stoking fear of being overrun by “wokeism” and political correctness. President Joe Biden is using the threat of Russia, its president Vladimir Putin, China and Trump to get re-elected. 

The ANC still holds onto the hope that people will vote for them and support a better future for all, not just for themselves. It seems to be in the DNA of the ANC. Let’s admit that it’s President Cyril Ramaphosa’s hopefulness and positive outlook that irritates us most of all. Ramaphosa seems to be the epitome of the false hope of the ANC. 

At times, there are those in the ANC who propagate a vision of hatred. It can be hatred of white people, especially white business. Or, in different parts of the country, particular groups, for instance people of Indian origin in KwaZulu-Natal or so-called coloured people in the Western Cape. In the recent period, there have been growing calls against African migrants. These are all obvious instruments to drive division in and among black South Africans. 

Overall, though, the ANC is not able to follow through with this message of hate and falls back on its belief in a better world, a better Africa and a better South Africa through building an equal, non-racial, non-sexist and united country. 

The ANC will not win the next election. Because they are not very good politicians, they do not know how to sell fear and want people to believe in, and dream of, a better tomorrow, even if it seems that they are hopeless in delivering that better tomorrow.

Let the nightmare begin.

Williams is a social commentator. 

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.