/ 21 February 2024

South Africa’s 2024 political reality is bleak

Anc Celebrates 111th Anniversary In South Africa
Photo by Morapedi Mashashe/Daily Sun/Gallo Images via Getty Images

As we all know, it seems highly likely that the coming elections will result in the ANC losing its majority and, as a result, form a coalition government. The political sands are now shifting and some broad trends are becoming clear. 

On the positive side we are finally moving past the hold of a now failed national liberation movement towards a more rational alignment of parties and ideologies. National liberation movements always contain the full spectrum of national politics, and the ANC is no outlier in having included liberalism, social democrats, communists, conservative nationalists and thuggish kleptocratic elements.

We are moving into a more coherent set of alignments in the political landscape, where the liberal to conservative end of the spectrum are cohering around the Multi-Party Charter, with the Democratic Alliance (DA) being the main liberal player and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) being the main conservative player. 

Although it is losing support to Jacob Zuma’s uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) party, the IFP could be a significant player in a coalition government in KwaZulu-Natal, but it will be the DA that will be the major player at the national level. 

None of the new entrants in the liberal space such as Musi Maimane’s Build One South Africa, Songezo Zibi’s Rise Mzansi or the big (white) business project, Change Starts Now fronted by Roger Jardine offer any significant possibilities.  

Change Starts Now is credibly reported to have received a billion rand investment from big business but no analyst thinks it’s likely to win a seat in parliament. 

Activist Zackie Achmat’s electoral campaign also seems to have petered out.

Zibi does have a little social democracy on his platform, and is willing to break with the West and its local proxies to oppose the genocide being livestreamed from Gaza. But generally, the liberal to conservative rump of our politics is pro-business and offers no real benefits for the poor and working-class majority.

What used to be the self-described “radical economic transformation” (RET) faction of the ANC is now, finally, largely clumped together with the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and the MK party. In KwaZulu-Natal, the MK party is taking votes from the EFF but a post-election alliance seems inevitable. The politics of this part of our political spectrum is a populist and authoritarian form of kleptocratic nationalism. 

It is hostile to constitutionalism and the rule of law, would not tolerate dissent if it were to be in power and would run a violent kleptocracy legitimated in the name of a populist pseudo-radical nationalism. It is by far the more serious threat to our democracy and the fact that some of the nuttier Trotskyist sects see the EFF as left is a staggering error of political judgment. 

If the ANC does get below 50%there is a serious danger that it could ally itself with the EFF and MK party faction. This would send the economy into freefall, escalate kleptocratic politics beyond the levels of the Gupta years, radically worsen state repression and plunge the country in a crisis that could take decades to resolve. 

That Malema wants to bring back the managers who plundered Eskom is a clear indication of the nightmare that would be imposed in our country if the EFF/MK project to restore the kleptocracy wins significant influence.

The claim that Zuma is a man of the people is laughable. In office he led a programme of outright plunder, often accompanied by state repression, and not a programme of land reform and redistribution to the poor. He destroyed key social institutions rather than repurposing for social ends. Zuma’s politics are more like those of Mobutu Sese Seko than Lula da Silva or Evo Morales.

As with the liberal to conservative side of our politics, the authoritarian kleptocratic side has a growing number of small players such as the African Transformation Movement (ATM) and the Abantu Batho Congress. The crude Gupta propagandist, Andile Mngxitama, ever the opportunist, is also seeking a way back into the game by aligning with the RET faction  But there are only two real players here — Zuma’s MK party and Malema’s EFF, which now, revealingly, includes the loathsome figure of Carl Niehaus.

The third major pole of our politics is, of course, the ANC. It is not entirely shorn of its kleptocratic faction. The fact that it has chosen the disgraced former eThekwini mayor, Zandile Gumede, to lead its campaign in KwaZulu-Natal is a very clear indication of that. And with clowns like Fikile Mbalula still shouting their mouths off and Cyril Ramaphosa’s penchant for inaction and silly speeches it has a major credibility problem. The ANC does have impressive figures such as Naledi Pandor and Zane Dangor and despite Ramaphosa’s weaknesses as a leader there is, albeit at a snail’s pace, incremental progress towards building a more functional state.

The glaring absence from this landscape — which consists of a lumbering, weak and mostly ideologically confused ANC, a dangerously authoritarian kleptocratic faction and a liberal/conservative rump — is a party of the left. The largest organisations of the working class and the poor outside of the churches are the unions and Abahlali baseMjondolo. One reason for this absence is that all three of the main camps in our politics are supported by big money and big money will not support a left project. Another is the vicious sectarianism rank among the middle class left. But we cannot shy away from the fact that organisations of the working class and the poor have failed to build a viable electoral project for the left. 

We are now in the unedifying situation where some of the unions will support the ANC, others will sit the election out saying nothing, and Abahlali baseMjondolo seems to be merely calling on its members to vote against the ANC. Fighting battles on the shop floor or in shack settlements is one thing. Building a credible socialist strategy, which can only mean a path to power for the left, is another. 

The end result of all this is that the only democratic opposition to the ANC is a liberal/conservative grouping that has no idea of how to address mass poverty and build an inclusive society. The other electoral option, the authoritarian kleptocrats, are hostile to democratic norms and institutions and bent on more plunder — plunder from the people.

It’s a bleak situation and one that reflects as badly on society and its organisations as it does on our entirely uninspiring collection of politicians, not a single one of whom has any real vision let alone charisma.

Dr Imraan Buccus is a political analyst.