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While the ANC’s 2019 election manifesto was launched with great fanfare and pomp and ceremony in Durban on 12 January, we have to contemplate not only whether it is capable of internal renewal but crucially whether it can be trusted with the levers of power to govern our complex society into the future. The outcomes of the August 2016 local government elections—where it lost the major metro councils to DA-led coalitions—are a telling symptom of the extent to which the ANC has failed to use the levers of power to deliver on its historic mandate of liberating South Africa from the scourges of racialized poverty, inequality, and unemployment. A major normative and philosophical dilemma which the ANC has not adequately addressed is its transition from a liberation movement to a governing party in a modern state system with great social delivery and accountability challenges.

The role which the ANC has played in advancing the frontiers of freedom, democracy, non-racialism, non-sexism, and development in South Africa is uncontested and is a noble one to be celebrated as part of the country’s collective memory. However, the art of managing the complex policy and institutional machinery of government has often eluded those trusted with ensuring a better life for all but especially improving the lot of the most disadvantaged of our society.

Instead of developing the strategic literacy and tactical intelligence of using the instruments and authority of government to deliver the greatest good for the greatest number of South Africans, there has been a descent into a patrimonial and predatory type of politics which is alien and antithetical to the core values of the movement which the ANC stands for. In this vein, we are reminded of what Antonio Gramsci wrote in his Prison Notebooks when reflecting about the crisis of Italian fascism: “If the ruling class has lost its consensus, that it is no longer “leading” but only “dominant”, exercising coercive force alone, this means precisely that the great masses have become detached from their traditional ideologies, and no longer believe what they used to believe previously etc.” And then in one of Gramsci’s most cogent and profound insights, he writes that: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born: in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

The 2016 local election outcomes could thus be seen as an expression of this Gramscian moment where rather than being front and centre in dealing with the morbid symptoms of South Africa’s transition from apartheid to democracy, the ANC has in many ways contributed to their multiplication in the form of factionalism, corruption, abuse of public trust, wastage of resources, lack of accountability, poor governance and so on. And herein lies a major conundrum for the ANC as it heads towards the national and provincial elections in May of this year and that is its ability to constantly renew and reproduce itself as a political party on the one hand; and to promote an organic ideological order in its Alliance with COSATU and the SACP on the other. On both fronts there has been political decay and an atrophy of ideas in generating the necessary balance of forces for progressive change within state and society at large. This is notwithstanding recourse to slogans such as radical economic transformation.  

Indeed, it can be argued that the recent fractious nature of the Alliance and the creeping organisational and policy differences have had a direct bearing on the ANC’s decline as the ruling party, the most egregious manifestation being the local elections results and what this may portend for the May elections and the Durban manifesto replete with grand promises of addressing the triple scourge of poverty, inequality, and unemployment in an inclusive manner. 

With regard to the Alliance, in his book South Africa pushed to the limit: Political economy of change, Hein Marais observes that its main functions have been of a therapeutic and disciplinary nature and that this modus operandi has been an incubus on the ANC’s ability to provide the custodianship for advancing the National Democratic Revolution on the basis of a progressive social contract. He writes about the Alliance: “Its formal processes would funnel contestation away from the public realm and into a zone where disagreements could be aired, managed and contained, and where consent could be nourished via selective compromises. Debate and criticism would be allowed, but in a tightly managed context, both kindling and stifling hopes that unpopular policies and practices could be contested and changed.”

Hence, the SACP and COSATU have hardly been complementary and supportive structures in providing the ethical and strategic guidance for how the ANC could continue to broaden and deepen its hegemony and legitimacy across the state and society, especially during the divisive aftermath of the 2007 Polokwane national elective conference and the undignified ‘recall’ of President Mbeki . Rather under Jacob Zuma’s nine years in power, a new conjuncture has been established codified by a regime of patrimonial and patron-client politics. This was a divisive development that inaugurated a struggle “for the soul of the ANC” right up to last ANC policy conference at NASREC in December 2017. There has been wide conceptual and moral confusion of trying to make sense of how the ANC would rediscover its soul after the rise of President Zuma but even more so in the aftermath of his removal from office and the ascendance of Cyril Ramaphosa.

The regeneration of the ANC has often been lost in managing the schizophrenic tension of being a both a liberation movement and a political party. Amid the ANC existential dilemmas, community and social protests over the last three years have taken on a destructive life of their own as expressions of growing social alienation, anger, and discontent among the country’s poor and marginalised. The ANC was therefore fast losing its moral authority to govern South Africa, a gain that was painstakingly won since its establishment in 1910. This was coupled with a growing dissonance between the ANC as an idea behind South Africa’s liberation and its reality as a governing party.

In the process, the perception and reality gathered pace of a new ruling ANC aristocracy especially under Jacob Zuma since 2009 that has been more concerned with self-enrichment and plundering of state resources as has become painfully evident from what has been revealed at the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture. In an almost cynical zero-sum game, as the ruling elites associated with Zuma grew wealthier, greedier, and more aloof from their popular base, the general welfare of the majority has experienced further decline if indices of poverty, inequality, and unemployment are anything to go by. Matters were not helped by the severe knock-on effects which the global financial crisis had on the deterioration of South Africa’s already fragile economic fortunes and its ability to now recover from a technical recession while ratings agencies circle like vultures around a potential quarry. The erosion of the ANC’s popular base thus found its way into the changing political and electoral landscape of the local government elections of August 2016. We should not therefore discount how this changing landscape could negatively affect the ANC’s electoral chances in May.

The consequent shockwaves and alarm-bells which reverberated through the ANC after the local elections were not surprising. The gains of the DA, the EFF, and other smaller parties are less of an indication of their growing political traction and ideological resonance among the voting public but have more to do with them appropriating and capturing significant but disaffected segments of the ANC’s electoral patrimony. This development has widely been attributed to the ANC’s “arrogance of power” and Zuma’s heretical claim that the ANC will rule the country until Jesus Christ returns, again pointing to the ANC’s inability to maintain itself as an idea and secular reality among its support base.

Here again Gramsci is very instructive when he writes: “At a certain point in their historical lives, social classes become detached from their traditional parties. In other words, the traditional parties in that particular organisational form, with the particular men who constitute, represent, and lead them, are no longer recognised by their class (or faction of a class) as its expression. When such crises occur, the immediate situation becomes delicate and dangerous because the field is wide open for violent solutions, for the activities of unknown forces, represented by charismatic men of destiny.”

Recent troubling developments in South Africa’s economy and polity thus represent a crisis of governance in the ANC and in the South African state. This speak volumes of the consequences which arise from the delicate and dangerous terrain which the country has entered because of the vertical and horizontal detachment of the ANC from its foundations among all sectors of South African society. Are the grandiose platitudes contained in the 2019 manifesto capable of changing this condition?

The major challenge for the ANC in the forthcoming national and provincial elections and thereafter is to disentangle itself from being synonymous with the state because herein lays the core of the internal contradictions which has led it down the path of organisational decay characterised by a patrimonial syndrome of politics. This syndrome does not distinguish state power and resources from the party as a steward of the public will. In a crude formulation, the party has become the state and the state is the party. As such, power and power relations have become informalised, institutions are abused for narrow personal and parochial interests, political and constitutional values are subordinated to economic advantage and exogenous demands, and the prerogatives of the party precede the interests of the state and society. In such a patrimonial environment of patrons and clients spread across institutions of the state and compradors in society, the stage is set for politically deviant behaviour that is devoid of any ethical content since the use of political office provides the fastest route to wealth accumulation and the promotion of individual and corrupt interests above public goals. The metaphor of ‘state capture’ aptly describes this state of affairs.

As a result of the ANC’s performance in the local government elections, there is a school of thought which argues that their outcomes are an important harbinger for what is to come in the provincial and national elections in May 2019. If the ANC’s trajectory of decline in delivery and governance shapes the electoral outcomes, it could register major losses as the pre-eminent force of change and transformation in South Africa. It will thus cede ground to the agents of reaction and opportunism who are now intent on harvesting the ANC’s support base where its vulnerabilities are now even more exposed. The ANC has to move away from the easy platitudes of “taking collective responsibility” for its poor showing in the local government elections to reclaiming its moral authority to lead and govern South Africa which is now extremely tenuous and hangs by a thin thread. And sadly, the grand proclamations of the 2019 manifesto will not do much to change this cold reality.

Change will only occur if it takes the challenge seriously of moving from being a liberation movement to becoming a modern political party that is capable of renovating and overhauling its internal structures, leadership cadres, and modes of operation as the current political juncture of difficult governing dilemmas now demands.  At a fundamental level, this demands a new ideological grammar and a different intellectual vocabulary in order to foster a culture of organisational renewal and leadership change in South Africa’s noisy and volatile political marketplace. The 2019 elections will thus be a referendum on how voters view the ANC in the tense dialectic between hope and despair.

Dr Garth le Pere is Extraordinary Professor at the University of Pretoria