AS THE world is witnessing with Donald Trump, electing a new leader can be a destabilising process. Even in a so-called mature democracy like the United States, the alternative agendas of right-wing conservatives, ultra-right nationalists and populists of a variety of inclinations can hold sway.
In the case of the US, a mainstream political party, the Republicans, largely found themselves hijacked by the Trumps and Bannons of this world – a type of internal coup – that has fundamentally changed the policy platform of that party. For all the controversy about Trump's first week in office, the Republican Party has largely itself to blame for its own ethos to be so perverted.
With these events occurring in the United States, South Africa too faces a change of leadership this year. The ANC – a centrist church historically committed to constitutionalism, liberal freedoms and human rights – similarly faces the possible effects of a new president.
The immediate lesson for the ANC when watching the events unfolding in Washington is not to allow the party to be hijacked by elements keen on pursuing alternative agendas – agendas cloaked in the language of populism yet antithetical to the traditional values of the party and the broader society in which it operated.
It is within this context that we've seen battles raging in the ANC over policy direction and party positioning. As economic growth has stagnated and the country has been unable to progress in job creation – and educational outcomes – so a propensity to populism has developed. When economic hardship hits hard, as the many Americans in the ‘flyover’ states of Iowa and Idaho attested, populism is the favoured fightback.
So with a backdrop of this, alternative agendas, messages and discourse becomes more evident. The ANC’s alleged ‘Black Ops’ attempts to subvert legitimate electioneering and the associated sabotaging of social media using trolls and fake news sounds ominously familiar to recent US examples.
In an age of social media and rapid internet access, this medium becomes fertile ground for propagandists to use nefarious methods to confuse and deflect from reality. As we move into a year of leadership change, and a more competitive political environment with a view to 2019, the contagion is well under way here in South Africa.
And these devious methods may not just be between political parties – they might be intra-party as well. South Africans of all political persuasions will need to be extra vigilant as misinformation about possible ANC leadership candidates is dissolved into the media.
Alternative agendas in times of economic vulnerability and elections don’t just stop there. South Africa’s largest banks are an almost perfect target. Tainted with ‘white monopoly capitalism’, their existence is portrayed as being exclusionary – of perpetuating minority domination.
The solution to this? Break up the ‘monopolies’ and flout global transparency regulations by opposing the FIC Bill. An alternative agenda that questions global financial institutions, their ethics and merits and largely denies cooperation affords a sense of popular resistance to their influence – and conveniently can lead to the sanctioning of nefarious activities as financial regulation is disobeyed.
As the ANC moves towards its leadership contest with competing factions vying for power, so these agendas become more brazen in their political participation. To suggest that the FIC Bill is amended would severely damage South Africa’s global banking credibility and potentially lead to a ratings downgrade and decline in foreign direct investment.
It doesn’t just stop with the FIC Bill though. For some time, there have been rumblings within the ANC about the role the constitution plays in administering political and economic power. Again, those anti-constitutionalists (for want of a better term) argue that too many concessions were made by the ANC in the 1994-1996 period which have perpetuated inequality.
Of course, this is a ruse to detract the many outstanding checks and balances built into our system constraining the power of elected officials and public representatives. Still, those who crave greater access to unfettered power, patronage and rent-seeking are not giving up so easily.
Again, as differing factions emerge before the elective conference in December, this group will once again rear its head in an attempt to steer the course of a new leadership slate more sympathetic to their demands.
The ANC therefore faces an assault on its leadership contest much like the Trump assault on the Republican Party. Trump’s alternative agenda was the victor – and it was very transparently portrayed by Trump himself for the entire campaign.
In the South African context, the danger is that negative agendas can lurk undetected. The lack of transparency that an internal ANC leadership contest has in terms of being publicly dissected – as the US presidential system offers – means that hidden agendas can remain just that – hidden.
South Africans will – and deserve – much greater clarity on these issues. Where do ANC candidates stand on the supremacy of the constitution? And how do they feel about complying with global financial regulation – especially in the light of state capture and creeping corruption?
South Africans should consider themselves warned following statements from Progressive Professionals Forum president Mzwanele Manyi that the country’s constitution should be scrapped or the ANC Youth League's’s call for rating agency Moody’s to be barred from entering the country.
This is therefore not just about personalities and access to patronage and resources. The ANC elective conference is also about competing agendas. And the power vacuum that will exist for much of this year offers an opportunity for those more radical to gain a foothold.
South Africa and the ANC should view the Donald Trump example as a clarion call for greater internal vigilance for the governing party. But as we have seen with the mighty Republican establishment in Washington, even the politically savvy can succumb.
* Daniel Silke is director of the Political Futures Consultancy and is a noted keynote speaker and commentator. Views expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter at @DanielSilke or visit his website.