The DA and other opposition parties don't have a clear strategy to oust the ANC from the lucrative ideological centre. Relying on the ANC's own internal weaknesses is a lazy way of conducting politics, writes Mpumelelo Mkhabela.
Sometimes it's helpful to refer to our history to learn a thing or two about the present.
Christiaan de Wet, the rebel Boer soldier who had been convicted and sentenced for treason, was released before he served his full prison sentence which he had regarded as lenient.
He and his men had mounted a military attack on the Union government, as part of opposing South Africa's involvement in the First World War on the side of the British.
Years later on Robben Island, Nelson Mandela and other Rivonia trialists were serving lengthy jail terms for plotting against the apartheid government, "crimes" that were insignificant compared to those of De Wet and his rebels who occupied parts of the Orange Free State and left hundreds of people dead.
Mandela asked Helen Suzman, the lone liberal MP in the apartheid parliament who frequently visited Robben Island as part of her campaign against the government, why he and his comrades were treated harsher than De Wet.
"There is a vast difference between your case and that of De Wet," Suzman told Mandela. "The government could afford to release De Wet because his rebellion had been crushed. Yours is the future."
In a foreword to Suzman's memoirs, In No Uncertain Terms, Mandela said that the observation meant Suzman understood better the thinking of the nationalists.
The nationalists knew Mandela's politics of nonracialism and democratic order was actually the future. Mandela and his comrades were rebelling to liberate the oppressed and to install nonracialism in South Africa. They wanted a constitutional order of equal rights for all.
Is the ANC still the future?
The question is whether the ANC's vision in 2018 is still the future. Do ANC leaders and members still believe in the vision of nonracialism and constitutional order bequeathed by Mandela and his group?
Helen Zille, Western Cape Premier and former DA leader, suggests in a recent article that the ANC has good people, among them President Cyril Ramaphosa, who believe in nonracialism and constitutionalism.
These, she says, are DA values too. In the ANC, these values are subject to attacks by factions over which Ramaphosa has no control. The ANC's nonracial constitutionalists could in future collaborate with the DA to thwart the EFF and ANC nationalists.
She sees future ideological battle lines being drawn clearly between the DA (working with the nonracial constitutionalist of the ANC component) and the EFF.
Zille offers a tantalising argument for DA supporters who have a political crush on Ramaphosa and are considering voting for the ANC in the forthcoming elections to strengthen his hand. Zille is one of those with a political crush on Ramaphosa. She can't hide her full embrace of his reform agenda.
To support the president's reforms, which won't succeed under the ANC because of the fight-back of corruption among other things, she suggests voters must vote for the DA.
She paints Ramaphosa as weak in the messy internal ructions of the governing party. She almost comes close to saying the DA would like to rescue the angelic Ramaphosa from the ANC. Almost as if Ramaphosa rose to the Presidency without the ANC.
Zille might be right about the EFF's race-based nationalist politics. But she is wrong about both the DA and the ANC.
DA not united
Let's start with the DA. Zille says the DA managed to deal with factions and membership buying by instituting a meritocratic process that includes interviewing aspirant public representatives.
She presents the DA as ideologically coherent. But the party hasn't settled on the kind of liberalism a country with a legacy of race-based inequalities requires. From time to time divisions about the appropriate form of liberalism come up in the DA, accompanied by allegations of racism.
The DA is not as united as Zille would like to portray it. To be fair she does acknowledge "some ambiguity" in the DA.
While, like Suzman, Zille sees good things in the ANC, many in the current DA don't believe in that kind of thinking. Any talk of appreciating anything good about the ANC is seen as a renunciation of liberal values which are often interpreted narrowly as the reason not to grow the DA aggressively in black communities.
The component of the ANC Zille believes the DA can do business with in future is steeped in the need for transform to deal with the legacy of apartheid. It may not call it "radical" – a word now associated with all the wrong things – but it believes in transformation. It's not clear what's the DA's alternative to an uncorrupted form of transformation, the success of which is measured on the progress of the previously oppressed.
The ANC's vision, as Suzman realised much earlier, remains the future. Except for the occasional mimicking of the EFF, the ANC on paper is ideologically very solid. The problem, however, is that some of its leaders seek to abandon that vision of the future in order to pursue narrow nationalistic and often anti-constitutionalist agendas. This was prevalent during the Jacob Zuma years.
In a recent discussion paper, the Thabo Mbeki Foundation raised concerns about this in relation to the land expropriation debate. President Mbeki, who is believed to have authored the paper, sought to remind the ANC of its nonracialism and constitutional democratic roots.
ANC lonely at the centre
The anti-constitutionalists and nationalists within the ANC are in the minority. They haven't managed to capture the imagination of party members to the point where its vision becomes daringly against nonracialism and the Constitution. This is not to say they will give up.
What compounds their problem is that South Africans are generally not inclined to extremist politics. This disinclination to extremism is a function of diversity and our complex history that would make it impossible for a group, race or class, to overtly mount a sustained attack against the other without severe consequences. Not after the disastrous apartheid era.
Zille's admiration of something good in the ANC is impressive, as is the ANC Cabinet minister she anonymously mentioned who told her the DA must do well at the polls because "things are bad" in the ANC. This is the stuff of matured politics.
The DA and other opposition parties don't have a clear strategy to oust the ANC from the lucrative ideological centre. Relying on the ANC's own internal weaknesses is a lazy way of conducting politics.
Zille foresees a split in the ANC. The nationalists and the anti-constitutionalists will flock to the EFF. The constitutionalists will flock to the DA in a coalition arrangement.
It's not as simple as that. Aware that narrow nationalism and anti-constitutionalism in its ranks could lead the party to electoral defeat, the ANC retreats to its default centre. Even the most corrupt would rather be ostracised by Ramaphosa than having the party out of power.
Since his election as president, Ramaphosa has used his power in the ANC and in government to reposition the ANC to its roots. It's clearly a difficult process and might be incomplete by the time he leaves office. But it is likely to breath back into the party some oxygen that will keep it in power even in the immediate aftermath of Ramaphosa's presidency.
Zille's thesis is not viable, especially the part that sees a gradual split of the ANC. She underestimates the extent to which ANC factions are institutionalised and none sees a future outside it.
I have said on this platform before that the ANC is lonely at the centre and needs a challenge. Having a political crush on ANC leaders who are not attracted to the DA doesn't amount to a political strategy.
Until the opposition wins the hearts and minds of South Africans regardless of the ANC's strengths or weaknesses, the major political contest in South Africa will remain within the ANC. It will be, as Suzman observed many years ago in a different context, the party of the future.
- Mkhabela Mkhabela is a political analyst with the Department of Political Sciences at the University of South Africa.
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