Are South Africans willy-nilly captives of a wayward ANC government?

2013-01-25 08:44

A strong political party system is sine qua non for any stable, legitimate and predictable democratic political system. A two-party or multi-party system presents the ideal situation and are found in mature political systems.

South Africa is not yet what could be called a ‘mature’ political system, hence the distorted party political dispensation, epitomised particularly by the ruling ANC majority characterising itself as a ‘revolutionary movement’. Having been denied a revolution by the peaceful transformation, it still wants to reap the fruits of its liberation struggle. Hence ‘the struggle continues’, nurtured by the so-called ‘National Democratic Revolution’ and its refusal to change from a liberation movement into a conventional political party. In this way a revolutionary fervour is kept alive artificially among the formerly oppressed black majority, who still vote almost en masse for the ANC. Holding the trump card of being a revolutionary movement puts the ANC in a well-neigh unassailable position.

Under the circumstances, therefore, a strong two-party or multi-party dispensation for South Africa is out of the question and the country must rest content with the best available option: a de facto one party dispensation.

On paper South Africa is a constitutional democracy, although this alone is far from being sufficient for ensuring a stable, generally peaceful society. In mature and stable democracies, the constitutional order, in order to prevail,  must at all times be underpinned by an orderly, predictable political system, a strong and legitimate government, as well as a strong and democratic party system.

In South Africa the main guardian of our constitutional order is the ANC ruling alliance, being in charge of a strong and legitimate government with all its trappings. However, and unfortunately so, what the country gets is not good governance in the normative/democratic/ethical sense of the word. Imperfect as the situation may be, we seem to have no choice but to live with it.

Politics, being  the ‘art of the possible’, and given the basic realities and imperatives of the country’s political life, the present power-political dispensation presently seems to be South Africa’s best available option. These realities are mainly the country’s pluralistic composition, the numerical dominance of the previously oppressed black citizens, the legacy of apartheid, deep cultural and racial cleavages, as well as the profound and pervasive social and economic inequality and deprivation among the majority of the populace.

At the same time, the government and the way it governs have become part of the problem. Demonstrations of anger and resentment in the townships and in the labour market against the government’s ineptitude to deliver and false promises have become a prominent and regular feature of the local political scene.

Inevitably, these attributes and circumstance render South Africa a country with high conflict potential, difficult to govern, let alone to maintain peace and a stable democracy. So, under the circumstances, whether we like it or not, black majority rule under a strong government in South Africa is necessary, indisputable, and inescapable. For the present at least, for better or worse, South Africa is doomed to tolerate the ANC, in spite of its many shortcomings, as an essential, stabilising force. Without this  umpire role, the strife-prone country may very well slide into a veritable Hobbesian world of a ‘war of all against all’.

A Rainbow Nation or a house divided?

The most problematic aspect of SA’s political development since the introduction of democracy, perhaps the root of all its problems, is that the equality of political participation grew much more rapidly than ‘the art of associating together’. As Alexis de Tocqueville stated almost two centuries ago: “Among the laws that rule human societies there is one that seems to be more precise and clear than all the others, if men are to remain civilized or to become so, the art of associating together must grow and improve in the same ratio in which the equality of conditions is increased.”

For very obvious reasons, creating ‘equality of conditions’ was the raison d’être of South Africa’s democratic transformation. Creating these conditions in developing societies inevitably result in a sudden explosion of political participation and contestation, a potential destabilising phenomenon if not  underpinned, regulated and disciplined by a high level of political institutionalisation and legitimacy, the rule of law, and effective nation building.

Fortunately, post-apartheid South Africa could rely on a good measure of institutionalisation and legitimacy. Missing from the equation, however, was the nation’s failure to ‘master the art of associating together’ in spite of our peaceful transformation and our leaders proudly trumpeting the ‘rainbow nation’ metaphor.

The sad truth about South African society after almost two decades after apartheid is that it is still deeply divided and blighted by racism on the part of black and white people alike. Nation-building is by a wide margin still inadequate and our nation remains by-and-large still divided along fault lines that existed at the time of white rule and apartheid.

It is, therefore, almost axiomatic that while this discrepancy exists, the country’s progress, peace and stability will remain at risk. How to deal effectively with the ever-present risk of conflict and instability depends critically, as pointed out above, on strong government, underpinned by a strong party system and effective and legitimate political institutions. For the present at least, the ANC alliance, in spite of its many foibles and failures, is best equipped to fill this role.

Does this point to the inevitable permanence of ANC rule in South Africa, as president Jacob Zuma is so wont to predict?

Of course, this is blatant nonsense; indeed, as history shows, sooner or later, any party/faction or political regime comes to an end. Also the ANC dominance is not forever, more so because of its ‘revolutionary’ identity cannot ensure it a long shelf-life. And while, the DA opposition is unlikely to dethrone the ANC alliance, it will continue to make inroads into the latter’s majority at all levels of government. It will probably continue its rule in the Western Cape, perhaps score a win in another province, make some gains on local government level and become a home for the ANC disaffected.

Even so, the DA is up against an impenetrable ceiling for the simple fact that any party configuration not dominated by blacks and/or under white leadership, is destined to remain a minority party in South Africa.  And as the COPE phenomenon has demonstrated, a successful split in ANC ranks is not realpolitik, at leastfor now.  Also, the disciplining and ruthless elimination of Julius Malema, as well as the effective elimination of challenges to president Jacob Zuma’s presidency demonstrated the power, solidarity and apparent unassailability of the ruling alliance, although the scenario may change , given the fact that the ANC is a house divided, carrying the seeds of its own eventual destruction.

But not yet. As a public relations spectacle, the recent Mangaung conference projected a strong and resilient ANC alliance, belying the plethora of negative scenarios in the run-up. Particularly significant was the fact that the alliance came out stronger in spite of President Jacob Zuma widely being regarded as the worst president in its history.

At the same time, however,the ANC success at Mangaung, was probably more apparent than real, being clearly an artificial, carefully orchestrated and choreographed event, something like a Potemkin village. What makes it more unreal is that what happened at Mangaung is unlikely to happen in any modern democracy. It conveys a message of a political party being able to triumph in spite of the kind of foibles that would guarantee the defeat of any leadership in a mature democracy.

One positive sign was that the ANC elite seemed to realise that under an incompetent president and government it cannot be business as usual on the way forward, that self-correction was imperative.  Hence, the drafting from the political wilderness of Cyril Ramaphosa as Vice-President as a kind of insurance.

Even so, it highly improbable that the ANC alliance has either the will or capability to reinvent itself. One bright star in the ANC galaxy will not make much of a difference. What is unlikely to change is the Zuma government’s  warped role perception: the accumulation of power and wealth rather than good governance per se . And while this is the case the ANC is a living example of Lord Acton’s famous dictum that ’all power tends to corrupt, and absolute power absolutely’. This, as we have seen in Zimbabwe, elsewhere in Africa and elsewhere in the world, is a recipe for disaster and national destruction.

Unfortunately, however there is no alternative yet to the ANC ruling alliance in spite of its many aberrations. The country’s main hope lies with the wisdom and propensity for self-correction of most South African citizens. Therefore,  while the country in its present phase of development and must perforce endure the government it has , civil society and public opinion in particular, can help a great deal to promote maturity and rationality in our body politics, obviating the country’s reliance on a bad government as an indispensable stabilising force.


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