No-one should expect the ANC leadership to have anticipated precisely how the local government elections would turn out. Polls predicted some type of setback, but then many commentators and scholars cast doubt on the polls.
Leaders ought to be prepared for a worst-case scenario and have some idea of how to address that should it arise. More importantly, there was a time when the ANC had its fingers on the pulse of its constituency, through hard organisational work. Had it been in touch with its supposed base of support now, it would have had a better sense of the changing tide.
Evidently, the ANC had no clear plan for how it would deal with the results that it now confronts and whose implications are still unfolding. It has not readied itself to be an opposition in many municipalities, large and small. Its conduct in elections or after elections of mayors and other officials where they were defeated, has lacked basic decorum. This is not the same question as observing rules of public fora (as has been the case with the EFF), but what demeanour one displays in the face of defeat, following 22 years of being accustomed to victory.
What we have seen feeds into fears that many of us would previously have discounted: that the ANC may be reluctant to concede power should it be defeated nationally. This has a range of implications including resorting to illegal means to frustrate or obstruct opposition in order to avert defeat.
We can no longer discount illegality, since there has been ample evidence of the ANC leadership’s willingness to depart from the rule of law and constitutionalism more generally in the last few years. Since this has been used to secure benefits, why should such means not be deployed to defend what has been secured, and to which some regard themselves as entitled in the future?
Even if these implications or potentialities are not realised, and fears are unwarranted, clearly the ANC has not prepared itself to handle defeat with dignity and generosity, something that one ought to display if one is a mature organisation with a seasoned leadership. But for some time hooliganism has been a significant presence within the organisation and unsavoury elements are to be found at all levels, so it may be unrealistic to think that leaders are the ones who can remedy this tendency. In many cases, those who disrupt may have been given a tacit nod, suggesting that what they do is acceptable.
For those outside the ANC, it confirms what they suspected to be the trajectory of the organisation. But for those who remain within the ANC, who still hold out hope of “self-correction”, it is clear that the task, if it is realisable at all, is much more difficult than might have been anticipated.
The ANC clearly did not adequately prepare itself for how it would address what had previously been unthinkable. Many of those in leadership seem to have believed that historic loyalties would hold sway and that people would forgive the ANC and continue to be patient with the organisation.
It had previously proved itself, especially in the sacrifices that its cadres made to liberate South Africa. But many of the current representatives, including some in leadership, may not have played any or a significant role in the struggle. They have therefore never been equipped with any form of discipline that could have been invoked against those who, on losing elections, have disrupted proceedings in council chambers.
For those who speculate over whether or not the ANC can survive as an organisation or whether it is to implode or just disappear for one or other reason, the balance must have shifted towards believing that its collapse is no longer inconceivable.
For me, the question does not revolve around election results, but whether or not the organisation has or can regain the political capacity to make sense of the realities that people face. I question whether it can convince those people that it has a way of addressing these and remedy the demeaning living conditions that continue to be the lot of very many. One can hold the reins of government and create chaos not order, destroy instead of build, as we have seen in recent years; one can observe or continue to undermine the Constitution for whose creation the organisation itself was primarily responsible.
Who can say that the ANC of today inspires them with the required confidence? What reason do we have to be confident in the ANC’s capacity to govern? Does it have any vision beyond personal benefit? We know we cannot trust the ethics of the current leadership at all levels. But can we even rely on them purely in terms of governmental coherence, willingness and capacity to govern?
The answer seems to point to the negative, especially since a situation has developed where one of the prime causes of this disarray is the president. But his continued incumbency of the position and the activities he has engaged in are apparently excluded from any post-election evaluation by the ANC.
It is significant that the ANC has become the object of scornful laughter, that jokes about the organisation proliferate in all forms of media. These are not ordinary cartoons, but ridicule. Many of these relate to the claim that the ANC will rule till Jesus comes, with many speaking of “Jesus” arriving in Nelson Mandela Bay, Tshwane, Mogale City, and then the satirists ask where the next stop in “Christ’s” journey will be. The ANC has brought this ridicule on itself; it has created a situation where it is not met simply with disagreement or outrage, but is simply not taken seriously in many respects.
That a giant has been wounded and that this may be the early stage of the demise of the ANC requires critical evaluation. While I do not believe that self-correction is inevitable, I am not filled with confidence over the parties that will potentially fill the shoes of the ANC should this local government defeat lead to its national defeat in 2019. The DA has a mixture of a bureaucratic, technocratic and meritocratic ethos, on the basis of its governing in the Western Cape. But there are reasons for caution, given the orientation of the party, its attitude to the poor, the inequalities that still prevail and the degrading and dangerous conditions under which many black communities still live.
The ANC follows, in many respects, the trajectory of the Indian Congress, also a long dominant party. But we have seen in India how when the once mighty Indian Congress fell into authoritarian decay and was defeated, it then returned to power as a shadow of its former self. In each case of its defeat, dangerous forces have filled the void, as with the current authoritarian Hindu fundamentalists who have attacked the very fabric of Indian society.
What do we do in this situation to remedy the present but also ensure that what follows does not present new dangers? There is a need for humility. There is a need to develop realisable ideas through sustainable organisation. It is inadequate for us to look to the ANC to self-correct on the basis of an assumption that there is a “real ANC” that only needs to be rediscovered or restored in order to remedy the current problems.
Let us recognise that President Jacob Zuma emerged from that ANC. For that to happen indicates that even if the ANC were to engage in some type of self-examination and cleansing, it cannot simply go back to “the ANC of OR Tambo”, (as suggested by Rev Frank Chikane). Those who were in the ANC at earlier periods need to ask what was inadequate in what was built or why, that proved too fragile to survive succumbing to situations where temptations of wealth and resorting to violence could not be resisted.
We need to recognise that the “real ANC” that some veterans want to restore no longer exists, if it ever existed in the past. That is not to say that the ANC is no more for those who still feel attached to the organisation. It may still remain the home for many and it may remain in office for some time. But we need to build organisations beyond the ANC and also beyond the electoral arena.
We must avoid putting all our eggs in one basket, the councils or provinces or parliamentary electoral baskets. It is important to use these organs of government and hold them accountable. But we also need to gather together those who are interested from a variety of sectors to take forward the project of building grassroots organisations, where people are directly empowered. These would come from sectors including faith-based communities, workers, landless and homeless, women and men, the unemployed, especially unemployed youth, people from cultural, medical and other sectors. This ought to include those who may be wealthy; who also have an interest in seeing an end to corruption, and seeing stability that depends on basic social needs being met.
Building something new is always difficult. But as long as we appreciate that what we need affects our future and that of future generations, the effort is necessary and required of us, no matter how arduous the journey may be.
Raymond Suttner is a scholar and political analyst. He is a former political prisoner for activities in the ANC-led liberation struggle. Currently he is a Part-time Professor attached to Rhodes University and an Emeritus Professor at UNISA. His most recent book is Recovering Democracy in South Africa (Jacana and Lynne Rienner, 2015). He blogs at raymondsuttner.com and his twitter handle is @raymondsuttner