The ANC and President Cyril Ramaphosa personally are taking an unprecedented level of criticism at the moment. Many are finding it shocking that the organisation’s response to widespread criticism, supposedly zero tolerance of corruption, is publicly voiced by one of its most tainted office bearers, Secretary General Ace Magashule. The ANC leadership must surely recognise that expressions of unhappiness over corruption by Magashule are hardly credible.
That someone who has been fingered in so many ways holds the key ANC office of Secretary General and remains without any charges preferred against him makes many uncomfortable and feeds into widespread cynicism about the ANC and an ANC-led government’s level of involvement in a range of irregularities, especially alleged or proven tender corruption.
Magashule does not “lose his cool” when asked about these matters, remains undefensive and refers to tenders for family as nothing out of the ordinary for ANC leaders, in the wake of reports that his sons have won tenders to provide material for the medical response to Covid-19. (https://www.news24.com/news24/southafrica/news/watch-show-me-one-leader-of-the-anc-who-hasnt-done-business-with-the-state-ace-magashule-20200807).
Magashule has been allowed to populate ANC HQ with Jacob Zuma loyalists and while he is often in contradiction with what Ramaphosa says, it is a one-sided battle. Ramaphosa and his allies have not been willing to fight to control the ANC. How, one must ask, can one lead the country, if one does not control one’s own organisation?
The crisis affects the credibility of all ANC leaders including Ramaphosa
Despite signs that the current wave of the Covid-19 pandemic may be stabilising or past the peak in the Western Cape, Gauteng and Eastern Cape, the state and the ANC face a crisis of confidence, credibility and legitimacy, in the light of reports of widespread pillage.
The current looting raises questions about the ANC’s present, past and future. The way many people relate to the current looting bears to some extent on how they view the ANC, what it has meant to them in the past and what they hope for or expect to happen in future. The stalwarts, people for whom I generally have respect, are quick to welcome all statements of Ramaphosa and the ANC itself claiming to address the corruption, despite similar statements having been made in the past with little accompanying action. (https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2020-08-07-anc-stalwarts-endorse-call-for-permanent-agency-to-deal-with-graft/). They believe or at any rate act in order to ensure that the ANC can “self-correct” and return to what they see as a past that needs to be reconstructed or revived. That was the basis on which the stalwarts were, in many respects, a version of Ramaphosa’s CR 17 campaign for the ANC presidency, with Ramaphosa seen or depicted as embodying this goal or idea of self-correction.
For some what is happening today, the widespread looting that evokes shock but also a degree of paralysis on the side of Ramaphosa, confirms what they see as having been expected from the ANC long before 1994, this being the inevitable trajectory of a movement that was always said to be insufficiently sensitive to the needs of the working class and the poor.
My position is that the ANC’s trajectory was not inevitable and that it represents both continuities and ruptures with its past. The ANC was not always the seedy, decadent organisation we now see. It was not always the organisation of rogues, though there were dishonest people before the Zuma period. But it was also the organisation of people like Walter Sisulu and other famous liberation fighters, who were both wise and compassionate. There were many others whose names are not widely known, who were involved in the Struggle, often in places that do not even appear on the map, doing what they could to defeat apartheid.
Even if we eschew mythology and romanticisation, there is no doubt that the ANC did enjoy a special place in the hearts of very many people in South Africa, that it has now lost a special presence among the South African people. The ANC went through a number of phases before achieving political dominance and because of the willingness of many of its leaders and cadres to make sacrifices not for their own future benefit, but in order to alleviate the plight of the oppressed, it came to enjoy a cultural presence among many ordinary people. That is why it is recorded that families used to pray at night for the leaders on Robben Island and in exile.
Many, who had not formally joined the organisation, viewed themselves as “being ANC”. That is why, during work for the Congress of the People campaign, leading to the adoption of the Freedom Charter in 1955, some people when asked to join the organisation said but “we are ANC”. It did belong to the people in many ways that need to be recalled and if it is to survive some of this rootedness in a social and cultural presence would need to be recaptured.
How will this crisis unfold?
The ANC was both prepared and unprepared for the onset of leadership of the newly democratic state. Some appear to have had a better idea of how to position themselves in order to derive benefits than others, though a general ethos of enrichment and parasitism towards the state and its resources has now taken root.
In this situation, where the public develops a sense of cynicism towards official politics, the outcome is not easy to predict. My sense is that the ANC may not be able to hold onto its previous support base and will gradually disintegrate or continue to exist but as a political organisation devoid of political content, which is already very much the case. It will be without the ideas and vision that drew people in earlier times, certainly without an emancipatory vision.
Corruption, unaccountable acts of violence, notably by security forces, and indifference to the poor and marginalised have become intrinsic parts of the ANC and government at every level.
If that is true and we cannot count on the ANC to get us out of this situation and take the country forward to a democratic and peaceful future, then who can do it? Clearly there is a problem with the political options in formal politics- inside and outside the ANC. (https://www.polity.org.za/article/making-the-da-white-again-2020-02-13/searchString:Raymond+Suttner+DA and https://www.polity.org.za/article/eff-contributing-towards-or-undermining-democratic-life-2020-02-17/searchString:Raymond+Suttner+EFF+threat+to+democracy ).
In these moments of political disillusionment there is an apparent opening for popular movements, but in South Africa today, there are only relatively small ones, like the shack dwellers movement Abahlali baseMjondolo, with mainly regional support and a scattering of sectoral ones like Equal Education or smaller ones. Though these are often impressive, they are not able to make a dent on the national political scene.
But it does become an opening for the populist, that is those using the language of popular emancipation but without programmes that can be realised in a manner that are beneficial to the masses. In a number of states populist figures have entered national leadership in recent times of disillusionment with official politics. But it has tended to take an authoritarian or fascist right orientation, as with Donald Trump in the United States, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines and others.
It is important to be alive to this danger, that some of the tendencies in current South African politics are both populist and potentially fascist. (https://www.polity.org.za/article/constitutionalism-and-the-quality-of-democracy-are-we-immune-to-fascism-2018-10-30/searchString:raymond+suttner+fascism). The xenophobia that has been manifested throughout the lockdown often uses the idiom or language of fascism, as in the frequent association of foreigners with disease. It is just one sign that fascism could emerge from more than one political organisation, including the ANC.
For those of us who are outside of these processes there are no easy answers. The phrase “vote them out!” is not an answer insofar as there is no satisfactory alternative that can be the bearer of an emancipatory project.
But we ought not, when we consider the present and future of democratic life, to restrict ourselves to simply returning to where we were prior to the rise of Jacob Zuma. The period before the Zuma presidency had its flaws. But what is important is that it did not represent all the potentialities of the understandings and practices of democracy.
We need to revisit popular power as - at least - an element of democracy distinguishing what results from state power and what is self-empowering or democratic self-emancipation or entails popular agency. We need to move beyond focusing on “delivery” by the state, important as it is to hold it accountable for what it does and does not do.
We need to recognise that it is a quite different type of power from that of self-acting people or communities who decide for themselves what they want and act to achieve or in fact do achieve that. We need to aim beyond the present, to increase human self-realisation in politics. This may seem romantic, but it has been seen before albeit mainly through protest action. It can be part of our politics - as it was in the popular power period of the 1980s, and we need, at the very least, to take whatever steps we can to break with the pattern where our political existence is restricted to periodic voting. There cannot be quick results, but it is important to start thinking about renewing our political life.
Raymond Suttner is a scholar with a background in liberation politics, which resulted in his serving lengthy periods in prison and house arrest. He is the author of books including The ANC Underground, 2008, Recovering Democracy in South Africa, 2015 and Inside Apartheid’s prison (revised edition, 2017), all published by Jacana.