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Reclaiming political agency in a time of “choiceless democracy”


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Reclaiming political agency in a time of “choiceless democracy”

Raymond Suttner
Photo by Madelene Cronje/New Frame
Raymond Suttner

3rd April 2019

By: Raymond Suttner


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The ambiguity of ANC hegemony.  It is very likely that the national elections to be held on May 8 will be free and fair and also, that the ANC will be returned with a majority of votes nationally, with varying results in the different provinces.

Paradoxically, this probable ANC victory happens at a time when disillusionment with the organisation appears to be at an all-time high.  Constant revelations of corruption and the tainted individuals on its electoral lists and in leading organisational positions, notably but by no means exclusively, its Secretary General, Ace Magashule, are behind the cynicism with which the ANC is viewed.  The position he occupies means he heads the ANC HQ and can influence what happens in the organisation all over the country.  There have, for some time, been allegations of corruption levelled against him.  (See the new book by Pieter-Louis Myburgh, Gangster state.  Penguin, 2019, which relates a range of alleged corrupt activities in which Magashule is involved).


The ANC is deeply divided.  What is the character of the divisions?

Disunity between leaders and their supporters, notably between those still supporting former president Jacob Zuma and those backing current president Cyril Ramaphosa.  At the same time some of these could well swing from one side to the other, should Ramaphosa’s hold on power become more fragile or Zuma’s influence wane significantly. 

There is much that remains of the Zuma era under Cyril Ramaphosa’s presidency.  This has been a point of contestation from the outset with Zuma making it clear that he would not disappear and would be part of numerous ANC gatherings that ex-presidents normally do not attend, in order to give space to their successor.


While the Ramaphosa administration has in many ways crusaded for clean government and restoration of the integrity of key state enforcement agencies, this has coexisted with the continued presence of Zuma allies within government at high levels, on electoral lists, and in key state institutions including SARS.  (

There are (at least) two centres of power.  There are also apparently “two centres of power”, one residing in the state presidency of Cyril Ramaphosa and the other at ANC HQ. There have, in recent times, been aggressive statements issued by allies of Magashule against cabinet ministers, evoking so negative a reaction that some have been retracted by HQ within 24 hours.

Ramaphosa, as ANC president, does not appear to be “hands on” within the ANC, leaving various matters to be dealt with by the ANC secretary-general and his deputy, Jessie Duarte, also a Zuma supporter.  That may be how it is supposed to be in terms of the ANC constitution, but is it not reckless, when the Secretary-General has been involved in conspiratorial meetings and made statements that have undermined Ramaphosa’s presidency?

While the allies of Zuma continue to do battle against Ramaphosa, Ramaphosa himself does not appear to return fire.  He continues to have ambiguous or formal backing at best and seems to rely on the dubious power of “dignified silence”.

Divisions related to the “clean up” of state-owned entities, state enforcement agencies and various state departments.  This was seen as a key element of Ramaphosa’s “new dawn”, but it has been Minster of Public Enterprises, Pravin Gordhan who has been allocated this task.  It has evoked considerable resentment and it has often left him isolated, under attack from the EFF and sometimes even from within the ranks of the ANC and frequently without visible defence from ANC comrades. 

By all accounts Gordhan is an efficient and dedicated minister, winning support for Ramaphosa’s claim to have instituted a “clean up”. But when the EFF launched a blistering and racist attack on him outside the state capture commission, it took a week before the ANC rose to his defence and then only from very few of its leaders.  There has not  been any  official ANC organisational statement, in defence of Gordhan, anywhere near the vehemence of their response to the reports of the Myburgh book on Magashule.  The ANC statement reads: “ The African National Congress denounces the fake news front page propaganda published today by the Sunday Times and City Press, and say Hands off our SG!” (ANC tweet, Sunday 31 March 2019).

Gordhan’s clean-up is not popular with those who fear being exposed as corrupt. We do not know how much more there is to reveal because what has been opened up about BOSASA in the state capture commission was not in the media even a year ago; there may be a lot more that we do not know about. It has become increasingly clear that clouds hang over cabinet ministers and other prominent public officials as a result of disclosures in various commissions, and the numbers of those implicated may grow.

There can be no short-term clean-up of the personnel.  The corrupt are as much part of the ANC as those who are most honest.  The corrupt, or allegedly corrupt, like Ace Magashule, are just as likely to brandish decades of struggle credentials as those who are reputedly clean and some who were once very brave may well have succumbed to corruption, as with Linda Mti, former Director General of Correctional Services.

Corruption and Ramaphosa supporters.  What was initially unexpected is that some of those who were never suspected of corruption and are in fact supporters of Ramaphosa, have been named in relation to alleged corruption with BOSASA.

ANC connection to criminality.  The ANC has changed. It may never have been what many, in their “innocence”, believed it to be. There were dishonest people in the ANC, some of whom may have engaged in various criminal acts that have never been prosecuted, but it was never systematically part of criminal enterprises.  The systematic criminality that we now hear of appears to have been happening for some time in post-apartheid South Africa, preceding the rise of the Jacob Zuma presidency via Bosasa and other companies still to be revealed.

Factions and ideology

The ANC is divided into what media generally describe as factions, but little of this has to do with policy, ideas, and questions of transformation, even if such words are thrown about.  Moody’s ratings agency believes that divisions feed into policy uncertainty, but policy is not a core issue in these divisions unless they may affect returns from one or other shady venture.  The organisation has become depoliticised as it struggles over positions and material benefits.

Impact of corruption on how the ANC is perceived by its support base

The corruption over the last decade has not simply been enrichment but also about undermining state capacity and the depletion of resources. This has had a serious impact on the capacity of the state to provide social services to the poor.  This is known not only to scholars and researchers but to members of poor communities or others struggling to survive in makeshift shelters. They also know and understand that there is a connection between the breakdown of their health services in North-West and Free State provinces, for example, and corrupt contracts.  They may, therefore, be less willing than the government may think, to buy into claims that it is the influx of foreign nationals into hospital beds, that have caused the pressure on health services (an allegation raised by Minister of Health, Aaron Motsoaledi, Gauteng Premier David Makhura and president Cyril Ramaphosa).

Legitimacy, trust and absence of meaningful political choices

Trust is an essential quality of leadership, especially ethical leadership, that endures even when a party may go through difficult times.  Its backing will be sustained if a fundamental bond between leaders and its support base remains in place.  Even conservative figures like General Colin Powell, who served under Ronald Reagan say this.  (

What joins leadership to its supporters is the belief that leaders will carry out what they undertake, will serve them faithfully and with integrity, and will care for their interests, share their joys and pain.

Democratic and emancipatory leadership also means developing and advancing a vision and leaders should be seen to embody a set of values that embrace what people hold as important.   Many of these values should come from interacting with the people themselves.  The success of documents like the Freedom Charter derives partly from its origins in a painstaking process of collecting demands from the masses, embodying what concerned them and how they wanted these grievances remedied. This resulted in people seeing themselves and their conditions in what the Charter proposed as remedies.

Even though the link between the masses and the ANC may not be what it has been in the past, the organisation may still win a majority -nationally- in the forthcoming elections.

But can one be democratically elected, as may happen with the ANC, even by a significant majority and nevertheless act against the interests of the majority of the population?  Can it be that the majority of the electorate have calculated that such a party, despite its various and significant flaws is nevertheless the best they can hope for in the democratic system, focused as it is on an electoral contest? 

Is this what is happening in South Africa now, and what does this mean for the evolution of our freedom?  What does it signify for the status of democracy where one lacks meaningful choices at the polls and when no supplementary or alternative form of political expression exists?

Does this not point to a flaw in conceiving democracy as consisting almost entirely in the process of voting? The possibility that a party that is very tainted will do fairly well in elections raises questions about the integrity of the electoral system as a whole.  This does not mean that it is lacking in proper processes but raises questions about elections themselves -which is to attain a mandate from an electorate and to be judged on the basis of how the party concerned has performed.  This may not be possible to achieve.  In other words, even if dissatisfied with the ANC, the electorate may see no way of replacing it that can offer a more emancipatory route.

The political weaknesses and lack of trustworthiness of the alternatives to the ANC is central to the problem.  Whatever its blemishes the ANC remains the party that has provided some mechanisms for addressing the plight of the poor, and as Steven Friedman repeatedly indicates, there is not a sense of trust that other parties will act in a similar way.  According to Friedman’s sources, instruments like the social grant, crucial for the poor, are associated with the ANC. It is feared that other parties may not retain such instruments. (

If that is so, elections do not really signify legitimacy and trust but only that the electorate must choose amongst more or less illegitimate parties.

The party that has been elected may have won an electoral contest, but we cannot be satisfied with this as an authentic democratic outcome. It is an electoral outcome and it is an outcome that legalises the continued rule of a highly tainted party with anti-democratic tendencies. It is a variant of what some have described as “choiceless democracy.”

Reclaiming our political agency

What is especially troubling is the lack of vision in the Ramaphosa-led ANC; there is clarity on some issues, related to law enforcement, but ambivalence on issues that are crucial to equality and freedom, notably xenophobia.  We need to be clear that when we speak of freedom it means freedom for all who are in our land. Freedom is universal and indivisible, or we are not free.    

Ramaphosa himself (like Makhura, Motsoaledi and others) have been party to the coded language that forms the basis for xenophobia. Xenophobia does not speak in its own name and declare itself as xenophobic. It hides under alleged legalistic concerns, while arousing anger against the foreign scapegoat who it claims is using our resources and does not follow the law. It is no coincidence that recent outbreaks of xenophobic violence followed shortly after Ramaphosa’s statements about foreign traders and undocumented migrants. 

The ANC is no longer a party that leads towards democratic and emancipatory outcomes.  Those aspirations cannot be allowed to be displaced by racist and other anti-democratic sentiments.  The people of South Africa need to claim their own agency, their own political freedom.  That means that those who remain in fidelity with emancipatory principles need to advance them, wherever they are located, trying wherever and however possible to pressurise those in political parties and government to follow suit.  Whether others join them or not, those who value freedom need to find ways to advance it in its fullest possible meanings, in a range of places, harnessing the energies of people from all sections of our society.

Raymond Suttner is a visiting professor in the Faculty of Humanities, University of Johannesburg, a senior research associate at the Centre for Change and emeritus professor at UNISA.  He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities.  His writings cover contemporary politics, history, and social questions, especially issues relating to identities, gender and sexualities.  He blogs at and his twitter handle is @raymondsuttner


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