The decline of the ANC bears a relation to a broader deterioration in democratic life and respect for constitutionalism. It is important not to see the remedy as simply voting the ANC out of power but also entailing a broad alliance of forces, including popular forces and business, in defending and sustaining democratic life under the Constitution.
It has been clear for some time that the ANC is undergoing a crisis, which could affect its continued existence. It first became very clear in elections for local government in 2016 when the organisation lost control of three significant metros. This trend was partially bucked in the national elections of 2019 when the ANC retained a national majority, albeit just scraping back in a key province like Gauteng.
But the 2021 local government elections again confirmed the ANC’s decline, for the first time losing a majority on a national level.
It is important, however, to address the problem of the ANC’s current practices and existence within the context of the crisis of South African democracy. That is not purely a question of who is winning and losing seats, because the malgovernance that is behind these electoral losses has affected the quality of life of the majority of the country who remain oppressed by denial of basic needs that are constitutionally prescribed and subjected to constant violence and other state excesses.
The fate of the ANC and that of democratic life and constitutionalism are different, but there are also linkages between the two. The failure of the ANC to meet the aspirations of the majority has been accompanied by lack of confidence displayed in the electoral alternatives.
On the one hand, our concern needs to be not only with the fate of the organisation that led the liberation Struggle, not to rescue it at all costs nor to ensure that it goes into the dustbin of history. Through its own actions, it has put itself into a situation where it is alive in some senses, but definitely dying not only as an electoral force but as a moral force for change and an organisation that was once preoccupied with debating ideas advancing emancipatory goals.
The fate of democracy and constitutionalism in South Africa converges with the crisis of the ANC insofar as we restrict ourselves to the broader crisis of electoral democracy. The ANC is in a liminal state, half living and possibly en route to dying. The problem for wider society is that its ways of acting to preserve its power and continued existence are also undermining the value of democracy and constitutionalism.
It is important that we address this not only by focusing on finding an alternative political party to defeat the ANC in elections, but also look for other ways of securing democratic life and the empowering elements of the Constitution. How do we strengthen democracy and constitutionalism in various institutions that are important for realising the promise that many of us cherished after 1994?
It is human beings who occupy the institutions that safeguard and build (or destroy) democracy, and individuals, who through the organisations they inhabit comprise a body of people that can embody power or potential power to be used in more than one way. How do those human beings become organised in a manner that can strengthen support for emancipatory goals? Clearly it means supporting or withholding support from one or other organisation or organisations and potentially embracing the cause of others.
“Others” need not be restricted to what exists now nor to political parties standing for Parliament or other institutions of representative democracy. Power can be manifested outside of electoral democracy and it need not be a negation of the power of the vote, that was an important historical gain in South Africa.
We need to ask ourselves to what ends organisations should be directed in the light of the decline of the ANC and the failure of other organisations to present themselves as an adequate alternative for the people of South Africa.
Media collude in depoliticisation
The media are not helping to address this question, because the focus that we now have is on who will become the president and other office bearers of the ANC, in a sense reducing the political questions of the day to that which can be resolved by one or other personality.
And by doing this, there is a failure to address the problems of the political system and the ways of organising people in the period that lies ahead with a view to recovering the vitality of democratic life.
The media are colluding - despite the ANC having suffered a serious defeat - in presenting the outcome of the ANC internal elections and leadership structures as the only or main question to which we must look for the securing of our democratic future.
There is no question of the importance of the ANC. But the ANC is not democracy in South Africa. We should know that well enough, as the electorate indicated in their rejection of the ANC in the recent local government elections. This type of focus on the ANC is making it more difficult to remedy democratic failure and dysfunction. This is done by media reportage and analysis that focuses almost entirely on personalities in one or other “camp”, to whom they owe loyalty, and who may be on one or other “ticket” to the presidency of the ANC or may be won over to one or other “camp”.
It is media colluding in the depoliticisation of politics in its failure to expose the emptiness of the various alternatives, the absence of vision and actual ideological contestation, that once used to be the lifeblood of the ANC and its allies. Is it not important to probe what various candidates in the “race” stand for, if anything, beyond the vacuousness of identification with “Radical Economic Transformation” [RET]? It is significant that the word “elective conference” is used to refer to the 2022 ANC conference. That was not the terminology used in the 20th century and a little later, for elections were merely one part of broader conference proceedings where commissions debated strategies and tactics and policies, which were then not simply decorative but intended to be implemented - after heated and vigorous debate.
Our focus needs to be on what organisational forms can be developed to augment electoral politics. The vote was an important gain in the struggle for democracy, among other reasons because it refers to universal adult franchise in a country where black men and women were referred to as “boys” and “girls”. It’s being universal is also emancipatory in a history where rights were the prerogative of the few.
Augmenting the power of the vote
But it is important that we augment the vote or representative democracy with other sources of power which can influence the way in which the institutional life of democracy is played out. We need an alliance of forces that can bring to bear pressure that can ensure that institutional life is directed towards the bettering of the conditions of all the people of South Africa, whether through the judiciary, local government, national government, and a number of institutions which are part of our constitutional life.
We need a new alignment of forces and it may need a combination that has not always seen one another as kindred spirits. There needs to be an alliance of forces dedicated to revitalising democratic life and defending the Constitution. This grouping may overlap with some who are elected to Parliament and other institutions, but it can also act as a force outside of these institutions, bringing its power to bear on representatives to ensure that they remain on the democratic and constitutionalist track.
The United Democratic Front, UDF, cannot be reborn. It is a different time and conditions are very different and those who may be attracted to a new alliance may go beyond those drawn into the Struggle of the 1980s.
There are a very small number of popular organisations, but they need to be a core element of such an alliance, advancing their programmes which are in line with core elements of the democratic project.
The popular character of the labour movement has in many respects taken a knock insofar as key elements were in support of Jacob Zuma. It has also been weakened by job losses and general conditions of poverty and the burden of the Covid-19 pandemic. But it needs to be an important part of such forces.
There are many professional bodies that have stood for constitutionalism and democracy and done their best to stand by and assist the poor and marginalised. These include the legal and medical professions, including nurses, social workers who have been at the coal face of addressing traumas experienced by the oppressed and other marginalised people, teachers, academics and others despite often disagreeing in their approaches. These are among the key resources in any rebuilding project.
Faith-based organisations and communities have historically played a crucial role in defending the poor and fighting for liberation with empowering teachings and sometimes occupying the most dangerous trenches together with freedom fighters. They need to be encouraged - in all their diversity - to enhance the liberatory vision that is now endangered.
I have previously referred to the importance of business, big and small, in all its diversity. Business played an important role in bringing down Jacob Zuma. But they also constitute a powerful force that has sustainable power and an interest in stability, constitutional rule and non-violence.
Apart from this, business is a key factor in addressing the scourge of unemployment. An input of former President Thabo Mbeki is reported in recent media, albeit directed at the ANC. He argues for a compact with business:
“If we take our economy from 1994 to date, 70% of new investment into our economy has come from the private sector and the rest from the public sector, and we’re talking about job creation and building new factories.
“What a social compact does is lock the private sector into a formal agreement so that they can’t make that investment as they wish, but as part of a national agreement. Business agreed to the social compact, so why aren’t we acting on that?”
None of these and other categories that I may not have mentioned are monolithic. But all who want to recover democracy and defend constitutionalism must be incorporated.
A final resource that we need to find a way of harnessing into the democratic recovery process is the people we see on a daily basis, acting out common acts of human kindness. In daily life we all repeatedly witness acts of concern and solidarity displayed towards others who are in danger or need assistance. We see this in the streets and in neighbourhoods (See: https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2021-12-19-south-africa-country-of-everyday-miracles/ ). And, of course, there are plenty of acts of aggression and selfishness that need to be strongly discouraged.
The kindness and solidarity have taken highly organised form in Gift of the Givers that has in many respects stepped in to fill gaps of government and the state, and is now being justifiably recognised. (https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2021-12-20-i-dont-look-at-what-cant-be-done-i-look-at-what-can-be-done-says-imtiaz-sooliman-of-gift-of-the-givers/ ).
Everything said about the way forward is necessarily tentative, despite the crisis that confronts us. This is merely a contribution towards what needs to be a broad discussion involving people from all walks of life and broad and diverse communities.
Raymond Suttner is an emeritus professor at the University of South Africa. 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 raymondsuttner.com and his twitter handle is @raymondsuttner. He is currently preparing memoirs covering his life experiences as well as analysing the political character of the periods through which he has lived.
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