Media and ANC preoccupations, depict the ANC electoral contests as the major political issues of the day. Given the ANC’s low level of support and its disengagement from the major crises faced by the state, it is necessary to work towards a “new politics”, building a coalition of forces outside of but influencing electoral politics and wider issues of concern.
Crisis of existence?
The current situation is a moment of crisis, possibly affecting the very existence of the state itself. We have just emerged from weeks of load shedding with no sense that it will disappear nor quickly resume. This most recent round of load shedding left many people with a sense of weariness, despair, and low expectations about resolution of the energy crisis even if there are new plans on the table. (I am reporting on what I perceive, not myself questioning the dedication or competence of the management team at Eskom nor the Ministry of Public Enterprises. They inherited and work in difficult conditions).
This sense of “no way out” relates to critical situations that many families and businesses now face. Many feel there is no way they can pick up from where they were before the Covid-19 lockdowns, July 2021 “unrest” and lootings, floodings and other disasters which destroyed so many businesses and threw so many people out of work.
The same period of hardship created and continues to provide fresh opportunities for relief but simultaneously wrongdoing. It created a situation where many people were and are hungry or in need of healthcare, continuing to provide (uneven) support, which simultaneously creates openings for stealing goods meant for the poor.
We have the situation where the economy and society are already experiencing very low growth, very high unemployment, very high inflation, very high debt levels, high and increasing inequality, and continued corruption that often bears no consequences for the wrongdoers.
But South Africa is without the type of organisations and leadership, in terms of personal leadership qualities and also, it is not exploring the type of political options that are necessary to address the situation. (See, for example, Mondli Makhanya: https://www.news24.com/citypress/columnists/mondlimakhanya/mondli-makhanya-move-on-from-social-compact-20220731, behind paywall).
There are also ominous signs of social disintegration as in repeated tavern killings, multiple rapes including the recent mass rape in Krugersdorp, hold-ups in public places and a range of other killings and disruptions of the peace or sometimes unexplained destruction that just “happens” as part of everyday life.
How is the crisis depicted?
This is written at a time when the main preoccupation of ANC forces and the media continues to be with how people are positioned in relation to the ANC national congress in December. There is little concern for programmatic issues that previously used to differentiate candidates for positions, nor for wider state and political issues of which internal ANC developments form a small part. The December conference is now described as an “elective conference”. It is not an ANC term, but a media invention. In the early years after unbanning, such three-yearly congresses mainly discussed burning issues of the transition and the last day or two related to elections.
The other preoccupation of the moment relates to a rule of the ANC that a person charged with a criminal offence must step aside from all ANC and government positions. It is telling that the ANC has descended to a point where it has become necessary to regulate treatment of the large numbers who fall foul of the law, but equally telling of its moral compass that there is so much opposition to a person who has been charged having to step back from public positions, according to the “step aside” rule.
In theory, it could be a rule that indicated strict adherence to ethics, to the rule of law, to constitutionalism and clean government. In fact, it is a holding action by a government that has shown that it has a very high tolerance for corruption and illegality and has within its ranks very many people who have not yet been charged, but who have fallen under a cloud, and been named in the Zondo Commission and other evidence- based inquiries. The rule tends to be applied and exists as part of battles related to elections.
President Thabo Mbeki has addressed the question of criminality by focussing on the membership, and the ANC policy conference has also said that everyone must now renew their membership to root out the criminals and others who supposedly do not belong in the ANC. (“Supposedly” because it is an open question whether or not criminality now counts more than understanding of the Freedom Charter or “national democratic revolution” among those who are the main figures in ANC leadership at various levels and from whom the perpetrators of tender fraud and other crimes derive from or depend).
This clean-up is aimed at the wrong target, for while there are undoubtedly crooks at a branch level and people who enter the ANC because they anticipate benefitting from spoils, State Capture and related illegality happened primarily at the top and higher levels of the ANC. Meticulous checking may now be done at a branch level - but will the same be done at the levels where the real crooks are located? Will those who are tainted not be charged with overseeing the process, given how deeply embedded they are in the organisation?
President Mbeki referred to returning the ANC to what it once was. It may be that there is some romanticism about the ANC’s past, but in my personal experience in the ANC and SACP, until the period of President Jacob Zuma’s rise, especially until the time of the Shabir Shaik trial and Zuma’s rape trial, most people whom I encountered were dedicated to ensuring a “better life for all”, and some had already made sacrifices to secure that.
It would be a mistake to assume that these qualities are entirely absent from the current ANC - especially if we do a proper study of who is joining the organisation, why and where they are located. The ANC has never been one organisation in its history and has always evidenced disparate qualities. It could well be that there are many such people who can be part of rebuilding democratic life.
Criminality and dispensing patronage
The so-called battle over the step-aside rule is in fact part of the contest to secure the presidency of the ANC and the awarding of patronage that goes with that. There is a line-up of people who expect to continue receiving rewards if Ramaphosa remains president and another line for those whose hopes of reward lie with other candidates, in some cases people who may soon be facing charges.
What is worrying is that none of this is taking us any further towards developing a solution to the multiple crises in this country. It is true that the charging of people and conviction of those who have been found to have perpetrated corrupt practices is part of the restoration of legality. But it is so intricate and long winded and taking so long that in the meantime, new opportunities for corruption are opening for the already corrupt and other people are being involved in it.
Some of the delays in initiating prosecutions appear to relate to the hollowing out of capacity during the Zuma era and the endless resources that those accused of State Capture and related offences seem to be able to draw on for lawyers to mount cases that the lawyers must know have little chance of flying. Again, this delay is not from those who recently joined, but leadership figures.
We need a new combination of forces
But in considering the overall “state of the state”, where we need to focus is on what type of combination of human and organisational forces can get us out of the current morass.
Preoccupation with who becomes president of the ANC is to repeat what must be argued and that is the increasingly untenable assumption that the future of South Africa is dependent on the ANC.
In contrast, evidence appears to show that the future of South Africa will be marred and further jeopardised if it remains dependent on the ANC. There are strong signs that the electorate has already put a distance between itself and the ANC. It may well vote the ANC into a minority position, below 50% in the next general election.
The ANC has lost vibrancy. It exists in a liminal state, on the threshold between life and death, mainly living for those still able to draw high salaries from state coffers.
What, we must ask, are the significance of those elections in the larger scheme of things? Their relevance is primarily related to who will dispense spoils in the event of victory. (I do not deny - and respect - that some people have made the choice to fight from within to cleanse the ANC. It is their choice and I accept it is made in good faith.)
Beyond the present - where to and how?
The reform programme is already stalled, and we do not need further obstacles. But seasoned political figures need to point us beyond immediate media preoccupations to the long term, not simply short-term internal ANC dynamics.
It is necessary to augment electoral democracy with a combination of organisations (in existence and needing to be developed) and sectors that can exert pressure/power to ensure that government implements its constitutional duties. That is a force that may not immediately be or ever become a directly electoral force. Such an alliance of forces may in the long run become a political party or contest elections, but that is not what I am suggesting now. We need the coordination of forces that exist or can be developed, that can articulate major public concerns with the weight that their constituencies bear.
Such a body of forces needs to be diverse, and it cannot start with a programme that it presents and asks others to adhere to. Any manifesto or programme of ideas for which one seeks followers needs input from those potential followers. That is democratic politics! One may engage people based on already existing ideas, but the point of engagement is to enrich those ideas through listening and learning from others.
It is necessary to look for commonalities between diverse sectors and organisations that may be limited, but hopefully, more substantial over time. One will need to draw people and sectors together and negotiate common positions on end goals and the steps needed to reach these and any intermediate goals that may be realisable. Such a combination of forces should, hopefully, be ever-expanding and continually debating to find common ground and build a vision and strategies for realisation.
We need to mark out a series of principles behind which a broad coalition of forces can be provisionally united to represent significant constituencies in society. I have previously indicated that the Constitution is already there as a unifying vision, albeit requiring elaboration in this context.
The components of such a developing alliance will be diverse. There need to be popular organisations, workers’ organisations, professionals - notably law, medical and other caregivers - faith-based organisations, benevolent organisations like the Gift of the Givers and involvement of party-political organisations, should they be ready to contribute.
In this situation business is needed. It is diverse, yet nevertheless probably the most sustainable player in the South African social, economic, and political context, itself directly affected by the lapses in governance. It has an interest in stability, constitutionalism, non-violence, and an end to state criminality. For business it is not simply a moral question, but what is needed for its functionality and long-term sustainability.
Business does not speak with one voice, and it has very often in the past been very keen to keep in step with government and to maintain strong lines of communication with the ANC-led government. That seems to be eroding and while that may be so, business has important interests that require the recovery of South African democracy. Business’s need for constitutionalism was one of the reasons why it was involved in the steps to remove Jacob Zuma as President of South Africa.
Both business and the poor need the defences provided by the Constitution, even if they are separated by income disparities, location, and current life opportunities. Both the poor and the wealthy need defences against violence and illegality and state and private criminality. They need the Constitution to protect the rights and dignity of all that has been so frequently flouted in recent times.
Not fighting elections - then what?
If what is envisaged is a joining of forces which carries weight, but does not manifest this in a political party contesting election, what does it do?
Initially, if so powerful a force can be developed, it can “breathe down the necks” of government and legislatures to ensure that they adhere to their constitutional mandates and to intervene in whatever manner is appropriate for such a body of forces, to try to ensure that its advice - that must not be sectarian but clearly based on the national interest - is heeded.
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, violence, gender and sexualities. His books include Recovering Democracy in South Africa, The ANC Underground and Inside Apartheid’s Prison, all published by Jacana Media. His twitter handle is @raymondsuttner.