SA’s political parties: Twenty years on

RW Johnson on a troubled DA, a decaying and corrupt ANC and the emergence of the EFF

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Drewan Baird. Oudtshoorn. 11 February 2014. 07h00. The indefatigable, quite brilliant RW Johnson on Politicsweb:

The announcement of South Africa’s fifth democratic election for May 7 is a bold stroke by Jacob Zuma – and quite possibly a canny one. The easy explanation of the date is, of course, that it comes shortly after the 20th anniversary celebrations of April 27, when the first democratic elections were held. Some people have even taken to talking of that date as South Africa’s independence day, forgetting that that was actually on 31 May 1910.

Undoubtedly, the April 27 celebration will be turned into an ANC event, with lots of nostalgic footage of Mandela. And this may indeed help the ANC. That makes the choice of date seem obvious – but in fact it is a surprise. All the early indications were that the ANC would drag things out to the limit, that is, August.

After all, it was obvious that the ANC was lagging in much of the country, that intra-party morale was so low that Zuma could be booed at Mandela’s funeral, and that Nkandla was hogging the headlines. This suggested that a long drawn-out campaign would suit the ANC best, giving it more time to mobilise its vast machine, pulling back marginal voters by a mixture of propaganda, food parcels and straightforward threats to cut off welfare payments if they didn’t vote ANC. In addition, a long campaign would create huge financial problems for most opposition parties.

Why has the ANC forsaken all these advantages? It can only be because of the huge own goal scored by Mesdames Zille and Ramphele which has knocked Nkandla out of the headlines – it seems like yesterday’s news now – and which has embarrassed and demoralised the main Opposition. Clearly, the ANC wants to keep this DA own goal well in front of the voters (cue shots of Zille and Ramphele kissing on camera and then slagging one another off a few days later).

In addition, of course, because the DA has been distracted for a crucial three months by the Ramphele affair, it is now way behind: no posters, no manifesto, no presidential candidate. The ANC has clearly decided to go all out to exploit this large and unexpected gift.

The Zille-Ramphele affaire

The latest revelations from Zille suggest that Ramphele had run out of money by last November and, facing mounting debts and unpaid Agang staff, refused to do the obvious thing and use some of her own R55m (her own estimate of assets) or R500m (Forbes Magazine’s estimate of her assets) to pay her mutinous staff.

Instead, under pressure from donors, she moved to link up with the DA. All the donors, we are told, exercised huge pressure for such a union. Looking back, Zille says, it seems obvious that Ramphele only sought union with the DA in order to get the donor tap turned back on again. Once that happened, she was again a free woman and could again listen to BC arguments from the likes of Barney Pityana and Moletsi Mbeki that she should have nothing to do with the dreadful “white” DA.

Let us assume this version is true. It seems probable. Ramphele herself made no initial comment about it and although her spokesman denied it all, one thing proved beyond all doubt is that the Agang spokesman is the last person to know what goes on inside Agang. What are the implications?

First, Ramphele. If she acted as Zille now suggests – cynically wooing the DA so as to get donor money in order to double-cross the DA and the donors and walk back to Agang – then we are talking about a personality that is so self-involved as to be virtually autistic. And extremely short-sighted to boot for, having double-crossed the donors, she can no longer raise a cent and faces a three month campaign.

No one with any sense at all will deliver any goods or services to her without demanding that she make herself personally liable for payment. So, either she drives Agang straight back into bankruptcy and ends up in court, or she indeed has to start paying for everything from her own purse. The only alternative is for her to wind up Agang and stand down right away. She might as well: Business Day’s readers’ online poll shows over 82% saying Ramphele “has lost all credibility”.

Second, Zille. All this talk about the huge pressure exerted by donors is a little unseemly, as if Zille is trying to dump some of the responsibility for the debacle back onto the donors. It is unseemly because donors are both essential and necessarily anonymous: those who demand transparency about such matters in South Africa are either naïve or disingenuous.

To thrust the donors forward as the villains of the piece is to break an unspoken compact, particularly since two of them (the Oppenheimers and Natie Kirsh) have been named in the press. And, of course, the duty of a political leader is to tell the donors what is and what is not politically wise and possible: in this case, that an attempted deal with Ramphele was a non-starter.

Zille has, to her credit, said that she bears personal responsibility for the debacle – but in practise she is now throwing as much of the blame as possible onto Ramphele and some more onto the donors. This can’t really work. After all, the worse Ramphele is made to look – and relations between the two women now sound very embittered – the more Zille has to face the question “How on earth could you try to hand the DA leadership to a woman that you now say is completely untrustworthy? After all, you worked with her, you knew her well.” Zille may seem to be shooting poisoned arrows at Ramphele but those aren’t arrows, they’re boomerangs.

The ANC

The ANC is that familiar beast, a decaying and corrupt liberation movement. Other examples of the species can be seen in Algeria, Mozambique, Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe. In all cases they cling to power and fill their pockets with a huge sense of self-righteousness. They tend only to believe in democracy if that is the same as themselves being re-elected. They benefit from the fact that internationally the Left supports them because it likes their socialist and anti-imperialist rhetoric – although a mere glance at their actual behaviour shows how fraudulent that rhetoric is.

There is much discussion about the possibility that Zuma may be dispossessed of the ANC leadership early in his second term. But no one with any political sense believes this. This can only happen if Zuma himself wants it. It is otherwise unthinkable: the KwaZulu-Natal ANC utterly dominates the rest of the party, providing the party with its programme and over half its executive, let alone a large number of cabinet ministers.

There is simply no way that this bloc would tolerate seeing the first Zulu ANC president since Luthuli dispossessed of power. When, at the Mangaung conference, some ANC delegates sought to thwart that bloc they were threatened with physical violence. The airy discussions of Zuma being made to stand down are led by wishful white commentators like Allister Sparks who simply fail to comprehend the reality of the Zulu bloc.

In fact Zuma is rather a good representative of what the ANC is rapidly becoming – the party of the old Bantustans. The chances are quite high that at the 2016 local elections the Opposition will win Jo’burg, Pretoria, Port Elizabeth and Cape Town. As the ANC recedes from the urban centres it becomes ever more dependent on the great vote banks of poor rural voters who can easily be threatened with a cut-off of benefits and who are easily mobilised by their chiefs. Hence the ANC circular at the start of their campaign instructing all its MPs to avoid saying or doing anything to upset the traditional chiefs.

In any case, most of these rural voters live in an ANC-only world and, as the ANC shrinks, it can be expected to adopt a sort of militant defence around these rural precincts, making them virtual no-go areas. But the more the ANC electorate shrinks back upon these rural and lumpen elements, the more natural a leader Zuma appears to be.

Like them he is poorly educated, polygamous, and believes in the ancestors. He knows their traditional ways, sympathizes with them, and genially presides (and sings) at their weddings and funerals. In addition, of course, many such voters think it is quite right that Zuma should have built himself a royal kraal at Nkandla: a marriage of true minds.

At the end of this process the ANC will be virtually indistinguishable from any of the old homeland parties. Admittedly, it is a bit awkward for the “party of the working class” to lose the big urban centres but this is easily dealt with by re-naming the rural poor and unemployed as working class. The great concern is whether the ANC can really accept its eviction from the urban centres or whether it will attempt large-scale election rigging to avoid such a fate.

But the even greater – and more immediate – problem is tribalism. Late last year I conducted an opinion survey in KwaZulu-Natal. This suggested that the Zulu bloc was still consolidating behind Zuma and that the ANC would add at least another 10% to its vote there. At the same time anecdotal evidence reaches me from a variety of sources suggesting a rising tempo of anti-Zulu tribalism in workplace situations in Jo’burg and the Cape.

Probably this is happening nationwide and, quite probably, there is a creeping re-tribalization of politics going on at many levels – partly as a rejection of the Zulu Nostra, partly in response to the failure of the ANC’s national project. The Cosatu split pits a Zulu president (Dlamini) against a Xhosa leader (Vavi), whose support lies mainly in the Eastern Cape. Any practised observer of South African politics can hardly miss the signs. As yet the evidence is fragmentary but it points one way.

This is of cardinal importance for if the ANC gains largely in KwaZulu-Natal and loses ground elsewhere in the election, the end result will be an ANC even more heavily biased towards the Zulu bloc than now. That will be deeply de-stabilizing. The original ANC project of making tribe unimportant will be seen to have failed, and as a result tribal consciousness will increase sharply everywhere.

The increased dominance of the Zulu bloc will produce more anti-Zulu feeling and on the Reef this could spell real trouble. At the same time, such a result could ruin Cyril Ramapahosa’s hopes of the presidency: with the Zulu bloc in such a commanding position, a Venda would hardly be able to challenge Zweli Mkhize, the former KZN premier. But, of course, if another Zulu follows Zuma many non-Zulus will protest all the more against Zulu hegemony. The argument that the Xhosas had three ANC leaders in a row – Tambo, Mandela, Mbeki – won’t count for much. Precisely the fact that the Zulus are more united, cohesive and, yes, up for a fight, makes people resent them more.

Malema and the EFF

The emergence of the EFF is a development which has been waiting to happen for twenty years. In the apartheid years both the internal and external ANC talked revolution and engendered a sub-culture of revolutionary expectation. This was then cut short and stunted by the peaceful settlement of 1990-94 which saw the ANC, in short order, become a governing party in a capitalist economy and within an international environment shorn of its Communist alternative. This left the ANC’s revolutionary wing with nowhere to go but still boiling with the pent-up energies from thirty years of struggle.

This was a tremendously tempting factor for many ANC politicians for, by espousing this revolutionary tradition, they could vaunt their struggle credentials and outflank all opponents on the Left. Accordingly, a continuous stream of politicians attempted to reprise this revolutionary tradition – Chris Hani, Peter Mokaba, Winnie Mandela, Zwelenzima Vavi, Irvin Jim and sundry others. But in the end they were all constrained by the fact that all they could offer was Left populism: they had no programme of their own and ultimately were all tied to the ANC.

This meant, for example, that the Left could campaign all it liked against the GEAR (Growth, Employment and Redistribution) policy of Mandela and Mbeki in 1996, but it would always rally loyally to fight for the ANC at the next election. This made Left-wing position-taking mere shadow boxing.

Malema’s great advantage is that he has made a clean break with the ANC and can thus oppose its leadership root and branch and present a real alternative programme. Moreover, he is an inventive and shrewd politician. He has insisted that the EFF alone really wishes to implement the Freedom Charter which has been betrayed by the ANC at large. At the same time he adopted the red berets of Hugo Chavez (which proved so popular that the ANC was forced to copy them), developed strong links with Robert Mugabe, and was even canny enough to court Buthelezi. True, he still has court cases pending against him but any attempt to jail him now will be viewed as political persecution.

Early indications are that the EFF could win 25-30 seats in Parliament. This would be a complete disaster for the SACP, whose political space the EFF would then occupy, and whose militants would look back with anger at the Party’s failure to present its own election candidates from the start. But it would also have a de-stabilizing effect on the ANC which, for the first time, will be outflanked on the Left in every debate and accused of being sell-outs – an epithet the ANC finds hard to bear. Thus the EFF could easily push the whole ANC towards Left populism.

Moreover, what the EFF has going for it is that it lies exactly within the South African nationalist tradition. Africa’s most successful nationalists, after all, were the Afrikaner nationalists. And the story of the 20th century was of how the Het Volk of Smuts and Botha was outflanked by the more radical nationalists under Hertzog and of how then Hertzog himself was outflanked by still more radical elements under Strijdom and Malan. What this means is that every Hertzog, Malan or Malema has a general’s baton in his knapsack.

The Democratic Alliance

It has begun to look as if Helen Zille will go down as a calamitous leader. She was bequeathed a strong and growing party built on liberal principle but there is now a clear sense that all this is unravelling. This is only partly due to the Ramphele debacle. The real point is that Tony Leon had successfully put together a coalition of white English-speakers and Afrikaners, Coloureds, Indians and a growing African fringe so that even by 2004 the DA was easily the country’s most multi-racial party.

Leon had not appealed to ethnic sentiment or colour, rather the reverse. As a Jewish white he was very different from the Afrikaners or Muslim Coloureds or Hindu Indians who poured into the DA. But they came precisely because Leon’s liberalism was pitched above all races. It explicitly repudiated any sort of racial preference and instead said that the point of the DA was to guarantee that everyone got a fair crack of the whip in a non-racial South Africa.

The party strongly repudiated the use of racial preferences in the labour market or in business. It was perfectly happy to see remedial action to help the worst off get to an equal starting line but as far as possible it clung to the “merit not colour” principles of Helen Suzman and the old Progressive Party.

The importance of this was that, in turn, it tapped into the two hundred year tradition of South African liberalism, so the party knew just what it was. The ANC, of course, greatly disliked Leon and accused him of being a white racist who wanted to bring back apartheid. He treated this canard with the contempt it deserved and simply pressed ahead with confidence. In 1999 he more than quintupled the DP vote in 1999 and in 2004 added a further 30% to it. This large advance enabled the DA to begin its march through the municipalities and Leon saw Helen Zille take the Cape Town mayoralty before he stepped down in 2007.

All of this has now been greatly muddied. Under Zille the party has opted for racial preferences in both the labour market and business, to the utter consternation of the old Progs, Coloureds, the Solidarity trade union and Afrikaners in general. All these elements are increasingly restive, even mutinous. The Ramphele affair has Coloureds angrily demanding why an African should receive such preference when the DA owes both Cape Town and the Western Cape to Coloured voters?

Once one starts to play the game of racial preferences and skin colour, such complications inevitably follow. When Ms Zille declared that the principle of “merit not race” was itself “almost racist” she not only revealed that she had lost all touch with the liberal tradition, but she was simply lost. A truly multi-racial party like the DA can only be run on liberal principles. Once you surrender those for favoritism towards any race, you face a Tower of Babel.

To see what a different scale of values Zille relies on one need look only at her justification for the Ramphele affair. “The critical thing Mamphela brought, which we haven’t got in sufficient number, is people with strong struggle credentials. I have, but I’m not black…..That was the great value, to destroy that myth (that the DA wanted to bring back apartheid). That was what I wanted to destroy.”

This is all just ANC-speak, a testament to how successfully bullied Zille has been by the ANC. The struggle was over a quarter of a century ago and is of fast-diminishing relevance even within the ANC. None of the younger ANC ministers has a struggle record any more than Julius Malema or Blade Nzimande have one. In any case, for those to whom the struggle still counts it means being in jail or MK. In effect Dr Ramphele could only contribute her skin colour. In a properly liberal party the whole idea of that should have been offensive.

Apart from that, Ms Zille is clearly not speaking to her own party when she talks like this. Not a single one of them, white, black, Coloured or Indian, supposes for one moment that the DA intends to bring back apartheid. And when she makes it sound that having a black skin and ‘struggle credentials” are vital, how does she think that comes across to such key components of her alliance as Solidarity, Old Progs, De Klerk, Leon, businessmen, farmers, the many apolitical Indians and Coloureds and, indeed, anyone under the age of 40? She has dug herself a pit in which she is simply floundering around, using out-dated categories of thought which lead her into traps. Like Winnie the Pooh and the Heffalump.

What the DA needs, and with some urgency, is a leader who will re-establish the primacy of liberal principle, which bases itself upon the non-racial settlement of 1990-94 and which refuses all racial preference. This is the only way the party can keep its balance and survive. And the party needs to fight for those principles as Helen Suzman did, because they are right and irrespective of their immediate electoral effect….The rewards will come in time.

***

The settling of accounts

Once the election is over, various accounts will have to be settled.

Malema seems to have managed on precious little money – he has to, because the fate of Kenny Kunene, whose espousal of the EFF was rapidly followed by the onset of “tax problems”, showed well enough what would happen to open donors to the EFF (or to DA or Agang). But he will have some debts to pay. Happily, he will probably then have a score or so of MPs and he can make them kick in. And by 2016 the EFF will gain a slew of councilors right across the country. Malema is a formidable organiser and the party will dig in.

Ramphele will only get to the May 7 starting line if she is willing to fund Agang with some of her own money. If so, she will get almost nothing for it. She might get a parliamentary seat for herself but will she want it? She wanted to be “a leader”, not a solitary MP, shunned by the big blocs and without any future. Her political and moral credibility have been reduced to close to zero.

There are probably still a few South African businessmen silly enough to put her on their boards, but not many now. Zille, when asked whether she would do a deal with Ramphele in the future said “never say never”. But the DA as a whole would doubtless reject any such deal. Ramphele is simply finished. South African politics is a rough game and she way under-estimated it, jumping straight into the scrum. It is also a team sport, not something an individual should try on their own.

Zuma will come storming home at the head of a huge Zulu bloc which will sustain him through to 2019 if he wants, making him the first democratic South African president to serve two full terms. But he will have many fences to mend and a party with a badly dented self-image to deal with. In the ANC’s own book it is a party that has long ago vanquished tribalism and which is always going ahead. It will, after the election, have to face the facts of re-tribalization and that it is losing ground.

The SACP will be deeply threatened by the EFF’s advance and Cosatu will continue to fall apart, so the once-mighty Alliance will continue to dis-assemble. This will lend a terrible urgency to the 2016 local elections for the ANC knows that if it loses the main metropoles it can probably never take them back. There will be talk of a Dlamini-Zuma presidency by the more naïve commentators. But this pony won’t run.

It is in the race purely to get people used to the thought of another Zulu following Jacob Zuma, which is to say, Zweli Mkhize. The really big “if” is whether Jacob Zuma wants to go on or not. If he does finish his second term, Dlamini-Zuma will then be 70 and she is, in any case, a woman in an all-male culture: if the AU really mattered, she wouldn’t have got it. Zulus are cleverer than some folks think and they know about stalking horses.

The DA will also be in a rickety state even though it should gain some ground. It will urgently need a new and credible leader who will prevent its coalition from fragmentation. Whoever that new leader is – and if the party has any sense it will insist that he or she is in Parliament – will face the fact that the main centres of power within the party – the Cape Town mayoralty and the Western Cape premiership are beyond his or her control.

This will not be an easy position, especially since Patricia de Lille is a very mixed blessing as mayor. Attempts have been made to promote her to premiership candidate for the Northern Cape but she has refused to play. She would like to make the Cape Town mayoralty into her permanent job. Almost certainly, the new leader will want a new mayor and a new premier of his/her own choosing – after all, both de Lille and Zille are well into their sixties. So here too it could be all change.

***

If things go as outlined above there will, of course, still be a sprinkling of minority parties but the system as a whole will become a three-party one, with the ANC under attack from both flanks for the first time. The great question is whether this will nudge it towards the centre in order to head off the DA or push it in a Left-populist direction in order to reclaim votes lost to Malema. Different parts of the ANC will react differently but the guiding principle is likely to be racial solidarity – i.e. reconstitute a united African bloc by winning ground back from Malema. This would lead the country into dangerous waters but, if the party can only get its act together again, would present an unparalleled opportunity for the DA.

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One thought on “SA’s political parties: Twenty years on

  1. Ramphela recognized the writing on the wall.
    ……and ran.
    Good for her.

    By way of example,Patrcia de Lille, once proud leader and indepedant democrat, now an ID with no face.

    Helen Zille, Ramphele and DeLille , three formidable South African woman, South Africa needs so much.
    But as pik Botha on his heyday announced ‘we cannot move faster than what our supporters will allow us to ‘ or words to that effect.

    The debacle RWJohnson is referring to is a good one.
    It demonstrates the characteristics of both Zille and Ramphele.
    Ramphele is simply impressive and
    Zille never ceases to impress.

    Pity that she now sees fit to badmouth Ramphele.
    Totally unnecessary and uncalled for.
    It’s like throwing piping hot braaivleis brick-let at someone.
    On the other hand,
    Not a single bad word from the previous world bank director.

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