Political Watch

From broad church to unholy alliance to the edge

Governing alliance

With plenty of plans and a proliferation of ‘indabas’ on many fronts, most of them with the National Development Plan (NDP) as central theme, but little actual implementation, South Africa has become a country without a unifying vision of its future.

That is how a veteran political commentator, academic and seasoned facilitator, presently involved in a series of discussions across the country, organised by the Centre for Conflict Resolution (CCR), described the present national psyche.

In a conversation with him he also said that among the wide cross-section of the population attending the discussions he is detecting a general mood of discontent with the governing African National Congress.

Another seasoned political commentator and historian, Hermann Giliomee of the University of Stellenbosch, in an article last week titled South Africa on the edge, wrote about dialogue between government and the private sector: “No meaningful discussion could take place … because the government's cluster of economic departments were deeply divided between proponents of the free market and old-style communism. As someone remarked: ‘At present there simply is no economic policy for the country’.”

From liberation movement to government

Neither the widespread discontent with the ANC government nor the paralysing ideological divisions within the governing alliance should come as a surprise.

A large number of academic and other research documents have been published in recent years on the extremely low rate of success of liberation movements across the globe in making the transition to successfully governing political parties.

A 2012 discussion paper, From Liberation Movement to Government by Christopher Clapham, editor of The Journal of Modern African Studies based at the Centre of African Studies, Cambridge University, states: “Nowhere in Africa … has a liberation movement transformed itself seamlessly into a national government. Governing a state presents numerous challenges that are not only different but, in some respects, clash with the requisites and principles of waging a successful liberation struggle.”

It is increasingly clear that the ANC is no exception in this regard and the Clapham paper also states: “The struggle waged by the ANC against the apartheid regime … is one of the world’s best-known and most admired liberation movements, yet in its centennial year it has faced a raft of criticism – both from within and outside South Africa – over its quality of governance, which some of the country’s most prominent voices have attributed to its failure to move beyond ‘liberation politics’ and shed its struggle mindset.”

The part of that “struggle mindset” that remained with the ANC and is causing the most troubles in delivering “quality of governance”, and paralysis in executing policy programmes like the NDP as well as a proliferation of policy uncertainties, is the hanging onto its ‘broad church’ approach post-1994.

From broad church to unholy alliance

By attempting to maintain the ‘broad church’ structures of the liberation movement, the ANC as a political party in government constantly has to try to accommodate competing interests and ideologies. It also has absorbed into its fibre conflicts of interest – most notably by having the country’s major labour federation, (COSATU) directly represented in government.

This has become an ‘unholy alliance’ – leading to not only loss of credibility and an inability to act as neutral arbiter in an increasingly volatile labour scene, but also to constant internal ideological tensions and power struggles.

On the political/ideological front its alliance with the South African Communist Party has already caused some bloodletting in the party, with the battle building up to a crescendo.

The battle for the ideological and policy-making heart of the ANC goes back some time. Besides the example referred to by Giliomee above, the late Dr Van Zyl Slabbert told me early in 2007 of a strategy by the then president Thabo Mbeki to rid the ANC of the SACP. Mbeki in the process removed some SACP functionaries from key government positions.

He was also aiming to establish a more centrist political force in the country and his target was to achieve that goal by the time of the 2009 election.

It is not certain what role this strategy played in it, but at the 2007 national congress of the ANC Mbeki was, with the help of COSATU and other socialist forces, replaced by Jacob Zuma as leader of the ANC.

Since then the majority of the country’s key executive positions were filled from SACP ranks and leading lights from the labour movement. In the process South Africa has undergone what colleague Stef Terblanche describes as a “silent Socialist revolution”.


Many political observers believe that the foundations of the ANC-led governing alliance have started crumbling. The present bitter battles within COSATU are a symptom of that.

Another symptom, extremely damaging to good governance and the policy certainty needed for among others economic growth, is the constant conflicting statements by various ANC functionaries – illustrated by widely diverging interpretations of the NDP.

Already two years ago Clapham in his discussion document observed that “… liberation credit is a finite one, and is characteristically exhausted in the minds of much of the population much sooner than leaders recognize.

“The moment soon arrives when the regime is judged not by its promises but by its performance, and if it has merely entrenched itself in positions of privilege reminiscent of its ousted predecessor (in alliance, it may be, with interests still outstanding from earlier times), that judgment is likely to be a harsh one.

“The recent wave of labour unrest in South Africa, especially the tragic events at Marikana in August 2012, which culminated in dozens of striking miners being shot dead by police, may well be regarded as trumpeting such a moment of truth for the ANC.”

Also telling as to what extent the ANC has lost the liberation aura among the younger generation, is an article only last week by Mzukisi Makatse, a member of the ANC, working within the criminal justice system. Under the title A rumbling in the jungle he writes: “With increasing violence and alarming vigour, the South African (SA) youth is demanding attention especially from those that occupy the corridors of power.” 

New social pact

In the meantime an initiative to try and launch a wide social dialogue in civil society to develop a future vision for the country has been started by concerned high-profile South Africans. The group includes prominent former very active members of the ANC, worried about developments in the country.

At the roots of the current problems is the fact that the process delivering the negotiated political settlement during the early 1990s, and what followed on it was in some ways incomplete. “Collectively we were so almost obsessed with reconciliation that we were left without a national vision of the country we want to build,” one of those involved in the CCR initiative told me.

At this stage a break-up of the governing alliance looks a sure thing. It promises to be a messy affair.

From an economic and financial perspective Giliomee also foresees that a situation might develop that “will put stability in South Africa before a severe test. It would be better if South Africans of all persuasions start debating how the fiscal cliff can be avoided well before the country arrives at that point.”

by Piet Coetzer

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