Political Watch

ANC missed opportunity to manage political realignment

Mbeki was victim of his foresight
Mbeki.jpg

It’s been coming for some time, but a total realignment in South African politics is at hand as the middle ground is consolidating, with the ANC and SACP set to be the biggest losers.

The African National Congress, leading a coalition government (which it calls an alliance) since 1994, forfeited a historic opportunity to manage the process when it dumped their then leader and president of the country, Thabo Mbeki. Replacing Mbeki with Jacob Zuma in 2007, it has since become little more than the South African Communist Party (SACP) in drag, especially since Zuma became president of the country in 2009.

As the demographic profile of the South African population became more diversified in the post-1994 and post-liberation struggle environment, Mbeki, concerned about especially the SACP’s influence, embarked on a strategy to consolidate the political middle ground.

The late Dr Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, who was close to Mbeki, told me how the ANC leader had embarked on a strategy before the 2004 general election, to, on the one hand, sideline prominent SACP leaders and to build cooperation with other moderate political forces and parties.

In the first instance, and among other things, some SACP leaders were replaced as provincial premiers and from other key positions. This leg of the strategy might even have been a contributing factor in the suspension of Mr Zuma as deputy president in June 2005.

In the second instance he embarked on behind-the-scenes discussions with people like Dr Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi, then leader of the Inkatha Freedom Party, about cooperation in consolidating the political middle ground.

The Mbeki project started coming to an end at the ANC’s Polokwane Conference in December 2007 when Mbeki, with strong support from the ANC’s trade union alliance partners (COSATU and the SACP in particular) was replaced by Zuma as ANC president. In September of 2008 Mbeki vacated the office of president of the country.

Structural changes in the community

While the SACP was strengthening its hold on the ANC-led alliance/coalition government, structural changes within the broader community under the pressure of ideological battles and changing socio-economic circumstances were picking up momentum.

A diversification of interests was taking place within the South African body politic, causing implementation paralysis in government that announced one policy and programme after another, but unable to forcibly implement them as competing interests in its midst were battling it out for enforcing their own spin on it.

This diversification is driven by factors like ever-increasing urbanisation, the expanding middle class and the wealthy among the black majority. At the same time the memory of the freedom struggle is fading among the growing youth ‘bulge’ in the overall population.

In the process some of its formations, like the Youth League, became paralysed and its key coalition partner, the labour federation COSATU, started to break up.

To what extent this process is driven by structural changes taking place in the broader community is illustrated by an assessment by Leonard Gentle in an article on the website Groundup that “COSATU has changed in composition from a largely blue-collar working class formation in the 1980s and 1990s to the largely public sector, white collar federation it is today.”

Expanding the civil service, at all levels of government, and indirectly through state enterprises, Government has become the biggest employer in the country by a long shot.

It has, to its credit, taken those employees into the cadres of the expanding black middle class. At the same time its socio-economic policies and its implementation do not live up to the needs and service delivery expectations of the growing middle class.

At ground level

To what extent these shifting sands are also at work at ground level is illustrated by the fact that at least one million black voters supported the Democratic Alliance in the 2014 election. On the other side of the political spectrum more than a million votes went to the EFF.

That the ANC is aware of this threat to its traditional power base is illustrated by the fact that party heavyweights like Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, Sports and Recreation Minister Fikile Mbalula and Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba were dispatched to the University of Fort Hare to campaign on behalf of the ANC-aligned SA Student Congress (Sasco) for the Student Representative Council (SRC).

Despite this, Sasco could only muster 37% of the vote and the DA Students Organisation (Daso) won with a straight majority, pulling in 52.5% of the votes. The Daso also controls the SRC of the Nelson Mandela Bay Metropolitan University, while the EFF took control of the SRC of the Vaal University of Technology.

Losing the election at Fort Hare, which started out just short of a century ago as the South African Native College, is telling and has great symbolic value.

It is steeped in the history of not only the liberation struggle, but also the decolonising of Africa. The late Reverend Allan Hendrickse, leader of the Labour Party, told me when I was working on his biography in the early 1980s, how he had been politically awakened at Fort Hare as a student during the 1940s. Not only did he and ANC stalwart Robert Sobukwe forge a lifelong friendship; among his fellow students were Robert Mugabe, Buthelezi and others who would later serve in governments in Malawi, Lesotho and Kenya as well as well-known political figures like Sir Seretse Khama and Dennis Brutus.

To this list, going back in the history of the university, the names of Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela, Govan Mbeki, Z.K. Matthews from South Africa and Yusuf Lule of Uganda can be added as alumni.

New coalition dispensation

The chances of a new more formal coalition government, as opposed to the ‘alliance’ version since 1994, and as is to be expected under South Africa’s proportional representative dispensation in terms of its constitution, are improving all the time.

Veteran journalist and political commentator Allister Sparks is correct in his assessment in an article in Business Day last week that what has been happening around the leadership election campaign of the DA considerably improved the chances for a new phase of coalition government in South Africa.

The next important development will come during the countrywide municipal elections of next year. Remember that it was via a coalition that the DA first gained control in Cape Town. It is a process that might just repeat itself in a number of metropolitan municipalities next year.

If that happens it could be a game changer in the run-up to the next round of national and provincial elections, scheduled for 2019.

The greatest risk, however, is how the SACP, one of the oldest Communist parties in the world but who has never fought an election in South Africa under its own banner, and steeped in Stalinist tradition, will react as it sees its grip on power slipping away. We have already seen the weakening of a number of the constitution’s Chapter 9 institutions. Expect the battle on that front to intensify in the immediate future.

In the early 1990s then President FW de Klerk told us in the National Party caucus that our choice was to try and fight an inevitable revolutionary onslaught or manage it by embarking on a road of negotiations and reform. His leadership took us on the latter road.

It was a similar choice that Mbeki attempted during the first decade of this century. By kicking him out, the ANC has squandered its opportunity to manage inevitable change that now looks likely to overrun them.

by Piet Coetzer

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