Political Watch

How long can ANC alliance survive, and at what cost?

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Unity in the ANC’s governing alliance is increasingly precarious, posing serious threats to the party and to the stability in the country.

The latest signs that unity in the alliance is under threat, last week included:

  • SA Communist Party (SACP) and alliance partner’s general secretary, Blade Nzimande, casting doubt on his party's working relationship with the ANC in their KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) alliance; and
  • Congress of SA Trade Unions (Cosatu) and third alliance partner’s president, Sdumo Dlamini, saying it will be difficult to campaign for the ANC in the upcoming local government elections while the recently promulgated new tax laws are still in place.

These two examples illustrate two of the fundamental problems with the alliance construct, as opposed to a coalition arrangement, for the sake of capturing government.

In the first instance it creates the situation that the leaders of independent parties compete for dominance within the same structure, divorced from what their voter support might be. This leads to the situation last week in KZN when Mr Nzimande had to rush to the province after two people were killed in an apparent dispute over the nomination process of candidates for the upcoming municipal elections.

In the second instance it highlights the conflict of interest inherent in the alliance construct, with Cosatu being at the same time part of government and representative of special or particular interests. In a democracy the core function of government is to bridge the gap between competing interests in society on a neutral basis.

Both these problems have been around ever since the first democratic elections in 1994, but have been building up to critical levels in recent years. The split in the alliance actually started as far back as 1996 when the ANC expelled Bantu Holomisa, who formed the United Democratic Movement (UDM).

As far back as August 2013, at the time of an alliance summit, The Intelligence Bulletin reported that “calls for unity from among its ranks failed to hide gaping divisions. The dominance of the alliance over the country’s political scene is under serious threat”.

Two years later, in July 2015, it was reported that “the governing alliance, led by the ANC, which has played a crucial role in South Africa’s peaceful transition to democracy, is broken and the realignment of the political scene has started in earnest”.

And the report stated: “The sociopolitical landscape of the country is undergoing fundamental changes. How constituent parts of the alliance and other political actors manage to adapt to the new environment will determine if and how they will survive.

“At the end of their recent congress not even the SACP, who boasted that it is “the most stable and ideologically coherent formation within the Alliance”, looked as solid as it would have liked outsiders to believe. For one, there are divisions around the question of whether it is in the party’s best interest to continue to contest elections under the banner of the ANC.” 

Historical context

To understand what is happening with the alliance, it is important to understand the historical circumstances under which it came into being and the role it played during the country’s transition to democracy during the 1990s.

The raison d’être for its coming into existence, is probably best summarised by an article, dating from the early 1990s, on the website of the Nelson Mandela Foundation,

Quoted extensively in a previous article, it spells out that the alliance came into being because the parties at the time needed one another for the sake of mutual interest and because they offered one another complementing strengths and capacities for the democratic processes involved in the transition.

Twenty years down the line circumstances have changed dramatically and interests have in some instances, especially on the economic and the labour fronts, evolved into competing mode. Ideological divides have in some instances also become too deep to be bridged by mere strategic conveniences.

It is, however, also important to understand and acknowledge that the alliance played a crucially important role in making a peaceful transition from the apartheid construct to an inclusive full democracy. And it still did not happen without some dangerous hitches, as the political violence in particularly KwaZulu-Natal during the early 1990s testifies, and they seem poised to make a return.

A next transition

All the signs are there that a next transition in South Africa’s political development is in full swing – a changed political construct in which the Constitution will play an important role with its provision for a proportional voting system that worldwide facilitates coalition governments.

How the alliance and its members, as the present holders of power, adapt to and manage the inevitable change is going to be crucially important, not only for their own survival, but for the country as an orderly democracy and thriving economy.

However, instead of adapting to the new circumstance and developing new reality – for instance for the SACP to fight elections on its own ticket to be in a position to seek coalitions in government – the alliance seems to be opting for a strategy to seek new ‘enemies’ to unite against.

It does not seem as if the ANC and the alliance have made their peace with the inevitability of the process of political realignment as South Africa has developed to a new post-liberation reality of competing interests in a very diverse society.

In the process they increasingly play the race card whenever they can – a tactic that could tip South Africa into a dangerous racial conflict.

On the economic front the country is paying a terrible price of uncertainty of actual policy directions as alliance rhetoric plays at being everything to everybody.

As we warned in July last year, and this is especially relevant under the present dire economic circumstances: “The big danger is that while the ANC and its alliance keep trying to preserve a phantom organisation united around the phantom revolution it has been peddling for more than a decade, a real revolution might be brewing as more and more people realise you cannot eat ideology and its rhetorical sauce.”

by Piet Coetzer

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