Political Watch

South Africa’s next transition in overdrive?


There are still some serious speed bumps ahead, but indications are that a next transition of South Africa to a modern, post-apartheid and post-liberation struggle democracy, has gone in overdrive.

With the election of deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa as its leader, the African National Congress government seems to have, reached its FW de Klerk-moment which took the National Party (NP) government to the release of Nelson Mandela and the unbanning of the ANC and other organisations.

In fact, the process playing itself out in and around the ANC at present after just more than two decades in power, shares much similarity with the one that played itself out during the last approximately two decades of NP rule.

The details differ, and similar events happen at different stages in the process, but the process itself remains basically the same. We believe that many commentators, and reporters, get so exited and absorbed in the moment of individual events that recognition of the process gets lost.

Like Ramaphosa, FW de Klerk became leader of his party while his predecessor remained the head of government, be it for different reasons, with then president PW Botha having suffered a stroke early in 1989. That effectively led to ‘two centres’ of power in the NP. This situation often led to tensions in the caucus of the NP and even to public clashes.

Both were broadly speaking on the same reformist hymn sheet but De Klerk in a much more progressive mould. As then member of the caucus I was present when, for instance, De Klerk at an informal occasion told a group of us that membership of the NP should have been opened to people of colour and Indian decent much earlier.

At the same time, Botha in public scolded then leader of the Coloured Labour Party, rev. Allan Hendriks for staging a public protest on a then still racially segregated beach. Practical policy matters like the timing of the general election in late 1989, and De Klerk meeting with other heads of state, led to serious tensions and Botha eventually resigned a bitter man.

The two ‘centres of power’ in the NP only lasted about seven months. At present the subject of much speculation in South Africa is if the Ramaphosa/Zuma relationship can survive another 14 to 16 months.  

At this stage it is still unclear if President Zuma will resign or be ‘recalled’ as head of government, but despite some ‘PR-speak,’ there are increasing signs of divergent views on key practical matters of governance between him and his successor, as happened during the De Klerk/Botha era.

One example is the Zuma view that the judicial commission of inquiry into state capture should have a wider brief than just those stipulated by the Public Protector in her report on state capture, while Ramaphosa went on record in public, stating it should not be broadened.

Ramaphosa also regularly sends out signals that things have changed in the ANC under his leadership – often with thinly veiled swipes at Zuma, like that in future ANC events will start on time.


Like the ANC at present, the NP in its reformist transition went through a period of deep ideological divisions that lasted more than a decade over the need, pace, and direction of reform. It first peaked in the early 1970s, around the time that my own career as political journalist started.

In the early 1970s radically racist right-wingers under the leadership of former cabinet minister, Dr Albert Hertzog, broke away from the NP to establish the Herstigte (Reformed) National Party (HNP). While political reform continued tentatively (especially under economic pressures) under John Vorster as NP leader and head of government, a good chunk of the right wing remained in the NP.

They, over time, centred around Dr Andries Treurnicht. When Botha in the late 1970’s started repealing some cornerstone apartheid laws, tensions in the party skyrocketed and radical groups like the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) -  Afrikaner Resistance Movement – became active outside formal party-political structures.

In 1982 Treurnicht and his supporters staged a walkout from the NP caucus and established the Conservative Party (CP), which was considerably more successful than the HNP under the parliamentary geographical constituency system at the time, but could never come close to taking over the government.

However, calculations I made as an NP functionary at the time, showed that under a proportional system, as we presently have, they would have won 18 seats in parliament – very similar to the position of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) in the present parliament.

And, the AWBs and the likes of that time have today been replaced by radical organisations like Black First Land First (BLF).

Again, the details differ, but in the process which is presently playing itself out in the ANC, and judged against history, the ANC has had its HNP moment in the form of the EFF. However, the broad and deep divisions have remained in the party.

Ramaphosa’s challenge

While Ramaphosa’s election as leader of the ANC is by many commentators punted and interpreted as a De Klerk-like moment for the ANC, there are crucial details that might spoil the party – at least for now.

Ramaphosa does not have the ‘luxury” that De Klerk had, of his predecessor having rid the party of the radical element inside the party and getting the inevitable split behind it.

There are indeed ample signs that Ramaphosa is set on renewing (reforming) the ANC, and is putting processes in place, like this week’s moves by law enforcement agencies on perpetrators of state capture and corruption. And there are ample signs that he is working on plans to revive the economy and heal state-owned enterprises.

However, unlike the case with the NP under De Klerk, Ramaphosa and the reformists that he leads, have their opposing faction deployed throughout state structures.

While De Klerk could concentrate on the political sphere and had three years to prepare and build up to the consolidation of his public support for the reform process with a referendum in 1992, Ramaphosa faces much tougher challenges from a much weaker position. At the same time, he is confronted with often unrealistic expectations.

There are indeed many indications that one could expect the transition to a new, positive phase in South Africa’s political, social, and economic construct to pick up substantial momentum under Ramaphosa’s leadership.

However, if it took De Klerk three years to get to the final stage of the transition that he led, from a more solid platform, it would be unrealistic to expect Ramaphosa to generate miracles overnight while, instead of a more abstract referendum, he will face a real election in just about half the time that De Klerk and his NP leadership had.

Some of the details along this road to the future, better South Africa will indeed be unsettling speed bumps, which should not be just shrugged off. H, it should always be judged with a keen eye on, and in the context of the broader process of socio-political and economic change – which is always a complicated affair.

by Piet Coetzer

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