After 25 years in power, and the costs of its flawed policy mounting, the African National Congress (ANC) is unmistakably at the centre of South Africa’s crisis.

Out of the blue yesterday, almost unaccountably, I remembered writing about a woman in a red T-shirt I spotted at the tail end of a protest march by public service unions in Cape Town 15 years ago.

She – or, rather, what she was wearing, what was emblazoned on her shirt – struck me at the time as a meaningful contradiction which even in those not unhopeful days of 2004 was bound to have consequences, not just for her but for everybody.

The recollection was not entirely unaccountable, for it was triggered by reading my colleague Sara Gon’s piece on this site, Ramaphosa’s Unreason, in which – describing South Africa’s unprecedented pessimism – she writes: ‘Even watching apartheid peak and then slowly die, we never saw this level of pessimism – the death of apartheid was inevitable. We didn’t know when it would end, but there was no doubting that the end would come.’

The same, she goes on to suggest, is not true of our present circumstances when, with 57% of the voting electorate behind it, there is no certainty that the follies of the African National Congress (ANC) are nearing an end.

What is certain, and what most people know, is that as long as the folly continues, the costs to the country will only mount.

Gon is absolutely right in identifying a key turning point; the 2009 disbandment of the Scorpions.

When I thought of that woman in the red T-shirt – and we get to her later – I remembered that while, even in 2004, 10 years of ANC rule had produced contradictions which were tellingly corrosive, they were more often than not recklessly overlooked.

The first protesting public servant I spoke to back then was a man named Noel Truter.

Noel Truter, I wrote, makes for an unlikely protester, though he is dressed for the part, peak cap keeping the sun off his face, and crimson T-shirt declaring unimpeachable workerist sensibilities … ‘10 years of struggle for the true emancipation of the working class’. 

But it turns out he’s something of a veteran. ‘Ja, I’m no stranger to this kind of thing,’ he says sardonically, swivelling to take in the fast-swelling crowd at the lower end of Keizersgracht [in Cape Town’s District Six, a common starting point for protest marches headed for nearby Parliament]. It’s a vivid mosaic of shifting colours, the reds and yellows and lurid greens of the brand new T-shirts setting off the punchy slogans on posters, which most people are clutching self-consciously still, some to their chests, the demonstrative part of the action still being in the offing. There’s an air almost of jollity, as if they are all going off on a weekend camp in the next half hour. But the slogans belie the comradely ease. There is no doubt about the frustration and disillusionment and perhaps even anger among these public servants. Noel Truter turns back to me. ‘We’ve come a long way,’ he says. On the contrary, the message from the posters is that we haven’t come very far at all. People are saying it’s still ‘a luta continua’, the struggle continues, that the government has changed but ‘the exploitation’ hasn’t.  But Truter is thinking of something else. He’s come a long way and, by association – and he’s right in a telling fashion – the country has, too. Truter is a cop, and has been for just about a lifetime. He’s the provincial chairperson of the South African Police Union, and he’s a captain in the dog unit. ‘I’ve got 30 years’ service, so, ja, I’m no stranger to protests,’ he grins. As a ‘youngster’ in the 1980s, he and his dog ‘fought the unions’. Now he’s with them. His sense of responsibility remains acute: there is no question that essential services personnel such as policeman can strike or protest during working hours or in uniform, ‘but we’ve called on members on rest days or on vacation to join us’. Something has to be done, he says, to make the government see sense. ‘You can understand if there’s no money, but if you look at the kind of things they are spending money on, it just doesn’t make sense.’

I lost touch with Truter once the march surged down Darling Street, though I thought of him later when I caught sight of a police union poster which declared bluntly: ‘We are dying for a living.’

An altogether more palpable sense of disillusionment was evident in the tone and sentiment of an Elsies River teacher, who wouldn’t give me her name but professed to having been a Struggle veteran, a detainee once for eight days in 1986, the holder of a BEd degree, and a ‘seriously gatvol educator’ in 2004.

‘I was in the struggle then, and I’m still in the struggle now. They promised us a better deal in 1996, in 1999, in 2000. Still nothing. We’re still waiting. They appoint task teams … but they give us peanuts. My take-home pay is R2 500, and, in the poor community where I teach, I’ve got to spend my own money on things for my classroom, for my kids.’ She sighs heavily. ‘We struggled to get a democratic government, and look what they are doing to us.’ 

There was, I wrote, ‘a distinctly anachronistic feel to the day’, struggle slogans such as ‘Tell no lies, claim no easy victories’ seeming ‘out of place’.

At their destination, the public servants were met and briefly addressed by Cameron Dugmore, then Western Cape MEC for education and the stand-in for Public Services Minister Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi.

His short speech, delivered from a flatbed truck to an audience of ‘comrades’ who were ‘neither wholly hostile nor altogether believing’ was, I estimated, the briefest address this Struggle stalwart had ever made, which he concluded by saying, simply, ‘Thank you.’

This was, I said, a moment of ‘awkwardness … common to much about South Africa in 2004, the lingering nostalgia for the Struggle, the banal and sometimes contradictory ordinariness of democracy, the bewilderment of working people who expected, and expect, better things’.

The essential question was: ‘You wonder how far public servants will go to get a better deal for themselves?’

 My report concluded: ‘And then I spot the woman in the red T-shirt. The march is over, the straggling mass is making its way back to Keizersgracht. There’s hardly a need now for police escorts, so placid is the stream of home-going people. The woman in the red T-shirt would not have stood out had it not been for the four-syllable proposition printed across her back: ‘Vote ANC’.

What is, perhaps, encouraging all these years later is that that contradiction – the idea that you could take part in a protest march against a government that was undermining your interests, and do so wearing a T-shirt that asserted the opposite – has become untenable, and it is common knowledge (we all know it) that it is untenable.

Publicly? Not yet, perhaps. Not on the scale needed to make a difference. We haven’t turned the corner yet – the sense of an ending is still too vague to perceive other than in speculative terms. But, after 25 years in power, and the costs of its flawed policy mounting, the ANC is unmistakably at the centre of South Africa’s crisis. 

The tragedy is that, as in the 1980s, the country can only hang on and wait.

Morris is head of media at the Institute of Race Relations.

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