The year 2020 will go down in history as the year the African National Congress (ANC) died. It is astounding to appreciate how far the ANC has fallen. How did this happen? How did the ANC go from overseeing one of the most exciting emerging market economies two decades ago to presiding over nothing more than yet another third-world failure of wasted potential?

The catalyst of this national tragedy was the ANC’s Polokwane conference in 2007. Weakened by ideological opponents who were willing to exploit failures and deny successes, Thabo Mbeki was brought down by factional actors within the ANC who had spent 15 years in the wilderness. The aggressive left wing of the Tripartite Alliance, the communist engine of the struggle, was sidelined by the ruthless political leadership of Nelson Mandela when he announced to the world in 1992 that the ANC would not govern as a communist, socialist party.

While Mandela is admired for his willingness to reach out to former foes, his political abilities are often overlooked. It might even be seen as scandalous to a world that had come to see him as the epitome of reconciliation to acknowledge that Mandela was a shrewd and often merciless political operator. Yet it diminishes our historical understanding and appreciation of a complex man when we ignore his ability to play politics – and win.

The banished leftist factions of the ANC never forgave Mandela for “selling out” to the capitalists and, throughout the Mbeki years, with Trevor Manuel implementing policy so prudent and cautious that he’d likely today be considered a right-wing ideologue, they bided their time in the hope of regaining the power they once had over ANC policymaking. But they were not wholly idle. Two political attacks on the ANC that would come to define the 2000s did not originate from the opposition – the murmurs of jobless economic growth and crippling failures of service delivery to the poor began among those Mandela had banished in 1992.

Fundamentally unjustified

Hindsight shows how fundamentally unjustified these political attacks were. In 1994, just under five million black South Africans were employed. In 2009, after the so-called years of jobless growth, the number had more than doubled to over 10 million. Between 1996 and 2009, the number of formal dwellings in South Africa increased by more than 4 million, from just under 6 million to over 10 million. Over the same period, the number of informal dwellings increased by only 400 000. For every shack built in the first decade and a half of ANC governance, ten formal houses were constructed. Access to water and electricity saw similar improvements over this period.

But in Polokwane in 2007, the banished left wing of the ANC fought back, seeing in former Deputy President Jacob Zuma a populist with no fundamental ideological conviction but the political talent and the personal motivation to defeat Thabo Mbeki, the co-architect of the ANC’s centrist, or even centre-right economic and fiscal policies. In Zuma, the leftists found a candidate with the appeal and political instincts to counter the aloof, cerebral Mbeki. In the leftists gearing up to regain their position in charge of the ANC’s policymaking, Zuma found a ready faction to carry him to victory.

Then came the global financial crisis, and with their newly regained powers over the fiscus, the reinstated left wing of the Tripartite Alliance – personified perhaps by Pravin Gordhan, until recently a card-carrying communist – opened the taps of spending. The budget surplus secured by the Mbeki-Manuel economic policies that had made the roll-out of broad social welfare support possible was eradicated on the strength of an ideological conviction that state expenditure must be central to economic policy.

Global consensus

Cushioned by the global consensus on increased spending to inject money into economic systems, the ramping-up of spending raised few eyebrows. But where much of the rest of the world responded to the panicked crisis and post-crisis splurge with unpopular but pragmatic spending cuts in the form of austerity, the ANC government of Zuma and Gordhan never took serious steps to rein in spending.

While it would be disingenuous to blame increased government spending alone for the tepid decade that followed the dual shocks of Polokwane and the global financial crisis, it is possible to trace the drastic deterioration of South Africa’s economic position to the policy gear-change the ANC made at the end of the 2000s.

The ANC entered the 2000s in the ascendant, set to achieve a remarkable 70% victory at the ballot box in 2004, and presiding over an economy gaining steam on the back of prudent policy and favourable global commodity conditions, yet it left the decade sowing the seeds of failure. The ruthless power play of Mandela and Mbeki to drag the ANC to the pragmatic centre ground had been reversed.

The proof is in the famine.

The last ten years have seen rising unemployment, the South African economy once again falling out of step with the global economy in terms of GDP performance, and increased social upheavals manifesting in a 440% increase in violent protests. In 2010, South Africa had a ranking of 35 on the ease-of-doing-business index, falling to 84 in 2019. Add to this list of woes the eye-wateringly expensive collapse of Eskom and other state-owned enterprises (SOEs), and the increasing strain on social welfare, and these symptoms add up to a government in terminal decline.

That these symptoms of government failure should have presented together following the ANC change of course from 2007 onwards should surprise no-one.

Trends were clear for all to see

For years, the trends were clear for all to see. In a country increasingly urban, the ANC has become a mostly rural party. In a country where the numbers of graduates have steadily been rising, the ANC has relied on votes from those with only a basic education. In a country whose population has grown younger, the ANC has continued depending on older voters. These could be considered the mega-trends of South African politics – and the ANC has been on the wrong side of all three for nearly two decades.

Then came Covid-19. Economist Russell Lamberti shrewdly identified the pandemic and its socio-economic fallout as a trend accelerator.

With the Mbeki successes now firmly in the past, more history than current affairs, the ANC is a pitiable thing to behold. While it has been responsible for immense failure and consequent suffering and hardship, there is something pathetic about the dying ANC of Cyril Ramaphosa. When a cabinet minister took the time to write on government stationery the circumstances under which South Africans might buy crop-bottoms and cooked chicken, the game was up. Don’t get me wrong, the end game will last a while, the dying beast still has a few kicks in it – but history will record crop-bottoms and the regulation of underwear purchases as the moment the ANC succumbed to the irreversible fate of being a parody of socialist overreach and cronyism.

The extinction of the ANC, the apex predator of South African politics, will reverberate with shock throughout the country. A thought experiment, borrowing from the experience of the Yellowstone National Park, might offer some intriguing clues as to what South African democracy as an ecosystem could look like in the future.

Apex predator

Between the 1870s and the 1920s, wolf packs, once abundant in Yellowstone, had been hunted to extinction. As early as the 1930s, biologists began expressing concern over the fate of the park as the elk population exploded, to the detriment of the reserve’s botanical resources. After all, when an apex predator is removed, its prey thrives. What will be the consequences of the death of the ANC on the South African democratic ecosystem?

It is perhaps telling that the seemingly inevitable decline of Yellowstone was halted and ultimately reversed by the reintroduction of wolves. So, where should South Africans look for the political wolves that could restore a dying, inefficient, unbalanced political ecosystem to health?

Will Herman Mashaba’s ActionSA be able to harness the hopes and frustrations of a country naturally inclined to a form of conservatism? Will John Steenhuisen be able to make, and win for the liberal cause, the argument that liberty or its absence lies at the heart of our country’s fall or rise?

Legend has it that, shortly after leaving office, Margaret Thatcher was asked what the title of her prime ministerial autobiography would be. ‘Undefeated!’ came the vigorous reply. It’s a pity that Thatcher ultimately opted for the more mundane titles of ‘The Path to Power’ and ‘The Downing Street Years’, when ‘Undefeated’ would have packed a poetic, historical punch. Thatcher, after all, was undefeated at the ballot box. The people never rejected her. Having led her country from the doldrums of division and despair, having carried her party to three consecutive electoral victories, it was her own party, not the people, who toppled her.

Thabo Mbeki has, sadly, never published an autobiography. However, were the former president to write such a work, he could perhaps dust off Thatcher’s rejected title. Having led his country into an era of something of an economic golden age, an era of 5% annual GDP growth, and having led his party to its greatest electoral victory, one now unlikely ever to be equaled, Thabo Mbeki, once a political predator in his own formidable right, was toppled by his own party.

Like the Iron Lady, in the contest for the support of the electorate, Mbeki is to this day undefeated. I can’t help but wonder about Mbeki –  made to leave before he considered his time to be up, banished more than a decade ago from a South African democratic ecosystem that has since deteriorated into what could well be terminal decline – and whether there might still be some fight left in an old wolf.

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Hermann Pretorius
Hermann studied law and opera before entering politics and think tankery – an obvious career path. In furtherance of the logicality of his career trajectory, he worked for the election campaign of a liberal, formerly growing opposition party in 2019. In an attempt to deal with his PTSD from this latter experience, he took up a position as an analyst at the IRR, where he is currently the IRR’s Deputy Head of Policy Research. A Protestant, landless, Anglophilic, Afrikaans classical liberal still awaiting his letter of acceptance to the Patriarchy™, Hermann tries to make the best of, you know, things.


  1. The Mbeki family are famous for their brainpower amd like so many thus gifted he fell in love with theories, of which Marxism is the most attractive to the young. Only experience can remove the gloss on the Marxist idea. and young Tabo no doubt observed the socialist dream in action in Russia and in the behaviours of his compatriots in the Communism Party, and compared what he saw with the rapid turnaround of the Thatcher years in Britain. Bring him back. Steenhuysen doesn’t stand a chance.

  2. How much would you attribute South Africa’s economic success in the 2000s to the commodity bull run?

    Looking at the GDP per Capita measured in PPP (economic activity per person with the effect of currency undervaluation removed), we can see a dramatic increase from 1998 to 2008. The prices of South Africa major exports, for example, Coal, Iron Ore, Gold and Platinum all increased dramatically in that period.

    Examining the GDP per Capita (PPP) numbers for the period 2010 to 2019 GDP we can see that it peaked in 2014 just slightly higher than in 2009 and from 2015 to 2019 this value had decreased markedly.

    Unfortunately the real problems started in the second half of 2019 with the country tipping into recession even when looking at the numbers for GDP that are not adjusted for population growth. The long, strict lock-down in 2020 is only going to exacerbate the situation.

    It would seem that South Africa is desperately in need of another commodity bull run.

  3. I agree about the clever economic team of Mbeki and Manuel. They were good at what they did. However, I have two issues with the Mbeki praise singers.

    His foreign policy, especially as regards the conduct of neighboring dictators, led to the deterioration of a productive and relatively wealthy trading partner into an economic and political basket case right next door.
    Besides that, his callous and cynical AIDS policies led to what I can only describe as genocide by omission. I will never forgive him for that.

    IMHO, the ANC, as it is romantically envisaged, ceased to exist in the early 2000s. By denying our neighbors in Zimbabwe the right to free and fair elections, the ANC defecated and urinated on its own highfalutin’ ideals. When it failed to address corruption, dishonesty and outright theft, even in the Mandela era, it reneged on its promises of clean governance. When it repudiated the findings of the TRC, which castigated it for its own human rights abuses, it made nonsense of its saintly claims of “transparency”. ANC officials habitually flout the law, and have turned attempts to make them abide by it into a game of legal hide and seek. It died long ago. The electorate just can’t bring itself to dispose of the corpse.

  4. Brilliant article, thank you. Deeply concerning is with the overdue death of the ANC, who will be able to recover SA to a semblance of its better years.

  5. Great article, Hermann – certainly leaves plenty for the voters to thikn about in anticipation of the forthcoming local elections – if the ANC don’t stymie them. As best I can recall Trevor Manuel had the benefit of being mentored by one of South Africa’s better finance ministers, the late Derek Keys?!

    • yeah Rob… The trick will be in the elections. The ANC’s has a large power base in women – 64% I have read, who are the recipients of child grants. That it may promote more children with a questionable future, is a point for another debate; meanwhile any opposition party that fails to address this with a food proposal of sorts will not make headway.
      Self-preservation is the strongest instinct for any animal, lest we forget. Food is the “starter pack” in this concept and is what any opposition strategy must embrace.

  6. “A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover they can vote themselves largess from the public treasury.

    From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising them the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship.

    The average age of the world’s greatest civilizations has been 200 years. These nations have progressed through this sequence:

    From bondage to spiritual faith;
    from spiritual faith to great courage;
    from courage to liberty;
    from liberty to abundance;
    from abundance to selfishness;
    from selfishness to apathy;
    from apathy to dependence;
    from dependency back again into bondage.”
    Strange to think that through democracy this is the road we are travelling. As John Adams put it:”Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other”

  7. …Any Constitutional Democracy founded on liberal socio-economic principles of jobless growth and seduces compliance of the motive forces thereto through religious dogma as the RDP/NDP of the soul…is doomed to slide on the precipice of a kleptocracy and land on its laurels as a failed State of a kakistocracy…Covid-19 has therefore made township economies of scale and land redistribution the new socio-economic norm in a nascent body politic.

  8. I never once came across the word ‘corruption’ in this piece. Did I overlook it?

    Oh, and HIV? I’m certain I missed that.

    People who vote socialism are either profoundly ignorant or just plain power-hungry evil.

  9. I have to take issue with your praise singing of Mbeki.

    Cadre Deployent began on his watch.
    Load shedding began when he was in power.
    State Owned Enterprises were already starting to make huge losses during his Presidency.
    He suspended Vusi Pikoli for refusing to drop charges against Jackie Selebi.

    Zuma built an edifice of corruption, but Mbeki laid its foundations.

    • And don’t forget Mbeki’s speech about “two countries – a poor black on and a rich white one”. It wiped out any gains the country had achieved within minutes.

    • Many more disastrous current foundations were laid on his disinterested watch – I would lay the death of the so-called ‘rainbow nation’ firmly at Mbeki’s feet as well. The foundations of a new racism and division of the concept of a single nation come from his era if not from him directly. “I am an African” says it all.

  10. I do not think the article is a true reflection of the facts.. Corruption was a factor from the very begining of ANC rule. By bypassing parliament and taking instructions from the ANC exec committee, a body not accountable to the electorate, the ANC could only offer poor governance.. The cadre’s did not disappoint and graft followed. The big payouts started during Mbecki time and were tacitly approved of, as he tried to build an instant black middle class.. Accountability was openly flouted and self enrichment accelerated under Zuma. ANC rule is comprised and our country can only turn its fortunes around under a new honest party. Until then, we all face a bleak future.

    • Can you please give us the name of such an “honest new party” that will bring about this miraculous turnaround to good governance, sensible policies, economic growth, law and order and a peaceful, prosperous society? Oh, and it must be able to get the general electorate to vote it into power.

  11. I seriously doubt that Mandela ever had serious notions of compromise. I am convinced that Mandela was just another communist, like the rest of the ANC, and only paid lip service to civilised institutions like liberal democracy or constitutional republics out of pragmatism.

    • he was the greatest con artist the world has ever seen – manged to bluff the entire non-communist world while surreptitiously and painstakingly laying the foundations for the continuance of communism. A brilliant application of the con artist’s talent – but so tragically to the country’s detriment

  12. Very well written piece, but there is one question: “Do a significant portion of the SA voters have access to info like this to base there next vote on?”

    • No, never had , never will. The opposition parties , civic and other groups completely miss the narrative ownership boat. the ANC own the narrative, and have done so since they took ownership of the 1976 Soweto uprising opportunity as theirs, unchallenged. As long as they can tell the masses that anyone else will return Apartheid, that anyone else will take their grants, and that anyone else will bring back white rule, THEY WIN.

      It has been their base strategy alongside an outcomes based education system of which the outcome is aimed at enslavement to their narrative, unquestioning, and with the added inability to exercise any critical thinking as it is not taught or tolerated. Critical thinking and challenging their authority has been “necklaced”

  13. An orchestral piece of writing ! But a few instruments were out of tune… e.g., Patel just endorsed a list compiled by manufacturers themselves and the closing string section for Mbeki is in the totally wrong key.
    There is still no sign of a leader with compassion AND political clought !!

  14. Well written! However I agree, Thabo messed up with the HIV story, the world not only us, lost faith….and the foundation was set for full scale corruption under the Zumba rule.
    It’s time the ANC fall on their own sword, but voters need to think with their heDs this time and not be bribed by soup and t shirt hand outs on the day…..

  15. Brilliant article! I wonder how many ANC members are aware of how well Mbeki ran the country? Excluding his HIV views) It’s a pity that we cannot take the dying dog to the vet and euthanize it – to save the country.

  16. The quotes, comments and actions of Mandela were, with the help of mainstream media, lies whilst playing the part of icon and, at the same time, deploying racial agendas for the decades to come. What we are experiencing now was planned by him, Ramaphosa and many other Marxist comrades. Unity and equality was a farce. The ANC black power clenched fist symbols were shown wherever he went.
    The economic figures may have, at times, shown some positive movement over the last 27 years but at the cost of high debt accumulation and increased looting from the IMF, WB loans.
    Then came the financial colonialist China which has no conscience about destroying the environment and cleaning the assets of African countries. It was the nail in the coffin. China now basically controls the ANC it alliances and the country. It’s Chinese police stations and military bases in South Africa are already an indication of that. Getting them out now will take removing this nasty Marxist, Maoist Communist regime and its allies.
    The road ahead will need a complete facelift if South Africa is to improve in any way.

    • Clearing “the road ahead” would also entail a disentangling the various strands of Marxism (from 1960s Moscow style to 2020 Beijing and “woke” styles), plus a few home-grown feudal Shaka-Zulu elements. Quite a tall order, I fear.


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