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.
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.
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.
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.