Animal behaviour is a fascinating field of study in its own right as well as for what it can teach us about our own propensities.

When confronted with a danger, many animals will choose to evade, unless they feel that they need to protect something of value. Some will sense when they are being bested and submit through gestures to the antagonist. For those that have taken a serious injury, and are in pain, there is the likelihood of heightened aggression as a sort of desperate last-ditch stand by a creature that is acutely aware that it is in mounting danger.

Humans may have developed more complex mental systems, but the set of responses under pressure can be very much the same: evasion, submission or resistance, the latter being heightened in intensity where there is a sense of imminent doom.

This applies not only to individuals but the interest groups in which they find themselves. It’s found its way into our metaphorical lexicon, where it is viscerally evocative. I remember the line from Roger Lucey’s 1980s protest song: ‘But the mad dog ideology, backs against the walls, and the fight till the last uniformed soldier falls…’

This animal kingdom has provided my colleagues with a useful metaphor for understanding what has happened in the election, and the future that current trends point to. An old buffalo and its calf (the ANC and EFF) dominate the savannah. Hopes have always been for a mighty lion to bring them down. Rumours of this abound, but it never materialises. But one day a pack of wild dogs arrives. Think of this as the combined opposition, the DA, ACDP, ActionSA, IFP, FF+ and so on.

They have a bad reputation – often ugly, ill-disciplined, prone to fighting among themselves. Yet after tracking the lumbering buffalo, they purposefully begin to fan out. It’s a strategy ingrained in their instinct from generation upon generation of practice.

What happens next? This applies as much to the confrontation on the savannah as it does to the South Africa’s politics.

The recent local government elections have shown that the ANC’s unquestioned dominance of South Africa’s politics is rapidly running out. It failed to poll half the votes, a critical psychological blow. Even adding the support for the ideologically proximate EFF, it’s clear that the ANC’s moment is passing.

Chance at power

If the wild dogs are able to keep up pressure on the buffalo, direct their efforts at him, and cooperate sufficiently among themselves, they may well have a chance at power in the next election. Herman Mashaba’s ActionSA, while polling modestly in national terms, showed that there is an appetite for a ‘conservative’ alternative stressing economic opportunities, security and competence in government. Our polling suggests that there is a lot of appeal in such messages.

But if the prospect of a fundamental political change has been raised, the stakes will be high for the incumbents. The ANC has believed itself to be the natural and rightful ruler of South Africa. It is no mere political party, but a liberation movement. It does not represent ‘the people’ as much as embody them. That this self-conception is being challenged will be extremely painful and difficult for the ANC to accept.

Equally – perhaps more importantly – control of the state has enabled a massive patronage machine of state positions and state contracts. This it has done deliberately and often in direct contradiction to the requirements of the Constitution and the law. Commenting on the ANC’s programme of using the state to advance party interests, Hermann Giliomee, James Myburgh and Lawrence Schlemmer observed in a 2001 article (that’s around twenty years ago): ‘By the time the voters turn against the ANC, a “new class” will have been established in the upper echelons of the state, whose privilege, position and immunity from prosecution are all dependent on the ruling party remaining in power.’

The stakes are pretty much existential.

Faced with this prospect, there is ever the likelihood that a panicked ANC, sometimes supported by the EFF although sometimes undermined by it, will resist fiercely. Just like a wounded buffalo. Reform to the manner in which it operates is highly unlikely.

Noxious programme

It was a measure of just how much a part of the ANC’s outlook its pathologies have become that the President went to the Zondo Commission and displayed an uncharacteristic energy in defending the party’s noxious programme of cadre deployment. In this testimony was the clearest evidence possible, should any have been needed, that the pathologies in government will continue.

The risk is not that the next election will be manipulated – if nothing else, that would be a very hard thing to do, not least because South Africa is a generally free society, and large-scale fraud would be difficult to keep concealed. (There will, however, probably be an uptick in violence as the possible end looms, directed within the ANC as much as at opponents.) Rather, the danger lies in what the ANC might do between now and the next election.

The prime danger is that it would accelerate reckless policy choices.

South Africa’s fiscal predicament would make the extension of social grants a very difficult proposition, at least without commensurate measures to encourage growth and employment. Yet anything that would contribute to making South Africa more attractive for investment or doing business – think relaxing empowerment demands and labour legislation, or demanding competence in municipal service provision – would likely be beyond the ideological repertoire or policy imagination of the ANC.

Another area to watch is that of property rights. For years, we have been warning that this is a point on which the ANC and EFF will find common ground, and possibly a unity accord. Both have been committed to amending the Constitution and to launching a programme of Expropriation without Compensation. To the extent that differences exist, they are in emphases and messaging.

‘Certain’ land

The EFF has made it clear that its support for the ANC will be contingent on the latter’s endorsement of its position on EWC, which involves the seizure of all land into state custodianship. This position has strong support within the ANC, although it has refrained in the main from openly stating this. Yet its proposed formulation for the amendment would require the state to hold ‘certain’ land in custodianship. Exactly what this might entail has not been specified, though ‘certain’ might involve – for example – all agricultural land or all privately owned land.

The ANC, meanwhile, has reportedly indicated that it would prefer to work with the EFF than the DA – to do the latter, certain unnamed leaders in Gauteng have apparently said, would be to betray the National Democratic Revolution. The NDR is its ideological master narrative, and its sentiments demonstrate just how inflexible its thinking is.

Even if no agreement is reached between the ANC and EFF at present, their common interests are likely to be an important basis for cooperation – formal or informal – in the period ahead.

Remember that there is a window of over two years before the next election. This is a long time for mischief to happen. Ideology aside, the prospect of an imminent loss of power would make a last destructive push to grab what is available very attractive. Beware a heightened looting spree as the buffalo feels the threat closing in.

Meanwhile, the dogs converge from different directions on the buffalo, going for its legs and attempting to grab its throat. The buffalo fights back fiercely, dealing some crushing blows to the dogs – as does the calf, although he is more interested in his own survival and is torn between helping the old buffalo and recognising the opportunities that might emerge for him if the patriarch is felled.

If the wild dogs can press their attack, the buffalo will be exhausted and weakened. When the dust settles, the old buffalo is, if not dead, then severely chastened and no longer lord of the savannah.

But perhaps the question will be the state of the savannah when this is over.

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Terence Corrigan is the Project Manager at the Institute, where he specialises in work on property rights, as well as land and mining policy. A native of KwaZulu-Natal, he is a graduate of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (Pietermaritzburg). He has held various positions at the IRR, South African Institute of International Affairs, SBP (formerly the Small Business Project) and the Gauteng Legislature – as well as having taught English in Taiwan. He is a regular commentator in the South African media and his interests include African governance, land and agrarian issues, political culture and political thought, corporate governance, enterprise and business policy.