I gazed anxiously at the sky, it was not a question of IF it would start raining, but WHEN, and I had at least five minutes walk left until the big gates of the Free State University in Bloemfontein (or Mangaung). But the market stalls along the road began to line up this far in advance, and there, among the ANC T-shirts, caps, clocks with Jacob Zuma’s and Nelson Mandela’s faces, ANC mugs, mobile phone cases, grilled meat and corn – I quickly found even umbrellas. I bought the best – a big, black one with the yellow, green and black logo of the ANC.
Inside the university gates, the party's major national conference was in full swing, and thousands of delegates, journalists and vendors had gathered in the area during those days in December 2012. The conference is held every five years, and the one who is elected as party leader also becomes South Africa's president in future elections.
The rain broke loose, and I took shelter under a roof at the gates to avoid being soaked. I started talking to Bhekifa, who had also sought protection from the rain. We had a common background in radio and he came from the town in KwaZulu-Natal Province that was my next stop, so we had lots to talk about. But what was he doing here in Mangaung? Was he also here to report?
- No, I've stopped doing the radio now, he said. I have started studying instead – political science, for I intend to go into politics.
- Within the ANC, then, I suppose?
- Yes, he replied proudly. The ANC takes care of its people. Once you're inside, you have it made.
Would this come to any good, I thought. Is IT a reason to seek out a career in politics? I said nothing, but just nodded. In just ten minutes, Bhekifa had highlighted one of the main problems with the ANC. Namely, that the party does as it wants – and gets away with it.
One often reads about it in the newspapers, how the people inside constantly get away with corruption, incompetence and pure crime. If, perchance, they are sentenced in court, they ultimately somehow magically escape imprisonment or serving a symbolic year. It happened with Winnie Madikizela-Mandela in 1991 (six years in prison became a fine), Allen Boesak in 2001 (three years became one) and Tony Yengeni in 2007 (four years became four months).
The recent years' most egregious examples are Jacob Zuma's former economic adviser and bribe administrator, Schabir Shaik, and former police commissioner, Jackie Selebi (who was also the head of Interpol from 2004 to 2008). They were both sentenced to 15 years in prison for offences including corruption – and were quickly paroled on medical grounds, Shaik in 2009 after two years and four months (due to high blood pressure); Selebi in 2012, after 229 days (due to kidney problems). The condition for this type of sentence is that you should be “in the final stages of a terminal illness", but both are still alive at the time of writing. Shaik and Selebi’s pretence has become something of a sport in the media. People calling in tips about whether either of them have been sighted at the mall, golf course, beach, in the mosque, and so on.
Another who manages to evade the long arm of the law through endless legal assistance and posturing is Jacob Zuma. The corruption charge against him was closed down in 2009 – a very timely 16 days before the last election, on the grounds that there were signs that his political opponents had plotted around this time for an eventual trial.
The decision did not prove that he was innocent. On 9 May 2009, he was sworn in as the new South Africa's fourth president, after the ANC received 65.9 percent of the votes in the election.
And so it goes. At all levels. Officials and managers are appointed on the basis of party loyalty, not competence or experience, which makes agencies, government-owned companies and municipalities mismanaged and inefficient. Where incompetence or criminality are revealed, it is only to blame someone else further down the hierarchy or, if there is no one, the legacy of apartheid. Usually the criticism runs out of steam, or is overshadowed by the next scandal. It is not strange that Bhekifa wants into this warmth. The question is how the ANC will get away with it. Why does accountability work so badly? I'm calling Nic Borain, an independent political analyst in Cape Town, who says he has got several indications that corruption and abuse of power will be more important than
usual to voters at the 2014 election.
- But it is not certain that the South Africans are prepared to abandon and vote against the ANC because of this. If I hazard a guess, I believe rather in a lower turnout. That is to say, there is a higher percentage of voters who say, "We are not interested in participating in this democracy, because our voices do not seem to be able to stop what is happening".
Susan Booysen, a professor at Wits University, pursues the same line in her vast work on the ANC: The African National Congress and the Regeneration of Political Power. “Blood is thicker than welfare and the provision of social services", she writes, when she tries to explain why voters continue to be faithful to the ANC.
"South African voters will gladly forgive the ANC again and again, in an almost biblical way. (...) They prefer to support winners." Now much has, of course, improved over the ANC's time in power. GDP per capita has grown by 40 percent between 1995 and 2012. Millions more have access to basic services and sanitation but, in 2011, 15.3 percent of the population still lacked electricity in the home. Twenty-six point four percent had no access to running water and 37.4 per cent were forced to defecate in buckets or pits. Twenty-nine percent of the population lives on less than two dollars per day, and unemployment has hovered at around 24 percent since 1994. Still, the ANC sits firmly in power.
In particular, two factors are behind this monolithic and unassailable status of the ANC. The first is Nelson Mandela, who was the obvious leader to take over after the apartheid system was abolished. His inspirational and self-sacrificial leadership will always hang like a halo over the ANC.
The second factor is that the ANC managed to get a monopoly on the struggle against apartheid.
In the 1960s and '70s the ANC was virtually irrelevant in South Africa. The movement was banned, and instead it was the Black Consciousness Movement and Inkatha who rallied blacks and gave them political self-confidence and fighting spirit. The ANC was in exile and built up an international network of contacts in the world’s capital cities, where they, in country after country, managed to become recognised as the only authentic voice of the oppressed South Africans.
In the early 1980s, the ANC began to fight its rival movements, first with militant rhetoric and then with weapons. In the early 1990s, there started a low-intensity civil war between the ANC and Inkatha in certain parts of the country resulting in 15,000 casualties. Through its international contacts, the ANC gained the moral upper hand and, with the help of a skilful propaganda game, it managed to constantly portray itself as a victim in the carousel of revolutionary violence that it itself had set in rotation.
In his book, Conversations With My Sons and Daughters, Mamphela Ramphele –Black Consciousness veteran, former World Bank Director and leader of the newly formed party Agang – stresses that the struggle against apartheid was in fact a collective process with "different movements, trade unions, religious leaders and their congregations, and school and university youth", and so on. The ANC exploits myth that it alone liberated the people, and understood that the South Africans thus have a debt to pay when it's time for the election.
This is of course absurd, even if it had been true. In the book Diary ofa Bad Year, Nobel laureate, JM Coetzee, reasons around the problem based on what he calls "the Kurosawan theory of state origins". The starting point is the Akira Kurosawa film Seven Samurai from 1954, which is about a village that is repeatedly plundered by a gang of bandits. The villagers decide they have had enough and hire samurai to drive away the bad guys. They succeed and the village is liberated. The samurai offer to continue to protect the villagers in return for taxes and privileges, but the villagers say no. The samurai accept the decision and take off. "It was not us who won," they say, "it was the villagers". This is where the fictional liberation struggle is different from the real one.
When liberation movements win, they consider that they automatically qualify for political and economic power.
- They behave with an arrogance of the kind "It's our turn now” and "You're either with us or against us", says economist and activist, Vince Musewe, in Harare, Zimbabwe, who often comments on political developments in South Africa.
- They are quick to blame imperialism for alternative positions on democracy, he goes on, especially when they come from other progressive blacks who do not share their views when it comes, for example, to the economic system. This tendency has undermined the concept of freedom and has halted development in many parts of Africa. The political analyst, Prince Mashele, says in his book The
Death of our Society (2011), that many post-colonial African states are caught in a "heroic political culture" in which "the people believe that their social, political and economic fate depends on the actions or goodness of specific individuals who possess extraordinary abilities and powers".
Mamphela Ramphele goes a step further, and states that the status and mythology with which the ANC surrounds itself, means that South Africans are not considered as citizens, but subjects, "which is the opposite of freedom". Subjects cannot demand accountability from their leaders, while citizens have to do that for democracy to work.
The weak accountability in countries like South Africa and Zimbabwe is thus intimately linked with the problems that follow from power resting with parties with a background in freedom movements. But that is only one side of the problem. For it was by no means the ANC that laid the foundation for these ills. When the party took over in 1994, it started literally from zero. The majority of the population had been third-class citizens for generations – without voting rights and without opportunities to hold the leaders to account. In many cases, they were not at all citizens. In the 1970s and '80s, millions of blacks lost their citizenship when the reserves (so-called homelands) where the "ethnics" belonged were declared independent. They were thus not formally South Africans, but citizens in dysfunctional pseudo-states such as Transkei and Venda. It was only when these states were disbanded and incorporated into the new South Africa in 1994, that all blacks became citizens with all that entails.
- South Africans do not generally know that they belong to a single nation, says Nic Borain. Given the country's history of apartheid, which reinforced the differences between the different communities, it is no surprise that there has been no common identity. Compare with European democracies. Hundreds of years of sometimes-violent processes laid the foundation for a largely ethnic and linguistic homogeneity, which helped to enable the modern nation states.
South Africa was forced, in a very short time, to try to shape such a commonality in a population with profound differences in race, class and ethnicity. Even Vince Musewe highlights structural problems, particularly racism and lack of economic redistribution. Millions of black South Africans remain marginalised, preventing them from fully participating in and benefiting from the democratic system. Then we have a white capitalist class that is completely locked into their positions and who do not make an effort to speed up redistribution.
Of course, it is not fair to hold the ANC responsible for these underlying causes of the erosion of citizenship. However, one can criticise the party for not tackling the problem seriously – and perhaps even for exploiting the poor and badly educated majority’s generally shallow understanding of the democratic system’s mechanisms.
- They vote on the basis of incorrect information, says Vince Musewe. Their decisions are flawed and based on assumptions that are not valid. Note that this is exactly what the politicians want. They want their story and description of reality to prevail.
- Therefore education is key, continues Musewe. Including financial freedom. You can never get a confident citizen if he or she is not economically independent. The government will attempt to maintain its influence over poor communities through pledges to tackle their problems. This makes the poor dependent on the government, and consequently afraid to challenge it. The status quo is reinforced by the new middle class often being politically apathetic; its lack of involvement poses a serious threat, says Musewe.
- The black middle class is indeed formed, but in severe debt because of conspicuous consumption. It is shackled to its jobs and focuses on maintaining its lifestyle, and is therefore unlikely to venture into politics or get involved in change. The ANC's hegemony may appear unthreatened and solid.
Corruption, incompetence and loss of social services may not, as we have seen, get voters to abandon the party to any appreciable extent but, in the autumn of 2012, something happened that shook the ANC to its core.
A wildcat strike at the UK quarrying company Lonmin’s platinum mine in Marikana in the northeast of the country degenerated. The powerful and ANC-allied mining union, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), had lost influence at the mine, and the more militant and uncompromising upstart, AMCU (Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union), had attracted large amounts of workers.
During a key week, ten people were killed in clashes between the unions, security guards and police. The unrest culminated on August 16, when police opened fire on the crowd. Thirty-four people were killed in a hail of bullets, and at least 78 were injured. The authorities' actions during and after the massacre created a deep crisis within the ANC. The world’s collective jaw dropped, when hundreds of traumatised miners were arrested and held for more than two weeks on suspicion of murder, even though it was the police who had opened fire. The arrests and the charges are clear examples of the incompetence that the ANC’s appointment policy entails.
A further complication was that the ANC and the NUM veteran, Cyril Ramaphosa, sat on Lonmin’s board and, just before the massacre, demanded vigorous action against the wildcat strike. To see the shooting as a direct consequence of Ramaphosa’s tough-talking, is a hasty conclusion, but it is more than enough for a long and dark shadow to be thrown over him and the ANC. (He was elected, incidentally, to Vice Chair of the ANC inside the gates at the party conference in Mangaung.)
On the first anniversary of the massacre, a rally was held in Marikana, where, strictly speaking, all of South Africa's political life was gathered; but not the ANC, nor its allies, the trade union, Cosatu, and the SACP (the communist party).
Nic Borain sees this as a historic retreat:
- For the first time ever, the ANC had lost support in the constituencies of which it is readily seen as the obvious representative: poor, black South Africans in the mining sector. Now it got to experience a significant part of the organised working class abandoning it and the NUM, in favour of the AMCU – a union that is very hostile to the ANC’s leadership. We should not exaggerate the importance of this, but we can still say that we are in a situation where the ANC's hegemony is being fragmented.
Nic Borain sees this as a sign that South Africa is maturing politically. But he also warns of what could happen if the ANC's massive power-centre collapses (even if the party's majority cannot be considered to be threatened in the near future). Vince Musewe also believes that political and economic instability may follow.
- When the democratic system does not lead to improved living standards for the majority, the blacks will claim their share of the economy by other means, as people such as Julius Malema advocate.
Fastest on the spot in Marikana after the massacre was precisely Julius Malema, the former leader of the ANC Youth League, who was expelled from the party in April 2012 for, among other things, criticising Jacob Zuma.
He filled the political void in Marikana that the ANC and NUM left behind, and has now started his own party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), with a strongly populist agenda, which is designed to create hope for a better life for the uneducated, abandoned and poor section of the population. He advocates, among other things, nationalisation and land reform similar in style to Zimbabwe during the 2000s. He calls himself not the party leader or president, but the commander-in-chief. The members wear red helmets...
The latest piece in South Africa's political game plan is thus a semi-uniformed, populist and nationalist party, with a demagogic leader convicted of hate speech twice. Nic Borain guesses that the EFF can get 3-5 per cent of the votes in the election this spring. Another challenging party is Agang, founded by Mamphela Ramphele. She attracts mostly the middle class and cannot expect any huge vote numbers, 2-4 percent Borain believes. But, even without the votes, she can probably act as a political catalyst. By instilling democratic confidence in the voters, she can stimulate them to break the pattern of routine voting for the ANC. On the one hand, it is desirable for voters to let the ANC take the consequences of corruption and mismanagement. On the other hand, the country’s stability will be compromised if the party's centre of power collapses. Militant populists with impossible but facile promises are ready to gobble up the voters who take the step to turn their backs on the ANC.
Suddenly, opportunists like Bhekifa appear not only as a problem.
Does that sound contradictory? Paradoxical? Well, welcome to the politics of South Africa.