The ANC’s Last Decade: Book Extract

For nearly three decades, the ANC has held South Africa’s politics in an iron grip. Even as its reputation was dented by scandal and poor performance, the party continued to win every national election with an absolute majority. Political analyst and bestselling author Ralph Mathekga looks beyond the giant towering over the political landscape and sees a future in which the ANC no longer holds absolute power. An extract from the book has been republished below with permission from the publishers. 

Liberation movements typically have a lifespan of about 30 years in government before decay starts to set in. They do not always lose power formally, but more often than not they have to start taking extraordinary measures to stay in power. Our neighbour Zimbabwe is a case in point. There, the erstwhile liberation movement Zanu-PF has ruled for 41 years. However, to keep its hold on power, the party has had to resort to violence, land seizures and electoral shenanigans. In a fully democratic setting, with free and fair elections, it would likely have been unseated by now.

In South Africa, at the time of writing the ANC had been in government for 27 years and the party was already showing signs of severe fatigue. I believe that within the next ten years it will lose its near-total grip on power, which will have significant implications for how the party will have to organise itself to survive.

The context is that the ANC is highly unlikely to interfere with democratic processes and prolong its stay in power without winning elections fairly. The ANC is learning to live with electoral loss, having lost control of key metros such as Nelson Mandela Bay, Tshwane and Johannesburg at some point. After failing to secure a sufficient majority to form a government in those municipalities, the ANC has democratically disrupted and filibustered the local councils through countless motions of no confidence against coalition governments. 

Though obstructive and, at times, a hindrance to smooth governance, this is constitutionally permissible and within the bounds of the law.

There are two ways of looking at the ANC’s result in the 2019 election. One is to say that the party’s downward slide since its highwater mark of 69,69 per cent in 2004 has hastened, with its support falling by 8 percentage points since the 2014 election. Another is to say that, despite the well-documented corruption and mismanagement of the Zuma years, the party still managed to bag 57 per cent of the vote. In the last scenario, President Cyril Ramaphosa probably deserves a fair share of the credit, meaning that his standing in the party – or at the very least the standing of his faction in the ANC – is vital to its long-term fortunes.

After winning the contentious Nasrec elective conference in 2017, Ramaphosa built a reputation as someone who could implement reforms and rebuild capacity in the public service, despite the divisions in the ANC. Most analysts attached to established financial institutions in South Africa, including the big banks, pushed the idea that even non-ANC supporters should consider voting for the party because that would give Ramaphosa a strong mandate to tackle the internal problems in the ANC and sort out the RET faction. Or so the argument went.

I must confess that I struggled to grasp the logic behind this reasoning and thought it was based more on wishful thinking than anything else. Whenever I pointed out that a bitterly divided ANC was not about to allow its president to rewrite the Nasrec party resolutions because he had helped the party evade electoral disaster, I was chastised for being a prophet of doom. In my discussions with asset managers, I predicted that the ANC would not even acknowledge that Ramaphosa had helped the party through a difficult election, let alone allow him more leverage to manoeuvre behind the scenes. The mandate belongs to the ANC, and not to an individual in the ANC.

But corporate South Africa was buying the idea that a strong mandate would embolden Ramaphosa in the ANC. I held the opposite view: that a strong mandate would make Ramaphosa less useful to the ANC because it would be misinterpreted by the ANC to imply public approval of the party’s performance in government. In particular, it would signal to its members that there is no price to pay for rampant corruption and state capture – and that the party could do so again with impunity. The deep structural defects in the ANC cannot be fixed by simply propping up a likeable leader.

Since taking power in 1994, the ANC has had a relatively consequence- free existence, with the party seldom being punished at the ballot box for any missteps in government. Its seemingly guaranteed support has contributed to a certain arrogance in power. When it is pointed out that a particular policy is irrational, the party simply points to its overwhelming electoral support as the basis for the legitimacy of its decisions. ‘Might makes right’ may be a more apt slogan for the party than ‘A better life for all’.

To embolden such a party with another strong mandate would be madness, I thought.

As predicted, the party did not credit Ramaphosa for its performance. Within a week of the May 2019 elections, the line emanating from the ANC was that no individual should be credited above the party. The ANC had carried the day by itself. This portrayal of the election was not surprising. The ANC is – on the surface, at least – about the collective, and not about individual glory. Stripped of context, the ANC’s result in the 2019 elections does not look all that impressive. The drop of nearly 5 percentage points was the biggest swing – in either direction – in the party’s fortunes since the 1994 election. After winning 62,65 per cent of the vote in the first democratic elections, the party increased its share by an average of roughly 3,5 percentage points in the two subsequent elections, reaching its high point in 2004 with 69,69 per cent. 

Thereafter, it dropped roughly 3,7 percentage points in each of the following two elections (2009 and 2014), before the fall of 4,65 percentage points in 2019. Given the background against which the election took place – with the state capture years still fresh in the minds of voters – Ramaphosa actually did fairly well, with a drop that is only slightly worse than the party’s average electoral decline since 2004. The general trend, though, is still unmistakably downwards: two more national elections like the most recent one and the party will dip below 50 per cent overall support.

The downward trend could even accelerate if the ANC’s problems become compounded in the coming years, though this is by no means guaranteed. The second possible accelerant is if the opposition parties get their act together, or if an entirely new electoral force emerges, capable of taking the fight to the ANC. In 2019, the opposition’s struggles aided the ANC in limiting the damage of the state capture years. Indeed, one wonders where the opposition might have ended up had it not been for their top votegetter, one Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma. You might even call him the opposition’s ‘number one’.

The spectre of Zuma’s presidency loomed large over the election, even though he had, by that stage, been out of power for more than a year. The steady stream of revelations about the excesses of the state capture years was still continuing unabated and corruption had decimated capacity in government to the point at which it had an immediate and measurable effect on people’s lives. The ANC’s own discussion documents were candid about the fact that Zuma was an electoral liability.

Ramaphosa was the party’s antidote to the poison of the state capture years. Even his enemies in the ANC realised that they needed him to shepherd the party through the elections. The knives would remain sheathed until after voting day.

In the period leading up to the 2019 elections, Ramaphoria had not yet lost all of its shine and the perception that Ramaphosa could reform both the ANC and government was still quite prevalent – for example, among the banks’ analysts mentioned above. The president’s track record was not yet long enough for a critical interrogation of this perception. This helped Ramaphosa to limit the ANC’s losses to just under 5 percentage points. But within this reprieve lies an implicit covenant with the voters: that Ramaphosa must reform the state and the ANC. This establishes the yardstick against which Ramaphosa, if he is still leader, and the ANC will be measured at the next national elections, in 2024. One would expect that a significant share of voters would demand to see a reformed state and ANC by that time.

A great deal of Ramaphosa’s survival hinges on a successful fight against corruption. In this, the ANC can be as much of a hindrance as a help. With its competing factions – one of which benefited handsomely from the Zuma years – the party is simply not wired for a war against graft.

The book is published by Tafelberg Publishers and is available online and in bookstores.