JUDITH FEBRUARY: Ramaphosa’s bid to keep ANC intact is teetering on the brink


The 2021 local government elections have shown three things (at least) to be true: elections have consequences, insurrection is not a vote-winning strategy, and the ANC is neither monolith nor hegemon.

It turns out that South Africans understand fully that towns and cities have been falling apart because of corruption and state capture on the ANC’s watch.

Of course, the idea that the South African voter does not punish the ANC is one which the facts do not bear out. The ANC has been on a steady path to decline in national, provincial, and local elections for a while now.

The 2016 local government elections saw the ANC garner 55.7% of the vote. After the disastrous Zuma years, Cyril Ramaphosa entered the fray from the shadows to try and fix the mess. There were high hopes for his presidency on the back of a rousing ‘Thuma mina!’ speech in Parliament.

Who could blame a jaded citizenry for wanting to believe that Ramaphosa could fix things after a near-decade of looting? At the very least he was a better option than the venal Zuma. The state had been completely captured. The Zondo Commission with its drip-drip evidence indicated just what a mafia-type state Zuma headed up.

Ramaphosa’s task would be Herculean. At the start there was some steady progress, for instance, cleaning up SARS and appointing Shamila Batohi to head up the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), and then attempting to clean up state-owned enterprises. But the reality was – and still is - that the ANC is largely unfit for purpose and unfit to govern.

For many the party is simply a way to gain access to power and resources. The levels of violence and political assassinations indicate a party which is at best unmoored from its ethical base and at worst, a criminal enterprise masquerading as a political party.

Again, the antecedents for this decline are many and complex, but what is clear from this election is that Ramaphosa’s attempts to hold this fragmented, corrupt party together is teetering on the brink. His ‘unity uber alles’ motivation has been snubbed by an electorate tired of impunity, tired of a lack of services, tired of talk and tired of corruption. South Africans want to be able to live their lives free of want, crime and degradation.

At the time of writing, the CSIR had projected that the ANC will settle at around 47% of the vote.

There are a few initial observations to be made; firstly, is that coalitions are our future. It is trite to say that the unseemly horse-trading will begin as at the time of writing no party looks sets to gain an outright majority in most of the metros, including Johannesburg, Tshwane, and Ekurhuleni, Mangaung, Nelson Mandela Bay and eThekwini. There will be much talk in the next days and also a great deal of hot air from those involved in coalition talks.

While for some the prospect of coalitions is attractive and many point to Denmark and Germany as examples of pragmatic governing by coalition, the point must be made that South Africa is not Denmark or Germany. Again, it is trite to say (something is trite because it is true!) that if the past is the predictor of future behaviour, then coalitions bring only greater instability and chaos.

The further decline of Nelson Mandela Bay and Johannesburg are perhaps the most graphic examples of our inability to produce a mature politics which works to serve the people, specifically the most marginalised. All that has mattered is access to power and the base fight for a mayoral chain. Ours is a country where most politicians prefer quick gains above the quiet, steady work of democracy and peace-building.

In an ideal world, the ANC would be chastened by these election results and would approach coalition talks with that in mind. It was unfortunate that deputy secretary-general, Jessie Duarte, instead chastised the media for its ‘narrative’ of seeing the ANC as a ‘minority party’. That seemed a little tone deaf given the electoral drubbing the ANC has faced, specifically in its traditional strong holds. The next national election is in 2024 and its prospects of losing power are now very real.

A further observation once coalition talks are done is what introspection there will be by the ANC and whether it will lay the blame for this electoral showing at Ramaphosa’s door? It would be disingenuous, but there is no shortage of those within the ANC who wish to stymie the Ramaphosa agenda (blurred as it now is).

The ANC’s heavy losses in KwaZulu-Natal are a clear signal that insurrection, attacking state infrastructure and leaving people unemployed as a result, is not a vote winning strategy.

Anyone vaguely interested in strengthening democracy would be deeply concerned about the low voter turnout just 27 years into this democracy. The CSIR prediction is at around 48% of the 26.2 million registered (not eligible) voters have voted. This is significantly lower than 57% in 2016. This is not surprising given the most recent Afrobarometer survey which showed trust in democratic institutions at an all-time low.

In addition, of course the Auditor-General’s annual report on the state of local government paints a clear picture of administrative and financial dysfunction in our towns and cities. The only way to improve voter turnout is to improve governance. It’s a simple equation for most South Africans; let people see the system is working for them.

When citizens turn their backs on exercising their democratic right to vote, it is part protest, part apathy, or both. In and of itself, that presents an existential threat to the project of deepening democracy.

The final observation is that the IEC experienced some difficulties during this election. As stories of long queues and administrative hiccups rolled in, one longed for the wisdom and authority of former chair, Brigalia Bam. Anecdotally, at least it would seem as if these elections were anything but seamless. The IEC now has time to regroup and evaluate its performance ahead of the next national election.

It is vital that South Africans continue to hold the IEC to account through the media and the recording of stories where systems have failed. We have seen, for instance, in a developed democracy like the United States, how democracy can be systematically undermined when enough people do not believe in the credibility of an election result. South Africa is not at that point, but we must take care. Increasing the budget of the IEC as a matter of principle and to protect this democracy will be essential.

Finally, in the midst of the flurry of election results, President Ramaphosa penned an opinion piece in the globally influential Financial Times of London.

In the piece, Ramaphosa spoke of humanity’s ‘unprecedented climate crisis’, the pace of global warming and its effects on developing countries such as ours. He goes on to speak of the need to ‘act with urgency…’ ‘to cut greenhouse gas emissions and transition to a low-carbon economy’. This was followed by the announcement that France, Germany, the US and UK would finance a just energy transition for South Africa to the value of $8.5 billion (R131 billion) in the first phase of financing.

This is a considerable ‘win’ for Ramaphosa (and testament to Environment Minister Barbara Creecy’s hard work as well as some nifty forward-planning by Eskom’s Andre de Ruyter and team). For Ramaphosa it is all a very neat fit; the ‘pink paper’ op-ed, the global stage, the understanding of what modern governance is and how to influence global players. South Africa consistently punches above its weight and has the science to be able to do so, despite it all. It also fits neatly with what we all know is best for the planet and for South Africa. That is, a movement away from coal.

It makes governance and environmental sense. But, this pivot towards modern governance must find resonance within Ramaphosa’s party more broadly and more particularly within his Cabinet. Mineral Resources and Energy Minister, Gwede Mantashe, is addicted to coal even as he says he will do nothing to jettison the deal crafted at COP26.

The potential political clash is clear; a President who understands the value of modern governance and how necessary that is for socio-economic change, yet his thinking is stymied by the cranky, corrupt, antiquated vehicle he must use and that is his own party, the ANC.

Doubtless the fall-out of these elections will be horse-trading for positions in metros it has lost, playing the internal party blame game in which we will see all manner of dubious figures opportunistically crawling out of the woodwork as a proxy to rid the ANC of Ramaphosa ahead of the next ANC elective conference in 2022 and the next national election in 2024. The in-fighting will be all-consuming and Ramaphosa will have no choice but to become caught up in it.

The tragedy of our country is that it is replete with people who have the knowledge and commitment to make our towns, cities and society work. The problem is that they are mostly not to be found within the ANC and so we continue sabotaging ourselves with a series of own goals.

As usual then we stand between the promise of a brighter future or, the abyss of abject failure. And as usual too in South Africa, the prospect of either is entirely possible.

Judith February is a lawyer, governance specialist and Visiting Fellow at the Wits School of Governance. She is the author of 'Turning and turning: exploring the complexities of South Africa’s democracy'. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february