SELLO LEDIGA: The people have spoken. Again.
In his first public remark after the African National Congress scored a two-thirds victory in the 2004 general election, African National Congress (ANC) president Thabo Mbeki summed it up poetically that “the people have spoken”. Ten years after coming to power, the leader of society was riding high as the undisputed leader of South African society. The people, in their multitudes, wanted the former liberation movement to lead the country to their imagined Canaan. After more than three centuries of colonial subjugation and 46 years of apartheid rule, the majority oppressed of South Africa saw the ANC as the only saviour. No social organisation in post-apartheid South Africa was more qualified than the party of Dube, Makgatho, Tambo and Mandela to lead the people to a new South Africa in which the people would govern as the Freedom Charter had shouted in 1955.
Seventeen years later, in the 2021 local government election, the same people toppled the ANC from its arrogant and corrupt pedestal to a shocking 46%. The people, once again, had spoken. Vladimir Lenin would have asked this question to the ruling party leadership: “What is to be done?”. From a historical point of view, 17 years is a short time indeed. What crimes did the glorious movement of Oliver Tambo commit to deserve such harsh punishment from the people?
The problems of the ruling party started in 2005 when state president Mbeki relieved his deputy, Jacob Zuma, of his position as deputy president of South Africa as a result of allegations of corruption against his deputy. After that, the wily, singing and dancing villager from Nkandla criss-crossed the country with a single tune, Khawulethe Umshini Wami. In December 2007, in Polokwane, the dancing warrior humiliated Mbeki in an unprecedented political comeback ever seen since the establishment of the Union of South Africa in 1910. Intoxicated with power, and supported by the Tripartite Alliance and the ANC Leagues, Zuma, despite serious allegations of corruption, took the oath of office in May 2009 as the fourth president of the Republic of South Africa and with that the country entered its most dangerous and self-destructive phase. Not only did the Dancing One turn the government into one mess of maladministration, he virtually handed over the country to three young crooked men from India to loot it to the ground. We had entered a menacing phase of state capture.
By the time Zuma was done with the country, encouraged by a sheepish and increasingly corrupt ANC national leadership, the country was tottering on the brink of collapse. Shocked by the excesses of its uneducated leader, the ruling party removed the dancing fool from power in a Valentine’s Day recall in 2018. The damage had been done and the new sheriff in town, Cyril Ramaphosa, lamented infamously about the “nine wasted years”. Not only was the country bankrupt, the ruling party itself was in chaos after the 2017 Nasrec conference. From the moment of the singing of the closing national anthem at this 54th conference to the 1 November local government election, the ruling party had engaged in four years of escalated, fratricidal factional battles that led to the arrest of Jacob Zuma and the suspension of its secretary-general, Ace Magashule. During this period of a battle to the death for the soul of the ANC, the ruling party forgot about the people it was in power to serve. This explains the bloodbath of votes of 1 November 2021. The people are gatvol with a government whose major focus is internecine infighting, incompetence and corruption.
Now, South Africa has entered a new era of multiparty democracy and not its earlier version of a one-party democracy. The hegemony of the African National Congress has sadly come to an end. Of course, ANC leaders will argue that these is a “renewal” programme of action to save the embattled ruling party from ultimate demise. It is only fair to give Ramaphosa and his fellow travellers a chance between now and 2024 to see how the renewal will perform the miracle that will once more make the ANC the darling of the people and the voters. It is crystal clear that this is going to be a mountain to climb for the ANC, especially considering the fact that the party only has two and half years to reverse its many years of arrogance, incompetence and corruption that the people rebelled against in the first place. Just factor in the fact that after the January 8 ritual of 2022, yet another battle for the soul of the ANC begins when the CR22 bull locks horns with whatever acronym the radical economic transformation force dreams up. From January 2022 to December 2022 the party will be seized with only one thing: who will emerge victorious in the 55th national conference of the ruling party. The battle lines are drawn as Ramaphosa makes a bid for his second and final term as leader of South Africa’s faltering ruling party.
In the coalition battles facing political parties that contested local government elections on 1 November, I feel pity for the ANC more than any other party. Reduced to a beggar in the coalition manoeuverings of today, the previous leader of society is being rejected by formerly weak and insignificant parties who in the past would have gone down on their knees to be associated with the ruling party. The sight of a despondent and defeated duo of Jessie Duarte and Paul Mashatile at the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) results operations centre proclaiming their “open door” policy with regard to starting negotiations with other parties will remain etched in the minds of many television viewers as the top leaders of the ruling party humbled themselves against the triumphalistic leaders of other parties, including the new kid on the block Herman Mashaba.
How things have changed. Wither the ANC now? Will the ruling party go for a romantic relationship with the likes of the Democratic Alliance (DA) and Inkatha Freedom Party or opt for a one-night stand with Julius Malema?
Whatever choice the ANC makes, especially if it goes for what former IEC boss Terry Tselane calls “vat-en-sit” relationships, Ramaphosa and company are in deep trouble. The choice is clear for the ruling party: try to cling to some modicum of power by going to bed with parties it dislikes or do the honourable thing and take the cold opposition benches in scores of councils in South Africa. If the primary consideration is a lust for power, then the long term consequences are too ghastly to contemplate. For a party used to power this is not an easy decision, especially if one looks at its record as opposition party in the Western Cape and the City of Cape Town. The record speaks for itself. In the meantime, the voters are watching every move the buffalo makes in the political zoo. They will be speaking again in the middle of 2024. Will the former general-secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers ever get some peaceful sleep? You be the judge
What the ANC and the DA have learnt in local government elections 2021 is that it is the people who are the final arbiters in this political game. They, and they alone, will speak last and determine the future of political parties and government. Finally, and to quote the ANC philosopher king, the people have again spoken and the verdict is final.
Sello Lediga is a political commentator, author and Director of the Patriotic Movement SA, a civil society organisation that promotes patriotism in South Africa.