The ruling African National Congress (ANC), which has dominated South Africa’s political and public life since the dawn of democracy, seems to have entered a systemic crisis with a gigantic Covid-19 corruption scandal hanging over its head. This is at a time when President Cyril Ramaphosa keeps promising to take bold action against corruption and state capture and to place South Africa on a long-term development trajectory, underpinned by impressive growth rates, high employment and a narrowing inequality gap.
As things stand, there is no discernible sign that the party is able to shrug the current scandal off, with divergent voices among the upper echelons of the party: some in support of his endeavours while others are casting doubt over whether the problem of corruption in South Africa has been properly diagnosed.
The ANC is in crisis, ironically because of its privileged access to state power – the very objective of the century-old struggle the party waged since its inception in 1912 – in order to liberate the oppressed from the wreckage of colonialism and apartheid. Money has become so central in ANC politics that ANC Women’s League President Bathabile Dlamini’s concession a few years ago that all NEC members have “small-anyana” skeletons reverberates each time the NEC talks about tackling corruption.
There are persistent rumours about how some cadres of the ANC have risen through the ranks of the party through corruption. There are also lingering allegations that even Ramaphosa ascended to the party’s presidency in Nasrec in 2017 through ‘dirty money’ which does not help his and ANC’s cause.
Yet South Africans and investors alike are keen on seeing the President leading a more aggressive fight against corruption. For investors, this is akin to a carrot-and-a- stick tactic; that for him to realise any investments into the economy he must come hard on corruption and wastage.
For ordinary citizens, fighting corruption is the other side of meeting their unmet demands for “a better life for all” which the ruling party promised them at the dawn of democracy.
While the ANC has often been at pains to rebut any suggestion that South Africa is ‘just another African country’, there is enough evidence of a predilection for failure just as many other countries on the continent have in their respective post-independence periods. At the centre of it all is money and greed which have seemingly tainted individual and collective conscience of those entrusted with power.
Nothing amplifies the nexus between money and greed in the South African context than the tender system. This is because many of our political leaders do not have productive assets, and so the state remains the most tried and tested avenue to quick self-enrichment. Big state tenders are given to politically connected individuals. Municipalities, which have become the milking cows of the politically connected, have been effectively run to the ground. The net effect thereof is the decimation of the state’s ability to respond to societal pressing service delivery needs.
Given the afore-going, can the ANC realise its injunction-cum-mantra of ‘self-correction’? While party leaders seem to believe in the inevitability of that outcome, ordinary citizens are increasingly getting impatient with this narcissistic polemic.
There is growing mistrust of the ANC and its government. Yet, national political alternatives have yet to offer some hope for ordinary citizens. Despite that shortcoming some small parties have been registering modest growth while the ANC is on a downward spiral. In the 2016 local government elections urban voters sent a strong message to the ANC when it lost control of Johannesburg, Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay metros. In the 2019 general elections, the ANC nearly lost Gauteng. Although some voters stayed away, this was more likely to the benefit of other parties than the ANC.
Most of those voters who stayed away said their participation in the election would not make any difference, because smaller parties could not mount a formidable challenge to the ANC. Apart from the many obvious challenges that often beset smaller parties, there is an extent to which the current electoral regime undermines public participation and undercuts the democratic process.
With the Constitutional Court having recently ruled in favour of allowing individuals to stand as candidates for all elections, this might tilt the voter balance of forces in the 2021 and 2024 elections. With the ANC having a toll order of cleaning up its image and convincing voters that it is as progressive as it has always wanted to be seen, the country’s political landscape might be about to change forever, with tangible benefits for people on the ground. Or could it be that through the crisis it finds itself, the ANC finally has the opportunity to renew itself? Time will tell!
Written by Zamokwakhe Somhlaba